Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The torturer-in-chief

Dick Cheney continues to live up to his first name.  On the rounds this week hawking his new book, the name of which I refuse to give here, Cheney insists that he has "no regrets" over his enthusiastic advocacy of torture.  Never mind that it is illegal under international and U.S. law.  Cheney obeys a higher law - that of his own selfish chicken-hawk interest.

He maintains that torturing helpless prisoners is "safe, legal, and effective" and that he would "strongly support" water-boarding if actionable information could be wrung out of a prisoner.  (And just how would you know in advance that such information could be elicited, Dick?)  How are any of his actions and stated views different from the Nazi war criminals who were tried and executed for similar crimes after World War II?

Torture is illegal - full stop.  There is no "debate" to be had about it.  You might as well open up for debate whether rape, murder, or child abuse are "safe, legal, and effective."  Perhaps Cheney keeps pressing his point so tiresomely because he knows that he is legally culpable.  If this country and the world actually chose to ENFORCE the laws against torture, Dick Cheney, and many of his cohorts including his boss, would be in prison for the rest of their natural (or, in Cheney's case, unnatural)  lives.  Perhaps there are some vacant cells in Guantanamo that could be used to house them.

If possible, even more chilling than the damage done to individual prisoners is the damage done by the Cheney-Bush cabal to the rule of law in America.  So long as we allow war criminals like these to go free and unpunished, for just that long, we have totally repudiated the rule of law.  For if we do not have the courage to enforce our laws, we are truly at the mercy of monsters like Cheney, and old John Adams, who once said that the United States was intended to be a government of laws and not of men, must be weeping in his grave.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What do Americans want?

As the so-called Super Congress gets to work on a budgeting agreement, one has to wonder if they will pay any attention at all to the opinions of the vast majority of Americans.  The plain, old, every-day Congress didn't, and since these guys are all members of that Congress, even if they are now called "Super", the prospects don't seem very positive.  Still, I suppose we can hope.

There is no excuse for them to wonder what Americans think about this issue.  All the poll-takers have been busily asking the questions for almost a year:  How should the debt problem be solved?  By raising taxes?  By cutting spending?  By a combination of the two?  By an astonishing majority, Americans in every single poll even the one by right-winger Rasmussen, prefer that taxes be raised or that there be a combination of raised taxes and spending cuts.  Here's a chart that outlines the findings.

Click on chart to see a larger image.

You can see that the average findings of all the polls show a preference by 65% to 30% to a solution that raises taxes or has a combination of taxes and spending cuts.

Do you think the Super Congress will bear this in mind during their deliberations?  It does seem unlikely.  They only listen to pundits from inside the Beltway these days.  If you are outside that narrow sphere of influence, you might as well be a resident of Outer Mongolia for all they care.  And the Beltway pundits speak with one voice, a voice with a definite tea party accent:  "Taxes bad!  Spending cuts - especially to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - good!"  I am not at all optimistic about what their final product will be.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Open Season (Joe Pickett #1) by C.J. Box - A review

I was introduced to the writing of C.J. Box through my local library's Mystery Book Club. Open Season, the first in Box's Joe Pickett series, was the club's selection for reading in June. Although I didn't get a chance to read it in time for the meeting, the discussion of it made me curious and I put it on my to-be-read list. I'm glad I finally got around to it this week.

Box has created an enormously appealing character in Joe Pickett. A Wyoming game warden, Joe is a devoted family man with two young daughters and a pregnant wife when we first meet him. He and his family are able to barely scrape by financially on the meager salary of a state employee (Been there, done that!), but Joe is a happy man, because he's living his dream. Being a game warden was what he always wanted to be.

Not only Joe but his whole family are lovingly drawn by Box. We get to know them well and to like them and want them not just to endure but to triumph. Seven-year-old Sheridan, particularly, who has an important role to play in this story, is a child after my own heart. I know her well because I could easily see seven-year-old Dorothy in her.

The story begins with Joe's sidearm being taken from him by local wilderness outfitter/game poacher Ote Keeley when he confronts Keeley about his poaching, catching him red-handed, literally hands dripping blood, with the carcasses of his out-of-season kills. Keeley eventually gives the gun back and Joe writes him a ticket for poaching. Soon the story of how the bumbling game warden was disarmed is making the rounds and Joe becomes something of a laughingstock. But, he stoically continues doing his job every day to the best of his ability and continues to write tickets for scofflaws, even when it might be more convenient or popular for him to look the other way.

Then comes the night sometime later when a mortally wounded Ote Keeley rushes into the yard of the Pickett family with a plastic tub in his hands. His face is seen at her bedroom window by Sheridan but she convinces herself that it was only a dream and doesn't wake her parents. The next morning, Ote Keeley's dead body is found next to the Picketts' woodpile with an open plastic tub containing some kind of animal scat by his side. Why would Keeley use his dying breath to drag himself to the Pickett home? What was he carrying in that plastic container? Joe is intrigued, of course, and he gathers some of the scat into envelopes to send for analysis, before he calls in the local sheriff.

As the investigation proceeds, Joe begins to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Wyoming. He and another game warden and a local deputy are sent into the wilds to find Ote's two partners, who, it is suspected may be responsible for shooting him. When they arrive at the camp, they find another eccentric local coming out of one of the tents with a gun, but the other two men in Pickett's party shoot the man before he has a chance to say anything. Searching the camp, they make another gruesome find in one of the other tents.

This is a real page-turner of a first novel. Box keeps the action going and keeps the reader guessing until close to the end, even though it seemed obvious pretty early on who the bad and badder guys were going to be. I look forward to reading more in the series and seeing how these characters develop.

I did have quibbles with one part of Box's narrative. His presentation of the effects of the Endangered Species Act seemed quite biased to me. He bemoaned the fact of the negative impact on the local economy when logging and other outdoors jobs were lost because of the need to protect a dwindling population of his fictional "Miller's weasels," which seemed to be based on the real-life experience of the endangered black-footed ferret. In the next breath, he talks about outsiders pouring into town to see the ferret or to take part in its protection. Surely, those people have to stay somewhere. They have to eat something. They have to buy gas for their vehicles or supplies for their treks into the wilderness. This would seem to pump a lot of money into the local economy and to create new jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurship. Does the word "ecotourism" ring a bell? I know it certainly does along the Texas coast with all its bird and butterfly festivals and its year-round influx of birders and other outdoors-lovers from right around the world. I don't see why that wouldn't work in Wyoming as well.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Re-reading "The Maltese Falcon" - It's still good

The Maltese Falcon was this month's reading selection of my local library's Mystery Book Club. I probably would not have reread it if not for that impetus. But now that I've reread this one and remembered just how good a writer Dashiell Hammett was, I feel the need to reread his other four novels as well. He, after all, was the master and inventor of the noir hard-boiled detective, an iconic character in American fiction. One who has many children.

The first thing the reader notices on reading The Maltese Falcon is Hammett's amazing use of descriptive language. His characters - particularly Sam Spade - and his scenes are described in such intricate detail, right down to the minute twitch of an eyebrow or to the wind blowing through a window to dislodge the ash on a cigarette left in an ashtray, that the reader feels she has not just read the words but has actually seen the painted picture. This is really good stuff!

I had forgotten just how good. I first read this book about a hundred years ago. I was either in college or just out of college and I bought a book that was a compilation of Hammett's five novels with a foreword by Lillian Hellman.The Novels of Dashiell Hammett it was called, and it had been published in 1965. In addition to this novel, it contained Red HarvestThe Dain Curse,The Glass Key, and The Thin Man. Each of the novels is brief with spare but eloquent language. Much of the hard-boiled street slang of the 1930s seems like a foreign language today, but it is possible to figure it out within the context of the sentences and it simply adds to the adventure of reading Hammett.

The story of The Maltese Falcon is such an iconic tale in pop culture, well-known not only because of the book but especially because of the wonderful old movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, et al. I've seen the movie several times since I read the book and I had frankly forgotten how far the physicality of the movie Sam Spade diverged from the book Sam Spade. In the book, Sam Spade is very blond and all of his facial features resolve themselves into Vs - v-shaped eyes, v-shaped mouth, etc. His eyes are yellow-gray and his expressions are described as wolfish. In the movie, Sam Spade is...Humphrey Bogart. Bogart inhabited the role so perfectly and seamlessly that he will always be Sam Spade for me. As I read the book again, although I could envision Sam as Hammett described him, the voice I heard in my head was always Bogart's.

The story begins - of course - with a beautiful woman asking Sam's help in finding her young sister who has allegedly been brought to San Francisco from New York by a nefarious character who is up to no good. Sam's partner, Miles Archer, enters the office while the woman is telling her story, and offers to handle the case personally. While Miles is tailing the alleged miscreant that night, he is shot and killed. Well, when a man's partner is killed, even if he didn't like him, he's got to do something about it, and Sam does and we get to go along for the ride. It's a wonderful ride.

In our discussion of the book at our book club meeting, I was frankly astonished at some of the opinions expressed.  For example, that the book was "dated."  Really, you think?  So are Jane Austen and Mark Twain.  Some members, who had obviously never heard of Dashiell Hammett, were disturbed by what they considered Sam Spade's immorality or amorality. The concept of the anti-hero was apparently unknown to them and the origins of the noir novel were not a part of their literary consciousness.  

Oh, well, we all bring our own experiences and backgrounds to our reading and to the formation of our opinions about the books we read.  For me, The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful book.  I would place it among the great books of the twentieth century for its use of language and the integrity and vividness with which it represents the culture of its time.  For me, it could never be "dated."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford: A review

This is the final of Richard Ford's three books featuring his character, Frank Bascombe. In the first book, The Sportswriter, the action took place around Easter, and I found Bascombe to be a not very appealing character. In the second book, Independence Day, the action revolved around that eponymous holiday, and I began to understand and have a bit of fellow feeling for the main character. Finally, in this book, my conclusion is that Frank Bascombe, like most of us perhaps, is as good a person as he can be and that he strives to be a good person and to live a moral life. With all his weaknesses and failures (with which I can perfectly empathize!), Bascombe seems a person worthy of our sympathies and his life has some positive lessons for the reader.

We meet Frank here at a crisis in his life. His second wife has left him when her first husband, who was thought to be dead, turned up alive, and she felt that she must return to him. His two children are grown up and launched on their own lives, although not the lives that he would necessarily have wished for them. His real estate business is going great. He's been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has gone to the Mayo Clinic, accompanied by his daughter, to be treated. The treatment seems to be going well. He believes he has come to terms with his condition. He also believes that he has finally accepted the death of his son Ralph at age nine, some two decades earlier. The time is Thanksgiving 2000 and the country is in turmoil as the outcome of the presidential election remains in doubt. Frank, a Democrat, believes he knows how it will all turn out - not happily, for him or the country.

Richard Ford is an amazingly talented and accomplished writer. His characters are so sharply and exquisitely drawn that we feel we know them intimately. They are our neighbors, our sisters, our cranky relatives, ourselves. His dialogues are true to the way people talk. His descriptions of place leave us smelling the very air and feeling the oppressive heat or the icy winds of those vistas. Plus he has a way of tossing out these one or two sentences of philosophical observations ("You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him sing opera!") that just crack me up. He writes with a sly humor that is enormously appealing.

My trip through the life and times of Frank Bascombe has been an enjoyable and enlightening one. Now that it is over, I shall miss him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leading from behind

The situation in Libya at the end of its six-month rebellion/revolution is still very fluid bordering on chaotic, but it seems pretty evident that Muammar Ghaddafi has been deposed even though his current whereabouts are unclear.  The more than forty year iron-fisted rule of this very weird man has been broken and it is to be devoutly hoped that the Libyan people can now begin to live freely in a more democratic society created by Libyans for Libyans.

The rebels prevailed with the help and support of international organizations like NATO. and the UN and with the blessings of neighbors such as Tunisia which was the first blossom of the "Arab spring."  The help from NATO came in the form of air support, intelligence gathering, arms, and financial and humanitarian help.  Some of that help was provided by the United States as a member of NATO, but the U.S. did not take a leading role in the venture. Our military is, after all, still a bit preoccupied with those minor skirmishes known as Afghanistan and Iraq.  The real leader of the NATO effort was France, which has historical and colonial ties to Libya.  That would seem to make sense to anyone who really stopped to think about it, but it really, really pissed off a lot of Republicans in this country.

Among the most pissed-off were John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two chronically cranky old men, who issued a joint, very peevish statement on the subject.  The part of the statement which damned with faint praise the United States' part in the overthrow was what really caught my eye.
"Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower."  (My emphasis.)

See, it took six whole months to overthrow a regime that had been in power for over forty years, but if the United States had just employed "the full weight of our airpower" then it would have been over in a week or so.  Sort of like our ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq, right, guys?

President Obama has taken a lot of flack from these people about "leading from behind" but it turns out that was a very successful strategy, and I think it is a strategy that is often necessary in foreign affairs.  After all, people in other countries do not want some foreign power to jump in and take over their efforts to bring about change.  They want to be in command of their own destinies.  But they will not soon forget who gave them assistance in their time of need, just as Americans have not forgotten Lafayette and Kosciusko.  (At least those Americans who remember their country's history at all.)

I think leading from behind fits perfectly with President Obama's inclinations.  It may stem from his experience as a community organizer where the most successful efforts usually come when the people of the community make their own decisions and buy into the planned action.  For this to succeed, it is often important for the community organizer to stay in the background.  This can lead to important and dramatic changes when dealing with other nations.  (Remember Egypt?)  It is a less successful paradigm of leadership in domestic affairs where a president needs to be seen as out front on issues and forceful in pressing for the policies and values in which he believes.  This, unfortunately, has been a failing of this president.  Leading from behind is not really a viable strategy in domestic politics.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Paying your fair share? These companies don't understand the concept.

I wish Bernie Sanders (I-VT) were my senator.  It would be nice, at least once in my lifetime, to be represented by someone with whom I am mostly in agreement and of whom I could actually be proud.  Instead, I get people like Kaye Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, defenders of oil companies and friend to all millionaires and billionaires.

Senator Sanders never hesitates to speak his mind and to call out those who are taking advantage of the system and failing to live up to their civic responsibilities.  In that spirit, he has issued a press release which details what the richest corporations in our country are paying in taxes.  The bottom line is: Not much.    

1)      Exxon Mobil made $19 billion in profits in 2009.  Exxon not only paid no federal income taxes, it actually received a $156 million rebate from the IRS, according to its SEC filings.
2)      Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS last year, although it made $4.4 billion in profits and received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department of nearly $1 trillion.
3)      Over the past five years, while General Electric made $26 billion in profits in the United States, it received a $4.1 billion refund from the IRS.
4)      Chevron received a $19 million refund from the IRS last year after it made $10 billion in profits in 2009.
5)      Boeing, which received a $30 billion contract from the Pentagon to build 179 airborne tankers, got a $124 million refund from the IRS last year.
6)      Valero Energy, the 25th largest company in America with $68 billion in sales last year received a $157 million tax refund check from the IRS and, over the past three years, it received a $134 million tax break from the oil and gas manufacturing tax deduction.
7)      Goldman Sachs in 2008 only paid 1.1 percent of its income in taxes even though it earned a profit of $2.3 billion and received an almost $800 billion from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department.
8)      Citigroup last year made more than $4 billion in profits but paid no federal income taxes. It received a $2.5 trillion bailout from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury.
9)      ConocoPhillips, the fifth largest oil company in the United States, made $16 billion in profits from 2007 through 2009, but received $451 million in tax breaks through the oil and gas manufacturing deduction.
10)  Over the past five years, Carnival Cruise Lines made more than $11 billion in profits, but its federal income tax rate during those years was just 1.1 percent.

Why are we, the average struggling taxpayers of America, giving rebates and subsidies to some of the richest corporations in the world?  Why am I paying more income tax than Exxon Mobil?  Who will protect my interests against these corporations, even though I can't pay millions of dollars to lobbyists or to political campaigns to buy that protection?  One thing is for dead certain: It won't be Hutchison and Cornyn!

I'm glad that Bernie Sanders and a few others, like Al Franken (D-MN), are on the job. I may not be able to vote for them, but I still consider them "my" senators and I appreciate the work that they do in an environment that is hostile to the commonsense values which they represent. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A sensible Republican?

It appears to me that Jon Huntsman has concluded that he cannot win the Republican nomination for president so he might as well tell the truth, rather than selling his soul to the devil for a chance to win.  I came to this conclusion because lately he has made some very sensible, intelligent statements that are bound to make him anathema to the teahadists who control his party.  Just this past week, Huntsman has stated that:
1. He accepts settled science regarding human-caused climate change.
2. He accepts evolution as an established fact.
3. He doesn't believe that Ben Bernanke is treasonous and should be "treated ugly."
It does take some political courage for a Republican to stand up and say such things.  On the other hand, in the last Republican debate when the candidates were asked if they would accept a compromise that would reduce the nation's deficit if it provided for $10 of budget cuts for every $1 in raised taxes, he, along with all the other automatons, raised his hand saying that he would reject such a compromise.  I guess political courage only goes so far when you've got a tea party gun to your head.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How's that "Texas miracle" thing working for you?

Our governor, Rick Perry, has been swaggering around the country proclaiming in his exaggerated drawl about how he wants to do for America what he has done for Texas. God forbid!

Let's just take a look at how Texas stands in relation to the other 49 states in some areas that are extremely important to the average citizen.

Yes, it is embarrassingly true that we are first in the country in the number of workplace fatalities and in the percentage of minimum wage workers.  Those jobs that Perry brags so much about creating are mostly minimum wage jobs and are often very dangerous jobs, not the kind of jobs that most communities interested in the health and welfare of their citizens would be eager to have.

Furthermore, we are number one in the number of uninsured residents.  Our emergency rooms overflow day and night with people who have waited until the last possible minute to seek medical attention because they have no insurance and cannot pay for medical care.  In addition, we are dead last in the country in workers' comp coverage.

This chart doesn't show it, but the fact is that in Texas, poor people pay 17% of their income in taxes, while rich people pay only 2%.  No wonder all those millionaires and billionaires are sending money to Perry and crossing their fingers that he will be able to do to America what he has done to Texas.

The truth is that the "Texas miracle" is a Texas myth.  It is not working well for the average citizens of Texas who daily breathe dirty air, drink dirty water, and go to work at low-paying and dangerous jobs.  And if they happen to get hurt on those jobs, they can't expect much help from their employer or from the state.

Expand the "Texas miracle" to America?  God forbid!

Friday, August 19, 2011

"We're number 64!"

Last night Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" took on the right-wing's favorite issue of "class warfare" by which they mean discrimination against the rich in favor of the poor.  If you didn't see it, you should.  It is brilliant!

Part 1.

Part 2.

Who knew we were only number 64, on a par with the Ivory Coast, in the inequality of our income?  I would have thought we would have rated much lower than that.  Yea, we're number 64!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three for Thursday: Two stupid and one not

(1.)  I guess by now you've heard Rick Perry's statement about how we would treat (George W. Bush appointed) Fed chairman Ben Bernanke in Texas.  He said we'd be "pretty ugly" to him.

Well, last night on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert played the video of Perry saying that, then Colbert responded, "Oh, no! They're going to make him live in Houston!"

That may not have earned Colbert too many friends in the big city, but it is a perfect illustration of how the nonsensical statements of Perry (or any other candidate) should be treated.  They should be made fun of.  They should be laughed at.  The idiocy of the candidate should be pointed at and pointed out at every opportunity.  For example, when Perry makes the statement that "more and more scientists are skeptical about global warming," a good journalist or even a moderately intelligent person in his audience should ask him to name one of those skeptical scientists.

(2)  Meantime, the other member of the wackiest duo running for president, Michele Bachmann, said this:
[Bachmann:] "It really is about jobs and the economy. That doesn't mean people haven't [sic] forgotten about protecting life and marriage and the sanctity of the family. People are very concerned about that as well. But what people recognize is that there's a fear that the United States is in an unstoppable decline. They see the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the Soviet Union and our loss militarily going forward...  
Yes, dear readers, Michele Bachmann believes that the Soviet Union is rising.  From its grave, I guess, since the Soviet Union has been dead for at least 20 years.

This woman believes she is qualified to be president.

(3,)  The most intelligent thing I read or heard today happened on NPR, on the interview program "Fresh Air."   They had the amazing perspicacity to interview my favorite baseball catcher, Brad Ausmus.  Brad is a very smart man and was a very good catcher for 18 seasons in the Big Leagues, most of them with my beloved Houston Astros in the glory days of Bagwell and Biggio.  The interview is all about what it is like to be a catcher, preparations for a game, interactions with pitchers, with umpires, and the catcher's role in enforcing "the code."  If you are at all interested in baseball, or if you just want to hear an intelligent conversation as an antidote to the nuttiness that you hear every day in politics, here's the link where you can listen:  Fresh Air on NPR.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory: A review

I've only read one other book by Philippa Gregory. It was Wideacre and it was truly awful, so I approached the reading of this book hesitantly and with trepidation. But people who know my taste kept telling me that it was just my cup of tea so I steeled myself and gave it a try. The verdict? Not bad.

The story of the infamous Boleyn family is almost too well-known to require summarizing here. Over the last couple of years, I've read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that were set in the Tudor era - books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, and The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir - and that included the Boleyns as characters, but this book provides another slant, another viewpoint of the familiar story.

The other Boleyn girl is Mary, the younger of the two sisters. Her ambitious family marries her off at twelve to a promising young courtier. She becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine and, inevitably, catches the wandering eye of King Henry VIII. The Boleyns encourage the king's interest and constantly push Mary forward in hopes of gaining power and influence through her relationship with the king. And, very soon, there is indeed a relationship, a relationship quickly consummated. Over the next four years, she bears him two children, first a daughter whom she names Catherine as an homage to the queen and then a son named Henry.

Meanwhile, the older Boleyn daughter, Anne, has returned from her years of "education" in France and becomes a regular at court and soon eclipses the quieter Mary. The king lusts after her, but she will not yield to him. She holds out for marriage, but that, of course, would mean setting aside the queen and annulling the king's marriage, making his only legitimate child, the Princess Mary, a bastard. Just a minor detail as far as Anne is concerned!

The story is told from the perspective of Mary. In this telling, the three Boleyn children, Anne, Mary, and George, are close. There is an "Us against the world!" mentality. Mary's narrative portrays herself and George as relatively innocent victims of the family's cutthroat ambitions, while Anne is fully complicit. But in the end, even Mary begins to suspect the depth of corruption which has grown up in the circle presided over by her sister, now queen, Anne.

The first two-thirds of this book, I thought, were fascinating, and the story well-told. The last third descended somewhat into the realm of the Harlequin romance (Not that there is anything wrong with that!) as it concentrated on Mary's falling in love and marrying for love and ultimately her and her children's survival of the carnage which befell her family. Overall, though, it was an interesting telling of a story which has never lost its evergreen quality, even after 600 years.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Time for the super-rich to do their part

Sunday, in The New York Times, the super-rich chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet, had an op-ed piece entitled "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich."  The point of his piece was that the super-rich in this country have gotten that way because of coddling by the government and favorable tax policies that have allowed them to keep more of their income than the ordinary people who work for a living. He believes this is unfair and that the super-rich should contribute to the country's coffers in proportion to the advantages they hold because of our government policies.

The op-ed received a lot of notice and comment.  It was reported on in other news outlets around the country including our local Houston Chronicle and the comments there were about what one would expect from the Chronicle's regular commenters.   They were along the lines of, "If he wants to pay more taxes, why doesn't he just write a check? Why does he have to impose his views on other innocent rich people?"

One would think that those who were commenting were among the super-rich, but I seriously doubt that they were.  Instead, I think they are mostly just typical right-wingers who have bought hook, line, and sinker the teahadist philosophy of "All Taxes Bad!"  They are not really thinking through what they are saying and they did not actually read Mr. Buffett's op-ed.

Mr. Buffett believes that we should have shared sacrifice in the country.  As he points out, it is the poor and the middle-class who are fighting and dying in our wars.  There are no children of the super-rich in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else on the front lines representing this country's interests around the world.  No, they, like their parents, represent only their own selfish interest.  NOTHING IS ASKED OF THEM!  NOT EVEN TAXES!

This was not always the case in this country.  I grew up in a country where the rich were taxed relatively heavily and yet they still managed to make out very well.  The rest of us had lower tax rates and the progressive income tax certainly contributed to the expansion and the prospering of the middle-class.  Moreover, at the same time that tax policies benefited the middle-class, the social safety net on which they depended in times of hardship or need was being strengthened.  The '50s, '60s, and even the '70s of the last century were good times to be a member of the middle-class in America.  Then it all started to go wrong.

Since the '80s, with only brief interruptions of sanity, tax policy in this country has been tilted more and more toward the super-rich, who are constantly fawned over by the Republicans and hailed as being the "job-creators."  What a joke!  They have been piling up money hand over fist for the last eleven years with no brakes on their rush to accumulate more and where are the jobs they have created?  Why does the unemployment rate hover around 9% if these rich people are such wonderful "job creators"?

Buffett is right.  The super-rich and everybody else should pay their fair share.  I would even go further and say that the shared sacrifice should be extended to public service. We should have a universal "draft" when children turn 18.  At that point, they should be required to go into service for their country, either military or civilian service (their choice), for two years.  There should be no exemptions except for extreme mental or physical disabilities.  Everyone can do something.  Everybody can contribute.

It's not going to happen, of course.  This one-time democracy, now a plutocracy, will continue its headlong rush into irrelevance and complete inequality.  The super-rich will never again be required to do their part.  And only those with a social conscience, like Warren Buffett, will notice.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer & Build: A review

Birds are some of the most successful architects on earth. Buried deep within the avian DNA is a set of blueprints and the urge to execute them.

The primary function of a bird's nest, of course, is to protect and nurture the bird's young, and the one measure of the success of avian architecture is how well the nest fulfills that function. The wonder is that among some 10,000 species of birds on earth, there are 10,000 different blueprints for achieving that purpose.

In Peter Goodfellow's book, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build, he fits those 10,000 designs into twelve different categories and explores iconic examples of each category. He provides us with detailed blueprints and a materials list which show how and of what the nest is constructed. We see pictures of mere scrapes in the sand that are the camouflaged nests of many shorebirds and, at the other extreme of intricacy, woven, hanging nests or tightly constructed mud nests. You might think of them as the difference between a thatch hut in the jungle and a suburban McMansion; regardless, each serves its purpose - to protect and raise a family.

This is a fascinating book for anyone with the slightest interest in birds, and that is most people, I think. Birds are the wild creatures with which humans have the most constant and intimate contact because birds are everywhere. Even for people who pay no attention to them, birds are part of the background color of our lives. If they were missing, that background would be much more dull and gray.

But for anyone who loves birds and has spent time watching a mockingbird or a bluebird or any other backyard bird construct its nest, this book is a revelation of the intricate engineering that goes into those nests. Moreover, nests are a good perspective from which to study the mating and parenting of birds because they are so accessible, i.e., relatively easy to find and to view. Watching one of these marvels of architecture during nesting season can teach the observer much about the particular species as well as the individual bird.

The reader of this book will learn all of that and more. It is highly recommended for those fascinated by birds and by the particular avian intelligence that is at work in their architecture.

(A copy of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

What if the answer to your prayer is "No!"?

"I think it's time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, 'God: You're going to have to fix this.'"
                                                          - Rick Perry, Governor of Texas 

Our esteemed governor has announced that he's going to announce that he's going to run for the presidency, so I think it is fair for the country to take a look at how he would handle the nation's most serious problems.  Based on all the evidence that we have, he would handle them with prayer.

In April of this year, Texas was suffering from a six-month-long extreme drought and thousands of wildfires that had been brought on by that drought.  Perry decided it was time to pray.  He issued an official proclamation that the three day period from Friday, April 22, to Sunday, April 24, would be "Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas." The governor then ostentatiously prayed, publicly and often, rather like the Pharisees of Jesus' time.

It's now four months later and Texas has gone from an extreme drought to an exceptional drought which may prove to be the worst in the state's history.  Not only is it dry, but for the last couple of weeks, we have suffered through daily triple-digit temperatures.  Lakes, creeks, and ponds have dried up.  The landscape is littered with dead, brown trees.  Farmers are unable to produce any usable crops.

But Perry hasn't lost his faith in prayer to solve our problems.  Last Saturday, he led a prayer-fest of some 30,000 evangelicals in Houston's Reliant Center.  Among other things, they prayed for economic recovery for the country.  Two days later, on Monday, the stock market suffered its worst one-day collapse since the 2008 crisis, dropping by 635 points.

Perhaps next Mr. Perry will attempt to pray away Texas' pollution for ours is one of the most polluted states in the country. The prevalence of dirty air and dirty water everywhere in the state has serious implications for  public health.  (And, oh, yes, our state has more people without medical insurance than any other state.)

While he's at it, he might also pray to God to fix our educational system - an educational system that doesn't serve the interest of actually educating children, but only teaches them to pass the standardized tests on which schools and teachers are judged.  Relying on standardized tests as the sole indicator of whether "our children is learning," as George Bush would say, is a relic of the Bush era in Texas government but the torch has been carried forward and relit repeatedly by Mr. Perry.

I do not mean to mock anyone's faith in prayer.  Perry, in his private life, is certainly free to pray how and as often as he feels the need, but as someone who wants to lead this diverse country, his insistence on "Jesus prayer" to the exclusion of all other beliefs is troubling to say the least.  There are many ways of praying in this country and it is inappropriate for anyone representing the government to favor one of them over another. The country was founded upon the principle of separation of church and state and the day that it forgets that principle and elevates one religion as the designated state religion will be the day that the idea that was America begins to crumble.  

Anyway, it seems that God is not too impressed with public, ostentatious, and self-serving (to enhance one's bona fides with the religious right) prayers either.  So far the answer to all of Perry's very public prayers has been a resounding "NO!"  I suspect he might receive the same answer to his prayers to become president.

(For more on "Rick Perry's Unanswered Prayers," read Timothy Egan's excellent column in today's New York Times.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crunch Time by Diana Mott Davidson: A review

Cozy mysteries are my guilty reading pleasure and I read a lot of them.  Most of them are, indeed, pleasurable on some level, but every once in a while, I run into a clunker.  Crunch Time was such a clunker.

Here are just a few things that annoyed me about this book:

1. Davidson continually uses question marks to punctuate sentences that are clearly declarative.

2. Her heroine, Goldy Schultz, draws wild conclusions based on absolutely ZERO evidence. Of course, her conclusions magically turn out to be right!

3. Throughout the book, there are numerous references to Goldy's neighbor, Jack, who is "gone." Is he dead? Has he moved to Florida? We don't know. Perhaps it was all explained in some previous book in the series, but I DIDN'T READ THAT BOOK! Would it have killed the writer to offer a paragraph of exposition to explain why Jack was gone, who he was, and why his absence was so upsetting to Goldy?

4. At least a quarter of the book is filler describing driving back and forth around Denver in the snow. This had nothing whatever to do with the plot. It was just a narrative describing getting Goldy from one place to another.

5. A second quarter - at least - was fluff about Denver weather, especially early snowfalls in September and how difficult that made life and just getting around for everybody. Again, none of this "difficulty" was related in any way to the plot. It didn't move the story forward one centimeter. It just filled space. There's more fluff as well - things about Goldy's devotion to her church, things about her son and his friends, the Cuba connection that was thrown in even though, again, it didn't really figure in the plot. Overall, I estimate that perhaps three-fourths of this book was nothing but filler.

6. Somewhere near the end of the book, the narrator, Goldy, refers to a "wild Canadian goose chase." A. Wild. "Canadian." Goose. Chase!!! Really.


I have actually read some of the earlier books in this series and I don't remember any of them being this bad.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A poet of workers

The Library of Congress has chosen a new Poet Laureate of the United States.  His name is Philip Levine.  I must confess I don't remember having heard of him before today.

The fact that I had not heard of him is just more proof of my cultural ignorance because he is an award-winning poet.  He's won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among other awards.  At 83 years old, he is the oldest poet laureate ever chosen and his main topic is not one that we normally think of as inspiring poetry.  He is a poet of the working class.  He constructs poems from the everyday work of ordinary people.

The bits and pieces of his poetry that I found online today were very evocative and I think he merits a closer look.  For example, there were these lines from his 1999 poem "He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do."
Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.
Silence as the perfect water that washes our minds and gives heart to the thin blades of grass fighting through the concrete for even the air that has been dirtied by our endless stream of words.  That image has such fecundity and richness to it.

Silence.  Perfect water.  Giving heart.  At this point, my dry, parched mind welcomes water in any form.  Even in the lines of a poem.

Mr. Levine is a fascinating choice for poet laureate.  I will be very interested to see what he does with the position.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The theory that explains everything

My husband, the curmudgeon, is a bit of a philosopher.  He has a theory which he says explains everything you need to know about the human race and its history.  His theory can be summed up in three little words:  People are stupid.

The theory has two corollaries:
I. Americans are VERY stupid.
II. Texans are even stupider.  
The proof of his theory, he says, is our politics and the people that we continually elect to represent us.  We keep voting against our own economic and cultural interests and then wonder why things don't turn out the way we wanted.

I am the eternal optimist in the family and I keep trying to find evidence to poke holes in his theory, but, lately, such evidence has been very hard to come by.  In fact, everywhere I look, I see nothing but confirmation of his theory.  Just to give a few egregious examples of the stupidity that abounds:

1.  The stock market.  On Monday, it was down by over 600 points.  Today it was up by over 400 points.  That's more than 1,000 points in one day.  Did the world actually change that much in just 24 hours, or do the people buying and selling stocks just really not have a clue?

2.  The world is full of English speakers who cannot get the simplest rules of grammar of their language correct.  If I hear one more person say, "The stock market's plunge was a real shock to Norbert and I," I may just explode!  Would you really say, "The stock market's plunge was a real shock to I"?  No, of course you wouldn't, unless you were Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."  So why in the world would you say "Norbert and I" when those words are the OBJECT of a preposition?  It's "Norbert and me," people!

3.  And then there are the people on the coast, in mandatory evacuation zones, who with a category 4 or 5 hurricane bearing down on them, decide to "ride it out" because it will be exciting.  Yes, it will be, and it will probably be the last excitement they ever experience.

4.  "Reality" shows on television about which nothing is real.

5.  People who use tanning beds.  I once knew a woman, a regular user of tanning beds, who was diagnosed with melanoma.  She had surgery to remove the cancer and, once she recovered, she was right back on the tanning bed.  After several more surgeries and treatment, she is no longer with us.  Sometimes death is the only cure for stupidity.

6.  Michele Bachmann is one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president.  This woman is a certifiable nut job, but a lot of people love her and want her to be president because they want someone in the White House who is just like them.

7.  People at town meetings who yell things like, "Keep the government out of my Medicare and Social Security!"  Where exactly do they think these programs come from?

8.  People who cannot explain anything without saying "I was like..." instead of "I said."  Not only do they say "I was like..." but they say it constantly!  They can hardly utter a sentence without those words.

9.  Rioting in London!  What is going on here?  We expect our British cousins to keep a stiff upper lip and behave calmly and civilly.  Where are Inspector Barnaby and D.S. Jones when you need them to calm people down?

10. People who insist that Barack Obama is a liberal who was born in Kenya and is a Muslim who hankers to institute Shariah law.  None of that is true.  He is a moderate conservative, born in Hawaii, a state in the United States, who longs for everyone to get along and practice bipartisanship.

Well, I could go on, but I'm just depressing myself, and this is the day of all days when I need to be thinking happy thoughts, for it is the day when I turn a year older.  Happy birthday to me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Black Monday

Well, I guess I won't be looking at my 401k for awhile.  Wouldn't want to depress myself even further by knowing exactly how poor I've suddenly become.  Not that it was unexpected, of course.  After the debacle of recent weeks, financial markets all over the world were already collapsing in panic.  We probably haven't seen the end of it yet.

And still our spineless and clueless politicians refuse to do anything positive to actually turn the situation around.  They are in an endless cycle of name-calling and blaming each other.  The Republicans' sole aim now is to defeat Barack Obama next year and if the economy of the country has to be destroyed to do that, well then, that is acceptable collateral damage.  The Democrats, on the other hand, as led by Obama, still seem deluded that bi-partisanship and working together to solve problems is actually possible.  When your opponent has no other goal than your total destruction, it isn't.

Meanwhile, back here in Texas, where a nearly year-long drought continues, triple digit temperatures are expected all week long and no rain is in sight.  Plants everywhere are being burned to a crisp.  Trees are dying because they can't find enough water to survive.  Farmers and ranchers are looking at a disaster of biblical - yes, Rick Perry, biblical! - proportions.  It is enough to make one wonder if perhaps God is not really, really angry with Texas and with Perry.  Maybe it has something to do with that "I was hungry and you didn't feed me, I was naked and you didn't clothe me, etc." thing.  Texas is just about the most cold-hearted, niggardly state in the Union when it comes to caring for its poor, sick, and needy citizens.  Somehow I doubt that God approves of that.

As if that weren't enough, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to grind on, taking the lives of so many young Americans - smart and brave young Americans whom our society sorely needs - not to mention all the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Black Monday, indeed.  I wish that I could say that I see light at the end of the tunnel, but today I see only more blackness.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: A review

The House of the Spirits was Isabel Allende's first novel and it placed her squarely in the school of magical realism that has been so important in contemporary Latin American literature. It is an epic tale of a family in Chile in the 20th century, living through times of change and upheaval, the rise in popularity of socialism, the election of Salvador Allende as president, and ultimately the coup which brought many years of tyranny and horror to the country.

The story has its beginnings with the del Valle family, the origin of Rosa the Beautiful and her youngest sister, Clara the Clairvoyant. Rosa becomes engaged to Esteban Trueba who determines to make his fortune in the mines. He succeeds in that goal but before he can marry her, Rosa dies by accidental poisoning. The accident is that the poison was meant for her father.

After Rosa's death, Esteban continues to prosper but he becomes a violent and wicked man, a serial rapist of the female tenants on the estate which he owned, the Tres Marias. As a consequence of his brutality, he was despised by the tenants, but they had nowhere else to go and so were tied to the estate and had to endure his mistreatment of them. Eventually, Esteban receives word that his mother, in the city, is dying and he returns there, where he promises her to marry and produce grandchildren for her. (He has, in fact, already peopled the countryside with her grandchildren but they are bastards and don't count.) He determines to return to the del Valle family and ask for the hand of another of their daughters in marriage. The only one left who is available is Clara the Clairvoyant. Their match is the beginning of the Trueba family saga.

Allende tells her story through four generations of women, beginning with the matriarch Nivea del Valle, mother of Clara and Rosa. The ethereal Clara, who sees and communes with spirits, becomes the matriarch of the Trueba family and it is she who is the glue which holds the family - and the story - together. Her first child is a daughter, Blanca, who, as a child, learns to love a boy who is the son of her father's caretaker on the estate. It is a highly inappropriate match but when they grow up, it produces a daughter, Alba. Alba also falls in love with the wrong sort - a socialist caught up in the political turmoil of the '60s and '70s. The stories of all these women make up the body of this tale, but they are all connected by the violent, reprehensible Esteban Trueba.

I found Ms. Allende's writing mesmerizing. Once I was into the story, it was very hard for me to put the book down. It has a whimsical spirit but the tale is moving and absorbing. She writes in rich and meticulous detail. It was an extremely satisfying read.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How did we get from there to here?

Can you remember the year 2000?  The country was at peace.  The economy was booming.  As for the federal budget - it was in the black!  Yes, there was a substantial surplus, and the country could look forward to continuing prosperity and using that surplus to address problems and the needs of the population.  All of that seems long ago and far away now.

Do you ever stop to think about how we got from there (big surpluses) to here (massive deficits)?  What accounts for the deficit which everyone in Washington decried during the recent set-to over the debt ceiling but which no one did anything serious (i.e., bringing in more revenue to the government coffers) to correct?  Well, here is the answer to both those questions.

As you can readily see on this chart based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the biggest portion of the debt now and in the future is a result of the Bush tax cuts.  Another substantial layer is added by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without those two factors, even taking into account the economic downturn that began in 2008, we would be in pretty good shape today.

The cure to what ails us seems perfectly clear to me:  (1.) Let the Bush tax cuts - all of them - expire.  (2.) Get out of Iraq and Afghanistan ASAP.  That's not just a financial imperative, that's a moral imperative as well.

If we simply do those two things, we will be going a long way toward mending our economy and our society. We might even live to see the federal budget in surplus again.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Nicky

2001 - 2011
Ten years was much too brief a time.
Best of cats.
My baby.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst: A review

"In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia." So begins Alan Furst's 1988 novel, Night Soldiers. It was the defining moment of Khristo's life and all the events of the next 450+ pages and 11 years proceed from that moment.

The 19-year-old Khristo is recruited by a Russian for the U.S.S.R.'s intelligence service N.K.V.D. He becomes a trained intelligence operative and in the process bonds with a few of his fellow trainees. This bonding will become a very important factor in Khristo's story later on.

He is sent to Spain, where he is ordered to kill his anti-Franco comrades because they are anarchists, not Communists. He runs away from his Soviet handlers, to France, where he is caught up in the German invasion. He experiences a brief interlude of love with a woman named Aleksandra, but then she is made to disappear by the long arm of the N.K.V.D. Khristo moves on again to Eastern Europe where he serves Western spymasters, even as World War II begins to wind down.

This is a complicated story with a plot which twists back upon itself at regular intervals. Characters appear and, before we really get to know them, they disappear. The edginess, the uncertainty of whom to trust, the constant threat of sudden death all seem very authentic to the atmosphere of the times. At least as much as someone almost 80 years removed from those events can judge authenticity.

The story is absorbing and it builds, episode by episode, until it reaches a climax when Khristo makes his way back up the Danube into lands now coming under Soviet control in order to rescue a buddy from his spy training days, one of those he had bonded with ten years before.

Furst's historical novels are always set in the dark World War II period and the time just before that war.  It's not really a time that I enjoy reading about, and yet I do enjoy Furst's writing.   He brushes the dust off the past and makes it crackle with life once again. He weaves many actual historical events and details into his stories and makes it all appear a seamless fabric. Hard to say where reality ends and fiction begins here. His heroes are always humanistic and represent the civilized viewpoint. Their overwhelming trait is always their simple decency and their opposition to brutes, whether they be Fascist or Communist. That heroic profile fits Khristo Stoianev like a glove.

The reader finds, also, in Furst's novels many parallels between those dark times and the times in which we live, which, frankly, look pretty dark, too.  As we read about the actions of the brutal bullies who lived and did their dirty work then, it's easy to look around and see their moral (i.e., immoral) equivalents on the national and world stages today.  One hopes there are a few Khristo Stoianevs and friends on those stages, or working behind the scenes, as well. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rancid tea

The tea party movement in this country is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers,, money men who are the real power in the country, who bend government to their will by means of money, gifts, intimidation, and incessant lobbying.  Until the American people realize that and rise up in disgust at what their country has become, there seems little hope for political reform.

But while the tea partiers are owned and financed by the Koch Brothers and their allies, the origins of their political philosophy, such as it is, have long been perfectly clear to me and, I suspect, to many people who grew up in the South.  An article in today delineates those origins in graphic form.  It traces the roots of the tea partiers' radical political beliefs to "white Southern extremism."  It's an extremism that has its beginnings in racism and intolerance for anyone who isn't "one of us."  I grew up with it and I can smell it like mendacity on a politician's breath.

Salon's graph shows the location by region of the members of the tea party caucus in Congress.

That one member from the "northeast," by the way, is actually from Maryland, which is classified by the Census Bureau as northeastern, but it is hardly that.  In fact, ALL of the tea partiers are from the South, Midwest, and West (mostly the area around Orange County, California), and 40 of the 62 are from the South and Maryland which I would consider a Southern border state. That's roughly 65 percent.  Again, Salon's graph shows it most starkly.

Contrary to what you will hear and read in the mainstream media, this is hardly a nationwide movement.  True, it has some sympathizers in all regions, although they are virtually invisible in the Northeast, but then the secessionists of the 1860s who wanted to protect the "Southern way of life," their code words for slavery, had their sympathizers in other regions as well.

These people are not patriots.  They are the opposite of patriots.  They are out to destroy America and remake it in their own intolerant image.  We would do well to wake up to that fact and to fight back before it is too late.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Where is the audacity? Where is the hope?

So the debt ceiling "compromise" turned out about like many of us on the left had expected - essentially with all the "balancing" being done with cuts to the budget that affect the poor and middle-class and no new revenues coming into the nation's coffers from the super-rich.  In other words, exactly the sort of thing which knowledgeable economists have been warning against for months now.

And now we'll see how it all plays out.

Many say that the president got rolled - again - in his "negotiations" with the Republicans, but I'm beginning to wonder if that is really true.  I wonder if he did not, in fact, get exactly what  he wanted.  Not to put too fine a point on it, I wonder if he is not really a closet Republican.  He seems to be moving farther and farther to the right, and I don't think it's just a political maneuver.  I think it is where his heart truly lies.  I think he is channeling Dwight Eisenhower.  Without the courage.

So where do we go from here?  What's a liberal to do?  Well, we can keep speaking out.  We can refuse to shut up, and we can look to next year's elections.

I do not believe for one second that people knew what they were getting when they voted for this Congress.  Our best hope for the future is to find ways to educate voters about the folly of having a "tea-bagger" government. Our best hope for the future is to elect a new and more forward-looking Congress, one that acknowledges science and the need for a functioning government, one that may force our closet-Republican president to move farther to the left. We must "screw our courage to the sticking place" and be audacious in the pursuit of that goal.