Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The next generation is here

I came home from my trip last week to find a yard full of young birds. Fledglings were everywhere it seemed, and their voices resonated from every tree and every likely perch.

When we had left on our trip, the Red-bellied Woodpecker babies had just left their nest. They were still very dependent on their parents to find food for them. A week later, I returned to find very competent young woodpeckers visiting the feeders on their own and feeding themselves without any instruction or assistance from parents.

Before we left, I had seen one or two young Northern Cardinals following their papa around, but now everywhere I look in the garden there seems to be a cardinal with a dark beak marking it as a youngster and they are feeding themselves and obviously are on their own. It's hard to count just how many there are, because, of course, they move around a lot, but I feel certain there is more than one family here. Cardinals tend to be somewhat less aggressively territorial than some backyard birds and their territories sometimes seem to overlap; thus, I often have a very large population of the birds in my yard.

I haven't actually seen any Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that I can identify as youngsters, but the female is definitely still with me. I was sitting in my backyard a couple of days ago near a large cuphea plant that is a favorite of hummingbirds. The plant was just about a foot or so from my face.

Suddenly, the female hummer swooped in and started feeding from the blossoms, paying no attention to me. But then she broke off from feeding and came and hovered just a few inches from my face! I don't know if she thought I might be full of nectar or if she was just saying "hello" but she did that a couple of more times while she was feeding from the plant. It's quite exciting and a little disconcerting to be so close to one of these tiny creatures.

Interestingly, I also have a male hummer in my yard at present. I've seen him around for a few weeks now, so I'm guessing he's spending the summer here. I don't often have a male staying in my yard in summer. The male and female separate after mating and he goes his way leaving her to build a nest and raise the family. But this year it seems he stuck around even though he doesn't participate in family life. He and the female appear to have divided up the yard - he has the front and she has the back.

Meantime, the White-winged Doves and Blue Jays continue to flock to my feeders, as do the Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees. The Eastern Bluebirds seem to be incubating another clutch of eggs. I haven't actually checked the box, but I know the female is in there most of the time throughout the day.

The Carolina Wrens have decided to raise their next family in one of my hanging baskets outside the den window. It makes it more than a little difficult to water that plant. I'm not sure the poor plant will survive the experience.

The traffic at the feeders is pretty constant throughout the day now and I find that I need to refill them at least every couple of days. The increased pressure from all those young birds as well as the continuing big flocks of doves is making me very popular with the sellers of bird seed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

More summer reading

There aren't any movies out right now that I really care to see. There's not much on television that I want to watch except for my Houston Astros and they are doing so poorly that it is often painful to watch them. It's too hot and miserable for outside activities except for the absolutely necessary ones in the garden and I'm not really into knitting, so that leaves me with reading as my summertime leisure activity. Fortunately, there is no shortage of good books to keep me entertained. I've just finished another one.

Remarkable Creatures, the title of Tracy Chevalier's book, could refer to the fossils found by Mary Anning along a rocky, windswept English beach or it could refer to Anning herself and her friend and champion Elizabeth Philpot, for these were, indeed, extraordinary women. At a time - the late 18th and early 19th centuries - when women were only allowed one honorable role in life, that of wife and mother, these two women carved their own places and made their marks on fossilized (pun intended) society.

Mary Anning was struck by lightning when she was still a baby. Like a later fictional character, she survived her encounter with this unearthly power but without the lightning mark on her forehead. Instead, she gained "the eye", an ability to see things that were overlooked by others. (Whether this really had anything to do with the lightning strike is debatable, but she seems to have thought it did.) What that meant in practical terms was that she became a prodigious hunter of fossils. She was able to see their shapes among the rocks where other people saw only rocks. It helped that she had an absolute passion for fossils.

Her passion was matched by Elizabeth Philpot. The spinster, Philpot, along with her two sisters, was moved from London to Lyme, Anning's home, by their brother when he inherited the family home. It turned out to be a very happy move. The area was full of the fossils that fascinated Elizabeth, and although she didn't have "the eye", she, too, became a successful hunter especially of ammonites and fish. The fish particularly interested her.

It was Anning, however, who made spectacular finds of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, new creatures theretofore unknown to science. Of course, she was a woman, and even though she found the bones, she was never, in her lifetime, given the credit that she deserved.

Chevalier has sought to remedy that injustice with her book. She has chronicled the life of Anning from her poverty-stricken roots to her days of renown among the geologists and fossil-hunters of her day, but, most of all, she has chronicled her enduring friendship with Elizabeth Philpot and Philpot's attempts to make sure that Anning was not slighted by the famous men whom she had helped. It is an engrossing story, the kind of story that Chevalier tells so very well.

This is the second of her books that I have read, the first being Girl with a Pearl Earring. After this, I believe I will seek out others of her works for reading.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Conflict of interest

We like to feel that our justice system is superior and above suspicion and we tend to look with disdain at some countries with obviously biased and corrupt judges. This week we learned that we may not have so much to feel superior about.

It seems that two Louisiana judges who have rendered decisions on the government's attempt to place a moratorium on deep-water oil drilling until the causes of the BP catastrophe in the Gulf can be determined have financial interests in keeping the drilling going. Can you guess what their rulings were? That's right. The moratorium was ruled illegitimate.

Now both of these judges may be honorable man and they may not have stopped to consider their own financial interest when they were making their rulings. But how will we ever know? These men own stock in drilling companies and in companies that service oil drilling companies. Is it really possible that they didn't even think about that when they were considering the facts of the case? Excuse me if I am skeptical.

Frankly, I was shocked and surprised that this could even happen. Somehow I was under the impression that in circumstances where judges have a personal interest in a case before them, they are required to recuse themselves. Evidently not. It's entirely up to the judge as to whether he/she will do the honorable thing and recuse him/herself. What we now know is that not all judges possess this honor.

So what recourse does the government have? They will appeal, of course, but it seems that the judges in the Fifth Circuit to which they would have to appeal may be just as compromised as the trial judges. Where, then, can the government go for a fair hearing? The Supreme Court? Don't make me laugh!

And the oil continues to spew into the Gulf...

Picture courtesy of NASA.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rude people

I spent some time in a doctor's office waiting room today waiting for my husband. During much of my hour-and-a-half there, the room was very crowded with strangers. I had brought my Kindle and was trying to read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. It's a novel of manners about the way people treat each other and about their expectations of each other. It reminds me somewhat of Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series. It has the same gentle, meandering feel to it.

Anyway, I was trying to concentrate on my book, but at some point, it just became impossible. On the opposite side of the room from me several rather elderly - that is to say older than me - people were seated, and, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, one of them, a woman, had a loud and abrasive voice and manner and she insisted on telling the others her life story and especially her medical history. A couple of other people there entered eagerly into the spirit of the occasion and regaled the listeners, as well as those of us who were desperately trying not to listen, with stories of their own bad health. Then the loud 70-year-old (I know her age because, of course, she proclaimed it) woman with the orange hair started in on the president.

The country is going to hell in a handbasket under his leadership, she asserted, and the latest indication of that is the McChrystal incident. She went on and on for several minutes about what a fool Obama is and how wise McChrystal was to maneuver the president into a position where he had to fire him. She never really explained why it was wise of McChrystal to sabotage his own career in this manner, but then she made the statement that really floored me. She said her husband had told her that she shouldn't talk like this in public, but she had no qualms because she knew that everybody in the room agreed with her. My jaw dropped along with a few others in the room as we all stared at this completely tone-deaf and clueless woman.

What compels such people to behave like this? Are they really so convinced that a whole room full of strangers is completely fascinated by the intimate details of their lives and medical histories? And why must they inflict their political opinions on innocent bystanders? Is it because they honestly do believe that everybody agrees with them and that they are among friends? Whatever the reasons, the behavior is incredibly rude and one is strongly tempted to be equally rude in contradicting her opinions. What stops one from doing so is the certain knowledge that Major Pettigrew would not approve. In fact, he would be appalled.

Eventually, the annoying woman's audience left her as, one by one, they were called back to the treatment rooms and, with no one to listen to her, she wandered away to join her husband in his treatment room. There was an audible sigh of relief from those who were left in the waiting room as she removed herself and her opinions, and with enormous gratitude, I opened my Kindle and resumed reading.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What would Truman do?

Stanley McChrystal has proved himself again and again to be a loose cannon. He has been in trouble before and been called on the carpet before for things that he has said and actions he has taken that have called into question the plans and orders of his superiors. This is not what we expect of a member of the military services, and especially not one who has reached the rank of general.

McChrystal is a checkered character in many ways. There was torture and mistreatment of prisoners under his watch while in Iraq. He's never been called to account for that. He was also at the center of the cover-up regarding the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman, the former NFL star, in Afghanistan. The Tillman death was presented to the world as a heroic death in battle, whereas, in fact, it was a result of a series of errors. A lie was created because the administration in Washington needed a hero to sell the war. McChrystal was complicit in constructing that lie.

And yet with all that baggage, he was still chosen to lead the war in Afghanistan, and so far, that has not proved to be a great success. In fairness to him, it is an almost impossible task, but his performance has not given us cause for confidence.

McChrystal was insubordinate in his ill-chosen comments to Rolling Stone magazine. He was rude, mocking, questioning his boss who just happens to be the Commander-in-Chief of all the military. He has undermined the authority of the President. Not only is this a firing offense, in earlier times, he could have faced a firing squad for such actions.

Now the apologists will say that McChrystal IS the war in Afghanistan. It's his strategy and it would be extremely disruptive and disheartening to the troops in the field to remove their commander at this point. Well, their commander is the President and he's not being removed.

We need to get out of Afghanistan as soon as is feasible and the President has a strategy to do that. McChrystal disagrees with that strategy and that seems to be at the heart of his dissatisfaction with Obama. He apparently wants an open-ended war.

So the question now is, "What would Harry Truman do?" For that matter, what would Abraham Lincoln, that noted firer of incompetent generals, do? For me, the answer is clear. Either of those gentlemen would fire this general's butt! I hope Obama will channel them and not be wishy-washy when facing this man who challenges his authority and his judgement. Fire him.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: The sunflower and the bee

Note: This blog will be wordless for about a week while I am on the road. Meet me back here around the middle of next week and we'll continue the conversation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Swallow-tails and Pileateds

I tend to tune out the Blue Jays these days. Since their young ones have fledged, there seem to be about twenty of the birds in my yard at all time. Well, I'm exaggerating just a bit. There are probably more like ten, but they are so loud they sound like twenty. Or thirty.

The birds always seem to be raising a ruckus about something, often about the Cooper's Hawk pair that nest in the neighborhood and that frequently hunt in my yard. Well, it is the jays' duty to warn the other birds, so I can't really get mad at them for raising a fuss, but, for me, and maybe even for the birds, they are like the little boy who cried "Wolf!" once to often. After a while, I just tend to ignore them.

So, I wasn't paying much attention when they started their alarm yesterday, but it went on for so long that I finally looked up from my task and saw a beautiful Swallow-tailed Kite lazily circling over my yard. Apparently this lovely creature was the source of the jays' irritation.

Now, kites eat primarily insects and are no danger to the Blue Jays and their chicks or, indeed, to other birds, but, of course, that cut no ice with the jays. The kite is a member of the hawk family and must be repelled - or at least yelled at.

While I was admiring the kite's graceful flight - it seemed oblivious to the noise the jays were making - I happened to glance at the tall pine trees in back of my yard and chanced to see another handsome bird, one that I see even less often than the kites these days. It was a Pileated Woodpecker and it was flying from tree to tree back there in search of insects. It was silent as these birds often are and I would never have realized it was there if I hadn't been looking at the kite.

Today when I was outside, I actually heard the Pileated calling in the neighborhood, but I never saw him. Anyway, I'm satisfied just to know he's around and apparently doing well.

Two rarely seen birds in one day. It was indeed a banner day for bird watching in the old backyard.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A great summer read

Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector John Rebus is a non-formulaic, vivid and complex character. He actually reminds me a great deal of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. Not that the characters are really alike, but that they are both unforgettable and unique, each in his own way, in the world of detective fiction. Each is a creative thinker. Their creative thinking sometimes leads them to wildly incorrect conclusions, but they always get to the right answer in the end, often with the help of their faithful assistants.

Strip Jack is the fourth in the Rebus series and it shows the growth of Rankin as a writer. He becomes more sure-footed in each book. In this one, the mystery involves a Member of Parliament, the Jack of the title. Gregor Jack is caught in a raid on a brothel and Rebus begins to suspect almost immediately that he has been set up. Then, the MP's wife turns up dead - murdered - and the mystery deepens.

As Rebus digs into the life of Gregor Jack and his "Pack" from school days who are still a part of his life, he finds that things are definitely not what they seem on the surface. It's a complicated plot that twists back on itself several times before Rebus finally sorts it all out, and while he's sorting it out, he's dealing with a complicated plot in his own life. His relationship with Patience, the doctor with whom he either is or isn't living (he can't seem to decide), is taking a beating because of his obsession with his work. Her patience (pardon the pun) with that obsession is about to run out. Meantime, he continues to have stray thoughts about Inspector Gill Templor.

Rebus is an enormously attractive character and these stories are modern and timely and deal with issues right out of the daily newspapers. Music is also a big part of his life and, in each of the stories, Rebus' love of music is woven into the plot. These plots are intricate and are to be savored and not quickly forgotten. They are unlike your usual mystery plot and they are great and diverting summer reads. Or, in fact, great reads for any time of the year

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Get real!

The latest storyline out of the Gulf oil spill is about how it is polluting relations between the United States and Britain. It seems that our "special relationship" hangs in the balance because Americans are mad at Britain over the spill.

Really? BP may be "British" Petroleum but actually the company is as much American as British.

I heard a newsman on BBC earlier this week in all seriousness ask his guest if Americans disliked BP CEO Tony Hayward because of his very Britishness. Well, no, it's not his Britishness that we dislike. It's all that oily stuff spilling all over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That's what we don't like. It wouldn't matter if Hayward spoke with a Russian, a Venezuelan, or an American accent. We just don't like his oil killing our Gulf and we want it to stop.

Truly, Hayward is a public relations disaster for his company which compounds their oil spill disaster, but it's not because of his accent. It's because he's an a-hole, if you'll pardon my Americanism. The man is tone-deaf and clueless and apparently lives in a world of his own, as so many in similar positions do. The rich, after all, are different from you and me, and Hayward and his company are very, very rich. Reports I have see indicate that BP makes about $62 million a day. No, I think Hayward is the perfect representative of his company.

As for the oil spill putting a dent in the "special relationship", I tend to doubt it. That World Cup game today though just might.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

And another thing...

There's another rant that I need to get off my chest before I leave the subject of pundits. All year long we've been hearing from these looney tunes, tone-deaf guys and gals about how this election year will be come-uppance for incumbents. You see, according to them, Americans are mad as hell at incumbents and they are not going to take it any more. This will be the year when they throw the bums out and bring in new blood, according to the narrative of the punditocracy. Especially new tea party blood. The pundits really, really love the tea party, because it says and does outrageous things and gives them fluff with which to fill up their 24-hour news cycle.

So what has been the record so far of incumbents in this year of "throwing the bums out"? Well, roughly 99% of them have won their races. Only about four have gone down to defeat and two of those were turncoats who had switched party in mid-stream - one from Republican to Democratic and one from Democratic to Republican. What then will be the effect of this reality upon the pundits' narrative? Will they admit that they just made it all up out of whole cloth and will they begin actually reporting events as they happen rather than trying to fit them into their pre-set narrative mold? Is the pope Jewish?

Oh, they may be forced to make some minor changes. For example, this has now become the "year of the woman" because of all the women that are running - and many of them winning - in Republican primaries this year. (Thank you, Sarah Palin!) This is just a variation on the "throw the bums out" theme, because the bums, by definition, are almost all males and these women are now here to clean things up. Isn't that what women always do? The pundits, naturally, have missed the fact that women have been running and winning in Democratic primaries and as Democratic candidates in general elections for years! It only counts in the virtual world of the pundits if the the Republicans do it.

These may be unsettled times among the electorate and a lot of voters may be really unhappy with some of the people in elective office in Washington, (I know I am!) but I suspect, when crunch time comes, we will find that most voters are actually satisfied with their own incumbent and that they will not at all be interested in throwing him/her out.

But, never fear, I have no doubt that the pundits will find a way to spin that so that it fits the election stories that they have almost certainly already written.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

First, get rid of the pundits!

I am sick of pundits. I am especially sick of the ones who have been blathering on almost since the awful oil spill began about how the president isn't showing enough emotion about it. He needs to get angry, shake his fist, spit fire, punch somebody. This is what the pundits live for - something that makes good theater. Something that helps them fill their three minutes on live television.
If I were the president, I'd definitely be angry about a lot of things, but perhaps the thing I'd be angriest about is the damned pundits who don't seem to have a clue about the real world. Theirs is the virtual world of the 24-hour news cycle and the "conventional wisdom" of the "inside the beltway" clan. The rest of us, including the president, live in quite another world.
I'm not interested in a president getting angry and putting on a show for the 24-hour news guys. I'm interested in a president who is competent, intelligent, and thoughtful about the actions he takes. As far as the oil spill is concerned, I don't expect him to put on his Superman suit and personally plug the hole. I just want him to do everything that he can to get it stopped and to clean it up, and, most importantly, make sure that it doesn't happen again. I'm satisfied that he is making every effort to do that. I wish it could be accomplished quicker, but the truth is he is not Superman and he is bound by the laws of physics, just like the rest of us.
There is one thing, I think, that the government needs to seriously look at, and I'm not sure if they have. That is the expertise that exists in the rest of the world. For example, Holland. There was a column in our paper today about how the Dutch had offered their help right after the spill, but the government is apparently hampered in accepting outside help because of some of our laws. Those laws seem to be based in the assumption that America always knows best and doesn't need help from anybody. Perhaps those laws need to be changed for if there is anybody in the world who knows about dikes and protecting their coastline it is the Dutch. Maybe they have some wisdom to offer in the discussion as we go forward, and maybe we should be wise enough to listen to them.
Meantime, the level of the discussion about what to do about the oil spill or any other topic you could name that affects America today could be raised to a whole new level if we, first, get rid of the pundits.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Random acts of voting

Yes, Americans are committing random acts of voting around the country today. Twelve states are holding primaries and they promise some interesting and, in some cases, downright entertaining, results. For example, will the "chicken lady" win in the Nevada Republican primary for Senator, or will she be defeated by the "prohibition lady"? Will the "queen of the birthers" Orly Taitz win the race for the Republican nomination for Secretary of State in California? I know I'm pulling for her!

And what about South Carolina, that bastion of sobriety and marital fidelity among its politicians? Will the accused adulterer receive a majority of the vote to defeat her three opponents in the race for the Republican nomination for governor, or will she be forced into a runoff? At this hour, it is looking like the latter.

And why, oh why, are the Republican primaries so much more entertaining than the Democratic ones? The Democrats are positively buttoned-down gray pinstripes in comparison to the outlandish Republican candidates.

The most interesting Democratic primary of the day is the one in Arkansas where the conservative Senator Blanche Lincoln is being opposed by the more progressive and populist Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Money has flowed into the state from outside sources for the race. There was an Associated Press story in the local paper today all about how labor had supported Halter with donations, but nowhere in the story did it mention the fact that Lincoln has received massive donations from the corporations whose interests she has supported over the years. That's what passes for "fair and balanced" reporting in today's journalism.

So will the tea partiers carry the day in the Republican primaries? Will the insurgent beat the entrenched icon of the establishment in the Arkansas Democratic primary? We'll know in a few hours when all the random acts of voting have been counted. Whatever the outcomes today, it promises to be a year for the political junkies to maintain their highs right through to November.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to help

One of the many by-products of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been the sense of inchoate rage that is building, not just on the Gulf I believe but throughout the country. This rage is further inflamed among many of us by the sense that this tragedy should never have happened.

If the government agencies that were supposed to be monitoring and providing oversight of energy companies had not been in bed with those energy companies (literally, in some instances) and had been doing an effective job of policing, permits for this deep well drilling would never have been issued. It would have been obvious to an objective observer that the technology was inadequate and that there was no credible plan for what would be done in case of an accident.

One of the most appalling things in this whole appalling affair has been the fact that BP did not really have a clue as to how to stop the spill, other than by drilling relief wells which takes months. They've been inventing strategies on the fly, and so far the oil is still flowing. Over the last four decades or so, the oil industry seems to have put all of its research resources into learning ways to drill deeper and extract more oil from the earth. They have apparently spent little or no resources in figuring out ways to make that drilling safe and to protect the environment from the effects of their drilling. BECAUSE THEY HAVEN'T BEEN MADE TO!

Let's face it. During much of this time, the federal government and many state governments, including Texas', have been in the pocket of the oil companies and many still are - including Texas. During the Bush/Cheney years in Washington in particular, it seems that few decisions were made without first consulting their cronies in the oil companies, and many federal agencies were stacked with employees who came directly from those companies. No wonder the oversight has been lax.

This mess needs to be cleaned up, and I'm not just talking about the oil that is staining the beaches and wetlands and killing the wildlife. We need to demand that our government finally get back in the business of governing and of protecting us and the precious environment from these rapacious companies that think of nothing but their own profits. Whether it is the greed on Wall Street or among the board rooms of the oil companies, one of government's functions is to protect the vulnerable from the powerful. In the last ten years, it has fallen down on the job. It's time for them to get busy and redeem themselves.

In the meantime, our immediate concern is to try to help the wildlife and the people caught in this catastrophe. There is an awful feeling of helplessness for most of us as we read the terrible stories and see the heart-rending pictures. But there is actually something we can do. We can help the organizations that are on the scene to assist. Here are a few links to some of those organizations. If you feel the need to do something, check them out and see how you can help.

Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research

National Wildlife Federation

Also, Yahoo! Green has a list of other organizations that are helping both people and wildlife caught in the disaster.

Do whatever you can to help these organizations. You'll feel better for it.

And don't forget to demand that your elected representatives do their jobs to stop these polluters from despoiling the earth and its seas.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Help! I'm being squashed!

As a vegetable gardener, I am very familiar with that time every summer when the garden suddenly is bursting with produce of all kinds. It comes quicker than it can possibly be used, but so much effort, sweat, and backaches have gone into the production of the veggies that the gardener is loathe to let even one fruit slip through the cracks. And so the search is on for recipes and ways to use up or to preserve the produce.

This week in my garden, it's been the squash, especially the zucchini, that has been coming fast and furious. Anyone who has ever grown zucchini will understand very well what I mean. The fruits come on in a rush and they can grow to gigantic proportions almost overnight.

In some years the squash borers, an insidious insect that destroys the stalk of the squash plant and thus its life, get to the plants before they have a chance to produce very much - or sometimes, any - fruit. But, for whatever reason, perhaps our colder than usual winter, the squash borers are so far absent this year and the squash plants are lush and green and full of fruit.

Thus, most days now find me in the kitchen, cooking up one squash recipe or another. I've canned three batches of Zucchini Relish. If my family has nothing else to eat next winter, we should at least be well-stocked with relish. Now, I've moved on to other squash recipes. Tonight, I'm making loaves of Spicy Zucchini Nut Bread. Later, I'm planning to make some of this batter into muffins for freezing. Thus, we should have some tasty breakfast muffins ready for the microwave. Tomorrow part of our lunch is going to be Squash Cornbread.

We've eaten squash stir-fried, baked, steamed, and in soups. So far, I haven't batter-fried any, even though that may be our favorite way to eat it. That's a labor-intensive way of cooking the stuff that I avoid, even though I like the result. At some point, though, before the crop runs out, I expect I will even be batter-fying squash.

Now, I like squash, but I have to admit at this point that I'm getting just a bit tired of it. As the latest basketful of large dark green and yellow fruits was brought into the kitchen this afternoon, I could only groan. My cooking ingenuity is being sorely tested. One could even say that it is being - er - squashed.

Friday, June 4, 2010

That girl

When I finished reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo earlier this year, I felt I needed a break before I went on to the next book in the series. It had been a hard book for me to read when I reached a certain point because of all the violence against women. What had started out as a financial thriller had suddenly changed course and turned very dark.

I liked the book. It was well written and had an interesting, if somewhat farfetched, plot. But most of all, the two main characters caught and held my empathy. I wanted things to turn out well for them, especially for Lisbeth Salander, but that book ended on a down note for Salander and so I was anxious to see what would happen to her in the second book.

Well, in the second installment of Stieg Larsson's series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, things go from bad to worse. Lisbeth is accused of three brutal murders and a nationwide hunt for her begins. The only one who seems to have any doubts of her guilt is Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist with whom she teamed in the first book. The journalist whose life she saved in one of the climactic moments. He sets out to investigate the murders on his own and to prove her innocence. He finds more than he bargained for.

Lisbeth is still the angry punk hacker with the numerous piercings and tattoos. She's a loner who seems to have no friends and yet we find that, when all the world seems to be against her, there are actually some people who care about her, believe in her, and who come to her defense. As the story plays out in this well-plotted sequel, we learn more and more about her past and about how she came to be the person that she is.

The violence in this book is not so one-sided or so graphically described as in the first book and so it was a much easier read for me. The denouement at the end is well-constructed and the suspense is built for the dramatic conclusion.

Coincidences abound in the book and serve to drive the plot, and yet the reader accepts them. After all, Sweden is a relatively small country and such coincidences could happen, couldn't they?

I couldn't put this book down and now I am going to immediately read the third book. I want to know what happens to that girl - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The un-perfect game

"Nobody's perfect."
- Armando Gallaraga of the Detroit Tigers, in response to a reporter's question about the umpiring mistake that cost him an offical perfect game. He said it with a smile.

Perfect games in baseball, THE perfect game, are scarcer than hen's teeth. And yet there have already been two official perfect games this season and one unofficial one that is destined to be the most famous of the three.

Last night in Detroit, in the game between the Tigers and the Cleveland Indians, Armando Gallaraga of the Tigers faced 26 batters from the Indians and set them down one after the other. Then he faced the 27th, Jason Donald. Donald hit the ball to the first baseman Miguel Cabrera who fielded it between first and second base and tossed it to Gallaraga who was covering first. Gallaraga, with his foot on the bag, closed his glove on the ball a moment before Donald's foot touched the bad. The first base umpire Jim Joyce called him safe and Gallaraga went on to get the next man out. Thus, what should have been a perfect game became un-perfect, a one-hitter.

Later, after reviewing film, everyone, including Jim Joyce, agreed that he blew the call. The distraught Joyce said, "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the shit out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought the runner beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." By all accounts, Joyce is an excellent umpire and a consummate professional and it is unlikely that anyone feels worse about this than he does and he'll have to carry that monkey on his back for the rest of his life.

He will, that is, unless Major League Baseball and the Commissioner decide to correct his error and declare that this was, in fact, a perfect game. But, today, Commissioner Bud Selig indicated that he would not overrule the umpire's call. And, hard though that is, I have to admit that I sort of agree with Selig on this one.

Errors are a part of the game. Fielders' errors, pitching errors, managerial and coaching errors, and, yes, umpiring errors. Baseball is a game of inches and it's also a game of errors. Errors of one kind or another decide most games, because, although baseball is THE perfect game, it is played by humans and humans are nowhere near perfect. That is part of the charm of the game and one of the things that makes lifelong fans of so many of us.

Baseball is a game played by imperfect humans and those of us imperfect humans watching can relate to them in a way that we might not be able to relate to players in another sport with its perfect physical specimens. The game is adjudicated by imperfect beings, too, these umpires. Most of them are very, very good at what they do. A few are not and should not be in the game. They are quick-tempered, carry grudges, and seem to delight in baiting players or managers into situations where they can throw them out of games. Baseball needs to address the performance of those umpires.

But with Jim Joyce, there's nothing for baseball to address. He did his best. He called it as he saw it, even though that call cost him, too, a perfect game. How often, after all, does an umpire get to officiate in a perfect game and what might have been the pressure on Joyce in that ninth inning with two out and the game on the line to call that runner out whether or not he was? What might have been the pressure on him - if he had stopped to think about it? But he didn't. He called it as he saw it without thinking and he maintained his integrity. He got it wrong, but that's almost beside the point. He did his duty and, after all, as Gallaraga said, "Nobody's perfect."

Baseball is, though, and mostly because of this human element. I hope it always will be. I don't want the game I love to be played or officiated by robots.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The woeful Astros

It's tough being a Houston Astros fan, especially this year. Last year, as well. Before that time, there was often disappointment for fans of the team but there was never embarrassment. The team always played hard and played well and even when they lost, they could hold their heads up. And so could their fans. Now through a combination of stupid decisions by the owner and his managers, the team has fallen on very hard times and the worst thing is that they make far too many errors on the field as well, really boneheaded moves that a professional baseball team with professional coaches just shouldn't make. They are just no fun to watch any more.

That's not to say they don't have any good players. They do. Michael Bourn is certainly one of the premier center fielders in all of baseball. Hunter Pence may have fallen off a bit this year, but he is still a very good player. The two young pitchers they have in their rotation this year, Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris, show promise if they can ever harness their talent and learn to pitch instead of throwing. And then, of course, there is Roy Oswalt.

Oswalt has been my favorite Astro almost from the time that he first came up in 2001. The Astros only intended to keep him on the big league team for a short time and then send him back to the Round Rock minor league club for more seasoning, but Nolan Ryan insisted that he had nothing more to learn in the minor leagues and lobbied for him to stay in the majors. He won the argument and Oswalt never looked back. He's been one of the winningest pitchers in all of baseball since then, but for the last two or three seasons, he's been in a very unenviable situation. He pitches well enough to win, but a pitcher can't win unless his team scores runs and the team he plays with doesn't score many runs. He's also frequently left the game with a lead only to see the bullpen give it up. Over the last three years, it's entirely possible that he could have won 30 more games if he had played for a team that was able to score runs. It must be extremely frustrating to a pitcher of Oswalt's caliber, and, of course, like the rest of us, he isn't getting any younger. He sees his chances fading along with this team's prospects.

So, he's said that he would be open to being traded to another team. He has a no-trade contract and would have to approve any trade before it could be made. He wants to go to a contender. What professional ballplayer wouldn't?

I can't really blame Oswalt for wanting out. He's in a dead-end job on a dead-last team, as it is. So, I hope the Astros do find an acceptable trade, one that will fulfill his requirements and one that will help the team. In the meantime, this whole situation is a distraction to a team that, God knows, doesn't need any more distractions.

I'll always be an Oswalt fan and I'll always be an Astros fan, but this year that is very tough and getting tougher.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Where's that "big government"?

One result of that awful oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that we are no longer hearing much from the "small government" crowd. People like Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, who just a year ago was decrying the growth of the federal government and its interference in the lives of states, corporations, and individuals, are now complaining that the federal government is not doing enough fast enough to get the spill stopped and cleaned up. In the face of all the damage done to the economy along the coast, not to mention to the ecology, Jindal and his fellow "small government" governors in that area are begging for more federal money, more federal action, more federal interference to clean the mess up.

Of course, they were, and for the most part still are, dead set against any kind of regulation or oversight that might have prevented this catastrophe. But now that it has happened, they expect the federal government to make everything whole again. And to do it yesterday!

The people who decry and denigrate government and call for "drowning it in a bathtub" never seem to get it. They never understand that, in a democracy, the government is US! Those people in Washington were elected by us to be our representatives and they serve at our pleasure. We can bring them home on any election day that they must defend their positions. The government, as Leonard Pitts Jr. said in his column today, "is the imperfect embodiment of our common will." Those who profess to believe that the "free market and the free American" could solve any problem if the government would just get off their backs are delusional. We do need government to regulate society and businesses, to protect us from oil spills and tainted food, to protect our basic rights as citizens from those who would deny them for anyone who disagrees with them. But it takes something like this giant oil spill to make the "small government" people remember that.

Do you think they will still remember it when the oil spill is stopped and on its way to being cleaned up? Wanna bet?