Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nature Sunday

Greater Yellowlegs in flight at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast. The yellowlegs is one of the iconic birds of the Texas Coast in winter.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama in the lions' den

Did you see the appearance of President Obama at the Republican House members' retreat yesterday? I didn't watch it live, but I did see the replay of it last night on MSNBC. It was very interesting political theater.

Several commentators made the analogy to the Prime Minister's question time in England when the PM stands before the elected representatives and takes their questions. The main difference between that and what we had yesterday is that any representative, including members of his own party, can query the Prime Minister, thus some of the questions are bound to be friendly. In yesterday's exercise, all of the questions were adversarial, if not downright hostile. Most of the questioners prefaced their question with long statements chastising the President.

Happily for his supporters, the President did not give an inch and gave as good - actually better - than he got. He answered their questions, told them to their faces when they were actually mistating facts either accidentally or on purpose, and showed a great command of all the topics that they chose to bring up. He maintained his cool and civil attitude throughout and repeatedly gave his bipartisanship pitch and asked his adversaries to negotiate and work with him for the good of the country rather than just saying "no" reflexively. It was a feisty and truly impressive performance that must has heartened Democrats who have hoping for the president to show a bit more fight.

Can we expect to see more of this push back from President Obama? One can only hope so. I think it is just what the Democratic Party needs, someone to get out front and lead - someone to stiffen their spines. It can only have been exhilarating to them to see their president walk into the lions' den and walk out wearing a lion-skin coat.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Psst! Wanna buy a ticket to a tea party?

For weeks now, we've been hearing about a planned convention of the "tea party" movement in Nashville next week. The organizers have touted the slate of true-blue (or maybe I should say true-red) tea partiers who would be speaking at the event. Among those heroes (or heroines) of tea partydom were Martha Blackburn (R-TN), Michele Bachmann (R-MN, or is it Mars?), and Sarah Palin (R-Fox News). Well, now, two of the speakers, Blackburn and Bachmann, have pulled out, citing belated concerns about congressional ethics rules. Only the stalwart Palin continues to stand four-square with the tea party convention organizers.

The convention has all along presented problems for the truly grassroots section of the TP movement. You see, it is a "for profit" venture. Several groups have looked at the success of the TPers in stirring people up and thought, "How can we co-opt this movement and make a buck off of it?" (It is the American Way, after all - the free market system at work.) This was their answer: A convention in the tea party haven of Nashville, Tennessee, to be held at the Opryland Hotel. Now, really, can you get any more grassroots than that? And about that money-making part? Well, a ticket costs $550 and the keynote speaker, Palin, will receive $100,000. It appears that SOMEBODY will be making money here, but it probably won't be the tea partiers.

It isn't only Bachmann and Blackburn who have dropped out. The American Liberty Alliance, the National Precinct Alliance, and the Tea Party Express also have either bowed out or expressed their intention to do so.

So, it appears when Palin takes the podium next week to give her rousing call to arms, there may be a lot of empty seats out there in front of her. If you've got $550 lying around in your sock drawer, you can probably still buy a ticket.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My inexpert analysis of the State of the Union address

I watched the President give his State of the Union address last night. It's a good thing I did because I wouldn't have recognized the speech as "analyzed" by many "experts" in the media.

It was a good and honest speech, I thought. It was unlike many of the hyperbolic speeches we've come to expect on such occasions. I was convinced that he believed and meant every word that he spoke. If I didn't necessarily agree with him on every single point, still I honor his seriousness of purpose and his continuing attempts to talk to people, including the self-important puffed-up politicians that were in the room with him last night (yes, including the Supreme Court justices), as if they were adults, and intelligent adults at that.

I was struck again that he refuses to give up on bipartisanship and on trying to change the toxic atmosphere in Washington. He talked about the deficit of trust and the need to reduce that deficit. He continued to reach out to Republicans by inviting them to bring their ideas to the table and by announcing he would meet with them regularly as a group.

He didn't back away from any of the initiatives he has proposed, even as he did tweak the emphasis a bit to put the spotlight more on the need to produce jobs and get the economy going in the right direction.

Perhaps the high point of the speech for me was his reminder to Democrats that they hold one of the largest majorities in legislative history and that people expect that they will use that majority to govern. He urged them not to "run for the hills" but to push on with their agenda.

It would help considerably if the Democrats had a strong leader out in front urging them forward. There is only one person on the scene at the moment who can be that leader. That person talked a good plan last night. Now let's see if he can execute it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The martins are coming! The martins are coming!

Late January is the time our most beloved swallow, the Purple Martin, makes its appearance throughout much of Texas, and indeed all the states on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This year some of the birds didn't even wait for the page on the calendar to turn. They showed up on December 31.

The birds usually don't show up in my yard just northwest of Houston until early February, but since they have already been reported in the area, I am on the alert for them, ready to open the doors of my martin mansion and raise it high to welcome back one of my favorite birds of summer.

Purple Martins have a long and remarkable relationship with human beings on this continent. The Native Americans were the first to put up gourd housing for the birds. This continued for centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene and took up the practice. Over time, this symbiotic relationship has become so strong that Purple Martins in the eastern part of the continent are totally dependent upon housing provided by humans in which to raise their families. In the western part of the country, some of the birds do still nest in the wild.

The martins spend about six months with us and then return to Brazil for the remainder of the year. Often, they are gone from my yard by the Fourth of July. As birds that depend upon flying insects for their diet, it's important that they time their migration properly. To leave to late or arrive too early could be disastrous, which is why I worry about those birds that showed up in the area on December 31. A few days later, we had a deep freeze that lasted for four days and would have grounded or killed most flying insects. It might have killed the birds, too, if they did not have the good sense to turn around and fly back farther south. One can only hope that they did.

This is one of my birds from a couple of years ago. Will he be back this year? I'm waiting...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pop goes the bubble wrap

I had a package delivered by FedEx yesterday. As I opened the box and started removing the packing, I discovered that my treasure had been enclosed in a thick layer of bubble wrap. That meant double pleasure for me: I got what I had ordered, intact and in good shape, AND I got to pop some of those little pillows of air in the bubble wrap as I unwrapped it.

I have no idea why popping bubble wrap is such a pleasure but it is, and I feel sure that that, in part, accounts for its success over the last fifty years. Yes, it is true - coincidentally with the arrival of my package, yesterday was bubble wrap's fiftieth birthday.

Funnily enough, bubble wrap did not start life as a packing material. It was invented to be a kind of wall covering. It was not a hit in the world of home decor, but soon another use was found for it and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bubble wrap had an enormous impact on the way America and the world did business in the latter half of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries. It made it possible to ship even very fragile items over long distances quite safely. It contributed to the success of such businesses as UPS and FedEx. In fact, one might even say that bubble wrap and the Internet have revolutionized the way we shop. No need to leave home any more. Do your shopping with a keystroke and UPS or FedEx or one of the other carriers will happily deliver your items to your front door, safely swathed in magic bubbles of air.

And then, when you open your package, you get to indulge your inner child by popping all those neat little air bubbles. What a satisfying sound and feeling! It would, indeed, be a much duller world without bubble wrap.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Texas bored of education

The militantly ignorant State Board of Education of Texas has struck again. They have barred children's book author Bill Martin Jr. from being included in the state's social studies curriculum. Martin is the writer of such books as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and another book which taught kids how to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Pretty dangerous stuff, wouldn't you say? We Texans certainly don't want our kids exposed to anything that subversive!

The capital crime for which Martin was expunged from Texas' list of "acceptable literature," though, is that he has the same name as a philosophy professor at DePaul University who wrote a book called Ethical Marxism and it seems that the members of the "bored of education" are too lazy and incompetent to do the research that would reveal to anyone with access to Google that these men are two different people. Instead, they just barred all authors named Bill Martin.

This group of people none of whom. to my certain knowledge, has a child in the public school system in Texas, narrows the range of intellectual freedom for school children and teachers every time they meet. If they could manage it, they would completely outlaw any teaching of evolution in science classes and, in fact, they may finally be successful in that. They have already essentially rewritten history by outlawing any books that do not fit their extremely right wing views of the subject. Which is how they came to bar an author who wrote a book about Marxism - except that he didn't.

And, anyway, what in heaven's name would be wrong with allowing a Texas schoolchild to read a book about Marxism? Why should they not be exposed to all philosophies in order to judge for themselves what is best? What is the Texas bored of education so afraid of?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jean Simmons

When I was a child spending my Saturday afternoons at the Princess Theater watching their matinees, I thought Jean Simmons was the most beautiful woman in the world and I wanted to be her when I grew up. She was often in the matinee features, usually in a biblical epic or a blood and sandals flick. Nobody was better in those roles and I loved those movies.

I particularly remember her in Spartacus. In fact, I was just thinking about that recently when I learned that there was a television remake of that movie. (And I really wish they wouldn't, but that's a subject for another day.) Ms. Simmons played a slave who fell in love with the gladiator Spartacus, leader of a rebellion that almost succeeded against the overpowering might of the Roman Empire. Spartacus, of course, was played by Kirk Douglas. The second most memorable scene of the movie for me was at the end when Spartacus is hanging on the cross and Simmons stands before him to show him their baby as he is dying. The most memorable scene, naturally, is when the Roman general played by Laurence Olivier offers the rebels freedom if they will identify their leader Spartacus, who will then be crucified. After a slight hesitation, each man, one after the other, steps forward saying, "I am Spartacus!" They are all crucified.

Before Spartacus, there were movies like Desiree and Guys and Dolls, in both of which she played opposite Marlon Brando, and The Robe with Richard Burton and The Egyptian. I didn't see any of those movies at the matinee, but, at some point, I saw them all on television, and I always marveled at Ms. Simmons' embodiment of the characters that she played.

Incidentally, last year, I finally got around to reading the novel that The Egyptian was based on. It was by Mika Waltari and is called, funnily enough, The Egyptian. Throughout my reading of the book, it was always Jean Simmons' face I saw as the tavern maid who loved the physician.

It was impossible that I should achieve my wish of growing up to be Jean Simmons. The role was already taken, and she played it so well. And even though the beautiful lady died this week at the age of 80, I'm afraid it is too late for me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The despoiler of school gardens

Do you know who Caitlin Flanagan is? Well, neither did I until this week. I have lived my entire life in happy oblivion of the woman, but this week, suddenly, her name kept cropping up in several of the gardening blogs that I regularly read. It seems that she wrote a piece for The Atlantic decrying the use of gardening as a teaching tool in schools and particularly excoriating school gardens. Garden bloggers were not amused. As a garden blogger, I count myself as one of the unamused.

Who does this woman think she is? She believes that children should be learning Shakespeare instead of getting their hands dirty in a garden and participating in the "desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt." Where the hell does she think food comes from, the grocery store? I guess in her world it just magically appears on the grocery store shelves, never having touched "dirt."

And since when did education become a choice between learning Shakespeare and learning to be more self sufficient by growing one's own vegetables? Most kids, I think, are smart enough to master at least two concepts during a school day. Maybe even three.

In a nation where obesity and diabetes are well on their way to becoming epidemics if indeed they aren't already, I can think of few more important components of education than teaching kids about food, about where it comes from, and how to make good food choices. And the fact that in the process of teaching them these things, their instructors get them off their butts and into the sunshine and open air where they perform actual physical labor seems to me a bonus and a very good thing. Not according to Ms. Flanagan, however.

What Ms. Flanagan's warped sense of values could use, I think, is a little "dirt therapy." She should get outside, away from her computer keyboard, and actually get her hands dirty digging in the earth. She should try actually planting some tomatoes or beans or corn. She might be surprised at how pleasurable and rewarding the activity can be. But mostly she just needs to get back to doing her social criticism pieces on things like "Sex and the Married Man" or "What Girls Want" and take her cotton pickin' hands off school gardens.

(The best response to Caitlin Flanagan's criticism of school gardens that I have read has come from Michele Owens of "Garden Rant." Read all about it here.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making the grade

So, Barack Obama has been President of the United States for a year and a day now, and everybody and his/her kitty has weighed in on what kind of job he is doing and what grade he should get. Everybody except me and my cat Nicholas, that is. But now we are going to remedy that.

Nicholas is very emphatic about the grade that he gives Mr. Obama. It's an F. As best I can determine his grading system is based solely on what he refers to as "the dog issue." I guess he means Bo. (I'm sorry to admit that Nicholas does have some prejudices.)

As for the grade I would give the President, it is based on my own political prejudices. I am a liberal. In the political world as it exists in this country today, that means that I generally vote for Democrats because they come closest to the values I believe in. There are no liberal Republicans. Heck, there aren't even any centrist Republicans. There is only the far right and the lunatic fringe right.

As a liberal, I voted for Barack Obama for president in the general election. In the primary, I had supported Hillary Clinton because I thought she was the better candidate and because I dearly wanted to see a woman become president in my lifetime. I still think she was the better candidate, but once she dropped out and supported her primary opponent, I supported him, too.

A year ago, Barack Obama took over the biggest mess any president has ever had to deal with on his first day in office. An economy in ruins. Two wars - one totally unnecessary and the other that should have been wrapped up years ago. A country that was despised and reviled around the world. Through his actions, he kept the economy from going off the cliff. (I would have preferred he be bolder, but at least he did the minimum required.) He set some timetables for ending the wars. ( I would have preferred shorter time frames, but these are knotty problems, made so by the previous administration and it is hard to argue against the decisions he has made.) He has issued orders to stop torturing people and has affirmed his belief in the rule of law and his willingness to listen to and cooperate with other countries on a wide variety of issues. This has probably been his greatest success in the past year - turning around the image of this country in the rest of the world.

Where he has failed, and failed miserably in my opinion, is on the legislative front. Instead of providing strong leadership, he has constantly deferred to Congress and left it to them to hash out conflicts. He has been conciliatory in the extreme with Republicans who have rebuffed and denigrated him at every opportunity. He is obviously a decent man who always wants to treat others well, but in order to treat the country well, the country that gave him its reins a year ago, he may need to be less conciliatory. The Republicans, as presently constituted, will never compromise with him and will never be helpful in constructing policies to benefit the country, because they want him to fail. They want the government to fail, because they do not believe in government. In order to succeed with them, President Obama is going to have to be willing to bash some heads together and to provide strong leadership for his fellow fractious Democrats.

The change that I voted for in 2008 was leadership that was bold enough to lead us out of the mess we were in, leadership that would return us to the liberal values that have kept this country as a beacon to the rest of the world in past decades. That bold leadership has not been forthcoming yet. I still have hope that it will emerge but I have to admit that I am getting close to the opinion expressed by Paul Krugman in his blog yesterday, namely that he's "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama."

My grade, then, for the President for his first year is a "gentleman's C." And I won't hold that "dog issue" against him.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sometimes you just gotta laugh

There are days in one's life when one really needs a chuckle. If this is such a day for you, here are a few (bad) jokes that might do the trick.

How do crazy people get through the forest?
They take the psychopath.

How do you catch a unique rabbit?
Unique up on it.

How do you catch a tame rabbit?
The tame way!

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To show the possum and the armadillo it could be done.

What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?
A nervous wreck!

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't work?
A stick!

What do fish say when they hit a concrete wall?

Why did Martha Coakley lose the Massachusetts Senate seat?
Because she thought she had it in the bag, she took the people of Massachusetts for granted, she took a vacation when she should have been out working her butt off as Ted Kennedy would have been doing.

Well, maybe that last one isn't too funny. Elections have consequences. The truth is, though, that Coakley deserved to lose. But the people of Massachusetts and the country don't deserve another throwback like Brown in the Senate.

Sometimes all you can do is shake your head in wonderment at the way of the world of politics and human hubris.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Pruning can be a very therapeutic exercise - for the gardener as well as the plant.

I am a non-violent person. It is difficult for me to imagine a situation where I would resort to violence, but I admit there are things happening in this world that at times just make me want to bash something or someone - figuratively, if not literally. Enter my pruning shears.

They are Felco #12s and they fit my hand perfectly. They make pruning an almost sensual experience, but at the same time they allow me to vent all my hostility and anger in perfect comfort. As I make my cuts, I think about all the people on the world stage who have irritated or appalled me recently.

Whack! Take that, Rush Limbaugh. Snip! That's for you, Pat Robertson. I believe you need to be pruned WAY back, Sarah Palin. You, too, Glenn Beck. And as for you, national media, I'm taking you back to the trunk! Maybe the new growth will be more robust and productive.

Today, I worked on the grapevines and the apple tree. Both of them presented a tangled mess of criss-crossing growth from last year. I whacked away at the grapevines until there was nothing left but the trunks and a few leaders. For the apple tree, I had to bring in the saws to remove bigger limbs and some that I couldn't reach with my hand pruners. As my pile of prunings got bigger, I could feel my irritation with the world ebbing away.

I've a few more shrubs and trees that will require some judicious cutting and, in less than a month, it will be time to do the roses. Truthfully, there is so much in the world that makes me mad, it is very fortunate that I have many things that need pruning.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Winter in my heart

Mid-January is a difficult time for gardeners. On many days, the weather is too inclement to actually get outside and work in the garden, even in the relatively mild climate where I live. Many gardeners resort to dreaming and planning over the colorful seed catalogs that fill our mailboxes at this time of year. Others read books or draw up complicated plans for new beds and other additions and improvements they will make to their gardens. But by mid-January, I'm well-past all of that and looking for new ways to entertain myself. I'm looking for signs of the coming spring, something to relieve the winter that has settled over my heart. Slowly, I'm finding a few of those signs.

Yesterday, a beautiful sunny mid-winter day, I found a green anole who was spread out, sunning himself atop the outdoor air-conditioning unit. I hadn't encountered any of these little lizards since our latest freeze and it made me smile to see him there.

Walking around the yard, I saw that the old hydrangeas had weathered the freeze and now have green buds. Likewise, my ancient apple tree has fat buds that look as though they are just waiting for the signal to open up. Near the tree, I encountered a hopeful honeybee, but there's not much blooming in my yard right now to tempt him. There are a few premature blossoms on the blueberries, so perhaps he found them to give him sustenance for another day.

On another recent day in the yard, I met a Question Mark butterfly on the Carolina jessamine. The jessamine hasn't bloomed yet, although it, too, is full of buds, but the butterfly had settled on the south side of the vine, away from the cold wind and was spreading its wings in the sun. My yard is full of butterflies in summer and fall, but it seemed odd to see this little critter there on such a cold day. These butterflies, though, are actually active in winter here, something to brighten our gardens and give us hope - just as the apple tree and hydrangea buds, the blueberry blossoms, the honeybee and the anole do. Something to remind us that spring will arrive in its own good time to relieve the winter in our hearts.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

You should read this book!

I just finished reading a wonderful book, Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Have you read it? If not, put it on your "to be read" list. It is a terrific book.

The story is set along the border between Washington and British Columbia and concerns a unique Border Patrol agent named Brandon Vanderkool. Brandon is a 6'8" tall dyslexic, borderline autistic, birder who is so finely attuned to Nature that he notices everything. This quality, it turns out, makes him a very successful BP agent. He catches smugglers and illegal entrants to the country without even trying, without even really wanting to, just because he can't help noticing all the tiny clues that betray them.

Around this central character, Lynch has woven a lyrical story about life along the border, about dairy farmers and pot growers, a Canadian and American community threatened by America's paranoia about terrorism, about outsiders and people searching for love and belonging, and people just trying to find a way to get through another day with a little dignity. It is a quirky and funny book - there are several laugh-out-loud moments.

Once I got about halfway through the book, I didn't want to put it down and I read right on through to the finish. And then I didn't want it to end. But even the ending was perfect.

This was Lynch's second book. I think I need to look up his first one. It was called The Highest Tide. Have you read it?

Saturday, January 16, 2010


There is a new bookstore in my neighborhood. It is called Bookworms. It has actually been open several weeks now but today was the first chance I had had to visit.

There are few things more hopeful than seeing a new bookstore opening up. It's a sign that someone has enough faith in the literacy and the culture of this area to risk their money, effort, time and dreams in such a venture. I wish them well.

The bookstore is small and it deals mostly in used books, although allegedly it carries new books as well. The only ones that I saw today all appeared to be used. It doesn't have a very varied stock, yet, and it has all its fiction together in one section, so lovers of specific genres have to wade through everything else to find what they want. Moreover, it has a lot of books by authors that I had never heard of, but it also had a good selection of books by some of my favorites and by others that I had been intending to read. I left the store with books by Anne Tyler, Louise Erdrich, Isabel Allende, and Margaret George. More rich fodder for my already bloated "to be read" list.

When the world gets to be too much and the news is all bad, as it has been this week, it's nice to spend some time with books. They are like old friends that always know how to comfort us. They say, "Come and sit with me. We'll laugh together. We'll cry together. We'll talk over old memories. And in the end you will feel better, and the world will slip back into its proper alignment once again."

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Clooney effect

George Clooney is a movie star with all the baggage that that implies. He has much in common with the movie stars of yesteryear - people like Cary Grant or John Wayne. Like them, he's one of those actors who always seems to be playing himself. In other words, he appears not to be acting at all. Every move is graceful and unaffected and un...planned. He just is.

Recently, I heard a discussion about him and his art on Fresh Air on NPR. The person who was being interviewed said that Clooney refused to do accents in his movies, even if the role might seem to call for it. His reasoning was, "People know what I sound like. If I did an accent, it would distract people from the role I'm playing." Cary Grant might have made the same argument.

It just so happens that in addition to being a movie star, George Clooney is also a very good actor. I was reminded of that today when I saw his latest movie, Up in the Air. In it, he plays a loner, a man who deliberately eschews connections. His job is to fly around the country and fire people for companies that are "downsizing." He loves his job and he loves his life, a life lived mostly on airplanes, in airports, and in hotels. Then something happens. His company implements a plan to ground all of its "road warriors" and do all the firings by remote control, by video. Clooney's character thus gets a taste of what things were like for all those people he had separated from the jobs that sustained them, as he is faced with the threat of losing his own way of life.

There are emotional moments in the film but Clooney conveys the emotions that his character feels seemingly effortlessly. Everything is understated, underplayed. He never invades his fellow actors' space or overshadows them. In fact, he makes everybody around him look better. That is the real Clooney effect and it is a real gift.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I apologize

So on the one hand, we have Pat Robertson blaming the earthquake in Haiti on the people of Haiti. He says it's all because, back in the 18th century when they rebelled and fought for their freedom from France, they made a "pact to the devil" and so they have been cursed ever since. Perhaps he thinks that the American colonies that rebelled and fought for their freedom from England at the same time also made a "pact to the devil." Well, I defer to Robertson on his knowledge of the devil. I suspect he has a much more intimate relationship with him than I do. In the future, he may get to know him even better.

On the other hand, we have Rush Limbaugh excoriating President Obama for reacting to this overwhelming human catastrophe within 24 hours, whereas it took him THREE WHOLE DAYS to react to the incompetent underpants bomber! The fact that no one died in the underpants bomber's failed attempt and that thousands have already died in Haiti and many more will die, particularly if the rest of the world fails to react quickly to send aid, seems lost on Limbaugh. He thinks President Obama is just promising help to Haiti to "boost his credibility with the black community," both "light skinned" and "dark skinned."

You know, there are some people who just make you want to apologize for being a member of the same race as they. That would be the human race, Rush.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Poor Haiti

When I was in the eighth grade (I think), I had to do a book report in English class. I don't remember why now but for some reason, I chose to report on a book by Kenneth Roberts called Lydia Bailey.

Roberts was known in those days for writing sometimes overwrought historical fiction that always contained a bit of a mystery, a bit of romance, and a bit of suspense. Lydia Bailey was all of that.

I had forgotten this book, or at least pushed it to the recesses of my mind, but what brought it back to the forefront today was the latest tragedy in Haiti. You see, much of the book took place in Haiti during the time of the rebellion led by Toussaint L'Overture in the late 18th century. In fact, that was the only part of the book that I actually remembered. When I looked it up via my friend Google today, I found that it actually started in Boston, moved to Haiti and then to the Barbary Coast. But what had stuck with me was Haiti. Roberts wrote vividly of the landscape and people there. It is a picture I've carried with me all these years.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Its geography has doomed it to be buffeted periodically by the killing winds and waters of hurricanes. Its history of being ruled by greedy people who are only concerned with increasing their own wealth has doomed its people to perpetual poverty. By the latter part of the 20th century, Haiti was devouring itself, chopping down its trees, destroying vital habitats and resources, thinking only of surviving the day - not considering its future.

Haiti is on one end of the island of Hispaniola. On the other end is the Dominican Republic, also a poor country, but one that has labored mightily to protect its trees, resources, habitats and the animals that depend on them. It is beginning to see positive results from its efforts. It provides a stark contrast to Haiti.

And now a massive earthquake has virtually leveled parts of this poor country and killed thousands of its people. Poor Haiti. It seems it can never catch a break except the kind that breaks one's heart.

But what can we do? We can make our donations to Oxfam or other such organizations that work tirelessly in situations like these to bring aid and comfort to the suffering and we can do whatever we can to encourage our own government to help in this situation. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have already offered help. Let's hope it will be sufficient to make a difference.

Maybe I'll see if the library has Lydia Bailey and reread that book. What I didn't know at the time I read the book all those years ago, but I do now, was that in Haiti during the time of the rebellion our most famous ornithologist was being born - the French-American, John James Audubon. In fact, it was because of the rebellion and his fears for his children's safety that his father moved his family to France. From there, of course, J.J. eventually made his way to America. On such hinges hang the doors of history.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The odd couple

PBS' Nature series on Sunday night had a feature on the amazing hummingbirds. They are the smallest warm-blooded creatures on the face of the earth and they live only in the Americas. There are more than 300 species of the little critters. Their hearts beat more than 600 times a minute under normal hummingbird activity. At night, when they enter a state called torpor in order to save energy, their heart rate can drop as low as the 30s and their temperature can drop from about 110 degrees down to the 50s. Some species of these tiny creatures, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, make a migratory flight of some 600 miles one way, twice a year. These are creatures for which the adjective "amazing" truly fits. I would even venture to use that greatly overused adjective (which I normally abhor) "awesome".

I didn't get to see Nature on Sunday, but I DVR'd the show and watched it during lunch today. Of all the remarkable parts of the story, one particular bit of the hummingbird saga struck me as especially remarkable. It involves the Black-chinned Hummingbirds that nest in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.

It seems that these particular hummers have figured out a unique way to protect their nests. They need protection because hummingbirds are prey for many other birds, reptiles, and small mammals. But there is a predator that is death on wings to all these animals that would eat the hummingbird and its eggs. It is the Cooper's Hawk.

The Cooper's primary prey is other birds, but the hummingbird is too small to attract its interest. It will also eat reptiles and small mammals when they present themselves as ready targets. It is a very efficient and deadly hunter and the hummingbirds have learned to take advantage of this.

The female Black-chinned Hummingbird finds where the Cooper's has built its nest and then she builds her nest in close proximity. In fact, one Cooper's Hawk nest may have several little hummingbird nests clustered around it. Since the Cooper's Hawk will clear the area of the animals that might prey on the hummingbird in order to feed itself and its chicks, the hummingbird and its nest gain protection.

Now, how did this tiny bird figure this out? It's just another example of how the word "birdbrain" is not necessarily derogatory.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sarah the commentator

When Sarah Palin quit her job as governor of Alaska last year, I wondered how long it would take for her to wind up as a commentator on Fox News. Well, I have my answer, as Fox today announced the name of its latest acquisition.

I must say that it seems to me that most prospective employers would be at least a little leery of hiring an employee who has quit practically every job (if not indeed EVERY job) she has ever held. But, of course, the normal rules and normal caveats don't apply to Palin. She's special, you see.

And she's certainly landed in the right spot because the normal rules and caveats of journalism, such as fact-checking and telling the truth don't apply to Fox News either. The liar Palin joins the lying network - a marriage made...well, not in heaven, I think. Probably in a much warmer realm.

It will be interesting to see just how Fox will use Sarah, and, dare I say, vice versa. Will they give her a script and a teleprompter, or will they allow her to extemporize? Will they use her as an interviewer? Now that could be interesting.

This woman is, without a doubt, one of the most ill-informed and intellectually incurious people in politics today. She makes George W. Bush look like a mental giant. Why, she might even make Glenn Beck look good.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why Fox hired her.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Iguanas and pythons and turtles, oh my!

The deep freeze that has hit virtually all parts of the southern United States over the last several days has wreaked havoc on the citrus crop in Florida. It has also caused a lot of misery for wildlife in the area that is not used to such cold temperatures. That's not all bad though.

Florida has been a fertile ground for the growth and expansion of invasive species. Two members of the reptile family in particular have caused great concern in recent years - the iguana which can sometimes grow up to six feet long and the Burmese python which can reach lengths of 20 feet and pose a threat not only to wildlife but to domestic pets and to humans. The state's wildlife service has been working to trap and euthanize these potentially dangerous animals. The cold has suddenly made their jobs a lot easier.

The cold temperatures cause the iguanas to become torpid and fall out of the trees they have climbed. They can then be picked up and euthanized. The pythons as well go into an almost catatonic state when exposed to these cold temperatures. So although the citrus farmers might have a hard time seeing it, it seems that the Arctic blast may actually have a silver lining for Florida.

Unfortunately, another member of the reptile family, sea turtles, some of which are already endangered, are also adversely affected by the cold. Some have had to be rescued and moved to cover until the cold abates. Others probably have perished in the unexpected cold.

This is the kind of weather that helps to sort out those species that don't belong from the native species that do belong here. It will be interesting to see what will be the long-term effects of actually having winter weather in the South once again.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"You lie!"

So the latest talking point by Republicans is that no terror attacks occurred in the United States during the Bush presidency. Over and over they have repeated this revision of history since Christmas. And they do it with a straight face.

I guess the first person I heard it from was Dana Perino, Bush's ditsy last press secretary. Then, Karl Rove, that paragon of honesty, joined in. Several commentators on Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, picked up the meme and repeated it ad nauseum.

And now we have Rudy Giuliani - yes, THAT Rudy Giuliani of the "a noun, a verb, and 9/11" presidential campaign - claiming that there were no terroristic attacks on the country during the years 2001 through 2008. And his interviewer, George Stephanopolous, did not say, "What the hell are you talking about?" No, he just sat there and blandly went on to the next question on his script.

That is my main quibble with this story. I no longer expect to hear truth from Republicans, just as I no longer expect them to put the national interest of the country ahead of their own personal political interest. Honorable Republicans from past days, from Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower or the irrepressible Everett Dirksen must be lining up at the heavenly precincts requesting to change their party affiliation when they hear these bozos rant.

But just as those old Republicans must be distressed by the depths to which their party has plummeted, what must poor old Edward R. Murrow be thinking of the people that he handed off to when he shuffled off the mortal coil? What a disgrace they are!

Surely they are aware that there were numerous terroristic attacks on this country during the Bush years. Have they forgotten 9/11? Apparently Giuliani has. Have they forgotten the "shoe bomber," the anthrax attacks (which were never solved), the Virginia Tech shooter, the DC snipers, the 2002 attack at the ticket counter at LAX, the UNC SUV attack - well, one could go on, but why bother? Soon, if these Republicans have their way they will all be wiped from the history books and therefore will have never happened.

And since "journalism is the first draft of history," they probably will have their way, because there seems to be no journalist with the courage to jump up and shake his (or her) fist at these prevaricators and yell, "You lie!"

Sometimes I despair for my country. Truly, I do.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy birthday, Elvis!

Yes, today is the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth. He was 42 when he died and he has now been dead for 33 years. And yet, he lives in the hearts of fans around the world, even many who were not born when he was alive or were too young to be aware of him then.

I remember the first time I ever heard of Elvis Presley. I was walking along a dusty country road in Northeast Mississippi with my father. We had walked to the local store and now we were walking home. We came upon a neighbor of ours, a young man named Junior Johnson, who was also walking along the road.

Junior was a guitar player. He played with local bands and he started talking excitedly to my dad about a gig he had played in Booneville, Mississippi recently with someone with the weird name of Elvis. I was pretty young at the time, but Junior's excitement was palpable and contagious and it made an impression on me. I remembered it later when we started hearing more about this Elvis person and it became clear, even to a child, that he was going to be more than just a local phenom. Of course, we couldn't have guessed how much more.

On the occasion of his 75th birthday, our local newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, listed "75 facts that you didn't know about Elvis." The fact that jumped out at me was that Elvis preferred sponge baths. A strange preference, but I think I understand why.

Elvis spent his early years living very poor in Northeast Mississippi. In his world, the only baths available to him were sponge baths or swimming in a creek somewhere. Sponge baths probably represented a comfort of childhood to him even in his later years.

I took a lot of sponge baths in my early years, too. I soon learned to prefer long, luxurious, hot, tub baths. But then I didn't need to hold on to that bit from my childhood. Maybe Elvis did.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock lives

One of the first grown-up books that I remember reading as a child was The Complete Sherlock Holmes, all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing starring his most famous creation, packed into one volume. How I loved that book and how I loved Holmes. He was an eccentric and an iconoclast, just what I longed to be.

It was from Sherlock that I learned my love of the mystery. I still devour mystery novels by the dozens each year.

In recent years, I've even been able to enjoy my old friend Holmes in well-written mysteries once again. Author Laurie R. King has a pastiche series going, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, that stars Holmes and his protege Mary Russell, a protege who later became (horrors!) his wife! Conan Doyle may still be spinning in his grave over that turn of events, but, in fact, the series is very well done and I feel that it is true to the original spirit of Holmes.

Holmes, of course, is one of the most enduring characters in literature and he has been interpreted by many others in both film and literature over the years. He is a character who is malleable enough to lend himself to many interpretations.

When I was growing up, I used to love coming home from school in the afternoon and watching those old black-and-white movies with Basil Rathbone. I never tired of them. There are many other film versions of Holmes, but my favorite still is Jeremy Brett in the old PBS Mystery series. His protrayal of Holmes was brilliant and just right, which is to say that he played Holmes exactly as I had always imagined him.

Which brings me up to today when I saw the new film "Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. I must say the film is a hoot and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even Holmes' frequent resorts to bare-knuckled fisticuffs - which, of course, my real Holmes would never have done. It's certainly a different way of imagining Holmes, but he's a big enough character to encompass even this alternative interpretation.

I always found it interesting that Conan Doyle came to hate Sherlock Holmes so much that he finally killed him off. He said, "If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me." In the end, though, Sherlock refused to die and Conan Doyle had to bring him back to life, at the demand of his readers.

Conan Doyle is now long dead, but his famous consulting detective lives on and is reinterpreted by each new era. I wonder how Doyle would feel about that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Training my brain

A recent article on adult learning in The New York Times made the following statement:
"Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted."

I was certainly distracted by that statement. If middle age now stretches all the way to the late 60s, then I feel positively young!

Young as I may be though, I have to admit to some of the problems that are delineated by the article. Yes, I'm familiar with the experience of reading a book and then six months later being able to remember very little about it. Same thing with movies I've seen - even movies that I've liked. And then, of course, there are people. Specifically, people's names. I like to think that I never forget a face - but names? Fuhgeddaboutit. I usually do.

So what's a young person like myself to do? How can I prevent my brain from ossifying and teach it to be more nimble? There's actually some good news in the article.

Contrary to stereotype, the aging brain can and does continue to learn and develop, scientists have proven. One of the problems of the aging brain may simply be that there are so many folds in our neurons, developed over the years, that information has a difficult time finding its way through them to the tips of our brain where we can access it. I'm sure it has never happened to you, but how many times have I had the experience of being unable to recall a word or a name of a person and if I continue to try to remember, the lost fact just becomes more elusive. But later, sometimes hours later and often in the middle of the night, it will come to me, having finally made its convoluted way through all those synapses and into my consciousness.

The answer, then, to "what can I do?" seems inordinately simple: Use it or lose it. We are urged to treat the brain like a muscle. Give it exercise. Occasionally give it something new to contemplate. Don't just always do the same old things in the same old ways. Giving it a chance to bump up against new ideas is what keeps it - and us - young.

After reading this article, I had my resolution for the new year. I hereby resolve to give my brain something new and different to chew on each month. After all, I want to stretch out those "middle age" years just as long as I possibly can.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

We're havin' a heat wave!

Well, actually, strictly speaking, we in the northern hemisphere are NOT having a heat wave. In fact, throughout much of our half of the earth, it is bitterly cold just now. In my own neighborhood of the world, here near the southern coast of the United States, we are shivering in temperatures that we haven't experienced in many years. We are talking temperatures in the 20s F and possibly as low as the teens later this week.

Such weather occurrences predictably bring out all the global warming skeptics and deniers to chortle triumphantly about how this proves that all the hoopla about global climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy. But if they bothered to turn their eyes to the south, they would see quite a different picture.

In the southern hemisphere, especially the South Pacific, many areas are experiencing unprecedented heat waves, not so different from what we experienced in much of North America and other parts of the northern hemisphere just a few months ago and probably will again next summer. But we tend to be so ethnocentric that we assume that whatever weather conditions we are experiencing at the moment are the ones that prevail over the earth. And so we overlook half the planet.

Of course, it isn't only in regard to weather that we are so blind and jingoistic. We tend to see OUR culture or OUR political system or OUR religion as THE culture, political system, religion, etc. In this, perhaps we are no better than those who willfully and proudly deny, in the face of all the data, that the earth is heating up. We are all in the same boat and the water is rising.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Reading deliberately" - a concept I can get behind!

Several of the book blogs that I follow (The Book Lady, e.g.) are promoting an idea that they call "reading deliberately" in 2010. As I understand it, this means reading with a plan in mind, being mindful about what you read, and not just reading the light, fluffy stuff that goes in one eye and out the other. It's an idea that appeals to me.

In 2009, I read 81 books. I know because I kept track of them on Goodreads. I never actually kept track of my reading before, but I'm pretty sure I never read 81 books in a year before. Looking back over my list, I can't say that there are any that I wish I hadn't read, but, if I had really thought about it more, perhaps I could have made better reading choices. It's a case of "so many good books, so little time" and do I really want to waste my time reading books that, in the great scheme of things, are worthless?

The first book that I read in 2010 was such a selection. It was Killer Keepsakes by Jane K. Cleland, a cozy mystery featuring the owner of an antiques shop. The characters were flat and uninteresting and the writing was pedestrian. I didn't learn anything from the book.

Now I love cozy mysteries and I don't plan to give them up. After all, Miss Marple books are cozies, as are the various series by Elizabeth Peters or Alexander McCall Smith, but those books are well-written and they have something to offer - interesting characters, well-plotted stories, humor, intelligent writing, and odd bits of information that I didn't know before. In future, I hope to be more selective in choosing my cozies, as well as all my other reading.

Just now, I'm reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Man Booker prize winner for 2009. There's nothing light or fluffy about this book! I expect to learn quite a few things I didn't know before by the time I finish traversing its 500+ pages.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The anonymous haters

I love the Internet. I especially love Google. How did I ever survive without it? But I guess I am revealing something about my age and my mindset when I say that I will never get used to the hatred, vitriol, and, in fact, the filth that spews out on the world through the Internet "tubes" every day.

And it is all anonymous, of course. That makes it worse somehow. All that passion is so...impersonal.

A couple of the websites that I frequent on a daily basis are prime offenders in this regard. Anyone who expresses a contrarian opinion from the accepted orthodoxy is likely to get screamed at in CAPITAL LETTERS AND MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!! There may even be wishes for the death of the contrarian.

This is something that bothers me all the time, but what really brought it to the front of my mind recently was the news last week that Rush Limbaugh had been admitted to the hospital with a possible heart attack. When I read some of the comments on the news story, I was appalled. Commenters were wishing for the painful death of this pathetic man.

Now I am no fan of Rush Limbaugh. In fact, I can think of few people that I hold in lower esteem. (Dick Cheney, maybe, simply because I think he harms my country every time he opens his mouth.) But I could never wish for his death, not even under the elvish invisibility cloak of the Internet. Death comes soon enough to each of us and, as long as there is life, there is hope for redemption - however, unlikely it might be in Limbaugh's case.

Furthermore, to wish pain and death to Limbaugh would be to put me in the same league with him, who often expresses such wishes for those he excoriates. I like to think I play in a higher league than that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wait'll next year and hope. Oh. It is next year.

January 2. It's just about six weeks until "pitchers and catchers report" and we begin revving up for another season of the greatest game played with a ball that was ever invented.

And the fans of most major league teams begin revving up for another year of frustration and disappointment.

That was certainly my fate last year. Frustration. I can remember no season since becoming a Houston Astros fan some thirty years before that was more filled with angst, anger, and hopelessness. Last year's team was hopeless almost from the beginning of the season.

The main problem was that they had a manager who was clueless and incompetent. He may be a fine human being and he may have had success in other roles in baseball, but as a manager, he didn't know where to begin. He made excuses for his errors. He blamed his players. He blew up at reporters who asked him questions he didn't want to answer. Worst of all, he made boneheaded strategic moves in games that even a competent Little League manager wouldn't have made. He put the team in a hole and he destroyed their team spirit. Soon they were playing like they had lead in their shoes. And in their arms and between their ears. They were, in short, an embarrassment to themselves and to their fans.

But now it is a new year. The team has a new manager and will have many new and untried players. This season could be another total disaster. On the other hand, it could be the start of something really good and really exciting.

Pollyanna has nothing on the diehard baseball fan. Hope, indeed, springs eternal - especially before the season begins.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Day for the birds

What better way to begin a new year than at a National Wildlife Refuge looking for birds. It has become a tradition with our family in recent years to spend New Year's Day at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and so that is where we headed in the early morning hours.

Last year's New Year's Day at Anahuac was heartbreaking. Hurricane Ike had swept through just two-and-a-half-months before, totally devastating the area. There were piles of debris everywhere one looked - but no birds. We ended the day with only sixteen species on our list and two of those were the Black and Turkey Vultures.

This year was quite different. From our first stop in the refuge, it was evident that life had returned. There were large flocks of ducks and geese flying as well as plenty of other water birds. Most hearteningly, there were Tree Swallows!

This year we ended the day with a total of thirty-six species on our list - not a great total but respectable and certainly encouraging after last year's debacle.

There were still several birds that were missing - most notably the Common Moorhen. Not only was it not common today, it was not there. There were several species of ducks like the Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, and Gadwall that we were used to seeing here in past years that were nowhere to be found today.

But overall, after the sad state of the refuge just one year ago, it is quite amazing that life has returned so quickly and is getting back to normal. It just reminds us once again that Nature rules.