Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge

The still nearly full Harvest Moon was high in the western sky on Friday morning when I hauled myself out of my comfy bed and began to make preparations for a day of birding. We were going to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on a day trip and we wanted to get there while the birds were still active in the morning before they settled down for their mid-day siesta. Since the refuge is some two hours away from our home, it required an early start.

When we arrived at the refuge two hours later, the moon was still a pale presence above the western horizon, but the sun was up and would soon extinguish its light.

Among the first things that I noticed at the refuge were the wildflowers. They were everywhere, producing riotous points of color among the browns and greens of the wetland grasses.

Purple seemed to be the predominant color.

But there was a lot of yellow among the purple, including these tiny flowers that look like some kind of coreopsis.

This was obviously a legume of some kind.

Wild sunflowers were plentiful. The birds will devour the dried seeds.

This pretty gray-foliaged plant was plentiful, also.

As were these daisy-like flowers.

I quite liked the look of the wild grasses, especially the ones that grew in the boggy areas.

But, of course, we were there for the birds, and there were plenty of those.

This mixed flock, like many of the birds we saw this day, were too far removed from us to get a really good picture. But here we have Great and Snowy Egrets, White Ibises, Northern Shoveler Ducks, Black-necked Stilts, Boat-tailed Grackles, Willets, and probably others that I can't identify.

The most numerous of the birds that we saw this day were the Black-necked Stilts. This is a small portion of a large flock of a hundred or more birds and there were several flocks like this.

Five Black-necked Stilts in flight.

We found this one stilt along the road all by itself. It was lame. I think you can see that the leg that it is holding up is swollen.

Forsters' Terns were much in evidence as well. This was one of a flock of about ten that were diving on a small pond.

My most exciting bird of the day was this nondescript little creature that we flushed from the side of the road. I wish I had been able to get a better picture of it, but it is very cryptically colored and blends in too well with its surroundings. It is a Clapper Rail, and it was a life bird for me.

Notice its long legs, long, thin bill, and short stubby tail, all characteristics of the rail.

As it turned its back on us, we got a better look at that stubby tail.

Another exciting bird was this beautiful, but uncooperative White-tailed Kite. It was far away and, of course, just as I snapped the picture it turned its head. As I think you can tell even from this poor photo, the bird has a white chest and abdomen and black shoulders on its gray wings. When the bird is in flight the tips of its wings show black and the tail is white, thus the name. It makes a striking sight in flight, which it was about one second after I snapped its picture.

We saw a lot of White Ibises and this is one of them although it doesn't look very white yet. It is a juvenile. In a few months, it will have the pure white feathers of an adult.

There were also lots of these beautiful Tricolored Herons about.

We didn't see too many songbirds around but this is one that we did see, the Loggerhead Shrike. It was sitting atop this old windmill which was the tallest perch in the area. From there, he could easily spy on insects on the ground.

I had just seen four Eastern Kingbirds perched in a nearby tree and when I saw this bird from a distance, I got excited thinking that it might be a Western Kingbird.

But as I got closer, I could see that there was no yellowish wash on the belly. In fact, it had a bit of salmon on the sides and so I recognized it for what it was.

Then the bird flew and removed all doubt. It was a juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. It didn't have the long flowing tail of the adult yet. Instead of scissors, its tail was more like pruning shears, but give him time and he will grow that long tail that is the pride of his species. There were two of these juveniles present, but I didn't see any adults. They were probably around somewhere though, because the birds usually migrate in family groups.

As I was leaving the entry to the refuge, I found two more songbirds - a Tufted Titmouse and, oddly enough, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Staff had planted lots of red salvia around the Information Center and I'm sure that's what caught the eye of the hummer.

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge is one of the many natural treasures that exist in our area. If you haven't discovered it yet, now would be a good time to do that. The large numbers of ducks and geese that will be there in winter haven't arrived yet, but there is plenty to see, both animal and plant. And, yes, we even saw one alligator, about a six-footer, I would guess. After that, my day was complete.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The 10 most challenged books of 2009

Here we are in the middle of the 29th annual Banned Books Week, so in honor of that occasion, let's take a look at some of the books that people were trying to get banned last year. These are the ten books that were most often complained about and requested to be removed from the shelves by patrons of libraries. I have to admit that I'm not even familiar with some of these books that are specifically for children or young people, but I may have to read them anyway as a protest.

1. TTYL by Lauren Myracle: Never heard of it and that author's last name sounds made up, but what do I know? I lead a very sheltered life. People complained about it because of sexual explicitness, offensive language, unsuitability for its targeted age group, and drugs.

2. And Tango makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell: This one was knocked off its #1 perch where it had been for a while. The story of homosexual penguins really gets some peoples' knickers in a twist.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Again, I have to admit my ignorance of the book, but some people thought it was anti-family. I suppose the same might be said of The Brothers Karamazov or Madame Bovary, among other titles that come to mind.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: This is a perennial on complained-about or banned books lists. People complain about racism and offensive language. I guess if you talk about racism or write about racism some people consider it racist.

5. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: This great favorite of many young people offends some because of its sexual explicitness, "offensive religious viewpoint", and because they feel it is unsuitable for the age group for which it is intended. I haven't read the book and don't intend to, not because any of that stuff offends me but just because, from what I know of it, it doesn't interest me in the least. I suppose if I were stranded on a desert island and that was the only book on that island, I might read it.

6. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Another perennial on such lists. Sexually explicit, offensive language, and "general unsuitability" are some of the complaints made about it.

7. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: I've never read any of Picoult's books but maybe I should. Just look at the list of complaints people make about this book: sexism, homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, offensive religious viewpoint, drugs, suicide, and violence! I think Ms. Picoult may have just retired the trophy for hitting all the hot buttons.

8. The Earth, My Butt & Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Macklen: Don't you love that title? I know it would win my award as the best title of all time, but some folks complained that once you got past the title, it was sexually explicit, had offensive language and was generally unsuitable.

9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuitable were some of the things complainers said about it. Also, there were complaints about the negative portrayal of black men, but then that was sort of an essential element of the plot, wasn't it?

10. Chocolate War by Robert Cormier: And, once again, I have to admit my ignorance of a book, but the complaints about it are much the same as made about so many others on the list - sexually explicit, offensive language, and violence.

You know, reading this list, I have to wonder at the obvious glaring omission of The Bible. If you are offended by violence, occasional sexual explicitness, and offensive religious viewpoints, this book has them all. I know I am offended by the religious viewpoint that demands that "God's army" kill every man, woman, child, and animal in a village or town so that "God's chosen" can have the land. There are certainly offensive portrayals enough of many people including Egyptians, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, as well as Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Romans and many others. As for sexism, don't even get me started!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

9 Habitats that are disappearing from the earth

The political news frustrates and angers me. We seem to be a people determined to undo everything that the geniuses who founded this country set out to bequeath to us. But it takes news of what we are doing to the environment to really put me in a blue funk for days at a time.

Like this article that I read on Huffington Post this week about nine types of habitats that are seriously endangered.

1. Mangroves: The mangrove is not a plant, it is a habitat that can contain a great diversity of individual species of plants - like holly, plumbago, hibiscus, legumes, acanthus, and myrtle. These complex habitats do the important work of capturing carbon and provide shelter for many species of animals. Unfortunately, they exist on valuable real estate along coasts and we know what happens when the needs of the planet collide with man's greed. Greed wins. From 1980 to 2000, 35% of mangrove habitats disappeared under the developers' earthmovers.

2. Coral reefs: These are beautiful hot spots of diversity in the sea that have been estimated to have benefits to the environment of at least $30 billion a year. They are being destroyed by pollution, fishing, acidification of the ocean, and most especially by increased heat from global warming which bleaches them. This continues in coral reefs around the world while our elected representatives in Washington dither and squabble and deny that global warming even exists.

3. Rainforests: Rainforests have been dubbed the "lungs of the earth" and it is not wrong to call them that. They help to regulate the temperatures and weather on earth as well as producing fresh water for us to drink. And we are destroying a football-field-sized plot of them every single second.

4. Tallgrass prairie: These prairies once covered 140 million acres of our great Midwest. Home of the bison, as well as a great diversity of animals and plants that depended on their yearly cycles, they were regularly ravaged by prairie fires that were a part of that cycle, a part that kept trees out. Then European settlers came and stopped the cycle of fire and put the earth to the plow. In time trees took over. Today, for all practical purposes, the tallgrass prairie has ceased to exist except in small, unsustainable patches as museum exibits.

5. Longleaf pines: Forests of these pines once reached, without a break, from Virginia to Texas and an entire ecology depended upon them. Today they have been stripped from the land and exist only in widely separated patches. Many of the birds and other animals that depended on them have vanished. Birds like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker teeter on the brink of extinction in spite of our belated attempts at protecting it.

6. Glaciers: Global warming is the great culprit here. The glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is a vicious cycle, because, intact, they help to reflect heat back away from the earth and keep the earth in a temperate climate phase. When they are gone, one more key to humans' survival on earth will have been lost.

7. Wetlands: I spent much of my day yesterday tramping around a part of the great wetland areas that exist along the coast of Texas and I was reminded again of the great diversity of life here - both animal and vegetative. These areas exist as protective barriers along our coasts, helping to mitigate the effects of natural disasters like hurricanes and even man-made catastrophes like oil spills. And, of course, we are destroying them just as fast as we possibly can.

8. Maldives: These are low-lying islands that are disappearing under the ocean as sea levels rise. The people who live there are the victims of our ignorance and stubborn refusal to do what we can - to do anything, really - to mitigate global warming. They know that global warming is happening. They see its effects every day, but they are too small and powerless to do anything to stop it or even slow it down. That is up to us, and we refuse to act.

9. Artic tundra: Like the glaciers, the permafrost which underlies the tundra is melting, endangering the habitat of the caribou, migratory songbirds that spend their summer there, waterfowl, foxes, bears, and wolves. The migratory caribou have already seen a precipitate drop in their numbers in recent years. That condition is likely to continue.

As we continue to see the damage that we are doing to our home planet, many environmentalists will raise the cry, "Save the Earth!" But, I have to admit that I am with George Carlin on this one.

I don't think the Earth needs our saving. George used to say that when we became too expensive for our planet to maintain that Earth would "shake us off like a bad case of fleas." I believe he was right. The Earth will not suffer itself to be destroyed by us. When we become unsustainable, it will shrug us off and go on with the process of repairing the damage we have done.

We might more aptly say, "Save yourself, humanity, before it is too late! Save these precious habitats that sustain you."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The dinosaur hunters

I guess most kids, at some time in their growing-up years, become fascinated with dinosaurs and consider what it would be like to spend their lives digging in hot, dry, out-of-the-way places around the world, looking for their quarry. In this, I was like most kids. I wanted to be a dinosaur hunter when I grew up. Not just any old dinosaur hunter, but a world-famous dinosaur hunter, the kind that gets invited onto late night television shows to banter with the host.

Well, that dream, like many others, went astray. I never got to go on a dinosaur dig, but I still like to read about those who do and watch those Discovery Channel shows about them.

These days, there is plenty to read about. If it's Thursday, there must be news of another new dinosaur species having been found. This week, we dinosaur fans get a bonanza - not one but two new species have been found in the wilds of the Utah desert.

Both of the new dinosaurs are rhinoceros-sized animals and seem to have been closely related to that well-known beast from my childhood, Triceratops. But instead of having three horns on their huge heads, one of the two (Utahceratops gettyi) had five horns, and the other (Kosmoceratops richardsoni), the smaller of the two, had fifteen horns! Now that's just showing off if you ask me.

The horns on both of the animals ranged in length from about 6 inches to 1 foot. But the question arises, what could have possibly been the evolutionary advantage to the animals of having such elaborate growths on their heads? At some point, it seems that the number of such growths would have a diminishing return, becoming an encumbrance rather than an enhancement.

The stock answer of the paleontologists is that it was all about sex. Even as the antlers on the deer of today are used to attract mates or to intimidate sexual competitors, these elaborate sets of horns, too, were used to advertise the individual's health, strength, and sexual potency.

But fifteen??? That's one horny dinosaur!

Stand-by for next week's amazing discovery when a dinosaur with 18 horns is found.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Nemesis: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery by Lindsey Davis - Review

I love fiction set in ancient Rome and when it is a mystery, my favorite genre, so much the better. The Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis is one of my favorites of the type. I've read them all and now I've read this latest one.

I have to say it was not my favorite of the lot, but it was very good, very entertaining and kept me guessing, although I did have a glimmer of the solution about two-thirds of the way through.

The book starts with a double tragedy. Falco loses two family members in one day and the losses change his life forever. While he is working through his bereavement, he is presented with the mystery of the disappearance of a couple who had been supplying his antique dealer/auctioneer father with statuary. A shipment was delivered but when payment was attempted the suppliers could not be found. Soon Falco is on the trail of the disappeared pair and that leads him into confrontation with a notorious and violent family. A family which may very well be involved in mass murder.

Falco's vigiles friend, Petronius, becomes involved when a murdered and desecrated body is found. The body turns out to be the man who was the statuary supplier, but as Petronius and Falco investigate this turn of events, the case is abruptly stolen from their juridiction by their old nemesis, the imperial spy Anacrites. Of course, when did that ever stop this doughty and stubborn pair?

The case gets curiouser and curiouser and Falco's extended family becomes involved in its pursuit. But the faithful Lindsey Davis reader can be assured that all will come right for our heroes in the end.

Davis really has the knack of putting her readers right in the middle of ancient Rome. One can almost smell the streets as one strolls through one of her stories. I like the historical detail and the way that she has of showing that the ancient Romans were really no different from us. Some have complained that she sometimes puts modern terms in the mouths of her characters (e.g., "Have they lawyered up?") but that doesn't bother me. I just assume that this is a modern translation of Falco's memoirs.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

C'mon Autumn!

The seeds of the Southern magnolia are ripening and turning red. That can only mean that autumn is almost here. Not a moment too soon!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Did you know that the dictionary is a banned book?

Banned Book Week, a yearly event of the American Library Association, does not begin for another week, but I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post listing eleven of the most surprising banned books and, of course, I had to read it. And, yes, I was surprised.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary: Can you believe it? These dictionaries have been banned by some school systems in this country apparently because they contain definitions of sex acts! No wonder our educational system seems to be falling apart.

2. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: This has been banned in some areas due to obscenity and the portrayal of the country in a negative light. Admittedly, it was a long time ago that I read this book, but I don't remember any obscenity. If it was there, it certainly didn't make an impression on me. As for portraying the country in a negative light, it was the Great Depression. An honest portrait of the times would necessarily be negative.

3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig: I don't know this book but apparently the characters are animals and the policemen are portrayed as pigs. Some police departments took exception to that. Since pigs are some of the smartest animals around, it seems maybe they should be flattered.

4. Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: These two books by the Nobel Prize winning author have been banned for obscene language and gratuitous violence.

5. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle: This may be the most asinine example of all so it is fitting that it comes from Texas. This book was banned by the infamous Texas Board of (mis)Education not because of content but because one of the authors had the same name as an obscure Marxist theorist and the geniuses on the board could not be bothered to do due diligence to discover that he was an entirely different person. Poor Texas school children - victims of these idiots.

6. James and the Giant Peach and Witches by Roald Dahl: This famous author of children's books has seen these two books of his banned because of alleged obscenity, violence and sexism.

7. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: The book banners found this book to be sexually explicit and sympathetic to homosexuality.

8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Really???

9. A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway: These two Hemingway books were banned because of sexual content (Farewell) and because the banners thought it "pro-communist" (Bell). Heaven forbid that children should read anything that portrays communists or communism in a favorable light. Never mind that these communists were fighting a repressive and brutal fascist regime.

10. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein: Banned because it "promotes disrespect, horror and violence." I read Shel Silverstein's books, including this one, to and with my children from their earliest years and they are two of the most respectful, un-horror-ridden, and gentle people that I know. Shame on anyone who would ban it.

11. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: This is another one that I don't know but apparently it portrays a battle between good and evil and the banners thought that it espoused religious thought which they found offensive.

These books were banned from being seen or read by children, and certainly there are books that are inappropriate for reading at some tender ages. I wouldn't, for example, hand over Joyce's Ulysses to a third grader - even a very bright third grader. Parental responsibility is the way to handle that. But the thought of actually banning a book is totally odious to me. In a free society, all ideas must be out there on the table for people to pick and choose what they will read. Much as I loathe them, I would not even ban books by Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The great literary feud is over!

Remember the brouhaha several years ago when Oprah Winfrey selected The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen for her book club? Franzen was not amused. In fact, he was appalled. He made some churlish statement to the effect that he was afraid his selection by Oprah would turn off male readers, that they would think that his book was "middlebrow" and would not pick it up.

Well, I don't know how male readers felt, but I was certainly turned off by Franzen's ungracious and supercilious attitude. Apparently, the only people he thought were good enough and smart enough to read his book were male PhDs! Since I don't qualify, I decided I wouldn't read his book and I never have.

After his stated consternation at being given the Oprah stamp of approval, Oprah rescinded her stamp and rescinded her invitation to appear on her show. Franzen ultimately apologized for his behavior, but it was too late.

Ten years passed. Now Franzen is out with another book, Freedom. All the critics are wetting themselves with excitement and inventing new superlatives to praise it. And today there was a report that Oprah liked it, too, and that she is going to announce it as her final book club selection. Franzen, through a spokesman, said he would be happy if she did.

I'm not an Oprah fanatic and I've never joined her book club, but knowing where she came from and what she has made of her life, I do admire her. The woman has class and apparently she has the magnanimity of spirit to overlook Franzen's past behavior and judge this new book solely on its merits. I haven't decided yet if I will be that magnanimous.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The happy taxpayer

I've been away from the news of the world for a couple of days, thinking about other things. It was a nice respite.

But back to the world of politics.

I see that our politicians are still wrangling over taxes, specifically the so-called Bush tax cuts, and that the Republicans' new buzzword is "uncertainty." Every Republican you see on TV or hear on radio uses that word in practically every sentence. Uncertainty bad! Furthermore, uncertainty equals Obama.

They claim that the economy isn't growing and recovering faster (from the ditch they drove it into) because businesses are "uncertain" about their taxes. They don't know whether they will have to pay more taxes because the Bush tax cuts will be allowed to expire as the law presently requires.

President Obama and most Democrats want to extend the tax cuts that apply to the middle class but they want the ones that apply to people and businesses earning more than $250,000 a year in taxable income to expire. Just to restate that, an individual or a business having taken all the exemptions and deductions that the law allows and still having a net income of more than a quarter of a million dollars would not get further tax breaks under the president's plan.

And the Republicans will cry, "But that affects small businesses and they shouldn't have to pay more!" Well, in my world, a business that is so successful that it nets more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is scarcely what I think of as a small business, and, even if it is, it doesn't need any more tax breaks. It is doing quite well, thank you, and needs to pay its fair share.

I make considerably less than $250,000 a year - gross, much less net - but I pay my taxes happily each year. I can't go and protect my country from terrorists who would attack us or stand outside eight hours a day building highways and bridges or protecting my community from fires and natural disasters or from criminals. But I can pay my taxes to help fund all those things and to pay the people who can do them. It's just a part of the social contract and I am happy to honor it. I don't even request a reduction in my taxes. I think what I pay is pretty fair. And I think those people who are earning more than a quarter of a million dollars, net, each year need to pay their share with a smile as well and their Republican friends need to quit trying to lower their taxes to zero.

I'm quite sure though that that isn't going to happen. When it comes to Republicans and taxes, there is no uncertainty at all. They hate them and they don't want to pay them. They also don't believe in social contracts.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

David Foster Wallace - worth a second look

Recently, I wrote a post here about the 13 books that everybody says they have read but haven't. I had actually read seven of the books on the list, but one of the remaining six was a book that I could not remember having heard of. In fact, I could not remember having heard of the author either. That writer was David Foster Wallace and the book was Infinite Jest. It had been published and evidently made a big splash back in the mid 1990s when I, apparently, wasn't paying attention.

I commented in my post that I had no intention of reading the book, but I felt guilty about that. How could I dismiss a book and a writer that I didn't even know? So, I decided to find out about the writer and his work.

Reading about Wallace, the man, gave me a lot of empathy for him. He was almost terminally shy and suffered from depression. He was also quite a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction, much of it highly praised and award-winning. He had a philosophical turn of mind and was very interested in philosophy and logic. In fact, he majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. David Foster Wallace accomplished much in his too brief life. He was born in 1962 and died in 2008 by his own hand. The depression that had tormented his life had finally consumed it.

In researching Wallace, I found an essay that he had written about a year before he died. He wrote it for The Atlantic and I think it deserves a second look on this anniversary.

Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanesque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

Are there some things worth dying for? Is an open and diverse society one of them? Will any of those draconian laws and events that Wallace mentioned in his essay actually make us any safer, or do they, in the end, only exacerbate the situation? Can we accept the fact that we will never be perfectly safe in this world and then go and live our lives joyfully, as if nobody hated us and wanted to destroy us? Is it possible for us to have an open and honest debate about this without resorting to political talking points that instantly shut down communication? These are some things that I think we should consider on September 11, 2010, as we remember the 2,973 who died that day, "democratic martyrs" and "sacrifices on the altar of freedom".

I think the proper response to all those deaths is not to say "Never again!" because, almost certainly, there will be an "again" some day. The proper response is to say that these martyrs to our open society shall not have died in vain - that we will continue to treasure our openness (And damn those, foreign or domestic, who would try to take it from us!) and make this society a shining light of diversity for all the world to see.

And, yes, I am putting Infinite Jest on my to be read list.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Super foods that even a non-foodie can love

Every time you open a newspaper or check out a news website online it seems that you run across another report of some food that is supposed to be so powerful that it might even help you live forever. Often it is some exotic food that you might have to visit a specialty store to find. But there are some everyday foods that can give any of those exotics a run for their money. They may not help you live forever, but it is possible that they could prolong your life and they could definitely make your feel better while you are enjoying that life. Here are ten of them that you should be able to find in just about any grocery store and that you can easily work into your daily diet.

1. Berries - Fruits like raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are high in fiber. There is evidence that they help to protect against some cancers. Plus, they are good for your sweet tooth. They are low in calories but taste sweet and can help satisfy that craving for a sweet.

2. Beans - They contain iron which the body needs to stay healthy and, of course, they are full of fiber and their regular inclusion in the diet can be helpful in reducing cholesterol.

3. Eggs - I know, I know, they've had a bad rap lately, but that's not the egg's - or the hen's - fault. It's the fault of the industrial farming practices that have become so prevalent in this country. But the egg is an easy source of protein and has antioxidants that are especially good for the eyes. They contain lutein which is useful in protecting the eyes from age-related blindness from macular degeneration.

4. Nuts - Some societies that include lots of nuts in their diets have been shown to be longer-lived. The star of the nut family is the walnut. Walnuts contain high levels of Omega-3, an oil that is important for heart health.

5. Orange - This favorite really does contain lots of vitamin C, fiber and folate all of which are essential to good health.

6. Sweet Potatoes - This might just be the healthiest vegetable you can eat. They contain vitamin A and beta carotene and can help protect the eyes, bones, and immune system.

7. Broccoli - This dark green vegetable is full of so many good things that it is hard to mention them all. Suffice to say that it has vitamins C, A, and K, as well as folate, and it is helpful for bone health and to combat some cancers.

8. Tea - There is evidence that those who drink a lot of tea may be helping to protect themselves against Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and some cancers. It also helps to promote healthy teeth, gums, and bones.

9. Spinach - Another miracle food that is loaded with all kinds of good things, including vitamins A, C, and K, fiber, minerals, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin E. Popeye was right - it makes you strong!

10. Yogurt - It helps with gut health and can aid in staving off age-related intestinal diseases. There are serious claims that people who eat a lot of yogurt may live longer and some studies actually back this up. Anyway, it couldn't hurt!

These are super foods that any of us can easily work into our daily diets. They may not help us leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it is pretty well-established that they can help us feel better and keep us from turning our health molehills into mountains.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning the Qur'an and other loathsome ideas

This idiotic leader of an extremist sect of socalled Christians in Florida is all set to burn a bunch of the holy books of Islam to commemorate the murder of Americans (some of them Islamic) by other religious extremists on September 11, 2001. Well, that sounds about par for the course for religious and political discourse in America these days. When the professional hater Glenn Beck can set himself up as the inheritor of the moral mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I suppose we should not be surprised by this man's audacity of dope.

Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, various religious leaders, and now President Obama have spoken out against this charlatan's intended desecration. It has been pointed out that such actions play right into the hands of al Qaeda and other such extremists and will likely bring them more angry recruits eager to blow themselves up in some crowded American venue, taking innocent people who never considered burning a Qur'an along with them. It also makes the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan that our military is trying to contain more determined than ever to resist and kill Americans. Is the preacher concerned about any of this? No, he's concerned about making a spectacle of himself and getting his image on TV and in newspapers. He says his god has told him to do this. If so, his god must be really bloodthirsty and I don't want to meet him.

So, the guy continues to appear on every "news" show on TV and his notoriety grows. But now he says he might be willing to rethink his plans if the President contacts him directly. Surprise, surprise.

Meantime, where are the Republicans in all of this? For the most part, they are seen and heard equating the burning of a holy book with the building of an Islamic Community Center in New York. Nearly all absolutely refuse to condemn this man and his attention-grabbing stupidity.

What do people in other countries make of all this? I think it must be extremely difficult for people in different cultures to understand that in our country people actually do have the right to burn books or to spew hateful speech if they want to. That is their constitutionally protected right of free speech. The fact that it is an utterly stupid, non-productive, and self-defeating way to behave is completely beside the point.

My dearest hope is that now that this despicable person has had his 15 minutes of fame he will fade back into the anonymity that he so richly deserves and let the rest of us get on with our lives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Liar, liar, pants on fire!!!

Haley Barbour is the Republican governor of Mississippi. He and I have at least one thing in common: We grew up in that troubled state in the same generation. We both came of age in the 1960s. Strangely, Barbour remembers those days a bit differently than I do.

He recently gave an interview to a conservative magazine and website in which he claimed that it was his generation - my generation - that led the switch in the South from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party and that it was all because of that integration thing. He said that the old Democrats fought "tooth and nail" against integration but by the time the '60s generation came along, they realized that it was indefensible, so the people who changed from Democrat to Republican were a whole different generation than those who fought integration. Barbour's generation, he said, led the switch because they had gone to integrated schools and an integrated college and they "never thought twice about it."

This is a pack of lies from beginning to end!

It is true that the old Democrats fought tooth and nail against integration, but in 1964 those old Democrats became new Republicans because that was the party that would let them be who they were. I know exactly when the switch occurred. I was there.

I remember vividly in the fall of 1964 a day or two after the presidential election, I was having lunch at a cafe in Belmont, Mississippi and eavesdropping on the conversation of two old men at the next table. They were bemoaning the fact that Lyndon Johnson had beaten Barry Goldwater in an overwhelming landslide. One of the few states that Goldwater had carried was Mississippi, along with some others of the Old South. One of the old men turned to the other and said, "Well, Johnson may have got the most votes but you and me know that the BEST people voted for Goldwater."

That was the autumn when Mississippi and the South became Republican. President Johnson had predicted that his signing the Civil Rights Act would mean that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. He was right.

As for Barbour attending integrated schools, no he didn't! Schools in Mississippi did not begin to be integrated until 1970 when it was forced by the Supreme Court. As for the colleges - well, Barbour went to the University of Mississippi in the mid '60s. Ole Miss had grudgingly admitted its first black student in 1962. One black student who had to be escorted around campus by U.S. Marshals. The next year, they admitted one more black student. By the middle of the decade, there was a handful - literally - of black students there, but to say that the white students "never thought twice about it" is about as bald-faced a lie as I am likely to hear or read in my lifetime. The white students made life for the black students as miserable as they possibly could through isolating and ostracizing them. I don't know, of course, but I would be very surprised to learn that, while a student at Ole Miss, Haley Barbour, the new Republican, had gone out of his way to befriend or defend or even acknowledge any of those black students.

Why is Barbour telling these lies? Perhaps because the media, what passes for journalism these days, will let him get away with them. There are those who say he wants to run for president in 2012 and is trying to clean up his image. Well, he can try, but there are some of us who still remember what Mississippi and the South were like in the 1960s and it was not the fairy tale land that Barbour is talking about. It was a place where people cheered when they heard that the president of their country had been murdered and cheered again a few years later when his brother and Martin Luther King were murdered. It was a place where white people could get away with murdering black people, where the Ku Klux Klan murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and got away with it.

Mississippi has changed a lot since those days, but mostly it hasn't been changed by Barbour's and my generation. It's been changed by those later generations who actually did go to integrated schools, who grew up watching Bill Cosby on television and realized that maybe his family didn't look so different from theirs - except perhaps richer.

Mississippi, like the rest of the nation, still has a long way to go, but it won't get there with liars like Haley Barbour for leaders.

(For more and much better writing on this topic, read Eugene Robinson's column in today's Washington Post. He remembers, too.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

13 books that everybody says they've read - but haven't

As an avid reader, I'm always interested in book lists. Lists of the best, the worst, the funniest, the saddest, the ones I wouldn't be caught dead reading - you name it. Give me an article with a list of books in it and you have caught my attention. I WILL read it!

So when I saw the headline on Huffington Post about 13 books that everyone claims to have read even though they haven't, I was hooked. I had to read it. And you know what? I HAD read seven out of the thirteen.

1. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - Probably like most people who have read it, I read it in school, in English lit class. That was a long time ago and today I can't claim to remember a lot of details about it, but I do remember that, at the time, I quite enjoyed it.

2. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville - I haven't read it, but maybe I should. From what I've read about it, de Tocqueville penned some very powerful and cogent insights about our democracy.

3. Ulysses by James Joyce - It's one of those books that I had always been curious about and always intended to read, and so, a couple of years ago, I did. It was a hard slog and I admit that I was often confused by it, and yet, by the end, in reading that last chapter - what I always think of as "Molly's soliloquy" - I knew that I had read an amazing piece of literature.

4. Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - I first read this in middle school - 7th or 8th grade, I think - and I remember the experience quite vividly. I was completely caught up in the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. I still love the story and, of course, I watch at least one of the movies (preferably the one with Alastair Sim) every Christmas season.

5. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie - Okay, I must confess that I have never read anything by Salman Rushdie. I've always intended to read this book if for no other reason than that the ayatollah declared a fatwa against Rushdie because of it, but I haven't gotten to it yet. There are other books by him that I would like to read as well. One day I will.

6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville - Why does everyone claim to hate this book? I love this book! Again, I read it in college and it opened a whole new world to me - a world of understanding something about human nature and obsession. It taught me more about human psychology than most of the psychology courses that I took.

7. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking - This is one of those books that we bought (actually, my husband bought it, I think) and it has languished on our bookshelves. It's another of those books that I intend to read - someday.

8. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - Not only have I not read it, I freely admit my cultural ignorance in saying that I have never heard of it or the author. I looked it up and found that the book was published in 1996. I'm not sure what I was doing that year that caused my radar to fail to pick it up. Actually, I might have been aware of it at the time, but at some point, it exited my consciousness. I have no intention of reading it.

9. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco - This is a dense book about two things that I love reading about - murder mysteries and religious intrigue in the Middle Ages. Somewhat like Ulysses, reading it can be hard work unless you are really knowledgeable about Catholic Church monastic orders and rituals of the period, but it is ultimately rewarding. Then again, if you're not up for a hard slog, you can just watch the terrific movie with Sean Connery.

10. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust - I am the owner of a beautiful boxed edition of this work that was given to me several years ago. I actually started reading it and got perhaps 100 pages in before I gave up. I just wasn't up to the task then, but now that I have more time on my hands, I fully intend to go back to it. Someday.

11. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes - I've never read the book, although I did once have to read and translate a portion of it for Spanish class. But I do love the music from Man of La Mancha. Does that count?

12. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner - Many allegedly find Faulkner hard to read or hard to understand, but I never had that problem, maybe because I grew up in the society that he wrote about and the cadences in which he wrote were those I heard in my everyday life. This book, in fact, may be my favorite of his - at least the ones that I have read. It's a book that deserves to be read. Good writing never goes out of style.

13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - This is the first really big book that I remember reading all on my own just because I wanted to. It was summer and I was a teenager with no television to entertain me. I read the book all the way through, completely mesmerized by the Imperial Russian world, and then I read it through again! I tell you I lived amid the Russian court at the time of Napoleon that summer.

Just reading over this list again brings back so many happy memories of hours spent within the pages of books. It makes me want to go back and read them all again. Even the six that I missed the first time around.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Maybe it's Wyoming

Two of the crankiest, foulest-tempered, meanest-minded men in current day politics are Dick Cheney and Alan Simpson.

Dick Cheney has done and said so many nasty, intemperate things over the years that he's pretty much retired the trophy for cranky old politicians, but now here comes Alan Simpson to challenge him.

Simpson has been in the news lately because of his emails about Social Security, the social safety net that we all depend upon and which he serves on a commission for investigating and shoring up for the future. His comments leave little doubt that instead of shoring it up, he, like most right-wingers, would prefer to see it done away with altogether. (So, why, again, did the president appoint him to this commission???)

One of Simpson's most offensive and reported remarks, of course, compared Social Security to a cow with "310 million tits." Coming from a man who has been sucking from the American taxpayer's teat for most of his adult life, that is rich.

His latest offensive remark, which has earned him the enmity of veterans everywhere, concerns veterans who require treatment or receive benefits as a result of their military service. To Simpson's way of thinking, they are part of the problem. They should not expect to receive any help from their country for having risked their lives in its service. No, they should just suck it up (there's that teat/tit imagery again) and get on with life.

Men such as these two deserve nothing but contempt from the rest of us and they certainly do not deserve to hold positions of power that might have deleterious effects upon the lives of the citizens of this country. But how in the world did they ever get to be such bad-tempered jerks? And with personalities like that, how did they ever get elected to public office in the first place?

The one thing that I see that they have in common, other than being jerks, is that they are both from Wyoming. So what is it about Wyoming that produces such people? And if they are going to produce them, could they please, please just keep them at home?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


So, the Astros have swept the St. Louis Cardinals, making the second time in just a little over a week that they have swept a playoff-contending team, their first being a four game sweep of the Phillies. Not only that, but they didn't allow Albert Pujols to get a single hit during the three game series. He ended up 0-for-Houston!

I tell you, some days life is good!

Wordless Wednesday: The sycamore says, "Autumn's coming!"