Friday, March 28, 2008

Bereavement Leave

Kate's maternal grandfather passed away this afternoon. We're headed for Massachusetts tomorrow to be with her family.

I was fortunate enough to meet him over the holidays last year, though reading Kate's memories makes me wish I'd been able to know him better.

Texas Titty Tax Struck Down

State district judge Scott Jenkins ruled today that the Texas Legislature's oft-mocked $5 strip club fee is unconstitutional and may not be collected.

The $5 per (ahem) head fee went into effect Jan. 1 and was immediately the subject of a lawsuit by the Texas Entertainment Association (yes, even the titty bars have lobbyists) and the owners of an Amarillo gentlemen's establishment. It is not clear if the fee will immediately stop being collected because the state could still appeal the ruling.

The deflating experience of going to a bar to pay money to see half-naked women pretend to like you is punishment in and of itself, so a government-imposed surcharge on top of the overpriced drinks and $20 table dances seems like overkill to me. Also, who gets to decide what is "adult entertainment" versus "performance art." I'm none too comfortable with the idea of one of my state worker brethren making such a call.

While the sexual assault prevention and low-income health insurance programs this fee is supposed to pay for are certainly needed, I'm wary of our increasing tendency to rely on "stupidity taxes" to pay for social services against a backdrop of constant tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest among us.

The Air Strip

Check out this laughably sexist early Seventies TV spot touting Braniff International stewardesses and their mid-flight "air strip." I'm not sure you could even get away with this in a beer commercial today.

Between Braniff's Emilio Pucci-clad stews and Southwest's flight attendants in short shorts, it must've been a great time to be alive for an unenlightened male business traveler flying in and out of Dallas Love Field, which is just down the block from where I'm typing this.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Running Up to Dallas

I'm in Dallas for the next few days to observe focus groups for an social marketing project. After getting off to a very late start, I managed to make the 190-mile trek in under three hours. That's my personal best, kids.

The place where we're doing focus groups is an aging, vaguely futuristic office complex at 8700 N. Stemmons Fwy. just south of Regal Row. As I pulled up to the building, I got the distinct sense I'd seen this place before despite never having been there. The Seventies-era, atrium-style lobby with water features also looked familiar. It seemed like it would've been a premium place to office 35 years ago, but now the first floor is occupied by a branch of Family and Protective Services. Having social service agencies move in is usually a sure sign of going downmarket.

After the focus groups ended late this evening, I signed on to my nearby hotel's free wi-fi and started doing a little useless research as I'm wont to do whenever I need to be doing something else like finishing a job or going to sleep. As it turns out, the building in question was used as a location in the dystopic 1976 sci-fi romp, Logan's Run.

Fortunately, I remembered not to tell anyone I'm well over 30.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Talk of the Walk

Almost every morning, I leave my desk and go for a walk. I can make it around the periphery of the state hospital campus – 1.7 miles – in about 20 minutes.

I don’t ask permission and I don’t tell people what I’m doing, but just about everyone at work knows I walk by now. While some of my work is important, very little of it will suffer by having to sit on my desk for an extra 20 minutes while I stroll about the old asylum grounds as Austinites have been doing since before the Civil War.

If I were a manager, I would hold walking meetings with my staff. Why sit in a conference room when you can be up and about in the great outdoors? I’m sure this would take a few people aback, but at least it would be better than summoning folks to the crapper like LBJ.

Then again, part of why I walk is to clear my mind. If someone offered me an additional $10,000 a year for a job where I couldn’t walk every morning, I’d turn it down. That’s how important walking is to me.

If I don’t get enough walking in during the day, I can’t sleep at night. When I don’t sleep, my ability to cope and handle stress goes straight to hell. Without the benefit of my morning walks, I can easily imagine winding up at the other end of the state hospital campus where they don’t let you leave at 5pm.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

U.S. Bowling Congress Moving to Texas

Finally, my socialized business incentive tax dollars at work for something I actually give a shit about!

Thanks to a $693,000 award from the Texas Enterprise Fund, the United States Bowling Congress has decided to move its headquarters from the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale, Wisc. to Arlington.

The USBC’s relocation is projected to bring 200 jobs and $13 million in capital investment to Texas. The USBC says its new $14 million complex on Six Flags Drive will include an “International Bowling Campus” complete with a 12-to-16 lane bowling equipment testing and training center.

The TEF claims to have helped projects that have brought more than 51,800 new jobs and $15.6 billion in capital investment to Texas. For its part, Arlington will roll in a 50 percent tax abatement on property improvements and a 50 percent rebate of all city hotel taxes generated through USBC-related events.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dimassi's Buffet Coming to Austin

I had to run a work-related errand in Northwest Austin near the Travis/Williamson county line this morning and was inappropriately stirred after spying a banner announcing that Houston-based Dimassi’s Mediterranean Buffet will be opening a new location at the corner of 183 and Oak Knoll in the not-too-distant future.

Dimassi’s serves a wide array of Eastern Mediterranean staples like falafel, kebabs, hummus, tabbouleh, lamb, Greek salad and the like. You get all you want at lunch for about 12 bucks. If the Mediterranean diet promotes longevity, it stands to reason that eating lots of Mediterranean food will help you live even longer, right?

Best of all, the new Dimassi’s is going into the same strip mall as Mongolian Grille - a de facto buffet if you pile your plate tits high - creating the kind of buffet growth cluster (or “BGC,” as chamber of commerce-types call it) our fair city so desperately needs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Tex-Mex Giant's Fall from Grace

Next to Pancho’s Mexican Buffet, the child’s plate at Pete Dominguez restaurants like Casa Dominguez and Los Vaqueros was the most formative Tex-Mex experience of my young life. There was nothing fancy about Dominguez’ ‘Austin-style’ fare, but it was consistent and comfortably good. They also made a mean Roy Rogers.

After opening the first Casa Dominguez on Cedar Springs in Dallas back in 1963, Dominguez slowly grew into a celebrity restaurateur, hosting movie stars and athletes whenever they passed through Dallas. His restaurant walls were loaded with autographed photos. Former UT football coach Darrell Royal was the best man at his second wedding.

My family often ate at Dominguez’ Los Vaqueros when it was located in the Highland Park Village. When we moved to Houston in 1976, we switched to the Casa Dominguez on Kirby Dr. One night as we stood in line to pay the bill, my dad abruptly twisted me around and said, “Greg, look! There’s Alan Shepard!” I didn’t know Alan Shepard from Adam at the time, but it was pretty cool to see the first American in space and the fifth man to walk on the moon dropping by Casa for a plate of tacos al carbon just like the rest of us.

Casa Dominguez opened a location in Bellaire in the early 80s. Its proximity to our old house made it my parents’ second home for several years.

Given all this history, I’m saddened to read that Dominguez has fallen on hard times. According to a story in Saturday’s Dallas Morning News by Karen Robinson-Jacobs, bad debt, alcohol and family squabbles are the all-too-familiar culprits.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Circus Leaves Town

Another SXSW is in the bag. I think I managed to wring about as much fun out of this year’s fest as possible without tempting illness. Having a laptop made covering the conference panels during the day much more efficient, though carting it around from club to club at night got a bit tedious.

My best laptop-related time savings came Friday night. I watched L.A. psych-pop quintet the Little Ones play at the Cedar Door, filed a review of their show at the convention center and managed to catch the last half of X’s DirectTV taping. I’d seen X with Billy Zoom back in the saddle at Emo’s several years back, but Friday’s performance was much more ferocious. I’m afraid X’s taping put Daryl Hall’s taping – at least the part Kate and I saw – to shame. Somewhere, John Oates must be laughing his moustache off.

Over the last four years, Saturday afternoon has emerged as my favorite part of SXSW week. The Chron doesn’t publish a daily edition on Sunday, so there are no more rapid-fire deadlines to worry about after Friday night. My go-to Saturday spot is the Pop Culture Press party at Dog & Duck. I got there just in time to see the Cowsills (Susan, Bob and Paul, pictured left) perform “The Rain, The Park and Other Things" and "Hair." Those family harmonies were still blissfully intact, too.

Then I ran down to the Convention Center to cover Margaret Moser’s excellent panel on the history of 16 Magazine and its unheralded role in the development of rock journalism. Susan Cowsill and Taylor Hanson recalled their decades-apart experiences as teen idols, while former 16 editor-turned-Ramones editor Danny Fields and Creem mainstay Jaan Uhelszki talked about 16 from the journalistic perspective. The whole thing made me feel a lot better about being one of those boys who read a girly mag to learn about Kiss and the Bay City Rollers.

After the panel, I headed back to Dog & Duck to catch the tail end of Magic Christian, the power-pop supergroup featuring guitarist Cyril Jordan of the Flamin’ Groovies, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and Plimsouls guitarist-turned-bassist Eddie Munoz (the latter two pictured left) along with vocalist Paul Kopf. I got there just in time to see them do “Shake Some Action,” which was some kind of providence. The Service Industry followed with a strong set of their finest worksongs like “Wake Up and Die.”

At this point, Kate insisted we take advantage of the unseasonably hot day by taking a dip in Barton Springs. True to form, I bitched and moaned the whole way down there before jumping in the water and immediately being glad we were there. We swam around for about 30 minutes before drying off and driving up to Spider House to see some of my New York Night Train pal Jonathan Toubin’s unofficial day party for Brooklyn bands. The husband-and-wife duo Shellshag were a whole lot of fun.

I didn’t even know Jonathan would be in town for SXSW until I randomly ran into him on Red River at 2:30 Wednesday morning. That’s how it is with the festival. You don't make plans - you just run into people.

Friday, March 14, 2008

R.E.M. on ACL

I've never been the guy who gets in to the show that everyone else is trying to get into, but I actually managed to score a spot for R.E.M.'s Austin City Limits taping yesterday afternoon. It was the first ACL taping I've been to in almost 21 years of living in Austin.

The band played for almost two hours, alternating between songs from Accelerate (due Apr. 1) and tried-and-true classics like "Losing My Religion" and "Fall On Me." I've been listening to Accelerate for a couple of weeks now, trying to form a cogent opinion on it. It's definitely R.E.M.'s most rocking album since Monster, but after hearing songs like "Hollow Man" and "Supernatural Superserious" live, I think it's better than that.

For the first time in years, R.E.M. sounds hungry. Heck, they must be if Peter Buck is doing interviews with the likes of yours truly. Maybe they're not setting the pace anymore like they were in 1986, but watching them play in a room with just a few hundred others, I was instantly aware that I was witnessing one of the world's great rock bands doing a lot more than just going through the motions for nostalgia's sake.

The show is set to air May 24, on the eve of R.E.M.'s summer tour. I don't know if I wound up in any audience shots, but if you're looking, I'll be the dork in the velvet cord jacket bobbing his head while taking notes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Art of Touring Smart

Greetings from the SXSW Press Suite at the Austin Convention Center. I just got done writing about a panel on touring hosted by drummer-turned-author Martin Atkins (Pigface, PiL, Killing Joke, etc.). My full review will be in tomorrow's SXSW daily edition of the Chron.

In the meantime, if you're thinking about getting in the van anytime soon, do yourself and your band a favor and pick up Atkins' new book, Tour:Smart. It's a fun read and you'll probably recoup the cover price in the first three chapters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Prelude to SXSW

Today's weather improved dramatically just in time for this year's SXSW Music Festival. That doesn't always happen. We've had everything from frost to tornadoes during SXSW, but when the skies are blue, the temps are moderately warm and the beer is ice cold, it's hard not to be glad you're in Austin and not slogging through dirty snow somewhere.

Before you pack up the U-Haul, though, don't forget we typically pay for this nice weather in August with a string of triple-digit scorchers that can only be broken by a major tropical disturbance. Also, we're surrounded by Texas, which can be scary to those who've only experienced the non-Austin parts of the state from 35,000 feet up.

For me, SXSW started this afternoon when I left my state job to go interview Peter Buck from R.E.M. It was a short interview and one of many he was doing, but I think I got what I needed. To find out for sure, you'll just have to pick up the next issue of Pop Culture Press.

After picking up my badge and weighty swag bag at the convention center, I met Kate for a drink in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel. This is the one week of the year when a jeans-and-sneakers guy like me can feel right at home in the Four Seasons bar, so I figured I should take advantage of it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Texas Primary Settles Nothing

Well, it looks like the Dems are going to go right down to the wire after Hillary Clinton eked out a victory in Texas and won handily in Ohio last night. The polls giving her a slight edge here turned out to be right on.

However, the vote totals are close and the caucuses may wind up favoring Barack Obama, so he could still wind up with more Texas delegates than Clinton. You can view the latest unofficial caucus results here.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised Obama didn’t rally in Texas, but one thing you learn after living in Austin awhile is that politics often look a lot different here than they do in the rest of the state. Even lifelong Texans in Austin have to fight this tendency toward bubble-vision.

That said, the Obama/Clinton contest was really more of an urban/rural divide than Austin vs. Texas. Obama easily carried Houston and Dallas, but it wasn’t enough to offset Hillary’s numbers in West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Caucus in the Cafetorium

It's been awhile since I set foot in a middle school cafeteria (let alone a cafetorium), but that's where I was tonight for good ol' Travis County Precinct 248's Democratic Party caucus. Kate took this photo with her phone while we were waiting to sign in.

For those of you not from Texas, Lone Star Dems use the precinct convention system to select one-third of the delegates that represent candidates at the national convention. At least that's how I understand it. Chron political reporter Lee Nichols does a better job of explaining the system here.

With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embroiled in a tight primary race here, precinct conventions are drawing a lot more attention this year. Most everyone in the cafeteria - myself and Kate included - had never participated in one before. The hastily-appointed precinct secretary announced the last convention only drew four people, prompting applause from the standing room only crowd.

The vast majority of people who showed up were there to support Obama, which wasn't surprising given Obama's tremendous ground support in Austin. The initial system of having two sign-in lines for each candidate was quickly abandoned because so few people were signing in for Clinton. It'll probably be several more hours before we know how this scenario plays out in the rest of Texas.

Click here for more coverage from Kate.

Monday, March 03, 2008

How 'Bout a Free Taco?

Whenever I stroll past the periodical rack at Central Market while on break from my government job, I like to pick up a copy of Tribeza magazine so I can keep up with the comings and goings of our town's increasingly affluent creative class and dream about how good life would be if I could only afford a condo at the Austonian, an inbred drop-kick dog and a transparent cigar fetish.

Given how far away I reside from Tribeza's target demographic, I was quite shocked to find an advertisement in the March issue that actually catered to my comparatively raggedy ass. I'm speaking of a coupon on page 47 for one free mahi mahi taco from Chango's. No purchase is necessary and the offer is good through April 30.

I think it speaks highly of my evolving urbanity that I did not grab an entire stack of the magazines, which leaves plenty for astute and frugal-minded readers of this here blog.