#7 Surviving Wonderland when drugs to bad

Let me start with an apology to those who listened to last week’s Open Blog Friday on Gone to Texas on Blog Talk Radio. The audio was garbled in some places, and hard to understand in other places.  The nice folks at Blog Talk Radio didn’t know what happened.

Our engineering staff here at the ranch came up with some possibilities: solar flares, earthquakes, and epilepsy seizures combining for that much-overused phrase, a perfect storm of electromagnetic disturbances that interfered with the phone system we use for the show.

OK, so what do you do if you have epilepsy, particularly temporal lobe epilepsy, and your medication goes bad on you?  In other words, what happens when you become drug-resistant? That’s one of the areas we’ll examine today on the big blogcast.

We originally scheduled Sharon to be our guest, as she was with programs 1 and 2, but last night was a bad night.  She had three seizures just after midnight, which is unusual. But that’s all right, because we will still look at some of the issues, and I have some excerpts from her book in search of an agent or publisher: Surviving Wonderland, my life with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Here’s a programming note, but not about this show. I’ll be one of the guests this afternoon, on Together Again Radio with relationship coaches Marsha Dean Walker and Jim Eastwood.  We’ll discuss discrimination faced by the older, long-term unemployed jobseekers. (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/lwl-radio/2011/03/14/together-again-with-coach-marsha-and-coach-jim)

This is a 90-minute live call-in show that deals with various aspects of relationships – health, emotional wellness, intimacy and  finances. This week kicks off a three-part series on gender, age, and weight discrimination.

Also on the program will be psychologist and author Dr. Nancy Irwin, an agent of change who will offer some insight about the learned behavior of bias.

Now, then, let me share with you some recent epilepsy news related to our topic today.

This first comes from Triple Helix Online (http://triplehelixblog.com/2011/01/nervous-system-mysteries-the-social-stigma-surrounding-epilepsy). The name of the article is Nervous System Mysteries: the Social Stigma Surrounding Epilepsy by Paulomi Bhattacharya.

He points out, as we mentioned last week, that doctors diagnose about 200,000 new cases of epilepsy a year, that’s around a little more than 500 a day.  Even so, epilepsy remains largely overlooked and underfunded.  That underfunding, according to this author, is at about $35 per patient compared to multiple sclerosis that comes in at $280 per patient, which is eight times greater.

Bhattacharya continues by pointing out victims of this ailment remain as ostracized from society as they did ten, twenty, even thirty years ago.

Commonly referred to as a “storm in the brain,” epilepsy is so frightening because of its unpredictable nature and the patient’s complete loss of self-control. The repeated seizures that burden the lives of epileptic patients are episodes of abnormal neuronal activity, caused primarily by excessive electrochemical signals in the brain.

When these unprovoked electrical impulses take place, patients lose complete control of their mental and physical functions.  This sudden response can be characterized by a wide range of symptoms, from blank stares and small jerking movements to uncontrollable convulsions and loss of consciousness.

Epilepsy presents its patients with psychological and social challenges, and the stigma that is automatically attributed to them because of this disorder is in no way easy to deal with.

Bhattacharya says that because the brain is such a vital part of the human body, one major challenge for epileptic patients is definitely coming to terms with the fact that their brains work differently. Patients have a deeply altered perception of themselves and struggle with accepting their condition, especially in relation to everyone else around them. As Michael D. Hills from the Department of Psychology at the University of Waikato puts it, epileptic individuals face a sort of identity crisis — the traumatic question of “Who am I?”

In addition, epilepsy is often known as an “invisible” disease, because the seizures are so sudden and have no apparent cause. As a result, a fear of the unknown develops in the epileptic individual, as they never know when a seizure will strike. Apprehension, anxiety, and constant depression are unavoidable as they struggle with the sudden nature of the disease and consequently often deny that they have such an illness. Hills states that this denial leads to “concealment” and patients’ refusal for both treatment and support.

Ultimately, epileptic patients feel that they are already so alienated from others because their brains function differently, and the sudden nature of this disease only leads them to isolate themselves even more. Victims plunge themselves into a world of loneliness as they struggle to come to terms with a disease that attacks without warning and accept themselves as different.

Self-alienation and social discrimination often combine to keep people with epilepsy, or those who believe they may have it, from taking the time to sit with their family doctors, neurologists, or other healthcare providers to provide an honest assessment of their condition and what happens to them on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Indeed, some people with epilepsy may not remember some of things that happen to them or with them.

On the Web site Mediplacements (http://www.mediplacements.com/article-800452634-epilepsy_patients_more.html) is this article from March 9: Epilepsy patients more worried about memory loss than doctors.

The piece says researchers at The Ohio State University found that people with epilepsy ranked memory loss as their second most important concern on a list of 20 potential anxieties, while physicians placed the potential memory loss of those with epilepsy at number 12 the on the list.

Both patients and physicians agreed that experiencing an unexpected seizure, the legal right or ability to drive, and seizures not under control are in the top five worries for those with epilepsy.

The spokesperson for the university described the study as a “wake up call” to those working with individuals with epilepsy. “Indirectly, we address memory concerns in the clinic by addressing seizures. But we don’t typically sit down with a patient and say ‘tell me about your memory’”, he said.

Back on Jan. 11, Epilepsy.com (http://www.epilepsy.com/epilepsy/newsletter/jan11_onmymind) ran an article on the side effects of anti-seizure medication, also known as anti-epileptic medications, or AEDs.

These medications are arbitrarily divided into two groups; first (AEDs approved prior to 1993) and second generation AEDs (those drugs approved 1993 and later).

First generation AEDs include agents phenobarbital, phenytoin, ethosuximide, carbamazepine, valproic acid, primidone and the benzodiazepines—lorazepam, diazepam and clonazepam.

Second generation AEDs are felbamate, gabapentin, lamotrigine, tiagabine, topiramate, levetiracetam, zonisamide, oxcarbazepine, vigabatrin, rufinamide, lacosamide, and pregabalin.

The question most often asked of the author by his patients and other physicians is which medication he prefers to prescribe? The question is deceptively simple, he says, because the answer is based on a number of factors that include matching the right drug to seizure type, the drug’s mechanism of action, its interactions with other medications and most importantly, the expected side effects.

Side-effects often determine whether a drug treatment will be successful or whether it will fail from the start, he says. A given response to an AED can be unique as the individual taking the drug.

It is important to remember one basic fact, all drugs have side effects. All one has to do is spend some time on the FDA website to realize the number of potential side-effects that can occur with the use of any AED. So how does one choose between these adverse effects? Oftentimes, it is trying to predict which side-effect is potentially tolerable to an individual versus those which are not.

There are many adverse effects commonly noted with first generation AEDs. Double vision, is often seen with carbamazepine and phenytoin use. Weight gain is associated with valproic acid. Conversely, weight loss is seen with ethosuximide. Reversible tremor to the degree that it can mimic Parkinson’s disease and hair loss can often be noted with the use of valproic acid. Rash occurs with carbamazepine and phenytoin use. Gum enlargement, otherwise known as gingival hyperplasia is a common effect of long term phenytoin exposure. Low sodium levels, otherwise known as hyponatremia is seen with carbamazepine. Blood changes, such as diminished white cell counts can be seen with carbamazepine and phenytoin which could reduce one’s ability to fight infection. A decrease in platelets (important for blood clotting) is a concern with valproic acid. Osteoporosis has been reported to occur with long-term use of carbamazepine, phenobarbital, phenytoin and primidone. Tiredness or sleepiness is commonly noted with phenobarbital and the benzodiazepines. These effects must be taken into account when making a decision as to which drug to use.

Second generation AEDs are not immune to adverse effects. For instance, weight gain is associated with the use of gabapentin. Behavioral changes such as moodiness or irritability is commonly seen with the use of levetiracetam. Low sodium is seen with oxcarbazepine. If an individual has a first-degree relative, i.e., sibling or parent with a history of renal stones, topiramate and zonisamide can potentially cause renal stones in the individual as well. Rash has been reported to occur with lamotrigine, particularly if the dose is increased quickly. There can be EKG changes that occur with the use of lacosamide or rufinamide. Peripheral visual field loss is a serious manifestation of vigabatrin use and topiramate should not be used in persons with glaucoma. Meaningful decreases in white and red blood cell counts have been noted with felbamate exposure.

The author concludes by pointing out that a lot of different adverse effects can be associated with the use of various AEDs.  That is why patients and their doctors must be constantly aware of the common adverse effects that occur in patients so that one can ask their physician for another option that does not cause that particular side-effect. It is only by an open and honest dialogue between a healthcare professional and an individual with epilepsy that good solutions can come about and positive change can occur to ensure good quality of life.

As I noted earlier, Sharon was scheduled to continue her discussion of her temporal lobe epilepsy that we started last week, but she got hit with three seizures very early this morning.  She planned to talk about her inability to take AEDs, and to share with us a chapter from her unpublished book about her life with temporal lobe epilepsy.  Here it is:

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Getting off the meds, my year in Hell

By the start of 2009, I realized the medication prescribed to control my temporal lobe epilepsy and the pain that went along with it had taken control of my life.  I had become zombie-like and thought about death every day.  And, if living the life of the undead while constantly thinking about dying weren’t enough, my electrical pain had increased to the point that I couldn’t sleep through the night.

Each morning began with me reaching for my pain meds and anti-epilepsy drugs before I even got a cup of coffee or thought about the day ahead.   By that time, each day was melding into the next as I sat in my chair and stared at the walls.  I frequently thought about death while many times feeling overwhelmed by hopelessness.  I attributed these feelings to the chemical cocktail.

One morning, my husband called me into the bedroom to watch a news story about Davocet, one of my prescribed painkillers.  The Food and Drug Administration was considering taking it off of the market because its ability to kill pain was low, but the risk of accidental death from taking it was quite high.  And I was taking the maximum dose.

I started taking Darvocet in 2001 when my family physician prescribed it for intractable migraines.  She assured me it was safe and even told me I could take up to six tabs a day.  I didn’t use it on a daily basis until the headaches got out of control, which was about the same time I started having an increase in multi-sensory hallucinations and other issues associated with temporal lobe epilepsy.

When I saw the psychiatrist who diagnosed my TLE, I wanted him to stop the intense pain that made me want to hurt myself, to stop the fear from seeing horrible and hellish scenes every day in my bedroom, and to fix whatever was wrong with me.  He prescribed four Darvocet spaced during the day to deaden the pain and Xanax to help me sleep through the nightly terrors and the worst of the seizures.  He also prescribed Neurontin and Clonazepam as additional anti-epilepsy drugs, which my Utah neurologist continued to prescribe.

I did as I was told, just as I always do, which resulted in hooking me on the Darvocet.

Even though at least three doctors had assured me Darvocet was a safe drug, I figured I’d better do my own research after I saw the story.  The Web is a wonderful tool, and my degree in health information has helped me use the Web to find information about my condition and medication that my healthcare providers either didn’t know about or didn’t tell me.  The public information I found about Darvocet made me question why I was still on the drug, especially when it wasn’t stopping the pain and was endangering my health and my life.

I was taking it six times a day, so I figured I could get completely off within a six-week period by substituting acetaminophen, which dulled the pain somewhat.  I was not prepared for the strength of my functional addiction.

Getting off the Darvocet was painful and scary.  I felt sick, really sick, for a long time.  But that was only the beginning, because the Darvocet covered up problems with my other medication, especially the pain-related issues.  As a result, I ended up withdrawing from six drugs before the year was out.

Neurontin followed the Darvocet, but I decided to withdraw gradually just in case the withdrawal added to my pain, which always increases seizure activity, which always increases pain.  Even though I gradually reduced my daily dosage of Neurontin, the full-body pain intensified until it was all day, every day.  I expected to feel rough physically for the first three months off of Darvocet and Neurontin, but I didn’t anticipate the level of pain, which was never below a 2 on a 1-10 scale, sometimes spiking to an 8 or a 9 at night.  The gradual reduction of Neurontin, though, gave me back my short-term memory.  I felt less depressed, less frozen, less hopeless, and less inclined to tears.  I also got back some of my creativity.

Xanax was the next to go.  My husband, however, insisted that this time I get a schedule from my primary-care physician instead of doing it on my own.  Six weeks later, I was off the Xanax.  During that time, I called the doctor twice wanting to throw the entire bottle away, because the pain I felt frightened me.  He made me stick to the schedule out of concern that sudden withdrawal would throw me into more seizures.

After the Xanax, I got off Clonazepam, an anticonvulsant I took for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It affected me the same as Xanax, electrical pain on ingesting it.

By mid-summer, I looked like hell and felt worse.  All I could think about was getting through the next minute, the next hour, the next day.  My husband was a runner in high school and college.  He always says that he pushed through the pain by telling himself the agony only lasted for a few minutes, but a victory lasted forever.  I just kept telling myself that it would soon be over.

My seizures increased and my doctor was genuinely afraid for my safety.  He insisted I find a local neurologist instead of dealing with the one in Utah.  I had another AED I wanted to stop taking, but he refused to be responsible.

In the meantime, I got off Minocycline on my own.  My dermatologist prescribed it because seizures made my face break out.  She did not monitor it, though.   I started to get dark marks on my face that looked like irregular bruises.  They came from an iron build up in my system caused by the drug.   Minocycline may have been the best drug for acne, but in combination with one of the AEDs, it was destroying my skin.  So, I decided it was going in the trash, as well.  My bruises gradually cleared up when I stopped the Minocycline.

Five months after I began my voluntary withdrawal, I made an appointment with a neurologist I thought was a major epilepsy specialist in Houston.   I made my decision after looking at his Website, which listed and explained much of the medication I had taken.  His personal information was “warm and fuzzy” and led me to believe he would be interested in helping me.  My goal was to get off the Neurontin totally, but on a safe schedule, and to make sure Topamax was the right drug for me.  I also wanted to understand my constant, unrelenting, and increasing pain.

By now my withdrawal count was four and it was August.  I was sure the end was in sight.  I typed up my information that described my seizures in detail, gave a good background history, and hoped he was the person for me.  Five minutes into the visit, I knew I was wrong.

This doctor didn’t care where the epilepsy was “sitting” in my brain.  To him, a seizure was a seizure.  He was very disturbed that I heard voices.  He told me up front that I was psychotic, because, in his opinion, voices did not accompany epilepsy.  He then sent a recommendation to my general physician that I see a psychiatrist, totally ignoring the fact that I had been in therapy for the past six years.  It was at that point I realized he didn’t really know what he was talking about.

And things got worse when he began to talk about surgery.  I was determined, however, to get my money’s worth by playing along and getting a withdrawal schedule for the Neurontin.  His answer was to stop cold turkey.  He said Topamax was the drug for me and doubled my dosage.  He then scheduled an MRI, which was a source of contention, because I wanted to do it near my house and not an hour’s drive to the other side of the city for his convenience.  We finally settled on an imaging lab about ten minutes from the house.  That was the last time I saw him.  My reasoning was that I needed the MRI, but I had no plans of returning to him.

Thirty years ago, even twenty years ago, I would have been a “good girl” like another neurologist insisted I be, and blindly believed the doctor was acting in my best interest, simply because he was a specialist and board certified.  I now know better.  I know what my husband used to say when he was a working journalist: trust but verify.  Patients have to be partners in their health care, and sometimes that means trusting in their instincts and on past experiences and learning as much about the medical condition as possible.

When I got home, I increased the Topamax, which worsened the pain and made breathing difficult.  I went back to my low dosage.  Going cold turkey on the Neurontin was painful, but I figured my body would adjust and the pain would go away.  I was so wrong.  The pain increased to a level that kept me from concentrating or interacting with others.  It started around 9 o’clock each evening and intensified until about 6 o’clock the next morning.  I slept very little and paced a great deal.

I started playing solitaire to try to deal with the pain. I found that moving my hands and keeping my mind occupied allowed me to carry on a conversation easier.  It was my personal way of dealing with the chronic and seemingly unstoppable pain.

I tried several alternative forms of healthcare and healing as I went through my withdrawals, some of them worked and some failed with much distress to me.  Acupuncture may have been the biggest disappointment.  Our insurance does not cover acupuncture, but I know people who get pain relief from it.  Our area of Houston does not have many acupuncturists and even fewer that seemed appealing.  Regardless of what they say, acupuncture does not cure diseases, make the lame walk, or the blind see.  After considerable research and unreturned phone calls, I found an acupuncturist within twenty minutes of our house.

My first visit was amazing.  For the first time in several months, I had no pain.  The fear, depression, and anxieties associated with chronic pain left.  “Thank, God,” I exclaimed several times over the next few days.  I felt relief and optimism.

Then came the second visit.  At the first visit, I told the lady about my TLE and its effects.  She seemed to understand what I wanted and what I needed.  Something happened during the two weeks between visits, though.  At the start of the second session, she talked about acupuncture as a cure for epilepsy.  I told her again that I took medication to control the seizures, and that all I wanted was relief from the pain.  She ignored me and proceeded to do something, I don’t know what, but it sent me right back into the pain cycle.  I cannot express how angry I was.  For the first time in months, I could manage my pain with aspirin, exercise, and massages.  I slept through the night.  I could interact with my family.  I felt normal.  Now, all of that was gone, needlessly, in my opinion.

I try to do some Pilates exercises every day, or at least several times a week.  I know I have to stick with it, no matter how badly I feel, because I can see the gains from it.  I would like to take outside lessons, but we can’t afford it, and I’m concerned about how I’d do in a group of women.  I remember what happened during the meditation group in Salt Lake City.

Massages helped for a while, until the pain got so bad that I couldn’t stand to be touched.  That was too bad, because my muscles knotted up against the pain, which caused more pain, which the massages alleviated somewhat for a few days.

Creative work sometimes took my mind off of the pain.  I started making jewelry again, continued writing about my condition, and returned to sketching.  Drawing took no mental exertion.  I could do it while listening to book CDs or watching television.  It helped with the frozen feeling I had experienced for so long.  It also took my mind off of the anxieties over my battles with Social Security, which kept denying my disability appeals.

As the summer came to a close, my Utah neurologist said the drug withdrawals caused my pain and that my body would “reset” soon.  Two months later, with no relief in sight, I went back to my general practitioner who honestly didn’t know what to do with me.  We tried Tramadol to break the pain cycle, but I ended up in a cardiologist’s office a few days later after having what appeared to be a heart attack.  It wasn’t; it was just a reaction to the Tramadol.

After the Tramadol fiasco, I was left with Topamax as my only prescribed medication.  But, my life was getting worse.  The Topamax was causing new side effects that could have been the result in the change to the generic form of the AED.  The patent expired, and our insurance covered only the generic version; otherwise, we’d have to shell out several hundred dollars a month for the original.

Generic drugs are cheaper, yes, but the dirty little secret pharmaceuticals don’t tell you is that generic drugs are not always the same as the name brands because of formula differences.  Prof. Jacqueline French, M.D., a researcher at New York University Langone Medical Center, gave a clear explanation of generic drugs at a conference in October 2009.  She said generic drugs must have between 80 percent and 125 percent of the name-brand formula with a 90-percent assurance.  Different companies use different amounts.  This means one batch of generic drug may contain only 80 percent of the active ingredient of the original, or maybe 25 percent more than the original, with either amount causing really bad drug reactions for people sensitive to their medications, like I am.

Another  problem Dr. French pointed out was that each time a prescription is filled, it can be from a different company, which could be anywhere in the world, and could result in adverse side effects or seizure breakthroughs.  In addition, generics can contain other substances not found in the original that may cause problems to some individuals.  She went on to state that no one has studied this so there is a lot of uncertainty.

The worst issue is the cost.  Continuing to use a name-brand drug after a generic is available can run in the thousands of dollars, as was the case for me with Topamax and its generic form.  Insurance companies switch patients to generic brands if the doctor does not clearly specify not to substitute a generic.  This practice by insurance companies forces most patients to choose between their pocketbooks and their health, and sometimes their health pays the price.

It is my belief that when I switched from Topamax to its generic form, I was inadvertently poisoning myself.  My original side effects for the Topamax, which included heartburn, an upset stomach, and a bitter taste, came back and were accompanied by a new group of symptoms that included swollen arms and legs, skin rashes, skin sensitivity to the point I could no longer wear makeup, chest pain, electrical pain, and severe joint pain that hurt worse than when I broke my arm many years ago.

I was afraid to get off the Topamax because it had given me back my sanity, but it was obvious from my pain and other symptoms that it was slowly, but surely, killing me.

There was another possibility to my suffering, though: Lyme Disease.  I was tested for it twice, with negative results, but tests for Lyme return a high percent of false negatives.

My general physician recommended a neurologist for me to see, not wanting to leave it up to chance this time around.

On my first visit, I was aware she was different from the rest, probably because she ordered around $7,500 in blood tests, 18 vials worth.  She also ordered an EEG and an EMG, because she suspected from my muscle weakness that I might have Lupus or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

She also wanted to switch me from Topamax to Keppra.  I had researched Keppra prior to the visit and felt it was the only drug left in the group of AEDs that might be safe.  I already suspected Topamax was contributing to my pain, so I agreed, because I needed to know the truth.

Withdrawal from the Topamax was extremely painful and took four weeks, but by the end of the time my strength was returning.  My skin had cleared and the brown marks were disappearing from my face.  The swelling in my arms and legs went away and I began to feel normal and clear.

I was still in pain to some extent, but clear.  She increased my Keppra, but then all hell broke loose! I was so wound up that I wanted to hurt myself.  Back in her office again for the test results, I found that I did not have a degenerative nerve disease, and she decreased my Keppra.  She also prescribed a small dose of Valium to stop the muscle spasms and the pulling on my joints.  I discovered a direct correlation between Valium and the reduction of my symptoms when I went in for my MRI on my back a couple of weeks earlier.

When I took the Valium, small dose though it was, I slept for the first time in months.  The pain stopped.  The relief was so intense that I was unable to express it to my family.  I didn’t say much about what was happening, because I couldn’t describe it adequately.  Chronic pain is not only hard to bear, but it also does ugly things to the person.  It made me forget all about the outside world as I focused on survival.  It is not an experience I wanted to continue, and the thought of dealing with it for years on end left me hopeless.

The absence of the pain was such a strong relief that I did not want to think about the possibility of its return if my new drug regimen failed.  Nearly 40 percent of epilepsy patients are resistant to drugs, according to Dr. French.

The final test, this one to check for nerve damage in my legs, was on December 28, 2009.  It had been almost a year since I decided to get off of my drugs.  A year in Hell I did not want to repeat.

That passage is from Sharon’s unpublished book: Surviving Wonderland, my life with temporal lobe epilepsy.  That’s also the name of her Web site (http://survivingwonderland.webplus.net) where you can follow her diary entries and  learn more about the condition.

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March 14 guest appearance

I’ll be one of the guests Monday, March 14, on “Together Again Radio” with relationship coaches Marsha Dean Walker and Jim Eastwood.  We’ll discuss discrimination faced by the older, long-term unemployed jobseekers.

The show begins at 6:30 pm Central time; I’m scheduled to join the discussion around 7:15.

This is a 90-minute live call-in show that deals with various aspects of relationships – health, emotional wellness, intimacy and  finances. This week kicks off a three-part series on gender, age and weight discrimination.

Also on the program will be psychologist and author Dr. Nancy Irwin, an agent of change who will offer some insight about the leaned behavior of bias.

Here’s a Monday program note for Gone to Texas.

Sharon will continue her discussion about living with temporal lobe epilepsy, particularly the frustrations, disappointments, and dangers of being the “hard patient”, which is someone who cannot take anti-seizure medication (AEDs) because they don’t work anymore.

That’s tomorrow at 2pm Central on the big blogcast (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/johndavidpowell/2011/03/14/7-surviving-wonderland–issues-facing-people-with-epilepsy)

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/lwl-radio/2011/03/14/together-again-with-coach-marsha-and-coach-jim

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#6 Open Blog Friday: Japan earthquake, solar flares, gas boycott and more

Are solar flares responsible for epilepsy seizures and earthquakes?

NASA has just an amazing image of the March 9  powerful solar flare, an X1.5-class explosion from the behemoth sunspot 1166 around 2323 UT, that would be 5:23pm Central time two days ago. The movie taken from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a bright flash of UV radiation plus some material hurled from the blast site. (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/News031011-xclass.html)

NASA also says that yesterday, March 10, around 0630 UT, which would be 12:30 am Central time here at ShadeyHill Ranch, a coronal mass ejection, or CME struck a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field. This was a result of an M3 flare belched out from the sun late on Monday, March 7.  NASA says that flare headed toward us at 2,200 km/sec.

The London Daily Mail has an extraordinary image of a smoke ring created by the aftermath of a March 3 solar eruption, the photo by amateur astronomer using a small telescope, and that sunspot is the size of Planet Earth. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1364818/A-smoke-ring-emitted-sun-captured-amateur-astronomer.html)

But, let me get back to that CME, or solar flare, that hit Earth yesterday morning around 12:30.  Do solar flares and other electromagnetic or geomagnetic activity adversely affect people with epilepsy? To tell you the truth, I don’t know.  All I can go on right now is through personal accounts on various epilepsy forums and by observing what happens with my wife Sharon who has temporal lobe epilepsy.  Sharon was our guest on our first two shows this week.

She’s has continuous pain associated with seizures and with her withdrawal from Valium, which in itself is pretty nasty, even though she didn’t take enough of the stuff to knock out a fly.  So, it’s not unusual for her to wake up in the middle of the night and go to another room to walk off the pain so she can get back to sleep.

Well, about 12:30 yesterday morning, which is the same time as the solar flare hit the planet, she bolted awake and wanted to know why I had slapped her in the head.  Not only had I not slapped her, it would have been physically impossible to touch her, given that my arms were wrapped up in the covers because she has to have the thermostat set at 65 during the night.

Did the seizure she had later in the day yesterday have anything to do with the solar flare? Who knows?  I’d also like to know if there is a correlation between seismic activity and seizure activity.  I mean, we know animals, fish, and birds seem to predict earthquakes, so why would it be strange to consider the possibility that people who suffer from seizure disorders can also sense impending earthquakes?

I’m looking at an Aaron’s Reality blog posting right now from January written by someone who says his worst seizures come when we get hit by massive solar flares. I have a link to it on our blog.  He also suggests that these solar eruptions play a role in earthquakes, which I’ll get to in a moment. (http://aaronsreality.blogspot.com/2011/01/certain-types-of-epilepsy-and-solar.html)

Someone responded to this blog by saying that he, also, experiences an increase in seizures when we get hit by solar flares.

Here’s another blog on the Coping with Epilepsy site (http://www.coping-with-epilepsy.com/forums/f23/seizures-solar-geomagnetic-activity-11768/) The poster says people who keep seizure diaries should go back and take a look to see if solar or geomagnetic events trigger seizures. This person has checked space weather sites for several years and has noticed that solar and geomagnetic events either improve or worsen her seizure related symptoms.

Now, I’m also looking a Harvard University site that has an abstract presented to the American Geophysical Union at its Spring 2007 meeting about research into the question of whether solar flares can trigger earthquakes. The study of 682 earthquakes and observed solar flares between 1991 and 2007 didn’t find any conclusive correlation.  But, there seems to be enough data to warrant further study into what happens to tectonic plates when Earth gets rocked by solar flares. (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2007AGUSMIN33A..03J)

And, if you believe the moon plays a big part in our physical, emotional, and mental states, then be prepared for later in the month.  Apparently, on March 19, the moon will be the closest to the Earth than it’s been since 1992. (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-03/biggest-full-moon-20-years-almost-certainly-wont-cause-huge-natural-disaster)

Boycotting the gasoline boycott

Well, we knew it was going to happen.  As soon as gasoline prices topped $3-a-gallon, people started talking about a renewal of the idea of a gasoline boycott pitched back in 2007 and 2008 when the price for a gallon of unleaded regular hit $4.  A call went out on social networks, such as Facebook, for boycott today and then again on May 15. (http://www.allfacebook.com/facebook-fueling-gas-boycotts-2011-03)

The idea sounds good, but the reality says something different because, even if millions of motorists didn’t buy gasoline today, that would have zero effect on the price. One big reason is that if you take part in the boycott, you are not using less gasoline, you are just delaying by one day your gasoline purchase.

If you are really serious about a boycott and striking a blow at the big, bad oil companies, then you’d park your vehicle and ride a bicycle or walk.  Carpooling and mass transit still consume fuel, so either walk or bike, my friend.

Snopes and MSNBC are a couple of sites you might want to read before you park the car in the driveway today. (http://www.snopes.com/politics/gasoline/nogas.asp) (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18492185/ns/business-answer_desk/)

Back in 2008 I wrote a column called So you think you know oil? Probably not, carried by the usual online news sites and picked up by a host of other online and print publications, probably making it one of my most widely distributed columns over the past 13 years.  A university professor even asked to use it in his classes.  Not sure why, but who am I to argue?

Let me share some of that original column.

At the time, I worked at a research university, which meant I hung around with people who had at least one university degree.  Most read, watched, or listened to more than one news source every day.  They spanned generations with ages ranging from the 20s to the 70s.

Yet, not a single person among them knew the answers to some basic questions pertinent to the growing discourse regarding the rising price of oil.  A few knew some of the answers, and some knew a few of the answers.  To be fair, I had to look up the answers.

For instance, how big is a barrel?  Answer: 42 gallons.  So, now you know that when the price for a barrel of crude oil hits $140, that’s the same as $3.33 a gallon.

What nation supplies the most crude oil and petroleum products to the United States?  Answer: The United States.  According to the Energy Information Agency (www.eia.doe.gov), our country supplied 41 percent of the oil we consumed in March of this year.

What nation, other than the U.S., supplies the most crude oil and petroleum products to our country?  Answer:  Canada.  Our northern neighbor accounts for 12 percent of our nation’s oil and 20 percent of all the oil we import.  The rest of the top five include Saudi Arabia (7 percent and 13 percent); Venezuela (6 percent and 11 percent); Nigeria (6 percent and 10 percent); and Mexico (5 percent and 8 percent).

How much oil do we import from Persian Gulf countries?  I’m glad you asked.  Persian Gulf countries accounted for only 16 percent of our foreign oil imports each year from 2005 to 2007.  In fact, our Persian Gulf imports declined most of this decade, from a 15-year high of a little more than 1 billion barrels in 2001 to 791.9 million barrels in 2007.

What’s the difference between crude oil and petroleum products?  Answer: Crude oil provides, among other products, gasoline, diesel and jet fuels, heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, lubricants, asphalt, plastics, synthetic fibers, detergents, fertilizers, ink, crayons, bubble gum, deodorant, tires, and heart valves.

One barrel of crude oil (which is 42 gallons, remember?), yields about 19.6 gallons of gasoline.  The other 22.4 gallons go into the products just mentioned.

How much of the cost of oil goes into the price of gasoline.  Answer:  A bunch.  We consumed about 390 million gallons of gas a day last year in our cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, boats, farm implements, and construction and landscaping equipment.  Back when crude was $68 a barrel (that was just last year), it accounted for about 58 percent of the price of a gallon of gasoline.  The rest of the price came from refining costs (17 percent), federal and state taxes (15 percent), and distribution and marketing (10 percent).

By the way, the price of crude accounts for about 77 percent of the cost of gas at $4 a gallon.

The folks in California pay 63.9 cents a gallon in state and federal fuel taxes, the most in the nation.  That’s just the base, though.  Motorists there also pay an additional 6-percent state sales tax, with some paying another 1.25-percent county sales tax plus applicable local sales taxes.  Same in Illinois, where Chicago motorists pay 12.75 cents per gallon on top of the 57.9 cents per gallon in state and federal taxes.  Some Illinois motorists also pay a 6.25-percent sales tax.

Politicians, pundits, and other TV talking heads don’t like to provide these answers, because facts get in the way of positions that pander to the mob.  We don’t point fingers at Canada, because it’s de rigueur to paint the Saudis with the broad brush of blame.  Folks float the idea of a moratorium on state and federal gasoline taxes without explaining its minimal impact on gas prices, or without mentioning the $3 sales tax some motorists pay on top of a $50 fill up.  Policymakers don’t explain that oil trades in the dollar, which is weak vis-à-vis the Euro, because that would require solutions for strengthening the greenback.

Human rights is a foreign phrase to the Cuban government

Cuba is another example of an international subject with a Texas tie-in, and particularly the Houston/Galveston area, which includes ShadeyHill Ranch, which has a sizeable Cuban population.  In fact, the guy who makes my hand-rolled cigars is Cuban.  And a former colleague came to the United States with his parents in the early 60s after watching the Bay of Pigs fiasco from his apartment window.

Well, this week the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12658025) reported on the death of Alberto Granado, the guy who tooled around Latin America on a motorcyle in the 1950s with Che Guevara.  That eight-month road trip, and the diaries the two kept, became the basis for the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, which was another attempt by the individuals of a certain political persuasion to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Or more appropriately, a spineless murderer of women and children into a folk hero.

The film supposedly shows how these two ideological medical students discovered deep poverty and social injustice throughout Latin America, an eye-opening that led to Guevara’s revolutionary convictions, also known as self-aggrandizement attained through corruption, betrayal, torture, and murder.

After Castro’s gang overthrew the Batista regime and sent Michael Corleone fleeing for his safety, Guevara convinced his childhood buddy to join him in Cuba where he got a job for life teaching biochemistry at Havana University.

The Cuban government says Granado died in Havana of natural causes, which is more than can be said for his buddy Che who died in 1967 begging for his life in Bolivia where he was stirring up another revolution and continuing his murdering ways.

So why bring this up?  Here’s why: both well-meaning individuals and the ill-informed intelligentsia of the political left continue to hold the cowardly murderer Guevara as the symbol of idealism and revolution, a Latin American Robin Hood.  Well, yes, he robbed, from both the rich and the poor, and he was a hood. Of course, there would be a lot of people alive today if Guevara had simply been a mafia hood.  Another Godfather reference.

The next story shows the sad state of human rights in Castro’s Cuba.  And, once again we have to rely on the BCC to tell us what’s happening, in this case, to an American. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12657855)

After two days, a Cuban court this week ended the trial of Alan Gross, described as an aid worker, charged with crimes against the state. No verdict yet, but if convicted, Gross, who is now 61 years old, could spend the next 20 years in a Cuban prison.

So, what did he do? Threaten to kill one of the Castro brothers, Fidel or Raul? Rob the Bank of Castro? Paint graffiti over one of those stupid Che Guevara posters?

No.  In Cuba, setting up Internet connections so the people there can find out what’s really going on in their island nation and around the world is a crime against the state.

But of course it is.  No two-bit dictator, ruler, or king wants to see the Tunisia Tsunami roll over his country and sweep him into exile, or worse.

Here’s what happened, according to the report.  Gross went to Cuba under a program funded by the US Agency for International Development, also known as USAID, to distribute Internet and satellite communication equipment to Jewish communities in Havana.

Yep. You heard me right. Our country funds a program that sets up Internet connections in Cuba, and other countries.

OK, all of you Castro lovers. Do I have your attention yet?

It appears the commies running the country into the ground consider the free flow of information, in this case to Jews, a subversive activity that must be crushed whenever found.

Cuba wasn’t his first job.  Mr. Gross reportedly worked on development projects in the Palestinian territories, Kenya, Gambia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  But it seems he had limited experience in Cuba except for travelling there five times in nine months, which caught the attention of Castro’s goons.

His wife Judy says he has gout, ulcers, and has developed arthritis in prison, where she says he’s also lost 90 pounds since his imprisonment in December 2009.

She’s been allowed to see him in prison once.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Cuba needs to let him go, or else it will hurt relations between the two countries.  That, my friends, is a topic for another day.

Does National Public Radio have such a low regard for the public?

Here’s another interesting story to come out of this week, but you may not have heard about it if you don’t frequent so-called conservative news sites.

James O’Keefe runs out outfit called The Project Veritas (http:..www.theprojectveritas.org).  Back in 2009, the guy made a name for himself when he and a Project Veritas female staff member disguised themselves as a pimp and a prostitute and  visited eight ACORN offices to get advice on how to obtain a home loan so they could open a brothel. Videos of the sting (http://www.theprojectveritas.org/node/6) seemed to show ACORN staffers giving advice on tax evasion, child prostitution, and human smuggling.

One video purportedly showed an ACORN staff member in Maryland suggesting that the supposed prostitute hide her occupation from the IRS by calling herself a performance artist.

Well, he surfaced again this week when he caught on camera a guy named Ron Schiller, a top executive at National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org) talking out of school.  Schiller, who at the time was president of NPR’s fundraising efforts and a senior vice president for development, was caught calling Tea Party movement members facists and xenophobes, and saying that NPR would be better off without federal funding, a perennial debate in Congress, and more so now.

The heavily edited video (http://www.theprojectveritas.org/node/36) appears to show Schiller and another NPR executive, Betsy Liley, meeting at a ritzy  restaurant in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood with two men from Project Veritas who claimed to be members of a fake group called the Muslim Action Education Center, a group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and whose goal is to “spread the acceptance of Sharia across the world.”

The phony Muslims offered to give  NPR a $5 million donation, which NPR said this week it repeatedly refused to take even though the fake Muslims kept insisting.

What really seems to have brought the roof down on Schiller was an apparent statement he made on tape that the Republican Party today is not really the Republican Party, but a political group of the Tea Party, which is not just Islamophobic, but xenophobic.

He went on to describe Tea Party followers as people who believe in gun-toting, white, middle-America who are seriously racist individuals.

Schiller continued by opining that NPR would be better off in the long-run without federal funding.  Right now, NPR gets about two-percent of its funding from federal grants while member stations get about ten-percent of their funding from state and federal sources.

Getting off of the public dole, according to Schiller, would let NPR become an independent voice and shed the baggage that it gets most of its money from the US taxpayers.

NPR was just as swift in distancing itself from Schiller as it was in firing commentator Juan Williams last year after Williams said on Fox News, where he also was a commentator, that it really disturbed him to see people wearing Muslim garb on airplanes.

The video, by the way, shows Schiller agreeing with the Williams firing, in what has to be one of the year’s best examples of irony, by saying that NPR stands for non-racist and non-bigoted journalism.

NPR said it was “appalled”, to use its word, by Schiller’s comments and just as quickly pointed out that Schiller supposedly turned in his resignation before he got caught on camera.  Schiller was expected to stay on until May, but NPR placed him on immediate administrative leave.

Schiller will become a director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program (http://www.aspeninstitute.org) and Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence Program.  By the way, don’t bother looking at the appointment announcement on the Aspen Web site. They require registration to view their content, but you can view the announcement here (http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:w9nsGNub45wJ:www.aspeninstitute.org/news/2011/03/03/aspen-institute-taps-ronald-schiller-new-head-arts-program+aspen+institute+arts+program&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&source=www.google.com).

Schiller is not related to NPR’s chief executive officer Vivian Schiller. Or, more correctly, former CEO.  Vivian Schiller, who was the one to show Juan Williams the door, resigned shortly after the story broke about the other Schiller. In fact, her apparent resignation happened so quickly and unexpectedly that NPR had to break into its Morning Edition program to make the announcement.

OK, let me add my personal take on all of this.

I worked at two public broadcasting stations in Indiana, a radio station that was an NPR station and a TV station that was with PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service.  Later, I did commentaries for a public radio network with stations in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

And, in the early 80s, I was one of three finalists for the job as associate director of news for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which comprises NPR and PBS.

The Indiana jobs were in the 1970s when cable was sort of gaining ground on over-the-air broadcasting, and long before satellite TV and the Internet.

So, these were times when public broadcasting performed a real, and in my opinion, essential service to the American public by providing news, entertainment, and arts programming you couldn’t find anywhere else.

But today, I challenge you to find a PBS or NPR genre that isn’t available on your television from cable or satellite, on your regular or satellite radio, or on the vast number of sites from around the world on the Internet.  This show on Blog Talk Radio is just one small example.

The question today is this: regardless of good or bad economic times, should the American taxpayers expect to shell out nearly $450 million, as we did last year, for public broadcasting?  It’s all part of the basic economic theory of supply and demand: if PBS and NPR provide unique news, information, and entertainment programming, then there should be businesses, corporations, and foundations willing to take up the slack.

After all, $450 million is a drop in the bucket when you consider NASA this week had its own drop in the bucket, the ocean bucket, that is, when it lost a $424-million communication satellite.

Posted in arts, astronomy, blog talk radio, Cuba, earthquake, economics, gas prices, National Public Radio, oil prices, public broadcasting, solar flares, Texas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#5 A blog talk tour of Texas Independence with Bryan Frazier of TPWD

I think I’d better explain for our non-Texan listeners why March and April are important months for us here in the Lone Star state.

And just so you don’t think I have all of this information in my head, I’m going to share some of what’s on the Texas State Library & Archives Commission Web page (http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/republic/declare-01.html).

The Declaration of November 7, 1835, passed by the Consultation announced that the Texan war against Mexico principally intended to restore the Mexican Constitution of 1824, abrogated by the actions of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and to achieve separate Mexican statehood for Texas. The members of the Consultation had hoped to attract popular support for the Texan cause from the other Mexican states.

George Childress

George C. Childress
Credited as the author of the Texas Declaration of Independence

By the time the Convention of 1836 met at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 1, 1836, such temporizing was no longer acceptable. On the first day, Convention President Richard Ellis appointed George C. Childress, James Gaines, Edward Conrad, Collin McKinney, and Bailey Hardeman a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence.

George Childress, the committee chairman, is generally accepted as the author of the Texas Declaration of Independence, with little help from the other committee members. Since the six-page document was submitted for a vote of the whole convention on the following day, Childress probably already had a draft version of the document with him when he arrived. As the delegates worked, they received regular reports on the ongoing siege on the Alamo by the forces of Santa Anna’s troops.

Thumbnail - Tx. Declaration of Independence

Printed broadside of the Texas Declaration of Independence, printed shortly after the hand-written original was approved by the delegates

A free and independent Republic of Texas was officially declared March 2, 1836, when the 54 delegates — each representing one of the settlements in Texas — approved the Texas Declaration of Independence. After the delegates signed the original declaration, 5 copies were made and dispatched to the designated Texas towns of Bexar, Goliad, Nacogdoches, Brazoria, and San Felipe. 1,000 copies were ordered printed in handbill form.

As we know here in Texas, last week marked the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, the 13-day siege that ended on March 6, 1836.

And, if you’ll indulge a little more host privilege, I’d like to read what may be one of the greatest letters in the history of this or any other nation.  Col. William B. Travis wrote his famous “Victory or Death” letter on Feb. 24, the second day of the siege:

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls—I shall never surrender or retreat.

Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of  patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country.

Victory or Death

William Barret Travis

Lt. Col. comdt

Wow, that’s pretty powerful stuff, in my opinion.

Our guest today was Bryan Frazier with Public Affairs, Promotions, and Marketing for State Parks with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  Bryan oversees all aspects of the promotions, marketing, special events, advertising, and public information campaigns of the Texas State Park system, and manages many of the public relations, media tours, and public presentation messages for the state park division in his role as the official public spokesperson for the Parks Division.

If you receive Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine (http://www.tpwmagazine.com), as we do here at the ranch, you will recognize his name as a contributor to the fine articles about state parks in Texas. Or you may recognize him from his other works in public relations, journalism, and photography, which have garnered him more than 20 regional and national awards.

You can receive a free Park Information Guide with comprehensive information on the locations, phone numbers, facilities and activities available at 120 state parks and state historic sites by calling 1-800-792-1112 or submitting a request on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site ( www.tpwd.state.tx.us).

You can find the most recent up-to-date information on special events and re-enactments at state historic sites at this link (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/events) .

A final program note, tomorrow is Open Blog Friday where we encourage you to call in and discuss what’s on your mind, or else you’ll have to hear what’s on my mind. That’s tomorrow on Gone to Texas at 2pm Central here on Blog Talk Radio.

Texas Parks and Wildlife homepage

State Historic Sites

Texas Parks and Wildlife on YouTube

Texas Parks and Wildlife on Facebook

Texas Parks and Wildlife videos

Texas Parks and Wildlife on PBS/Cable

Battle of the Alamo

The Alamo

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library

Brazoria County Historical Museum

The San Jacinto Museum

The Briscoe Center for American History

Col. William Travis letter from the Alamo

 

Posted in blog talk radio, Houston, Texas, Texas Independence, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Alamo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#4 Homeowners Associations: Whose rights are right?

Some people see homeowners associations as vile beasts that prey upon the elderly, the unsuspecting, and anyone wishing to live in a neighborhood without broken-down cars, unsightly lawn jockeys, pink flamingos, or someone’s drunken Uncle Harry who likes to sit in a chair at the curb and curse at passing Japanese cars.

You are not allowed to buy your home unless you agree to pay tribute and abide by the rules set forth by the nameless and faceless association. If you are late in your annual payment, your association can remove you from your house, seize your property, and sell it for pennies on the dollar. And, you will have to pay the association’s lawyer for drawing up the paperwork that had you kicked out onto the streets.

Just ask Wenonah Blevins of Houston, Texas. The 82-year-old widow answered a knock on her door back in 2001 and saw a constable with an eviction notice and a moving truck to haul her away from the $150,000 home she owned free and clear. Her crime was failure to pay her dues to her HOA.

They claimed she was two years behind. She agreed, but said she paid the $814.50 with a check the association failed to cash. The association did not disagree.

Blevins admits she may have received notices in the mail, but she thought they were junk mail because they were addressed to her dead husband. And, she doesn’t answer the door at night because she’s an elderly woman who lives alone in Houston. Hey! I don’t even answer the door during the day. I make my wife do it.

So there she was, a widow with no children and no family except for a cat, forced by a gun-totting constable who was only following orders to condemn her to a life of homelessness.

And this tale gets more absurd. When the house was put on the auction block, the association put in a bid of $4,200. The final bid was $5,000, which was made by a tax-dodging cretin who owes about $140,000 in back property taxes to the county and the school district, and whose initial bid was the $499 minimum.

Not every property owner loses the house. Those who get to keep their homes have to pay astronomical attorney fees tacked onto any fines imposed by the associations. That’s what happened to a woman who paid her annual dues, but lost a picket in her fence and lacked a net on her son’s basketball hoop. She fixed the fence and netted the hoop, but she got a lawyer’s bill anyway. She kept her home after dipping into her retirement account for several thousand dollars.

Another woman was told by her association to close her home day-care. Even though the law was on her side, the courts stood with the association. She, too, kept her home, but she had to file for bankruptcy when the association’s lawyer charged her $19,000.

And heaven help you if you decide to change the color of your front door. A Texas Court of Appeals found that an association has the right to create an architectural control committee, and to require all homeowners to get committee approval before changing a home’s exterior paint color.

Right now in Austin, the Texas legislators are debating proposed reforms to the state’s laws covering homeowners associations and the rights of homeowners. As it stands today, associations and lenders can repossess a person’s home for breaking association rules.

Reform advocates in Texas are the latest to join a nationwide move to put homeowners associations, or HOAs as they’re known, on notice that homeowners are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Part of the dissatisfaction, anger, or paranoia, depending on your stand on the issue, is the belief, right or wrong, that HOAs have gone well beyond their original mandate to protect property values and now have become money-making machines for real estate developers.

Some folks would even like to put HOAs under some of the same open-meetings and open-records laws as public bodies like school boards, city councils, and the legislature.

I’ve had a couple of run-ins with my HOA in the 12 years we’ve lived here at the ranch. To tell you the truth, I’ve ignored just about all of them, including the one that told us we needed to clean the mold off of the back of the ranch house. Had there been mold, and I’m not admitting to it, someone would have to trespass to see it.

But my dealings with my HOA pales when compared to some other folks in the Houston area.

Mike Merola of Cypress wants to fly the US and Marine Corps flags on a flagpole he put up on his property, but his HOA says he can’t, because his flagpole violates the subdivision’s design guidelines.

In a Houston Chronicle (www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/military/7369837.html)
story, an attorney for the association says her clients encourage residents who wish to fly the flag as long as it is attached to a 6-foot pole mounted on a resident’s home, as the bylaws stipulate.

The 60-year-old Merola who served in the Marines for eight years, says that’s a nitpicking lame excuse. He says he applied to put up a 20-foot flagpole in his backyard, but was denied. After a some letters exchanged hands, he put up the pole anyway.

The HOA sees the flagpole as a detriment that will cause imminent harm and irreparable injury to the HOA and to neighbors because the flags flying in the wind cause noise that bothers the neighbors. They’ve filed suit against Merola, asking for a $10-a-day fine, a court order for removal, and payment of HOA attorney fees.

Merola claims the neighbors don’t mind and haven’t complained. The HOA attorney says there’s always the chance someone will, or that someone will try to put up a flagpole on top the house.

I guess that would be like the White House, huh?

Up in Travis County, home to the state legislature a brouhaha is brewing over solar panels.

The Austin newspaper (www.statesman.com/news/texas-politics/travis-homeowner-association-tangle-over-solar-panels-1237451.html) carried the story of John Thoppil who is building a 6,000-square foot home in the Hill Country. He wanted to put in solar panels to run his water heater, but his HOA said no because the HOA architectural control committee said the neighbors would see the panels.

State representative Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) introduced a measure to allow homeowners to put up solar devices as long as they are on a roof or behind a fence on the property. Similar legislation two years ago failed.

An attorney representing homeowners and associations, and author of the book Texas Homeowners Association Law says he doesn’t see a problem with solar panels as long as they are consistent and harmonious with the community, and not intrusive.

A spokesperson for Texas Community Association Advocates, which represents homeowners associations and homebuilders, agrees but adds that HOAs should have the right to establish guidelines for aesthetics purposes.

But another Houston-area HOA took a person’s condo for unpaid legal fees.

Hillary Lamb has lived in her condo since 2005. It was purchased for cash by her youngest son’s father, but she’s been unable to keep up with the $184-month maintenance fee on her paycheck from working at Wendy’s.

According to a report on a local TV station (http://www.myfoxhouston.com/dpp/news/investigates/110209-home-owners-association-takes-home-over-legal-fees), Lamb paid off her balance in April 2009 before falling behind again.

In September of last year, she got a letter from the HOA attorney saying she needed to pay $921 in late payments and legal fees or else the association was going to foreclose. She paid the $368 in back-maintenance fees the next month, but not the attorney fees. That got her another letter for the attorney telling her to pay their fees or else.

Well, she didn’t pay the attorney fees, but she kept up with the maintenance fees, but on December 11 of last year, three months ago, her condo was sold at the Harris County foreclosure auction, all because she didn’t pay the few hundred dollars in legal fees incurred by her condo association.

Apparently that’s all legal.

Texas law says she has 180 days to buy back her condo, but she’d have to come up with several thousand dollars to do so.

We should point out that HOAs comprise all the homeowners or units in a development. It often has an elected board, which collects fees, maintains common areas and enforces the HOA rules.

And, another important part of this whole debate is the deed restriction, also known as a restrictive covenant. This places legal limits on what can be done on the property, and it’s enforceable for any future property owners.

Related links:

HOA Reform Coalition http://hoareformcoalition.org

Texas Community Association Advocates http://www.txcommunityassociationadvocates.org/Welcome-to-TCAA~313851~20176.htm

Texas Legislature http://www.capitol.state.tx.us

HOA rallys in Austin, for and against HOAs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocFKvmkAkiM

Tomorrow here on the big blogcast we’ll take a blog talk tour of Texas Independence with Bryan Frazier of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  That show airs live tomorrow at our usual time, 2pm Central, 3 pm Eastern and noon Pacific.

And, Friday is Open Blog Friday, which is your turn to decide what we talk about.  Fair warning, if you don’t call in during the live blogcast, you’ll have to suffer through some of the items in the news this week that I find interesting or curious.  That’s Friday at 2 pm Central here on Gone to Texas.

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