Friday, July 31, 2009

Collaborations, Part I

One striking element of working in the nonprofit world is the need to work in collaborations. In my previous life as a trial lawyer working in an equal partnership with others was the exception, not the rule. A lawyer may have local counsel in a jurisdiction where he or she has a case, or be local counsel for another, but that’s not a relationship between equals. Someone’s in charge and everybody knows who it is.

The same power relationship normally also exists within a law firm on any particular matter. A partner will be in charge of a case and have one or more associates working for him or her. In a really big case, there may be a junior partner working for a more senior partner, but there is never doubt about who’s calling the shots.

The nonprofit world is very different. I work all the time with people who are my equal in position—leaders of other nonprofits. Sometimes the organizations are larger, sometimes smaller than ours, but we are all equal in dignity. No one is in charge. This isn’t always easy.

I’ve met some people from the for-profit world that imagine that all leaders of nonprofit organizations are selfless and egoless; motivated solely by the desire to do good. Would that it were so!

After a couple of decades of law practice and ten years now on the nonprofit side, my experience is that business people are much easier, on the whole, to deal with than nonprofit leaders. Business is, in its own way, simple. It’s about money. Law suits were about money. Law firms are about money. Anybody can keep score, you just need to count the money. Life could not be simpler.

It’s a lot more complicated on the nonprofit side. Leaders of nonprofits are almost uniformly very capable people; people who could make a lot more money somewhere else, working for a profit. Nonprofit leaders have sacrificed (at least in money) to take their position. They are committed; driven to change the world; and they almost always have a very particular vision of the change they want to implement.

In short, when you deal with nonprofit leaders (except for me of course!) then you are dealing with smart, determined people whose goals and motivations will be completely obscure to you. Worse yet, from my standpoint, those goals and motivations are likely based on spiritual, philosophical or political principals that I might not even understand. In other words, in many nonprofit collaborations, you have to really work hard to understand each other even before you can start working on the problem you’re addressing.

Still, these collaborations are necessary if we’re going to get things done. At least the process is usually educational. How hard it is depends a lot on how the collaboration got started, a topic I’ll come back to after I think about it a little longer.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


More than twenty-five years ago, I should have realized that the world had changed. When I was a very young lawyer, I overheard a partner at the firm berating another young (but slightly older than me) lawyer because he hadn’t returned a telephone message from that morning until late afternoon.

The lawyer returning the call was on vacation, camping with his family at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. It didn’t matter that this was well before everybody had a cell phone, that it was during vacation, or that most campsites don’t have telephone service. The partner expected him to be available and he wasn’t, so he was in trouble.

Twenty-five years ago it was unusual for people to have to be available every minute of every hour of every day. Now it’s par for the course. I avoided carrying a cell phone for many years. My informal motto was something like “It may be an emergency to you, but it isn’t necessarily an emergency to me.”

Finally my staff bought me a cell phone because they were tired of not being able to find me when they thought they needed to. The funny thing is that I can’t remember any single occasion where somebody didn’t successfully solve whatever the emergency was, whether or not I was available. But now that people can reach me, I have to be involved even if I don’t add anything to the process.

For a number of years I’ve managed to escape for a week each year by scheduling a wilderness canoe trip. Believe it or not, there are still places in this country where you don’t have cell phone reception (including my house, but that’s another story). I had to plan months in advance. Warn everybody that short of chartering a helicopter to make a search that I couldn’t be found. I was regarded as hopelessly eccentric.

But it worked. The picture of me is from a trip down the San Juan River in Utah. I had eight glorious days without a cell phone or computer; without texting or email; without deadlines or any decision to make except whether a rapid was safe to run.

This picture is my friend PK in Four Foot Rapids. A trip like that recharged me for months.
For the past two years we haven’t been able to make schedules work for a wilderness trip. I’ve been connected to the world almost all that time, usually working in front of the computer with my cell phone and office phone next to me. Often with half a dozen people trying to ask me questions at the same time. Most days I can’t even respond to all the emails, telephone calls and texts I receive. At home, the computer will be on, often with the television as well, and of course I have my cell phone. I imagine most of your lives are just the same.

Last month I had a day when I was too injured to make it into work, but to begin with that hardly slowed me down at all. I still had my laptop and my cell phone and could continue to work almost as if I were in the office. Then at mid day a thunderstorm started up. I lost my cable connection and the internet. The cell phone couldn’t get a connection. The lights went off. I was injured enough so I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t walk anywhere without crutches.

In a couple of hours the cable and electricity would come back, but for those hours I sat on the couch and looked out the window. I could see the tomatoes were beginning to ripen. After awhile I picked up a book and read without interruption.

I realized I need to find some time to disconnect from the world I am caught up in too much.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Topping Out

Next week our general contractor at CityWalk, Key Construction, is giving a “topping out” party. This is an old, old tradition, which has been traced back to at least the sixteenth century. The traditional form calls for erecting an evergreen tree or branch to the topmost rafter of the building after it’s been placed, often with a national flag and usually with a celebration for the workers.

I don’t know how traditional Key’s party will be, after all, this is a renovation so we don’t have a traditional “topping off”, but it will mark a significant moment in completing the work. I’m looking forward to going. It will be a first for me.

Here’s a Rockwell Kent lithograph “Roof Tree” from 1928 that illustrates a topping out. I love the joy that you can see in the form of the carpenter.

I’ve never seen a topping out ceremony for a single family house in the United States—they probably still occur but aren’t standard anymore. Apparently in Europe, especially in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, topping out ceremonies are more common, even in residential construction.

In the United States, topping out ceremonies now occur only for significant buildings—like downtown high rises. That makes topping out parties a specialty of ironworkers, members of The International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Ironworkers to be more specific yet. Those are the workers that deal with the big steel.

The moment celebrated isn’t the completion of the building. It’s when the highest point of the structure is in place and the frame of the building is complete. The ceremony is held at the moment when completing the building is in site; when the highest roof beam is placed and the work is all downhill. We don’t celebrate our work and accomplishments enough most of the time. A big job done well deserves a bit of relaxation and self-congratulations.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas—The Real Estate Council’s Technical Assistance Teams

Last Thursday was the first meeting of the technical assistance team that The Real Estate Council of Dallas is putting together to help review the designs for Re:Vision Dallas and the meeting was very encouraging—we’re adding more than another dozen experienced, intelligent minds to the project with all sorts of skills we wouldn’t have available otherwise..

I want especially to thank Ann Allison at The Real Estate Council for her help in putting the technical assistance team together and Celeste Fowden at CB Richard Ellis for agreeing to chair the committee.

Here’s how the team is organizing itself, as set out in an email from Ms. Fowden:

“Thank you all for joining us today in our initial meeting for the Re:Vision project, we appreciate your willingness to participate. Below is a summary of what we discussed today with action items at the bottom.

1. Define subcommittees - Deadline July 24th
- award specific jobs/tasks within subcommittees - Deadline July 31st

2. Questions to Designers if any - TBD

3. Identify major flaws with the designs which will determine if they are realistic to pursue further

4. Designs with flaws that can be fixed, has designer re-design

5. Review of remaining designs

6. Summary report

Subcommittees: (please let me know if I missed some)

1. Site Analysis - includes legal, zoning, environmental, infrastructure, etc.

2. Design/Engineering

3. Finance/Development

4. Project Budget - within the $60MM total project costs

5. Power/Energy Generation - might need to recruit for this committee

6. City Council/Manager Liaisons”

I’ll be sitting ex officio on the Site Analysis, Finance/Development and Project Budget subcommittees, and Brent Brown, Executive Director of the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP will sit on the Design/Engineering and Power/Energy Generation subcommittees.

I looking forward to getting the work underway and, once again, thanks to TREC and its volunteers for this effort. We couldn’t buy this kind of expertise, and if we could buy it, then we couldn’t afford it!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Raise in the Minimum Wage

The minimum wage rose today from $6.55 per hour to $7.25 per hour, the final step in a series of raises that have taken place over the past few years. I hope that didn’t affect too many of you, because if it did then you’re struggling to get by. Seeing this news in the morning’s paper reminded me that a couple of years ago I debated the wisdom of the legislation raising the minimum wage on the McCuistion Show on the local public television network, KERA. (The picture isn’t from the show I was on, but gives you an idea of the format—that’s Mr. McCuistion holding the microphone).

I probably spent more time preparing for that appearance than I did studying for the bar exam, largely because I was placed on the show to argue the “pro” side of raising the minimum wage while the extremely distinguished economist Robert McTeer (you can read his blog here: had the “con” side of the argument.

This had all the makings of a classic Joe versus Pro confrontation. In the final event, Professor McTeer wasn’t out to embarrass anybody, or maybe I wasn’t worth the effort of embarrassing, and the hour show passed both quickly and without much in the way of pain, at least to me. I can’t answer for the audience.

One surprising thing Professor McTeer and I ended up agreeing on, however, was that although the raise in the minimum wage would help a few people a little, and perhaps hurt a few people whose jobs got cut, in the end it wouldn’t effect very many people one way or another.

The reason is simple, even after it was raised to its current $7.25 per hour, the minimum wage is still so low that almost everybody working is paid more than the minimum wage. After all, you can only earn $15,000 in year working full-time at that pay rate, and that’s barely enough for a single person to keep body and soul together.

Here is part of the chart I made for that show that shows the effect of the raise in the minimum wage on total wages, depending on how many workers lost their jobs because employers couldn’t afford to pay the higher minimum wage:

As you can see, three years ago 863,000 workers in Texas were making $7.25 per hour or less, and even if 25% of them lost there job because of a rise in the minimum wage, total wages would still rise. Of course that would be much comfort to people who lost their job. That number has gone down over the past couple of years as the minimum wage rose, but there are still 262,000 working Texans (as of last year) for whom making $7.25 per hour will be a pay raise.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

More Tenant Interviews for CityWalk

This morning we did three more interviews for CityWalk@Akard--or rather, Judy Lawrence who handles all our properties did them while I ran back and forth between answering the telephone and dealing with urgent emails. Here is what she wrote after the interviews:

“We've had 3 interviews for CityWalk already this morning. Each interviewee impressed us in so many ways....two young woman with awful experiences in their lives - just trying to turn their lives around and one older man, currently living in his truck who, when we mentioned the one community room that was set up as a rehearsal room, eyes lit up and excitement filled his face and resonated in his voice. He was a song and dance man. He still loves to sing and dance - sang at festivals throughout Texas and the prospect of being able to do that again brought tears to his eyes. His voice cracked as he talked about how much he'd love to do that again and he ended by saying...I don't know what to say to which we is what Rev. King said...keep hope alive. He just left the office and he thanked us for giving him hope. Our response, no sir, it is you who gives us hope and we need to translate that hope into a reality.

All three people had lost hope - that is what CityWalk is all about. Take the politics out of it. Take the rhetoric out of it. Simply listen to the heart and it says it all.”

I only really ended up sitting in on the last interview, but I hope you will think about the bare facts of that gentleman’s situation. He has been living in his truck for a full year while waiting for us to complete CityWalk so he could have a place to live. Think about the strength and discipline it takes to keep working to get your life back or just to keep appointments without a real place to live. I don’t know if I could do that.

There may be some people who prefer living on the street, but the people that come to us show amazing persistence and effort towards getting a home.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We’re Just Not That Into Us

Unfair Park is back with another little piece on Re:Vision Dallas. It’s here: The theme is that the rest of the country is more into Re:Visioning Dallas than Dallas is itself.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the truth. I don’t think it’s just the Re:Vision Dallas project, lately it seems to me that the people of Dallas are suffering from some sort of general malaise; from a feeling that nothing exciting is going to happen here—it will always be some place else.

I think we need to shake out of it. Sure there have been some disappointments. The Cowboys went to Arlington. The Trinity Project seems to go on never endingly without any progress being made.

But we’ve got a lot to get excited about. The Super Bowl is coming, as is the NBA all-star game. Even if you just look at building projects around Downtown Dallas, there is a lot happening. The Woodall Rogers Deck Park is going to be a reality.

As is at least one Calatrava Bridge, and the new Convention Center Hotel (even if I have to admit I’m not enthusiastic about the renderings).

There is also the new Natural History Museum, but it hasn’t unveiled its exterior design yet, so we can only look at the preliminary exhibit designs:

That’s a lot to look forward to and these are all projects that are funded and either under construction or about to get under construction. None of these are pipedreams.

The Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Performing Arts Center are now a reality—go Downtown and look if you want to be impressed. Or if that’s too much trouble, then you can log on to a live link showing the current state of the building:

There is a lot more as well. Main Streets Garden is under construction. The new DART Green Line to Deep Ellum and Fair Park will be operating by fall—I’ve seen the trains on their practice runs on my way to the office. The tracks are their and the trains are real.

I haven’t even mentioned some wonderful projects that have been completed in the last few years, like the Nasher Sculpture Garden and the Bridge, the new homeless shelter. Central Dallas CDC’s own CityWalk@Akard will be completed this fall.

The truth is not only can we do projects like these, and like Re:Vision Dallas, we have done them and we are doing them.

Some of you may have noticed Dallas isn’t blessed with mountains or a sea shore. We only have what we make ourselves and if we only believe in ourselves, then we will continue to make a great city.

So open your eyes, look around, and believe!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Dallas Neighborhood Revitalization Corp

Purpose: To revitalize a distressed ten-block neighborhood in the City of Dallas by taking to scale the methodology pioneered by the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP in the Congo Street Initiative.

Description of Method: In the Congo Street Green Initiative the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP pioneered a new approach to revitalization of distressed urban neighborhood. Prior revitalization efforts have usually relied on one of two approaches:

1. Slum clearance—The slum clearance approach, now largely outdated and abandoned, treated entire neighborhoods as a blight, acquired relatively large tracts (often through eminent domain), which were then cleared of all existing structures, and attempted to create a new neighborhood on the old site. While there was some value in the comprehensiveness of this approach, it had very significant downsides. It failed to value the existing social and built structure of the neighborhood. It treated people and social structures as fungible. Even when successful in creating a new neighborhood, those neighborhoods often did not include the former residents of the site and the new neighborhoods often had little or no social cohesion and as a result suffered from high crime rates and an entire lack of social cohesion.

2. Urban Infill—The urban infill approach emerged as a reaction to slum clearance. In this approach vacant lots or houses in need of demolition are filled with new construction, one home at a time. This approach respects the integrity of the neighborhood and its existing physical and social structures. Sometimes this approach is couple with efforts to improve or repair existing homes. The problem with the urban infill approach is its lack of comprehensiveness. One new house does little to reclaim the neighborhood (and may be difficult to sell) if it is located between two decaying structures. In many cases the rate of construction of new homes fails to exceed the rate of decay of existing structures, and the neighborhood as a whole fails to improve.

3. The Congo Green Street Initiative—Working in partnership with residents of Congo Street in South Dallas, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP has developed a new idea for neighborhood revitalization based on the concept of the “Holding House”. The Holding House is a new infill home built in the neighborhood, but rather than being sold to a new or existing residence, the Holding House is used as a temporary residence within the neighborhood for neighbors to live in while their home undergoes repair or replacement. After a two or three month stay in the Holding House, the neighbor will return to their own, newly refurbished home and the next neighbor will move into the Holding House while work is done on their home.

This strategy combines the best features of the two previous methods. It is comprehensive, although its strategy to become comprehensive is temporal rather than spatial. It keeps neighbors in their own neighborhood, retains social cohesion, makes as much use of the existing physical structure as is feasible, and benefits the current residents of the neighborhood, not some hypothetical new residents.

To date, the Holding House method has proved itself in a small experimental project. This proposal is to take the method to scale.

Proposal: The buildingcommunityWORKSHOP will work in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Central Dallas Ministries, the City of Dallas and Central Dallas Community Development Corporation, along with expected additional partners, to revitalize a ten block neighborhood in Dallas. While the neighborhood we will work in is now distressed, buildingcommunityWORKSHOP and its partners believe that with properly conceived approach every owner-occupied home in the neighborhood can be improved, repaired or if necessary replaced and that new construction can fill the majority of the now existing vacant lots. That will require touching as many 160 different pieces of property, but the partners believe that this task can be completed within two years.

Here are the key elements of program:

1. A concentrated effort will take place during the summer of 2009 to meet with the neighbors, explain the program and get the neighborhood enthusiastically behind the project.

2. The buildingcommunityWORKSHOP will recruit the team members for the project, funding the major portion of their expenses through the AmeriCorp program administered by Central Dallas Ministries.

3. After appropriate training, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP will begin the construction of five Holding Houses, which will house neighbors within the neighborhood while their houses are repaired or replaced.

4. At the same time, two evaluation teams will start to work with neighbors to determine which of three categories their home best fits: 1) basically sound, but could benefit from some weatherization or improvement in energy efficiency; 2) in need of major repair, somewhere between $7,500 and $25,000 in work; or 3) in need of complete replacement.

5. When the Holding Houses are completed, five families whose houses are in need of major repairs or replacement will move into the Holding House nearest their own home for a period of five weeks for major repairs or twelve weeks for replacements.

6. Two specially trained crews will also begin working to weatherize and improve energy efficiency of the homes in the neighborhood that have been evaluated and would benefit from this activity.

7. The repair, replacement and weatherization/energy efficiency work will continue until every owner-occupied home in the neighborhood has received the necessary attention. The necessary time is expected to be eighteen months.

8. While this work is ongoing, Central Dallas CDC, Central Dallas Ministries, and the City of Dallas of Dallas will contact the owner of each rental property in the neighborhood to encourage them to make any needed repairs to their rental property, to assist them in making the improvements if they are cooperative and to make sure that their properties are up to code and properly maintained if they are not.

9. The City of Dallas will also support the project by funding its expenses through its existing home replacement, repair, and CHDO programs to the extent the activity qualifies and funding is available.

10. Habitat for Humanity will, at the same time these activities are under weigh, attempt to acquire every vacant lot in the neighborhood, which is not under active development, and work to construct new homes on these lots. Habitat for Humanity will also support the project by offering low cost mortgage loans for replacement homes, when the new homes cannot be paid for by either the City of Dallas’s home replacement program or other available grants.

11. Central Dallas CDC will provide accounting and financial support to the project and work with the other partners in locating grant funding and other potential partners for the project. Central Dallas CDC will also work to acquire or facilitate the acquisition of rental properties where the current landlord is unable or unwilling to make improvements.

12. All the partners in the project will work to see every home in the neighborhood repainted, the landscaping improved and to implement a home maintenance program to provide low cost services to residents who could not otherwise afford to properly maintain their property.


March through July 2009:
Planning and fundraising

July through August 2009:
Neighborhood meetings; Recruit and Train staff

September through October 2009:
Construction of Holding Houses; Beginning of valuation process; Beginning of weatherization/energy efficiency

October through December 2009:
Complete construction of Holding Houses; Begin Repair Work

December 2009 through May 2010:
Continue Repair and Weatherization Work

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Stimulus Reaches Central Dallas CDC!

Some very good news came into our office yesterday. Central Dallas CDC was awarded a grant in the amount of $695,625 from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. This is the first money we’ve received from the almost $800 million in spending approved in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The purpose of ARRA was to get the economy going again, but only 11% on the money, mostly for highway projects, has gotten out the door in the first six months. That’s understandable. It takes time for programs to get written, requests for proposals issued, the proposals submitted and the grant awards to be made. Six months is fast for government work, but the goal of stimulating the economy isn’t going as fast as any of us would like. Still, it’s more important for the funds to be used well, rather than quickly, and I think by the time we’re done everyone will see that we’re using the money wisely.

The money is going to be used for a joint program between Central Dallas CDC (, the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (, and Central Dallas Ministries ( that we’re calling the Neighborhood Revitalization Corps. I’ll publish the summary of our plan tomorrow, but the basic idea is to work together to try to touch every house in a ten-block area, about 160 properties, to see if that concentrated effort can make a real difference. To see if we can change the neighborhood.

Central Dallas CDC will be doing fundraising, managing the grant, documenting the expenditures and working with owners of rental housing in the neighborhood to repair or otherwise improve the rental housing. The bcWorkshop will be designing homes, building houses, managing repair work and working with homeowners in the neighborhood. Central Dallas Ministries will be supplying the labor in the form of forty-five AmeriCorps members, many of whom we hope to recruit from the neighborhood we’ll be working in and providing some of the other services—medical, legal, job training—needed in the neighborhood..

And, for those of you who care about such things, the total administrative cost for improving at least 100 homes in the neighborhood will be no more than $34,781.25. That means the partners in the NRC will put over $670,000 in direct improvements into the neighborhood, which will go a long way with most of the labor supplied at no cost by AmeriCorps members like those that have been working in the Congo Street Green Initiative.

We can hardly wait to get started!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Most of us know a dragonfly when we see one, but not many of us know one kind of dragonfly from another—and there are over two hundred varieties of dragonflies and damselflies just in Texas. I started to get interested in watching dragonflies after watching an entire group of dragonflies, known as a dazzle, swooping back and forth in my back yard one evening. I knew some of the nicknames—mosquito hawk, devil’s darning needle—that dragonflies have been called, but I never knew the name of any one individual species.

I often see dragonflies while canoeing in the backwaters of White Rock Lake, blue ones, green ones, red ones, all different sizes, but until this weekend I had never successfully managed to identify one of them. Last Christmas my wife got me a book on identifying dragonflies. It’s sort of like the ubiquitous books that birders carry, except, of course, for dragonflies. I’ve spent a little time with it, trying to work out the characteristics that you need to look for to identify a particular dragonfly, and finally succeeded with one:
This is a widow skimmer, one of the most common and most easily identified dragonflies. Identifying the widow skimmer is about the equivalent of being able to identify a cardinal without knowing any other birds.

The widow skimmer is a powerful flier and it’s large for a dragonfly. I watched them skimming over the water, never stopping and as the sun got low in the sky the white bands on their wings glowed as if they were fluorescent.

So it’s one down, another 250 or so to go before completing my life list. I’m not sure how many more I’ll be able to identify, but even knowing one dragonfly means I know something today that I didn’t last week.

A good site to learn more about dragonflies and damselflies is Odonata Central: (Odonata is the Latin scientific name for dragonflies and damselflies).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Ever Present Danger of Analogies

I have to admit that I rarely read the opinion columns of local radio talk show host Mark Davis in the Dallas Morning News, not because he doesn’t write well or because I usually don’t agree with him, but because he toes such a straight-line conservative viewpoint that I usually know just what he will say without having the bother of actually reading him. A recent op-ed piece about the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor caught my attention, however, large because it included a basketball analogy. I will almost always read anything that discusses basketball—or canoeing or chess or cooking or any of my other numerous interests.

You can find the whole column here:, but this is the portion that I found interesting:
“ ‘Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another,’ proclaimed ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, nine words that cut with clarity to disembowel the most artful posings of those who view the Supreme Court as some empowered leveler of our national playing field.
The sports analogy is useful: In the recent NBA finals, the referees could have called ticky-tack fouls against the oft-crowned champion Los Angeles Lakers against the upstart Orlando Magic, a team the officials could have aided by turning their heads when they broke the rules.
The righteous public revulsion at such an outrage should be the same reaction when a judge subjugates the law to some self-created storyline of ‘fairness.’ “
I found these paragraphs interesting because it shows just how dangerous it can be to make an argument that depends on analogies.
Yes, in theory, the NBA referees could call the game to help the underdog Magic, but as every NBA fan knows—and as every Dallas Maverick fan really knows after the results in the 2006 NBA finals—NBA referees don’t favor the underdogs, instead it’s the superstars of the game, the Kobe Bryant’s and Dwayne Wade’s, that get the benefit of the referee’s bias. I have to say that Mark Davis ignoring that fact irritates me far more than any of his political positions..
The NBA is just like our judicial system in that regard. The system of adjudication favors those who are already privileged. In basketball it’s superstars. In the judicial system it’s white males. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this chart of incarceration rates from the Department of Justice:

There isn’t any better chance of a Black or Hispanic defendant getting an unfair advantage from a court then there is of Courtney Lee getting the call over Kobe Bryant.
Beautiful theories are often spoiled by stupid facts. The very best you can hope for is that recognizing existing prejudice will help mitigate its effects. Judge Sonia Sotamayor seems to know this. Mark Davis, Sen. Jeff Sessions and the NBA referees don’t.

Monday, July 20, 2009

La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera, Part III

Now that I’m done trying to convince you to plan your next vacation to Santa Fe to see the opera, I want to talk a little bit about La Traviata as a work of art. The title means something roughly like “The Lost Woman” and is often translated as “The Fallen Women”, which makes more sense in English. The theme was considered controversial for its time. Verdi wanted to set the opera contemporaneously with its 1853 performance, but the opera house refused and required Verdi to set the opera in 1700. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the story of a fallen woman was allowed to be played out as a current issue.

The story probably had personal significance for Verdi.

Verdi’s first wife, Margherita, died in 1840 after only four years of marriage. In the mid-1840s Verdi began an affair with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi and Strepponi lived together for almost a decade—which included the time of the writing and first production of La Traviata—until marrying in 1859.

The relationship and co-habitation were a major scandal, so Verdi had first hand knowledge of the power of society’s disapproval.

Against that biographical background is set the story of Violetta’s inability to find restoration with human society. For a time Violetta and Alfredo are happy together by withdrawing into the country away from human society, but that withdrawal is not sustainable. Society, in the form of monetary demands and familial connections, finds them. Violetta is placed in a situation where she has no good choices. If she succumbs to the request of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, to break off the relationship, then Alfredo and her hopes of happiness are lost. If she does not, then Alfredo’s family suffers ruin. Within the terms of society no path is open to her restoration—as she sings “God may forgive, society will not”.

The working of the plot provides a solution, but not a very satisfactory one for the characters. Violetta is forgiven only as she dies. In a theological sense this works (I have a hard time not seeing Giorgio first in Act II as the stern God the Father of the Old Testament and then as the more forgiving God of the New Testament in Act III). The plot device also works theatrically because the lovers are reunited by the end of the opera.

Violetta’s death does not provide a solution for the restoration of the fallen to society, however, but avoids that problem. Society has no need to continue to reprove the dead, who are beyond its reach and without power to affect society.

In his own life, Verdi dealt with many of the same problems because of disapproval of his relationship with Streppone, but reached a more satisfactory solution. From 1851 on Verdi and Streppone lived at his country estate, Villa Verdi.

Presumably, those were happy years, even before their marriage in 1859, and Verdi and Streppone remained together until her death in 1897. By all reports they were happy together.

No doubt simply enduring and outliving a scandal would not make for a very interesting drama, but the problems of restoration that Verdi struggled with in the early 1850s and that form the basis of La Traviata were large overcome in life by persistence and the passage of time.

The issues raised by the opera and the conflict between a God that promises complete forgiveness of sins and a society that will not forgive are just as much alive today as they were in the 1850s. At Central Dallas we work all the time with people who have been convicted of felonies and, even when thoroughly reformed, are unable to find a job or a place to live because of their past. Like any great work of art, La Traviata transcends the particular circumstances that inspired its production and illuminates a continuing problem.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera, Part II

La Traviata is one of the best-known and best-loved operas. The music by Giuseppe Verdi is wonderful and the plot simple but theatrical.

The heroine, Violetta, is a courtesan in Paris, interested only in pleasure. Then, at a party to celebrate her recovery from an illness, she meets Alfredo Germont, who, she is informed, has visited her every day during her illness and is irretrievably in love with her. Violetta is won over by Alfredo and they leave for the country where they can be happy together and ignore her disreputable past. Alfredo finds out, however, that Violetta is forced to sell all her belongs to maintain her country home and returns to Paris to settle their financial affairs.

While Alfredo is in Paris, his father, Giorgio Germont comes to visit. Giorgio explains to Violetta that because of Alfredo’s relationship with her that the fiancĂ© of his daughter (Alfredo’s sister) is threatening to break off the relationship. In order to avoid disgrace to his family, Violetta must end her relationship with Alfredo. Violetta finally agrees to end the relationship with Alfredo, although proclaiming her undying love for him.

Alfredo is led to believe that Violetta is leaving him for a Count and challenges the Count to a dual. He treats Violetta insultingly earning the disapproval of all. After the dual is completed (with no one seriously hurt) Alfredo flees overseas. Later Alfredo returns to Paris and his father who has suffered a change of heart towards Violetta because of her innate goodness, tells him the Alfredo the true story. Alfredo rushes to her bedside but (alas!) it is too late and she dies in his arms from a recurrence of her illness.

The role of Violetta dominates the opera and in the Santa Fe production that role is sung by Natalie Dessay, the French soprano, for the first time. Her performance was glorious from beginning to end.

Not only did Dessay sing the role wonderfully, she acted the role with passion and energy. Her performance was not entirely unexpected—in the world of opera Dessay’s first performance of Violetta is significant news. The entire performance schedule is sold out and critics from around the world attended the event.

The costumes were brilliant (as you can see from the picture) and the set was an interesting abstract set of differently sized rectangles, which allowed for dynamic movement of the singers around the stage.

I think there were some other singers as well, and (IMHO) they did well enough to make the time between Natalie Dessay’s appearances relatively tolerable.

Tomorrow I’ll have a few words about the significance of the opera as a piece of art.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera, Part I

The Santa Fe Opera is an event that engages you even before the singing begins. The opera house itself is open to the air, and the opera always begins immediately after sunset. After making your way three miles north of town to the opera house, you can enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sun set behind the mountains:

Regardless of your mood beforehand, you’d need to be pretty unhappy not to feel good afterwards.

If you need even more of the way of encouragement, then you could always participate in a Santa Fe tradition: tailgating at the opera:

This being the opera, we aren’t talking burgers and beer. People bring white table cloths, champagne and fois gras.

This year my wife and I attended the opera on opening night for the first time, and discovered another Santa Fe opera tradition. The audience stands and sings the Star Spangled Banner before the opera begins on opening night. The opera always opens on the weekend closest to July 4 so the timing is appropriate—and the Star Spangled Banner rarely sounds as good as it did with a full orchestra playing and an audience of opera buffs singing.

After all the preliminaries, at times the opera itself can seem almost an after thought, but that wasn’t true this year, and with a little luck I’ll actually get around to discussing the performance tomorrow.

Friday, July 17, 2009


If you know the plant purslane, then you probably know it as a weed, and under some other less flattering name such as hogweed. The United States Department of Agriculture ranks it as the seventh most invasive weed in the United States. It’s a modest plant; low growing with small fleshy leaves and almost invisible yellow flowers. Purslane loves disturbed ground, like a freshly turned over garden or the edge of a highway.

The picture of it here was taken across the street from CityWalk@Akard, immediately in from of the headquarters for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. The purslane is growing up through a crack in the sidewalk where hundreds of people walk. Purslane needs little water and will grow almost anywhere. I knew it (as “pigweed”) growing up in Michigan. I saw it growing in Santa Fe, New Mexico just last week.

Purslane’s origin, however, is in the Middle East and over forty varieties are grown in gardens in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. I bought some purslane seed a couple of years ago (the good old garden variety weed wasn’t good enough, I guess) and it’s grown in my garden ever since. The only difference between the weed and the plant that grew from my seeds is that the garden variety grows more upright.

Purslane, either the wild or garden variety, has an unusual taste and texture. It’s tart and a little peppery, but rather slimy—imagine a cross between lemon and okra. Purslane isn’t nearly as bad as my description makes it sound and once you get used to the texture, then the taste if pretty good. Purslane is extremely high in Omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s healthy too.

There are a lot of ways to use it. In Greece it is often mixed with yogurt; it can be used in potato salad; made into a salad on its own; or serve as part of a mixed salad, especially of wild greens.

Known as verdolaga in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America it’s much more popular there than in North America. In Mexican cooking purslane is cooked with eggs (along with onions and chiles) or used to thicken stews. Like okra, purslane is valuable for its ability to thicken a dish.

In searching for recipes, I found entries from Turkey, France, Greece, China and Mexico, among others. I haven’t tried it, yet (I’ve only put purslane in a salad), but this Greek recipe looked good to me:

1 cup of purslane leaves
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
4 spoonfuls of lemon juice
Salt (not much as feta is salty)
Feta Cheese (a piece about 6X6X2 cm)
Roasted Pine Nuts (a large handful)

1. Roast pine nuts in a non stick frying pan for just a few minutes being careful as they burn easily and when roasted on both sides set aside until they cool down.
2. Combine all the ingredients (except feta and pine nuts) and half the olive oil in a blender or food processor. Start blending and then add the pine nuts, feta, and the remaining olive oil slowly-checking for the consistency that you prefer. If you have the option drizzle the olive oil as you blend
3. It makes about 1 cup of pesto which can be eaten fresh (within 3-4 days preserved in the refrigerator) and/or frozen for later use.
I don’t know where you could buy purslane (some people suggest farmer’s markets, but I’ve never seen it there). There shouldn’t be much need to buy it, though, when it’s easy enough to find for free.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend picking it off a city sidewalk, but the next time you step on or over a purslane, at least you’ll know what it is and what it can be used for.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Ideas

I was at a recent meeting where someone suggested that I should complain because a competing organization had used one of my ideas.

Complaining is far from my mind, because the one thing we don’t have is a shortage of ideas—and if we do have a good idea then I’m happy to see someone use it. My life will be far too short to ever try them all. New ideas, bad ideas, wild ideas are all generated every day. The suggestion made me start thinking about some of the more creative concepts we’ve come up with, though, especially the ideas that were really cool but entirely impractical.

How about building houses on bridges over the Trinity River? It’s been done other places, and with all our new Calatrava bridges; maybe we can find another use for the old bridges.

How about a Central Dallas Cemetery? I came up with this idea when the hat was passed for the second time during one week to pay the burial costs for one of our clients who died indigent. I thought that if we were going to pay for cemetery plots, then we might as well own the cemetary. The idea was crushed when someone said, “I don’t want to be around some of you that long.” I may try to bring the cemetery idea back. Some day I’m going to need a place.

Another idea was borne out of frustration, when one of our clients came back to the LAW Center for her second divorce I suggested a lifetime plan for marriages and divorces: Pay once and we’ll give you a lifetime guaranty for as many marriages and divorces as you need—after all, we had both preachers and lawyers. (This wasn’t one of my better ideas. I can’t repeat most of the responses I got to it.)

Not any longer lived was my plan for a Central Dallas Wedding Chapel in an auditorium at CityWalk@Akard. No one was willing to deal with the brides.

Ideas that we actually carried out include the East Dallas Fair, which we ran for two years until time got the best of me. The East Dallas Fair was actually fun, and I think there is certainly a place for small neighborhood festivals in the city.

I also was involved in starting and running Central Dallas Federal Credit Union for three years, another idea I believe in. Once again time, and the fact that we were really bad at collecting on missed payments, led us to give up on the idea. But no one lost a cent in CDFCU!

We’ve looked at projects all around North Texas. Low income housing in Athens; converting a school building to senior housing in Hillsboro (how would you like to live your last years in the same building where you went to elementary school?); and various other schemes in other places.

We looked at converting an abandoned mall into a housing development. Check out this article “Malls, the Future of Housing” ( We could have been well ahead of the curve if we’d just followed up on our idea.

We spent many hours—maybe thousands of hours—trying to understand whether we could usefully develop our own wind farm or form an electric cooperative. We’ve looked at solar power and geothermal power. We’ve studied land trusts. We looked at the economic impact of a minor league baseball team. I looked at buying a canoe manufacturer.

Not all our ideas are good, but we always figure that if we look hard enough we’ll find a needle among all these haystacks once in awhile.

Maybe some businesses are different—really different—than others

My favorite blogger, Nate Silver, ran an essay recently that made me start thinking in a new way about the government’s involvement in business—certainly a topic that’s been in the news for the last year with the federal government bailing out the banks, the auto industry and insurer AIG among other actions. Currently, one big debate is about whether there should be a “public option” in health care—a government run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.

Nate Silver (his article is here: looks at the conservative opposition to the public option, and finds something unusual. Conservatives oppose the public option not because they believe, as usual, that the government will do a bad job, but because the government will do too good a job—and run all the private insurers out of business. This idea bears thinking about seriously, because not only almost all conservatives, but Nate Silver and many liberals (including myself) think the government would do a bad job of running most businesses. Could a government airline compete with Southwest Airlines? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think the government could compete with McDonald’s or Apple or Microsoft or almost any well-run private company.

How then could a government-run insurance company not only compete with, but run out of business, private insurers? Silver thinks it’s because insurance companies are different then most companies. There’s no real competition in the same way there are in most businesses. There’s no “product” that can be better than your competitors; no Mac to be better than an IBM; no Big Mac to compare to a Whopper; no Chevy and no Ford. There’s only money.

An insurance company collects premiums that are a little higher than the value of the risk it is insuring. By doing this with many people and spreading the risk, the insurance company can make money and its customers pay a smaller cost so they don’t face financial ruin if they get sick, or their house burns down or whatever calamity they are insuring against actually happens.

But no insurance company’s money is better than another’s. If the company pays then that’s all you need. There may competition around the edges in service or convenience or some price competition, but so long as the actuaries do the calculations right, insurance companies can’t really compete on product.

Money is fungible. It’s only a symbol.

To start an insurance company, the first thing you need is deep pockets, because after all, if the first person you insure gets cancer, then you’ve got to be able to pay for that person’s medical costs. Because you need so much capital, it’s hard to start an insurance company. The government doesn’t have this problem. It’s big already.

So I’ve gone a long way around the horn, but in the end I think insurance companies may be different than other kinds of companies because they deal solely in money. If that’s the case, then the government’s money is as good as anyone else’s—even bureaucrats can’t screw up money. The government already pays for 40% of insurance cost through Medicare and Medicaid and those programs aren’t any worse (or better) than private insurers. The government manages to tax us all without any problems and does an efficient job of paying out Social Security. This is all a mechanical function that doesn’t call for innovation or creativity or any of the other skills that make private enterprise so valuable in most fields.

Remember that most insurance companies were originally mutual companies—owned by the people they insure. Some, such as Blue Cross, Blue Shield, are still mutual companies. Maybe a really big mutual insurance company that includes all of us that want to join will dominate the market.

If you can’t compete with the government, though, I don’t have any sympathy for you if you go out of business. Let the government create a public insurance company and then we’ll find out whether private insurance companies really do anything useful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chess—My Newest Vice

Chess isn’t something that I’ve just taken up. I’ve played for decades. Sometimes pretty well; sometimes not very well. I’ve always thought that playing chess was good for me. It exercises the mind; keeps my facilities sharp; and at worst costs almost no money and is a quiet, harmless pastime. At worse I may only pay half attention to a phone call because I’ve gotten bored and I am playing a game of chess at the same time as talking on the telephone. Chess really can’t be bad for you, can it?

Not so.

A week ago Judy Lawrence, who oversees the management of all our properties, including the preparations at CityWalk@Akard, brought me the following article—from no less an authority than Scientific American:

DESCENT INTO CHESS—‘A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? It may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body. Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, but persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game; they require out-door exercises—not this sort of mental gladiatorship.’

Worst of all, I don’t even have the excuse that this is a new discovery—that I was innocently playing chess not knowing that it was bad for me (sort of like claiming that I didn’t know cigarettes were addictive).

The article is from the July 1859 edition of Scientific American.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Permanent Supportive Housing, Time for a New Project

This is the time of year when I start thinking about putting together another permanent supportive housing project—a place to give the homeless homes and try to get a few more men and women off the streets leaving our city a better place for all of us. The process begins now because it will take the next six months to find a good site for a permanent supportive housing project, put together a financing plan and try to gain the approval (or at least tolerance) of the neighborhood, the City of Dallas and a host of other interested parties. Then in December we get our one yearly chance to apply for the funding that will let us build housing for those that need it most.

During this process I will review hundreds of possible locations, go look at dozens of property and run the numbers on the ten or twelve projects that look most likely. Before we are done, my co-workers and I will spend many hundreds of hours working on a project and tens of thousands of dollars that are raised painstakingly from generous donors, all so we can prepare an application for funding to the state—where less than one in three proposals get funded.

I will negotiate with skeptical property owners (“You want me to take my property off the market for a year? So maybe, if you’re lucky, you can buy my property next fall?”). I will meet with angry neighbors; be vilified, perhaps threatened (I have been in the past); cajole lenders; beg to foundations; work weekends; and spend many sleepless nights.

I will probably fail.

Over the past five years, Central Dallas CDC has made three serious efforts to put together a permanent supportive housing project and succeeded only once. Two out of three times we have failed. Even at that, we have the best record in the City of Dallas. I know at least two other organizations have tried hard to put together three different permanent supportive housing projects and haven’t succeeded yet at any of those efforts. There may have been other failures that I don’t know about.

I know that the only success in more than fifteen years has been our CityWalk@Akard project that will open in sixty days. Other than that, the people of Dallas seem content to let men and women sleep on the streets.

I know it sounds like it, but I am not really complaining about the work I do. Later, as I work longer and harder on a particular project I will convince myself that we will succeed—it’s hard to throw your heart and soul into something if you believe that most likely you will fail. But I also think it’s good to face reality once and awhile; to let your head tell your heart the truth.

Later, when people hate me and scream at me, because I believe every fellow human being deserves a place to live other than the streets (and I can’t respond in kind because that would end any chance of winning them over), I couldn’t keep going if I didn’t believe that we would succeed.

Sometimes I ask myself why I continue to do this work, but when I meet the people we are trying help, I know the answer. It’s the in the people, like this morning when I met a women with a two-year old child who had worked herself up from the street to a job and school in the time since she became pregnant. She needs a place to live. Her child needs a place to live.

I do this work because someone has to.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Re:Vision Dallas—Not Everybody Likes Us

At last, just when our heads were about to swell up and explode from all the praise we’ve been getting for the Re:Vision Dallas competition, somebody doesn’t like us:

“So, we have our winning entries for the Re:Vision Dallas competition. And the results are as predictable, superficial, and cliche as the competition title itself.”

Well, fair enough if that’s what the writer at the Living Car Free in Big D thinks. The picture the winning designs bring to the writer’s mind is pretty dang funny:

“From simply a graphic rendering and architectural standpoint, all of these remind me more of this than anything I would really like to see happen in the city:”

I wish the writer had called me to talk about what we are doing before writing this piece, though, because I agree with much of what he had to say (we both participate on the Dallas Fort Worth Urban Forum [always a place for interesting discussion which you can find here:], so it wouldn’t have been difficult to pm me.

I’m going to quote the Living Car Free in Big D blog at a little length here, to give the writer a fair chance to make his point, because it’s an important point:

“I advised two groups that competed for this, suggesting to both that the constraints of this site were ALL beyond the boundaries of the actual project, not all of which are physical. No developer would look at this area. It had(has) no context. The freeway has gutted and bombed out both sides of it.

While in the mean time, the country is in deep and transformative recession. Rather than seeing something that addresses in an economically and physically sustainable manner a solution for job losses and failing industries, I still see highways and clover leafs. The two teams I consulted with ended up with solutions looking at how to reuse plain fuselages and the concrete road building industry as structural elements for prefab housing units. Taking one dying industry void of demand and repositioning them into areas of need, in town affordable housing.”

I remember both the designs he’s talking about, they were extremely interesting, but the jury concluded that they weren’t practical and buildable (I lack the expertise to know if that’s correct.). The project using plane fuselages as the building blocks for a residential tower received a significant amount of attention from the jury. It’s my memory that the jury had two issues that prevented that proposal from rising to the top: the jury was worried that there would not be enough surplus plane fuselages available at a reasonable cost to build the project and that the shape and dimensions of the fuselages wouldn’t make comfortable living quarters.

Leaving those issues aside, the writer is absolutely correct about the necessity to deal with the urban context the block is emerged in. The only quarrel I have with this blog is that it overestimates what it might be possible for us to do. Central Dallas CDC has 3.5 ftes and a total operating budget of about $250,000 per year. Rebuilding one city block in a sustainable fashion is going to be challenging enough for us—there is no way in the world that we could take on the problems of “job losses and failing industries”.

Tasks of that scale need to be addressed by a governmental entity, or perhaps a consortium of private companies. You might have noticed that neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration (at least so far) has managed to make any headway on those problems. When you run one relatively small nonprofit, then there are limits to the size and difficulty of the projects that you can take on. We long ago made the decision that we would do as much as we could, but that our primary goal was to at least do something, even if it was far from all that needed to be done.

I think this is the first time we’ve been accused of not being ambitious enough. It’s almost refreshing.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another lesson in perception, Part 2

If you didn’t read yesterday’s blog, then I’m afraid I need to ask you to go back and read it now. Otherwise the rest of what I say won’t make any sense.

I’ll wait.

Done already?

Very good. Time for me to go on then:

There are a number of interesting features about the story of Joshua Bell busking—perhaps most of all that, unlike many other urban legends, it is true. See There is the obvious lesson that we all miss much of the beauty in life, but there is one more lesson as well.

In less than an hour, Joshua Bell made $32 dollars by busking in the subway. That’s almost six times the minimum wage and enough to (barely) get by if you played every rush hour, morning and afternoon. So even if commuters rushed by without stopping to hear the music, enough people did recognize something in what they were hearing to reward it. Our perception isn’t lost to us, it’s only dulled by the pressures of life. I’m sure many of you have noticed how much more you appreciate a city that you’re visiting on vacation then our own hometown. I think the release from time pressures is the biggest reason why.

I have to admit that I find classical music difficult. My ear isn’t that good and I don’t have the training or knowledge to understand classical music. But I don’t think that means that I can’t appreciate its beauty. Even if you rush by a rose plant at sixty miles an hour on the expressway, you can still notice the color and know that you passed something beautiful. In the same way, a fragment of music heard in the distance is also beautiful.

Here’s the link to Joshua Bell’s website: Unfortunately, it looks like your chance to hear a performance is Brazil—I don’t see Dallas Area Rapid Transit on his schedule.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Another lesson in perception

This story is one of those that gets forwarded endlessly around email lists, but I still think it is interesting. Take a moment and read it. There is a lesson for us all, but be careful, what interests me here isn’t the obvious lesson, so this is a test.

Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the till and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3 year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly, as the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.

45 minutes:
The musician played. Only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace.
He collected $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Garden

The picture today is my garden. It’s only a total of 200 sq. ft., combining a corner between the house and garage, a narrow strip along the fence and twenty or thirty pots of various sizes. The garden doesn’t produce much food, but I enjoy it.

At last count (and the count changes frequently) I had eighteen varieties of herbs, twelve flower varieties, eleven peppers, ten types of tomatoes, four types of greens, eggplant, cucumber, beans and one enormous wild grapevine. Most of the garden grows vigorously and disorderly. The bay laurel, noble plants that crowned the Olympic victors in ancient Greece, shares a pot with the Mexican herb epazote, a humble, bitter weed traditionally used to flavor black beans.

An enormous rosemary plant spreads over a quarter of the garden—probably enough rosemary to supply the entire City of Dallas for a year. I still have a lifetime of bay leaves stored in my pantry, the remainder of a decade old bay plant I grew that finally died.

If I took a more active role I could probably realize better production from my garden, but most of the time I’d rather just sit on the porch and look at it. The only plants that produce enough to use are the herbs and the peppers. With herbs and peppers it doesn’t take much in the way of quantity to produce a lot of flavor, so I have more than enough of those.

The writer Michael Pollan (who recently has become well know for An Omnivore’s Dilemma) wrote a book called Second Nature. The book is about his attempts, when he first moved from the city to the country, to grow a garden. To begin with, Pollan sowed his seed randomly and let the plants all compete for space—including the weeds. Of course he didn’t get any food from his garden. Gradually, Pollan moves further and further towards a traditional garden of rows and hoeing and fencing to keep the pests out of the garden. The book is fascinating because Pollan’s enormous curiosity leads him to discover the reasons behind gardening traditions—the book becomes a history of small scale food production.

I have taken the opposite path. I was raised in the country where having a proper garden was more than a matter of having good food to eat, it was a sign of moral virtue. If a person had weeds in their garden, then it was a given that they were of bad character. If your rows were not straight, then your mind wasn’t either.

I’ve fallen away. I still weed—some—but if I like a plant then I just let it grow. Wild evening primrose has invaded my garden and its pink blossoms are one of the first colors of spring. I let the epazote, which is a vigorous volunteer, grow almost where it will. I don’t trim and prune the rosemary or the marjoram with which it is intertwined.

As a result, I have a wild mixture of plants. Some are natives, some have gone feral, others are perennials planted long ago and each year a few new plants make their way into the garden. Some will survive on their own. Some will die. Others will be stubbornly replanted each year because I like them, and each year fail to grow.

I imagine that I have become a postmodern gardener. I no longer care whether a plant feeds me, but only that it entertain me. If I look at a plant and know its history, its taste, its uses and its culture, and find something interesting or amusing in it, then it’s good for my garden. So epazote, which repeats each year, stays even though I’m the only one in my family who can abide its bitter taste, so I rarely get to use it. Epazote is one of the few New World plants that never made it to Europe, has never been improved from its wild state, and is the most peasant plant I know, but it still has the impertinence to invade the pot containing the bay plant and strives to grow on an equal basis with the bay.

It’s a tough little guy, and I like it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Moby Dick and the Statler Hilton

Every profession has its Moby Dick; a challenge that is the pinnacle of professional; something so difficult that everyone with the ambition to be great aspires to it but only the truly great achieve.

In baseball, that challenge is to reach of batting average of .400—something that hasn’t been done since Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, managed it by hitting .406 back in 1941. The achievement is legendary for the way Williams accomplished it. He was hitting over .400 going into a closing day double header whose results didn’t matter in the standings. His manager offered to let him sit the games out to preserve his .400 average (at that time it had been over a decade since anybody had managed the feat), but Williams refused, saying “If I can’t hit .400 all the way I don’t deserve it.” He went six for eight to raise his average to .406.

In basketball, the challenge is to score 100 points in an NBA game. It’s only been done once, by Wilt Chamberlain in a game played in Hershey, Pennslyvania on March 2, 1962. Only 4,162 people attended the game, but later many more thousands claimed to have seen the most famous individual performance in the history of basketball.

For downtown Dallas real estate developers, that challenge is to renovate the Statler Hilton, which is probably why a standing room only crowd of over 200 attended a recent lecture by Dallas architect and preservationist Marcel Quimby (her website is here: on the Statler Hilton a few weeks ago. The Statler Hilton is often called the “first modern hotel”. It opened in 1956 with the kind of fanfare that we don’t see anymore. One airplane was chartered to fly luminaries in from the west coast and one from the east. It took one thousand people to staff the hotel, included all sorts of innovations in architecture and hotel design, and, when Conrad Hilton himself opened it, the Statler Hilton was the Southwest’s premier hotspot.

Ms. Quimby’s talk was interesting—especially when a women who had worked at the hotel’s opening interrupted to give her personal recollections—and informative. The discussion continued until it seemed the audience would have to be ejected, not just asked to leave. Much of the fascination, I believe, comes from just how difficult it would be to restore the Statler Hilton.

The building is enormous, 600,000 sq. ft. and almost 1,000 hotel rooms. The hotel has been closed for quite a few years. The sizes of the rooms and other features aren’t up to current standards—the rooms are too small, the doors too narrow, and the ceilings too low. The Statler Hilton is owned by an investment group from the Hong Kong who don’t seem likely to sell it to anyone at a bargain price. The hotel is full of asbestos. In short, it’s too big, too expensive, will take too much work and no one has been able to figure out a way to use all that space that is economically viable.

But people keep trying—I feel the attraction myself. I think a great part of the desire to rebuild the Statler Hilton (besides the “good” reasons related to it historical significance) is no different than explanation to Sir Edmund Hillary when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest—perhaps the greatest challenge of all, “Because it is there.”

You can read more about the hotel, among other places, here:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Have you ever wanted to be invisible?

I was invisible just last weekend. I wanted to take my canoe out for a paddle. Usually when I go paddling I go out into White Rock Lake or up White Rock Creek away from people. But last weekend it was too windy. The wind was blowing steadily from the south at about fifteen miles per hour with gusts to twenty miles per hour. A south wind on White Rock Lake means a fetch of four miles for the waves to build up. There were big rollers for White Rock Lake—maybe eighteen inches from crest to trough.

Now waves that size aren’t much by most standards, but between the waves and the wind, paddling my solo canoe was going to be a lot of work. I’ve been canoeing a long time and if I stayed alert and was careful, then I should be safe from tipping.

But I didn’t feel like working, and I never feel like getting wet. So I went down to the lake in the morning and went away to wait for better weather. Better weather didn’t come, so in the evening I went back to the lake and decided just to paddle up and down the shore for a little exercise.

There were dozens, maybe hundreds of people in the park. They were picnicking, walking, riding bikes, running, fishing and many other activities. As I cruised up and down the shore, I realized that no one, at least not adults, saw me. The earth and water were different realms and as long as I didn’t threaten to come ashore, then I was automatically ignored. Once and awhile I could feel eyes sweep over me without pausing and knew that I was still invisible.

I canoed by a large family group staging a tug-of-war, by an older teen trying teach six young children how to fish, by a couple being a little too intimate for a public park, and many others and nobody saw me, except the children.

Little kids would stop and stare wide-eyed as a paddled just a few feet away, too young yet to have learned not to see.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Patriot Solar Power, L.L.C.

Bringing the benefits of solar power to middle and lower income residents of Dallas, Texas

(This is the Executive Summary for a new project we’ve been working on for the past year, Patriot Solar Power. It was originally inspired by T. Boone Pickens and the Pickens Plan. We think we’ve finally got the details worked out well enough to see if there is interest in funding a pilot program, but the ultimate goal is to bring a greener Dallas to all our residents, regardless of income).

Project Overview:

Photovoltaic generation of power (solar power) has become an economically viable source of power generation in Dallas, Texas because of incentives at the federal level with the 30% renewable energy credit and locally with Oncor’s new incentive of $2.46 per watt of photovoltaic power for residential users (limited to five kilowatts per customer). However, the initial capital cost of installing a solar power system (estimated by Oncor at $6,000 to $10,000 per kilowatt) is prohibitive to almost all middle-income and lower-income residents in Dallas.

Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (Central Dallas CDC) wants to change this and bring the benefits of solar power to the middle and lower income residents of Dallas. We will do this acting through a limited liability company, Patriot Solar Power, L.L.C. Patriot Solar Power, L.L.C. will make solar power available to residents living in areas of the City of Dallas where the average median income is less than 80% of that for the Dallas Metropolitan Statistical Area, beginning with an initial program bringing solar power to 100 households.

The solar systems will be installed for program participants at no cost. Patriot Power will receive as lease payments a portion of the utility bills paid by participants to their electric company, based on the value of the electricity produced by the solar systems. The process will be entirely transparent to residents, who will pay their utilities bills as always. The utility bills of the residents will not increase because of the solar power systems. In addition, Patriot Power, L.L.C. will return a yearly rebate to each participant equal to 10% of the value of the energy generated from the solar panels at their home.

Project Financing – New Markets Tax Credits:

The economics of Patriot Power, L.L.C. work because the existing incentives for solar power can be wrapped within a New Markets Tax Credit structure, potentially reducing the cost by an additional 25%. New Markets Tax Credits must remain invested in the project for a seven-year period. By the end of the period, a sinking fund established to repay the New Markets Tax Credit loan that will have grown sufficiently to refinance the loan.

At the end of the seven-year period, Patriot Power, L.L.C. will double the rebate to program participants to 20% of the value of the electricity produced by the solar system. Any excess proceeds beyond those needed to maintain and operate the solar system will be expended to pay for the installation of additional solar systems or for other activities that will result in the reduction of the use of nonrenewable energy resources in North Central Texas.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day

I would rather say Independence Day than the Fourth of July, it reminds us why we celebrate today.


The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

John Hancock
New Hampshire:Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
Massachusetts:John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
Connecticut:Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
New York:William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
New Jersey:Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
Pennsylvania:Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
Delaware:Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean
Maryland:Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Virginia:George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
North Carolina:William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
South Carolina:Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
Georgia:Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Do not forget, that every signer committed treason in the eyes of the King and knew they would face the hangman if the revolution was unsuccessful. The courage of these men is our inheritance today.