Saturday, July 31, 2010

The kids are all right

My beloved Houston Astros are five years removed from their lone World Series appearance, and, in those five years, the team has fallen on hard times. For fans of a team that was once respected for its professionalism and hard-nosed play, it's been painful to watch. There are signs though that that era and our frustration may be coming to an end.

This week, the Astros traded their last two ties to their winning era, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. In return, they got some young and very promising players. All of a sudden, this formerly old team has gotten a lot younger. They have rookies or very young players at nearly all positions. These kids bring their enthusiasm and excitement with them to the game and that is very exciting to their fans. Suddenly, their games are fun to watch again.

I know that they have a lot of learning to do and there will probably be some rough spots in the road ahead. Well, the Astros' road this year, as well as last year, has been mostly one of rough spots so that won't be anything new, but with these kids, we at least have the hope that they can get better and some of them may actually be quite special.

Chris Johnson, their rookie third baseman, looks like he might just about have things figured out, and the rookie catcher, Jason Castro, though he hasn't had much luck in the batter's box, has been very, very good behind home plate. In time, he might even make me forget Brad Ausmus. In tonight's game, their rookie first baseman started his first major league game. He looks like a baby, but I can actually remember when Jeff Bagwell looked like a baby, and look how well that turned out!

The guys are swinging the bats aggressively again and they look like they are having fun. I can see their confidence growing. Yes, I really believe that these kids are all right.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Divorced from reality"

So it seems that Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, believes that two wars are just not enough for our military forces to contend with. He believes that we should also attack Iran and North Korea, the two remaining points on George Bush's "Axis of Evil". At least that is the message he gave to the American Enterprise Institute, the right-wing think tank, this week.

He recommends this for a military that is already stretched thin, almost to the breaking point, a military that has seen many of its members serve multiple tours of duty in the war zones that are Iraq and Afghanistan. A military that is dealing with increased suicides from members stretched beyond the breaking point by the stresses of war.

Of course, Mr. Gingrich has never been in a war, has never been in the military even. He is another of those chicken-hawk politicians who never saw fit to serve themselves but feel perfectly comfortable and happy sending other people's children to face death or injury in service of their crackpot jingoistic ideas.

"He's divorced from reality," someone said to me today.

"As well as two or three women," I replied.

This is the man that many Republicans are seriously hoping will run for the presidency in 2012.

How about a Sarah Palin/Newt Gingrich ticket? That sounds like a winner to me. For the Democrats.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Good news!

Sometimes you just need to read a happy story in the news. Especially in the middle of a summer beset with oil spills, tea partiers, unemployment, disappointing politicians, journalists who only know how to report what Fox News tells them is important. Oh, I could go on, but I would only depress myself.

No, I've been searching assiduously lately to find some light at the end of the tunnel, some bright spot on the horizon. It turns out Gail Collins has been searching, too, and she expounded on what she has found in her column in today's Times.

Now, I always read Collins' columns because she is of my generation and has lived through the history that I have lived through and has come to some of the same conclusions about that history that I have. It's always satisfying to read someone that you agree with. It reinforces your beliefs (prejudices?) and makes you feel smart. Especially when that writer has the intelligence and wit of Gail Collins.

Anyway, today in her column she was talking about presidential children. It must be very hard for those kids caught in the relentless public eye through no wish of their own, and yet some of them, especially recently, have turned out extremely well. Collins mentions Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna and Barbara Bush. In spite of the poisonous political atmosphere that they all grew up in, they have all turned out well. They are all upstanding citizens who contribute to society and make us and their parents proud.

What brought the subject of presidential kids up, of course, was Chelsea Clinton. In case you are one of the few who hasn't heard, she's getting married this weekend. She's 30-years-old (Can she really be?) and her own woman, a hard worker with, apparently, a strong mind and will of her own. She's been planning her wedding for a while and it will be as she directs!

Her wedding is the social event of the season in New York and is the most coveted invitation of the summer. Although I often get emails from both of her parents, I haven't received my invitation yet. Maybe it is lost in the mail, but even if it doesn't come I'm proud of Chelsea and I wish her well. Same for Barbara and Amy and Jenna.

Maybe there is hope for us after all. Maybe they are our hope.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The arc of the art and of life

Listening to the morning news programs on NPR over the weekend, I was interested to hear two separate interviews with the actor Robert Duvall. Duvall, who is 79, has a new movie coming out called "Get Low". In it, he plays a hermit, Felix Bush, who has lived the life of a misunderstood exile in a cabin in the woods for some forty years. Now he has come out of the woods to contact the local funeral director, played by Bill Murray, to plan his own "funeral party". The film is actually based on a real-life story of a hermit in Tennessee. The events took place in 1938.

In both of the interviews that I heard, Duvall made the point that there is a direct arc between his first role in the movies, Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird", and that of the hermit Felix Bush. Boo Radley was a shy, sensitive, emotionally fragile man who was not able to deal with society. Felix Bush is, apparently, almost an older version of that man - a loner, a man who cannot be at ease in the company of others. It started me thinking about the arc of my own life.

I can certainly trace my beginnings as an only and sometimes lonely child on a poor hill farm to the person that I am today. I see the very same insecurities and faults in myself today as I can recognize in that child that I was. In some ways, I see the same strengths as well. It just makes me wonder if anyone ever truly escapes the arc on which one's life is set early in that life. I wonder if that child that was isn't always there, tugging us back to the predetermined path, even if we try to escape and set our feet in some other direction. And if one is forever the captive of the child that was, what of free will? Do we ever really have the power to make our own decisions and choose our own roads, or are we forever guided by, perhaps ruled by, our pasts?

I wonder what made Boo Radley so afraid of contact with others. What happened to him to make him such a man? Would he ever have become an extravert bon vivant life of the party type? Or would he have forever lived his life alone in the shadows and become Felix Bush in the end? Can we choose our own destiny or are we forever bound to the past in a continual arc?

Maybe Freud had it right, after all.

Monday, July 26, 2010

We are all cooked

The title of Paul Krugman's column today was "Who Cooked the Planet?" And the answer is we all did.

There was a bill before the Senate this year that would have allowed us as a society to start work on reversing the effects of human-caused global climate change. It certainly was not a perfect bill. That doesn't exist in our world. But it would have encouraged the transition to "greener" forms of energy and changed some of the ways in which we continually subsidize dirty forms of energy like oil and coal. It looked like this might be the year when something finally got done on these issues.

As usual, the House did its work and waited for the Senate to join it at the finish line. And waited. And waited. And waited. In the end, the Senate declined to even get out of the starting gate.

It's the same old story we have heard so often in this session of Congress. The Republicans - 100% of them - refused to support the bill. The Democrats, including the President, refused to fight for the bill and some of them outright opposed it. And where do you suppose those senators who delayed, opposed and finally killed the bill get the majority of their campaign contributions? If you said Big Oil and Big Coal, you win the prize.

Meantime, Big Oil and Big Coal spent millions, perhaps even billions, in advertising campaigns to convince the public that the bill was not needed. Did you hear an outcry from the public this spring and summer about how it was time to act on climate change and our dependence on foreign energy sources? You did not. Even with the heat wave burning up the Northeast and the spewing oil turning the Gulf waters into sludge, the public has not demanded action on this issue.

Why? Do people really not see what is happening to the earth, or do they just not care? I think it may be a bit of both. They are confused and their perspective is clouded by the constant shouting of the deniers. It takes effort to get off your duff and actually wade through the dross of information out there to get to the truth. And it's just to hot for all that work.

Perhaps some day when the coasts are inundated by the extra water from melting glaciers and the summers are ten degrees hotter on average, not just in the Northeast but right across the country - perhaps then we will emerge from our malaise and try to do something about it. But then it will be too late. Maybe it already is.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My hero, Elizabeth Warren

The financial reform bill that was signed into law this week provides for the creation of a consumer protection agency. The consumer advocate who foresaw the need for such an agency and who wrote an article proposing it in 2007 was Elizabeth Warren. Since that time she has campaigned indefatigably for her idea. Her common sense and empathetic approach to the needs of consumers has made her the go-to person for television news shows that have bothered to cover this aspect of the financial meltdown. Thus, her face has become very familiar to viewers who have watched any of these shows over the last couple of years.

Now that the bill has become law and her brainchild is on the verge of becoming reality, the time has come to choose someone to lead the new agency and many of us can conceive of no one else other than Warren filling that role. The problem is that she would need to be confirmed by the Senate which, in the current practice of that body, would mean 60 votes, and it is unlikely that she could get them.

The reason for this is quite simple: Warren is a champion of the consumer; she is not a friend of corporations. The Senate, on the other hand, is largely in the pocket of corporations. That is, all of the Republicans in the Senate and an appalling number of Democrats are bought and paid for by corporations. They are there to serve their masters and look out for their interests. They are not interested in protecting consumers.

But another thing about the Senate: It is often in recess, especially in an election year, and the President has the power to make appointments during those recesses that can bypass the need for Senate approval. The President should find his backbone and stand up and make that appointment. We consumers need Elizabeth Warren, my hero.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The race problem

I don't often find myself in complete agreement with one of Maureen Dowd's columns. In fact, most of the time I find her pretty annoying, especially when she writes about the Clintons, which she often does. She seems to have an unreasoning hatred of the pair, not unlike many in the right-wing noise machine. She can be particularly shrill and unreasonable when writing about Hillary, so when I see that the Clintons are the subjects of one of her columns, I manage my blood pressure by simply not reading it. But today, I have to admit she has a good point and I can only hope that the current occupant of the White House might pay attention to her.

The theme of today's column is the White House's race problem and her point is that Obama needs more black people in the White House. Specifically, he needs more black people from the South, people who have experienced the worst of racism and have overcome it. In other words, he needs people like Shirley Sherrod.

Obama's administration's handling of l'affaire Sherrod was abyssmal, scandalous, and downright stupid. Where were the people who could have warned him that this was a set-up? Apparently, some people tried to, but their messages were either not received or were ignored.

President Obama was born and grew up mostly in Hawaii, the most multi-racial of states and probably the most lacking in the discrimination that has been and still is so rampant in so many of the states on the mainland. He doesn't have the personal experience of discrimination that is so much a part of the psyche of any black person - or for that matter, any white person - who grew up in the South. Although he has African-Americans in his administration, they are mostly not from the South and they can't understand in their bones what it is like to have come up from slavery. I think he needs that perspective. Perhaps if he had had it this week, he wouldn't have been so quick to judge and so quick to make an unnecessary misstep that has cost him credibility and has detracted from the successes of the week, such as the final passage of the financial reform bill and (finally!) the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Sherrod has told interviewers that she thinks Obama should visit South Georgia and talk to some "regular folks" and see how they live. I think she is right in this as she has been in so much else and I hope the president will take her advice.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr, newsman

Daniel Schorr has died at age 93. He had a long and eventful life and was active right up to the very end. According to his obituary, he died after an illness of a few days. That's certainly the way to do it if you can manage it.

Schorr worked for many news organizations during his long and storied career, most famously probably for CBS where he was one of Ed Murrow's boys. But for the last quarter century of his life, he worked for NPR as a commentator. I looked forward to hearing his take on the week's news on the Saturday morning Weekend Edition show.

As a newsman, Schorr was famous for his integrity and for standing up for his principles. That integrity earned him a place on President Nixon's "enemies list" back in the 1970s. He said that being on that list was one of the things he was proudest of, even prouder than he was of the Emmys that he received.

Daniel Schorr was an old-time newsman, one who took the role of the journalist in society seriously and did his best to play his part of educating the public about current events. There aren't many like him left. In fact, there may be none like him left, and we are the poorer for it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Listless

I am a sucker for lists. Ten best this, ten worst that, just give me an article with a list in it and I'm almost guaranteed to read it.

I'm particularly fond of lists of books. I check the various New York Times bestseller lists - fiction, nonfiction, paperback, trade paperback, etc. - at least once a week. Then there are those lists of "1001 books you MUST read before you die" and similar lists.

Today, while tooling around the Internet, I came upon one of those lists. It is the Modern Library's 100 best novels. It is not just one list but two. The first list is the Modern Library board's list of the best 100 and the second list is a reader's list, apparently compiled from a survey. I went through both lists to see how many I had read. I found that on the board's list I had read 27 of their favorites, while on the reader's list, I had read 22.

It's interesting to compare the two lists. They have some titles in common but overall they are quite different. For example, the first three titles on the board's list are Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I had read the first two of those, not the third. The first three titles on the reader's list were Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. I've not read a single one of those and I don't expect I ever will, but the fourth book on the reader's favorites list is Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and that one I have read multiple times.

Ulysses, The Great Gatsby and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man do actually make the reader's list as well. They are number 11, number 13, and number 57 respectively. But Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Battlefield Earth do not appear at all on the board's list of favorites, probably with good reason. Neither, however, does Lord of the Rings, which just seems a gross oversight to me - but then, that's just me.

The bias of these lists is obvious. Books written in English only comprise both lists. There are whole libraries full of wonderful books that were not written in English. I've read at least four this year - Eva Luna by Isabel Allende and the three Stieg Larsson books. Surely some of them should make the "100 best" list.

I guess this just points to the futility of such lists. Sure, they are interesting to look at, but in the end, how can you really know what are the 100 best unless you have read and evaluated every single one in the world? Which, of course, is an impossible task, so I guess I will remain...listless.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shirley Sherrod, another victim of the right-wing noise machine

By now, unless you've been asleep for the last few days, I'm sure you have heard of Shirley Sherrod, the former head of the Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia. She is the "former head" because a right-wing hack put together a highly edited video of her speaking to a group in which she talked about something that happened back in the 1980s when she worked for a non-profit group in Georgia. She was asked to help a white farmer who was about to go bankrupt and lose his farm. She reflected on all the times that black farmers had been in similar circumstances and had not received help and she considered whether she, an African-American woman, should do her best for this white farmer.

In the end, she did, and she helped him save his farm and his way of life. The right-wing operative edited the video to make it appear that Ms. Sherrod was saying that she did not help the farmer because he was white. Fox "News" (of course!) picked up the story and the video and ran it incessantly on their 24 hour propaganda network. Apparently, without even investigating to find out if the story was true or giving the woman a chance to respond, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked for the woman's resignation and she gave it.

After the fact, investigative journalists (there are still a few) began to dig into the story further and found out that it was entirely manufactured, not unlike the same right-wing operative's successful campaign against ACORN last year. Just like the videos in the ACORN story, the Sherrod story also was a complete lie. Shouldn't the fact that the video was being promoted by that same right-wing operative, Andrew Breitbart, and Fox "News" have been a clue to Vilsack and the White House that there was something very smelly about the whole story? I guess they just never learn.

Well, now that the smelly stuff has hit the fan, the White House has asked for a review of the firing. Secretary Vilsack has said that "of course" he's open to such a review, but why in the name of common sense and fairness didn't he review the whole thing before he acted?

Sherrod's supporters around the Internet have suggested that Vilsack needs to offer her her job back, and that certainly seems to be appropriate. A clear-cut public apology might be in order as well. But I certainly wouldn't blame Ms. Sherrod if she chose not to return to the Department of Agriculture. I wouldn't blame her if she chose to talk to a lawyer specializing in torts instead. I think she's got a very good case.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Direct stimulus for the economy

Finally, the Democrats in the Senate have managed to cobble together 60 votes to get out of the limbo of filibuster the bill providing an extension of unemployment benefits for those out of work for six months or more. The bill should now easily pass in the Senate and should be on the President's desk for his signature before the end of the week.

Very soon thereafter the first checks to these long-term unemployed citizens should be in the mail. Soon after that, the proceeds of those checks will be used by these people to pay their bills and to buy things they need for themselves and their families. As the money is passed along to shopkeepers, mortgage-holders, and providers of services, those businesses will be using them to pay their own bills and buy new stock or even hire new employees to handle their increased business. Perhaps some of the new employees who are hired will be some of those long-term unemployed who started the ball rolling by paying bills with their unemployment benefits checks.

And that is the way that the economy gets stimulated - by an infusion of money. Paying unemployment benefits is, in fact, one of the quickest ways to stimulate the economy because the money changes hands almost as soon as it is received. Economists have been pounding on this message for many months now, but Republicans in Congress just won't listen.

Instead, we get statements from their leaders about how the unemployed are being coddled and are lazy and don't want to work and providing them unemployment benefits only encourages them. All but two of the Republicans in the Senate voted against moving this bill forward today.

Let us hope that those who have suffered and who continue to suffer from the stagnant economy will remember the Republican position on this when they head to the polls in November.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Conventional Wisdom just doesn't seem very wise

Everywhere I turn these days, from radio, newpapers, television to online news sources, (and not necessarily in that order) all the pundits are telling me that this election year is going to be a debacle for Democrats and they might even lose control of both the House and the Senate, and it's all because the electorate has gone off President Obama. They just don't like him anymore.

And on what do they base these opinions? Well, there are some polls that are not all that clear if you really look at them, but mostly what they base it on, from my perspective, is their conversations with each other. One of the "respected pundits" introduces this line of reasoning and Fox News picks up on it and expands and tweaks it to fit their agenda and they repeat it endlessly 24 hours a day. It feeds back into the loop of information that makes the rounds in Washington and, suddenly, all the pundits are talking about it and repeating it. It has become "conventional wisdom."

Is it true? Does that matter? It is conventional wisdom.

Well, I'm no pundit and I don't have the questionable advantage of being a part of the inbred Washington scene, but I just don't see it. Furthermore, I don't feel it.

Yes, people in the country are unhappy because the economy hasn't turned around as quickly as any of us would have hoped. A lot of people are unemployed and suffering. Even though it seems that a depression has been avoided by infusions of stimulus money from the government and thus things are not as bad as they might have been, is a person who has been looking for work for months likely to appreciate that? Perhaps not and perhaps one can't blame them.

But what about the rest of us? Are we really so stupid that we would jump from the frying pan back into the fire that was started by economic policies that ran the country into a ditch over the eight Bush years? The Washington pundits certainly think so. Conventional wisdom says so. My husband, that purveyor of conventional wisdom in my house, says that you can never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.

They may all prove to be right. But it just doesn't feel like that kind of year to me and my instincts tell me that things may not be quite what they seem. Maybe I'm just hopelessly optimistic, but November is coming. We'll see.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I'm walkin', yes, indeed...

In this hot and humid corner of the world, the best time for walking for exercise this time of year is very early in the morning. Later in the day, even late in the afternoon, the heat makes the experience most unpleasant if not unbearable. And so, I've been trying to do my walking early in the morning, and seven o'clock this morning found my husband and me at a local park hitting the trails for the next hour. Even at that, I was drenched in sweat by the end of the hour and had to go home and change my clothes.

But as I was walking, I was thinking about walking and its place in our lives. Mostly we do it for exercise. We don't do it to actually go from one place to another or as a normal part of our daily routine. We have to make the effort to walk, and often, like this morning, we have to first drive somewhere in order to do our walking. How different from the custom that exists in much of the world, even in this era of the automobile.

In many if not most countries, even western countries, people do actually walk from one place to another. Even in this country, in many of the large cities, people do still walk to work or to shop. But in Houston and its environs and in other sprawling cities like it, it seems that walking is an unknown and, in fact, an impossible concept. For one thing, everything is just so spread out that walking to the places we need to go isn't really feasible. For another, the climate here usually makes it impractical. For confirmation, just reread that last sentence in my first paragraph.

But our bodies were born to walk. Our legs were meant to carry us wherever we needed to go, and that old adage about "if you don't use it, you lose it"? Well, there is a lot of truth in that. I have this theory that very many of the ills that are so common to our society today, from diabetes to heart disease, are a direct result of our failure to use our legs as they were intended. Oh, sure, bad diet plays its part, too, but even a bad diet can be at least partially overcome by good exercise. That's my hope anyway, and so, I'm walkin'...

Friday, July 16, 2010

The church of man

The Vatican issued revisions to its internal laws on Thursday making it easier to discipline sex-abuser priests, but caused confusion by also stating that ordaining women as priests was as grave an offense as pedophilia. - New York Times story


A lot of the reading I've been doing this summer has been set in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century and 14th - 15th centuries. One of the things that has struck me about all of the books I have read is the attitude toward women during these periods. That attitude could be pretty well summed up by saying that the prevailing opinion seems to have been that women were less than zero. The average woman had no power and was completely at the mercy of men. If she was lucky enough to have a man who valued and respected her, she was lucky indeed, but if she lost him, she lost everything.

With attitudes like that, I guess it should be no surprise to us that an institution of the Middle Ages like the Catholic Church would still retain such a view of women. They are less than nothing and have no place in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Women should sit down, shut up, and not worry their sinful little heads about what their church does.

It is a culture such as this that has led this institution to declare that to ordain women as priests would be equal to pedophilia, heresy, apostasy and schism. So, let us be completely clear: In the eyes of these men who run this institution, having a woman as a priest would be EXACTLY THE SAME as having a male priest who repeatedly rapes children!

The arc of history may bend toward justice and enlightenment, but on some days it seems to bend very slowly indeed.

It is ironic that the Catholic Church continues to lose candidates for the priesthood and scours its membership looking for them and trying to recruit them. At the same time, their congregations in this country and apparently in most western countries are overwhelmingly in favor of allowing women to be priests. The New York Times story I referred to cites a poll released in May that showed 59 percent of American Catholics favored ordaining women. Of course, the hierarchy of this church will retort that it doesn't kowtow to public opinion in making its policies. It adheres to its ancient traditions.

Those traditions were set at the same time that people were being burned at the stake for heresy. I expect if the Catholic Church were entirely free of restraints in the world today, it would embrace that tradition as well. It would make just about as much sense as their attitudes toward women and women's issues.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The day the oil flow stopped

Finally, some good news from the Gulf of Mexico. It seems that the latest device put in place to stop the oil gushing from the runaway well is working. The oil flow has stopped, at least temporarily.

That is not to say that the problem has been fixed. Apparently, the only way to stop the spill permanently is with the relief wells. Work continues on them but they are still weeks away from being able to do what they are designed to do. In the meantime though, it is a happy thing to be able to see that live picture from under the sea with no torrent of oil gushing into the water.

Of course, the relief wells and the temporary or even permanent stoppage of the oil flow doesn't do anything about all that oil and all the other chemicals that have been poured into the Gulf waters this spring and summer. All of that poisonous goop is still there in a place where it never should have been and it is still doing its damage to the food chain and to the environment of both animals and people along the coast.

Regarding that damage, a curious thing was reported by the New York Times this week. It seems that most of the animals that have washed up dead on the coast and have now been autopsied do not show signs of contamination from oil. And yet animals are dead in far too great numbers to be considered a normal die-off. Speculation on the reasons for the die-off ranges from the effects of breathing the fumes from the oil, to the dispersants, to indirect stress caused by the upsetting of the ecosystem by the disaster to...who knows? Until all the toxicology and other tests have been completed and all the data is collated, it is difficult to say what the proximate cause or causes of all these deaths have been.

I will make a wager with you though. Even though direct oil contamination may not be the cause of the deaths, it was the oil spill that killed them. It has been just one obstacle too many for fragile species to overcome. Whatever fines and penalties BP and its partners finally have to pay, it won't restore any of these precious lives and it won't be enough.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The summer of magical thinking

There are certain groups in our country who seem to honestly believe that if they say a thing is true, no matter how outlandish it is, that makes it true. That, I believe, is clear proof of a faith in magical thinking that bedevils our national discourse this summer. You might also think of it as the "Tinkerbell philosophy." If I close my eyes and believe real hard and clap just as loud as I can, then I can make it true.

Thus we have highly placed members of the Republican Party claiming with a straight face that reducing taxes for the richest people in the country will not increase the nation's deficit and that it will stimulate the economy. They make these statements in spite of the fact that all empirical evidence points to the conclusion that any tax reductions received by these people go straight into their own savings. They have no effect on the economy at large - except to depress it by increasing the deficit. Furthermore, it is self-evident to anyone who is not a complete idiot that if you reduce a country's income, while continuing to spend at the same rate, you will increase the deficit. But Republicans still insist that isn't so and that is the philosophy they will run on this year.

Then we have the case of the tea partiers. Their rallies are full of signs with racist innuendo and sometimes unmistakable racist expletives. Their ranks are virtually 100% white. Many of the groups that are their strongest supporters, both financially and with personnel, are outright racist groups - groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the notorious White Citizens Councils of the '60s and '70s. And yet they reject any implication that they are in any way racist. This week, when the NAACP passed a resolution calling on them to repudiate racism and the racists in their organization, this is what one of their leaders, Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, had to say about that:

You’re dealing with people who are professional race baiters, who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It’s time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history.


No, no, nothing racist or historically incorrect in that statement. Just squint your eyes and believe as hard as you can and clap those little white hands and it will all be true.

Like I said, magical thinking. But it is very likely that both the Republicans and their cohorts, the tea partiers, will get away with it because there are not enough journalists in this country who are willing to call them out on this utter stupidity. I think it's going to be another long, hot summer of lies.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The owner we loved to hate

He was probably the most hated of all owners of baseball teams. Nobody was ambivalent about George Steinbrenner. His was one of those larger than life personalities that demanded attention at all times. His personality was so large that sometimes it even overshadowed his team, perhaps the most storied of all sports franchises, the New York Yankees. Not an easy thing to do, but Steinbrenner did it.

I grew up as a Yankee fan, mostly because of Mickey Mantle. I idolized him. I even named my dog after him. So I followed the Yankees during their glory years of the late '50s and '60s. After Mantle's body gave out and he retired, I gradually lost my allegiance to the Yankees and shifted to the St. Louis Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves. After all, they were both closer to home. But I always retained a bit of a soft spot for the Yankees and their traditions. That soft spot hardened up considerably after Steinbrenner bought them in the early '70s.

He really was in many ways an appalling owner for a baseball team. For one thing, he didn't know how to lose. He wanted to win every game. Someone said he should have bought a football team and there is truth in that. A game where the athletes only play once a week for maybe four months of the year - that's a sport where winning every game is feasible if you are very, very good.

Baseball is different. In baseball, the players play every day for six months, with few breaks. A few weeks into the season, everybody is playing hurt. Everybody has small injuries that may affect performance and the outcome of a game. Baseball is a game that requires patience and endurance. There's no place for instant gratification. Both the players and their fans have to learn to accept losses and keep going, keep plugging along, playing every game and every inning as if it mattered, because it does. "Grinding" is the term the players use to describe what they do. It is a good and descriptive term. I don't think George Steinbrenner ever learned the meaning of it, but I'll guarantee you Derek Jeter knows.

Age and infirmity had apparently mellowed Steinbrenner some in recent years. He had given over the operation of the Yankees franchise to his children and retired to Tampa where he died today at the age of 80. He no longer meddled constantly in the day-to-day details related to fielding a winning baseball team. But I doubt that he ever lost interest or that he ever accepted losses gracefully.

Steinbrenner loved his Yankees and he loved them basically for the same reason that I loved them way back when I first discovered baseball. They were winners. In the last 30 years he had helped to make them winners again. I wonder if he was ever satisfied with that or if he still wanted and expected to win every game. I wonder if all those years associated with the game taught him patience.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taxing credulity

Do you ever wonder if certain people in government have even a basic understanding of budgeting? That is, the amount of money that comes in minus the amount of money that is paid out equals either surplus or deficit. In the case of government, the money that comes in is otherwise known as taxes so the budgeting formula can be stated very succinctly, thusly:

Taxes - Expenditures = Surplus/(Deficit)


You would think that anyone who has made it to the halls of Congress as an elected representative of the people would at least understand that very basic concept, but apparently, you would be wrong. Exhibit number one of this fallacy is Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. This is what he said on Fox News Sunday yesterday:

"You should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes. Surely Congress has the authority, and it would be right to -- if we decide we want to cut taxes to spur the economy, not to have to raise taxes in order to offset those costs. You do need to offset the cost of increased spending, and that's what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans."


Yes, that is actually what he said. Verbatim. To which I reply, "Huh?"

What Kyl is apparently saying is that reductions in taxes do not have to be offset by reductions in spending in order to balance the budget, but increases in spending in any area do have to be offset by reductions in spending in another area. However, you must never, never raise taxes for any reason! Kyl was arguing for making the Bush tax cuts for the richest people in the country permanent, while at the same time arguing that unemployment benefits for those disadvantaged by our crippled economy should not be extended because that would contribute to the deficit. In his reasoning, lower taxes can never contribute to a deficit; only spending - especially social safety net spending - can do that.

And that is exactly the way that most people in his political party think about budgeting. They just never internalized that formula:

Taxes - Expenditures = Surplus/(Deficit)


They claim to hate, hate, hate the deficit, but their only solution to curing it is to decrease expenditures, even though most economists urge that in our current situation what is needed is more government spending and the deficit be damned! We'll think about that tomorrow. Never, ever, in their wildest moments would Republicans like Kyl ever consider raising the taxes of the super rich (who can certainly afford it) to help solve the deficit crisis. It seems that when it comes right down to it they don't really hate the deficit that much.

Honestly, it taxes one's credulity.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jeff Bagwell: Hitting coach. Really???

My beloved Houston Astros have had a really pathetic offensive attack this year. They are near the bottom of the National League in all categories of hitting.

Their pitching has been more than adequate to compete in their division. Both Roy Oswalt and Brett Myers have pitched about as well as anybody in the league all season. Lately, Wandy Rodrigues has been rounding into form, and their two young guys, Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris, show great promise if they can just manage to stay healthy. Their "old reliable" Brian Moehler is, well, reliable. He knows how to pitch. Those are the starting pitchers. The bullpen, meanwhile, has been adequate and sometimes more than adequate.

So the fact that the Astros head into the All-Star break next to last in their division and with one of the worst records in all of baseball is not the fault of the pitching. And the defense has been okay, so the poor record can be laid squarely on the shoulders of the hitters.

When a team is severely deficient in a particular aspect of the game, the time-honored tradition in baseball is to fire the coach who is in charge of that aspect, even if the failure is not his fault. That is what happened with the Astros today. Sean Berry, their hitting coach, who was a very good hitter when he played the game a few years ago, was fired. He is well-liked in the organization and will be offered another position with the team, but management felt they had to shake things up, perhaps give their lackadaisacal hitters a kick in the pants.

Well, if that's what they wanted, I think they've found the right guy to do it. Jeff Bagwell, about whom I might be prejudiced since he is my all-time favorite Astro, is the best hitter the team ever had, but perhaps more importantly, he's probably the player who was most respected by other players. When he was playing, the atmosphere around the team was totally different than it is today and that was mostly down to him and his buddies, Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus. The team has gone steadily downhill since Bagwell's career was cut short by a bum shoulder in 2005, their World Series year. Without his presence in the clubhouse, it just isn't the same team. I think the Astros wanted to get that presence back in uniform, back in the clubhouse, anyway they could, even as a hitting coach.

So the man with one of the weirdest batting stances in the history of baseball will now be a hitting coach and will try to wake up the sleeping bats of Pence, Lee, Berkman and company. But then, it's not really his expertise on batting stances that they need. They know how to stand in the batters' box. No, what they need is him - his personality, his competitive fire, his never-say-die attitude. If he can impart even a little bit of that, then the Astros hitters might just regain some respectability in the second half.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Scout, Atticus, Jem, and Boo

There's been a lot of hullaballoo about the fiftieth anniversay of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's masterwork and only work. Libraries around the country, including our own Houston Public Library, are celebrating the anniversary with special events. And well they should, for Mockingbird is certainly a significant book in the literary history of this country.

It may not be a great book by strictly objective literary standards, but it is great in its message of humaneness and humanity and in its moral weight. Lee's story of the summer when Jem broke his arm and all the things that led up to that moment in a small town in Alabama is a simple enough tale of children beginning to learn what the world is all about and losing their innocence, but it is also the story of an ordinary man's moral dilemma, how he faced that dilemma and did the right thing, even when it would have been so convenient and so much more comfortable to do the wrong thing.

As readers of the book or even viewers of the wonderful movie that was made from the book all know, the story is told from the viewpoint of the six-year-old girl, Scout Finch. Scout is not a ribbons and lace kind of Southern girl. She is feisty and tomboyish and given to speaking out and acting out. She is a challenge for her widowed father and for the housekeeper, Calpurnia, who has much of the day-to-day care of Scout and her brother Jem. In Lee's story, Scout begins to learn about unfairness in life, about racism, and pettiness and blind hatred. She also learns about honor and loyalty and courage and about not seeing people through the eyes of others but looking at them honestly and making up your own mind.

Scout's father, Atticus Finch, a country lawyer, represents the moral center of the story. He is charged with the defense of an African-American man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Finch believes in the innocence of his client and throws himself into the effort to give him the best defense possible. He manages to stir the conscience of some of the people in his town, but in the end Robinson is convicted on very flimsy evidence. As Atticus plans for an appeal, Robinson is taken away to prison, but on the way there, he is killed "trying to escape." Atticus Finch and Robinson's family are devastated.

But life goes on. Scout and Jem and their friend Dill have what is, in many ways, an idyllic summer. They play together, have adventures, and discover a mystery next door, in a family named Radley. Their son, Arthur, is a recluse. He is shy and different, and, of course, that makes him fair game for outrageous speculation. But when Jem finds small gifts left in the hollow of a tree on the Radley's property, he begins to wonder about the gift-giver.

Jem is at the center of the emotional climax of the story when he breaks his arm defending himself and his sister from madman Bob Ewell on the night of the harvest festival. After breaking his arm and being left helpless, Jem is in turn defended by his anonymous friend, the giver of gifts in the hollow tree.

Arthur Radley, or "Boo" as the children know him, is a shy and emotionally immature man who had watched the children play and has watched over them. In their time of greatest peril, he comes to their rescue and kills the man who would have killed them. And to protect the fragile Boo Radley, the sheriff decides that justice will be best served by the verdict that "Bob Ewell fell on his knife, Mr. Finch!"

Thus, one lie - that Ewell's daughter was raped by Tom Robinson - is balanced with another lie - that Ewell "fell on his knife." That may be morally ambiguous but on some level, it is deeply satisfying.

Great literature should make us examine our beliefs and think about what is true and important and how to best achieve justice. To Kill a Mockingbird does all of that and so, in my humble opinion, it can be judged as great literature. Thank you, Harper Lee, and happy birthday, Mockingbird. May you always keep singing.

Friday, July 9, 2010

We're havin' a heat wave, a terrible heat wave...

Remember back last winter when it was cold in the Northeast? There was snow on the ground and the Inhofe clan in Washington, D.C. built snowmen with messages on them like "The snow won't stop until Al Gore cries uncle." All the deniers in the Senate and the House of Representatives were having a wonderful time deriding the science of global climate change. They claimed that the cold winter, along with the stolen private emails of climate scientists that showed them being human, proved that global warming was just a myth. I even wrote a blog post about it at the time and invited the deniers to meet on the Capitol steps on August 9 - which just happens to be my birthday - to discuss this "cooling" trend. We're still a month out from my birthday, but the offer still holds.

Now that the temperatures in the Northeast have hit triple digits on consecutive days and at least three investigations of the East Anglia email "Climategate" have cleared the scientists of doctoring their data, the deniers have gone rather quiet. Never fear. I feel absolutely certain that next winter when it snows again in Washington, they will again be chortling about how this disproves the claims of the scientists.

And, of course, they will still be wrong. Weather is not climate. Weather occurs over a period of days. Climate occurs over periods of years, decades, centuries, millenia. The current heat wave does not prove that global warming is happening. That being said, the data of the last several decades clearly indicate that the earth is warming up and is warming up much faster than it should under purely natural circumstances. Thus, the current heat wave in the Northeast and in many parts of the world may serve as a warning of what is in store for us if we don't act now to ameliorate the part of the warming that is the result of human actions.

So back in January and February, the purveyors of conventional wisdom were saying that an energy and climate change bill could not pass Congress because it was snowing. So now that it's hot, such a bill should pass easily, right? Right??? Oh, the Congress is not is session.

Sigh. I despair for my country. I truly do.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chasing the Purple Gallinule

The Purple Gallinule is one of the most colorful members of a rather uncolorful family, the rails. Specifically, they are part of the order Gruiformes, family Rallidae. It is a family with many extended relatives, including some rather famous ones like the Whooping Crane.

Purple Gallinules have some much closer and more common relatives in the American Coot and the appropriately-named Common Moorhen. The gallinules share body-type and many lifestyle habits with these two birds.



Common Moorhen. Note the very red bill with its white tip.



The American Coot, on the other hand, features a white bill with a white frontal shield on the forehead.

Both of these birds are more common in our area than the Purple Gallinule. The gallinule is more of a tropical bird, but it can be found in the eastern third of Texas and all along the Gulf Coast in summer. In recent years, a few of the birds have spent their summers at Brazos Bend State Park and they were my main reason for wanting to visit the park yesterday. When I go chasing a particular bird, often I come up empty, but yesterday I was not disappointed.



Almost as soon as I stepped from the car, I saw the bird in the vegetation along the edge of Elm Lake. (This picture appears a bit foggy because my camera lens was still fogged by the transition from the car interior to the humid outdoors.)

I was able to watch the bird for several minutes and snap several pictures. I looked around for a mate or possibly a chick - I thought from the way the bird spread its wings at times that it might be sheltering a chick - but I didn't see either. Just the solitary bird.



The bird stopped and posed on a partially submerged log. Look at those long, long toes! They help the bird walk on floating vegetation like lily pads.



Note that this member of the family has a pale blue forehead shield to go with its bright red beak with a white tip. Its body colors range from the purple of its head, neck, and lower body to a more greenish hue on the back. You have to admit, this is one colorful bird.



This behavior of dragging the wings is what made me think there might be a chick nearby. It's typical behavior of these somewhat chicken-like birds, a behavior shared with their domestic cousins. In fact, these birds, along with coots and moorhens, are sometimes referred to as "swamphens."

The Purple Gallinule sexes look alike so I can't say if my bird was a male or female. Both sexes participate in incubating and caring for the young which may number as many as ten in a clutch. They also may be helped by others of their kind in caring for the young. These "extra" helpers appear to be from former clutches of the breeding pair. This is a fairly widespread behavior among birds. I've seen it in my own yard this summer with the Chimney Swifts.

These interesting birds are only with us for the summer and then they return to South America for the winter. A few may stay in the southern tip of Florida for that season.

Occasionally, gallinules wander very far afield. In spite of their somewhat clumsy appearance, they are strong fliers. Some strays have even crossed the Atlantic and they are one of the most frequent "accidental" visitors found in southern Africa. Personally, I'm just glad that this bird "accidentally" turned up at Brazos Bend yesterday to swell my meager year list.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The most happy country

If you had to guess which is the happiest country in the world, what would you say? Do you think it would be the United States? Actually, considering all the bitching and griping that Americans do, I would have thought that this country would rank somewhere close to the bottom, but, in fact, according to a recent report from the Gallup polling organization, we do rank as one of the fifteen happiest countries in the world. We are near the bottom of the fifteen, though, ranking number 12.

So what are the happiest countries in the world and what makes them so happy?

If you look at what they have in common, for one thing they each have a strong social safety net. They have stable governments that generally work to make the lives of their citizens better. They are all democracies of one stripe or another. They have cohesive societies where citizens take their responsibilities rather seriously. There are other factors, individual to each country, of course, but these are some of the things that bind this group together.

Here, then, at least according to Gallup's findings, are the fifteen happiest countries in the world, from happiest to least happy.

1. Denmark - No real surprise here.
2. Finland - Ditto.
3. Norway - Ditto. There seems to be a pattern developing here.
4. The Netherlands - They may have gone to the top of the list since their World Cup semi-finals victory today!
5. Costa Rica - Certainly one of the most progressive countries in the New World, with no standing army.
6. Canada - Also a progressive country.
7. Switzerland - A long history of pacifism and building on history rather than tearing down.
8. New Zealand - Physical beauty of the landscape alone would seem to be sufficient reason for them to be happy.
9. Sweden - Yet another of the Nordic countries makes the list.
10. Austria - A bit of a surprise - to me at least. I think of Austrians as being rather dour, but that's just my prejudice at work.
11. Australia - Australians certainly SEEM like happy people.
12. U.S.A. - Why do you think we made the list? We just seem incredibly cranky and not very happy at all to me.
13. Belgium - Well, why not? After all, Hercule Poirot was always pretty happy!
14. Brazil - The poll was taken before they lost in World Cup competition. They may have fallen off the list now.
15. Panama - Another surprise entry.

The message here for the U.S. and other countries, I think, is to look at those countries whose citizens rated them highest and consider what it is that makes them happy. Then try to emulate them. One of our biggest problems as a country is the fact that we always tend to think that we know best. In truth, there are many countries in the world that we could learn from and several of them are ahead of us on this list. One of them is right next door.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The great Sherlock

My first literary love affair was with Sherlock Holmes. I met him at the highly impressionable age of twelve and fell instantly in love. I read every Conan Doyle story that featured him - read them more than once.

Since then, I have had many loves in my life. Indeed, I have been a very loose woman, literarily speaking, but one never forgets one's first love. He is always special.

A few years ago when I read a review of a book called The Beekeeper's Apprentice, I was both fascinated and a bit outraged. How dare anyone tamper with Conan Doyle's perfect creation! But in the end fascination won out over outrage and I picked up the book and read it, and thus a long ago love affair was rekindled, but this time with the added fillip that it became a three-way affair - Sherlock, Mary Russell, and me.

Mary is Laurie King's unique creation who was introduced in The Beekeeper's Apprentice as a young orphan girl in Sussex who came under the sway of her neighbor, the beekeeper Sherlock Holmes. She became his apprentice, his partner in adventure and then (Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave!) Holmes' wife. As weird as that might seem to lovers of classic Holmes, King actually makes it work and has built a very interesting pastiche mystery series on the premise.

I have read - I could even say devoured - every book in the series. The God of the Hive is the tenth one and a very good one it is. It is actually a continuation of the story begun in the last book, The Language of Bees, in which we were introduced to a son and granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes, as well as a doomed daughter-in-law. In this book, the son and granddaughter are in great peril from which they must be extricated by the efforts of the great Sherlock and Mary Russell, along with a ragtag but interesting cast of supporting characters, and the godlike Mycroft Holmes who also plays his part.

I think that I will be giving away nothing by saying that Sherlock and Mary again solve the mystery and triumph in the end and their stories will be continued in yet another book in the series. Thank goodness!

Laurie King is a very good writer who sets the stage of the early 20th century well. One feels that one is there and experiencing the events of the day. The reader feels, too, that King has real empathy and understanding for her characters and she makes us want to know them better. A very good skill for a writer of an ongoing series to have!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Republicans

Republicans in the Senate continue to filibuster against providing extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed who are unable to find jobs in this tough economy. They do this in spite of the almost unanimous opinions of economists that providing these benefits is one of the most stimulative things government can do for the economy. The reasoning is very simple: Unemployed people, for the most part, do not have money to pay their necessary bills, much less any money left over for discretionary spending. If they receive unemployment benefits, they spend that money almost as soon as they get it. Putting money back into the economy stimulates the economy and in the long term - and sometimes the short term - it creates more jobs. Having more jobs available means that more unemployed people can find work and have less need for unemployment benefits, thus reducing the need for government spending. It's a classic win-win policy.

As I say, the reasoning is simple, but unfortunately, Republicans just don't get it. In their world, even though unemployment nationwide stands at almost 10%, anyone who doesn't have a job is just "lazy and spoiled and doesn't want to work." And giving them unemployment benefits just spoils them further and makes them lazier. And so they continue to filibuster.

Republicans have empathy for BP but not for the environment that is being despoiled by BP's carelessness nor the "small people" whose way of life is likewise being destroyed. They are appalled that the President would engage in a "shakedown" to get BP to put money in an escrow fund to pay for the damage they have done, even though BP readily agreed to the fund. And so we have the spectacle of people like the oily (pun intended), execrable Joe Barton apologizing to BP while the oil continues to spew into the Gulf. But in fact, Barton only said out loud what Republicans in general seem to believe. Corporations are gods and they must not be restrained in any way.

Republicans, likewise, do not believe that the gazillionaires on Wall Street should be restrained in any way. They are part of the sacred "Free Market" at whose altar the sainted Ronald Reagan worshiped. All hail the unrestricted, unregulated financial system. Financial reform, backed by Democrats, is seen as the equivalent of "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon."

Republicans never met a war they didn't like, even an unnecessary one like Iraq, so you would think that they would at least be in favor of services and assistance for the veterans of their beloved wars, especially homeless veterans of those wars. This week, with July 4, our Independence Day, just around the corner, they blocked such assistance.

Republicans quite seriously want to do away with Social Security and Medicare. It's part of their manifesto as written by their rising star, Rep. Paul Ryan. Our country under unrestrained Republican rule would be nasty and brutish place with no social safety net and many of us would be short-lived as we had to barter with doctors to give us medical care in return for chickens or some other commodity.

Republicans believe that government should be "drowned in a bathtub." It has no role in our everyday lives. It certainly has no right to restrain a citizen from owning a veritable arsenal of guns. It has no right to tax its citizens or to require them to purchase insurance to take care of medical costs. It has no right to restrain Christians from expounding their brand of Christianity in or on government edificies.

Yes, Republicans believe the government has no right to restrain personal actions in any way. Unless, of course, you are a woman or a homosexual. If you are a female, the government has every right to tell you what to do with your body. If you become pregnant, even if it is the result of rape or incest, you must carry that pregnancy to term. If you are a 13-year-old child, sexually abused by a father, there is no exemption for you. And if you are a homosexual, well, you have none of the civil rights afforded to heterosexual people. Except, of course, if you want to own an arsenal of guns. Then the NRA and their Republican friends will fight to the death for your right to do so. Just don't try to get married.

I can actually remember when being a Republican was an honorable thing, when Republicans put the good of their country above that of their party or their personal enrichment. Those Republicans must be spinning in their graves. Today's Republicans are a disgrace to them, and, indeed, to the human race.