Sunday, March 31, 2013

Poetry Sunday: On Easter Day

How far has organized Christianity fallen from the simplicity of its beginnings?

    On Easter Day
    Oscar Wilde

    The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
    The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
    And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
    Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
    Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
    And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
    Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
    In splendor and in light the Pope passed home.
    My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
    To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
    And sought in vain for any place of rest:
    "Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
    I, only I, must wander wearily,
    And bruise My feet, and drink wine salt with tears."

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

The plight of the honeybees - and all of us

Honeybees have been dying off in unusual numbers for years now. Conservationists have raised the alarm repeatedly about what this could mean, that it could be a harbinger of an even larger problem for the environment as a whole. 

Some who work in agriculture have been dismayed also, because many of the crops they raise depend largely upon honeybees for their pollination and production. Typically, others have pooh-poohed the whole idea that there is anything unusual or out of the ordinary going on.

Now comes word that in the past year alone 40 to 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables have been wiped out by the mysterious malady that has ravaged the honeybee population. This finally seems to have gotten the attention of some people who had ignored the story before.

For example, there is this instance cited in The New York Times' story about the plight of the honeybees:
But Mr. Adee [the South Dakota owner of the nation's largest beekeeping company), who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about [pesticide use in crops], said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point. 
Of the "environmentalist" label, Mr. Adee said: "I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, 'These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.'"

So Mr. Adee wasn't concerned about the story until it started to affect him. 

And isn't that just the way of it with so many issues that face our society? From same-sex marriage to global climate change, unless we can see that it affects us personally in some detrimental way, we just ignore it.

The Monarch butterflies are dying, the honeybees are dying, and the environmentalists keep raising concerns about the overuse of chemical pesticides and herbicides that are changing the face of our land, destroying the fabric of the habitats that animals - and, ultimately, we - depend on. Maybe it's time that "a light comes on" and we begin to pay attention to what they and Mother Nature are trying to tell us.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Got nine minutes? Here's two seasons of Game of Thrones.

HBO's blockbuster series Game of Thrones starts its third season Sunday night. You say you'd like to watch it but you missed the first two seasons? Never fear! If you've got nine minutes to spend, this video will catch you right up and you'll be all set to go on Sunday!

Got all that? Of course, you do! Enjoy season three.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The dying Monarch

Lately, the news for the Monarch butterfly has been all bad. It seems that every week we have a new story detailing the depressing news of the beautiful butterfly's decline. Illegal logging, rampant ecotourism, and unusually harsh winters have damaged the butterfly's winter sanctuary in Mexico. Mid-America's big factory farms' reliance on the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides have killed butterflies and their caterpillars and have destroyed the stands of milkweed which caterpillars need to feed on in order to grow and transform into butterflies. And looming over all of this are the effects of global climate change which is reeking havoc with weather patterns, causing extended droughts and, paradoxically, historic floods, and contributing to raging wildfires which damage the butterfly's food source and kill butterflies. It is estimated that today's population of the butterflies is approximately one-fifteenth of what it was in 1997.

This marks the third straight year of decline for this migrant butterfly which is a treasure of all three nations of North America. Indeed, its population is at the lowest levels ever reliably measured. There seems a very real possibility that the Monarch butterfly could become extinct. At the very least, its population will be a mere shadow of what it once was. As recently as 1994, wintering butterflies in the Mexican mountains covered 22 acres. By 2003, the area covered was down to 12 acres. During this past winter, it was only 2.9 acres. That is just shocking.

The best known fact about the Monarch is its migratory habit. It crosses the continent twice a year. It takes four generations of the butterfly to travel from Mexico to Canada. In order to make that long trek, it must have milkweed to nourish caterpillars into the next generation. You can easily see what the destruction of all those stands of milkweed across middle America has done to the prospects for the successful completion of the migration.

Of course, gardeners across the country have been trying to fill the void by planting more milkweed in their gardens. I have about twenty plants of the stuff and I just added three large plants this past week, because my old plants died back in the winter and were just emerging from their nap. Their leaves were not big enough to nourish many caterpillars. This is probably the most important thing that we, as gardeners, can do to help the butterfly. That and refusing to use chemical pesticides and herbicides in the garden. These can be death not only to butterflies but to so many useful and beautiful critters that make our gardens their habitat.

Many wildlife conservation groups have also made the Monarch's survival a priority. The World Wildlife Fundfor just one example, has sponsored the census of the butterfly and is looking for ways to aid it and to mitigate the forces aligned against its survival.  The organization Journey North, which tracks many migrating species including hummingbirds and other birds as well as butterflies, has invaluable information on its website regarding the Monarch's life cycle and what it needs to survive. They also encourage citizen scientists to report Monarch sightings to that website so that the migration can be tracked. (I've made my reports and I encourage you to do the same.)

Everyone loves the Monarch. No one wants to see it perish. So, why is it in such trouble? It seems to be trouble that is altogether of human origin, even the changing climate. Can we summon the will to change our practices in order to give the butterfly a fighting chance? If we can, we may save more than a butterfly.

A Monarch egg on milkweed leaf. You can see the tiny embryo inside. 

 Monarch caterpillars on milkweed, their only source of food.

  I don't have grandchildren, but if I ever should, I would hope they would still be able to see this sight.

(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Girl Who Disappeared Twice by Andrea Kane: A review

I have very few rules about what I WON'T read. 

I won't read novels about vampire lovers.

I won't read books with pictures of over-endowed and half-dressed pouty women (or men, for that matter) on the dust cover.

I won't read books that glorify sadism or sadists. 

I won't read books about Hitler. 

And I won't read mystery or crime books in which children or animals are the victims. Other than that, most anything goes.

Why, then, did I wind up reading this book in which a five-year-old child is the victim? Well, that's easy enough. It was this month's selection of my local book club. 

In the last couple of years as a member of this club, I've been introduced to several writers that I had never read before. I've liked a few of them (Tom Franklin, Harlan Coben, e.g.), a lot of them I found to be mediocre, and a few I've actively disliked. This one, I think, falls in the meh category. 

I found the writing rather simplistic, as if it were written for an intermediate school audience. Moreover, the characters did not seem realistic. All of the members of the various investigating teams were paragons of virtue. Egoism and personality clashes never got in the way of their investigation. Everyone was very careful not to step on anyone's toes. Frankly, it just made me long for crusty, irascible Inspector John Rebus.

The story is this: A beautiful five-year-old girl has been kidnapped. She is the daughter of a veteran family court judge and a high-powered defense lawyer who has been known to defend rather shady characters. It seems far too much of a coincidence that thirty years earlier the six-year-old identical twin sister of the family court judge had also been kidnapped. The reader intuits almost immediately that there must be a connection. Well, I mean it's right there in the title, isn't it?

The purpose of this book seems to be mainly to introduce the characters of a private forensics team which will be the focus of an ongoing series. The team is called Forensic Instincts and it is made up of a group of those paragons of virtue that I talked about, who also seem to be endowed with superpowers. 

There is the former Navy SEAL who can penetrate any perimeter, the techno-wizard who can perform miracles with computers, and the head of the team, Casey Woods, a behaviorist. They are a renegade investigative unit with unique talents, sort of X-men without the freaky appearances. They will go outside the law and do whatever it takes to solve a case and serve the interests of their clients.

Along the way, they also pick up an "intuitive," i.e., psychic, and a retired straight-arrow, by-the-rules former FBI agent as new members of the team. Oh, and also a bloodhound named Hero.

My credulity was severely strained. I just wasn't buying any of it. I couldn't really get seriously involved with any of the characters. As for the identity of the kidnapper, that seemed fairly obvious early on, even though the full extent of the motive took a while to develop. 

Incredibly, these supposedly top-notch investigative teams spent an inordinate hunk of the book concentrating on something that was so obviously a red-herring that I just wanted to grab them by the lapels and scream, "No, no, you're getting it all wrong!" 

Even so, I knew from the outset that (Spoiler alert!) the little girl would get home safely. Maybe that's why I was able to keep reading. That plus my sense of responsibility to my mystery book club. See, I'm one of those paragons of virtue, too. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Glory days to come

Just a few more days until Major League baseball season starts. Spring training is almost over and many young players go to bed at night dreaming of glory days. Will this be their year?

Even young players on "rebuilding" teams like my beloved Houston Astros, the team with the worst record in baseball for the last two years, have such dreams.

All of which, of course, brings to mind the Springsteen song. Nearly everything in life brings to mind some Springsteen song.  Here he is with the E Street Band in a 1985 performance of his anthem to those lost days.

Were any of us every really that young?

(Props to Paul Krugman for first posting this video in his blog today. He was writing about the lost "glory days" of  tea party idol Paul Ryan, but I prefer to think about the glory days to come for talented young baseball players.)  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Year's at the Spring

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven— 
All's right with the world!

-  Robert Browning, The Year's at the Spring 

Maybe all isn't quite so right with the world, but on a beautiful day in spring, filled with sunshine, fresh green leaves, flowers, and birdsong, it is almost possible to believe that it is. Happy spring! 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Happy National Puppy Day!

Did you know that we have a National Puppy Day? Well, we have a "day" for everything else, so why not puppies?  Who doesn't love puppies? And doesn't "every dog have his day"?

Actually, the day is not altogether whimsical. It does have a serious purpose which is to call attention to the abuse of dogs through "puppy mills" which produce puppies for profit only, with no regard for the health of the animals or for the betterment of the breed.

In honor of the day, Huffington Post has put together a mashup of cute puppy videos called "When puppies attack."   Just click on the link to enjoy. The article which contains the video also has a whole bunch of adorable puppy pictures in a slide show.

If all of that gives you saccharin overload, then here's a Grumpy Cat antidote.

Take good care of the animals that depend on you, whether you are a cat person or a dog person. Or even a hamster person!

Photo by Andrea Zampatti, courtesy of Huffington Post

Friday, March 22, 2013

How to Buy the Right Plants, Tools & Garden Supplies by Jim Fox: A review

This is a short book, but it is chock full of advice and information for gardeners on everything from how to read and understand a plant tag to choosing the best tools for your purposes and where to site and establish your plants where they will be happiest. It gives us some common sense rules that, if followed, will help to make us successful gardeners.

The book is divided into seven chapters, starting, quite logically, with one that reveals what you need to know before you buy anything. Things like your climate zone, soil types, what purpose your garden will serve, and how much money you can spend on it. That last one, in my experience, is the toughest and the bottom line keeps getting erased and rewritten once you get into it.

The writer, Jim Fox, a gardener with forty years of experience, goes on to tell us how and where to buy plants, how to judge the health of plants, how to select the best tools, how to make your plants happy by planting them in the right place, and, finally, what it takes to keep the plants growing happily.

The suggestions that Fox gives seem so obvious that I found myself repeatedly slapping my forehead (metaphorically, anyway) and saying, "Why didn't I think of that?" But, in many cases, I hadn't. I'll give you just one example. 

Fox suggests taking a big manila envelope, writing the year on the front, and then placing all the tags of the plants that you plant that year in the envelope. If you felt the need to make it more complicated you could write the date that you planted it on the tag. But, really, what a simple and simply elegant way to organize a record of your garden. As a gardener who constantly has to wrestle with the chaos of her records, this is one idea that I plan to implement immediately!

This little book is full of such ideas. I think it would be a perfect purchase or a perfect gift for a beginning gardener. It could save him/her many of the stupid mistakes which I have made over the years. 

But it is never too late to learn something new in the gardening game, and, although I have almost as many years' experience as Jim Fox, I learned quite a lot from his book. I'm glad it came my way.

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own. The book is on sale now.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sacred Games by Gary Corby: A review

I had looked forward to reading this book which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. It is the third in a mystery series set in ancient Greece and I had greatly enjoyed the first two entries in the series.

Then, only a few pages into the book, I read something that made me want to toss the tome across the room. Tell me, do you see anything wrong with this sentence?
"He'd seen Timo and I play together when we were children."
THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF MY ABSOLUTE NUMBER ONE PET PEEVE IN WRITING! The use of the subjective pronoun, "I," as an object just sets my teeth on edge, like fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Unfortunately for the state of my psyche, it is becoming more and more common, even with writers who should know better.

Halfway through the book, there it was again.
"Men about us gave him room, and he slid in to join us, with Markos to his left and I to his right." 
What writer in his right mind would write sentences that say "He'd seen I play..." or "...with I to his right..."? So what is it about that magic conjunction "and" that makes it okay to flout this basic rule of grammar?

Oh, well, I was reading an "advance uncopyedited edition" of the book. Maybe these errors will be fixed in the editing process.

("Don't count on it," says my copy editor spouse.)

Well, I didn't throw Corby's latest across the room, even though I was tempted. I kept reading and found he had told a pretty good story.

His tale takes place at the 80th Olympiad in 460 B.C.E. We again meet private investigator Nicolaos and his frequent employer Pericles. It seems that a murder has taken place. One of the competitors in the pankration, the deadly martial art of ancient Greece, a Spartan named Arakos, has been killed. 

Suspicion immediately falls on another pankration competitor, Timodemus, an Athenian. There had been bad blood between the two and they had clashed in public during the Olympic procession. Timodemus is accused and locked up. Pericles wants him cleared so that he can compete in the pankration and, incidentally, so that a war between Athens and Sparta can be averted. He hires Nico for the job.

Now, it happens that Timodemus is Nico's best friend, and the Judges of the Games decide to appoint Nico and a Spartan, Markos, to investigate the murder and arrive at a conclusion. They have four days to find the truth, else Timodemus will be executed.

As usual in these books, Corby has managed to weave in a lot of information about ancient Greece and about the Olympic Games and I found this to be an interesting read from that standpoint. I was particularly interested in the status of women and the role that they played in this story and in the society of that time. 

Timo has a partner - his fiancee`/wife Diotima - who is a priestess of Artemis and a very liberated woman for that time. She is also the brains of the partnership. We also get to meet the dowager Queen of Sparta, Gorgo, widow of Leonidas, the leader of the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae fame. It is very interesting how Corby works real historical Greeks into the fabric of his story. Nico's 12 year old brother, for example, is named Socrates!  

Overall, this was another entertaining visit to ancient Greece. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been seething with irritation over encountering my pet peeves in print.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unenlightened HBO

Well, HBO did it. They canceled the best show on television.

I can't say that I was really surprised. When no immediate announcement was made following the finale of the second season of "Enlightened" two weeks ago, the handwriting on the wall was pretty clear for all to see. Still, I am deeply disappointed in HBO. Somehow, I had expected better from them.

The only hope for us devoted fans of the show now is that some other provider of quality television will give writer/director Mike White a call and make him an offer he can't refuse. (Come on, Netflix. You've started something with "House of Cards." "Enlightened" could be your next big venture.)

At the very least, we have two perfect seasons "in the can," so to speak, and we can watch them over and over again. I would actually love to watch the entire series from the beginning once again. There are so many moments there that were meaningful to me, as I identified so strongly with Amy Jellicoe, in all of her naive desire and flailing efforts to make the world a better place.

And at least we have that final episode where Amy was able to see the fruition of her efforts and where her mother, played by Laura Dern's own mother Diane Ladd, was finally able to perhaps understand her strange child a little and maybe even be proud of her. Ladd's smile in that closing montage brought tears to my eyes and brings tears to my eyes again as I remember it. So much was conveyed in that smile.

That was just one vignette where much was relayed to the viewer with few or no words. There were so many such vignettes in this wonderful series. I mourn the fact that there will be no more.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ten years later

Ten years ago today, the United States initiated a war against a nation which had not attacked it and which posed no viable threat to it. It invaded the sovereign country of Iraq, based on the lies promulgated by the Bush Administration pursuing its wet dream of remaking the Arab world in some ill-conceived Wild West image of rough justice and democracy.

And the American media and the American people let them do it. Only a few brave voices were raised in protest and those people were called traitors.

We were told that the war would be a cakewalk. It would only last a few weeks. American troops would be greeted as liberators. Iraqi oil (the real reason for the invasion) would pay for the costs of the war; American taxpayers wouldn't be out a dime.

Eight years, thousands of dead and injured Americans and Iraqis, and billions of dollars later, in 2011, it would be left for another president to finally extricate us from this war which his predecessor had chosen.

Certain politicians love to go on and on about "accountability." People need to be held accountable where their actions. Who has been held accountable for all those lives unnecessarily lost or irrevocably ruined? Certainly not any of the politicians who ginned up the war, nor any of the journalists who were their cheerleaders. They're all still in business. You can see them on television most any day of the week.

Three years after the beginning of the war, on March 15, 2006, the organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) had a report that detailed the early assessment of the majority of pundits and reporters regarding the war. It's worth reading again today to remind ourselves of just how deluded these people were and to bear that in mind the next time we hear them pontificating on some subject.
Weeks after the invasion of Iraq began, Fox News Channel host Brit Hume delivered a scathing speech critiquing the media's supposedly pessimistic assessment of the Iraq War."The majority of the American media who were in a position to comment upon the progress of the war in the early going, and even after that, got it wrong," Hume complained in the April 2003 speech (Richmond Times Dispatch, 4/25/04). "They didn't get it just a little wrong. They got it completely wrong."
Hume was perhaps correct--but almost entirely in the opposite sense. Days or weeks into the war, commentators and reporters made premature declarations of victory, offered predictions about lasting political effects and called on the critics of the war to apologize. Three years later, the Iraq War grinds on at the cost of at least tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Around the same time as Hume's speech, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas declared (4/16/03): "All of the printed and voiced prophecies should be saved in an archive. When these false prophets again appear, they can be reminded of the error of their previous ways and at least be offered an opportunity to recant and repent. Otherwise, they will return to us in another situation where their expertise will be acknowledged, or taken for granted, but their credibility will be lacking."
Gathered here are some of the most notable media comments from the early days of the Iraq War.
Declaring Victory"Iraq Is All but Won; Now What?"(Los Angeles Times headline, 4/10/03)
"Now that the combat phase of the war in Iraq is officially over, what begins is a debate throughout the entire U.S. government over America's unrivaled power and how best to use it."(CBS reporter Joie Chen, 5/4/03)
"Congress returns to Washington this week to a world very different from the one members left two weeks ago. The war in Iraq is essentially over and domestic issues are regaining attention."(NPR's Bob Edwards, 4/28/03)
"Tommy Franks and the coalition forces have demonstrated the old axiom that boldness on the battlefield produces swift and relatively bloodless victory. The three-week swing through Iraq has utterly shattered skeptics' complaints."(Fox News Channel's Tony Snow, 4/13/03)
"The only people who think this wasn't a victory are Upper Westside liberals, and a few people here in Washington."(Charles Krauthammer, Inside WashingtonWUSA-TV, 4/19/03)
"We had controversial wars that divided the country. This war united the country and brought the military back."(Newsweek's Howard Fineman--MSNBC, 5/7/03)
"We're all neo-cons now."(MSNBC's Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)
"The war was the hard part. The hard part was putting together a coalition, getting 300,000 troops over there and all their equipment and winning. And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but it is not as hard as winning a war."(Fox News Channel's Fred Barnes, 4/10/03)
"Oh, it was breathtaking. I mean I was almost starting to think that we had become inured to everything that we'd seen of this war over the past three weeks; all this sort of saturation. And finally, when we saw that it was such a just true, genuine expression. It was reminiscent, I think, of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And just sort of that pure emotional expression, not choreographed, not stage-managed, the way so many things these days seem to be. Really breathtaking."(Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly, appearing on Fox News Channel on 4/9/03, discussing the pulling down of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, an event later revealed to have been a U.S. military PSYOPS operation--Los Angeles Times, 7/3/04)
Mission Accomplished?"The war winds down, politics heats up.... Picture perfect. Part Spider-Man, part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan. The president seizes the moment on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific."(PBS's Gwen Ifill, 5/2/03, on George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech) 
"We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits."(MSNBC's Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)
"He looked like an alternatively commander in chief, rock star, movie star, and one of the guys."(CNN's Lou Dobbs, on Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' speech, 5/1/03)Neutralizing the Opposition
"Why don't the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today."(MSNBC's Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)
"What's he going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it's over? I mean, don't these things sort of lose their--Isn't there a fresh date on some of these debate points?"(MSNBC's Chris Matthews, speaking about Howard Dean--4/9/03)
"If image is everything, how can the Democratic presidential hopefuls compete with a president fresh from a war victory?"(CNN's Judy Woodruff, 5/5/03)
"It is amazing how thorough the victory in Iraq really was in the broadest context..... And the silence, I think, is that it's clear that nobody can do anything about it. There isn't anybody who can stop him. The Democrats can't oppose--cannot oppose him politically."(Washington Post reporter Jeff Birnbaum-- Fox News Channel, 5/2/03)
Nagging the "Naysayers""Now that the war in Iraq is all but over, should the people in Hollywood who opposed the president admit they were wrong?"(Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes, 4/25/03)
"I doubt that the journalists at the New York Times and NPR or at ABC or at CNN are going to ever admit just how wrong their negative pronouncements were over the past four weeks."(MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, 4/9/03)
"I'm waiting to hear the words 'I was wrong' from some of the world's most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.... I just wonder, who's going to be the first elitist to show the character to say: 'Hey, America, guess what? I was wrong'? Maybe the White House will get an apology, first, from the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. Now, Ms. Dowd mocked the morality of this war....
"Do you all remember Scott Ritter, you know, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector who played chief stooge for Saddam Hussein? Well, Mr. Ritter actually told a French radio network that -- quote, 'The United States is going to leave Baghdad with its tail between its legs, defeated.' Sorry, Scott. I think you've been chasing the wrong tail, again.
"Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong. Maybe, just maybe, these self-anointed critics will learn from their mistakes. But I doubt it. After all, we don't call them 'elitists' for nothing."(MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, 4/10/03)
"Over the next couple of weeks when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing, the fact that this war was attacked by the left and so the right was so vindicated, I think, really means that the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years."(Fox News Channel's Dick Morris, 4/9/03)
"This has been a tough war for commentators on the American left. To hope for defeat meant cheering for Saddam Hussein. To hope for victory meant cheering for President Bush. The toppling of Mr. Hussein, or at least a statue of him, has made their arguments even harder to defend. Liberal writers for ideologically driven magazines like The Nation and for less overtly political ones like The New Yorker did not predict a defeat, but the terrible consequences many warned of have not happened. Now liberal commentators must address the victory at hand and confront an ascendant conservative juggernaut that asserts United States might can set the world right."(New York Times reporter David Carr, 4/16/03)
"Well, the hot story of the week is victory.... The Tommy Franks-Don Rumsfeld battle plan, war plan, worked brilliantly, a three-week war with mercifully few American deaths or Iraqi civilian deaths.... There is a lot of work yet to do, but all the naysayers have been humiliated so far.... The final word on this is, hooray."(Fox News Channel's Morton Kondracke, 4/12/03)
"Some journalists, in my judgment, just can't stand success, especially a few liberal columnists and newspapers and a few Arab reporters."(CNN's Lou Dobbs, 4/14/03)
"Sean Penn is at it again. The Hollywood star takes out a full-page ad out in theNew York Times bashing George Bush. Apparently he still hasn't figured out we won the war."(MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, 5/30/03)
Cakewalk?"This will be no war -- there will be a fairly brief and ruthless military intervention.... The president will give an order. [The attack] will be rapid, accurate and dazzling.... It will be greeted by the majority of the Iraqi people as an emancipation. And I say, bring it on."(Christopher Hitchens, in a 1/28/03 debate-- cited in the Observer, 3/30/03)
"I will bet you the best dinner in the gaslight district of San Diego that military action will not last more than a week. Are you willing to take that wager?"(Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, 1/29/03)
"It won't take weeks. You know that, professor. Our military machine will crush Iraq in a matter of days and there's no question that it will."(Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, 2/10/03)
"There's no way. There's absolutely no way. They may bomb for a matter of weeks, try to soften them up as they did in Afghanistan. But once the United States and Britain unleash, it's maybe hours. They're going to fold like that."(Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, 2/10/03)
"He [Saddam Hussein] actually thought that he could stop us and win the debate worldwide. But he didn't--he didn't bargain on a two- or three week war. I actually thought it would be less than two weeks."(NBC reporter Fred Francis, Chris Matthews Show, 4/13/03)
Weapons of Mass DestructionNPR's Mara Liasson: Where there was a debate about whether or not Iraq had these weapons of mass destruction and whether we can find it...Brit Hume: No, there wasn't. Nobody seriously argued that he didn't have them beforehand. Nobody.(Fox News Channel, April 6, 2003)
"Speaking to the U.N. Security Council last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell made so strong a case that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is in material breach of U.N. resolutions that only the duped, the dumb and the desperate could ignore it."(Cal Thomas, syndicated column, 2/12/03)
"Saddam could decide to take Baghdad with him. One Arab intelligence officer interviewed by Newsweek spoke of 'the green mushroom' over Baghdad--the modern-day caliph bidding a grotesque bio-chem farewell to the land of the living alongside thousands of his subjects as well as his enemies. Saddam wants to be remembered. He has the means and the demonic imagination. It is up to U.S. armed forces to stop him before he can achieve notoriety for all time."(Newsweek, 3/17/03)
"Chris, more than anything else, real vindication for the administration. One, credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Two, you know what? There were a lot of terrorists here, really bad guys. I saw them."(MSNBC reporter Bob Arnot, 4/9/03)
"Even in the flush of triumph, doubts will be raised. Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption? (Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.) What about remaining danger from Baathist torturers and war criminals forming pockets of resistance and plotting vengeance? (Their death wish is our command.)"(New York Times' William Safire, 4/10/03)

And those were the prevailing opinions in 2003. Anyone who disagreed was shouted down. This is a very good argument for remembering Mark Twain's observation that "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."

This tenth anniversary of an unnecessary war seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect and to remember the lives lost and blighted because someone wanted glory - a good time to pledge that we will be more skeptical next time someone tries to push or lead us into a war.

UPDATE: And Joe Scarborough hasn't learned a damned thing! Moreover, he's just as dishonest and self-serving as ever.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian: A review

Jack Aubrey is such a dunderhead on land. On sea, captaining a ship of His Majesty's Navy,  he may be canny and virtually invincible - "Lucky Jack" they call him - but on land, his only luck seems to be bad and it's the luck that he makes for himself through utterly foolish decisions. 

Time and again he's had to be rescued by his friend, the ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. That will be the case again in The Surgeon's Mate, seventh in Patrick O'Brian's excellent historical naval fiction series of the Napoleonic War period.

This book is a continuation and completion of the tale begun in part six of the series, The Fortune of War. Jack and Stephen have been ordered home by dispatch vessel from Halifax, following their escape from captivity by the Americans in Boston. 

With them is Diana Villiers, Stephen's long-time love, who escaped from Boston and an abusive relationship, with the two. Her presence is enough to goad her former lover, a rich and powerful man, to engage two privateers to try to stop them and bring them back. The privateers chase the vessel carrying the escapees through the dense fogs of the Grand Banks, culminating in a surprising denouement.

At home again in England, Jack learns that, yes, he really has been a dunderhead - in so many ways. His fortune is at risk as is his personal happiness with Sophie and his three children because of stupid decisions on his part. If only he could be given command of a ship and go to sea again, ironically the one place where he does not feel all "at sea"!

His chance soon comes.

Stephen is directed to travel to the Baltic area to make contact with a Catalan group there and bring them on board with England's struggle against Napoleon. He suggests that his friend Jack be given a ship with orders to travel to the Baltic, so that they can, once again, sail together. The Admiralty makes it so and the two friends head out on the continuation of their adventure.

First, though, Stephen has traveled to Paris, taking Diana along with him and he has installed her there. Her situation regarding citizenship is somewhat precarious and it is felt that she will be safest there.

The trip through the Baltics becomes one hairy escape after another as Stephen attempts to fulfill the assignment given him, and, as always, takes time along the way to observe the interesting bird life.

And, in the end, Lucky Jack Aubrey proves that sometimes even a dunderhead's luck will hold on land.

The book is up to O'Brian's usual standards, which is to say it is a quick and interesting read with the unexpected bits of humor thrown in to keep the story moving. And, as always, it is full of naval lore, but that needn't slow you down unless you want it to and, like some readers I know, you have to understand every word and term you see in print, no matter how abstruse. Personally, I find that it is perfectly possible to keep up with the flow of the story even if you don't know a mizzen topgallant staysail from a spanker. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Digging

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, here's a poem from an Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.

I love the point that he makes - that we each dig in our own way, some with a spade, some with a pen. And some perhaps with a word processor. Whatever implement we use, we are all digging after truth and understanding and always seeking to make our mark on the world.
Digging by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What about the needs of everybody else's children?

With mounting anger, I read the report of Republican senator Rob Portman's "coming out" in favor of allowing same-sex marriage because he learned that his son was gay. While he was receiving plaudits and pats on the back from many liberals for his willingness to change his views when it became convenient for him and his family, I just couldn't join in the praise. 

He was fine with discriminating against homosexuals as long as he thought it didn't affect him, but when he learned that it actually did affect him, he about-faced and announced he would support the rights of two gays to marry because his son was gay. My first thought was, "What about all those other people's children, Rob? Don't they count? What about their rights?"

I mean, after all, Rob is an elected representative of the state of Ohio, where, I feel reasonably sure there are a few gay sons and daughters of his constituents, but he wasn't concerned about representing or protecting the rights of "THOSE PEOPLE." It was only when the issue hit home that it became important to him. And to whom did he turn for advice? That other totally self-serving advocate for same-sex marriage, Dick Cheney, who saw the light on the subject because his own daughter is a lesbian.

By the time I reached the end of the article about Portman's "brave" decision and his attempts to absolve himself of any guilt through references to his "deep religious belief," I was just about ready to throw up. Instead, I turned to Paul Krugman's blog, where I found, as he often does, he had already expressed my feelings more eloquently than I could. So, let me just borrow (steal) a few of his words.
...Sen. Rob Portman has made headlines by declaring his support for gay marriage after learning that his own son is gay, and apparently we’re supposed to praise him for his new enlightenment. But while enlightenment is good, wouldn’t it have been a lot more praiseworthy if he had shown some flexibility on the issue before he knew that his own family would benefit?
I’ve noticed this thing quite a lot in American life lately — this sort of cramped vision of altruism in which it’s considered perfectly acceptable to support only those causes that are directly good for you and yours. We even have a tendency to view it as “inauthentic” when people support policies that aren’t in their self-interest — when a rich man supports higher taxes on the rich, he’s somehow seen as strange, and probably a hypocrite.
Needless to say, this is all wrong. Political virtue consists in standing for what’s right, even — or indeed especially — when it doesn’t redound to your own benefit. Someone should ask Portman why he didn’t take a stand for, you know, other people’s children. 
Yeah, what he said.

Portman's reasoning and his actions are just the perfect example of the typical thinking of today's Republican Party. Issues are only important if they affect them and theirs. Those things which matter to the rest of us are worth less than zero.

As someone (I forget who or I would give him/her credit) noted, if only some Republican's son or daughter would come out "poor," perhaps the poorest among us might begin to get some Republican love.

Or, here's a thought, Portman has a daughter, too. What if, through some horrible turn of fate, she should need to get an abortion? Would that give him, a professed forced-birther, pause for thought and reflection about the role of government in ordering women's lives?  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The visitor from outer space

The comet Pan-STARRS is (allegedly) visible now in the western skies just after sunset, alongside the setting crescent moon. I had intended to look for it earlier this week, but I was busy with other things and frankly just forgot. But tonight I was out there with my binoculars searching the sky near the moon for some bright object with a tail. I didn't find it.

It was only later, when I was reading about the comet online, that I realized I had been looking in the wrong spot! I was looking in the area to the left of the moon where the comet had been earlier this week. The updates on Pan-STARRS from Sky and Telescope magazine indicate that tonight the bright object with a tail should have been visible to the right of the crescent moon. Lesson learned. In the future, I need to do my research before I go comet-hunting!    

The comet has now passed its brightest point, but it should be visible for a couple of more weeks according to the astronomers, and this helpful chart from Sky and Telescope will give me a better idea of where to look for it tomorrow night.

Tomorrow night again and for the rest of the time that it is visible, the comet should be to the right of the moon - or, that is, to the right of where the moon was on March 12, just above the western horizon after sunset.
Have you looked for this comet? Have you seen it? From what I have read, it is not extremely bright and dramatic, but anytime I can see one of these wanderers from the outer limits, it's a dramatic event for me, even if that wanderer appears faint or fuzzy. So, tomorrow night I'll be searching the skies again. To the right of the moon this time.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Fortune of War by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Fortune of War, sixth entry in Patrick O'Brian's historical tales of the seafaring adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, was first published in 1978, but the writing seems so fresh that it might have been published yesterday.

The two have just survived their adventure among the ice floes of the Antarctic and their stop on Desolation Island. Now, they arrive in the Dutch East Indies to find that Jack has been appointed to command the fastest and best-armed frigate in the Royal Navy, but he must get to England in order to receive his command. 

He and Maturin, along with several of his officers and midshipmen who have been with them throughout their adventures, take passage on a dispatch vessel, but before they can reach their destination, a combination of accidents causes that ship to be burned and all on board are cast into the sea.

Jack and Stephen are picked up by the Java which heads north along the eastern coast of the Americas. They learn, to their dismay, that, in addition to fighting Napoleon and the French, England is now also at war with the United States. What we refer to as the War of 1812 has broken out.

Soon enough, the two friends find themselves in the midst of that war when the Java encounters the U.S.S. Constitution. Not to reveal too much of the plot here, but Stephen and Jack wind up as prisoners of war, transported to Boston, where they get their first-hand experience of America and where Stephen once again encounters the love of his life, Diana Villiers, with unforeseen consequences for all.

As a member of the British Intelligence Service caught in the territory of a country with whom England is at war, Maturin's position is precarious. Moreover, Aubrey has been injured, and the two of them wait anxiously for an exchange of prisoners that will get them back in British hands.

The great selling point of this series, the reason the books remain so popular with so many people, I think, has to do with the remarkable relationship between Maturin and Aubrey, and, not a little, with the sardonic humor with which O'Brian writes. 

This story, in particular, was rich in puns and plays on words. At one point in the narrative, when two weevils crawl out of bread that Aubrey and Maturin are eating, Aubrey asks his friend which of the two he would choose. Maturin, the naturalist, replies that they are both of the same species, but one is slightly bigger, so he will take that one. Aubrey laughs uproariously and tells him he must remember to "always choose the lesser of two weevils." Reading this very late at night produced an uncontrolled belly laugh in this reader.

On another occasion, while they are prisoners in America, Stephen learns that the Americans may be wrongly focusing on Aubrey as the intelligence agent. He explains this to Jack and gives him some advice on how to act and then says, to comfort him:
"But do not be concerned; as I say, it will soon blow over."

"Oh," said Jack, laughing heartily for the first time since their captivity, "I am concerned. If they suspect me of intelligence, I am sure it will soon blow over, ha, ha, ha!"

"Well," said Stephen, smiling, "you are not above playing on words, I find. So good night to you, now; I am going to turn in early, because I too wish to be intelligent tomorrow."
That snippet of conversation reveals a bit of the essence of the relationship between these characters and what makes them so attractive to me as a reader. 

As always, there is enough naval jargon and lore here to satisfy the most avid fan of such writing. As for me, I admit that I glide right over a lot of that in order to get to the meat of the conversations which are such a delight to me. 

But I find that, truly, it is not necessary to be an expert on naval history or even particularly well-informed on naval history in order to get the gist of the action and to understand the flow of the narrative. I think the books work for all levels of readers of naval histories - of which I am probably the lowest rank.

The ending of this book left me wanting more, wanting to know what happens next. I don't think it will be very long before I pick up the next book in the series to find out where the adventures of Maturin and Aubrey will take them.