Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: A review

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All of Anne Tyler's families are different and that is certainly true of the Tull family that we meet in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

We meet the family initially as its irascible matriarch, Pearl Tull, lies dying at age 85. Caught between life and death, she is beset by memories and by regrets. She struggles to tell Ezra, her favorite son, that he should have had an alternate mother, but she is unable to form the words. Her memories take her back to the time, some 30 years before, when her husband, Beck Tull, deserted her, leaving her to raise their three children on her own.

Beck was a traveling salesman and his children were used to him being away from home, so none of them noticed any difference at first. Their mother refused to tell them they had been deserted. She pretended - for years! - that he was just on another business trip. When she finally did get around to telling them, they had, of course, already figured it out and hardly even responded to her big announcement.

The three children could not be more different. Cody, the oldest, is a greedy and spiteful boy who delights in torturing his younger brother. He maintains a likable facade with other people, but with Ezra, he's just downright mean. As an adult, he suffers from obscure guilt and believes that everyone is out to cheat him.

Ezra, on the other hand, is a dreamy, nurturing kind of person. The focus of his life is food - not eating it, but preparing it for others. His greatest joy is in feeding people and watching them enjoy the food he has prepared. It is not surprising then that he should wind up as the owner of the Homesick Restaurant which gives the novel its title. As appealing as Ezra is, he sort of floats through life without making strong connections to others. There is a curious absence of passion in him. The love of his life, Ruth, who he plans to marry in his mid-twenties, is stolen from him by his jealous older brother who marries her himself. Ezra forgives them both.

Jenny, the daughter, was so young that she barely remembered the father who deserted them and yet it had a profound impact on her life for it left her at the mercy of an angry and sometimes violent mother. Jenny built a wall to protect herself. The mortar of her construction was energy and humor. Later in life, she is described as always laughing, always moving. She is never able to stop and take anything seriously for if she did, she might crack. She fears connection with others, even those with whom she should be closest.

Pearl Tull is of the opinion that there is something "off" in each of her children, and in that she is perceptive. But what is the cause of that? Could it possibly be the cold and ferocious parenting they received from her? And yet, Pearl, by her lights, did the best she could, struggling to provide materially for herself and three children. Perhaps there was no energy left over for spiritual or psychological nourishment. And, in fact, each of her children grew up to be a success in the eyes of the world: Cody an efficiency engineer much in demand; Ezra the contented owner of a successful restaurant; Jenny, a pediatrician who is thrice-married and ends up with a house full of kids, mostly those of her third husband, but it is a situation that seems to suit her right down to the ground. So, Pearl couldn't have been such an awful mother, could she? Well, read this wonderful book and decide for yourself.

The dysfunctional Tull family seems so real to me. I see members of my own family here, both the family I grew up in and the family I raised. I'm sorry to say that I could even see myself in Pearl Tull, probably the most unsympathetic character in the book. This is Anne Tyler's genius. From chapter to chapter, she switches voices from one character to another, until at the end, we have seen the entire story through the eyes of every character, even the absent husband and father, Beck Tull. And through the eyes of each of them, their own stories seem...reasonable, plausible. Ah, to be able to write like that!

Friday, April 29, 2011

But...but...but I thought you wanted out!

The governor of our state, who was last heard from threatening to secede from the United States, is suddenly doing what he has made fun of other states for doing: He's asking for federal assistance to handle our drought and wildfires.

Of course, the truth is Texas has been getting federal assistance of one kind or another all along and will continue to get it no matter how much of a hissy-fit the governor and legislature throw. But to hear Rick Perry tell it Texas stands alone with help from no one.

Today, Perry stuck his foot in it even more by complaining about President Obama showing concern about Alabama and the other states so hard hit by this week's tornadoes - states that have lost over 300 lives as well as inestimable property damage. How come he's concerned about all those states and not Texas, Perry wonders? He sounds like a jealous fourth grader.

Really, how petty can you get? Pretty damned petty, not to mention clueless, if your name is Rick Perry.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More wake-up calls from Mother Nature

There was an interesting article on the DailyKos website yesterday about Earth's climate. It was published before the latest and most devastating round of tornadoes that hit the South, killing (at last count) more than 200 people, injuring many more and virtually destroying some small towns. The timing of the publication thus proved ironic.

The article talks about the warnings that have been given repeatedly by climate scientists over the last 30 years or so about what we can expect from global climate change, especially if we continue to refuse to acknowledge our part in it and take steps to reverse some of the damage we have done. The bottom line is that we can expect to see a dramatic increase in extreme weather - storms, droughts, floods, extended heat waves. The planet's normal climate regulators, such as polar ice caps and the troposphere, are being overcome, damaged and even destroyed by Earth's unnatural warming, with disastrous results.

One always has to acknowledge the caveat that it is impossible to link any one weather event to the phenomenon of global warming, but it is difficult for a layperson like myself to view the extreme weather events occurring around the country (and the world) in recent months as anything other than one more wake-up call from Mother Nature, as she tries, like any good mother, to turn us aside from our road to destruction. Will we begin to heed her warnings?

Meanwhile, there is, unfortunately, a political sidebar to the tragedies in the South. The Republican budget recently passed by the Republican House of Representatives and voted for, as far as I know, by every single Republican representative in the South, strips the money from programs meant to address climate change and guts the budgets of federal disaster recovery programs, FEMA, and the National Weather Service. In this, they have shown their usual foresightedness.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's not about the birth certificate

So Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate has been released to the public and is now available for anyone to examine. That means there will be no more questioning of his legitimacy as president, the silly season can end, and we can get on with discussing our serious problems, right? Wrong.

The people who questioned the legitimacy of Obama's presidency and his citizenship will still find reasons to question it. Why? Come close and let me whisper in your ear. BECAUSE IT HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN, STILL IS, AND EVER WILL BE ABOUT HIS RACE.

The people who have questioned his citizenship are racists pure and simple. They cannot stand the thought of a person with dark skin being president. Do you really think if the situation had been a white president with fair skin and blonde hair whose mother was from North Dakota and whose father was an immigrant from England and who was born in, oh, say Alaska in 1962, they would ever for a moment have questioned where he was born? No! It is simply because Barack Obama does not look like them. He is an "Other". And releasing the long-form birth certificate is not going to change that.

I'm not sure if releasing the certificate of live birth was a good idea. But it's done. I do think that now the press should demand that all the other people who are running for the presidency should release their long-form certificates and also their tax returns. I have a feeling there might be something very interesting there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who could have guessed that people actually LIKE Medicare?

So the Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the Paul Ryan budget plan which would destroy Medicare as we know it and then they went on break. They went home to meet their constituents in town hall meetings. Perhaps they had been reading the Washington Post or watching the inside-the-Beltway pundits on the cable news programs and so expected to be greeted as conquering heroes. Those boos and pointed questions from angry voters must have come as quite a shock to their delicate psyches.

Wherever the people who voted for this draconian plan have met the public, they have found that people do not like what they did. They are asking the congresspeople questions like, "Why are you trying to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the poor, the children, while at the same time you are giving additional tax breaks to the richest people in the country?" Apparently, the congresspersons are finding it difficult to answer that question, as well they should.

When these town hall meetings begin to get the publicity that those rancorous meetings in the summer of 2009 did, perhaps we will begin to see some of the Republicans rethinking their position. Or, perhaps not. But if not, then I suspect that the election next year may achieve that.

But, really, who could have ever guessed that Americans actully like their Medicare the way it is and do not want it changed?

Who, indeed. No one with an "R" after their name, I guess.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Treme" - lous thoughts

I didn't watch the first season of "Treme" on HBO last year, but my family did, and they kept nagging and nagging me, telling me how great it was and how much I would love it until, as the second season of the show was looming, I gave in and took to HBO On Demand and watched all ten episodes of the first season in just a few days. All things considered, I think I was smart to view it this way.

I'm not really much of a television junkie and I can't claim to have watched other David Simon series like "The Wire" or "Homicide" so I came to "Treme" as a Simon-virgin, so to speak. Having now watched the first season and the first episode of the second season, I might want to go back and look at some of his earlier work. "The Wire" springs immediately to mind.

For the uninitiated, "Treme" is set in New Orleans. The first season's episodes begin three to four months after Katrina. The city is in ruins. So are the people, but life goes on and they must try to cope. Many thousands of people who were evacuated have not been able to return home and their absence leaves a large tear in the fabric of society.

The series takes a very novelistic approach to story-telling. It is slow-moving and events are seen from the perspectives of many different unrelated characters - unrelated except that they are all New Orleanians and they've all been through hell and are trying to get back. There's "Big Chief" Albert Lambeaux who evacuated but had his daughter drive him back from Houston as soon as possible after the storm. He finds his home in ruins and sets about renovating a deserted neighborhood bar that is less seriously damaged. There's the crazy NPR DJ, Davis, who rode out the storm in New Orleans and who seems incapable of planning more than five minutes into the future. He lives for the moments. There's Toni, the lawyer, who is obsessed with righting wrongs and finding some justice for her clients who are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. There's her husband, Creighton, the Tulane professor of literature. There's the chef, Janette, struggling to keep her restaurant going in an impossible situation. There's the strung-out druggie street musician, Sonny, and his lovely violin-playing girlfriend. (And, what, please tell me, did she ever see in him?) And, of course, there is Antoine, the trombone-player and his several connections - women, children, second husband of his ex-wife and all the players with whom he does gigs. There are many other charcters, as well, but this is just a sampling of some of the main characters through whose eyes we see this city.

All of the characters in the show are seriously depressed, as who wouldn't be in their situation? But it's how they deal with that depression that really makes this series mesmerizing. New Orleans is all about food, music, and fun, not necessarily in that order, and those are the tools that many of the characters use to try to dig out of their living graves. Janette, the chef, concentrates on the food to the exclusion of everything else. Antoine has family responsibilities and can't concentrate totally on the music, but he comes as close as is possible. For Davis, the DJ, life is one long party, the denial of anything serious or morbid. For the more grown-up rounded characters like Toni, the lawyer, they, too, find some relief in food, music, and dreams of carnival.

It's impossible to sum up this series briefly. It is too nuanced, many-layered, and subtle in its stories of ordinary people trying to push that stone up a hill every day only to have it roll back down every night. It just needs to be watched and savored from the beginning.

While it is very, very good, it is not a perfect series and there are two things about it, in particular, that I found off-putting. One is the constant stream of celebrity cameos. Can I just say, "Why?" It seems to me that the stories could stand on their own and would be stronger without this disconcerting parade.

My second quibble is with the character of Creighton, played by the excellent John Goodman. The character just didn't ring true to me. I know he was seriously depressed, more seriously than his family realized, but his depression just seems so...self-centered, egoistic even. His anguish over New Orleans seems to be mostly anguish that his dream of New Orleans has been disrupted. Even to the last, he never seems able to get beyond his iconic and obscene YouTube rants so that he can move on to some productive focusing of his depression on the problems at hand. Perhaps, in this context, it is not so surprising that he would leave his beloved wife and daughter in the lurch to pick up the pieces.

But, then, maybe that is what depression is: The inability to look past oneself, or to see behind the black cloud to the sun shining just on the other side.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King: A review

Just in time for Easter, I've finished Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.

The non-canonical Gospel of Judas, which is the topic of this book, was purportedly found in Egypt in the 1960s or 1970s. Its provenance is somewhat shaky, but the only known copy of the work, in the Coptic language, has been carbon-dated to around 280 of the Common Era, give or take 60 years. It is believed that this is a translation of an earlier Greek work which was in existence at least in 180 C.E. when the influential Christian priest, Irenaeus, spoke out against it and other writings that offered an alternative view of the circumstances and meaning of Jesus' life and death.

Elaine Pagels and Karen King are two respected scholars of Gnosticism, the philosophical tradition from which the Gospel of Judas springs. They explain how and why the author of the work (who, obviously, was not Judas Iscariot but apparently someone sympathetic to him) disagreed with the branch of Christianity that came to be the accepted, canonical version, the life of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

A major disagreement between the two factions had to do with the question of death and the afterlife. The canonical view held with a bodily resurrection of the redeemed. The Judas gospel affirms an immortal spirit. Jesus was not reborn in the flesh and the eternal life that he offers is lived in the spirit alone.

Another major difference is the view of blood sacrifice. Judas has Jesus expressing scorn for animal sacrifice and for the implied human sacrifice of the Eucharist. In this gospel, eternal life is won through adherence to Jesus' teachings rather than through the sacrifice of his life.

Judas is the hero of this gospel and the other eleven disciples are essentially clueless. They don't really understand Jesus' teachings or who he is or the significance of his life. It is only Judas who really understands and his gospel tells how Jesus singles him out, takes him aside and teaches him the mysteries that are beyond the world. In this telling Judas' so-called betrayal of Jesus is simply Judas following orders from Jesus.

I think the main value of the Gospel of Judas as well as the other Gnostic writings that have been found over the past century is that they shed light on the conflicts of early Christianity and how it happened that the religion that we know today emerged. In the beginning of this new religion, there were many different views of the events of Jesus' life and of its meaning and different factions fought hard for their views over several centuries before an orthodoxy triumphed and books of the Christian Bible were set in stone - so to speak.

All that being said, I'm bound to point out that the Jesus portrayed in this gospel is not a very attractive character. He is sarcastic and laughs derisively at his disciples' stupidity. It makes for an interesting alternative hypothesis of what Jesus the man may have been like, but, on the whole, I have to admit I prefer Luke's compassionate Jesus.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Maybe God is mad at Texas

Remember Hurricane Katrina? Remember the response of certain evangelical Christians - most notably Pat Robertson - to that terrible storm? Robertson and his ilk gloated that Katrina was God's wrath made visible. God hated New Orleans and America because of our so-called soft-pedaling of homosexuality, among other sins, and so hundreds of innocent people - children, women, and men - had to suffer horrible deaths and a great city had to be virtually destroyed to appease an angry God.

As far as I am aware, the same characters who denounced New Orleans as it was drowning have had little to say about the state of Texas that is now frying. It seems to me, though, that if God can send a flood to drown New Orleans, He could probably take the water away from Texas and let it parch in the hot, drying sun and the relentless wind that has been blowing here for weeks now.

Virtually all of the state is now officially in drought. Some of us are already in what is termed an "exceptional drought." In my yard, the last wet month we've had was July of last year. Since then rains have been very few and far between. For the month of April, those fabled showers have been totally absent.

What has been the response of our elected officials to this crisis? The governor says we should pray for rain. Our congressional delegration says that by no means should we do anything to ameliorate human-caused climate change which may be contributing to our drought misery, because, you know, global warming is just a hoax.

But, then, maybe Robertson was actually on to something and maybe God is just mad at Texas. After all, there is this little snippet from the King James Bible, Matthew 25:

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal

Texas is one of the meanest and most niggardly of all the states when it comes to caring for the "least of these," the poorest and most needy of its citizens. I would think it's enough to make even the most patient and long-suffering God mad and consider sending a wake-up call. What better portent of things to come than drought and heat in Texas?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The ten least peaceful states

The Institute for Economics and Peace recently released a report of its rankings of the 50 states according to their peacefulness. Their rankings were based on five factors:
1. Number of homicides per 100,000 people.
2. Number of violent crimes per 100,000 people.
3. Number of people in jail per 100,000 people.
4. Number of police officers per 100,000 people.
5. General availability of small arms.

Using these criteria, these are the top ten least peaceful (or the top ten most violent) states:

1. Louisiana
2. Tennessee
3. Nevada
4. Florida
5. Alabama
6. Texas
7. Arkansas
8. Oklahoma
9. South Carolina
10. Maryland

The thing that I notice first about this list is that most of them are in the South and that most of them are among the poorest states in the country. I'm not sure how Nevada managed to insert itself in the list, but it does have a very high unemployment rate and perhaps suffers from crime related to its gambling industry. But I would definitely surmise that poverty and lack of economic opportunities play a very large role here.

I suspect that the ready availability of guns and the societal worship of the gun also plays a large role. All of these states, I believe, do fit that profile. As if to emphasize the point, here in Houston today a 6-year-old kindergartner took a loaded gun to school with him. The gun fell out of his pocket and discharged, injuring three small children.

This is the kind of society that we live in, where loaded guns are readily available to kindergartners, and they have not been taught by parents to leave guns alone. Indeed, there are actually people in the state of Texas who would seek to have schoolchildren armed. (I don't know if they would extend that to kindergartners, but frankly nothing would surprise me when it comes to guns and Texans.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Institute rated these ten states as the most peaceful:

1. Maine
2. New Hampshire
3. Vermont
4. Minnesota
5. North Dakota
6. Utah
7. Massachusetts
8. Rhode Island
9. Iowa
10. Washington

So, if you are looking for a peaceful place, you should head up East. You have several states to choose from there. You had best get as far away from the South and its armed citizenry as you can.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Low taxes = Failing infrastructure

Among the industrialized countries of the world, there are at least twenty-six with higher tax rates than the United States. Most of them also have a more equitable standard of living ranging from their richest to their poorest citizens, as well as a stronger safety net to catch citizens who, for whatever reason, fall upon hard times. And most of them have infrastructures in good repair, some of them absolutely state of the art when it comes to mass transit and moving people safely from one place to another. The state of the infrastructure in this country is an embarrassment and is getting worse day by day, and where is the money to reverse that trend?

Looking at individual tax rates in this country, on this 2011 Tax Day, the effective tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers is 17%. 17%!!! And there are those who say that they should get further tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the government is drowning in red ink. The situation could be helped immensely with even a slight increase in taxes of the wealthiest and most able to pay, but Republicans refuse to consider any rise in taxes. They profess to believe that we can cure the deficit by cutting, cutting, cutting. Cutting to the bone, if necessary. Who needs infrastructure anyway?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith : A review

Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency are back once more with more gentle tales of the human heart and human perfidy.

The case which is claiming Precious' attention this time around is one of cattle mutilation and killing. Cattle are currency in Botswana. They are also close to the soul of the people of Botswana. They are revered and when two of them are needlessly and cruelly killed, Precious must find out what happened and make sure that no more cows are made to suffer thus.

Her client, the cattle owner, is a furtive and secretive man who thinks of himself as a well-respected member of society, but Precious soon learns that he may be overestimating the regard of his neighbors. As her investigation continues, he becomes a suspect himself.

Meanwhile, Charlie, the mechanic's apprentice and ladies' man, is in trouble again. This time it seems that he may have impregnated one of his girlfriends. When he is confronted by a hostile Grace Makutsi about his responsibility to the young woman and her twins, he runs away. Precious, though, has a soft spot for Charlie and sets out to help solve the pickle of a problem in which he finds himself.

Grace Makutsi has concerns of her own, as well. She is planning a wedding. Her own. Yes, she and her fiance Phuti have finally set the date and it is fast approaching. Will she be able to organize everything in time, even with her famous lists to guide her?

Precious Ramotswe travels the countryside pursuing her investigations in her new, modern blue van, but she is haunted by the memory of her beloved little white van. And then she sees it on the road! But the van is dead, isn't it? Is this really her old van or only its ghost?

The mysteries that Precious seeks to solve are of the everyday kind, those that ordinary people get themselves into and need the help of a wise and humane woman to help them find their way again. There's no murder and mayhem here, and we can be assured that in the end, even if Precious hasn't completely solved the mystery as in this case, she will have solved the problem and set things right once again.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has been a pleasure to read and this latest entry, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, upholds the standard that we have come to expect. Precious and her family and friends are wonderful characters and it is always a delight to visit with them. Having finished with this visit, now I shall be looking forward to the next one.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Raise our taxes, please!"

Happy Tax Day!

Only it actually isn't Tax Day this year. Because of a holiday celebrated in the District of Columbia, all taxpayers get an automatic extension on the due date of their taxes until Monday, April 18. In my household, though, we don't need no stinking extension! We paid our taxes on the traditional Tax Day, today. Didn't even wait until 11:59 P.M. as we have in some years.

I do consider it a patriotic duty to pay the taxes that I owe, which is why I so deeply resent those who use every excuse and every loophole to wriggle out of fulfilling that duty. My observation is that, generally speaking, such people are a lot more wealthy and a lot more able to pay their fair share of taxes than my household, which sharpens my resentment even more.

Because of this, I was very happy and a little surprised this week to read about the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. This is a group of some of the wealthiest Americans who came together last year during the fight over the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. They jumped into the fray on the side of those who said the tax cuts should be allowed to expire. As the budget battles continue, they are redoubling their efforts, with letters to President Obama, Sen. Harry Reid, and Rep. John Boehner which read, in part:

"For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you increase taxes on incomes over $1,000,000. We make this request as loyal citizens who now or in the past earned incomes of $1,000,000 per year or more."

These people have what used to be admired as a social conscience. They see our failing infrastructure, the inadequate educational system, the poorly funded social services and they know that this is not the kind of society that they want for their children and grandchildren. Further, they know that the only way to fix these problems is with money and that the way that the government gets the money to deal with such issues is through taxes. And so they say, "Raise our taxes, please!"

There are plenty of selfish people in our society and they are well-represented in Congress. They want all the money they can get, even if it means "drowning government in a bathtub" and the rest of the population be damned. It is especially refreshing, then, to find that they do not speak for all millionaires. Even a millionaire can have an altruistic love for his/her country and a willingness to sacrifice for it. That is the essence of true patriotism.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The President's Speech

Full disclosure: I didn't hear President Obama's speech about the deficit and budget policy yesterday. I just heard about it and read about it later. But it seems to have been a pretty good speech, none of the stuttering or embarrassingly weak statements we have come to expect from him.

He did defend Democratic principles in a fairly robust way and that was a pleasant surprise. It certainly was not what I had expected, nor I think what many had expected from this president who never saw a compromise he didn't like, especially if it is one that causes him to backtrack on everything he's ever SAID that he believes in.

Of course, we knew he could give a good speech. The test will be whether he can live up to it. Can he stand firm in defense of those principles he expounded on so eloquently? You'll forgive me if I don't wager any money on it.

Our experience has been that as soon as the Republicans start attacking, he will start backpedaling, trying to appease them, and the final product of any "negotiations" will wind up squarely in territory defended by Republicans. I hope that this time will be different, but that is all I've got left - hope. The history of the last two years gives me no basis or assurance for it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Who needs an "environment" anyway?

We're getting the details of the budget measure that was agreed to last weekend and it is not a pretty sight. Forget, for a second, all the goodies for the rich and the pointy-stick-in-the eye for everyone else that are contained in that foggy piece of legislation. For now, let's just concentrate for a moment on some of the things that it does to the environment around us and to the sciences related to that environment.

To quote the Times story about the agreement, "There are myriad restrictions and budget cuts for environmental initiatives in the proposed budget." Here are just a few:

- $49 million would be cut from programs related to climate change.
- $438 million would be cut from programs supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy.
- $638 million would be cut from environmental cleanup efforts by the Defense Department.
- $997 million would be cut from funds through which the Environmental Protection Agency provides money for local water treatment and pollution cleanup programs.

In another awesome bit of overreach, this belligerently know-nothing Congress which seems totally inimical to anything based on science or proven facts, has decided to remove an animal from the Endangered Species List. This is a first and it establishes a dangerous precedent for political influence to override scientific findings regarding a species. In a sop to the ranchers and hunters of Montana and Idaho, a rider to the budget agreement would take wolves in those states off the endangered list.

The damage that this government presently in power has done and is continuing to do to the environment is inestimable. But, who cares? Wolves don't vote, and, anyway, only sissies need an "environment"!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The absentee president

In his regular op-ed column in The Times today, Paul Krugman had a harsh assessment of the performance of President Obama. I'm sorry to say that I think the president richly deserves every stinging word.

In 2008, American voters were crying out for new leadership. They wanted a moral leader who would get the country out of the morass it had been in for the previous eight years. They wanted a strong president who would stand up for the right against the forces of evil that have too often had their way with our government in recent years. They wanted a stark change in direction for a country that was headed to hell in a handbasket on the fast track. They thought they were electing an audacious leader who would not hesitate to make moral judgments and would once again put the country back on the right side of history.

Instead, they got a wet noodle of a president who cannot seem to stand firm on anything, not even on the most sacred values of the Democratic Party - values that have been defended over the years with the blood, sweat, and tears of martyrs. Honestly, FDR, Harry Truman, and LBJ must be spinning in their graves! This man will compromise away the bases of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The man who trumpeted the passage of health care reform only last year will wind up with millions fewer covered by health insurance unless somebody stops him.

As Krugman wrote:

What have they done with President Obama? What happened to the inspirational figure his supporters thought they elected? Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn't seem to stand for anything in particular?

That really says it all in a nutshell. He doesn't STAND for anything. His positions are constantly moving. And they are always moving toward the Republican position. No matter what outrageous demand the Republicans make - even destroying Medicare as we know it and replacing it with a voucher system - President Obama will pretend it is a serious and reasonable proposal, one deserving consideration. I believe he sees himself and wants to be known as the "Great Conciliator," the last reasonable man in Washington who is willing to consider anything.

Sir, some things are so morally out of bounds that they do not deserve consideration. Reducing the deficit and balancing the budget by cutting programs that people depend upon while giving ever bigger tax cuts to the richest of us - individuals and corporations - is one such thing. Keeping Guantanamo open because it would be difficult to close it is another such thing. Failing to fight for an energy policy that will address global warming and its threat to human civilization is yet another. The list is long. The disappointments are many.

In one regard, this president may be the luckiest man ever to hold that office. (There have been no women, of course.) His potential rivals from the Republican Party for the presidential election next year are all so lame and completely incompetent that he will probably win re-election while hardly breaking a sweat. That doesn't mean he will have deserved it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

"It's not a budget. It's a cause."

"It's not a budget. It's a cause," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisconsin) when he introduced his so-called budget a few days ago. In that statement at least he was honest. Nothing else about his "budget" appears to be.

He claims that it will reduce the federal deficit over a 10-year period. In fact, every economist who has taken a serious look at the plan, including the economists at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, have said that is a lie. (They may have said it more politely than that, but their meaning is clear.)

This budget cum cause has as its clear aim the transfer of money from the poor and middle-class population to the wealthiest members of the population, both individuals and corporations. I clearly am no economist, but even I can understand that when you are setting out to destroy the social safety net, programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that so many poor and middle-class people depend upon, and you intend to transfer the "savings" achieved from that destruction to the very, very, very, very rich by lowering their taxes yet again, then you are talking about income transfer on a very large scale.

Just to take one instance, the most egregious one, destroying Medicare as we know it and forcing the elderly into a voucher program, which Ryan is hot to do, would cause the individual's out-of-pocket medical expenses to double or triple. One estimate that I have seen is that the individual would be paying out 70% - 70%!!! - of his or her income for private medical insurance and expenses.

Now, Medicare and Social Security are two of the most successful programs ever run by a government in the history of the world. They are well-run, efficient, and cost-effective, and they make the difference between poverty and middle-class status for literally millions of Americans. These are not programs that we need to be tampering with or replacing with vouchers. No doubt improvements can be made, as is true of any human-run enterprise. But tossing everything out and starting over again - with something that the CBO and all reputable economists say will be more expensive and less efficient - is not the way to go.

Mr. Ryan's "cause" is clear enough. It is to make those who are not his political allies and those who are the most vulnerable among us poorer so that he can make his political supporters richer. He should be ashamed of himself.

And, by the way, all of those Washington pundits and mainstream media types who wet themselves with excitement whenever he opens his mouth and who report his "budget" uncritically as if it were a serious effort - they should be ashamed, too.

(For a more in-depth discussion of this, read Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman's Friday column in The Times and his various recent blog posts on the subject.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Exit Music by Ian Rankin: A review

Anyone who follows my book reviews is probably already aware that I am a big fan of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series. Mysteries are my favorite genre and the Rebus series is really one of the best, in my opinion. Rankin can always be counted on to give us believable characters and situations and always there is in the background the wonderfully funky and historic city of Edinburgh, a smallish town in a smallish country where everybody and everything seems intertwined. And always in the middle of it all is Rebus, a cop who hates being hamstrung by rules, but a cop, who at his core is a very moral man. That's what drives him crazy.

What keeps him sane is the music. Rock music. It is the background noise of his life. It tells the story of his alienation, his lost loves, his broken marriage, the daughter who has drifted away, the dead friends, the ghosts of cases without a "result." Those ghosts haunt him at night as he sits in his favorite chair in his living room, a tumbler of malt in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and music from his vast collection of CDs streaming from his audio system.

But now the music that John Rebus is hearing is Exit Music. He is one week away from retirement from his long inglorious career with Lothian and Borders Police. He's trying to interest his partner DS Siobhan Clarke in his collection of "no results" so that she will carry on with them when he is gone. He's also shadowing his great nemesis "Big Ger" Cafferty in hope of finally finding something that will put him away for good. He had been able to send Cafferty to prison a couple of times in his career, but never for long enough. Now he's out and, to all appearances, a legitimate businessman. Rebus doesn't believe it.

Then, right in the middle of his last week and his wrapping up of loose ends, a dissident Russian poet who is in Edinburgh gets himself murdered. At first it seems like a simple mugging, but as Rebus and Clarke dig deeper, things get more complicated. Things get even more complicated with a second murder of a man who had been recording the poet's appearances at book stores and other venues. Are the two murders related?

Finally, just after he has had a late night meeting with John Rebus, "Big Ger" Cafferty is brutally attacked and left for dead. Initial evidence points to Rebus as the attacker. Will he be able to finish out his last week with CID without being arrested for assault with grievous bodily harm, or even murder?

Rebus is now nearing 60, but is just as irascible as ever. He can't even get through his last week on the job without being suspended. Of course, when did a minor impediment like a suspension ever stop John Rebus? He goes on with his investigation as if nothing had happened.

This is the 17th and final entry in the Rebus series. I guess we knew it had to end sometime, and it's probably best that Rankin puts his detective out to pasture before he begins to repeat himself. He's probably heartily fed up with the old boy after all these years and ready to move on to other things.

Still, I will miss him and I shouldn't be surprised to find myself wondering how Rebus is coping with retirement. Somehow I suspect it would not be a pretty thing to watch.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Extinction is forever

Mass extinctions are nothing new in the history of this planet. Scientists have identified at least five events in the history of Earth in which an estimated 75 percent of all species then on the planet disappeared in a few million years or less. Many scientists believe that we are now in the midst of a sixth such event and that this one is largely being caused by human beings.

The impetus for this suspected mass extinction is human-caused climate change. Scientists suspect that their study which identified this phenomenon may actually be underestimating the impact and just how many species might disappear.

Although it is virtually impossible to link any one species' fate to global warming, there is no doubt that animals' ranges are changing in response to the changing climate. I saw an example of that just today on a road trip here in Southeast Texas. I saw a bunch of Black and Turkey Vultures at a carcass next to the road and when the birds flew up, I noticed that one of them was not a vulture but a Crested Caracara. At one time, this was a Mexican bird, but in recent years they have colonized South Texas and every year they push farther and farther north.

The same thing has happened within the last ten years with White-winged Doves. At one time, they were never seen in this area. Now they are all over the place, especially at my bird feeders.

Birds are very adaptable creatures and they will readily explore new territories if the climate suits them and if they can find the food they need. Other less mobile creatures have more of a disadvantage in adapting to these changing conditions. Moreover, humans place barriers, things like cities and farms and highways, in their way that may make it impossible for them to move to new territories. And in some instances, being unable to move may mean that they are unable to survive.

The thing is, animals - and plants - are already stressed today. A changing climate may just be one stressor too many.

We could, of course, take steps to ameliorate or reverse the situation, but that would mean having to change some of our habits. No need for that because, as Republicans constantly assure us, global climate change is all a hoax anyway. Nothing to see here. Move along. Never mind that mass extinction thing - not your fault.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Blood on his hands

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Jones, the Florida man who styles himself as a preacher, presided over a mock-trial at the church where he is the pastor. On trial was not a person or a philosophy but a book, the holy book of the religion of Islam, the Quran.

I don't have any details of this so-called trial so I'm not sure who was present to speak in behalf of the "defendant". Since the whole thing was not only a mock-trial but a mockery, I don't imagine anyone defended the Quran, and when the trial was over, Jones pronounced the book guilty and set fire to it.

In these days of the Internet and instant access to news from every corner of the world, even in the most out-of-the-way places, it didn't take long for this bit of theater to become known throughout the Islamic world. The reaction was only too predictable.

In the tinderbox that is Afghanistan where our troops are engaged in trying to push back the Taliban and give the country a chance at peace and stability, mass protests broke out immediately. Taliban operatives took advantage of Jones' stupid actions to stir up people and incite violence against foreigners. So far, more than 20 people have been killed, including several United Nations officials, non-combatants who were simply there doing their jobs, trying to help the Afghani people.

So our troops and our diplomats in that country and in other Islamic countries have been put in further danger and at further disadvantage by this idiot from Florida who just wanted to make a big splash for himself and get his name in the paper. He's made a splash all right - a splash of blood. He now has the blood of more than 20 innocent people on his hands. He is complicit in mass murder. He must be so proud.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah, is somewhat known in Texas where I live, but I doubt that it is much known in the rest of the country. It should be. One would hope that S.C. Gwynne's powerful book, Empire of the Summer Moon, which came out last year, and was one of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of the Year, has made it more widely known.

Cynthia Ann Parker was a nine-year-old Anglo girl living on the frontier of Texas near present-day Dallas in May of 1836 when the Comanches swept down from the plains onto her family's fortified compound and overwhelmed the family. Several members of the family were brutally killed in the attack and two women and three children were captured.

The reality of such raids at the time was that men and infants generally were killed outright. Women and children were taken captive when possible. The women would be gang-raped and otherwise brutalized. They might become slaves to a Comanche family or they might be tortured to death. Torture-killing in the most gruesome manner possible was the order of the day when the Comanches were dealing with their enemies - Americans, Mexicans, or other Native Americans.

Children captives might be brutalized at first also, but then they were often adopted into the tribe. The Comanches were a hard-living lot, whose lives were mostly lived on horseback. This was not conducive to a high fertility rate and they always needed more bodies. Moreover, women were the ones who did the actual day-to-day work that kept the household fed, clothed, and sheltered. The men were hunters and warriors. They killed the buffalo, but then they washed their hands of it. Turning the buffalo, or other animals, into useful products was woman's work. Thus, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was probably seen as a valuable commodity. She was adopted by the tribe and in the ensuing years became, in every way that mattered, a Comanche.

Cynthia Ann never talked about her life as a Comanche, at least not to anyone who bothered to pass the information along, but other children captives who were later returned to their families did, and S.C. Gwynne details some of their stories in the book, to give us a glimpse of what might have happened to Cynthia.

What we do know is that she grew up and she married a warrior of high status and she had three children. The oldest was Quanah. Then came a son that she named Peanuts apparently because she fondly remembered eating the nuts as a child. Finally, she had a daughter who was named Prairie Flower. That was where things stood when Quanah was 12 years old and Prairie Flower was still a toddler at her mother's breast. Then Cynthia's world was shattered once again.

White troops raided the encampment where the family and the rest of the band were. Quanah's father, Cynthia's husband, was killed in the fight. Cynthia grabbed Prairie Flower and tried to escape, but she was caught by the troops and revealed to be a white woman. They "rescued" her and the little girl. They took Cynthia to see the body of her husband and so she knew that he was dead and her grief knew no bounds.

But where were Quanah and Peanuts? For all she knew, they may have been lying dead somewhere, too. The alternative was hardly better - two young, inexperienced boys lost on the Llano Estacado. They wouldn't stand a chance. Little did their mother know...

Quanah and Peanuts did survive. They tracked their way to a band of Comanches and reported what had happened to their family and the others. Quanah knew that his father had been killed and that his mother and sister had been taken and from that moment on, he burned with a desire for revenge.

The years after that were hard. Quanah went from being the son of a high-status family to being an orphan, a person of no status. Still, he managed to make his way in the world and slowly began to earn status of his own. Meanwhile, his "rescued" mother never gave up trying to escape and make her way back to the high plains that were her home to look for her children.

Quanah grew to manhood and took his vengeance on the white settlers, raiding them mercilessly, but it was the mid-nineteenth century now and things were changing in ways that would ultimately affect and finally destroy the empire of the Comanche. And it was an empire. It was a nation every bit as much as the United States or Mexico and it controlled a vast area of the middle of the continent. Outsiders entered that area at their peril.

By the 1860s, of course, the United States itself was torn apart and fought a bloody war with itself to determine if it would survive as a nation and what kind of nation it would be. When that war was finally settled, Americans turned west once more and soldiers hardened by the Civil War were sent there to rout the Indians and make the place safe for white settlers.

One by one, the plains tribes were subdued and brought to reservations. Finally, Quanah, though undefeated on the field of battle with the soldiers, could see that the tide of history was against him and his people and he led them to Fort Sill and became a "reservation Indian."

And then the second act of Quanah's life began. He remade himself from a feared war chief into a politician and advocate for his people. He studied the white people and learned their ways and learned to use those ways to provide for his people. He became a rich and influential man who hobnobbed with the elite of his day and became a friend to Teddy Roosevelt. (Yes, that Teddy Roosevelt!)

Quanah was his mother's son and he never forgot her. Soon after coming to the reservation, he had learned that she and his sister were both dead. In time, he began a search for her gravesite. He traveled to Texas and met some of his white relatives and found where she was buried. He had her remains moved to Oklahoma where she was reinterred on December 10, 1910. At her graveside, Quanah (who always insisted on being called Quanah Parker) spoke these words in broken English: "Forty years ago my mother died. She captured by Comanches, nine years old. Love Indian and wild life so well, no want to go back to white folks. All same people anyway, God say. I love my mother."

Quanah Parker lived three more months and then he joined his beloved mother, laid to rest at her side.

I cannot begin to give, in this brief review, the wealth of detail that Gwynne has included in this meticulously researched book. It is a tale not just of Cynthia and Quanah but of the continent as it was in the nineteenth century, a geopolitical history of the times. If you care about history or even if you just like a rousing good story, you will like this book. Read it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The myth of American exceptionalism

You often hear American politicians extoll our country as being the greatest on earth. We have the greatest political system, the greatest educational system, the greatest health care system. I'm here to tell you it is all a crock of well-ripened horse manure.

We have a political system that is bought and sold to the highest bidder. There is no "one person, one vote" anymore. Corporations have thousands, millions of votes because they buy them with millions of dollars. The ordinary, individual citizen stands little chance of having his/her voice heard. One way that they have been able to exert some power in the past is by banding together. There is strength in numbers, but very soon, if the Republicans have their way, that ability will be taken away as well. As for the Supreme Court, the final arbiter in our system of government, it has become so thoroughly politicized that the final votes can be counted virtually before arguments are heard on any issue - 5-4 in favor of whatever the current Republican orthodoxy is.

Our educational system has become a joke. Politicians continue to try to destroy it by failing to fund it and by reducing at every opportunity any assistance that poor students can get for higher education. Boards of Education across the country, led by Texas, try to impose biased histories and non-scientific "sciences" like creationism on students. They try to deny earth sciences teachers the right to teach anything that might acknowledge that the earth is actually warming up and that this might present a serious problem for human beings. Is it any wonder that our students lag so far behind students from other industrialized countries, particularly in the sciences and in math? In our educational system 2+2 does not equal 4 if our Boards of Education say it should equal 5.

The health care system? Remember the debate two years ago when conservatives were loudly proclaiming that we had the best health care system in the world and that people come from all over the world to take advantage of it? Balderdash! Instead, one of the hot new types of tourism engaged in by Americans is medical tourism in which they travel to some other country that has universal health care to have a medical procedure done because they can't afford to have it done here. When you have millions of people who cannot afford even basic medical care, you do not have the "best health care system in the world." When your infant mortality rate and your overall life expectancy cannot match other industrialized countries, you do not have the "best health care system in the world." When you have one of your major political parties throwing every roadblock they can think of in the way of poor people getting low cost family planning and of all women being able to control what happens to their own bodies, you do not have the "best health care system in the world."

When it comes to exceptionalism, I'm afraid the only things that Americans exceed at are provincialism, xenophobia, and blind boastfulness. At these, it is true - we have no equals.