Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Looming Invasion Of The Koch-Suckers

Fred Koch, one of the founding members of the John Birch Society, has gifted the nation with his offspring. The middle two of the four siblings are particularly noxious: Charles and David. This pair of Koch-Suckers have parlayed inherited wealth to create Koch (-Sucker) Industries. The Koch-Suckers plan to funnel nearly $1B into the campaign of the Sucker's annointed choice as the Dumbo nominee in 2016. The Roberts Court — with the Citizens United decision — has delivered this nation to the highest bidder. Eags is encouraged by the rejection of the Koch-Suckers by Montana voters, but it is mere temporary setback to a pair of a$$holes. If this is is a (fair & balanced) rejection of tycoonery, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap
The Plutocrat Primary
By Timothy Egan

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While the political press was obsessing over what Hillary Clinton had for lunch, the real action this month in the interminable run-up to the presidency was taking place at the knees of the Brothers Koch, David and Charles. Turns out, we may get an election after all, albeit one that will be decided by a pair of septuagenarians whose combined worth is more than the richest person on the planet.

We are in the “invisible primary,” an apt term for the age of oligarchs and dark money. It’s invisible, this suck-up campaign, because it’s happening behind the closed doors of a wealthy few, as a half-dozen or so Republicans audition to win the blessing of billionaires. It should be called the Plutocrat Primary.

Having already pledged to put together a political network that would spend close to $900 million to determine who runs the country, the Kochs are getting close to selecting a favorite for president. Normally, the Kochs stay out of presidential primaries. But this year, they’re cutting to the chase, trying to pick a nominee and a president.

On Monday, the Brothers K seemed to tip their hand, gushing over Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Election over, call it a campaign. Why bother to go through the motions of voting? The Kochs have spoken.

But then, Walker went full Glenn Beck, while talking to Glenn Beck, and appeared to come out in favor of curbing legal immigration, a new position to go with his complete flip-flop on illegal immigration. The Kochs need immigrants, both at the low end and the high end of their vast empire of energy and related companies. And of course, as one of the nation’s top corporate polluters, they’ve always needed politicians.

So, David Koch has now clarified the position of the electorate of two. It’s down to five candidates: Walker, Jeb Bush, and Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. The billionaire brothers will withhold their backing until one of the five says the most Koch-friendly things. “What we expect them to do is compete on who has a more positive message for America,” David Koch told USA Today.

The Kochs’ political views are like an invasive weed growing in every crack of the country, spreading through think tanks, corrupt academics and talk radio shills. In economics, the Koches have long professed opposition to letting a single entity — usually government — pick winners and losers in the market.

But with this bigfoot move into the Republican primary field, the Kochs are determined to pick a winner from the throne room of their family monarchy — free market and free election be damned. At the same time, a secret Koch memo unearthed by Politico shows that the family-run political machine plans an exhaustive ground game, embedding hundreds of staffers in communities across America, starting this year.

Walker would seem to be a premature choice. On several levels, he’s doomed, and surely the Kochs, or the people they pay to help them think, can see that. Immigration is the most troubling area for him. Remember, in the brief moment of introspection after Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by a whopping 44-point margin in 2012, how Republicans vowed to change their image as a party of aging white xenophobes?

That lasted about as long as oatmeal on a grill. After flirting with joining the majority of Americans who feel that illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship — similar to the long-stalled Dream Act — the Republican presidential field is back to pandering to its old white-guy base. The exception is Jeb Bush, and to a lesser degree, Senator Rubio. Walker’s positions would open an even wider gulf between Hispanics, who make up 10 percent of the electorate, and Republicans.

At home in Wisconsin, Walker’s ratings continue to plummet, with a majority disapproving of his job as governor and not wanting him to run for president. (He has yet to declare.) He barely survived a recall campaign, and his name is toxic among working Americans who dare to seek better wages through collective bargaining. And as a topper, a former consultant, Liz Mair, has been dogging him on Twitter about his latest “Olympic-quality flip-flop.”

The other four Koch favorites are now back in play, auditioning in the months leading up to a summer summit by the brothers. This opens the door to a shunned outsider, someone like Mike Huckabee, who can play the victimized rube card that he has used to enrich himself. The Kochs would crush him, but it would be instructive to watch it happen.

There is another Republican plutocrat still to please — Sheldon Adelson, the carrot-haired octogenarian casino magnate. He spent $100 million in 2012, and may match that in 2016, purchasing a sycophant. Three words will get you close to Adelson: Israel, Israel, Israel.

At some point, you would think that average Americans would be appalled by a few rich guys trying to buy the next presidential election. And — hope alert! — you did see a great pushback against the Koches in red-state Montana this month. There, Koch-funded surrogates tried to keep poor people from getting health care, through the Medicaid expansion option of Obamacare. Koch agents were booed at one hearing. And they were shamed at another, for the stark cruelty of two people worth a combined $80 billion dollars trying to deny a basic human decency to people who earn $11,000 a year. Health care is on the way in Montana.

As a political party of two, the Kochs may end up spending as much money to get their way next year as either of the actual political parties. But as the prickly, independent-minded folks of Montana showed, purchased politicians come with a weak warranty. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Today, The Deadline Poet Skewers The Dumbos And Their Blame-Game Dilemma

The Deadline Poet handles a virtual shiv with the best of the political infighters. Four simple lines and Dumbo guts are spilling into the gutter. The Dumbos are driven by a single emotion: H.A.T.E. That makes them an easy target for the satirist. If this is (fair & balanced) political nonsense, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Republican Contenders Stream Into New Hampshire
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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Obama they live to denounce.
But Hillary’s who they must trounce.
An awkward conundrum occurs:
Is everything his fault or hers? Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

Copyright © 2015 The Nation

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Modest Proposal To All Of The 2nd Amendment Lunatics In Texas: Don't Just Carry Your Guns, Eat Them !

This blogger has had a vision about his final moment. The blogger will be walking down the street or walking an aisle in a store. He will encounter a gun lunatic wearing a holstered weapon in plain sight. This blogger will call the gun lunatic every epithet he can imagine and conclude with "You haven't got the guts to shoot me, you sumbitch." At that point, the lunatic will draw his weapon and shoot the blogger. After that, may the State of Texas strap the gun lunatic to a gurney and inject as many poisonous chemicals as possible into the lunatic's bloodstream. If this is a (fair & balanced) curse on gun lunatics everywhere, so be it.

[x TM]
Pistol Pushers
By Erica Grieder

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Among the Texans who gathered in Austin for the first day of the Eighty-fourth Legislature, on January 13, were a number of activists calling for an end to the state’s long-standing ban on openly carrying handguns. Their cause was, not long ago, a relatively obscure one. During the previous session, in 2013, there had been barely any discussion of open carry. Since then, however, the issue had rapidly gained traction. Both Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, soon to be sworn in as governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, had announced their support for open carry during the 2014 election. Jonathan Stickland, a tea party representative from Bedford, had already filed an open carry bill, and other lawmakers were preparing their own versions. Open carry seemed likely to pass, but activists weren’t leaving anything to chance. They had come to the Texas Capitol on opening day to make sure their presence was felt. They succeeded—and then some.

Volunteers with the grassroots group Open Carry Texas had helped organize a rally that morning.* Among the speakers was Stickland, who announced that Lone Star Gun Rights had gathered roughly 15,000 signatures in support of his bill. Meanwhile, activists from Come and Take It Texas were manufacturing guns on the south lawn, using a special 3-D printer named the Ghost Gunner, which had been invented by one of their supporters. And then there were the unforgettable antics of Kory Watkins.

The 31-year-old doesn’t necessarily strike an imposing figure. He has a string-bean physique and a thick brush of black hair that he often hides under a fedora. Though a relative newcomer to grassroots political activism, he’s already shown a talent for causing a ruckus as the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, which has a habit of startling people in Dallas–Fort Worth by turning up at public places like Target and Home Depot with AK-47s and various other serious weaponry. Watkins has also engaged in more mundane methods of politicking. He serves as a Republican precinct chair, and he had block-walked for tea party candidates Konni Burton and Don Huffines, who would be sworn in to the Texas Senate that day. But his appetite for confrontational advocacy is evidenced on his well-trafficked Facebook page, which is adorned with photos from numerous gun rights protests and is topped with the slogan “Speak the Truth.”

That morning he and other Open Carry Tarrant County activists were prowling the Capitol Extension, an underground warren of offices, asking legislators to support Stickland’s bill. They were, of course, well armed. In the office of Poncho Nevárez, a Democratic representative from Eagle Pass, their efforts went awry. Nevárez patiently listened to their arguments but stated that he didn’t want to vote for the bill and refused to reconsider, even when one member accused him of being “a tyrant to the Constitution” and another warned him about the consequences of his actions: “You won’t be here very long.” At that point, Nevárez invited the activists to leave his office. “It’s the people’s office,” one harrumphed. They shuffled out begrudgingly, but only after Nevárez, having repeatedly asked them to leave, took a few steps toward the door, saying that he was going to summon a state trooper from down the hall. Once back in the corridor, Watkins jammed his foot in the door to keep the representative from closing it. When a bystander pointed out that Open Carry Tarrant County wasn’t being very nice, Watkins shot back, “I’ll show you mean.”

Watkins had recorded the encounter and posted the video, which quickly went viral. Many people who watched it were appalled. Nevárez had remained calm, but he had been singled out for no apparent reason and was visibly outnumbered and apparently unarmed. Where Open Carry Tarrant County had seen tyranny and condescension, others saw an even-tempered public official being cornered and threatened by crazy people—crazy people with guns.

Even other open carry activists were shocked by Watkins’s behavior. C. J. Grisham, of Open Carry Texas, told the Houston Chronicle’s Lauren McGaughy that he had witnessed the encounter, or part of it at least. “I had to leave in disgust,” he said. The next day, the House adopted a rule allowing representatives to install panic buttons in their offices, a safety measure that hadn’t even crossed anyone’s mind the day before. Later, Grisham told me that he didn’t necessarily disagree with Open Carry Tarrant County’s arguments: “Poncho Nevárez is a tyrant to the Constitution. I’ll say that.” But he thought Watkins’s tactics were inappropriate and strategically unwise. Jerry Patterson, the former land commissioner and a gun rights advocate who lost to Patrick in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, chided Open Carry Tarrant County, saying its actions had endangered the passage of an open carry bill.

On January 27, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, Patrick seemed to downplay open carry. As lieutenant governor, he said, he was making an effort to focus on priorities such as expanding school choice. “Second Amendment rights are very important,” he said. “But open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point.” Beyond that, he added, he wasn’t sure it had enough support to pass.

The video of Patrick’s comments quickly went viral too. For certain conservatives, it was a betrayal. The backlash was narrow but ferocious. Hundreds of open carry supporters took to Patrick’s Facebook page. In outrage and sorrow, they reminded the new lieutenant governor of a few things: That open carry was part of the state Republican party’s platform. That Patrick—who had become the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor by campaigning to the right of his three opponents and who had professed during the campaign to be “Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third”—had promised to “fight” for open carry. And that they, the grass roots, had elected him.

Patrick was taken aback. “Its [sic] very important to pass along with several other gun bills we will pass,” he wrote late that night in reply to one Facebook commenter. But compared with border security, property tax relief, business tax cuts, transportation, and education, he continued, “it is not in the top 3 or 4 issues for the vast majority of Texans.” A reasonable person would have been hard-pressed to disagree. Those issues were, moreover, the ones that Patrick had cited as priorities during his campaign. But the grass roots was unmoved.

Watkins, for his part, had announced on Facebook that he would return to Austin and pay a visit to Patrick. “Get the panic buttons ready!” he added. Even for an activist, Watkins’s antics were unusually aggressive, bordering on threatening. But two days later, on January 29, Watkins received a warm welcome from Patrick, perhaps the most powerful elected official in Texas. Watkins posted a selfie taken inside the lieutenant governor’s office, where he was meeting with senior members of Patrick’s staff.

Within days, Patrick reversed himself. He announced that he wanted the Senate State Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on a bill that would legalize open carry. The issue had suddenly leapfrogged to the top of the lieutenant governor’s legislative agenda; it would be among the first bills of the session heard in committee. Thanks to angry Facebook commenters and one brazen activist, open carry’s fortunes had dramatically improved, from being a low priority to placed on the legislative fast track.

A couple of days later, Watkins posted another video, a sort of general response to his many critics, in which he compared himself to Rosa Parks and offered a warning, apparently directed at any other legislators wavering on open carry: “Going against the Constitution is treason. And that, my friend, is punishable by death.”

On February 12, the day of the open carry hearing, I ran into Watkins in a hallway in the Capitol Extension. He had left his fedora and his arsenal behind on this occasion and was wearing a slim black suit and an innocent expression. He told me he had never cared much about politics growing up. His interest was sparked by the liberty movement that has been slowly simmering in the years since Ron Paul’s quixotic presidential campaigns, which resonated with his beliefs that the government has infringed on citizens’ rights, including on issues such as gay marriage and, especially, police abuse. But when I referred to him as a libertarian, Watkins corrected me; his views might reflect that influence, but he is a Republican precinct chair.

Interestingly, perhaps, it wasn’t gun rights that had ignited Watkins’s advocacy; he was already a grassroots political activist before he got involved with the open carry movement. And he seemed puzzled by the widespread opposition to open carry. “We’ve been walking around with AK-47s for two years!” This is, as it happens, one of the reasons many Texans are wary of the movement. But Open Carry Tarrant County isn’t alone. Other groups have used the tactic of openly carrying long guns in public for the rationale that Watkins implied: to illustrate the silliness of Texas’s current laws, which allow anyone to carry long guns, like AK-47s, in public without a license but require that handguns be carefully hidden and the carrier be granted permission.

Similarly, Watkins disagreed with my suggestion that his video of the encounter with Nevárez might turn anyone against Stickland’s bill. He did, however, concede that the video might have harmed open carry’s political prospects. Certain legislators, he thought, would probably try to use him as a scapegoat to vote against the measure, which they were opposed to anyway. His mouth drew into a thin, determined frown.

Then Watkins said something strange. He was waiting for his turn to testify before the committee, which was hearing two gun bills. One of the bills, authored by Granbury Republican Brian Birdwell, would permit guns on the campuses of Texas’s public colleges and universities. The other, by Republican Craig Estes, of Wichita Falls, would allow the open carrying of handguns—with a license. On the latter bill, Watkins’s testimony would be neutral. He wouldn’t speak against it, he said, but he certainly wasn’t for it.

That’s because the version of open carry in the bill isn’t what Watkins and other activists really want. This brings us to a source of incredible confusion that has warped the entire debate. In Texas, at least, the “open carry” movement encompasses two distinct views about guns. Both of these ideas have been formally proposed this session, and the bills in question seem similar enough. Either would end the open carry ban. Neither, probably, would lead to the end of civilization as we know it. Most open carry advocates prefer one version, but many support both. At a conceptual level, though, the proposals diverge profoundly. One is based on Texas’s current regulations about how handguns can be carried. The other is based on the premise that states shouldn’t have such regulations at all. The first version, licensed open carry, is straightforward. Since 1996, Texans have been allowed to carry concealed handguns if they acquire a license and stay away from places like schools or bars. Under licensed open carry, they would have the option of carrying a gun in a holster on the outside of their clothes. The other version of open carry is sometimes called constitutional carry. It would allow Texans to carry open or concealed handguns without obtaining a license—in other words, without paying a fee, completing any training, or submitting to a background check.

Licensed open carry is already legal in most states. Constitutional carry, historically, was legal only in Vermont. In recent years, however, laws have been proposed in a number of states—and passed in several—by advocates who believe that Americans shouldn’t need the government’s permission to carry a gun. The Second Amendment, they argue, is the license.

The conflation of the two concepts in the Lege is an accident of history related to “an ancient wrong,” as Estes put it at the February 12 hearing while laying out his open carry bill. In the Republic of Texas, people were allowed to do whatever they wanted with guns, more or less. The state’s Reconstruction-era government later banned the carrying of handguns—though not rifles—and the restriction remained in place for more than a century, until the national right-to-carry movement began in the eighties. Texas’s concealed carry law is not anomalous: a number of states allow concealed and open carry of handguns, subject to a criminal background check and other permitting requirements. But in Texas the result was a latent quirk in the state’s gun laws: there are six states that ban the open carrying of handguns; Texas is one of the few that concurrently allows open carry of assault weapons.

Odd as that contradiction may be, it never really became an issue until open carry activists made it one in the past two years. And when they did, people were naturally disposed to view open carry laws as related to the concept of concealed carry. That explains why open carry gained traction so rapidly. There were dire predictions prior to the passage of concealed carry that the law would facilitate violent crime, but it hasn’t. As of 2015, only about 825,000 concealed handgun licenses (CHLs) were active (in a state of 27 million); most Texans are not, in fact, walking around with guns. Those who do are apparently not predisposed to mayhem. One eight-year study found that CHL holders were less likely to commit a crime than people without the license. Gun laws aside, the rate of violent crime has declined in most states, including Texas, over the past twenty years. Plenty of Texans probably agree with former governor Rick Perry, who recently said that he didn’t see a need for open carry, since we already have concealed carry. But they could nonetheless agree with the argument that Abbott offered during his gubernatorial campaign, which can be paraphrased as follows: since concealed carry is legal, the ban on open carry is basically a mandate about clothes, which is silly.

Even Wendy Davis, during her run for governor in 2014, announced her support for open carry. At the time, it seemed like a shameless pander, and after the election, she revealed that she had reconsidered. But if it was a pander, it was a telling one: in Texas, licensed open carry seems like an intuitive concept and an easy sell. Meanwhile, many people overlook the other—much more radical—version of open carry that would remove nearly all restrictions. Constitutional carry advocates contend that such restrictions are burdensome and not particularly useful. For instance, under Texas law people convicted of felonies and even some misdemeanors can’t hold concealed carry licenses. “Martha Stewart is a felon,” Grisham observed, arguing that the criminal background check provision in Texas’s concealed carry law is overly broad.**Cost may be another barrier. Stickland, whose bill would legalize constitutional carry, noted that while he could afford the fee, that might not be true for a poor person, and if so, that person’s right to self-defense would be restricted. Brandon Creighton, a Republican senator from The Woodlands, suggested that the public safety risks of constitutional carry were overstated. “It’s legal to ride a horse to the Wells Fargo in Vermont, but most people don’t.”

These arguments are not unreasonable, but they are also, for some activists, beside the point. Ultimately, the argument for constitutional carry is a matter of principle. The Second Amendment is explicit and affirmative about the right to keep and bear arms and doesn’t include any asterisks about CHL training or mental health screening. The constitutional carry movement has an inherently antiauthoritarian slant and, in practice, is noticeably egalitarian. That helps explain why open carry activists have repeatedly clashed with more-powerful gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, and why they have largely avoided the racial undercurrents that are sometimes associated with gun rights causes. They are more concerned about government power than crime. Watkins, when not harassing the Lege, can sometimes be found monitoring police, and decrying Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry.

At the same time, constitutional carry is wildly unpopular. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that only 10 percent of Texans support it. The activists were frightening people who couldn’t see their perspective but could certainly see their AK-47s.

Though passage of open carry seemed like a fait accompli at the beginning of the session, a conundrum had emerged within just a few weeks. The issue had become less palatable as a result of its proponents’ behavior, and for some Republicans, passing open carry under such circumstances would set a worrisome precedent. In early February House Speaker Joe Straus, in an appearance at the University of Texas, said that he doubted there would be enough votes to pass the open carry bill that the activists were demanding. He pointed to Watkins as the culprit. “House members are not going to be bullied.” But Republicans who had promised to fight for open carry had no choice but to do so, unless they were willing to risk a backlash among the conservative grass roots.

Ironically, this particular conundrum had an easy resolution because of the widespread confusion over the actual meaning of open carry. Plenty of Republicans had made campaign promises about open carry; few had made specific promises about constitutional carry and few had been asked. For example, in retrospect, Abbott in his campaign was clearly talking about licensed open carry. Only later, after he’d been elected, was he asked to clarify. At that point, he said that he would sign either version of open carry and autographed a copy of Stickland’s constitutional carry bill as a show of solidarity.

Republicans in the Lege would have been in a trickier position, except for the fact that licensed open carry still counts as open carry. Some supporters, in fact, would argue that licensed open carry was the more important of the two. Creighton was among the five senators who signed on to constitutional carry, but he told me that licensed open carry would still extend Second Amendment rights because licenses issued in Texas would be recognized in other states. The Lege could enact open carry by passing Estes’s bill, and it could simultaneously send a message to troublemakers like Watkins by ignoring Stickland’s. Even as early as February, Stickland figured his constitutional carry bill was doomed. He was just hoping for a vote on it and was frustrated that the House leadership was trying to prevent him from having even that. Surprisingly, constitutional carry was seemingly scuttled in the Senate too, which is more conservative than it was in 2013.

And, of course, there was the new lieutenant governor. By the time he sat down with the Texas Tribune, one week after his inauguration, Patrick had fulfilled three campaign promises to tea party activists: the Senate scrapped a long-standing tradition under which two thirds of the members present would have to agree to hear a bill on the floor. Patrick had also whittled the number of Democrats chairing committees; there had been six Democratic chairs in the 2013 session, and there were now just two. And he announced the formation of his Grassroots Advisory Council, to give the people a voice in the lieutenant governor’s office—but not just any people: tea party activists dominate the group.

Gun rights advocates had good reason to trust Patrick. As a bomb-throwing state senator, he had worked to expand Second Amendment rights in a number of ways. In 2007, as a freshman, he co-authored the bill that established Texas’s “castle” doctrine, the state’s version of “stand your ground.” In 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Connecticut, which left twenty children dead, he authored a bill that would have permitted local school boards to allow certain personnel to carry concealed handguns on school premises and provided funding for their training. (The bill passed the Legislature but was quietly vetoed by Rick Perry, who cited cost concerns.) In 2009, 2011, and 2013, Patrick co-authored bills that would have allowed campus carry, a top priority among national gun rights groups in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in April 2007, and one that remains controversial.

Even after Patrick made the comments that elicited the epic backlash, there was no reason to doubt his support for open carry. All he had said was that it wasn’t a top priority and that he wasn’t sure it had the votes to pass. Moreover, Patrick should have felt politically secure: the next Republican primary lay more than three years away, on the far side of another legislative session. And besides, most ardent gun people had probably voted for Patterson in the 2014 lieutenant governor primary, and Patrick had won anyway.

Despite all that, Patrick reacted quickly to the activists, and before long the Senate State Affairs Committee was holding its hearing on the two gun bills. Patrick had, in fact, asked the committee’s chair, Houston Republican Joan Huffman, to fast-track a total of three bills; he had wanted her to also hear the Senate counterpart to Stickland’s constitutional carry bill, which Huffman had left off the agenda. The explanation was a simple one: Huffman had never indicated any support for constitutional carry. A former prosecutor and judge, she was apparently against it, as are many members of the criminal justice system and law enforcement groups.

Huffman’s opposition would seem to be a significant barrier, but constitutional carry activists will undoubtedly continue to make their case. Unlike Patrick, Huffman wasn’t being held hostage. Patrick would do what the base asked; a campaign promise is a campaign promise, and he, more than any other official in Texas, had made a practice of crucifying Republicans who disappointed the base, regardless of how marginal the issue. There was some irony that Patrick was now on the receiving end of such treatment. He and other Republicans should be careful, because the political dynamics that led to the open carry furor aren’t going away.

In the end this saga isn’t really about guns. Even if licensed open carry passes, the reality is that most Texans’ lives will be unaffected.

More alarming is what this year’s gun debate reveals about the state of politics in Texas, in which general elections are foregone conclusions, the only contests that matter are Republican primaries, and the path to victory lies in running as far right as possible. Under those conditions, a small subset of conservatives can hijack the political debate and many feel entitled to do so. That’s how a once obscure issue like open carry became a top priority for the government of Texas and for the 27 million people it supposedly serves. It could easily happen again, on guns or anything else. And next time, it may not end well. Ω

[Erica Grieder has been a Senior Editor at Texas Monthly since November 2012; prior to that, she was the Southwest correspondent for The Economist. Grieder received both a BA (philosophy) from Columbia University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas (2013).]

Copyright © 2015 Emmis Publishing /dba/ Texas Monthly

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Food Porn Is Sooooo Yesterday — Let's Hear It For Blog Porn !

The best discussion of porn is provided by Tom Lehrer in concert in Copenhagen, September 1967:

[x YouTube/Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel]
By Tom Lehrer

The satirist mentions a list of possible vehicles for pornography, but there is one glaring omission — food. And so, this ever vigilant blogger presents Cari Romm's essay on "Food Porn." If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of prurience in the food chain, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
What "Food Porn" Does To The Brain
By Cari Romm

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In the mid-20th century, the Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen uncovered an odd quirk of animal behavior: Across species, the animals in his experiments seemed to prefer prettier, flashier, more attention-grabbing versions of their natural environments—“supernormal stimuli,” he called them—even when those stimuli were fake. Certain types of fish, he found, would become more violent towards dummy fish whose undersides were more vibrant than the species’ usual color; mother birds would ignore their own eggs to sit on a nest of larger, more colorful imitations, or divert food from their children to feed models of chicks with brighter beaks.

“The essence of the supernormal stimulus,” the psychiatrist Deirdre Barrett wrote in her book on the subject, “is that the exaggerated imitation can cause a stronger pull than the real thing.”

“We humans can produce our own,” she continued, like “candy sweeter than any fruit,” or pornography.

On its face, the comparison makes sense: People like sugar and people like sex; candy and pornography are both super-concentrated, turbocharged doses of more natural sensory experiences.

On closer examination, though, one of these things is not like the other: The pleasure of sugar is delivered the same way—taste—whether it comes from a strawberry or a piece of strawberry taffy. Pornography, on the other hand, is a different sensory experience than the real thing, relying on sight and sound in place of touch.

And between the two is another distinctly human supernormal stimulus: food porn, the carefully arranged, carefully filtered images that show a meal—homecooked or restaurant-served—at its most appealing.

Food porn is defined in part by the senses that it is a visual experience of something that other people can smell and taste. Food porn, as Amanda Simpson, the creator of the site Food Porn Daily, told The Daily Meal in 2010, is “anything that makes me drool”—something that, at its best, should manufacture a desire that it can’t satisfy.

What’s the appeal in ogling what you can’t have? In the case of food porn, at least, researchers still aren’t sure.

The first documented use of the term “food porn” comes from the feminist writer Rosalind Coward’s 1984 book Female Desire. It was referenced every so often for the next two decades or so by food writers and chefs, according to the site Know Your Meme, but didn’t take on its current meaning—food photos shared through social media—until the early 2000s. The photo-sharing website Flickr launched a “Food Porn” category in September 2004 (today, it has around three-quarters of a million photos).

And a few months later, in April 2005, it entered the Urban Dictionary lexicon. Definition: “Close-up images of juicy, delicious food in advertisements.” Used in a sentence: Oh, that McDonalds ad was like food porn. I want a Big Mac sooo bad.

Urban Dictionary, though, makes an assumption on something that research hasn’t yet been able to prove. A McDonalds ad for a Big Mac may look delicious, but what’s still murky is whether that necessarily translates into hunger for a Big Mac.

The chef’s maxim that people first eat with their eyes is backed both by common sense—food stylists exist for a reason, and a glistening grill-marked burger that oozes cheese is an easier sell than a limp, gray one—and by science. A 2012 study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, for example, found that seemingly minute details about a dish’s appearance, like “gloss, evenness, and shape,” can alter how diners perceive its taste and smell.

But what happens when eating with the eyes is the only step, rather than just the first—when the image isn’t a bridge to smelling and tasting a dish, but the entire experience?

Some scientists believe—like Simpson—that images of food only trigger the desire for the real thing. A 2012 study, for example, found that just looking at pictures of food may be enough to cause an uptick in ghrelin, a hormone that causes hunger.

One reason may be that looking primes the brain for eating. “If you think about throwing a baseball, your brain reacts like you’re really throwing a baseball,” explained Gabriella Petrick, a professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. “When we eat things, different parts of our brain light up in different ways. It’s not just taste—we evoke sight, we evoke hearing, we evoke lots of different [things] as our brain tries to construct what our food is.”

But other research has shown that when it comes to appetite, food porn may be a substitute for food itself. One 2011 study found that looking at pictures of food may turn people off from the real thing—but only if the food in the image has a similar flavor to whatever real item is about to be consumed. When volunteers viewed photos of salty snacks and then ate salted peanuts, they tended to enjoy the nuts less than people who had viewed photos of desserts.

And in 2013 study in mice published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, when researchers flooded the reward centers of the rodents’ brains with insulin, a hormone that triggers feelings of fullness, the mice lost interest in returning to places where they had previously been given food—suggesting, the authors said, that the brain’s reward centers may not respond as much to “food cues”—a feeding area for mice, a photo for humans—when the brain knows that the stomach is full.

Taken in sum, the research, with all its contradictions, doesn’t reveal much. And ideas about why people take so much pleasure in sharing their food-porn images are as varied as theories about why people view them.

In 2013, the psychiatrist Valerie Taylor delivered a presentation at the Canadian Obesity Summit arguing that posting photos of meals on social media is a sign of a disordered relationship with food. “We take pictures of things that are important to us,” she later told The Huffington Post, “and for some people, the food itself becomes central and the rest—the venue, the company, et cetera—is background.”

“A worthy hypothesis,” Jezebel’s Katie Baker countered, “but I’m pretty sure my friend who won’t stop Instagrammming photos of ramps this month just wants us all to know that she’s on trend.”

“There’s a kind of a performative aspect,” agreed Richard Magee, a professor of English at Sacred Heart University who has studied food writing. “I used to do this 55-mile ride where I’d stop and get cupcakes in the middle of the ride, and I’d post pictures of the cupcakes. And I think part of it was like, ‘I can do this, I can break the rules because I’m exercising....’ I have friends who are really good cooks, and they’ll post pictures of the stuff that they do, and it’s kind of like a play in a way.”

And really, the tricks that make food porn what it is—the filters, and the kale arranged just so, and egg yolks cut to spill at just the right, gooey angle—are just watered-down versions of the elaborately staged performance that is professional food photography. In a professional shoot, the milk in a cereal bowl, for example, may actually be glue; a stack of pancakes may be propped up by hidden layers of cardboard; and blemishes on berries may be covered up with lipstick. Grill marks are meticulously drawn. Extra sesame seeds—each one carefully selected—are glued on to buns. Wherever the image may fall along the spectrum of fakery, from an Instagram filter to a bowlful of Elmer’s, the desired effect is to make something that seems real.

“It makes sense,” Megan Garber wrote of food journalism in The Atlantic last week, “that we would come to treat food not just as a source of sustenance, but also as a source of beauty that warrants intellectual engagement.” But food porn is to food writing what images, in general, are to words: more immediate, more visceral. When choosing recipes for the Food Porn Daily Cookbook, Simpson recalled, she would “sit there for hours thinking, ‘What is porny? What turns your palate on?’”

“Those pictures and those websites draw us in,” Magee said, “because they do hit something really primal in us.” Hunger and craving and fuel and want and need come together in complicated ways, but an ad for a Big Mac still draws on a fundamental quirk of animal behavior: It’s prettier, flashier, more attention-grabbing than the real thing, and that in itself is reason enough to enjoy it. Ω

[Cari Romm is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​. She received a BA (English, cum laude) from Northwestern University and an MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.]

Copyright © 2015 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

You -Are- Aren't What You Eat

Chris Offutt is not a food writer, but he is a perceptive writer. Read this post and learn about code words: "Deocrats" in Mississippi means "African Americans," "family values" means “no homosexuals,” and "trash food" is "not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat." If this is (fair & balanced) social nuance, so be it.

[x The Oxford American]
Trash Food
By Chris Offutt

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

created at

Over the years I’ve known many people with nicknames, including Lucky, Big O, Haywire, Turtle Eggs, Hercules, two guys named Hollywood, and three guys called Booger. I’ve had my own nicknames as well. In college people called me “Arf” because of a dog on a t-shirt. Back home a few of my best buddies call me “Shit-for-Brains,” because our teachers thought I was smart.

Three years ago, shortly after moving to Oxford, someone introduced me to John T. Edge. He goes by his first name and middle initial, but I understood it as a nickname—Jaunty. The word “jaunty” means lively and cheerful, someone always merry and bright. The name seemed to suit him perfectly. Each time I called him Jaunty he gave me a quick sharp look of suspicion. He wondered if I was making fun of his name—and of him. The matter was resolved when I suggested he call me “Chrissie O.”

Last spring John T. asked me to join him at an Oxford restaurant. My wife dropped me off and drove to a nearby secondhand store. Our plan was for me to meet her later and find a couple of cheap lamps. During lunch John T. asked me to give a presentation at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium over which he presided every fall.

I reminded him that I lacked the necessary qualifications. At the time I’d only published a few humorous essays that dealt with food. Other writers were more knowledgeable and wrote with a historical context, from a scholarly perspective. All I did was write personal essays inspired by old community cookbooks I found in secondhand stores. Strictly speaking, my food writing wasn’t technically about food.

John T. said that didn’t matter. He wanted me to explore “trash food,” because, as he put it, “you write about class.”

I sat without speaking, my food getting cold on my plate. Three thoughts ran through my mind fast as flipping an egg. First, I couldn’t see the connection between social class and garbage. Second, I didn’t like having my thirty-year career reduced to a single subject matter. Third, I’d never heard of anything called “trash food.”

I write about my friends, my family, and my experiences, but never with a socio-political agenda such as class. My goal was always art first, combined with an attempt at rigorous self-examination. Facing John T., I found myself in a professional and social pickle, not unusual for a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America. I’ve never mastered the high-born art of concealing my emotions. My feelings are always readily apparent.

Recognizing my turmoil, John T. asked if I was pissed off. I nodded and he apologized immediately. I told him I was overly sensitive to matters of social class. I explained that people from the hills of Appalachia have always had to fight to prove they were smart, diligent, and trustworthy. It’s the same for people who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, the barrios of Los Angeles and Texas, or the black neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, and Memphis. His request reminded me that due to social class I’d been refused dates, bank loans, and even jobs. I’ve been called hillbilly, stumpjumper, cracker, weedsucker, redneck, and white trash—mean-spirited terms designed to hurt me and make me feel bad about myself.

As a young man, I used to laugh awkwardly at remarks about sex with my sister or the perceived novelty of my wearing shoes. As I got older I quit laughing. When strangers thought I was stupid because of where I grew up, I understood that they were granting me the high ground. I learned to patiently wait in ambush for the chance to utterly demolish them intellectually. Later I realized that this particular battle strategy was a waste of energy. It was easier to simply stop talking to that person—forever.

But I didn’t want to do that with a guy whose name sounds like “jaunty.” A guy who’d inadvertently triggered an old emotional response. A guy who liked my work well enough to pay me for it.

By this time our lunch had a tension to it that draped over us both like a lead vest for an X-ray. We just looked at each other, neither of us knowing what to do. John T. suggested I think about it, then graciously offered me a lift to meet my wife. But a funny thing had happened. Our conversation had left me inexplicably ashamed of shopping at a thrift store. I wanted to walk to hide my destination, but refusing a ride might make John T. think I was angry with him. I wasn’t. I was upset. But not with him.

My solution was a verbal compromise, a term politicians use to mean a blatant lie. I told him to drop me at a restaurant where I was meeting my wife for cocktails. He did so and I waited until his red Italian sports car sped away. As soon as he was out of sight I walked to the junk store. I sat out front like a man with not a care in the world, ensconced in a battered patio chair staring at clouds above the parking lot. When I was a kid my mother bought baked goods at the day-old bread store and hoped no one would see her car. Now I was embarrassed for shopping secondhand.

My behavior was class-based twice over: buying used goods to save a buck and feeling ashamed of it. I’d behaved in strict accordance with my social station, then evaluated myself in a negative fashion. Even my anger was classic self-oppression, a learned behavior of lower-class people. I was transforming outward shame into inner fury. Without a clear target, I aimed that rage at myself.

My thoughts and feelings were completely irrational. I knew they made no sense. Most of what I owned had belonged to someone else—cars, clothes, shoes, furniture, dishware, cookbooks. I liked old and battered things. They reminded me of myself, still capable and functioning despite the wear and tear. I enjoyed the idea that my belongings had a previous history before coming my way. It was very satisfying to repair a broken lamp made of popsicle sticks and transform it to a lovely source of illumination. A writer’s livelihood is weak at best, and I’d become adept at operating in a secondhand economy. I was comfortable with it.

Still, I sat in that chair getting madder and madder. After careful examination I concluded that the core of my anger was fear—in this case fear that John T. would judge me for shopping secondhand. I knew it was absurd since he is not judgmental in the least. Anyone can see that he’s an open-hearted guy willing to embrace anything and everyone—even me.

Nevertheless I’d felt compelled to mislead him based on class stigma. I was ashamed—of my fifteen-year-old Mazda, my income, and my rented home. I felt ashamed of the very clothes I was wearing, the shoes on my feet. Abruptly, with the force of being struck in the face, I understood it wasn’t his judgment I feared. It was my own. I’d judged myself and found failure. I wanted a car like his. I wanted to dress like him and have a house like his. I wanted to be in a position to offer other people jobs.

The flip side of shame is pride. All I had was the pride of refusal. I could say no to his offer. I did not have to write about trash food and class. No, I decided, no, no, no. Later, it occurred to me that my reluctance was evidence that maybe I should say yes. I resolved to do some research before refusing his offer.

John T. had been a little shaky on the label of “trash food,” mentioning mullet and possum as examples. At one time this list included crawfish because Cajun people ate it, and catfish because it was favored by African Americans and poor Southern whites. As these cuisines gained popularity, the food itself became culturally upgraded. Crawfish and catfish stopped being “trash food” when the people eating it in restaurants were the same ones who felt superior to the lower classes. Elite white diners had to redefine the food to justify eating it. Otherwise they were voluntarily lowering their own social status—something nobody wants to do.

It should be noted that carp and gar still remain reputationally compromised. In other words—poor folks eat it and rich folks don’t. I predict that one day wealthy white people will pay thirty-five dollars for a tiny portion of carp with a rich sauce—and congratulate themselves for doing so.

I ran a multitude of various searches on library databases and the Internet in general, typing in permutations of the words “trash” and “food.” Surprisingly, every single reference was to “white trash food.” Within certain communities, it’s become popular to host “white trash parties” where people are urged to bring Cheetos, pork rinds, Vienna sausages, Jell-O with marshmallows, fried baloney, corndogs, RC cola, Slim Jims, Fritos, Twinkies, and cottage cheese with jelly. In short—the food I ate as a kid in the hills.

Participating in such a feast is considered proof of being very cool and very hip. But it’s not. Implicit in the menu is a vicious ridicule of the people who eat such food on a regular basis. People who attend these “white trash parties” are cuisinally slumming, temporarily visiting a place they never want to live. They are the worst sort of tourists—they want to see the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia but are afraid to get off the bus.

The term “white trash” is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage. It implies a dismissal of the group as stupid, violent, lazy, and untrustworthy—the same negative descriptors of racial minorities, of anyone outside of the mainstream. At every stage of American history, various groups of people have endured such personal attacks. Language is used as a weapon: divisive, cruel, enciphered. Today is no different. For example, here in Mississippi, the term “Democrats” is code for “African Americans.” Throughout the U.S.A., “family values” is code for “no homosexuals.” The term “trash food” is not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.

In America, class lines run parallel to racial lines. At the very bottom are people of color. The Caucasian equivalent is me—an Appalachian. As a male Caucasian in America, I am supposed to have an inherent advantage in every possible way. It’s true. I can pass more easily in society. I have better access to education, health care, and employment. But if I insist on behaving like a poor white person—shopping at secondhand shops and eating mullet—I not only earn the epithet of “trash,” I somehow deserve it.

The term “white trash” is class disparagement due to economics. Polite society regards me as stupid, lazy, ignorant, violent and untrustworthy.

I am trash because of where I’m from.

I am trash because of where I shop.

I am trash because of what I eat.

But human beings are not trash. We are the civilizing force on the planet. We produce great art, great music, great food, and great technology. It’s not the opposable thumb that separates us from the beasts, it’s our facility with language. We are able to communicate with great precision. Nevertheless, history is fraught with the persistence of treating fellow humans as garbage, which means collection and transport for destruction. The most efficient management of humans as trash occurred when the Third Reich systematically murdered people by the millions. People they didn’t like. People they were afraid of. Jews, Romanis, Catholics, gays and lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the disabled.

In World War II, my father-in-law was captured by the Nazis and placed on a train car so crammed with people that everyone had to stand for days. Arthur hadn’t eaten in a week. He was close to starvation. A Romani man gave him half a turnip, which saved his life. That Romani man later died. Arthur survived the war. He had been raised to look down on Romani people as stupid, lazy, violent, and untrustworthy—the ubiquitous language of class discrimination. He subsequently revised his view of Romanis. For Arthur, the stakes of starvation were high enough that he changed his view of a group of people. But the wealthy elite in this country are not starving. When they changed their eating habits, they didn’t change their view of people. They just upgraded crawfish and catfish.

Economic status dictates class and diet. We arrange food in a hierarchy based on who originally ate it until we reach mullet, gar, possum, and squirrel—the diet of the poor. The food is called trash, and then the people are.

When the white elite take an interest in the food poor people eat, the price goes up. The result is a cost that prohibits poor families from eating the very food they’ve been condemned for eating. It happened with salmon and tuna years ago. When I was a kid and money was tight, my mother mixed a can of tuna with pasta and vegetables. Our family of six ate it for two days. Gone are the days of subsisting on cheap fish patties at the end of the month. The status of the food rose but not the people. They just had less to eat.

What is trash food? I say all food is trash without human intervention. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens would die unless slaughtered for the table. If humans didn’t harvest vegetables, they would rot in the field. Food is a disposable commodity until we accumulate the raw material, blend ingredients, and apply heat, cold, and pressure. Then our bodies extract nutrients and convert it into waste, which must be disposed of. The act of eating produces trash.

In the hills of Kentucky we all looked alike—scruffy white people with squinty eyes and cowlicks. We shared the same economic class, the same religion, the same values and loyalties. Even our enemy was mutual: people who lived in town. Appalachians are suspicious of their neighbors, distrustful of strangers, and uncertain about third cousins. It’s a culture that operates under a very simple principle: you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. After moving away from the hills I developed a different way of interacting with people. I still get cantankerous and defensive—ask John T.— but I’m better with human relations than I used to be. I’ve learned to observe and listen.

As an adult I have lived and worked in eleven different states—New York, Massachusetts, Florida, New Mexico, Montana, California, Tennessee, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, and now Mississippi. These circumstances often placed me in contact with African Americans as neighbors, members of the same labor crew, working in restaurants, and now university colleagues. The first interaction between a black man and a white man is one of mutual evaluation: does the other guy hate my guts? The white guy—me—is worried that after generations of repression and mistreatment, will this black guy take his anger out on me because I’m white? And the black guy is wondering if I am one more racist asshole he can’t turn his back on. This period of reconnaissance typically doesn’t last long because both parties know the covert codes the other uses—the avoidance of touch, the averted eyes, a posture of hostility. Once each man is satisfied that the other guy is all right, connections begin to occur. Those connections are always based on class. And class translates to food.

Last year my mother and I were in the hardware store buying parts to fix a toilet. The first thing we learned was that the apparatus inside commodes has gotten pretty fancy over the years. Like breakfast cereal, there were dozens of types to choose from. Toilet parts were made of plastic, copper, and cheap metal. Some were silent and some saved water and some looked as if they came from an alien spacecraft.

A store clerk, an African-American man in his sixties, offered to help us. I told him I was overwhelmed, that plumbing had gotten too complicated. I tried to make a joke by saying it was a lot simpler when everyone used an outhouse. He gave me a quick sharp look of suspicion. I recognized his expression. It’s the same one John T. gave me when I mispronounced his name, the same look I gave John T. when he mentioned “trash food” and social class. The same one I unleashed on people who called me a hillbilly or a redneck.

I understood the clerk’s concern. He wondered if I was making a veiled comment about race, economics, and the lack of plumbing. I told him that back in Kentucky when the hole filled up with waste, we dug a new hole and moved the outhouse to it. Then we’d plant a fruit tree where the old outhouse had been.

“Man,” I said, “that tree would bear. Big old peaches.”

He looked at me differently then, a serious expression. His earlier suspicion was gone.

“You know some things,” he said. “Yes you do.”

“I know one thing,” I said. “When I was a kid I wouldn’t eat those peaches.”

The two of us began laughing at the same time. We stood there and laughed until the mirth trailed away, reignited, and brought forth another bout of laughter. Eventually we wound down to a final chuckle. We stood in the aisle and studied the toilet repair kits on the pegboard wall. They were like books in a foreign language.

“Well,” I said to him. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” he said.

I nodded.

“I think I won’t eat those peaches.”

We started laughing again, this time longer, slapping each other’s arms. Pretty soon one of us just had to mutter “peaches” to start all over again. Race was no more important to us than plumbing parts or shopping at a secondhand store. We were two Southern men laughing together in an easy way, linked by class and food.

On the surface, John T. and I should have been able to laugh in a similar way last spring. We have more in common than the store clerk and I do. John T. and I share race, status, and regional origin. We are close to the same age. We are sons of the South. We’re both writers, married with families. John T. and I have cooked for each other, gotten drunk together, and told each other stories. We live in the same town, have the same friends.

But none of that mattered in the face of social class, an invisible and permanent division. It’s the boundary John T. had the courage to ask me to write about. The boundary that made me lie about the secondhand store last spring. The boundary that still fills me with shame and anger. A boundary that only food can cross. Ω

[Chris Offutt is a freelance writer in Oxford, MS. He is the author of Kentucky Straight (1992), Out of the Woods (1999), The Same River Twice (1993), No Heroes (2003), and The Good Brother (2008). He has written screenplays for "True Blood," "Weeds," and "Treme," and TV pilots for Fox, Lionsgate, and CBS. Offutt received a BA (theater) from Morehead State University and also received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where he studied with Frank Conroy.]

Copyright © 2015 The Oxford American

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Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves