Monday, January 31, 2011

Ayn-rony shrugging

This story is just too deliciously ironic to ignore.

Remember Ayn Rand, heroine of the conservative/tea partier cause? She believed in individual self-sufficiency. Individuals should stand or fall on their own, based on their own efforts. It is a philosophy that essentially extolls survival of the fittest - or the richest and most ruthless. There is no social contract in Rand-world. We do not owe anything to our neighbors. Most importantly, we should not accept any assistance from the government and government, in its truest and most righteous form, should not offer any.

But if you happen to contract lung cancer, all that philosophy apparently goes out the window, because, you see, Ayn Rand - yes, Mrs. John Galt, herself - applied for and received Social Security and Medicare when she became ill with lung cancer.

An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand's law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand's behalf she secured Rand's Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O'Connor (husband Frank O'Connor).

As Pryor said, "Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out" without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn "despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently... She didn't feel that an individual should take help."

But alas she did and said it was wrong for everyone else to do so.

Rand railed against such programs during her life, but when she needed them, they were there for her and she took advantage of them. As far as I can find out, she never acknowledged that fact and never told her followers that, actually, Social Security and Medicare are not Satan's tools to ensnare us and can be pretty useful when one needs them.

But today, her disciple, Rep. Paul Ryan, requires all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged and is continuing his covert and sometimes not-so-covert campaign to destroy the two programs.

I don't begrudge Rand her use of the social safety net. Thank FDR that it was there for her - and still there for me. I do begrudge her hypocrisy in not acknowledging the fact that she, too, took advantage of the help that was available to her and that she would have denied to others.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst: A review

Alan Furst is an excellent writer of historical fiction whose chosen period and place for the settings of his novels is Europe from 1933 to 1945. The Polish Officer is the third of his novels that I have read, after The Foreign Correspondent and Dark Star. The first two were full of suspense and kept me on the edge of my seat so I knew what to expect from this one. It did not disappoint.

Captain Alexander de Milja defends his city of Warsaw as the Germans advance in 1939, but the Germans have too much firepower. The war in Poland is over almost before it is begun. Except it really isn't.

The Poles fight on by other means, implacably opposing their invaders in ways both great and small, but stealthily, indirectly, underground. Before the last shot of the direct war is fired, Captain de Milja is recruited to help carry on the indirect war. His first task is to transport the gold that constitutes much of Poland's national treasury out of the country and take it safely beyond German reach.

He accomplishes his task successfully and then heads on to Paris.

Soon Paris, too, has fallen to the Germans, without a fight. The French government capitulates. The French people, however, do not. The Underground thrives in France as in Poland and many other countries that, one by one, fall to the German advance. Those who oppose Germany are all loosely connected and the Polish officer moves among them, working with them and disrupting German plans wherever he can.

Soon, Britain stands alone among the governments of Europe in refusing to surrender to the inevitability of German rule. Many of those directing the Underground efforts make their way to London and liaise with the British in their common cause. The Polish officer remains on the continent and carries on the struggle. After being relieved of his post in France because he has lost so many operatives, he is called to London and briefly works behind a desk. But it is not his fate to sit safely behind a desk. Soon he is in the field again, in Russia in coldest winter.

In reviewing Furst's novels of this dark, dark period of Western history, it is often remarked that he is a master at evoking the atmosphere of that time. I was born after the period that he writes about so what do I know about whether the "atmosphere" is right? But it certainly feels right. It is fraught with danger and suspense. Every day, every moment might well be your last. How does one react and behave with such knowledge constantly at the forefront of the mind? Some - many - acted with courage and the indomitable will to oppose evil. We are in their debt.

Furst has said that although his novels are fiction, people like his characters actually existed and that he tries to give them life through his writing. I hope that the Polish officer existed and that he outlived the terrible war and found happiness and peace in later years.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt from afar

I've been following the stories of the popular uprising and demonstrations in Egypt, after the uprising which toppled the totalitarian government in nearby Tunisia. It seems that northern Africa is a hotbed of insurrection at the moment.

I don't pretend to understand all the issues involved, other than the observation that in both places, masses of people are asking for democratization of their country's government. It is a widespread human yearning which has been made stronger by modern technology and the coming of the Internet to isolated regions around the world. That explains why the Egyptian government is shutting down Internet and cell phone access in their country today.

Admittedly, my following of this story has been mostly on the Internet and in print. I haven't watched television news coverage of it, but I have read some of the critiques of that coverage and the one that appeared in today was particularly illuminating.

Salon makes the point that our cable news networks are doing their usual sloppy and indifferent coverage of a world event which may have important implications for the future of Egypt, the Middle East, and United States' alliances. The networks have few if any reporters on the ground there and their "coverage" relies heavily on analysis of talking heads sitting in studios in New York. They are covering the story from afar. (With talking heads like John Bolton for Fox News! Really, who better to explain events in the Middle East for us than Bush's condescending former UN representative who thought the UN should be dissolved?)

There is one cable news network that in Salon's estimation - and several others' that I have read - is doing an outstanding job of bringing fair and balanced and thorough coverage of the happenings. That is Al Jazeera English. The Arab news network is providing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations and reporting from people who are actually there on the scene. In other words, the kind of coverage that American television used to provide, back in the good old days when American television actually did news rather than fashion shows of blonde anchorpersons with cleavage.

(If you are interested in seeing and hearing what is actually happening in Egypt, you can follow Al Jazeera online here.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two news stories about guns

In Florida today, a five-year-old dropped a loaded gun in his pre-kindergarten classroom.

Meanwhile, out in Utah, the state legislature is all set to make the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol, a gun whose only purpose is to kill people, the state gun. It would be the first state to designate a state gun, but no doubt will not be the last. Can Texas be far behind?

And, of course, all across the country today, 34 more people were murdered with handguns, but that hardly even qualifies as a news story any more. It is expected and we just accept it. What kind of country have we become?

I am disgusted.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

If it ain't broke, don't fix it! (But maybe you can make it better.)

The Very Serious People in Washington love to talk about fixing Social Security. Never mind that Social Security is working perfectly well and nonpolitical assessments of the program indicate that it will not even begin to get close to being in deficit for another 30 to 40 years. "No, no, no!" the politicians shout. "Social Security is in terrible, terrible trouble! You must let us fix it!"

I would not trust most of these yahoos to fix a hangnail, much less a program I will depend on for much of my livelihood in my - ahem - declining years. For one thing, the most prominently mentioned "fix" is lowering benefits and raising the retirement age, because people are living longer its proponents argue, but the truth is they really aren't. Very well off people who have access to the best of health care and who don't particularly need Social Security are living substantially longer, but for poor and middle-class people - THOSE WHO DEPEND ON SOCIAL SECURITY IN THEIR OLD AGE - the average life span has not increased much at all.

At the same time that these Very Serious People, the ones who appear on all those Sunday morning news shows on television and who are constantly quoted by the Very Serious Pundits, are proposing raising the retirement age, forcing low-income people to work even longer in order to receive smaller benefits, they totally ignore a more sensible and easily accomplished fix to the program. That would be raising the salary cap.

At present, American wage earners pay social security payroll taxes on up to $106,800 of their earnings. Why not raise that cap to, say, $150,000? Better yet, from my point of view, why not do away with it completely? That would bring an enormous amount of additional money into the system, it would make the social security tax more progressive rather than regressive as it now is, it would even make it possible to lower the tax rate on those on whom it now falls most heavily - the very lowest income workers. But is any politician talking about such a fix? If there is such a brave person, I haven't heard him/her. I think they are too scared of offending those high-income people who are big donors to their campaigns.

Nevertheless, it is an idea that has the support of average Americans. The Public Policy Polling organization recently asked those Americans in its weekly poll of opinions. Their question was:

To ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, would you rather have people pay social security taxes on salaries above $106,800, or would you rather see benefits cut and the retirement age increased to age 69?

Pay taxes on salaries > $106,800 - 77%

Cut benefits, raise retirement age to 69 - 10%

Not sure - 13%

The poll also broke those numbers down into different categories of respondents and every single category preferred this "fix." Even those who identified themselves as tea partiers preferred it 67/20! (You can see the complete breakdown as well as the other questions asked by the poll here.)

Now all we need is some sharp politician to take notice of these numbers and run with them. Say, isn't there some politician who's going to make a nationally televised speech tonight? That's just what we need to get the word out!

UPDATE: Okay, obviously, I should have read Bob Herbert's column today before I wrote this. He's said it all much more eloquently and to a much larger audience that I ever could. Maybe it just goes to prove what they say about great minds thinking alike... Nah! Just read him.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore; A review

More than 2000 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the angel Raziel is sent to ressurect his childhood friend, Biff, from the dust of Jerusalem. After Biff has returned to human form and has retrieved the "30 pieces of silver" that had bought Judas' betrayal, the angel and he sell the silver on the Jerusalem antiquities market for $20,000. With the money and Biff's newly acquired gift of tongues, they head out to America, where they land in a hotel in St. Louis. There, Biff will be required to write his gospel - the story of his life with Jesus (Joshua bar Joseph, in this telling), particularly the missing years between Joshua's debating with the rabbis at the temple when he is twelve and the beginning of his ministry when he is about thirty-years-old.

In Biff's telling (in American vernacular English, courtesy of that gift of tongues), those were adventure-packed years that took him and Joshua to the East in search of the three Wise Men who had attended Joshua's birth. From each of the Wise Men, Joshua learns important things that he will incorporate in his teachings when he begins his ministry. At this point, he KNOWS he is the Son of God and that he is supposed to do something big, he just isn't entirely sure what it is.

As Joshua learns eternal truths, Biff learns all about sinning and invents sarcasm, a tool which he uses freely in his gospel. Even though we know how the whole thing is going to end, it is hard not to laugh out loud at Biff's very human experiences and reactions.

Here, I must stop and admit to another gap in my literary knowledge. I was not familiar with Christopher Moore and his absurdist novels, and I probably never would have been had not my daughter, the librarian, suggested this book to me. It is unlikely that I would ever have discovered him on my own, absurdism not being a genre into which I regularly dip in my reading. This is why it is so useful to have someone around who will broaden your literary horizons!

Moore is a very good writer. Although this book is clearly a work of his warped imagination, it is also obvious that he has done a good bit of research about the time and the places that he is writing about. While I'm certainly no expert, the social milieu, the politics of the time, and the landscapes through which the two friends travel all rang true for me.

This would not be an appropriate book for a Christian fundamentalist without a sense of humor, but for anyone who appreciates satire and is not offended by its use to skewer religious absurdities, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal can be a diverting and laugh-out-loud funny read.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Was KO KO'd or did he KO himself?

Keith Olbermann is a prickly personality at the best of times. He is bombastic and outspoken. He has a huge ego. He's never been able to hold onto a job in television for more than a few years, probably because of those attributes. He stuck with MSNBC and MSNBC stuck with him for about as long as he's ever stayed anywhere.

His nightly news and commentary show Countdown has been hugely popular among liberals. When he announced on camera during his show yesterday that that would be the last Countdown, it was a massive shock to his rabid fans and they reacted...rabidly. They blamed MSNBC. They blamed Comcast which is about to take over NBC. They blamed everybody except Keith. I certainly don't have any more information about how the split came about than what I've read in the newspapers and online today, but I suspect the whole thing is a bit more complicated than his most passionate fans may be willing to admit.

Let me state up front that I'm not one of his passionate fans. He lost me as a fan in 2008 during the Democratic presidential primaries when he was rude and dismissive concerning the candidacy of Hillary Clinton whom I supported. Every time her campaign was mentioned, Keith would give one of his exaggerated sighs and wonder aloud when she would be getting out of the race. On the other hand, he absolutely glowed every time he mentioned the name of Barack Obama. (Of course, since Obama was elected, he hasn't done anything right according to Keith!) I stopped watching Countdown back then because I was so offended by his behavior and I only started up again after the election. But since that time, I've had a bit of a jaundiced view of Olbermann and I take his hyperbole with a grain of salt.

It's been obvious for some time that he had lost his enthusiasm for the show. Maybe it had something to do with his father's long illness and finally his death. During that period, Olbermann was absent from his show for much of the time, often for months at a time, but NBC allowed those absences and apparently supported him through a difficult period. But since he came back full time, it has seemed to me that he just never got his groove back and he was often absent, with guest hosts filling in for him. And now, finally, the end has come and he will be able to move on to other things.

Those other things won't include being on TV for a while because, apparently, part of the settlement with NBC precludes television appearances for a unknown period of time. But it won't stop him from doing other types of media such as radio or the Internet or any type of print media. One story that I read speculated that he might be interested in starting his own media enterprise - something similar to Huffington Post. Whatever he decides to do, I'm sure his loyal fans will follow. And I probably will, too.

So what's the verdict? Did MSNBC KO their biggest star? Did Olbermann deliberately KO himself because he wanted out? Or is it that he simply couldn't help himself? Guess we'll just have to wait for the book, but when it comes, I think we would be wise to take it, too, with a grain of salt.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Houston, we have a new challenge

There are a lot of things about Houston that those of us who live in the city or its outskirts love to complain about. It is a huge, sprawling place and sometimes it seems almost impossible to get there from here. The streets always seem to be full of potholes and always under construction. The traffic jams can be monumental. The pollution is awful, although some small progress has been made in that area in recent years. The politics are often reactionary and divorced from reality. In many areas of life, the good ole boy network is still intact and that pretty much excludes the good ole girls. And then, of course, there is the weather which is hot and humid and pretty unbearable at least six months out of the year. Sometimes eight. But there is one thing here that you won't hear me complaining about - the medical care.

The quality of medical care that is available here is state of the art. If you or a loved one is sick or hurt, there are few better places in the world that you could find yourself than the medical facilities of Houston. Thus, I would think that it should be very comforting to the family and friends of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and to all who have followed her story for the last two weeks and hoped for her recovery to know that she landed today in Houston. She will be here at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research to continue her recovery and rehabilitation from the devastating wound she received in Tucson when an angry man with a gun tried to kill her. Not only is she is in the very best of hands, medically, but her presence here will certainly make things at least a little easier for her astronaut husband who lives here and trains for shuttle flights at the Johnson Space Center.

So, now Houston has a new - not problem - challenge, and, truly, failure is not an option. This very high profile patient must have her privacy protected and must be given every assistance to aid her recovery. All the doctors and other personnel who have treated her up until now have raved about her progress, but at some point, that progress is almost sure to slow and her road to recovery could be long and difficult.

Will she be able to make a full recovery? With the courage and determination she has shown so far and with the dedicated team at TIRR at her side, I wouldn't bet against her.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

She's so over!

The first time I ever remember hearing of Sarah Palin was when John McCain selected her as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008, because he thought the Republican ticket needed some sex appeal. For that alone, he deserves to be cast into the dustbin of history, never mind his erratic flip-flops on policy and his abandonment of principles that he had previously claimed to hold dear. But back to Sarah.

I may have heard of her in passing when she was elected governor of Alaska, but frankly, I don't remember it, and she certainly never did anything in her brief stint as governor to bring herself to my, or the nation's, attention. But once she had an opportunity to step onto the national stage, courtesy of McCain's all-consuming desire to be president and the good of the country be damned, she certainly has taken advantage of the spotlight.

She has become a multi-media extravaganza. Unless you are willing to shut down your computer, turn off your television and radio, and stop reading newspapers and magazines, it is almost impossible to avoid her image, her voice, her words. Believe me, I have tried.

With her books, her appearances on Fox "News" Network, her "reality" TV show, her family psycho-dramas, as well as her constant Facebooking and tweeting, she is ever with us. Now, I haven't read her books, or watched her TV show, and I certainly haven't seen her on FNN - in the scroll of TV channels that are available for watching on my television, Fox is hidden. And you can bet that I'm not her Facebook friend, nor do I follow the fractured language of her tweets. Even so, I can't escape her!

I can manage not to read anything relating to her, but the television opinion and comedy shows that I watch cover her every word assiduously. I think that when Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, and Keith Olbermann wake up in the morning, the first thing they do, even before the first cup of coffee, is to rush to see what outrageous thing Sarah has done overnight. They are almost never disappointed. As soon as they've learned of her latest narcissistic rant, they've got material for their shows for that evening, and they can breathe a sigh of relief.

Lately though, I think the Sarah schtick has been wearing a bit thin on America's nerves. Maybe her tone-deaf response to the murders and attempted murders in Tucson, where it was all about Sarah's victimhood, was the last straw, but even before that, people in general were beginning to get distinctly tired of her. Overexposure, negativity, and constant whining about how people just don't appreciate you will do that to a public figure.

So now we hear that a CNN poll shows that 56 percent of Americans view her unfavorably, and among independent voters that rate is even higher - 59 percent. There is a loyal core of fanatical Sarah supporters - in the teens in most polls - and they will not be swayed in their opinion by anything that she says or does, but for the vast majority of the rest of us, she is so over!

It couldn't happen to a more deserving personality.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The bird massacres

Earlier this month, the sudden deaths of thousands of birds, mostly members of the blackbird family, in places as farflung as Arkansas and Sweden, caused consternation among many people. As usual in such instances of mysterious occurrences, the conspiracy theorists and apocalypticists were soon spreading their interpretations of the events, and the tabloids and their equivalents in the broadcast world were lapping it all up and regurgitating it to the waiting and gullible public. Then the news cycle spun again and the tabs and their ilk moved on to tragic human deaths and outrageous human scandals.

But what about all those bird deaths? Were they really unusual? Was there something that linked the worldwide occurrences? And were they related to the other strange occurrences such as mass die-offs of fish and crabs? The New York Times has now shed the light of sober consideration and reflection on the bird deaths and their causes and have come to the conclusion that Conspiracies Don't Kill Birds. People, However, Do.

Their reporter spoke to Melanie Driscoll from the National Audubon Society. She is a biologist and is NAS director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. She put the deaths into perspective.

First of all, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that a minimum of 10 billion birds breed in the United States each year. There may be as many as 20 billion in the country during the fall migratory season. The FWS further estimates that 13.7 million birds die in the country every day.

What are the causes of all these deaths? Well, most of them are natural - the results of wild predators and natural accidents. But it must be admitted that many are the result of humans and human activity.

Human pets are a prime culprit in bird deaths. Domestic and feral cats, for example, kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, according to the best estimates.

Pesticides kill at least 72 million birds each year directly, but it is unknown and probably unknowable how many are killed indirectly. Orphaned chicks are just one example.

Flying into manmade structures accounts for more than a billion bird deaths each year. Strikes against windows alone may cause as many as 976 million deaths. Cars kill another 60 million or more. The FWS estimates the high-tension transmission and power distribution lines kill as many as 174 million birds a year. Raptors are especially susceptible to flying into these lines.

The biggie, though, the most deadly and vicious destroyer of bird life in America is the loss of habitat to development. There's really no way of counting how many birds are lost directly and indirectly each year to the seemingly unstoppable tide of encroachment by humans upon the wild places where birds live.

If all of these birds dropped dead out of the skies onto our sidewalks and backyards today, it would be the leading news story of the day. People would be alarmed and outraged and would demand that something be done to stop the deaths. But the deaths come insidiously, without fanfare and people, by and large, are oblivious. The deaths come, however, largely because of human-induced changes to our habitats, our landscape and our climate. Controlling, ameliorating, and reversing the losses is within our means.

The real story, then, of birds falling from the sky is not nearly as sexy as a government conspiracy or a sign of the "End Times" but it is a sign to us, nevertheless. You know, that canary in the gold mine thing? Maybe it's time we paid attention.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Facts vs. Opinions

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts."
- attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reviews bills that are being considered by Congress and determines how those bills will affect the budget. Since its creation, the CBO has always been accepted as apolitical and disinterested by both ends of the political spectrum. Its expertise about budgetary matters is unquestioned by any fair-minded observer.

They have reviewed the Republican Congress' centerpiece, ballyhooed legislation, the bill they are calling "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," which will be considered this week. They have concluded that repealing the reform law would drive up the deficit by $230 billion over the first decade and much more in later years.

And what was the Republicans' response to this review by the CBO? Did they take another look at their bill and try to come up with commonsense ways that it could be made cost neutral, or perhaps even reduce the budget? Don't be silly! No, John Boehner's response to the budget experts' report was that they were "entitled to their opinion" but that he disagreed. He offered more basis for his disagreement.

Furthermore, the new "deficit hawk" Republican majority in the Congress has loudly touted their new rule that any bill that increases spending must be offset by cuts in other programs. How did they get their "Repealing the Job-Killing...etc." past this new rule? Again, don't be silly! Rules don't stop these people. They can do anything! They simply exempted their bill from the rules. I suppose this means that anytime they have a bill that cannot live up to their rule, they will simply wave their magic gavel and exempt it! They've already said that any bills cutting taxes don't have to pass this rule.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with an unserious "Keystone Kongress" that does not rely on facts, but instead chooses to govern based on its opinions. Those opinions will, this week, lead them to pass a bill which, among other things, will do the following:

1. Allow insurance companies once again to deny children coverage because they have pre-existing medical conditions.

2. Allow insurance companies to once again rescind a policy after a person becomes sick and needs its benefits.

3. It will allow insurance companies to cap the amount that they will pay for medical care over a lifetime.

4. Parents will no longer be able to keep their children on their health insurance policies until the children are 26.

5. Insurance companies will no longer be required to cover preventive care in new policies without cost-sharing.

6. Insurance companies will not be required to spend at least 80 percent of their premium income on medical care and quality improvements, rather than profits or administrative costs.

7. Small businesses will no longer receive federal tax credits to help them provide insurance coverage to their employees.

8. It will also put an end to a reinsurance program that is helping more than 4,700 employers, large and small, provide health coverage to early retirees.

9. Many people will be required to pay more out-of-pocket for their health care, as estimated by the CBO. The "doughnut hole" for people on Medicare Part D will return.

And what are the Republicans offering to replace all of these benefits? Don't be silly! They don't believe that the government should have any part in assisting people to get health care. They would see us return to the early 1900s - each man, woman, and child would be on his or her own. That is their philosophy, their morality, if you will. It is a morality and a philosophy that is based entirely on opinion. And a very self-centered, narcissistic, "I've got mine, who gives a flying fig about you?" opinion it is.

Are these really the kind of people that we want governing our country?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

(Not quite) Silent Sunday: White Ibis

This bird is not for sacrifice!

From Wikipedia:

Sacred Ibis in myth and legend -

Venerated and often mummified by Ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the god Thoth, the Ibis was, according to Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, also invoked against incursions of serpents. It was also said that the flies that brought pestilence died immediately upon propitiatory sacrifices of this bird.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick: A review

This is a great time of year to read Robert Goolrick's book, A Reliable Wife, because in the book, it always seems to be winter, always cold and bleak. It is a story that is very much of its place and landscape and experiencing cold helps one to feel that story.

Goolrick has an almost poetic way with the language and builds suspense beautifully in this, his first, novel. It is a very gothic tale. As I was reading it, for some reason I kept thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, and the poem of his that came to mind was Annabel Lee. Not that the stories that the poem and this novel tell are particularly related, but the cadence of the language and the use of repetition struck me as being similar. The book also reminded me of younger (much younger) days when I used to devour the novels of Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte' sisters. This book would be right at home on a shelf with those ladies' works.

The story begins in 1907 in Wisconsin during a viciously cold winter. Indeed, the action of the novel which runs through 1908 seems to always be in winter. The cold and miserable landscape seems to be a reflection of the characters' personalities.

Ralph Truitt is a rich country businessman in Wisconsin. He has been a widower for 20 years. His life has been filled with family tragedy. For 20 years he has not felt the touch of a woman, and for 20 years, he has burned for such a touch. This book, you see, is not just a gothic novel, it is a thorough-going bodice-ripper! We are privy to all of Ralph's fevered memories of his sexual history and his ongoing fantasies which burn with such smoldering desire that one almost expects the book to burst into flames!

At long last, Ralph decides to take steps to end his loneliness. He advertises in several newspapers for a mail order bride. His ad requests "a reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons." But Ralph obviously is not just what his staid and discreetly worded ad implies.

He receives several responses and from them chooses Catherine Land from St. Louis. He sends his private railroad car to bring her to him. In the dead of winter.

Ah, but Catherine also is not exactly the person that she seems at first. Our two main characters are both playing roles, and one of those roles may lead to murder. I won't say more than that for you may wish to read this book and I don't want to spoil it for you. If you are up for a psychological thriller/bodice-ripper/tale of possible redemption, this might just be the book for you.

It really is a beautifully written novel that maintains the tension throughout. It's also deliciously wicked. Much of its appeal, I think, comes from its strong sense of place - a Wisconsin where winter never seems to end and where those endless winters can drive people mad with loneliness, melancholia, and desire.

Such things happen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

From a lion to a crab

So that's what's been wrong. I've been reading the wrong horoscope!

Did you see the story about how the zodiac has changed over time? It seems that the twelve signs of the zodiac that we are all familiar with - Capricorn through Sagittarius - were established by astrologers some 3,000 years ago when astrology first began. But since that time, the earth has changed its position in relation to the sun and so the aspects which give the signs their names appear at slightly different times of the year. Astronomers now say that in addition to those twelve familiar signs, because of the earth's movements, there is now a thirteenth sign: Ophiuchus. (Don't ask me how you pronounce that.)

The consequence of this changing zodiac is that many of us who thought we were Leo the Lion now find that we are Cancer the Crab! It's been quite a shock to me, I can tell you. You wake up one day thinking you are a lion and by the end of the day you've been reduced to a crab. My birthday, you see, is August 9, and that is just enough to have caused my downgrading in the bestiary of zodiac signs. Here are the new dates for the various signs:

Capricorn: January 20 - February 16
Aquarius: February 16 - March 11
Pisces: March 11 - April 18
Aries: April 18 - May 13
Taurus: May 13 - June 21
Gemini: June 21 - July 20
Cancer: July 20 - August 10
Leo: August 10 - September 16
Virgo: September 16 - October 30
Libra: October 30 - November 23
Scorpio: November 23 - November 29
Ophiuchus: November 29 - December 17
Sagittarius: December 17 - January 20

If these dates are correct, then practically every member of my family turns out to be someone other than who we thought they were. But the first question that comes to mind is, what about a person born on August 10, for example? Are they a lion or a crab? Another question might be why does Scorpio get short-changed with only one week?

Well, these are weighty questions and I think we need more clarification from the astronomers before we agree to a helter-skelter, fruit-basket-turn-over changing of our zodiac signs. Until that clarification is forthcoming, I think I'll just remain a lion.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The most armed country in the world

Earlier this week, I saw a reference to a story about the most armed countries in the world and so I went Googling to find the source. Sure enough, there it was in a Reuters story from three-and-a-half years ago.

It seems that the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies had completed a Small Arms Survey of the world and had found that U.S. citizens owned 270 million of the world's 875 million known firearms. This made the United States far and away the most armed country in the world. That worked out to 90 guns for every 100 people.

That was 2007. During much of the time since then, some Americans have been in a frenzy of gun-buying. I feel sure that if a survey were done now, it would show us even more out in front in the arms race - maybe 95 guns per 100 people would be more like it.

Yemen was the second most heavily armed country on a per capita basis. They had 61 guns per 100 citizens. Slackers!

Falling even farther behind were countries like Finland (56 guns per 100 people), Switzerland (46), Iraq (39 - Iraq, for heaven's sake!), and Serbia (38).

This country also has one of the highest rates of homicides by gun of any country in the world and most of those are committed with handguns. In 2005, for example, there were 10,100 gun-related homicides, 75% of which were committed with handguns.

Since the murders in Tucson last Saturday, Bloomberg News reports that there has been a run on Glocks in Arizona. It seems that everybody and his sister wants to own one of the guns that killed six people including a Federal judge and a nine-year-old child and almost killed a sitting Congresswoman. Allegedly, they are anxious to buy the guns now because they are afraid Congress will ban them!

They should have no fears. This Congress would never have the courage to stand up to the NRA and do something as sensible as banning semi-automatic handguns whose sole purpose is to kill a lot of people quickly.

Where do you suppose the next mass murder by handgun will be?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

No one could have predicted... Except, they did.

Like many in the country I suspect, I continue to be obsessed with the story of the violence that occurred in Tucson on Saturday. In reading further today, I came across a note about this story which I may have heard about when it happened last year but I had frankly forgotten it.

It seems that after the vote on the health care reform bill last year, the Democratic National Committee was concerned about the vitriol and threats that their party members were receiving and the violence that had been perpetrated against some of them and they drafted a "bipartisan" statement rejecting such vitriol and calling for civility in politics. They presented it to their opposite numbers at the Republican National Committee and asked them to join the DNC in issuing the statement. The statement read, in part:

As leaders of our respective national parties, we want to speak to all Americans about the importance of conducting our political debates in a manner and tone that respects our political system and demonstrates to the world the strength of our democracy.

We have a system of government that allows the great issues of our day to be resolved peacefully and civilly and that serves as a beacon of hope to those around the world who yearn for political freedom, political stability, and governing without the threat of violence.

We have a system that allows people to express approval of their government or change the party in power peaceably through the ballot box.

Our Constitution affords Americans the right to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Clearly, we have different positions on the merits of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. However, we together call on elected officials of both parties to set an example of the civility we want to see in our citizenry. We also call on all Americans to respect differences of opinion, to refrain from inappropriate forms of intimidation, to reject violence and vandalism, and to scale back rhetoric that might reasonably be misinterpreted by those prone to such behavior.

This proposal was included with a letter from the Chairman of the DNC assuring the RNC that he was willing to work with them on the final wording. Can you guess what the response from the RNC was? At the time, the website POLITICO reported their response:

Republicans see the statement as an attempt to force them to either reject the statement — allowing Democrats to say the RNC finds the incidents acceptable — or to sign on to something that the DNC would later wield against them.

The proposed statement was faxed and hand-delivered to the RNC at midmorning Friday. POLITICO learned Friday afternoon that the RNC would not sign the DNC statement.

RNC Communications Director Doug Heye told POLITICO that Steele chose not to agree to the statement because “we don’t need to do anything on their schedule or on their timetable.”

"We don't need to do anything on their schedule or on their timetable." I wonder if they would think that the time is right now?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of growing up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas; A review

When I mentioned to my daughter the librarian that I needed something light to read after some of my recent reading, she recommended Firoozeh Dumas' Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Ms. Dumas had attended a Houston Library event within the past year and my daughter just happened to have an autographed copy of the book that she would lend me. She guaranteed that it would make me laugh.

It did make me smile, chuckle, and once or twice even laugh out loud. It is a charming memoir of Ms. Dumas' family's coming to America a few years before the Iranian Revolution and the taking of the American hostages in Tehran. Her father, an engineer, was the family pioneer who had been to this country first as a college student on a Fulbright Scholarship. He loved the country and wanted to come back and eventually he did, bringing his family with him. They found a warm welcome, even though they learned that most Americans did not seem to know what or where Iran was and seemed to not have a clue as to how to pronounce the country's name. Honestly, what is so difficult about ear-rahn? One has to suspect that the mispronunciation is a deliberate insult. But perhaps it isn't. The ignorance of people can be truly astounding.

And that was one of the things about this book which didn't make me smile or chuckle at all. Again and again, the anecdotes that the writer tells reveal Americans' appalling ignorance about the world and their gross provincialism. This does not at all seem to be the aim or point of her stories which are always told with love and humor, but I couldn't help focusing on those aspects nevertheless. Perhaps my point of view was colored by my ongoing and growing concern about the poor quality of the education that so many American children receive. Living in Texas where our Board (or is that Bored?) of Education insists that all textbooks be put to a political litmus test has perhaps made me overly sensitive to this issue.

At any rate, the family came to America and were busily living the American dream when the Ayatollah's revolution came and changed everything. They went overnight from being honored guests to pariahs. Her father lost his job and the family endured some lean times before the hostage crisis ended and things began to return to a semblance of normal. Through it all, the patriarch of the family, who is really the larger-than-life main character in Ms. Dumas' essays, never lost his love of or belief in the United States as a concept and as a country.

This is a family of high achievers, like so many immigrant families, and nothing could keep them down for long. In the end, most of the extended family that had remained in Iran joined the author and her parents and brothers in this country, and judging by these warm and wonderful stories, our country is much the richer for their presence here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The natural consequence of hate speech

Politicians and pundits are tripping over each other to pronounce themselves shocked, shocked over the attempted assassination of an elected Member of Congress and the killing and wounding of several of her constituents at a public event in Tucson yesterday. Why should they be shocked? This is just the natural consequence of the irrational hate speech that is the prevalent means of communication in a certain quarter of our political landscape these days. If you are in any doubt as to which quarter I am referring to, it is the far, far right - those people whose heroes are folks like Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers who finance and manipulate the tea partiers.

When these people constantly urge their followers "don't retreat, reload," or admonish them to take "Second Amendment remedies," or say things like, "If ballots don't work, bullets will!", what exactly did they expect to happen? Oh, no, no, it's just political rhetoric, hyperbole to fire up the base, they will say. But people in the public eye have a responsibility to remember that there are some extremely disturbed people out there, and since our culture so worships the gun that we refuse to put any regulations on its purchase and use, these crazy people have free access to semiautomatic weapons that can kill and maim tens of people in a matter of seconds. Including sitting Congresswomen who were freely elected by the people of their district.

The recent campaign which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords won was, by all accounts, a particularly nasty one. Her Tea Party opponent, Jesse Kelly, urged his followers to "get on target for victory," to "shoot a fully automatic M16," and to "remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." Did her would-be assassin hear those words and heed them?

This is not the first time that violence had been perpetrated against this Congresswoman. After she courageously voted for the health care reform bill last year, a door was shattered at her headquarters. Before the vote, someone had dropped a gun at one of her constituent meetings in Arizona and recently a suspicious package (that is still being investigated) was received at her Tucson office. She constantly receives threats and hate mail, as do many in Congress, especially those on the Democratic side of the aisle.

For those who would say that such hate speech occurs equally on both sides - and some conservative pundits will - I would challenge them to provide examples of liberals advocating violence and urging their supporters to "reload" and "shoot a fully automatic M16," because if "ballots don't work" to remove your opponents from office, "bullets will."

It is time that the perpetrators of this kind of speech were held accountable. Free speech is one thing, but incitement to violence, to riot, and to the violent overthrow of the government is another. Decent people need to draw the line and show these haters that they will no longer be tolerated.

Can we do it? Yes. Will we do it? Doubtful. Probably the moment will pass and we will all go back to business as usual and Rush and Glenn and O'Reilly will continue to be allowed to spew their hatred over the airwaves.

By the way, of all the poignant and tragic circumstances of yesterday's event, perhaps the most ironic was this: A nine-year-old girl was one of the murdered ones. She was born on September 11, 2001. She died January 8, 2011, her short life bookended by terrorist attacks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre': A review

Our Kind of Traitor is typical John le Carre' - intricately plotted, provocative, intelligently written and seemingly springing right off the pages of today's newspapers.

In the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the onset of world economic crisis, we find a young English couple, Perry and Gail, having a vacation in Antigua. There they meet a Russian named Dima, who, it appears, is linked to the Russian mafia and who may be seeking a way to slip away from their clutches. He engages Perry to play a game of tennis, a game that is watched by Dima's extended family and bodyguards. After the game, he begins to test Perry to see whether he might be his ticket "out". He wants to know whether Perry is a spy or has any connections to the vaunted British Secret Service.

No, and no. Perry, the academic, is not a spy and has no connections but he is intrigued by Dima and upon returning to England, he manages to contact the Secret Service and tell them about him. Dima has called himself the world's number one money launderer and, as such, he has much information which he is offering to the British if they will get him and his family out.

Just how a certain section of the British Secret Service plans to do that, using Perry and Gail as a conduit of information and as cover for the escaping Russians, makes up the bulk of le Carre's story. It is a complicated story, the plotline worthy of le Carre's best. The suspense builds as the day of the great escape nears and its prospect of success is endangered by personal complications of some of the characters. Will the Russian and his disparate family ever see the shores of England or will the bad guys win again?

John le Carre' can hardly be said to be brimming over with optimism at the state of the world. The last three of his books that I have read, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and now this one, have all been infused with a deep pessimism about the way of the world and whether it is possible to find justice in such a world.

John le Carre' has, of course, had a long and successful career writing about the men and women who move in the shadowy world of espionage and who try in their own complicated way, playing games within games, to make things come out right. He was the master of the great spy novel during the Cold War years. Now that the world has changed, he still is.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The mendacious Steve King boasts of Republican leaders' mendacity!

As reported by TalkingPointsMemo, Rep. Steve King never spoke truer words...and doesn't even realize it!

1.The quality of being mendacious; a disposition to lie or deceive; habitual lying.
2.A falsehood; a lie.

I'd say that pretty well sums up much of this new Republican Congress, or as they might be more rightly called this Keystone Congress. The old Keystone Cops look absolutely competent in comparison!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Broken promises already

For days now, the Republicans have been trumpeting their intention of reading the Constitution aloud on their first day in charge of the new Congress. They have also been on all the news outlets talking about their "New Rule" that any bill considered by the House must have a statement about its Constitutional authority. They tout this as something entirely different. It isn't. The old rules of the House already required a statement about the section of the Constitution which covered each bill it considered.

But these are the people who revere the Constitution so much that they consider it Holy Writ, handed down by God directly to the Founders, unchanged and unchangeable. (Just ask Antonin Scalia. But that's another rant.) So, of course, they - and we - were really, really excited about the prospect of actually hearing this sacred text read aloud in the People's House. We waited with bated breath.

We're still waiting. They didn't read the Constitution in the House today. They read selected portions of the Constitution. And the new House Republicans were so excited about the event that this is how they looked during the reading:

This is the Republican side of the aisle. Where is everybody? Well, John Boehner, for one, couldn't possibly be bothered with listening to a reading of even part of the Constitution. No, he had to hold a press conference.

So one day in office and already they are breaking their promises. I wonder if the tea partiers will notice? More importantly, I wonder if the news media will notice? I would guess that it is highly unlikely. I tell you, it's enough to make a grown man weep.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not all Minnesotans are above average

For years, I've listened to Garrison Keillor on the radio talking about his hometown in Minnesota where "all the womean are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average" and I guess I had bought the fiction that somehow Minnesotans are special and "above average". We now have living proof that that is not true. We have Michele Bachmann.

The Republican congresswoman from Minnesota is following in the footsteps of her idol, Sarah Palin. (I fully expect that any day now she will be announcing that she is running for president in 2012.) Her grasp of history is certainly on a par with Palin. An article in today makes that perfectly clear.

The article outlines one of Bachmann's latest fictionalized autobiographical accounts. (There have been many.) It tells how she had a Damascus Road style conversion from being a flaming liberal to being an enlightened Republican. Strangely enough, it is all Gore Vidal's fault.

You see, back in the '70s, Vidal wrote a historical novel called Burr. Cynicism is Vidal's stock in trade as a writer and this book was typical of that. He wrote about Aaron Burr and the other founders of the republic in such a way that indicated that they were complex human beings, not always paragons of virtue. They could be calculating and morally corrupt, not unlike many politicians today. Well, impressionable young Michelle was trying to read that book on a train while she was campaigning for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But all of a sudden, in a flash of insight, it came to her that this book was an ungodly founder-hating work that was so violent in its anti-American rhetoric that it redirected her whole political belief system!

She now says about that experience:
"I knew that that was not representative of my country, and at that point I put the book down in my lap… and I said, you know what, I think I must be a Republican. And from that moment on I recognized that it was the Republican Party, and conservatives in particular, who really got America … unashamed about the values that the founders lived and died and shed their blood and their treasure for; because when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the greatest document, in my mind, ever written by political geniuses, they wrote that it was a Creator who gave us our rights."

And so a baby Republican was born and today that baby has grown up into the crazy lady who represents a district in Minnesota where the voters are most assuredly not above average since they elected her.

What Bachmann found so offensive about that book back in 1976 was its irreverent attitude toward the founders. But then, the book was clearly labeled as fiction, as is Bachmann's characterization of those men as saints. They weren't. They could be petty and mocking and nasty towards each other and, if they could do it, why shouldn't a 20th century writer be able to write about them in that way?

Bachmann purports to believe a fictionalized rose-colored glasses account of our history and the founders of the country. It suits her purpose and her narrative of her own life. I wonder, though, what Thomas Jefferson or, for that matter, Aaron Burr, would make of Ms. Bachmann. I somehow doubt that their view of her would be equally rose-colored.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolved: No more self-flagellation

It's that time of year when everyone resolves to start eating right and exercising and to lose ten pounds. Or a hundred, as the case may be. I, on the other hand, have made only one resolution for 2011. It is, quite simply, that I will stop beating up on myself.

You see, I am my own worst critic. And, yes, I can just hear someone out there - maybe several someones - saying, "Not while I am alive!" But, no, I really am. Always have been for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure why that should be true or what made me this way, but I forever criticize and second-guess myself and blame myself for failures. Failures of relationships, failures in my career, personal name it. I've agonized over it, shed tears over it, wished that I could take it all back. But I can't.

My Epiphany came three days early this year. Today I finally realized the past is past. It's over. I can't change what has happened. I can only learn from it and try to do better in the future.

It's not that I'm a bad person. I have never gone around deliberately hurting people or animals or causing havoc in the lives of others. In fact, I'm a pretty good person, a moral person. My intentions are to always do what is right and just and honorable. If I sometimes fall short in the execution of those intentions, it is because I am human.

And so, for 2011, I have decided to quit dwelling on the past and just forgive myself for everything and move on. A new year and a new slate. When, on some future sleepless night, I start to slip back into my old habits of recrimination against myself, I will remind myself, "That was the old me. I've stopped all that. I did the best that I could - the best that I knew how to do at the time and I WILL NOT second-guess myself!"

I think that I am not the only one who needs to make this resolution. How much precious time do we waste in reliving the past and replaying those hurtful scenes in our heads, in judging and finding ourselves wanting? To be self-aware, to regret our mistakes is one thing, but to wallow in them and allow regret to rule our lives is not healthy and not helpful. We wouldn't do that to anyone that we loved. Why do we do it to ourselves?

If you are one of those people, one of my fellow sufferers, I invite you to make this resolution along with me. Make it and mean it! Forgive yourself and move on.

There. I feel ten pounds lighter already.