Friday, May 29, 2015

Everything's bigger in Texas - including the hypocrisy

I have lived in Texas for forty years, during which time I have given birth to two full-blooded Texans. And still, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a Texan. 

In fact, I don't think of myself as a Texan. I think of myself as an American.

My discomfort with being labeled a Texan has everything to do with the political image and leadership of this state where paranoia and a sense of superiority and privilege run deep. It has nothing at all to do with the ordinary people of Texas who are friendly, helpful, and good neighbors to have. 

With that in mind, I have been somewhat bemused but not really surprised by the actions of those said politicians this week - the week of the Great Texas Flood of 2015.

Keep in mind these are the same leaders who were last seen assigning the State Guard to keep an eye on a U.S. military training exercise called Jade Helm because it was seen as a potential move by that dastardly Obama to "take over" Texas. (Never mind the fact that there are already thousands of U.S. military personnel in the state at the many military installations located here.)

But as flood waters inundated much of the state this week, sweeping away cars, houses, businesses, and people, some of whom are still unaccounted for, the first reaction of political leaders was to ask that same dastardly Obama to intervene. Send help! Send money!

Many have pointed out, quite reasonably I think, that these same people sing quite a different tune when it is another part of the country that is in trouble and needs help. Sen. Ted Cruz provides an excellent example.

When the Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in 2013, the devastation was terrible. The states that were hit hard turned to the federal government for disaster assistance. 

When the bills for such aid were considered in Congress, can you guess how the Texas delegation voted? Most in the House did actually vote for the bill but eight members including the execrable Louis Gohmert voted against it. Both of our esteemed senators, Cornyn and Cruz, voted against the bill.

Here was Ted Cruz doing what he does best, demagoguing, during the Sandy Relief Bill debate: 
"This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington – an addiction to spending money we do not have. The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt."
And here is Ted Cruz this week on requesting aid for his drowning state: 
“The federal government’s role, once the Governor declares a disaster area and makes a request, I am confident that the Texas congressional delegation, Sen. Cornyn and I, and the members of Congress both Republicans and Democrats will stand united as Texans in support of the federal government fulfilling its statutory obligations, and stepping in to respond to this natural disaster."

Cartoonist Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sums it all up quite nicely. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: A review

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Those of us who read and loved Kate Atkinson's last book, Life After Life, have looked forward to and been curious about how she would follow it up, and maybe we worried a little bit that she wouldn't be able to again reach the high standard she had set for herself. We needn't have worried. This is a wonderful book, every bit as imaginative in its way as the hugely successful book that preceded it.

And right up front, I'll give you a piece of free advice. If you haven't read Life After Life, read it before you read this book for this is a companion piece to that book. Not a sequel as such but simply another part of the story.

In Life After Life, we met the Todd family of Fox Corner. The focus of that book was one of the Todd daughters, Ursula. Atkinson imagined various scenarios for Ursula's life. In some of those scenarios, the life was brief, tragic, and uneventful. In others, the life stretched through most of the 20th century and affected world events.

Ursula had a beloved younger brother named Edward (Teddy). A God in Ruins tells his story and, in so doing, reveals more aspects of Ursula's life, as well.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” War, says Atkinson, is humanity's great fall from grace and fall from innocence, and, make no mistake, this is in large part a novel about war and about whether a war even if engaged in for righteous purpose may, in the end, become an exercise in savagery that victimizes the very people civilization is supposed to defend.

Atkinson tells this story through the experiences of Teddy in his life as an RAF Halifax pilot. We learn of his harrowing experiences on his bombing runs over enemy territory. He served three tours of duty, some 60 missions in all, and was one of the few such pilots to survive for a life afterward. Fewer than half of them did survive.

During his bombing runs, Teddy tries not to think about the people on the ground where his bombs are falling, but he vows to himself that if he survives, he will always be kind in his afterlife. The evil that he saw and experienced in the war forged in him the will to always be a good man, and it took an inordinate amount of evil to create the Teddy who became so unstintingly generous in his later relationships.

Though we don't get serial lives for Teddy as we did for Ursula, the author does bend time by switching back and forth to different eras of his life from chapter to chapter, and so we see him at Fox Run with his family in the '20s in one chapter, and perhaps in the next chapter he's with his own family of wife Nancy and daughter Viola in the '50s or even in the 21st century when he is alone. It's a technique that works surprisingly well to give us the fullest picture of the man. We see him in his youth, as a brother and friend, and then as husband, father, and grandfather and we learn how each role had been informed and influenced by the earlier ones.

Teddy's life is not without tragedy. His beloved father dies just on the cusp of the beginning of Teddy's War and then there are all those friends and companions that he lost in the war. The love of his life, Nancy, dies a premature death, leaving him to raise daughter Viola on his own. It would have been a daunting task under the best of circumstances and Viola is definitely NOT the best of circumstances!

At the end of his long, long life, all of Teddy's loves are gone except for his two grandchildren, one of whom is half a world away, and his cold fish of a daughter who may as well be a universe away. Fortunately, his greatly loved and loving granddaughter Bertie is at his side to escort him on his final flight from his nursing home bed as, in his mind, he struggles one last time, with shells bursting all around, to keep his Halifax on a level flight.

I love the way that Atkinson tells this story in a circular, non-chronological fashion. It makes the tale more enticing, more revealing of the personalities and motivations of the characters, I think, than a straightforward chronological narrative would have. It is the art of the writer to have chosen this inventive method of story-telling. Everything is interconnected. Minor details have great import to later events. So, stay alert throughout, reader: Attention must be paid!

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Monarda citriodora

Monarda citriodora, a flowering plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is native to much of the United States and Mexico, has many common names. It is variously called purple horsemint, lemon beebalm, lemon horsemint, purple lemon mint, and other iterations of those names. The plant grows 1 - 2 feet tall and has unusual tuft-like, lavender to pink, whorled flower heads. Each separate whorl in the elongated spike of bloom is subtended by leaf-like bracts. Several stems grow from the plant's base and these stems have pairs of lance-shaped leaves.

This plant is extremely attractive to bees and butterflies, which accounts for one of its common names, beebalm. It has a very distinctive citrus or lemony scent when the leaves are rubbed or crushed. It is easy to grow and, over time, will form large colonies. It is classified as an annual but readily reseeds and comes back year after year. It has an exceptionally long bloom period from May through July and often, with enough water, will continue blooming even further into the summer. The plant can be susceptible to powdery mildew, but, on the plus side, it is deer-resistant.

Purple horsemint, the common name that I prefer, has many uses, primarily as a nectar plant for bees, butterflies and other insects, as well as hummingbirds. But it has also been used as food for humans. It can be used raw or cooked in salads and as flavoring in cooked foods, and a refreshing tea can also be brewed from its leaves.

Seeds of the plant are readily available. I got my start from seeds purchased at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  
Today, I am linking to Gail's "clay and limestone" monthly Wildflower Wednesday meme. Visit her site to learn more about wildflowers and meet other participants.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Game of Thrones and rape

HBO's superseries Game of Thrones has now completely left behind the creator of Westeros and Essos. Television moves faster than that glacially slow writer George R.R. Martin and so the series writers are now creating their own scenarios and storylines, presumably in consultation with Martin. I mean he is still writing those books. Allegedly. He or his spokesperson has said that number six will be out before season six of the television series starts. Personally, I'll believe it when I hold it in my hands and read it.

Of course, the series has always had some differences from the books. After all, television is different from literature. What can be explained in great and loving detail in a book has to be translated to a few seconds or a few minutes of action on the screen. Dramatic license applies here. 

Some of the changes made by the series runners are not so easily explained away, however. That notorious rape scene between Jaime and Cersei last season springs immediately to mind. It was very different from the scene in the book, and what was the reason for that? It seems the same purpose could have been achieved by following the book.

And now we have the complete change of course in the arc of Sansa Stark's story. She's deposited at Winterfell by Littlefinger and married off to the sadist Ramsay (Snow) Bolton, who, quite predictably immediately rapes her, tortures her, and humiliates her. Where exactly are they going with this? 

And what exactly is up with their obsession with the rape, torture, and humiliation of women, scenes of which are visited upon their viewers almost every week? Certainly, life was violent and rape was sometimes a feature of the life of women in the novels. But not to the extent that the show would have it.

Okay, we get it. Life was hard for women in Westeros. And here's a bulletin for you: Life is still hard for most women in the world, including many in the United States. Just ask the Duggar daughters, for example. Or not. It's likely they are so brainwashed that they believe they are to blame for their own abuse.

But back to the more pleasant world of Westeros and Essos for the moment.

Game of Thrones has rightfully received kudos for its portrayal of many strong women characters, from Arya Stark to Daenerys Targaryen. It's something that we don't get to see much of on television, but its constant reliance on brutality toward many of its women characters as the center of its action each week is troubling to me. It's not the kind of thing that I would normally watch, and I know some women have stopped watching because of that brutality. Had I not read and loved the books, I might have already joined them. I still hold out hope that the show will find a way to resolve the issues that it continually raises with this violence. But what exactly would such a resolution look like in Westeros?

Take Ramsay Bolton, for example. Please! Take him far, far away!

Ramsay spent much of a season torturing Theon Greyjoy and turning him into the creature we now know as Reek. It got to the point that I couldn't watch any more. I closed my eyes and ears whenever he came on the screen. And now he has a new victim in Sansa.

He is beyond redemption. So what would justice look like for him? 

It certainly wouldn't be a fast and easy death. He would have to be excruciatingly tortured over several episodes, ending probably in being flayed alive. 

Perhaps, on the other hand, the writers will find a way to keep him alive and lurking, an example of pure evil.

Three more shows in this season. Before the credits roll on the last one, we'll probably know the answers to these questions. One can only hope that, moving forward into the sixth season, the writers might become a bit more creative and find other ways to depict drama rather than by the weekly rape of women. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

I never knew that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but he did write at least one. It's a poem that commemorates one of the most terrible battles of our own Civil War, the battle at Shiloh in 1862 and it is my poem of the week on this Memorial Day weekend.

I've been to that battlefield many times for it is near the place where I grew up. I've walked its rolling terrain and the trails along the river, admired the many monuments from various states that were represented on those bloody days in April, 1962. Today it is a quiet, sacred place, a place where, 153 years ago, in a few hours, so many suffered and died in the name of politics which most of them probably barely understood.

It is the same with most battlefields, of course. The blood of the dead waters and fertilizes the fields, the survivors move on, and Nature takes over once again. The songs of birds and frogs and cicadas are heard once more in the land and swallows dip and dive and twitter over the places where many breathed their last.

Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
      The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
      Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
            And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
      Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
      But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
      And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

This week in birds - #158

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Everybody's favorite backyard bird, the Northern Cardinal.


We may as well get the really bad news out of the way first - another terrible oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It develops that the company in charge of the pipeline that leaked all that black goo onto pristine beaches had accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006. The news gets even worse. The spill has moved south to Coal Oil Point Reserve which is the nesting grounds of the threatened Western Snowy Plover, which is now in the middle of its nesting season. Conservationists are working hard to try to protect the area and the birds.


What does the Sage Grouse have to do with military spending? Not a thing unless you live in the world of congressional politics. The threatened bird has become the latest political football in Washington. The Interior Department is considering whether the bird should be added to the endangered species list which would mean that the areas where it lives would have to be protected from development. Republicans in the House have added language to the military spending bill - that's right, military spending - that would block the Interior Department from giving protection to the bird. It's just another example of the nefarious ways that enemies of the Endangered Species Act are attempting to weaken and, ultimately, kill it.


There's an interesting report out this week that says that other species of animals pay attention when birds give their alarm calls. Makes sense. After all, the predators that threaten birds - hawks, cats, snakes, etc. - present a threat to other animals as well and it wouldn't take long for a prey animal to recognize that and take advantage of the warning system. 


Caledonian Crows are well known as being among the brainiest of birds. Their use of tools has been well-documented. Now comes word that the birds store their tools when they are not in use, so that they will be available when needed.


The decline of many pollinators has been of concern for years. Now, the Obama Administration has announced a "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators." A paper detailing the effort was released on May 19. 


New research has found that the lineages of dogs and wolves actually diverged much earlier than previously thought, some 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. Moreover, the most ancient breeds appear to be Siberian Huskies and Greenland sled dogs which have inherited a portion of their genes from a newly discovered ancient species called the Taimyr wolf. 


Male Java Sparrows accompany themselves on the drums when they sing. They click their bills to provide percussive accompaniment. 


Another Javan bird, the Javan Myna, appears to be displacing the Common Myna in Singapore. Conservationists are reporting that the Common Myna is becoming increasingly uncommon in the area and the invasive Javan species seems to be taking over the niche once held by that bird.


In more news of invasive species, a new study of nearly all the trees in the Appalachian region reveals that roughly half of those trees trace their origins to Asia. The others most likely originated in North America.


A study of tissue from the cells of dead dolphins along the northern Gulf of Mexico reveals that many of deaths were brought about or at least contributed to by the huge BP oil spill of 2010. There is every reason to believe that the long-term effects of this oil spill are still playing out in the Gulf environment.


Chilean authorities are trying to determine the cause of death of about 1300 seabirds that washed up on a beach in their country.


An analysis of the blood of Griffon Vultures in the wild in Portugal and Catalonia reveals that they have been exposed to high concentrations of lead in their diets.


A study has shown that shade-grown coffee and cocoa plantations are much better for birds and the entire ecosystem than plants grown in the open sun.


Around the backyard:

Firsts for this week:

  • First cicada heard "singing."
  • First "rain crow," more properly known as the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. This is another favorite summer visitor of mine and some years I don't hear or see them at all in my neighborhood, so I was very glad to note the presence of the bird this week. The legend or myth is that the call of the bird signifies that rain is coming. It appears that they must have been singing just about constantly in Southeast Texas over the last couple of weeks!
  • First tiny frogs observed. My little goldfish pond has been teeming with tadpoles for a while now. At least some of the little guys have now made the transition to frog-hood. It's a joy to encounter them. The world needs more frogs.   

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Leaving Everything Most Loved (Maisie Dobbs #10)Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to go ahead and read the last Jacqueline Winspear book that I had on Kindle just to get it out of my queue. It had been there for a long time and I was tired of seeing it. It turns out that this entry marks something of an end to one chapter of Maisie Dobbs' life and so it is a good "ending," a good place for me to pause in my reading of the Dobbs saga and move on to something else for a while.

Dobbs is dissatisfied with her life. She is a successful businesswoman, fabulously wealthy thanks to a bequest from her mentor, has a good and caring (and rich) man as a lover, and is well-respected everywhere she goes. In short, everyone loves Maisie, so why wouldn't she be discontented? Yeah, right!

This is actually one of the things that annoys me about this character. She really seems to have little actual depth of understanding of just how lucky she is. Oh, she gives lip service to such understanding, but it seems about paper-thin depth. Moreover, she never really faces any disapproval from society about her life or any major obstacles to her achieving her aims. Yes, everyone loves Maisie. It strains credulity.

Maisie's discontent this time is rooted in the fact that she doesn't really want to get married, although her lover is pressing her to do so, and she wants to travel, to visit distant lands as her mentor Maurice did. To do that would mean closing down her detective agency, but then what would become of her two employees? Not to worry! Everything falls magically into place, as it always does in the world of Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie decides that she wants to go to India, and what do you know? Just a couple of months before, an Indian woman living in London was murdered. The police have been unsuccessful in solving the crime. Indeed, they don't seem to have expended much effort on it. As Inspector Caldwell admits to Maisie, no one was pressing them for a solution.

Then the woman's brother shows up. He has traveled from India to light a fire under the investigation and find out what happened to his sister. Maisie Dobbs' name was given to him by one of his fellow countrymen who had been another mentor and adviser to Maisie. When he speaks to Caldwell, the police agree to contract with Maisie to carry on the investigation and try to bring some justice to the dead woman.  

It turns out to be a complicated mystery that has roots stretching all the way back to India, and soon it becomes even more complicated when a friend of the murdered woman is also killed in the same manner as the first. As Maisie becomes more deeply involved in the investigation, she is more and more intrigued by Indian culture and by the Indians that she meets in the course of her inquiries, all of which makes her more definite than ever that she wants to travel to that exotic land.

But first she has to wrap up her investigation.

She does, of course, with minimal help this time from her assistant Billy Beale who is still suffering from the injuries that he sustained in Elegy for Eddie or her secretary Sandra who is slowly emerging from her widow's shell and taking an interest in life once again.

So, everything gets tied up in a neat little bow. The villain is arrested, but he isn't really such a villain, even though he has murdered two women. He's a victim, too.

The lives of everyone she cares about have now fallen into place, just as Maisie would have wanted, so she is free to move on to her own future. That moving on proceeds slowly as we are treated to a long summing up of Maisie's life so far and as she looks forward to her trip to India. But finally, she's on the boat and on her way.

It's a little difficult to see just where Winspear is going with this, but there are several more entries in the series, so undoubtedly, she has a plan. I think it would be interesting to see, just once, something not work out exactly as Maisie wants it to. Maybe the ship sinks on the way to India, or she loses all her money and is left with nothing but her native resources, or her lover James finally gets fed up with her dithering and marries that dashing young aviatrix with whom he seems to have a lot in common. Well, I can dream, can't I? 

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