Thursday, December 31, 2009

The obligatory year-end list

Here we are at the last day of the year and everybody is making a list to sum up the year that is quickly fading into history. Herewith, then, is my list - ten things that I would love to forget about 2009. They are in no particular order. Each is just as objectionable as the other.

1. The "Tea Partiers." These people couldn't even decide what they were against, but I strongly suspect what they were really against was having an African-American president. They were just a mindless herd being stirred up to stampede by the ranters on talk radio and Fox News.

2. Sarah Palin and her whole damn family - in-laws, outlaws, and hangers-on. When will these people fade into the anonymity that they so richly deserve?

3. The Houston Astros' season of ineptitude. Where have you gone, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio?

4. Birthers. These, of course, fit right in with #1. They are a subsection really. Their real problem, too, is race.

5. Joe Lieberman's whiney voice. Will this man never shut up? The answer is no because he is a complete narcissist who is in love with the sound of his own voice.

6. Glenn Beck and his conspiracy theories and his crocodile tears. Give me a break!

7. The esteemed governor of South Carolina and his exploration of the "Appalachian Trail."

8. As an ancillary to #7, "The Family," the fundamentalist religious group which supported and hid Sanford's sins, as well as Ensign, Pickering, and who knows how many others. This group seems to have its own little shadow government going on in Washington. Shadow being the operative word.

9. Carrie Prejean and her fake breasts and her fake opinions.

10. Chicken hawk politicians who never had the courage to serve in their country's military and who are largely to blame for the country's national security problems who lecture the current administration about how to deal with terrorism. Or anything else for that matter.

One can hope that this fresh new year coming up will not be burdened by the antics of these people and others like them, but I fear it is a forlorn hope. They will continue to irritate and outrage us even as they did this year. When next December 31 comes, they'll probably make my list again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An alternative view of bodice rippers

My mother was a lover of romance novels, perhaps because there was so little romance in her own life. In her later years, when she finally had the time to do so, she devoured these stories of female characters constantly in trouble and usually rescued by some strong male figure. I think they gave her a lot of pleasure and entertainment. I, of course, disdained them.

Romance novels, in my view, were for the unenlightened. Educated women and feminists most certainly did not read them. I thought that all romance heroines were weak and I wanted no part of that. The novels, I believed, were thinly disguised porn for women. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

In view of a recent thoughtful essay on the subject in the Daily Kos, of all places, I may have to revise my view of the genre. The essay was written by Laura Clawson, obviously a very smart woman (with an Ivy League PhD) who says she is a life-long feminist - and she reads romance novels.

One by one she debunks the myths about romance novels and her conclusion is that romance novels are demeaned by the literary world and by otherwise knowledgeable people as a way of demeaning women and women's interests. Why should a love story be any less legitimate than a spy novel, a mystery, or any other genre? It's the writing that counts and if the writing is good, it will shine in any genre.

Even teenage vampire novels?

Hmmm...I may have to give this whole issue of what is good literature and what isn't a rethink. Perhaps Mother knew best, after all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Is Iran imploding?

One wonders what is really happening in Iran these days. Even though journalists, for the most part, are not allowed by the government to report from there, it is clear that massive demonstrations are continuing more than six months after what seems to have been a thoroughly fraudulent election. There are reports that more than 30 have been killed in the most recent demonstrations, although the official government count is "only" eight.

The people of Iran - particularly the young people of Iran - seem determined to topple the authoritarian regime that has held their country in thrall for more than thirty years and to replace it with an Iranian brand of democracy. They have put their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the line and their bodies on the streets in that struggle.

I deeply admire their passion and their dedication. More power to them. Perhaps 2010 will be their year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My new Kindle

I love books. I love the feel of books, the smell of books, the heft of books, the look of books - their perfect symmetry.

I am, as the phrase goes, an "avid reader." I've always got at least one book going and several waiting on my "to be read" shelf, so I consume a lot of books in a year's time.

I am a fairly eclectric reader, although my favorite genre is mysteries, and specifically, historical mysteries, but I read a lot of other stuff as well, both fiction and nonfiction.

My devotion to the printed page has been unwavering and I've never even considered getting an ebook reader. Until earlier this year. I got a Kindle for my husband, the technogeek, for his birthday, and after watching him use it and seeing his enthusiasm for it, I decided that maybe I should try it, even though I'm decidedly NOT a technogeek.

I did try it and I was hooked.

So, Santa, that jolly old elf, knowing that I had been seduced by the Kindle, stuffed my Christmas stocking with one this year. Yes, now I have a Kindle of my very own and I find that I love the feel of it, the look of it - its perfect symmetry. I love the heft of it - it feels just right in my hands. I even love - well, like - the plastic smell of it.

Most of all, I love its ease of use and its handy dictionary. Frankly, I can't think of a single thing I would do to improve it.

Best of all, just think of all those trees that won't have to be cut to make paper for all the books I will now be reading on the Kindle. Sweet!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The woman's reporter

So, after forty years of reporting about women, Ellen Goodman is retiring. I guess she's earned a rest. It has been an eventful forty years.

Ellen Goodman and I are contemporaries and I have spent much of those last forty years reading her columns and nodding my heading in agreement. Sometimes I also shed a tear or crumpled the paper in frustration, because a lot of what she had to report on was not progress. It was the story of the continued demeaning of women and women's concerns, "women's issues" - i.e., life, death, the bringing up of children, the dignity of work and the desire for equal treatment in the workplace, health care and the desire for equal treatment in that arena, as well. The list could go on and on, and it has, but it is a list that is too often overlooked by the mainstream media. We are lucky that we had Ellen Goodman there to kick them in the shins and sometimes in the seat of their pants and say, "Hey, fathead, you are overlooking more than half of the human race!"

The things that are close to the hearts and minds of women are things that are essential to the continuation of the race and of culture. They are the things that make life more comfortable and safer, things like clean water, safe food, and air that won't make you sick. These things are not as sexy to politicians, media moguls, and other powerful people as missiles, guns, shoe bombers, and the latest celebrity sex scandal so they get short shrift in the 24-hour news cycle and even in the printed media. But Ellen Goodman never took her eye off the big picture, the things that matter, never got distracted by all those extraneous issues. She wrote about the things that count and she made people care about them.

Thank you, Ellen. Enjoy your retirement.

Now will someone take on her mantle and continue the work? Please?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas oranges

It is Clementine season and, daily, I gorge myself on these lovely fruits. They are sweet, luscious and tiny. One is just not enough, so I typically take four of them at a time from the fruit bowl.

Their smooth, shiny orange skin is very easily removed, so peeling the four is fast work. Then they are quickly divided into their individual sections, fourteen or so to the fruit. Each section is just bite-sized, a sweet, tangy, seedless, juicy mouthful of citrusy goodness.

They come to us at just the right time of year, from mid-November through January. At the darkest time of year, they are like a taste of sunshine.

These small oranges are of the Mandarin orange family and it is really in fairly recent years that they have become popular and widely available - at least in the grocery stores that I frequent. But having once discovered them, I'm doing my best to increase demand and ensure their continued production and availability in grocery produce departments.

Many fruits are now available year-round, having been imported from some other part of the world. We take those for granted. But Clementines are special. They are available for only a few weeks. Their appearance at Christmastime has given them the common name of "Christmas oranges." Indeed, they are a precious gift of the season.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Quiet again

All the holiday company, including dogs, have left. The house is quiet once again, and perhaps my dear cat Nicholas can regain his equilibrium. He enjoys human visitors, but he wasn't too sure about those dogs.

I look forward to this time of year and to getting the whole family together for the only time during the year, but, as my daughter said today, it is very tiring having to be so nice all the time, and it's a great relief to get back to our normal grouchy, grinchy selves.

It is hard for me to be too grouchy though since I made out like a bandit with Santa. From yard sculptures and books to my piece de resistance, my new Kindle, Santa was very good to me. I must have been a better girl than I thought I was, or maybe Santa was easily duped.

Now, with my Kindle and with all the other paper books I have on my reading shelf, it may get even quieter around here for the rest of winter. Who needs television, radio, DVDs, or CDs when you've got books to read?

So, come on, winter weather, do your worst. I've got all the entertainment I need to keep me occupied.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's done

He did it! Harry Reid, excoriated by both left and right and underestimated by almost everybody except possibly his caucus which elected him leader, has done what no other Majority Leader of the Senate, even the most legendary, has been able to do. He has held his fractious caucus together through months of bickering, marching them, cajoling them, bargaining with them toward this final result - passage of a Health Care Reform bill.

It's not the end, of course. Under the arcane rules of legislation, this flawed bill must now be reconciled with the House's more generous bill and then voted on by both Houses again before it can finally land on the President's desk for signature.

Still, this accomplishment must not be underestimated. It is a first, a beginning, and Harry Reid has done it. Good on him!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Festivus for the rest of us

Finally, the day we have waited for all year has arrived: Festivus!

So, without further ado, let's get right down to the airing of grievances. I'll start. Here are things that are bugging me this year.

1. People who have forgotten the simplest rules of courtesy that their mothers taught them, such as elected representatives who interrupt a speech by the President of the United States to shout that he is a liar. Or the "teabaggers" who spent their summer disrupting public meetings and trying to keep other people from speaking about or listening to information about Health Care Reform.

2. The mainstream media's obsession with people like Sarah Palin, Carrie Prejean, and Tiger Woods. Who cares?

3. People who don't know that subjective pronouns should never be used as objects, as in, "When I see the next National Enquirer on the newstand I expect to see a headline about Tiger Woods and I." It should be "Tiger Woods and ME." (Well...not really.)

4. Joe Lieberman.

5. People who walk around in public with their cell phones plastered to their ears. They are in deep and loud conversation with someone, somewhere, and they are obviously very important people whose conversations we should all be interested in and they are much too important to pay any attention whatsoever to the people or things around them. I'll never get used to that.

6. Global warming deniers.

7. Litterbugs.

Well, I could go on. And on and on, but you get the point. There's quite a lot in this world that irritates me. Thank goodness that those things are offset by so many things that bring me joy. But Festivus isn't the time to talk about those things.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The best thing about Christmas

Christmas is not actually my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving holds that place in my heart. But there are many things to like about Christmas.

It is the only holiday when all of our (very small) family manages to get together. There are the Christmas movies that I never tire of watching. Movies like A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Love Actually to name just three.

There are the special Christmas foods. I will even admit to being one of those demented beings who actually like fruitcake. It brings back fond memories of my childhood and the fruitcake that my mother used to make.

Then, of course, there are the gifts. Who doesn't like to give and get gifts? Well, there probably are some such people, but their hearts are two sizes too small and they are known as grinches.

There are Christmas plants to enjoy, like poinsettias and Christmas cactus and, of course, Christmas trees. I especially love my Christmas cactus, again because it reminds me of my mother's cactus of which she was so proud.

But the best thing about Christmas for me is the music.

Christmas music should never be played before Thanksgiving and it should never be played after about noon on Christmas Day, but within that window of opportunity, I could listen to it just about non-stop without ever getting tired of it. Except for a few unspeakably trite and schmaltzy songs that don't even bear mentioning (but yes, I do mean songs like "Baby's first Christmas" - yecch!), Christmas music is the perfect accompaniment to my mood at this time of year. Whether it is "Jingle Bells" or "Silent Night," somehow it always seems just right.

Only two more days and then I have to put away all those lovely CDs for another year. I didn't actually add any to the collection this year. If I had done, it would have been Bob Dylan's album. Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs - what a treat that would have been!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

The last day of autumn here was a gorgeous one. The clear sky glowed with golden sunshine and that special shade of blue that seems to come only at this time of year. Autumn blue.

Now the sun has set. The shortest day of the year is over and we are embarked upon the longest night, a time that was considered perilous by our ancestors. That is why they invented so many rituals and ceremonies involving light that take place at this time of year. They celebrated light as a way of honoring the sun, flattering it and persuading it to come back and light the world once more. They felt that there was a very good chance that it might not unless they took the appropriate actions. And so, pagans celebrated (and still celebrate) the solstice, the ancient Romans had their Saturnalia, the Jews had (and have) Hanukkah, and the Christians rather arbitrarily designated December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth.

But it isn't only these groups. If you stick a pin in a map of the world and go and study the cultural history of the people of that area, you will almost surely find buried in their traditions, if not currently practiced, a set of beliefs regarding the winter solstice as a special time of year.

It is, of course. It is the earth's New Year's Day. No matter what our human-made calendar may say, when we wake up tomorrow it will be in a new year. Beginning tomorrow, our daylight hours will start to lengthen, imperceptibly at first, but, soon, the days will be noticeably longer. The dark days of late autumn and winter will be behind us and we will be looking toward spring.

The days and months rush by too quickly. Autumn, we barely knew ye, and now we must make the acquaintance of winter.

So, light the candles and sing the sacred songs to ensure that the sun will come back tomorrow after its longest journey into darkness. The earth and we await the reassurance of those first red rays of light on the eastern horizon.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Meryl Streep

The first movie I actually remember seeing Meryl Streep in was Sophie's Choice. She broke my heart. Utterly destroyed me, in fact. I will never see that movie nor anything similar again. It was, in short, a great performance that didn't seem like a performance at all. She was Sophie.

I've seen her in many movies since. In recent years there was The Devil Wears Prada and last year's Mama Mia. And always, whether she is playing unutterable tragedy, a thorough bitch, or singing and dancing her way through a frothy frolic, she always does it. She completely embodies the spirit of the character she is playing. She becomes that person.

It wasn't a surprise to me then, when I finally got around to seeing Julie and Julia today, to see her transformed into Julia Child. By now, I am on to her tricks. But what a performance! She captured the glorious Julia in her accent, her mannerisms, her awkwardness, her love of life, her authenticity.

She's already been nominated for awards for this performance and, no doubt, she'll be nominated for an Oscar, but I'm not sure there is an award big enough for what she does. There was one scene in the movie where Julia and Paul are walking along a street in Paris and they encounter a young mother pushing a baby carriage and in Julia's glance at that baby carriage was an entire story that needed no exposition. It was a story of loss and disappointment. No baby.

It was Julia's sadness we saw in that scene. It could just as well have been Sophie's.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter in the garden

Winter officially begins in a couple of days as the sun hides its face from us on the shortest day of the year. But unofficially, it began here a couple of weeks ago with our first severe freeze. We don't often get temperatures that flirt with the teens here on the Gulf Coast, and so that event was a shock to the systems of both gardens and gardeners.

Walking around my garden today, I was again surprised at the extent of the damage. Most of my plants are natives, or they are tried and true old Southern stand-bys like crinums. They will be back. But I had succumbed to the temptation to add some more tropical plants this year. Many gardeners in the Houston area grow them successfully, but I'm a bit farther north and the micro-climate of my yard is a bit chillier at this time of year than many of those who treasure and baby their tropical plants.

I don't baby my plants. I'm much too lazy a gardener for that. So this season has already been a revelation to me - even though it hasn't officially begun yet. That revelation is: Stick to native plants! They are tough and they know how to survive these little unexpected blips in our usually warm (or hot) climate.

In recent years, winter has barely even touched us here and perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security. But Mother Nature still has the capacity to surprise us. As I look at those sumptous tropical plants offered by local nurseries next spring, I'll try to remember that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rules for writers

I happened to catch Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" segment on NPR yesterday. It was William Safire's birthday and Keillor was talking about Safire's rules for writers:

1. Never split an infinitive.

2. Never use passive voice.

3. Avoid cliches like the plague!

That last one made me laugh out loud. I had heard or read these rules before, but had forgotten them and had forgotten about Safire's tongue-in-cheek wit.

Most writers, I think, learn rules similar to these and try to apply them with greater or lesser success to the actual craft of writing. But who can really claim to have never split an infinitive or used the passive voice? And what would our language be without its cliches?

Come to think of it, the ultimate passive voice statement - "To be or not to be" - is also something of a cliche in itself. But then the immortal Shakespeare could hardly be bothered by rules concocted by mere mortals, especially one who lived four hundred years after him.

In fact many of the aphorisms that have become cliches in our language had their birth from Shakespeare's pen and the language is the richer for them.

Safire's point though, I think, was to avoid triteness and the commonplace in one's writing and to adhere to the basic rules of grammar. They exist for good reasons.

Each writer should seek his/her own unique voice and point of view. We certainly can't all be Shakespeares or even Safires, but we can be our authentic selves. That is something that nobody else can do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

George and Scrooge

Two iconic literary characters of this time of year are essentially mirror images of each other.

George Bailey is the ultimate self-sacrificing good citizen. His first sacrifice is to jump into the freezing water of a pond to rescue his little brother. It seems from that point on, the trajectory of his life is determined. Whenever he has to make a choice between his desires and what would be the greater good for his family or his community, he gives up his desires and his dreams of world travel to serve that family and community. When the crunch comes, he questions all the decisions he has ever made and thinks the world would have been better off if he had never been born. Through the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence, he gets to see that alternative life - or un-life - and gets the ultimate Christmas gift of learning just what his life has meant to everyone around him. He has really had a pretty wonderful life, after all.

Scrooge, on the other hand, is the quintessential miser - miserly in his emotions, miserly in sharing his financial wealth with the world, miserly in taking even the smallest step to make the world a better, warmer place. He had a choice to make early on, also, between the woman who was then the love of his life and money which would become the love of his life. Of course, he chose money and all of the other choices of his life flowed from this beginning. Every act of his life revolved around the hunger to gain more and more money. His greatest joy in life was to squeeze a shilling until it screamed and to pay as little as possible for any of the services he received. He totally ignored all the want and suffering around him.

For Scrooge, one angel wasn't enough to redeem him. It took the shade of his old partner, Jacob Marley, plus three angels to show him the past, present, and future and convince him that he had taken a wrong turn all those years ago. In the end, he is convinced and spends the rest of his life trying to make up for all his wrongs. He becomes his community's George Bailey.

There are too many unredeemed Scrooges in our society today, but there are George Baileys, too; men and women who daily sacrifice their own wishes in order to take care of those around them. They are the bones that hold the body of civilization together.

What the world needs now is, yes, love, along with fewer misers - and more and stronger bones.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Confronting evil

I'm not a big fan of David Brooks and I admit I don't often read his column in The New York Times, but a couple of days ago, he wrote one which had a title that intrigued me. It was "Obama's Christian Realism."The gist of the column was that President Obama's thought processes are revealed by his speeches and that his public speeches, taken as a whole, have reflected a remarkably consistent philosophy throughout. It is essentially that there is evil in the world which must be confronted, and, as Brooks states it, that "life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside."

This is what Brooks calls the liberal internationalist approach. It is an approach that demands that we, as a nation, act in concert with others to achieve our aims. From this philosophy grew our backing of NATO and of the United Nations and of many regional alliances around the world. It is an approach to international relations that served this country very well for more than fifty years and was really only abandoned in this century by the Bushies. President Obama now seeks to return us to that more solid ground.

Brooks reminds us that Barack Obama spoke out against the Iraq war in 2002 and he was booed for his efforts. Throughout his political career, regardless of the opposition he has faced, he has steered by the stars of his understanding of what is right and of human nature's core struggle between love and evil. He is a serious and complicated man, a man who is able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind without succumbing to frustration or self-destructiveness.

I don't always agree with this president. I often wish that he would be more forceful in dealing with some of the more infuriatingly self-centered and self-serving politicians who pontificate in the Senate. I wish that he would act more swiftly to right some of the wrongs that have become ingrained in our system of government over the past eight years. But I am resigned to the fact that he will act with all deliberate speed on his own schedule and that he will not engage in the kind of partisan retribution that has marked the worst of our politics in recent years, even if I might want him to, because it is against his nature and he believes it is wrong.

No matter what the outcome may be, it is comforting to have the country in the hands of a "Christian realist" who is able to see not only good and evil in black and white, but all those confusing shades of gray in between.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good news comes in a small package - with feathers

With all the really bad, no-good, horrible, awful news of the day, from disarray in the climate change talks, to confusion about Health Care Reform and whether it is really going to happen, to Wall Street giving its usual obscene end-of-the-year bonuses, to more troops being sent to Afghanistan - well, it's enough to depress even the most optimistic person.

Imagine my utter delight then when, today, I ran across the story of the Limestone Leaf Warbler.

This tiny bird, a previously unknown species, has been discovered in the forests of Vietnam and Laos. It is a yellow and green bird that was first sighted in 1994, but at that time it was thought that it was merely a subspecies of the Sulphur-breasted Warbler, a well-documented species in the area. Now, however, studies of the bird's morphology, DNA, and vocalizations have confirmed that it is a distinct species.

Not only is this a "new" bird, but unlike so many recently discovered species that have only been found when they are on the brink of extirpation, this little bird seems to have a healthy population and is doing quite well, thank you!

The bird is a member of the Phylloscopus family and is not closely related to the wood warblers (family Parulidae) that brighten life for bird watchers all over the Americas.

I'm sure that I will never see a Limestone Leaf Warbler, but just to know it exists makes me happy and offsets some of the bad karma emanating from Washington these days. Sometimes hope is a thing with feathers.

(Read more about the bird's discovery at A DC Birding Blog.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Elections have consequences

In 2006, Democrats had the opportunity to support a Democrat who was running for the Senate in Connecticut. His name was Ned Lamont and he had won the right to make that race by beating Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary. The leadership and most of the well-known names in the Democratic Party failed to support Lamont. They either supported Lieberman, who ran as an Independent, or they sat on their hands and refused to support either candidate.

Ned Lamont was not exactly a dynamic candidate but he was a true Democrat and he had won his primary race fairly and squarely. He deserved to be supported by his party. Had he won the general election and had the opportunity to serve as Connecticut's senator, there is no question as to how he would stand on the current efforts to pass Health Care Reform. He would be foursquare in favor of such reform, rather than playing the obstructionist role that is embraced with such enthusiasm by the man who won the general election with the default assistance of the Democratic Party apparatus.

One of the Democrats who refused to support his party's candidate in 2006 in Connecticut was Barack Obama.

Elections have consequences.

(Read what Paul Krugman had to say about Lieberman in 2006. He was right then and nothing about Lieberman has changed.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The dodgy emails

So, the Associated Press has done an exhaustive analysis of the emails regarding climate change research and data that were stolen from Britain's University of East Anglia, and they have concluded that what the emails show is that scientists can be just as petty and childish as ordinary people. What they most definitely do NOT show is that there is any reason to doubt that global climate change is taking place and that human activities are contributing mightily to it.

Analysis by the Associated Press will, of course, not convince the deniers. Consider, after all, that some of them are the same people who do not accept evolution. Heck, some of them probably don't even accept gravity.

The scientists who tried to "nudge" the data in order to present it in an even more positive light and those who discouraged any contributions from scientists who questioned the overwhelming scientific view of climate change did their discipline a disservice and they really should be ashamed of themselves. By their actions, they have only served to embolden their critics and make them even more unlikely to listen to any reasoned argument.

But the truth is the data exist. They stand on their own. They do not require propping up.

And, by the way, just who did steal those emails and to what end? I wonder if any hackers out there are interested in stealing the emails that fly back and forth between some of the prominent deniers of global warming. Those might make for some interesting reading and offer insight into the methodology and research of these people.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Outsourcing our accountability

When did we decide as a country to outsource our governmental functions to private enterprise? Sure, the eight years of the Bush Jr. administration were the heyday of privatization, but the camel's nose was under the tent even before that. The argument is made time and time again that private enterprise can do the jobs cheaper and more efficiently. That might possibly be true in some cases, AS LONG AS THERE IS STRONG GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT LOOKING OUT FOR OUR INTERESTS.

The problem has been that the oversight has been lacking, because our representatives in Washington have been bought by those private interests who receive the valuable contracts and they have ensured that there will be no effective policing of the contracts. And so we have situations like the murderous rampage of Blackwater (now Xe) employees killing innocents in Iraq, for which no one yet has truly been held accountable. Blackwater employees were also contracted to guard the embassy in Kabul. You cannot convince me that, even with the best of will, they could have done that with greater effectiveness and efficiency than U.S. Marines who in another time and political climate would have been charged with that task. But, in fact, these guys went completely rogue, with partying that would have put Caligula to shame. (Okay, maybe not Caligula, but anyone with even a minimal moral compass.)

We need to take our governmental functions back from the contractors who are accountable to nobody. Governmental employees, either civilian or military, who are accountable, through their chains of command, ultimately to the people, are the appropriate personnel to carry out the actions that are deemed necessary by the government. This is one instance when going back to the practices of the "good old days" is a very good idea.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The one hundred percenters

Sometimes I just don't get it. Liberals have been trying to bring meaningful health care reform to this country for my entire lifetime - and longer. Now we are closer than ever before to achieving that, and yet a sizable minority of so-called committed liberals rail against it.


Well, I made that last one up, but not really. Olbermann and his hyperventilating kind seem to believe that if we don't get 100% of everything that liberals wanted in this bill that there is just no hope for the Democrats in elections in 2010 and in 2012.

The truth is that life is a compromise and one hardly ever gets 100% of what one wants, but if one gets 50% or even 30% and that is the best that can be had in the present climate, isn't that a deal worth taking? Then we can work to change the climate so that perhaps next time we can get closer to that 100%. The pragmatists and realists believe so and I count myself among them. Half a loaf, particularly a half that extends Medicare to a significant portion of additional Americans, is definitely better than no loaf at all.

(Read more at Daily Kos.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The winter garden

Winter came early to the Gulf Coast this year. We had our earliest snowfall on record, on December 4, and our first hard freeze came that night, about a week to ten days earlier than our average first frost. This was a shock to area gardeners, most of whom were unprepared for this strangely cold weather. (Our temperature got down to 23 degrees F.) In recent years, winter has passed practically unremarked in our gardens. Last winter, the first week in January, I had seven fat Monarch butterfly caterpillars munching away on my still green milkweed. This winter, the first full week in December, my milkweed has turned to black mush.

Perversely, I actually enjoy this time of year in the garden. It may have something to do with the fact that weeding requirements are minimal, but I like to think that my pleasure is more spiritual, related to the revelation of the bones and structure of the garden. All the fluffery of leaves has been peeled away by Mother Nature and one can see through to the very skeleton which holds the garden together.

The garden is quiet and mostly monochrome these days. Gone is the colorful frenzy of butterflies and bees feeding that has been the hallmark of the garden since mid-summer. No green anoles sun themselves on brick or stone or wooden fence. Even the birds go about their activities quietly. And the gardener can sit and look and think without distractions, planning for more colorful days to come - in the new year just ahead.

(Read more about my garden at my other blog, Gardening with Nature.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Uh-Oh Decade of journalism

There's been some discussion lately of just what we should call this decade that is winding down to its final days. It has been a decade of notable selfishness and lack of introspection, but the "Me Decade" sobriquet is already taken.

Now, one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts, has weighed in on the discussion. His suggestion is that we call it the "Uh-Oh Decade." I think the name is highly appropriate, for our country if not for the world. From the Supreme Court's ill-advised decision to stop the counting of votes in Florida in 2000, through all the lies and obnoxious swagger of the Bush years, the unwarranted war, the betrayal of American principles through the torture and humiliation of prisoners, the trashing of laws protecting the environment and public health - well, the list goes on and on. It has been one long series of uh-ohs.

One of the most troubling aspects of the last ten years for me, though, has been the demise of journalism. Perhaps I exaggerate. There are a few true journalists out there still trying to do the important job of shining a bright light into dark places, but the role and influence of journalism in the larger public life has been co-opted by biased opinion outlets that admit only one side to any given story - Fox News and their ilk. This has been the decade when the talk radio hosts have vied to see who could express the most outrageous opinions and, essentially, who could shout the loudest. Reasoned and sober discussion of the issues is a foreign concept to them. These are the kinds of "journalists" that now shape our public opinion.

I grew up in the era when Walter Cronkite was the most respected man in America and deserved to be. Likewise, CBS News was a brand you could depend on to tell the truth. I came to adulthood as journalists risked their lives to report news from the fronts of two wars - one in Vietnam, the other here at home as the Civil Rights battles raged. And then came the Watergate era, when dogged journalism toppled a corrupt presidency. Yes, journalism was an important part of our national life in those days and journalists were respected. How far the profession has fallen.

Can journalism recover and evolve and once again take its place as a scourge to liars and wrongdoers? We need that if the coming decade is to be an improvement over the last.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

This silent autumn

It happens every year in autumn in my yard and I suppose I should be used to it by now. A silence descends. The birds that flock to my feeding stations three seasons of the year suddenly desert me and all is quiet. No White-winged Doves crowd the platform feeders, no colorful Northern Cardinals fly to the post feeders or search the ground under them for their share of the black oil sunflower seeds. This year even the Northern Mockingbirds have abandoned my yard. I don't ever remember that happening before.

If this had just happened yesterday, it wouldn't concern me so much, but it has been going on for weeks now. All of November was quiet in my yard, a silence broken only by the sound of leaves falling and squirrels squabbling. Though I understand why it happens, that doesn't make the silence any easier to bear.

The birds disperse at the end of summer because food is plentiful in the wild then. It has been especially so this year. We have had an unusually heavy crop of all kinds of nuts, berries and other fruits, and this, I suppose, has kept the birds in the woods and meadows and out of my yard longer than in previous years.

Meantime, some of the winter birds are straggling in. I hear American Goldfinches flying over my yard, but so far none have stopped in for a snack as far as I know, even though I've hung the thistle-filled sock out for them. Eastern Phoebes call their names from trees and atop fences, and little Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers dart from their perches to snatch tiny insects from the air. Lately, Yellow-rumped Warblers have begun to join the fray.

Still, the absence of my "permanent resident" birds rattles my nerves. I begin to understand what a truly silent spring might be like. I wouldn't like it.

(Read more on the subject at my other blog, Backyard Birder.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

Last Friday, here in the Houston area, we had snow and ice, a most uncommon occurrence for this part of the world. Whenever something like that happens, it brings out the climate warming deniers here (of which there are many - this is Texas, after all) who send letters to the editor and to bloggers like me proclaiming, "THIS PROVES THAT GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX!!!" To which I reply, "Tell me about it next July or August."

Of course, daily weather does not equal climate. Only daily weather writ large, over the period of a decade or a century or five hundred years, can begin to equal climate. And the record for the last five hundred years is clear - the climate is changing. To which the deniers will reply, "Earth's climate is always changing and it used to be a lot hotter than it is now." Well, yes, it did, but there weren't these sensitive little critters called humans living on its surface back then.

During the relatively short time that humans have inhabited the earth, the climate has been in a more moderate phase - else humans could not have inhabited the earth. But now, we humans have changed the face of the earth and have affected the climate control mechanisms of the "big, blue marble" to an extent that our home planet is heating up, faster than it should and fast enough and severely enough to threaten our existence here.

The basic facts of global warming are not really in question any more except for those cranks who will continue to deny it is happening even as the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico reaches Oklahoma City, and this is the week that representatives from 200 countries begin their meeting in Copenhagen to try and work out a strategy and maybe even a treaty for tackling the thorny issue. Like one of my heroes, Paul Krugman, I feel cautiously optimistic about their chances. At least, the United States, at long last, has left the ranks of the deniers and obstructionists and is actually participating in this good faith effort, and that alone is cause for hope.

My home is a lot closer to the coast than Oklahoma City and so I have good reason to wish them well.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is it with these guys?

Baucus acknowledges recommending girlfriend.

So now Sen. Max Baucus joins the long list of ethics-challenged United States Senators. Names like Ensign, Vitter and Craig spring to mind, along with those two sterling characters from Oklahoma, Imhofe and Coburn. What is it with these guys anyway? (And it is always guys - so far no female senators have qualified for this Hall of Shame.)

I mean surely they have a certain amount of intelligence to have reached their high offices, and yet they appear to have no basic understanding of the idea of conflict of interest or the wrongness of using public policy and offices to further their personal interests. Baucus, for example, sees nothing wrong with recommending his lover for a high government position. He feels she shouldn't have been disqualified simply because he was "dating" her.

Well-qualified she may have been, and based on what I have read of her, she does appear to be a very talented and capable individual, but no matter how capable she might have been, the appearance of the situation stinks, and appearances matter. The old adage that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" applies to today's politicians as well, no matter how much many of them have forgotten it or seek to ignore it.

And so the question becomes, have they no shame? At long last, have they no shame? Apparently not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Another blog? Ya gotta be kidding!

For about three years now, I have been a part of the world of blogging. I currently maintain two blogs, both of them for the Houston Chronicle.

I called my first blog "Backyard Birder" because that's what I am. Birds are a passion with me, but I possess no particular expertise, except as a backyard birder and so that is what I signed on to write about. Backyard birds are endlessly fascinating to me, and I'm still learning about them and sharing what I learn with my readers.

My second blog with the Chronicle is called "Gardening with Nature" because that's what I do. I am engaged in creating a garden in my yard that is a seamless extension of Nature. It is a habitat garden that welcomes wildlife of many kinds, especially birds, butterflies, and bees. Working on this garden has been one of the great joys of my life and it is my ongoing pleasure. I live in a climate where gardening takes place twelve months of the year, so there is always something happening here - always something to write about.

So why another blog? Well, because I do have other interests that I would like to write about that don't necessarily fall within the neat categorization of birds or gardens. I am a constant and avid reader and I like to write about the books that I read. I have a strong interest in politics ( I am a liberal) and in human endeavors and foibles on many levels and I felt the need for a platform for expressing my views on some of these subjects. Why keep it all bottled up inside, after all?

And so, herewith, blog #3. I hope you'll join me here from time to time and, perhaps, begin a conversation.