Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The American Taliban

The Taliban first came to my notice, and that of most Westerners I suspect, when they were doing their best to destroy the culture of Afghanistan, particularly as it allowed any freedom and independence at all for women. Then, of course, there was the episode of them destroying the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan because they could not tolerate such a concrete expression of another faith or way of thinking. Later, much later, I read Khaled Hosseini's novels about that period in his homeland and shed tears for the stupidity and injustice that ruled that society and especially that made women's lives as hard as possible.

In recent years, I've been appalled as I've watched the growth of the radical right in my own country and have recognized in them much the same attitudes as observed and read about from afar in Afganistan. And now, Markos Moulitsas, the proprietor of the political website, Daily Kos, has written a book which details some of the similarities between the two movements. He calls his book American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. The title just about says it all.

I admit that I haven't read the book, but I have seen some commentary about it and I think I have the flavor of it. Markos makes comparisons of the two Taliban movements in seven broad categories.

1. Fetishization of violence
. The violence of the Afghani Taliban has been well-documented on television and the media for the last 20 years or so. The violence of the American Taliban has been seen most notably in the attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, but also in the countless attacks on abortion clinics and the occasional murders of abortion providers, in the open carrying of guns to political events, in the speech of some of their candidates for office advocating what one called "Second Amendment solutions", even in the signs with violent imagery and words that are carried at political rallies. It's also evident in their every day political speech in which they constantly refer to Democrats "ramming things down the throats" of Republicans and right-thinkers. There's zero acknowledgement that the Democrats won the election and that they were chosen by the people to lead the country.

2. Theocratic tendencies. The tendencies of the Afghani Taliban are well-known, but they are matched by the religious right in this country, who would if they could throw out the Constitution and institute Biblical law as the law of the land. Some of them will even publically acknowledge that. Tell me, how is that different from the institution of Sharia?

3. Disrespect for women. The Taliban of both countries do not believe that women should be allowed to control their own bodies or their own lives. They see the only role of women to be "barefoot and pregnant" and to cater to the needs and desires of their lords and masters. There are actually women in this country who are a part of the Taliban movement here and would acquiesce in this. The women of Afghanistan who have actually experienced it would not.

4. Hatred of gays. Both movements believe that homosexuality is a choice and that homosexuals should be indoctrinated into being heterosexual in the most benevolent applications of their philosophy or tortured and killed in their most extreme expressions. What makes this particularly sad is that, in many cases, this is an expression of self-hatred.

5. Fear of the "other". In our country, this is seen in the angry rhetoric and political actions against immigrants and people from other religions. There is no recognition of the fact that the greatest strength of this country is that we are a land of immigrants, many voices, many languages, many religions, many cultures. Those who come here, both legally and illegally, overwhelmingly come to work and contribute and to make better lives for themselves and their families. They have no wish and no time to do us or the country harm.

6. Defiance of scientific progress and education. Anti-evolutionists, deniers of global warming, if you name almost any scientific discovery or advance in recent human history, you will find the American Taliban standing with their fingers in their ears yelling, "La, la, la, la, la!" Just like the Afghani Taliban.

7. Attempts to hijack popular culture. This may be seen in our country in popular media which shamelessly promote the American Taliban point of view and in actions which attempt to silence any contrary point of view. The book banners, film boycotters, and those who would remove any works of art from view if they don't coincide with their idea of art are among those who are a danger to our country. More dangerous than any jihadist.

As I read the news of the day, I am often in despair that the American Taliban seems to be gaining in strength and that even in my lifetime I might see a government composed of their supporters in power. It is easy to give way to such thoughts in the heat of summer. Let us hope that autumn cools things down and returns the nation to its senses once again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hottest August on record? Who cares?

In just about another 36 hours, August will end. It will almost certainly (unless we get a sudden unexpected Arctic blast) be the warmest August on record for Houston and this area.

By my records, we've only had three days where the temperatures have reached 100 degrees or above and we have had other Augusts where we've had more above-100 days. The reason that this month has been so much hotter is because the increased greenhouse gases hold the heat in at night and the earth cannot cool off. We've had very warm nights this August and that has tilted the record.

A front page article in the Houston Chronicle by science writer Eric Berger explained all of this today, but his article ended on the depressing note that public opinion is still divided on the issue of global warming and unwilling to do anything about decreasing the human-created greenhouse gases that are heating up our world. In fact, in this part of the world, public opinion is not closely divided at all. It is overwhelmingly on the side of the global warming deniers - as I call them the know-nothings and do-nothings - as a reading of the online comments in response to Eric's article will give some proof. This could have something to do with the fact that so many in this area depend upon the oil companies for their incomes. It is hard to convince a person of the truth when his economic viability depends upon believing a lie.

While no one weather event can be related to global climate change, climate scientists warn that our future Augusts will likely continue to get warmer and even if we acted now to try to reverse global warming, this would probably still be the case for the foreseeable future. But it seems quite certain that we will not act. We will continue to send our pollutants into the air and turn down the thermostats in our houses.

Hotter Augusts? Who cares? That's what air conditioners are for.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Science Sunday: Beautiful pollinator

You can see the grains of pollen on the wings of this Gulf Fritillary butterfly as it visits a hibiscus blossom. It will deliver this pollen and pick up more as it visits other blossoms on the shrub. It's important that the pollen be delivered today because the hibiscus blossom only remains open for one day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday bird watching

We are in the middle and nearing the peak of Ruby-throat Hummingbird fall migration here in Southeast Texas. These little birds are very territorial and have a downright curmudgeonly nature that belies their gorgeous appearance.

They are normally solitary creatures and do not tolerate others of their kind. The females even go so far as to opt for single motherhood, building the nest, laying the eggs and caring for the young on her own while the male goes on his merry way.

In late summer and in autumn, as wave after wave of the birds that have spent their summers farther north wing their way south, they encroach on established territories and battles ensue. Hostilities never cease. The War of the Hummingbirds is never ending.

Right now there are five or six of the birds contending over my half-acre yard. There are birds of both sexes and all ages here.

This is the adult female that nested in my yard this year and raised her young here. She loves these blossoms of the flame acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii) and guards them from other hummers.

One of my hummingbird feeders hangs just a few feet outside my study window near a Texas Star hibiscus, a hummingbird favorite. There's always plenty of activity in this spot.

These last few days, I've noticed the first adult male Ruby-throats that I had seen since earlier in the summer.

As this one hovered by the feeder, his gorget caught the sun, making his throat appear to be on fire.

Then he settled down to feed and the fire went out.

As he moved around to the other side of the feeder, away from the sun, he almost looked like another bird altogether. Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Ruby-throats can sometimes be hard to distinguish because they are so closely related. They can easily be mistaken for each other but this one is definitely a Ruby-throat.

Although the adult male makes a visual impact, this guy is the one who is really the boss of the feeder. He is a juvenile male and this is his favorite perch in the hibiscus, from which he guards his larder.

As he sits on his perch, his head is constantly swiveling, and each time it moves, you can see a different patch of ruby at his throat.

Always alert!

Casting a wary eye skyward.

He looks like he's wearing a ruby locket.

He may look like he's singing, but actually he's panting. All that constant vigilance and chasing of his rivals is hot work!

I hope that you are able to take some time to observe these little birds as they pass through your area. They are amazing creatures and watching them is wonderful and free entertainment.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What is it about August?

What is it about August that makes many ordinary Americans lose what common sense they may possess?

Last August we had the town hall screamers, the people who shouted down any attempt to talk sense to them about the Health Care Reform bill. The year before that, we had the "birthers" who attended political rallies during the presidential election campaign and loudly proclaimed that Barack Obama was not born in this country and that he was a Muslim to boot.

Now, this August we have the anti-Muslim shouters, the people who don't want a mosque built in New York City, even though the elected representatives of the people there have approved the building. For that matter, they don't want a mosque built anywhere. Tennessee, too, is apparently too close to the destroyed World Trade Center. (On the other hand, the fact that there is a Muslim prayer room in the Pentagon which was also attacked on September 11, 2001 seems to bother no one. Go figure.)

It seems a remarkable coincidence that this happens every year and that all this furor is inevitably about some phony issue, some issue that doesn't exist as a concern until somebody goes to work ginning up the outrage. Coincidence? Well, maybe not.

In the New Yorker, out this week, investigative journalist Jane Mayer has followed the money and connected the dots to show how so many of these things are related. She found that the money trail led directly to the door of the Koch brothers, multi-billionaires - that's billion with a "b" - who are determined to destroy Barack Obama and who oppose any initiative which they deem "progressive."

They, for example, have spent millions of their billions in starting up and supporting the tea party movement. They have hired buses to take people around the country to attend tea party gatherings and to make those events appear to have more supporters than they really do.

Mayer has thoroughly documented all of her findings and if she doesn't get a Pulitzer Prize for her work, there is no justice. You owe it to yourself to read the piece.

But, back to my original question: Why do Americans keep falling for this crap? Are we really that stupid? Don't we even have enough sense to look at the information that is being fed to us and wonder where it is coming from?

I remember a sociology professor that I once had, who, in talking about a unit on propaganda, told us, "Always consider whose ax is being ground." It was just another way of saying, "Follow the money." That will always lead you to the source and then you can decide whether that source has your interests at heart and whether you should believe and follow him.

I'm pretty sure that the only interests which the Kochs have at heart are Koch interests and I don't believe those coincide with mine or the country's. Unfortunately, the people who will continue to blindly follow them probably will not be reading the New Yorker.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ten dying cities

Do you live in a dying city? 24/7 Wall St. is out with a list of ten U.S. cities which it says are dying. No doubt all of these cities have problems related to the economy and, in some cases, to their location, but I think most citizens of them would say that reports of their deaths are exaggerated. Here's what 24/7 said about cities that it believes are on life support:

1. Buffalo

In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in America. It was located on one of the busiest sections of the Erie Canal, the terminus of the canal on the Great Lakes. Thanks to its location, Buffalo had huge grain milling operations and one of the largest steel mills in the country. Buffalo prospered during WWII, as did many northern industrial cities. After the war, the manufacturing plants returned to the production of cars and industrial goods. The population rose to more than 500,000 in the mid-1950s. It is half that today. Buffalo was wounded irreparably by the de-industrialization of America.

2. Flint

Flint was once a major industrial city and the birthplace of GM, then went into receivership -- the equivalent of municipal bankruptcy -- in 2002. The city had almost 200,000 residents in 1960 and has fewer than 100,000 today. The downfall of Flint can be described in a sentence. In 1960, GM employed 80,000 people in Flint, and it employs fewer than 8,000 today. Flint was the headquarters of GM's Buick division for years, but these operations were moved to Detroit in 1998.

3. Hartford

The city was once the "insurance capital of the world." In 1950, the city's population peaked at more than 177,000 and has dropped to 124,000 recently. Hartford was, beyond being an insurance center, also home to a number of manufacturing and publishing businesses. Hartford lost some of its insurance firms as they moved to new locations, primarily because of consolidation in this sector. Five large financial firms have downsized their workforces. These include MetLife, Cigna, Lincoln Financial, Mass Mutual and, perhaps most depressing of all, The Hartford.

4. Cleveland

Cleveland became a major port and land transportation hub, due to its central location on Lake Erie. A number of the largest rubber companies in the world and other manufactures for the car and steel industry were also located near or in the city. Cleveland had 914,000 residents in 1950. The figure is below 480,000 today. A number of the large manufacturing operations have left the region or downsized based on the transfer of the steel, rubber and car industries elsewhere, particularly to Japan.

5. New Orleans

The location of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi made it one of the most important ports in America for more than 200 years. Oddly enough, New Orleans remains a massive port, but a number of the jobs which were once performed by laborers are now automated. A great deal of the commercial traffic that once moved by river is now transported more efficiently by truck, rail and air. The city had also been a financial capital of the South because of the cotton and river trade. Faster growing southern cities like Atlanta became more important financial centers as their populations grew. One of the industries that began to offset the faltering trade and financial sectors was tourism, which rose throughout the second half of the last century. But the city suffered from its location, part of it below sea level, and several hurricanes that hit the city, particularly Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina dealt the city a nearly fatal blow. In the year after that, the population dropped to just above 250,000, down from 627,000 in 1960. The BP oil crisis has already begun to damage what might have been a nascent recovery, post-Katrina.

6. Detroit

The Motor City was the fifth-largest city in America with a population of almost 1.9 million in 1950. The number of residents increased sharply from the 1920s when Henry Ford created the assembly line and set a wage of $5 a day. Workers streamed in from the deep South and other parts of the Midwest. The huge car companies became defense contractors during WWII. The auto industry grew abundantly after the war as the American middle class was created by an expanding economy built on the U.S.'s ability to take its vast natural resources and turn them into finished products. During the 1960s, American car companies had nearly 90% of the domestic market, and GM had 50% to itself. Detroit's demise began with the rise of Japanese imports in the 1970s. The Arab oil embargo increased the appetite of U.S. consumers for high-mileage cars. The Big Three (Big Four before American Motors was bought by Chrysler) built products that were acceptable to consumers until they saw higher quality Japanese cars, which began to flood the markets in great numbers in the 1980s. Detroit's car manufacturing base was nearly destroyed, symbolized by the Chapter 11 filings of GM and Chrysler.

7. Albany

Albany is still the capital of New York State. It was once one of the largest "inland ports" in the world sitting near the place where the Hudson River meets the Erie Canal. This helped it become a major center for finished lumber and iron works. Perhaps because of the influence of the politicians who worked in the city, several universities and colleges were built there. The city's manufacturing industry helped the population to rise to 134,000 in 1950. It is now under 95,000. The higher education institutions in the region have begun to help Albany become a regional center for information technology and the biotechnology industries, but these are not large enough to offset declines in the city's fortunes, which began in the 1960s.

8. Atlantic City

Now known mostly for its gambling business, Atlantic City was dying before legislation allowed gaming companies to operate there. The city was created as a tourist location in the 1880s and a number of massive hotels were built there. Atlantic City's hospitality industry also made it a favorite for trade shows and conventions. The Democratic National Convention was held there in 1964. The city's appeal to tourists was damaged primarily by two things: the first was the availability of inexpensive air travel to southern resorts areas like Florida. Vacationers could fly from New York to Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach in less time than it took to drive to Atlantic City. The second, the rise of Las Vegas as the gaming capital of the world, made it the preferred destination for many conventions. Atlantic City got into the gambling industry in 1978 -- too late.

9. Allentown

This Pennsylvania city had two advantages in the middle of the last century. It was well located for railroads that moved freight from the Midwest through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the Eastern seaboard. Its proximity to iron ore made it a major manufacturing center and refiner, much like Bethlehem to its east and Pittsburgh to its west. Like many other Northeastern manufacturing cities, Allentown watched its major product, in this case steel, being produced in greater and greater volumes and at lower prices in Japan.

10. Galveston

This Texas city was one of the largest ports in the U.S. a hundred years ago. It was also the location of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history. In 1900, a hurricane killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people. In the decades after the hurricane, Galveston became a major tourist center due to its location on the Gulf and proximity to several larger Texas cities. Galveston was also a major military recruitment center during WWII. The cause of Galveston's demise is unique. There was a large gambling industry there, some of it illegal, which was controlled by criminals. In the late 1950s, Texas state authorities successfully attacked local organized crime. The regulated tourist trade could not replace the illegal business. Galveston's port and hospitality industries had begun to improve, but were trampled by the effects of Hurricane Ike in 2008. The event destroyed a large part of the city's tax base, and set back the tourism industry once again.

Most of these cities are not well-known to me and I don't have feelings about them beyond the fact that I recognize that they have been great cities in the past and that they are important to the areas where they are located. But I definitely have some strong feelings about New Orleans and Galveston.

New Orleans, a wonderful city where my husband and I spent our honeymoon many years ago, has been repeatedly battered by both nature and humankind in recent years, but it has such a strong history and culture and there are so many people who love it that I can't see it dying anytime soon. I fully expect that no matter what the future throws its way that it will rise, and even thrive, again.

Galveston is my near neighbor where I have spent many happy hours enjoying ocean breezes and watching birds. It is a fun and welcoming place to visit, but it has been brutalized by many of the same events that have visited New Orleans. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous blow to this whole area a couple of years ago, even though it sort of went under the radar as far as the rest of the country was concerned. Galveston has come back slowly and certainly isn't all the way there yet, but dying? Maybe not. I hope not.

All of these cities, I am sure, have people who care about them and root for their survival and success. It would be a shame to see any one of them become a ghost town in our lifetime.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Libertarian view of the mosque kerfuffle

I am not a big fan of Ron Paul. Indeed, many of his ideas and much of his philosophy just seem wrong to me. But at least one can say that he appears to be intellectually honest which is more than you can say for many on the right. (Yes, I'm talking about you Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, John Boehner, etc., etc., etc.) Paul has now proved his intellectual honesty once again with his statement regarding the Islamic center to be built in New York, about which so many of his fellow travellers have their knickers in a twist.

Paul came out with the strongest, most coherent, and unequivocal statement that I have seen or heard in support of the building of the center and his reasoning is firmly based in his political philosophy. He said in part:

"The debate should have provided the conservative defenders of property rights with a perfect example of how the right to own property also protects the 1st Amendment rights of assembly and religion by supporting the building of the mosque.

"Instead, we hear lip service given to the property rights position while demanding that the need to be “sensitive” requires an all-out assault on the building of a mosque, several blocks from “ground zero.”

He calls out his fellow conservatives for their demagogy and their waffling on Constitutional protections and he rightly points out what many, including myself, believe is the motivation behind all the shouting of the opponents of building the center:

"In my opinion it (the emotional opposition) has come from the neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it.

"They never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars. A select quote from soldiers from in Afghanistan and Iraq expressing concern over the mosque is pure propaganda and an affront to their bravery and sacrifice.

"The claim is that we are in the Middle East to protect our liberties is misleading. To continue this charade, millions of Muslims are indicted and we are obligated to rescue them from their religious and political leaders. And, we’re supposed to believe that abusing our liberties here at home and pursuing unconstitutional wars overseas will solve our problems."

And further:

"There is no doubt that a small portion of radical, angry Islamists do want to kill us but the question remains, what exactly motivates this hatred?

"If Islam is further discredited by making the building of the mosque the issue, then the false justification for our wars in the Middle East will continue to be acceptable.

"The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer."

You've hit the nail on the head, Congressman Paul! Would that some in your party would listen to your voice of reason. (They won't, of course. They consider him a gadfly with no influence and would rather listen to the aforementioned demagogues.) And would that some in the Democratic Party would speak out as strongly. (Where are you Anthony Weiner? Cat got your tongue?)

Paul concludes:

"This is all about hate and Islamaphobia.

"We now have an epidemic of “sunshine patriots” on both the right and the left who are all for freedom, as long as there’s no controversy and nobody is offended.

"Political demagoguery rules when truth and liberty are ignored."

Bravo, Congressman! Maybe you'll shame some of those "sunshine patriots" into joining you in defending the Constitution.

(You can read Paul's full statement on the subject here.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sense and Sensibility: A book review

I've been doing a lot of reading this summer because, often, it's too hot to do much of anything else. These last few days I have been deeply immersed in the early nineteenth century world of Jane Austen.

What can I possibly say about Sense and Sensibility that hasn't already been said a hundred times before? The story is too well-known to even require a synopsis.

Although I had never read the book, I have seen the Emma Thompson movie several times and it is fairly faithful to the book. I loved that movie and it is firmly entrenched in my brain, so much so that, as I read the book, I heard the dialogue spoken in the voices of Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, etc. It made for an interesting experience.

One reads Jane Austen for her keen observations of human nature, her humor, for her exposition of the role of women in the society in which she lived, and especially for the beauty of her language. As that language flows over one's consciousness and rolls off the tip of the brain, one can only despair that the state of the language has fallen so far in the two hundred years since the literary works of Austen.

Sense and Sensibility was, of course, the first published work of Austen and was the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility). She went on to write a considerable set of literary works that would be the pride of any writer and she holds a well-earned spot in the pantheon of English literature greats. Sense and Sensibility alone might have been enough to ensure that spot. It is an almost perfect book. The only false note, at least in my estimation, was Willoughby's visit to Cleveland when Marianne was seriously ill. I think that Austen just could not bear to have Willoughby so completely a scoundrel and wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself. But his conversation with Elinor shows him truly to be just as selfish and self-absorbed as ever, despite his professed feelings for Marianne, and, as far as I was concerned, it could have been omitted. But that is a small quibble.

This is a wonderful book. There is so much richness here. It is as relevant today as it was in the early 1800s. Having stood the test of time, it has earned the label "classic."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Another list and this time we're on it!

The editors of ShermanTravel.com are out with a list of the most underrated cities in the country, and whaddaya know? We're on it!

Houston might not be thought of as a prime travel destination except for people in the oil business, but, in fact, as the editors point out, there is a lot here to attract a great diversity of people.

"Houston is proof that everything is indeed bigger in Texas. While better known for its big business and energy interests, this sprawling city also hosts top-notch orchestra, opera, and ballet companies, a dynamic theater scene, great museums, and the world-renowned NASA Space Center. Shopping reigns supreme here--you'll find a huge concentration of shops and above-par outlet malls--and its cosmopolitan restaurant scene expands upon the state's traditional Tex-Mex offerings."

In addition to all that, I might add that it has wonderful parks and several National Wildlife Refuges within easy driving distance for birders and other nature-lovers. For those who follow sports, there are interesting teams and top-class venues for their games. Minute Maid Park, the Astros' home, must be one of the most beautiful ball parks in the country.

But what the editors said about the cultural scene in Houston is very true and probably not widely known in the rest of the country. The quality and diversity of the museum district is unparalleled and the performing arts are well-represented in all their aspects.

Some of the other cities on the list like Little Rock, Pittsburg, Baltimore, Albuquerque, and Minneapolis also have much to recommend them. I was in Little Rock a couple of years ago and it is a beautiful city. The Clinton Presidential Library alone is plenty of reason to go there.

So if you are inclined to plan a visit to a great American city, just remember that there are more out there than New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. Why not visit the fourth largest city, Houston? You might find you like it. (As long as you don't come in summer. Or if you do come in summer, just plan on staying inside where it's cool.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

The 50 sexiest men? Really?

So, I've been looking at Glamour magazine's poll of the 50 sexiest men in the world, and, to my chagrin, I realize that I have no idea who at least two-thirds of them are. The Jonas Brothers? Justin Bieber? Really???

Of course, the sexiest man, period, in this poll was Robert Pattinson, who plays a vampire in one of those phenomenally successful bloodsucker series that teenagers and wannabe teenagers love. I've seen his pouty, artfully disheveled visage in several publications over the past several months, so I could pick him out of a line-up, but I don't really know who he is. But many of the other "sexy guys" I couldn't even pick out of a line-up.

I think the names and faces on the poll tell us more about those who voted in it than about who is REALLY sexy and who isn't. I suspect the average age of the voters was around 12. In my experience, 12 year old girls, and I assume all the voters were girls, have a very naive concept of sexiness. Yes, even in these times when they are exposed to blatant sex everywhere they look almost from the cradle.

How, then, did truly sexy people like Robert Downey Jr., Orlando Bloom, Will Smith, Daniel Craig, and George Clooney make it onto the list? Well, I guess some grown-up women must have voted. But where is Matt Damon or Viggo Mortensen? Gross oversights!

You'll notice that all of these sexy creatures are actors or musicians, people who deal in fantasy of one kind or another. Are there no sexy poets, or economists, politicians or businessmen? And, the greatest oversight of all - my husband! But then, I think I'll just keep that little secret to myself.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mets vs. Astros: Now that's baseball!

The New York Mets, AKA the Hated Mets, came to town this week to play a four game series with the Beloved Astros, and three games into the series, it has been just about all fans of either team could have hoped for. The games have been vastly entertaining. They have been marked by good pitching, good defense and just enough hitting. All the games have been close.

Moreover, these games are being played by two teams that are going nowhere this year - "somewhere" being the playoffs - and yet both teams seem to be enjoying themselves, having fun with the game. You see lots of smiles and lots of energy from both teams. Both of the Mets and the Astros are in the process of getting younger and it shows in their attitudes. They are not worrying so much about winning the World Series just yet. They are happy to be playing in the major leagues and living their dreams.

The Astros hitters have been hot lately, raising their batting averages and their runs per game since the All-Star break when Jeff Bagwell took over as hitting coach. But even better than being hot, from my perspective, is that they seem to be competitive again. Even when they get behind in counts, they don't give up. They keep looking for a way to get the ball in play.

Last night, these young hitters faced a veteran knuckleballer and were totally flummoxed, but they hung with him and, in the end, he didn't beat them. They survived nine innings with him with a tie, but, finally, in the 14th inning, their luck and their bullpen gave out and they lost the game 3-2. One more game to go, and my team is down 2-1 so far. We'll find out tonight if they can salvage a split.

Regardless of the outcome of that final game, this has been a fun series, fun for the players and their fans alike. Let the Yankees' fans obsess over every game and every run and worry that their team may only make it to the playoffs as a wild card this year. I'll take my lowly Astros and the hated Mets who play for pride and fun (and, yes, I know, some money!). Now that's baseball!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


More on the demagoguery regarding the building of the Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York just because it makes me so damned mad!

Would it be an insult to the memory of the innocents who died in the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City to have a Christian church built across the street from the former site of the building? After all the perpetrators of their murders were "Christian" in the same way that the perpetrators of the murders of people at the World Trade Center were "Muslim". (And let us not forget that there were innocent Muslims who died in that building as well. What about the insult to their memory?)

Should we not allow the building of Buddhist or Shinto shrines at Pearl Harbor because some of those who attacked on December 7, 1941 may have been adherents to those faiths? Would that be an insult to the memory of our citizens who died there?

And what about the insult to the memory and descendants of Native Americans who died at the hands of "Christians" in the unprovoked massacre at Wounded Knee or any one of a hundred other such sites around this country? Should Christian churches be forbidden to be built on or near those sites?

Should we not allow any more mosques to be built in this country until, in Newt Gingrich's analogy, Saudi Arabia allows synagogues and Christian churches to be built in their country? What a pass we have come to when we consider Saudi Arabia as an example that we should follow in regard to religious freedom!

The truth is we have a strong and extremely vocal Christian Taliban in our country today and they are waging war against our Constitution. They do not believe in freedom of religion except as it pertains to Christians - and only some Christians at that. They do not believe in freedom of speech, except for those who agree with them. They believe that the government should not oppress its citizenry except for that part of the citizenry that wants to do anything that they do not approve of. Then they demand that the government step in and stop them. These are dangerous people and they are being used and stirred up by cynical politicians who don't give two cents for the welfare - or the Constitution - of this country but only care about retaining and enhancing their own power.

Are we going to let them get away with it? Are we going to allow them to turn this into a country which only allows the religious beliefs that they sanction to flourish? This is an outrage! Where are those in public life and the media who should be speaking out strongly against the tyranny of the demagogues?

"The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

Monday, August 16, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler: A review

In what now seems like another lifetime, I lived briefly in Baltimore. I was just out of college and had my first post-graduation job there with the Social Security Administration. I soon decided that Baltimore was not for me and moved on to other cities, but whenever I read one of Anne Tyler's novels, I always get nostalgic for the place.

I know the people that she writes about. They are people whose plans for their lives did not go quite as expected and I can relate to that. Liam Pennywell is another one of those characters.

Liam is entering the seventh decade of his life and he has just lost his job through "downsizing". He finds that he's really not too upset about that. He didn't like the job anyway. He was a fifth grade teacher at a second-rate private school and he thinks maybe losing the job will be an opportunity to take early retirement and just do what he likes to do.

But what is that? He has no hobbies and no particular interests. The idea of just sitting in his rocking chair and thinking for the rest of his life appeals to him. After all, he had studied philosophy in college and had set out to make that his career before his life took a wrong turn and he was never able to find his way back.

Liam decides to "downsize" his life and move to a smaller apartment, but on his first night there, he goes to bed and wakes up in a hospital room with a cracked head. What happened? He can't remember and he becomes obsessed with regaining those lost hours of his life. His search for some way to remember leads him to new relationships and, at least for a short time, some drastic changes his life.

Anne Tyler writes about ordinary people and she makes us care about them. That is a talent beyond price in my estimation. This is a short book, a quick read. Once I started it, I didn't want to quit until I had finished. Liam Pennywell could be my neighbor, my friend - or me. He's certainly someone that I recognize, just as I recognize the apathy that plagues his life. I really want him to get out of that rocking chair and DO SOMETHING! But somehow I don't think he will, and after all, Noah didn't need a compass because he wasn't going anywhere. He was just waiting out the flood and floating wherever it took him. Not unlike Liam.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


...to the president for fulfilling his oath and standing up for the Constitution and for religious liberty by defending the right of Muslims to build their community center and mosque on private property in New York. He could have remained silent. There is certainly no political advantage to his speaking out on this issue because he will be relentlessly excoriated by the demagoguers for his stand. Of course, he is already relentlessly excoriated by them and accused of being everything from an alien to a secret Muslim so really that will be nothing new. Nevertheless, in spite of the potential political cost, he chose to take a stand on the side of the Constitution and morality and common human decency and it is very refreshing to see my president on that side. So, I say "Kudos, Mr. President, and thank you for doing what is right."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Repellent Republicans

The Republicans want to repeal the 14th amendment to the Constitution, the one that promises equal protection under the law and the one that confers citizenship on anyone born in the country, regardless of the status of the child's parents. Of course, the Republicans have only themselves to blame for the existence of the 14th amendment. It was an initiative of their party after the Civil War. It was meant to protect the status of newly freed slaves and their children. It was also used to rehabilitate those who had rebelled against the United States. Confederate soldiers and sympathizers were able to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and they were essentially "reinstated" as citizens with all the protections that that conferred. Yes, this was an initiative of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans of the 1860s to heal the sundered Union. Today's Republicans would evict him from their party.

Not only do the Republicans want to repeal the 14th amendment, it often seems they want to repeal all of them. (Except the second, of course. They looooove that one!)

In fact, when you get right down to it what they would really like to do is abolish the entire Constitution and substitute the Bible. Some of them will even come right out and say that, especially if they are at a tea party gathering. I don't think they've really thought that through, though, for the Old Testament punishment for some of the Republicans' favorite sins is rather harsh. They might find their ranks suddenly reduced by stonings if they introduced the strict Jehovian rules.

Of course, all of this is just politics. They are just trying to appeal to and stir up their old white right-wing base and it might work well enough in the short term. But in the long term, those old white right-wingers are going to shuffle off their mortal coil and the Republicans are going to be left to deal with a younger, darker, and more liberal electorate. What will they do then? Tack to the left? For people who will say and do anything to get elected, that won't be difficult at all, for they have no true moral center. They really are repellent.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, Write about it

I guess most of the female population of America and much of the world has read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love. It is Gilbert's memoir of her failed relationships and of her decision to travel in order to heal her resulting depression and sadness and to seek spiritual awareness.

The book might be summed up briefly, and unkindly, as "Rich American divorcee spends a year weeping through three countries beginning with the letter 'I' while searching for God." It is prophetic that the three countries she decides to visit on her quest all begin with the letter "I" - namely, Italy, India and Indonesia - because that seems to be where all her problems and unhappiness begin as well. I, I, I.

I (there's that letter again) found it hard to warm up to Gilbert at first, mostly because I've known so many women in her situation who were not able to take themselves off to exotic places in order to confront their demons with the help of a guru. They had to stand and fight their demons on their home turf, often with children hanging onto them and impeding their efforts to defend themselves. But, halfway through Italy, I decided that I shouldn't hold Gilbert's wealth against her. Just because she was financially able to spend a year traveling around the world did not make her pain and depression any less real or any less deserving of sympathy. And it didn't make her struggles to overcome her problems and find peace in her life any less heartrending.

Gilbert's plan was to spend four months in each country. Her first stop was Italy, which was to be devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. Mostly eating. She gained 23 pounds there in four months. Her next four month period was spent in an ashram in India, seeking the spiritual and learning how to pray. The last four months, which I am in the middle of in my reading, were spent on the island of Bali in Indonesia, where she hopes to learn to balance physical pleasure and the spiritual. Will she manage it? Since Julia Roberts is playing her in the movie that comes out tomorrow, I'm hazarding a guess that the answer is yes.

It's easy to understand why this book strikes a chord with women. Divorce is a common fact of life in modern society and failed romantic relationships have been a given of humankind since we swung down from the trees and learned to stand upright. Even for women who haven't experienced divorce, we have all experienced failures in our lives, failures that make us sad and sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. The lucky among us, like Gilbert, are able to come to terms with those feelings and learn that, in the end, we are responsible for our own happiness. We make our own heaven or hell right here on earth.

Whether we travel the world to learn that or gain the epiphany in our own backyard, the lesson is no less real or liberating.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gingrich family values

Newt Gingrich gives sleazeballs a bad name. If there is any more hypocritical, narcissistic, arrogant, and completely un-self-aware individual on the public scene today, I don't want to know about him. Even Sarah Palin pales in comparison.

I've known this and I guess most of the sentient world has known it since at least the 1990s, but it has just been confirmed for us again by his second wife. You remember his second wife, don't you? She was the woman that he was having an affair with while his first wife suffered from cancer. He asked that first wife for a divorce while she was in a hospital bed being treated for the disease. This behavior was occurring during the time that Gingrich was excoriating President Clinton for his affair with an intern and leading the charge for his impeachment over that affair. He was on the television news every night talking about "family values" and how important it was for political leaders to uphold them and be a moral example to the country and the world.

Gingrich went on to divorce his first wife and to marry his mistress. But his extra-marital affairs didn't end there. Eventually, the second wife gave way to a third, but, if I were her, I would not rest easy with that status. A husband guilty of serial infidelity is not likely to change his stripes.

Now the second wife has decided to talk after all these years and some of the things that she is saying are very interesting. For instance, she recalls an occasion when Gingrich gave a speech in Erie, Pennsylvania that was all about compassion and family values. In a conversation afterward, she challenged him about the dichotomy between what he was espousing in his speeches and what he was actually living. His answer was that people needed to hear what he had to say and that he was the only one who could say it and that it really didn't matter what he did. Do as I say, not as I do.

I have no doubt that he actually believed and still believes that claptrap. People like him honestly think that they are special and that the rules do not apply to them. They can easily preach about other people's sins while committing the same sins themselves and never bat an eye. (This, of course, would be where a diligent and honest investigative journalist could perform valuable service to the country by pointing all of this out and exposing the lies and hypocrisy. If only such people existed.)

Meanwhile, Gingrich's third marriage survives, for the moment at least, and Bill Clinton continues in his first and only marriage.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pity the poor First Lady

Yes, pity her, I say. Her detractors can't decide whether she's a Marxist fist-bumper or Marie Antoinette, but they know whatever she is, it ain't Amurican.

Honestly, these people get their knickers in a twist over the weirdest things. Now they are complaining because she's taking a private vacation to Spain with her younger daughter and some friends and their daughters. The vacation is paid for by the Obamas' own private funds. Of course, the Secret Service went along and they are paid by us, but they would have gone along if she had gone to Little Rock. It's part of their job to keep her and her daughter safe wherever they go. With all the crazy and violent people who would love to do them harm, I'm very glad the Secret Service is there. But the right-wing blogosphere is appalled and outraged. Predictably. Remember how they were also appalled and outraged when President Bush and his family spent a third of his presidency at his Texas home with him clearing brush and mountain biking while the country went to hell in a handbasket? No, I don't remember it either.

But not only is the right-wing blogosphere appalled. Maureen Dowd is appalled, too. Actually, that's pretty predictable as well. She's pretty much lost her way when it comes to commentary. She seldom has a column that is really worth reading anymore. She's become a screecher and she screeches about the oddest things. This time she's upset not so much because the First Lady went to Spain but because she spent her husband's birthday there, when, according to Maureen, she should have been home soothing his brow and mixing him a martini.

I don't know what led to the choice of Spain for a holiday for her and Sasha. Maybe it was something she and her husband felt they needed to do for their younger daughter. As hard as it is being President and First Lady, it can't be any picnic being one of the First Daughters either. I don't know the reasons and I don't really care. There are some things that just aren't any of our business, and this is one of them. Happy vacation, ladies!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Follow doctor's directions - until you die

Are you one of those unfortunate individuals who has been prescribed some "miracle drug" by your doctor and taken it in good faith only to find out years later that it will probably kill you? Been there, done that. Got angry.

But who does one direct one's anger toward? Not my doctor, I think. She's been my doctor for 20 years and I'm sure that she prescribed the medicine in good faith. The Food and Drug Administration? Well, it is a mere shadow of its former self. There was a time when it barred the gate against dangerous or unproven drugs, but in recent years, as the big pharmaceutical companies have bought their way into the halls of power in Washington, many of the FDA's functions have been stripped and people have been appointed to it who are in the pockets of Big Pharma. These days they often seem less interested in protecting public health and safety than they are in protecting the profits of the drug companies who seem to own them.

And what about food supplements that are not even "regulated" by the FDA? I'm thinking particularly about fish oil capsules and vitamin D-3. A couple of years ago, my doctor suggested that I take both of these - fish oil to help with my cholesterol and D-3 because the latest research indicates that it is more important than had previously been known in the maintenance of good health and a healthy immune system. Since she told me that, I have taken these supplements faithfully.

Now, I read in the paper that most fish oil capsules have been shown to contain PCBs which have been proven to contribute to an increased risk for cancer!

As for vitamin D-3, the news is not quite so bad. It seems that most of the tablets contain less than the amount of D-3 shown on the label, so you may need to take twice or three times the recommended dosage in order to get as much as you need.

The Omega 3 oil found in fish oil capsules (along with the PCBs) can also be found in capsules produced from algae, which is where fish apparently get the Omega 3 in the first place, so, yes, I will be switching to algae based capsules. I'll also be increasing my consumption of walnuts, another way to get the Omega 3.

But it is all so confusing and frustrating. One tries to do what is best for one's body, following the best advice available, only to find out that that advice was all wrong and may actually have caused harm. The next thing they'll be telling me is that walking CAUSES osteoporosis.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

9/11 ain't what it used to be

Remember when it was treasonous, in fact downright sacrilegious, to be against anything related to 9/11? That, after all, is how George Bush and the neo-cons sold their bogus war in Iraq, so that people wouldn't dare oppose it. It was all to do with 9/11 - and weapons of mass destruction - except that there was no link between Iraq and 9/11; we would have been more justified in attacking Saudi Arabia. And the weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. But I digress.

These days, though, it seems that 9/11 just doesn't carry the cachet that it once did. The House of Representatives has just proved it.

When the attack on New York came on that perfect late summer day in 2001, it wasn't only the emergency personnel in the city who responded. People from all over the country - some of them even from Texas - dropped what they were doing and went there to help. Some spent weeks or even months there amid the toxic air and debris combing through the rubble to recover bodies and body parts and clearing away that rubble so that New York could move on and rebuild. Many of those people are now suffering chronic and disabling illnesses because of that experience and their exposure to the things that were in the air or in that debris. Last week, there was a bill before the House to assist those people to get the medical care that they need, but because of "procedures", the bill needed a 2/3 majority vote to pass. It got a hefty majority, but not 2/3 and so the measure failed. Truly, 9/11 ain't what it used to be.

Anthony Weiner, the Democratic Representative of Queens and Brooklyn in New York, was infuriated by the Congress's action and didn't hesitate to let his colleagues have the full force of that fury in a rant on the House floor. Last night, on The Daily Show, Weiner's childhood friend, Jon Stewart, also weighed in on the issue in a segment called "I Give Up".

So what is the proper response to "politics as usual" in our government today? To get mad? To give up? I certainly understand the impulse for either action. It sometimes seems that our legislative process is so broken that it can never be fixed, and yet, if we are to survive as a nation, then it must be fixed. There must be a way found to get us back to a democracy, where majority rules. Not 2/3 or 3/4 majority - just a simple majority. Wasn't that what we were supposed to be about as a country? We apparently have forgotten a lot of the principles that are supposed to guide us as a people - just as we have forgotten the people who gave up their time and their good health to respond to 9/11.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The bogus crime wave

Have you heard about the crime wave in Arizona, especially along the border with Mexico? Have you heard that Arizona is under attack from illegal immigrants and thus had to pass their own immigration law to deal with it? Well, if you have been listening to the Republican elected officials from that state like the senators, John Kyl and John McCain, and Gov. Jan Brewer, then you have certainly heard that. Endlessly.

But - and it's a great big but - that is a lie!

In fact, according to reports released by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, crime is down right across the state, following the nationwide trend. It is even down along the Arizona/Mexico border. For example, the rate of property crimes in the state has plummeted by 43% since 1995, but violent crimes also are down. The claims that Arizona is facing a crisis in crime increases and that people are afraid to walk the streets is simply not true.

The claims that illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave are completely bogus. Most illegal immigrants from Mexico are coming to seek work and a better life for themselves and their families and often are fleeing the drug wars in their own country. The last thing they want to do is call attention to themselves by committing crimes and causing the police to look for them.

Oh, but the "illegal immigrant crime wave" makes such a good story! And Republicans do love to tell stories. And who really cares whether they are true or not? Apparently our mainstream media don't because they let them spread these kinds of lies, unchallenged, time and time again. And lies, endlessly repeated, gain acceptance as truth from a lazy audience. Thus do urban legends begin and thus is our political discourse cheapened.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Pro-Defamation League???

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

The Anti-Defamation League's leaders have been shocked and appalled that many people who normally support them have been shocked and appalled at their stance opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Their statement on the proposed construction of the mosque includes the following:

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

You see, the Moslems must not be allowed to build their place of worship and fellowship because it would make some people feel bad. One has to wonder how the ADL might feel if it were - oh, pick a city - Salt Lake City and there was opposition to building a Jewish temple near the center of town. After all, it would probably hurt some peoples' feelings to have the temple built there, so let the Jews find some other place to worship - except that some people in that new place will probably have hurt feelings as well.

The National Director of the ADL protests loudly that they have stood against prejudice and discrimination time and time again and so they should get a pass on this one. Well, yes, they have, and no, they shouldn't.

In his recent blog post on the subject, Paul Krugman said, "One thing I thought Jews were supposed to understand is that they need to be advocates of universal rights, not just rights for their particular group — because it’s the right thing to do, but also because, ahem, there aren’t enough of us. We can’t afford to live in a tribal world. But ADL has apparently forgotten all that. Shameful — and stupid."

He has expressed my feelings on the subject exactly and I can't improve on that. I am sorely disappointed in the ADL, an organization that I have admired in the past, as well as certain politicians such as former mayor of New York Giuliani who have sought to demagogue and make political hay from the controversy.

We either believe in the First Amendment or we don't. We believe that people should be able to worship as they choose, including building their houses of worship where they choose - or we don't. We can't pick and choose which groups will be allowed these privileges. That would make a mockery of our Constitution. As Krugman says, one would think that Jews, with their history of being discriminated against, would understand that only too well.