Forget About Six Degrees of Separation. Today Is Trending Toward No Degrees of Separation When It Comes to My Neighbors and Neighborhood Being in the News

My home diggings of North Texas aren’t exactly the center of the world (though the region is pretty central to a lot of things, including both U.S. coasts), we’re making news at the moment like we are not far removed from the center of the world. You can choose between the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good. For a couple of years, a patch of land abutting the George Bush Turnpike just south and a little east of my home and office has looked like a nestling ground for giant cranes—the building construction type.

Today, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told his readers an attention-arresting story about what is being built there. In Friedman’s words, “the most impressive project” promoting green ecological values he’s seen in America. It’s being built by Texas Instruments, the semiconductor chip manufacturer. If memory serves, the huge structure is costing a couple of billion dollars.

Friedman notes that what’s there at the new TI plant, fascinating as it is, isn’t as interesting as what isn’t there. One whole floor is missing, for example. Wafer-making plants usually have three floors, but this one only two. Why? Because with the help of Amory Lovins, the ecology-minded head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, TI’s sustainable design team found ways to compress the complex cooling and manufacturing process. The TI/RMI team cut utility costs by 20 percent and wafer usage by 35 percent. One complete huge industrial air conditioner was eliminated. And no detail was too small: the urinals use no water. The cost of TI’s new green building was cut by 30 percent from the cost of the company’s previous most comparable facility. This is one of those justifiable Texas-proud moments.

The Bad. We are in the midst of the worst drought in Texas since the 1950s, which was the worst (if memory serves) since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. You may have been reading about it. We’ve been losing virtually entire little towns to raging prairie fires, made super-incendiary by parched grasses and brush. (We ended 2005 about 17 inches below our yearly rainfall average.)

In my part of North Texas, a lot of the damage is silent and insidious. The reason is the soils that our houses, buildings and streets are built on. We call it gumbo. It’s a clay. When it gets wet, it expands like rising dough. And as it dries contracts like drying prunes. Our building foundations and street beds can’t take it. Large cracks open in walls and pavement. In the best of times moisture-wise, it’s like a slow-motion earthquake. In a severe drought, with our deep-rooted trees soaring up every available drop of underground moisture, it’s a contagion without a flame.

I’ve been lucky. Last spring, frustrated at my inability to keep the cracks in my walls at bay even though I was running soaker hoses around my foundation 24/7 and had installed 30 deep concrete piers to underpin my foundation, I called in a soil engineer. He had an idea. “Lets built a moat around your house and keep it filled,” he suggested. We did, and it has worked. My house has remained stable because it sits on continuously wet clay now. The water bill is high. But I just look at it as an increase in the cost of my insurance.

The Ugly. The new A&E cop show, Dallas SWAT, pushes the American psyche several degrees closer to the depravity of the Roman Empire’s gladiator days. In a state that ranks close to the bottom in almost any listing of the 50 states’ expenditures for caring for its poor, its mentally ill, its children and its prisoners, we really didn’t need this grotesque, nightmarish “Blade Runner”-in-real-life reminder of what our Texas tax dollars are actually spent for. And what really gets glorified in this schizophrenic state’s pantheon of he-man pursuits and excesses.

America is a very violent country. Our police are as violent as almost any in the world because the streets where they work are often as violent as almost any in the world. But any time you dramatize a Texas slice of life, it seems to loom larger than life. Why couldn’t A&E have used Philadelphia’s SWAT team? Or Phoenix’s? They all look the same. Their swagger is similar. Their often automaton-like procedures all follow the same rules. The Dallas Police Department is a troubled department. Poor management and leadership, under-funding and the societal immaturity of the city it serves are obstacles against which it constantly struggles. The city and the department needed its Orwellian-like SWAT team featured on worldwide TV like they needed another fake drug scandal.

And that’s the way it is in North Texas today, Mr. Cronkite.

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