Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
That has certainly been true for divorced Austin dad, "M," who asked that his real name not be used to protect his son's privacy.
M dropped his preteen off at the boy's mother's house after a regularly scheduled visit in March. Then M didn't get to see his son again until Independence Day.
Instead of returning the son to his dad two weeks later, as agreed in a hard-fought custody order, M's ex-wife refused to release the child, who has a medical condition that puts him at risk if he catches COVID.
"She said, 'You can't see your kid because of COVID. I'm not going to let you have him at all," said M. "The pandemic helped her use his health against me."
A high level of fear
Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.
"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."
And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.
Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.
Now trust is eroding, he said.
"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."
Help from the courts
In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.
It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.
The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.
An uneasy arrangement
Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.
As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.
"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.
New lines of communication
Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.
Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.
"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."
Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."
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It's official, jack-of-all-trades Matthew McConaughey is staying out of politics and not running for Texas governor.
In a video posted to social media on Sunday, the Academy award-winning actor set the record straight that he would not be running for governor after greatly considering so by listening and learning about Texas and U.S. politics.
"As a simple kid born in Uvalde, Texas, it never occurred to me that I would one day be considered for political leadership. It's an inspiring and humbling path to ponder," McConaughey said. "It is also a path I am choosing not to take at this moment."
Instead, McConaughey says he will continue to invest in entrepreneurs, businesses and foundations he believes are supporting people in different ways.
The announcement puts an end to the months of speculation that he could announce a bid for governor. While he's previously called politics a "bag of rats" and little indicated he was mulling a run as the Dec. 13 deadline to file was approaching, he still fared well among some voters.
The latest poll by the University of Texas and Dallas Morning News showed he would beat Gov. Greg Abbott by eight percentage points in a head-to-head matchup and would fare even better alone against former congressman Beto O'Rourke, with nearly 50% of respondents choosing McConaughey.
The primaries for the election will take place in March before the November 2022 election for governor. So far, O'Rourke is running as a Democrat against Michael Cooper, president of the Beaumont NAACP, and Deirdre Gilbert, an educator from the Houston area. On the other side, Gov. Greg Abbott is up against conservative commentator Chad Prather and former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West.
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There is a fearless declaration of the obvious in “Being Texan: Essays, Recipes, and Advice for the Lone Star Way of Life,” a book that invites its readers to recall the power and panache of the late Texas Gov. Anne Richards, before getting schooled on no less than twenty types of taco.
Released this month, “Being Texan” is the first of several Texas Monthly titles to come in the build-up to the magazine's upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023. It is divided into four sections: Identity & Culture, Town & Country, Arts & Entertainment and Food & Drink.
In the introduction, titled “What Does it Mean to Be Texan?,” Texas Monthly editor Dan Goodgame addressed the eclectic aspirations of the book, writing: “Our modest goal was to craft a well-informed, thoughtful sampling of the best the state has to offer.” To this humble end, forty-two editors were utilized to cover fifty-five topics, which tackle everything from the various dress codes that make up “Texas chic” to Selena’s ongoing appeal.
The resulting richness is all over the map, running from Texas Monthly Senior Editor John Nova Lomax’s frustration over the frequent mispronunciations of Texas cities (“From Amarila to Wad-a-loop”) to Oscar Casares’s bittersweet essay on Dia de Los Muertos in the time of COVID (“Souls of the Departed”).
The book goes from silly to serious fast, and the pace might unseat some readers who would otherwise just enjoy the ride of pride that comes from being reminded that Texas gave the world Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Dr. Pepper, Liquid Paper and the microchip.
So, in a book that switches from the state’s early instance on remaining a slave republic to a piece about collecting San Antonio ghost stories, it perhaps goes without saying that the essays on brisket and beer are the easiest to digest.
“Being Texan” does, in truth, contain some delicious and downright literary food writing.
Joe Galvan’s “Ode to the Raspa,” treats the summertime shaved ice staple as nothing less than a kind of edible ambassador of U.S. cuisine. “They serve as an important and necessary reminder of the fluctuating, imprecise words that American food inhabits,” he writes like some semiotics professor, before waxing poetic on how raspas embody childhood innocence as well as “the humidity of a July evening that finds itself at the bottom of a Styrofoam cup.”
But readers who are tempted to skim the section on “Strong Texas Women” or “The Evolution of Juneteenth” to get to Paula Forbes’ warning not to skip the processed cheese when slow cooking queso, will have missed out on some deep insight into what it means to embrace all the appealing and uneasy aspects of the state.
In “A Tale of Two High Schools,” Dan Q. Dao, details how, as a Vietnamese kid growing up in Houston, he employed the tropes of Texas culture as a tool of survival. “Perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation, I became enamored with the gilded mythology of Texas, from the folklore of the Alamo to the twang of country music. I wore cowboy boots, showed up for Friday night football games, and rarely missed a rodeo,” writes Dao, observing that: “Part of me believed that if I proclaimed my Texanness loudly enough, I would be spared the label of outsider.”
The dilemma of the homegrown Texas outsider is artfully explored in Skip Hollandsworth’s “Why McMurtry Matter,'' a meditation on the ironic popularity of Larry McMurtry, a writer who wrestled with his relationship to Texas--particularly the Hollywood myths and misconceptions that surrounded the state. Speaking about (to his mind) the perplexing success of “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry said: “All I had wanted to do was write a novel that demythologized the West. Instead, it became the chief source of western mythology. Some things you cannot explain.”
There is much about Texas itself that seems hard to explain.
But David Courtney, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, does a good job of speculating on this rare amalgam of conservative pride and fearless experimentation that tends to run through the state, when he writes “Texans believe they possess something deep within themselves that sets them apart, and therefore they kind of do.”
Despite the surface-level accessibility of a book that addresses the cultural significance of Neiman Marcus and the extreme brand loyalty to Whataburger, “Being Texan” offers rare input regarding Texas and its citizenry, as well as handy advice for breaking in a pair of cowboy boots.
'Not a band, an experience': Musician Pete Monfre pushes the boundaries of making it in the music industry
In a city where live music is heralded above all else, Pete Monfre was surprised to find local musicians working for free that he quit the industry for 10 years in 2006.
Local musicians tended to be underpaid before COVID-19 sent the music industry reeling, but the fallout from the pandemic exasperated the existing problems. Musician and marketer Monfre knows—he’s been behind that shaking tip jar, trying to turn a profit while doing what he loves. He’s tackling the problem with a unique brand of live shows, which go against the grain, mix business with pleasure and help bring home the bacon.
The shows, called Stories from the Road, are an informal storytelling jam session at The Saxon Pub that encourages interaction between the artist and audience.
After a brief hiatus due to ongoing woes of the pandemic Stories from the Road came back to The Saxon Pub on Saturday. It was the first of 23 consecutive shows that didn’t sell out, which Monfre attributes to the break of not having shows.
“We called it Stories from the Road—not a band, an experience,” Monfre said. “We're not going to rehearse, we're not going to have a list, we're not going to prepare, every show is a one-off and you will never see it again.”
His shows start early at 6 p.m., with a rotating group of musicians playing blues or Americana who need not rehearse. This time it featured Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff on saxophone and harmonica, bassist Mark Epstein, drummer Kevin Hall and Adam Pryor on Hammond Organ.
You’ll probably end up spending a bit more than the typical show at the Saxon Pub, around $30 per person, but each show goes directly to supporting the artists that made it.
“Part of the mission was to advocate for fair wages for musicians and to help musicians understand their economic value,” Monfre said. “Now I can afford to pay musicians a modest guarantee and we call that the Fair Play approach to live music.”
Monfre moved to Austin as a young adult with the intention of “conquering the music industry” in 1981, which he told Austonia he did not do but did meet “a lot of interesting people.” He left Austin to tour for a few years, then moved to Milwaukee, where he continued to play music.
After returning to Austin in 2006, Monfre discovered some musicians were playing shows for free.
“I'm playing in Chicago and Michigan and hardcore blues places, and we don't play for free,” Monfre said. “So I actually quit for 10 years. There is no reason to play for free whatsoever if you just get the model right.”
Having already tried to conquer the music industry once, Monfre took a business-forward approach the second time. The model also caters to what he believes is an underserved group: working professionals who want to meet like-minded individuals but also be home by 9 p.m.
Chief Technology Officer for Economic Transformation Technologies David Smith, who has been coming to other Monfre shows since they started in 2016, said he enjoys the improvisational nature of the shows because it reminds him of old Austin.
“The Stories from the Road get back to the root of what music is: the fact that you can sit and jam, make music with musicians because they understand music, and that's the soul of Austin,” Smith said. “It really is a celebration of music.”
Monfre said the informality is what makes his shows so popular—you’ll hear the musicians ask the key for a song, take a request from the crowd, make a lighthearted jab at one another or create a song from scratch.
“They want to see the sausage being made, it's really funny I would have never thought it,” Monfre said.
Price (right) said he was happy the show ended early so he could make it home to Lampasas. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
“I am knocked out. It just really didn't get any better than what we just had—this band was so good, the crowd was so good,” Price said. “That's what Austin in the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about, just everybody throwing it together.”
Stories from the Road is returning to The Saxon Pub stage on Dec. 18, with a completely new group of musicians. The show, like always, will start at 6 p.m.
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