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.

Calling For Christmas Cookies Recipes — 2015 (III)

A friend, colleague, and Webner House reader from Fort Worth, Texas responded to this year’s call for Christmas cookie recipes with this concoction from the Food Network website.  He says “these cookies require a little more effort than most but are unique and very good.”  From the recipe, the cookies do look good — and surprisingly, given its apparent popularity in Texas, the recipe doesn’t include mesquite or armadillo meat as required ingredients.

Lemon Ricotta Cookies With Lemon Glaze

lemonricottacookies2Cookie ingredients:  2 1/2 cups all-purpose baking flour; 1 teaspoon baking powder; 1 teaspoon salt; 1 stick unsalted butter, softened; 2 cups sugar; 2 eggs; 1 15-ounce container whole milk ricotta cheese; 3 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 lemon, zested

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In the large bowl combine the butter and the sugar, then beat using an electric mixer for about three minutes, until the butter and sugar is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until incorporated. Add the ricotta cheese, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Beat to combine, then stir in the combination of flour, baking powder, and salt.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon the dough (about 2 tablespoons for each cookie) onto the baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges. Remove from the oven and let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 20 minutes.

Glaze ingredients:  1 1/2 cups powdered sugar; 3 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 lemon, zested

Combine the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a small bowl and stir until smooth. Spoon about 1/2-teaspoon onto each cookie and use the back of the spoon to gently spread the glaze over the cookie. Let the glaze harden for about 2 hours.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015 (II)

 

JFK’s Last Speech

 I’m in Fort Worth, Texas for meetings and spent last night at the Fort Worth Hilton because it’s close to the meeting location.  When I learned the hotel also is the site of John F. Kennedy’s last speech, it gave me a chill.

JFK spoke here on the morning of November 22, 1963,  at a breakfast meeting of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.  For a man who was a forceful orator and turned many a memorable phrase, the speech is a thoroughly unremarkable effort, with a standard joke about Jackie Kennedy’s celebrity status, recognition of the politicians and dignitaries who were present, and then a discussion of Fort Worth’s contribution to the continuing need to maintain a strong defense against the Communist threat.  The speech, of course, gave no hint that the history of the country and the world would shift forever a few hours later due to an assassin’s bullet.

There is a little plaza next to the hotel that commemorates the occasion with a statue of JFK, some photos, and some quotes from his speeches.  One of them is:  “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”. With the red brick hotel looming in the background, it’s a sobering place.