A Texas-Sized Hailstone

Hail is one of those meteorological phenomena that is on the weird edge of the spectrum of weather. A storm rolls through, you hear the rumble of thunder and the crash of lightning and the patter of rain drumming on the roof and windows–and then suddenly the patter becomes a sharp, loud rattle because the rain has turned into hail. You look out your door to see what’s going on and are shocked to find that your patio and yard are covered with pea-sized icy pellets, even though the temperature is far about freezing.

What causes hail? The National Geographic explains:

“Hailstones are formed by layers of water attaching and freezing in a large cloud. A frozen droplet begins to fall from a cloud during a storm, but is pushed back up into the cloud by a strong updraft of wind. When the hailstone is lifted, it hits liquid water droplets. Those droplets then freeze to the hailstone, adding another layer to it. The hailstone eventually falls to Earth when it becomes too heavy to remain in the cloud, or when the updraft stops or slows down.”

Even small hailstones can cause a lot of damage to cars and roofs, and really bad hailstorms can be deadly: the National Geographic piece linked above notes that 250 people were killed in a hailstorm in India in 1888. If you’ve been in a bad hailstorm, it’s not hard to see how that could happen. If you’re outside when baseball-sized chunks of solid ice start hurtling down from the skies and one of them has your name on it, there’s not much you can do about it.

All of this is to explain why I was interested when I saw this story this week about the hailstone, pictured above, that set the record for the largest recorded hailstone ever to fall in Texas. This whopper, which fell near Hondo, Texas on April 28, weighed in at a hefty 1.26 pounds and was at least the size of small football when it crashed through a tree on its way to the ground. Fortunately, it didn’t hit a house, car, animal, or person.

It just goes to show you that things are bigger in Texas. And it also shows you why, during the thunderstorm season on the Great Plains and Midwestern United States, you want to be sure not to be caught outside when a bad thunderstorm rolls through.

The Great Unmasking

We all remember how the COVID pandemic started, as cases climbed and state and local governments closed businesses, put restrictions on activities, and imposed mask mandates. Now we’ll see how the pandemic will end — and how long that process will take.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order, to take effect next Wednesday, that will end the state’s mask mandate and allow all businesses of any type to open at 100 percent capacity. The press release from the Governor’s office, linked above, recognizes that “COVID-19 has not disappeared,” but notes that more than 5 million Texans have been vaccinated and about a million vaccinations are being administered each week, and concludes that state mandates are no longer needed and reopening Texas “100 percent” is necessary to “restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.” Under the Governor’s approach, Texans, and Texas businesses, will decide for themselves what practices they will follow.

Abbott’s decision has been strongly criticized. President Biden called it a “big mistake” that was the product of “Neanderthal thinking,” for example, and the CDC Director says “now is not the time to release all restrictions” because the next month or two will be “pivotal” in determining the course of the pandemic. And Texas businesses are taking different approaches to mask issues in view of the order, with some lifting restrictions and others still requiring employees and customers to mask up. Some businesses note that the Governor’s order puts them and their employees in an awkward position: if they decide to continue to require masks from customers because the CDC thinks that is the right course, they are putting their employees in a position of enforcing the requirement–and increasing the risk of confrontations with customers who refuse to do so.

One of the more interesting consequences of this pandemic has been the spectrum of risk tolerance we are seeing from businesses and our friends and colleagues. Some people have been out and about for months, traveling and dining out, others have stayed at home and are continuing to avoid any public places, and still others occupy every permutation in between. I think we’ll see a similar range of actions from state authorities, guided by the specific economic and health conditions in their states. Is an abrupt, total lifting of requirements the best course, or a gradual easing of restrictions, or keeping all mandates in place until it is crystal clear that there is no longer any risk whatsoever of a COVID resurgence? And do public health authorities really have the ability to give conclusive advice on when the pandemic, and the risks, have ended?

When you were a kid and scraped your knee in a childhood mishap, you put on a Band-Aid. After the Band-Aid did its work, you had to make a decision on how to remove it: rip it off, tug it off gradually, or do something in between. Texas’ Governor has taken the “rip it off” approach. Now we’ll see how that works out.

Just In Case . . . .

The stories we’ve been hearing from Texas over the past two weeks have been truly horrific. People went without heat during an unprecedented cold snap, without electricity, and without water for days, and many shifted to a survivalist mode. Obviously, the Texas authorities responsible for the power grid have a lot to answer for, and talking about a winter storm of the century doesn’t fully explain how completely the system failed.

Now that the worst of it is over, Texans have been talking on social media about what they learned from this experience–and what they can do to prepare for the next devastating winter storm, or hurricane, or other natural disaster. It’s an interesting topic, and one that those of us in other parts of the country would do well to think about, too. You never know when the weather might wreak havoc with expected utility services and food supplies and leave you to go into survivalist mode. And the unsettling question is: if that were to happen to you, would you be reasonably well prepared?

So what are our friends in Texas saying?

  • Lay in a supply of bottled water, and if a storm is bearing down, fill bathtubs and sinks. Humans need water, and if disaster strikes you just can’t have too much of it.
  • If you live in a standalone structure, buy a generator. People in Texas who had generators that they could rely on during this period say they’ve never made a better use of their money.
  • Know how to shut off your water and drain your pipes, and remember to turn off your water heater when you do.
  • Be sure you’ve got flashlights and batteries.
  • When your plumbing is inoperative, disposable plates, cups and utensils are essential.
  • Get a propane-powered space heater and don’t forget the propane for it.
  • Keep a supply of instant coffee and canned food in the garage.
  • Did I mention bottled water and a generator?

You never know when a crisis might hit. Being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad idea.

The Laboratories Of Democracy At Work

Amidst all of the focus on the federal government government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have forgotten that, in our system of government, it is the states that have the power to make the truly important decisions.  They’re about to be reminded about that.

51ryo5scx7l._ac_sy400_The response to COVID-19 has actually been a good illustration of how America is supposed to work — and why we’re called the United States in the first place.  The federal government can offer guidance, and can coordinate how the national stockpiles of ventilators and masks and hospital gowns are distributed among the states according to need and forecasts, but it is the states, each a separate sovereign government with a separate sphere of responsibility, that have made the really big decisions about how to deal with the scourge of COVID-19.

States can, and do, take different approaches to issues — which is why Justice Brandeis long ago described states as the “laboratories of democracy.”  In Ohio, we’ve been under a state-ordered lockdown decree for weeks, and most states have similar lockdown orders, but each of the orders varies in terms of who may work, who is considered essential, and what businesses may operate.  Notably, a number of states, primarily in the middle swath of the United States, have not issued lockdown orders at all.  (And, in case you’re curious, those states for the most part have low rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths, according to the New York Times state tracking tool.)

I say above that we’re going to see a real reminder of the importance of state decision-making very soon because we’re rapidly approaching the point where the states that have been shut down are going to be deciding when, and how, to get back to work.  On Friday, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects to issue an executive order on reopening businesses in this coming week.  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t given a deadline, but has said he also is working on an order to reopen the state for business.  We can expect many other states whose statistics are at the low end of the coronavirus incidence rate list to also be looking to get back to normal, and probably sooner rather than later.

Having a state-centric approach is unnerving to some people, who think centralized decision-making is by definition better decision-making.  Having the states act as “laboratories of democracy” in deciding how to reopen after a pandemic seems like the right approach to me, however.  The United States is a big country, and conditions differ significantly from state to state, in ways that are directly relevant to dealing with shutdown orders and pandemics.  Some states are rural, some are industrial.  Some states are densely populated, and some are so wide open it’s breathtaking.  It makes no sense that Wyoming, say, should be on the same timetable as New York or subject to the same requirements as New York.  In reality, governors and state officials know their states far better than federal officials ever could, and they can and will make decisions that are tailored to the needs of their specific constituents.

We should all pay attention, because we’re getting a real-life, real-time civics lesson — and the lessons will continue in the coming days and weeks.  If the national news media is smart, they’ll start paying a little more attention to the different states and how those state officials are deciding how to restart things.

Lettering In BBQ

Most of the varsity teams in American high schools involve sports that have been around for a long, long time.  Baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, and swimming, among others, have all been around for decades.  Now some high schools in Texas are introducing a new varsity team to the mix:  barbecue.

30629807_346739375833962_402609782687286108_nThe high school BBQ teams in Texas sound like a combination of vocational education, home ec, and shop class, with a little rah-rah school spirit thrown in.  Students on the team build and weld their own metal barbecue cooker, design and create their own team t-shirts, and work with teachers to come up with recipes and techniques and develop their pitmaster capabilities in the competitive cooking categories.  At cook-off competitions, the teams are judged on best beef brisket, pork ribs, half chicken, best beans, dessert, best pit, most school spirit, and best t-shirt.

High school barbecue teams sound odd, at first, but I think they’re actually a pretty good idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more schools in other states adopting the concept.  The BBQ teams have got to be a lot of fun, and they offer a chance for boys and girls to be on the same school squad, competing together for their alma maters.  The modern world is a lot more about inclusion, and a varsity BBQ team would have room for anyone who likes to cook — regardless of their physical condition, height, weight, coordination, or general athletic ability.  And every kid who letters in BBQ will end up being pretty deft with a grille and smoker and probably can make a pretty mean sauce, besides.  It would be a nice skill to have as you move into adulthood.

Varsity barbecue has been rapidly growing in popularity, especially in north Texas.  One annual tournament drew teams from more than 100 high schools.  I bet it drew a lot of hungry fans, too.

Legalizing Lemonade

This week Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for Texas kids to run a lemonade stand without first getting a license.  In a rarity in these politically acrimonious times, the bill passed both houses of the Texas legislature unanimously.  It prohibits local health codes or neighborhood rules that try to bar or otherwise regulate children who want to sell non-alcoholic drinks, such as lemonade, on private property.

gettyimages-115703269-58ad82445f9b58a3c979537cThe Texas legislation was a reaction to an incident in an east Texas town where police shut down a lemonade stand run by two kids who were trying to raise money to buy a Father’s Day present.  That incident is part of a national trend of neighbors calling the police to report kids who operate lemonade stands, which has led to news stories about lemonade stand shutdowns in Colorado, California, Rhode Island, and other states.  The lemonade stand crackdown reached the point that Country Time lemonade offered legal assistance to the kids running the stands who faced penalties and fines for engaging in unpermitted activity.

Speaking as someone who set up a number of lemonade stands as a kid — and who probably sold some pretty sour, watery, and sickly sweet lemonade to innocent buyers in the process — it’s hard for me to imagine that police, regulators, and busybody neighbors don’t have something better to do than oversee harmless childhood money-making ventures.  Have we really reached the point that you actually have to pass a law to safeguard an activity that has been part of Americana for decades?

But the world has changed.  Apparently we do have to enact laws to make sure that regulators don’t target little kids in their zeal to exercise overprotective nanny-state control over our daily activities.  But because the world has changed, I also wonder if the Texas law is really going to have much of an impact in these days of equally overprotective parents.  How many helicopter Moms and Dads are going to allow their young kids to interact with complete strangers who might pass by and want to wet their whistle with a glass of homemade lemonade?

45 Rattlers

A homeowner who lived near Abilene, Texas was experiencing some trouble with his cable TV feed after the area experienced some high winds, so he crawled into the space under his house to check his connections.  That turned out to be a mistake.  When the homeowner saw “a few” snakes in the crawlspace, he beat a hasty retreat, decided he needed professional help, and called Big Country Snake Removal.

rattlesnakes20in20texas20_op_1_cp__1553128408650.jpg_78428046_ver1.0_640_360When the snake removal crew arrived and went under the house, it found 45 — 45! — rattlesnakes cozily curled up in the crawlspace under the home, which the snakes apparently found to be a safe and agreeable place to live.  A creepy video shows the Snake Removal crew lassoing the snakes with an extendable device, causing the snakes to hiss, shake their rattles, and expose their fangs.  The largest rattler was five and a half feet long — which seems like a pretty big damned snake to me.  The owner of Big Country Snake Removal, though, says the snake infestation wasn’t unusual, and “We do this all the time.”  (Sounds like an interesting place to work, doesn’t it?)

In case you’re interested, in addition to its removal services Big Country Snake Removal also offers snake inspections, “rattlesnake avoidance training” for your dog, and “snake-proof fencing.”

45 snakes under one house?  It sounds like a bad Samuel L. Jackson movie.  How many rattlesnakes are there in rural Texas, anyway?  If you were the homeowner, would you continue to live in the house, knowing that rattlers clearly love to camp out, by the dozens, in the crawlspace?  At the very least, I think I’d be investing in some of that “snake-proof fencing,” just in case.

Down-Home BBQ

I’m in Houston for work. When you’re a visitor to a town on a working trip, it’s nice to get away from the hotel scene and hit one of the local joints and, if possible, enjoy some true regional cuisine — like authentic, wood-smoked barbecue.

Last night I hit the mark when the Tattooed Cyclist and his lovely wife took me to Gatlin’s BBQ, one of their favorite hangouts. There we feasted on ribs with an excellent bark, venison sausage, spicy sausage, and some succulent brisket. I added to that a few heaping spoonfuls of mac and cheese and, at the insistence of Mrs. Tattooed Cyclist, some fried okra. Me, eating fried okra! It was good, and proved that pretty much anything fried is palatable. And, of course, when you’re attacking a platter of BBQ, a local brew is essential.

Some people argue about which kind of barbecue is best — Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina, or wherever your favorite may be found. I think that’s pointless, really. It’s like debating whether Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, or Jackson Pollack is the best artist. Each should be appreciated for their mastery of their own styles and the masterpieces they produced. When it comes to BBQ, I’ll gladly sample the different offerings of anybody who treats the production of smoked meats as an artistic endeavor, and consume their creative output with relish.

Cactus Country

Boerne, Texas is in the Hill Country — drier than the coastal areas, but not quite desert, either.  Nevertheless, it’s a good climate for desert plants like cactus.  There’s a nice river walk along Cibolo Creek, where the cactus grow like weeds and the water is teeming with perch, bass, turtles, and “quackless” ducks.  It’s a good place for a morning walk.

Breakfast Of Champions

Wheaties would probably disagree, but this morning in Boerne (pronounced “Bernie”), Texas the breakfast of champions is a very enticing pastry tray from Bear Moon Bakery.  Scones, muffins, and other delectable trifles, with coffee of course, are perfect choices when you’re getting ready for a morning river tubing adventure.

Knocking Around Austin

Austin lives up to its rep.  So far today we’ve explored the River Walk area, where the joggers and dog walkers roam, and checked out the downtown area and Texas Statehouse grounds. The weather is cooperating, too — warm but not too warm, with a little cloud cover and a decent breeze.


The Austin River Walk, which runs along the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake, isn’t quite as elaborate as the San Antonio RiverWalk, but it’s a pretty area that obviously is well used by every Austinite who wants to get a little exercise.  It’s part of an extensive park system that includes a cool map of Texas and lots of room for dogs, kite-flying, and general lounging.


The Texas Statehouse grounds, as the top of the hill on Congress Street, are also interesting and attractive.  In addition to the impressive dome and the expected memorial to the heroes of the Alamo, shown below, I also caught an impromptu performance of a big, and impeccably attired, mariachi band, shown above.  When I walk by the Ohio Statehouse on my way to and from work every day I don’t often hear traditional mariachi music.

The Grub At Stubb’s

We’re down in Austin to visit with family and see a performance by the Austin Symphony.  And if I’m in Austin, for any reason at all, I’ve got to stop by Stubb’s to have a little world class barbecue, liberally doused with Stubb’s equally world class sauce, and listen to some live music.

Last night we stopped by Stubb’s in the midst of a rambling pub crawl — which is a pretty good time to visit the establishment, incidentally — and I got the small combo plate with sausage, brisket, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.    It was excellent, of course, with just the right amount of smoky bark on the brisket and the creamiest mac ‘n cheese you can get anywhere.  It all went perfectly with a local brew.  Then, it was on to Sixth Street.

In The Hill Country

Yesterday we went out to the Texas “hill country,” the home territory of President Lyndon Johnson.  We visited the LBJ Ranch and the western White House, where John twisted arms under live oak trees and has a phone in every room.

In Johnson’s childhood, the hill country was a place of great poverty, and one of his first legislative accomplishments was bringing electricity to the region.  Now the beautiful area is home to wineries, ranches, and bed and breakfasts.  A few traces of the region’s hardscrabble roots still remain, however.

At The LBJ Ranch

1b521bd9-3bda-4d9a-9e3f-7ba03d6115d8Kish is down in San Antonio to visit Richard.  Today they visited the nearby LBJ Ranch as well as Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood home.  While at the ranch Kish snapped this picture — proving that Johnson was definitely not all hat and no cattle.

It’s interesting to reflect on people like Johnson.  He was a legendary Senate Majority Leader, was thrust into the presidency when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ushered in the “Great Society” programs, and then was knocked out of the White House by the Vietnam War, riots in the cities, student protests, and general unrest in the country.  Now LBJ is largely an overlooked historical figure, overshadowed by JFK and Camelot as his predecessor and Richard Nixon and Watergate as his successor.

As Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

The “Affluenza” Kid

If you’ve read or heard about the “affluenza” kid, you’re probably angry.

affluenza17n-7-webThe kid’s name is Ethan Couch.  When he was 16, he went driving while drunk and struck and killed four pedestrians near Fort Worth, Texas.  Prosecutors wanted him to spend 20 years in prison.  Instead, his case was heard in juvenile court, where an expert testified and Couch’s attorney argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza” — the purported inability to tell right from wrong because he’d been spoiled by wealthy parents who never punished him for misbehaving.  (“Affluenza” is not a psychological condition recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although psychologists have no doubt that chronic spoiling of kids influences their behavior.)

To the outrage of the local community and the relatives of those killed in the drunk driving accident, the juvenile court judge did not sentence Couch to any jail time.  Instead, he got 10 years probation and had to do a stint at a rehab facility.  The lack of substantial consequences caused some people to argue about the injustice of our justice system — where the rich, who can hire the best lawyers and experts, can perversely argue that their own wealth can render their kids not culpable when they commit heinous crimes and kill multiple people.

But the “affluenza kid” did it again.  Ethan Couch allegedly drank alcohol at a party, in violation of his probation, and was being investigated by authorities.  Rather than face the consequences, Couch and his mom, Tonya Couch, fled to Mexico, where Couch died his hair and they hung out at the resort town of Puerto Vallarta.  But — in a nice little “affluenza” touch — authorities say that before they skipped town they had a going-away party for Couch and his friends.

Now Couch and his Mom have been caught, thanks in part to information provided by friends of the family, so we get to see some dead-eyed perp pictures of Couch and his dyed chin whiskers.  Couch’s Dad, who runs a successful business, apparently was one of the people who cooperated with authorities and is not suspected of being involved in his wife and kid’s decision to flee the U.S.

Unfortunately, Ethan Couch probably isn’t going to deal with much in the way of consequences for this misconduct, either.  Because Couch is still subject to the juvenile court system, and will be until he turns 19 in April, prosecutors say he is likely to face no more than 120 days in detention — after which he would be released, subject to another period of probation.   Tonya Couch, on the other hand, is going to be charged with hindering an arrest, which carries a sentence of two to 10 years.

It’s an infuriating and sordid story of a spoiled brat who apparently suffers no guilt from killing four people, was too stupid to recognize that he was lucky enough to get a second chance and blew it, and likely still won’t face punishment that is commensurate with his crime, and an enabling mother who probably spoiled the kid in the first place.

I don’t think it’s likely that Ethan Couch will become a productive member of society, and I hope he one day will be held accountable for his crimes.  As for his mother — who is supposed to be the adult in this situation — I hope they throw the book at her and get the maximum sentence, because somebody needs to actually feel the long arm of the law for making authorities engage in an international manhunt.  Who knows?  If Ethan Couch and his “affluenza” are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, maybe he’ll at least feel some remorse for sending Mommy Dearest to the Big House.