Former TFSC Counsel Responds
Your recent article "Buried in Scandal" [Vol.18, No.30] by Robert Bryce was very insightful and well- written. As the former General Counsel for the Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC) for approximately two years, I must correct some inaccurate information and factual errors contained in that article.
Mr. Bryce stated that in August of 1996, when Ms. May was hired by the TFSC, the previous director of the agency had "left a few weeks earlier." That is incorrect. The previous director left the agency in March of 1996, some six months before Ms. May was hired.
Mr. Bryce also stated that during this time the agency "workers were reading the daily newspapers at their desk. Several years' worth of complaints were being ignored. Investigators were sitting in office drinking coffee and swapping stories." Mr. Bryce attributes this information to a source inside the TFSC. That source appears to have misled Mr. Bryce.
The agency only employed one investigator during this time, and she did not drink coffee. Most of the investigations involved tracking paperwork (sometimes retrieved by field inspectors), telephone interviews, and preparing reports for general counsel to review. One-fifth of the staff (two of 10 employees) had left the agency. In spite of this, the commission physically moved offices in April from a location on Cameron Road to its present location on South Congress. 1,180 of 1,261 funeral homes in Texas were inspected during fiscal year 1996 (which ended August 31, 1996) by three inspectors. 3,432 funeral director, embalmer, and funeral home licenses were renewed by a licensing staff of two. 824 complaints were received from FY92 through FY96. 583 of those complaints were investigated and closed. 241 cases were open, 161 of which were less than six months old. Thirty-nine penalties were imposed involving 56 violations of law and $26,250 in fines were assessed in FY96. Fourteen administrative hearing cases and 34 new violation letters were pending. All this was accomplished with a staff of eight.
The fact is, in spite of three executive directors and two acting executive directors in a two-year period, and a commission run by and for the benefit of the funeral industry, the employees of the TFSC continued to work hard for the people of Texas.
The funeral industry needs to be regulated, but not by the TFSC as it is presently set up. People who are licensed by an agency should not be in charge of running it. I hope the Legislature takes this opportunity to restructure the commission to operate for the benefit of the consumers it is supposed to serve.
Marc Allen Connelly
Chief Administrative Law Judge
Texas Department of Health
Guide to the Grave
Robert Bryce's article "Buried in Scandal" [Vol.18, No.30] points to an interesting drama occurring in our culture today, the care and commemoration of our dead. The cast of characters is changing, and the old standard players are sitting up and taking notice of some of the new guys coming onto the scene. There's the longstanding funeral industry, forming holy and unholy alliances behind the scenes, planning business as usual on a grander scale and hoping no one's the wiser. Then there's the Texas Funeral Service Commission in a breakdown over its identity crisis and inability to figure out its role. We have the emerging consumer watchdog organizations pushing for a larger supporting role, and finally there's the public, sitting in the dark, confused, and in great need of help in understanding what to expect. Wouldn't a guide through this very real, at times very painful, and too often very costly important life event be of help?
Despite the negative associations with the funeral industry that abound today, the truth is they play a very important role in our lives. When their services are offered with care and honest consideration they help us realize and ritualize the death of our loved ones, an essential task of mourning. Until recently, the funeral industry has pretty well run the show, knowing that uninformed and and grieving customers do not shop around, but consumer organizations, individual crusaders, and the Internet are all creating a chorus of "power to the people," the battle cry of the boomers.
The good news is there are some new players out there looking for solutions and rewriting some of the old scripts to breathe a little life into the age-old death industry. New funeral consulting businesses are developing across the U.S. These services provide information, resources, and affordable options, saving consumers thousands on burials, caskets, cremations, and urns. They also offer specialized bereavement services, and memorial planning that can be a godsend to someone experiencing grief.
Gail Gibbons, Vice-President of Services
First Light Funeral Guides
Re: "Naked City: Invisible Handyman" [Vol.18, No.30]
A researcher can receive no stronger endorsement than a political opponent being relegated to attacks on the person rather than the research.
Such a tactic, employed by The Austin Chronicle with respect to my Capital Metro report, is not unusual where reality is inconveniently inconsistent with the accuser's ideology. In this particular case, the reality is that transit service is far too costly in Austin, and that there is no hope whatever that building light rail will make a perceptible difference in traffic congestion. It has not in Portland, St. Louis, or anywhere else in the United States.
I am happy to have so confounded you.
Streetcars, not Parking
The most disturbing thing about the CSC/new city hall plan is the huge amount of money to be spent on parking private cars. The new city hall will cost $30 million. Half of this -- $15 million -- will go to provide space underground to park 500 cars for city employees. As much as this or more will be spent to park the cars of CSC employees.
Meanwhile, we don't have even one rapid transit line downtown. People say we can't afford it. Why can we afford $15 million to park 500 cars? There is talk of creating a whole new Department of Parking for Austin. What will this cost? Why do we spend nothing on city transit lines and tens of millions on parking garages?
We ought to be moving toward a car-free downtown. But once we've sunk all our savings into parking cars there, it will be very hard to get the cars out of downtown.
City policy on public transportation now consists of the statement: "We must wait until Capital Metro can regain the public trust. Six years after this happens, we may get our first light rail line. Or we may choose to spend the money on bus lanes for the highways."
I really wish that Austin could get its first streetcar line instead of its first $15 million underground parking garage. One-person-per-car transportation is obsolete, and it's time to stop wasting huge amounts of money trying to make it work. Why don't we skip the parking garages and road widenings, and instead begin constructing Austin's 21st-century streetcar system?
Thank you for your Ass Backwards issue [Vol.18, No.31]. I find that reading any publication backwards helps to focus attention and teaches the mind flexibility. I usually read the Chronicle backwards, moving from the most interesting sections and ending with the least; that is, Variations to the movie reviews. Thanks for finally getting it right. I read the Ass Backwards issue backwards out of habit and experienced the same exasperation I usually I feel when I read your publication forwards: There are simply too many words in your articles. If they were a little shorter, I would feel more inclined to read them after the movie reviews.
Thanks again and keep on printing backwards!
The back "front cover" of your April 2 issue proclaims, "It's Ass Backwards!" It seems to me that it's only half-ass backwards. While the pages are numbered from back to front, the pages themselves continue to read from left to right. Maybe next year?
Werner J. Severin
Last week's editorials moved me to tears. Why? Because I'm down here in San Antonio missing all of you. The right wingers, left wingers, greenies, meanies, cyclists, SUV-driving west Austinites, day laborers, grocery store workers, everyone.
Here's my Best of Austin list, in no particular order:
1.The Austin Chronicle (thank goddess Whole Foods has it here)
2.The Central Market (Broadway Central Market is a pale shadow -- truly pathetic -- sorry)
3.Magnolia Cafe and Kerbey Lane: In S.A. pancakes are small and overpriced and forget 24-hour availability.
4.City parks and pools
5.Bryker Woods Elementary: Forget the politics, this is an excellent little school -- just ask Marion.
6.Yellow Bikes and Amy Babich: Tell those naysaying SUV drivers to live in S.A. and then decide if more freeways and higher speed limits are the answer.
7.Upper Crust, Bangkok Cuisine, Basil's, Dog & Duck, Crown & Anchor, Fadó, Wok 'n' Roll, the newly established transplant from A&M -- Freebird's World Burrito -- and many other restaurants, bars, and little eateries.
8.Alternatives of all sorts: midwives, acupuncturists, yoga instructors, theatres, vintage shops, cool garage sales, etc.
9.Sunshine Gardens and all of the strange and wonderful people and birds that frequent it.
10. KGSR: It falls out of range just inside the 410 Loop!!!!!
11. "On Earth as It Is in Austin" bumper stickers
Be happy -- you folks live in the best city I've ever found. Try not to marry someone you love so much that you follow them out of Paradise. As I said the last time I left (in '86) -- I'll be back. Keep arguing and having fun.
See you at Eeyore's!
Austinite in exile
The Forsyth Trio
Hey Mr. Hardwig!
Wait just one second there, buddy! I would like to start off by saying that was a wonderful story about Guy Forsyth and his new album ["Better Too Much Than Not Enough, Vol. 18, No. 31"]. Wonderful insights, little-known stories, and juicy tidbits of what keeps his motor running.
I just have one complaint. In your terribly thorough history of this fine musician (he was a pretty fat nerd as a child), you got one fact wrong. He was not "the only child of a TWA executive." Not only did he have an older brother at the time they moved from Denver, nine years later he received a smart, talented, and beautiful sister ... me!
At any rate, I had to get that cleared up, as I'm sure our grandparents will read the article and be quite confused (and besides, our mom deserves the credit for those three births).
Other than that, thank you for the story, I am very proud of my Wong Fei Hong.
Location, Location, Etc.
Dear Louis Black,
Having lost interest in my studies in the seventh grade due to depression, and then dropping out of high school when I was a sophomore to marry my geometry teacher, there are, understandably, large cracks in the foundation of my education. In fact, I couldn't identify a prepositional participle if it was dangling in front of my modifier and I always use too many (and too few) commas. But I did thoroughly appreciate and enjoy your comments in the bass ackwards issue ["Page Two," Vol.18, No.31]. And despite my grammatical deficiencies, I want to thank you. Although most people (probably) had no clue as to what the blip you were talking about, I am paranoid enough suspect that it had something to do with the struggle between the self-righteous and other people like me. But I would have to be self-righteous to judge the self-righteous, wouldn't I? I've had enough therapy to know that I am usually wrong when I am paranoid, and I've dropped enough acid to know that the only thing I know for sure is that I don't know anything for sure. What I mean is, last week, since the paper was, ass it was, I thought it would be appropriate to read the last paragraph first, which (fortunately) I did, because it compelled me to read your entire enlightening article. It was the sentence "The medium is the massage" that grabbed me. I read that book in 1977. I didn't get it, but I can't forget it. Today, touch is the medium through which I teach; and your newspaper is the best and most wonderful place in the world to advertise, especially when my ad is on page two. I hope the new format is here to stay.
Austin Creatively Dead
After reading the very romantic piece on what forces an author to create ["Letters at 3AM," Vol.18, No.31], I have a rebuttal based on my experience as being both an ex-academic who deconstructs and an artist who creates. I hate to tell the author that both creativity and cultural studies are taught in academic situations. People pay the same amount of money to go to school to either learn how to write a book or learn how to find out what it means. The creative academics (and street artists alike) are both bent on exclusionary tactics as well. The very music or poetry that they create or enjoy serves to unite them against a world that doesn't understand what they are getting at. They have no "time" for people who don't understand. It reminds me of the interview with Rufus Wainwright I saw on KLRU the other night. He finally left art college after his professors who were teaching him opera were badmouthing him for his clothing style, and in turn, just weren't interested in having him as a student. That is why most artists fail. They have no interest in trying to reach an audience beyond themselves. They are already preaching to the converted. As a deconstructionist, once you get past the "jargon" you will see that they are simply interested in why the message either suceeds or fails. Here in Austin, the creative scene is at a standstill. Articles like this help assuage the panic by telling people that the reason we are bombing is because nobody understands. I love this city, but it's slowly becoming a dumping ground for every troubadour, white boy blues band, and shitty punk band that is looking for emotional support from other people who are "misunderstood." Austin is stuck in a time warp and needs to get over itself as being the next Hollywood or live music capital of the world if they even vaguely want to hold onto that status. It doesn't do any good to claim people like Lucinda Williams as our very own when she hasn't lived here in years and was probably taunted by every passing fratboy on the street as she played for spare change and say that we had something to do with her success. This is where the cultural studies aspect comes in: The scene in Austin has defined itself as what it is to the point of exclusion from years of our cultural history, and it wasn't done by academics. Newspapers, other artists, south by southwest, and the "greats" we have produced have done this. Art suffers and dies. The End. All the poets can write what they want. It doesn't mean there is an audience to listen.
The Price of Driving
Dear Mr. Black,
Take a chair and go sit on the sidewalk on the southeast corner of the Chronicle building. Sit there for 30 minutes. Listen ... smell ... feel ... watch.
Now tell us that what you hear, smell, feel, see makes any sense. If only one automobile every second passed (two or three times that many actually passed) within one hundred yards of where you are sitting, that's over 1,800 automobiles in 30 minutes. From 7am to 7pm (peak traffic period), more than 43,000 automobiles pass by that location.
Think of how much of your income goes for your automobile; payments, insurance, fuel, repairs (forget what you pay for infrastructure). Think of your air. Think of how many people died over the Easter weekend in automobile accidents, how many maimed.
In your drive to work this morning, how many times did you get angry? How many times did you feel the urge to act aggressively? How many times did you commit a criminal act? How many times did you exchange a friendly word, a smile, a nod with the hundreds of people that passed within a few feet of you?
And the reasons we think this is a good idea -- freedom, convenience, saving time, to much "stuff" to haul around?
Why do we think this makes any sense anymore?
James E. Burnside
This past week, my child brought home his choice sheet to determine his course plans for high school. My son was overwhelmed and a bit confused about what was presented and I sat down to look this information over with him. Plastered all over this documentation was a Web site address: http://www.logon.your/future. I attempted to access this resource, but to no avail. The next morning I called my son's counselor and set an appointment for them to discuss the selection sheet. I also obtained the names of the persons responsible for this Web page, Barbara Evans and Sari Waxler. I called and spoke with Ms. Waxler. I inquired about the Web page address on this documentation. I was told that it was only a "fancy logo" printed on the documentation and not a Web page. I was told that the intent was to appear slick and high-tech. Ms. Waxler also commented that I was not the only person who had tried to access it and could not.
In this computer literate society, certainly in high-tech Austin, I cannot comprehend the motivation to plaster this bogus Web address on resource documentation. It only urges me to question further the competence and integrity of AISD.
The Inuit Are Commies?
Communism has not quite been crushed beneath the Iron Heel of capitalism, yet, along with the hopes and dreams of the poor. Milosevic seeks to make a last stand, on principle, if nothing else, and of course he will use dissidents to do it.
In capitalist America, there are help programs that will get you from the underclass to the lower class, but that's as far as you'll go, because of class prejudice and the high cost of education. An upper-class person has a 19 times greater chance of getting a degree than a lower-class person.
If you have the talent to drive an 18-wheel truck and can pass a drug and background check (another form of discrimination), you'll wind up working for slave labor wages and be stuck in the under-class forever. And for God's sake, stop your whining, I'm sure Gov. Bush will give back your food stamps in time for the election. He's known for his compassionate conservativism.
The left in America has been submerged in the ecology movement(another cover for class privilege) and identity politics (race/ethnic pissing contests). The rest of the left has been bombed into oblivion by a vast right-wing conspiracy, an alliance of government and private forces, who encourage anyone not loyal to the regime to go and live with the Inuit in Canada.
Winfred J. Ener
Kosovo Belongs to Serbs
Hi! My name is Zoran. I am a Serb from Novi Sad, a city at the far north of Yugoslavia.
I wish that people that believe in liberty and justice would stop any further killings and destruction imposed by raving lunatics on Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia did not attack anybody, and the U.N. council did not pass any resolution giving way for this military operation. We are so small and yet the whole NATO is currently bombing us. They say they are against Milosevich; why are they bombing all the other 10 million? They say that they are bombing military targets, but why are they bombing hospitals, schools, and civilian houses? They say that refugees are running away from Milosevich's terror, or is it because of NATO bombs? Pristina is destroyed, mostly civilian houses.
Kosovo and Metohija are part of Serbia. It was Serbia long before America was discovered. It's part of our souls and we will defend it.
More than 450,000 Serbs are moved from Croatia to Serbia and forced to leave all they have behind. How many bombs has NATO sent to Croatia?
I hope that this is going to be over as soon as possible, and that all NATO soldiers come back safe to their homes.
Novi Sad, Yugoslavia
[Ed. note: The Chronicle received several similar letters from Yugoslavia via e-mail.]
This evening eight persons waited from 45 minutes to an hour in front of Belmont Hall at the University of Texas for the northbound No.7 bus. It was supposed to arrive at 8:59pm, but no bus arrived until 9:29pm. The driver who arrived at 9:29 said that he was the driver who was supposed to arrive a half hour earlier, but he could not drive the bus he normally drove. The brakes needed maintenance.
Why can't the city bus service check the buses before they are supposed to be driven? It is clear that the present system keeps passengers waiting. It is also clear in these circumstances why buses are thought to be erratic.
Kurt's Public Service Announcement
So Kate X Messer ["Public Notice," Vol.18, No.31] is shocked and aghast to discover that Gov. George W. Bush is not "gay friendly." How quaint.
Hey Kate, when they told you to "get out more often," they didn't mean just from your rock to a bar stool (or whatever y'all sit on). Kate's minions must really be drowning in denial and wishful thinking (as usual) to fabricate the lunacy that George Bush was ever "gay friendly." Earth to Kate ... Bush is a Republican Christian and you're outnumbered, Praise God!
Sure They Can
I turned on MSNBC and there was my governor George W. Bush, saying that every Texan was going to learn to read. I wanted to learn to read so I could read my brother's comic books. I wondered what an illiterate does in an information society for gainful employment and I wondered what was so wrong with schools that children didn't learn to read. They can't all be on drugs.
Sometimes I read the Chronicle online at an Internet coffee shop. I was scanning your archives; I read too many stories from the trenches of the drug war.
I found the following recently in my files. I wrote it three years ago after a guy in South Austin said I was lying about Federal legislation that allowed the death penalty for marijuana growing. After reading some of your archives, I decided this letter was relevant as ever. Please publish it. Maybe some will realize what the drug war has accomplished.