Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Note to my readers

To those of you who may have noticed my recent blog silence and wondered about it, the truth is that I have been quite sick. A bacterial infection has flattened me and made it impossible for me to do much of anything, including blogging. I hope to be feeling better soon and back to my normal activities. Meantime, thank you for your patience.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Aimless Love

Billy Collins, who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary American poets, has a new book of poetry just out. It's called Aimless Love and includes a collection of his poems, both old and new, from the past several years.  Here is the title poem from the collection.


This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.
The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.
No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.
No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then
for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.
But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,
so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.
 - Billy Collins

As one who has been known to fall in love with a wren building a nest, the sensation of the sun on my face on a chilly day, the sound of rain on the roof at night, I think I know exactly what Collins is getting at here. It's love without any expectation of reciprocation. Maybe it is the best kind of love.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa Gregory: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Philippa Gregory's tales about the women of the Cousins' War (or War of the Roses as it later came to be known) continues with this fourth in the series, The Kingmaker's Daughter.

The kingmaker referred to was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, whose prowess on the battlefield and in the political arena made him one of the most powerful men in fifteenth-century England. He cast his lot with the Yorks in the internecine war and helped them to gain the throne, but, always, his main aim was to put his own family on that throne. He did not have any sons and so his two daughters were used as his pawns in his political ploys to achieve greatness for his family.

Those two daughters were Anne and Isabel and, of course, the only use for daughters was to get them married advantageously. Meantime, he was successful in getting the York son, Edward, onto the throne where he became Edward IV. Warwick's plan was that he would be the power behind the throne, that he would in all except title be the king of England. Unfortunately for him, Edward did not prove an amenable subject for his machinations, primarily because of his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who became in fact the power behind the throne and advanced her own family into positions of power, wealth, and influence.

Edward had two brothers, George and Richard, and as Warwick became disenchanted with the king, he schemed to replace him with his brother George. After he first got George married to his daughter Isabel. Again, his best laid plans went awry, when, on the battlefield, George abandoned Warwick and again joined his brother, the king.

The kingmaker's backup plan was to marry his younger daughter Anne advantageously and pave the way for her to attain the throne. He turned his coat and allied himself with the Lancasters for this purpose. Anne was married to a Lancaster, but, on the battlefield, with the Lancastrian forces arrayed against the York brothers, both the kingmaker and his Lancaster son-in-law were killed, leaving Anne fatherless and a widow of barely sixteen.    

After this debacle, Anne's mother is in sanctuary and her sister Isabel is married to the enemy (George). But then her fortunes turn when she is discovered and courted by her childhood friend, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward IV's youngest brother. They marry secretly for love and that marriage puts Anne on a collision course with the powerful queen and her family.

The rest of the story follows the well-known series of events mined so successfully by Shakespeare in his plays about that period. ("Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York...")

Gregory, as always, tells her story from a woman's perspective, in this case Anne, the younger daughter, whom we meet as a delightful child of eight and watch her progress to finally sit on the throne when Edward dies, George is executed as a traitor, and Richard, the loyal brother and Anne's husband, finally finds himself in a position of power from which he takes the throne, ousting the powerful Elizabeth Woodville and imprisoning her two sons, his nephews, in the Tower of London. But the crown sits uneasily on Anne's head. She has come to believe that Elizabeth Woodville is a witch and that she has cursed Anne and her family because Anne's father had executed Elizabeth's father and brother. Anne becomes more and more paranoid in this belief and, indeed, certain things which happen in her life do seem to give her some evidence for her fears.

The writer weaves all of the known historical facts, along with her own imaginings of what happened, and comes up with a plausible and intriguing take on the characters and the events of this turbulent period in English history. In this telling, both Anne and her husband, Richard III, come across as sympathetic characters who were just trying to do the best for England and save it from bad rulers.

Gregory's style of writing can sometimes be rather turgid, but I found that this book flowed agreeably in the telling and I was never bored. It was a good read.    

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Common Buckeye butterfly

Common Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia, in three poses.

The Common Buckeye is a beautiful and strikingly marked butterfly that is supposedly present in my area of Southeast Texas throughout most of the year, but I see it most often in autumn and I think of it as an autumn visitor. With its prominent eyespots and the wide white bar across its forewing tips, it is definitely one of the most easily identified butterfly species that appears in my backyard.

It is a relatively common butterfly and it is resident throughout the southern states and into Mexico. It cannot long survive freezing temperatures at any stage of its life cycle, but in some of our milder winters here, I will see the butterfly around my yard into December and even January. In the spring, it moves northward quickly and colonizes most of the United States and all the way into southern Canada. It may produce two or three generations before fall adults begin their southward migration. Those arriving adults along with the ones that are produced by our local population swell the ranks of these fliers which is why I see more of them in autumn.

Buckeyes like to be in open, sunny locations. They will congregate in fields, dunes, along roadsides, and, yes, in backyards. They will often sit with open wings while nectaring at flowers, as the one in my photograph shows, or while basking in the sun, especially on cool mornings. They also like to congregate at mud puddles to sip moisture.

They are wary butterflies and are quick to fly when they detect the slightest movement nearby. This sometimes makes them difficult to photograph.

Larval food plants for the Buckeye mostly include members of the snapdragon (Scrophulariaceae) and acanthus (Acanthaceae) families and we can help to encourage the presence of these butterflies by planting plants from these families in our gardens. Personally, I want to do everything I can to encourage these beautiful visitors.     

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Soulless bastards

Anyone who averts his eyes from the hopeless lives many of our fellow citizens lead and tells himself and others that these men and women only have themselves to blame, is either a fool or a soulless bastard.   - from "Bleak House" by Charles Simic, writing in The New York Review of Books 

It seems to me that what is truly wrong with American society is that it is overrun by soulless bastards, people who have no concept of or empathy for what the lives of their fellow citizens who are less financially successful are like. Charles Simic writes movingly of these people in his piece that I quoted from above.

They are people whose lives are totally invisible to a certain segment of society. It is unfortunately a powerful segment, this soulless bastard segment. This country that once waged a noble "War on Poverty" often seems to have waved the white flag to the bastards and has given up the battle to try to assist in making life better for millions of its less fortunate citizens.

The most obvious examples of this mind-set are in our dysfunctional Congress that continues to insist on cutting back on the food stamp program and extended unemployment benefits while the unemployment rate is still high and the economy is still struggling to rebound from the Great Recession of 2008. Their theory is that such programs discourage recipients from finding jobs or from finding better jobs because they are worried they will lose benefits. These are people who quite often are working two or even three minimum wage jobs just to survive and support their families and the millionaire congressmen are so very concerned that offering them a very little help encourages them to be lazy!

And then we have the efforts of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives which has struggled mightily to overrule the Affordable Care Act and deny health care to millions of Americans, even though the law was debated, voted on and passed by a majority of the House and Senate, was signed into law by the president and its constitutionality was ratified by the Supreme Court. These are people who do not believe in the rules of governance that apply to a representative democracy. They are essentially anarchists who believe in every man for himself and survival of the strongest (i.e., richest), death to the weakest (i.e., poorest).

But the Republicans in Congress are not alone in their soulless bastardhood. We have billionaires in this country who have devoted a sizable portion of their fortunes to deepening the misery of their fellow citizens by denying them health care or any type of assistance from the government, as well as trying to stop regulations meant to make their air, water, food, drugs, and environment safer. These are people like the notorious Koch brothers with their fake grassroots organizations like Americans for Prosperity, or Tea Party Patriots, Club for Growth, Young Americans for Liberty, Freedom Works, etc. If it is an organization that has a name that includes the words "patriots," "liberty," "freedom," or "prosperity," you can almost be guaranteed that it is being financed by some billionaire with an axe to grind.

(I don't mean to tar all billionaires with the same brush. After all, we have people like Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett and many others less well-known who give enormous amounts of their wealth to causes around the world that make the lives of millions of people better.)

All of those aforementioned faux grassroots groups have spent millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars since the Affordable Care Act was passed to spread disinformation about it and to convince the gullible among us that catastrophic harm will be caused to the economy by providing health care to the uninsured. Their campaign is driven by the cynical political calculation that if the program is allowed to proceed and succeed the population will be so grateful to the Democratic Party for providing it that their opponents will suffer a severe electoral disadvantage. But, frankly, it also seems driven by a streak of pure malice and sadism which marks a total indifference to the suffering of others.

Our society has allowed too much power to fall into the hands of these soulless bastards. We need to remember once again that we are all in this together and that if one of us is suffering it weakens the whole. Selfishness and greed are not the bases of a strong society and we need to reject them by rejecting the emissaries who preach their gospel. Inclusiveness and a just society where everyone has a chance to succeed is what we should strive for, and we need to elect officials who will help us to achieve that and throw out the soulless bastards who are obstructing the way.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Twelfth Song of Thunder (Navajo Tradition)

The Navajo culture has long interested me. Their spiritual view of Earth and of all the universe and the relationship of all things is an idea which I find particularly resonant. 

The center of their belief system - at least in my understanding - is their concept of beauty. By beauty, they simply mean being in balance and harmony. They strive toward the "Beauty Way," a life based on balance and harmony.

When I came across the following poem while searching the Poetry Foundation website this week, it evoked images of Nature which I find particularly satisfying and so I decided to make it my poem of the week.

Twelfth Song of Thunder [Navajo Tradition]

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.
The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land. 

(From The Mountain Chant: A Navajo Ceremony.)

For people who live with the constant threat of drought, the "voice of thunder within the dark cloud" certainly would be a welcome voice, a voice that would beautify the land, with its promise of rain. And the "voice of the grasshopper among the plants" is a signal of the harmony that exists in Nature, all things in their place and serving their purpose. Balance and harmony - things worth striving for in all of our lives.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Caturday: The Morris Project

Here's something different for Caturday - an opportunity to actually help cats.

The ASPCA has a grant program through which they provide food and aid to cats in shelters and in need and they have established a unique way that the public can help with that program. All you have to do cat videos! Well, we do that anyway, don't we, so why not do it in such a way as to help cats?

This project is called the Morris Rescue Watch, named for the rescue cat who became a television star back in the 1970s through commercials for 9 Lives cat food. Here's one of those famous commercials.

All you have to do to help is go to the Morris Rescue Watch site (click on the link above) and watch the cat videos there. The ASPCA says:
"The more you watch, the more hungry kitty bellies will be filled! Through our grants program, the ASPCA will be distributing the entire amount of food as in-kind donations nationwide to shelters, rescues, and other animal welfare groups that help feed cats in-need and at-risk."
The ASPCA website lists the organizations that will be benefiting from the project.

So, what are you waiting for? Go watch some cat videos and feed a hungry cat! The more you watch, the more cats get fed.

(A hat tip to bookworm at Ramblin' with AM for bringing this project to my attention.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Die Trying by Lee Child: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Die Trying is the second in Lee Child's blood-spattered thriller series featuring his superman Jack Reacher. In this entry in the series a lot of the bloodletting is done by the bad guys rather than by Reacher. And they are very bad guys indeed.

Reacher becomes involved in this adventure while innocently walking down a street in Chicago. He encounters a young woman coming out of a dry cleaner's shop with several outfits in one of her arms and an aluminum crutch in the other arm. She is struggling to manage the door, the crutch, and the clothes and drops the crutch. Reacher stops to help and as he returns her crutch to her, the two find themselves confronted by two armed men. By the curb is a car with a third man as driver. They are forced into the car by the men, the victims of a broad daylight kidnapping.

The two are then transferred into a paneled van and a long trip across country begins. Since the van is closed, they have no idea which way they are headed or why. Why have they been kidnapped?

It turns out that the young woman is an FBI agent with connections to some very high level people in the government. She was the target of the kidnapping. Jack Reacher was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The trip continues for days with the group stopping at night at abandoned farms. Reacher and Holly Johnson, the FBI agent, are handcuffed and locked in the barns at night. At one of the stops one night, one of the kidnappers decides to rape Holly. She fights back and Reacher manages to pull his chain out of the wall and attacks and kills the would-be rapist. He breaks out of the barn, hides the body in a ditch, and in the morning the trip continues after the other two kidnappers are unable to find their companion.

They are headed west and eventually they arrive at their destination, a desolate corner of Montana. This corner of Montana, it develops, is owned by the Montana Militia, an extremely violent, racist, secessionist, conspiracy theory-adhering group led by a cruel sociopath, that is intent on declaring independence from the United States and setting up their own state for white people only. These are the people in whose clutches Holly and Reacher find themselves. Their future does not look promising.

I read Die Trying while the United States was suffering through a government shutdown engineered by delusional right-wing bomb-throwers. It was stunning how statements by many of those modern-day bomb-throwers sounded as if they had come from the mouths of Child's fictional Militia members from the 1990s. They might have learned their lines from this book: There is a worldwide conspiracy to make the U.N. a world government and the president is part of that conspiracy. The black helicopters are coming to take people's guns and their liberties - of course, these people always equate guns with liberties. White people are being downtrodden and their rights abridged by the darker races. It is all a lot of utter nonsense, but there are elected representatives in this country who spout these lines with utter conviction and straight faces.

Child's portrayal of the militiamen actually seemed quite realistic to me and his writing about the FBI's structure and operations was interesting. His Jack Reacher continues to be blessed with the powers of a superhero. You feel that if he really wanted to he would be able to leap tall buildings - or mountains - in a single bound, but he meets his match here in Holly Johnson, who is every bit as capable of killing bare-handed or with weapons that she has fashioned out of the materials at hand as is Reacher. Together, even with Holly injured and using a crutch, they are a formidable team.

One can be assured that in these thrillers the bad guys are always going to be punished and there is a degree of guilty satisfaction in that. But the stories also require that a lot of innocent people are punished, too, often in quite cruel ways that are difficult to read about. That cruelty, of course, is what makes the punishment of the bad guys acceptable.

Another thing one can be sure of is that there will be non-stop action from the first page to the last. Reading these books is a bit of a roller coaster ride, sometimes heart-stopping, always entertaining.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Houston Chronicle editorial board are idiots

When we endorsed Ted Cruz in last November's general election, we did so with many reservations and at least one specific recommendation - that he follow Hutchison's example in his conduct as a senator.    - Houston Chronicle's mea culpa editorial for endorsing Ted Cruz for senator.
The Houston Chronicle is not known for its courageous and incisive editorials, but it may have set a new record for obtuseness yesterday with its whining about how their preferred candidate for the Senate from Texas, Ted Cruz, has not followed their advice and lived up to the example set by former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Of course, then they followed that up with a weasel statement about how, no, they were not unendorsing Ted Cruz! Way to go, guys. Way to try to have it both ways.

It was never a mystery what kind of senator Ted Cruz was going to be. The campaign he ran fully revealed him as a self-serving political nihilist only concerned with advancing the cause of Ted Cruz. He was and is a complete narcissist, lacking in empathy and concern for the effect of his actions on others. For any person of normal intelligence paying attention to last year's senatorial campaign, that was perfectly obvious. Apparently, that description did not include the Chronicle's editorial board which is now so disappointed that Cruz turned out to be exactly the kind of politician that he had said he would be, i.e., as someone aptly characterized him "a showboating far-right bomb thrower," and not the kind of  responsible moderate which they now praise Hutchison for being.

It's true that the Chronicle cannot be blamed for Cruz's electoral victory. I'm sure that their endorsement had exactly zero effect on the outcome. Even so, there was a more honorable and sane - and moderate in the mold of Hutchison - choice available to them. His name was Paul Sadler and he was the Democratic candidate. He's no bomb-thrower and he would have represented Texas with dignity and intelligent pragmatism.

But the Chronicle, as it almost always does, took the path of least resistance not the path of courageous and responsible journalism, because they are in thrall to their vociferous tea party readers and they knew they would get angry letters and possibly subscription cancellations if they endorsed a Democrat. So they gave their "vote" to the radical reactionary candidate and now they regret that he turned out to be exactly as advertised. Sorry, guys, you don't get a do-over. He's your candidate and you are stuck with him.

Will they learn from this experience? Not likely. I can practically guarantee that in the next state-wide election they will again endorse the candidate who loudly proclaims that he is "the most conservative" without any consideration given to the candidate who may be open to pragmatism, moderation, and bipartisanship. Because that's just the way these idiots roll.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Bumblebees

Bumblebee on Mexican firebush (Hamelia patens).

Bumblebees are one of the few members of the insect world that most people actually like. They are a major contingent of the community of pollinators that inhabit my garden, and I find them to be good neighbors. I've worked in and around bees for many years and I've never been stung. Queen and worker bumblebees do have stingers and the capacity to sting, but they are very reluctant to use them. I find that if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.

Bumblebees are large, hairy insects with a lazy buzz and a clumsy-looking, bumbling flight. Most of them, at least in our area, are black and yellow. They are members of the genus Bombus in the family Apidae. They are social insects that are found mainly in northern temperate regions. There are a few that are native to South America and some that are naturalized in New Zealand.

They can range much farther north than honeybees, because they are able to regulate their body temperature. In fact, there are colonies that can be found on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada where it gets quite cold. There have been schemes to introduce bumblebees to other parts of the world where they are not native, but usually such schemes turn out to have unintended consequences (Think about the House Sparrow in North America.) and are not a good idea.

Busy bumblebee on a salvia blossom.

Bumblebees start fresh with a new colony each spring. A queen that had mated the previous year is the mother of the colony. She first produces worker bees that are all female. Eventually, she produces drones (males) and, finally, new queens. At the end of the colony's life, only the new queens survive to start things off again next year.

The bumblebee colony is much smaller than that of the honeybee. A mature colony may contain only 50 individuals.

There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, which actually seems to be apocryphal, that said that without bees to pollinate our food crops, humans would die out within four years. The quote may be apocryphal but the information is probably not far off the mark. If bees died out, it seems certain that life as we know it would cease to exist within a short period of time. There would be much less to eat and it is possible that the human race could die out. At the very least, it is likely that it would be greatly reduced in number.

Bees of all kinds are in trouble today, primarily because of the overuse and misuse of chemical pesticides, loss of habitat, and the effects of global warming. The status of the bumblebee is more secure than the honeybee, but it, too suffers from these maladies. I make sure that no chemical pesticides are used in my garden and that there are plenty of flowers there to provide pollen and nectar. The adults feed on nectar. They use pollen to nourish their young.  

Bumblebees are fascinating critters that make the backyard more interesting. If you are lucky enough to have them in your yard, I hope you will treasure them as I treasure mine.

  The flight of the bumblebee.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blind Justice by Anne Perry: A review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anne Perry's William and Hester Monk series is another long-running mystery series that I have read faithfully and with enjoyment over the years. In recent years, it has lost some of its spark and freshness, but it has still been of interest for Perry's unique understanding and exploration of the social ills of the Victorian era in England. This most recent entry, however, just seems stale and repetitive. I couldn't find much to excite my interest.

Over the years, we've come to thoroughly know the haunted but ultimately honorable Inspector Monk and his compassionate wife, the nurse Hester. We also know well their friend Oliver Rathbone, the brilliant barrister, now elevated to the bench. Rathbone takes center stage in Blind Justice.

Rathbone has only recently become a judge and he has presided over his first case with his usual brilliance. Now he is tasked with a much more difficult case, that of a charismatic minister who is adored by his congregation but who stands accused of corruption and fraud which ruined the lives of many of his parishioners. He had urged these people to give him their money, even when they couldn't really afford to give it. That money was supposedly to be used to aid those who were less fortunate. In fact, most of it seems to have gone into financing a lavish lifestyle for him and his family. (Seems like a story taken from the pages of a modern newspaper, doesn't it?)

The trial appears to be proceeding toward a just outcome. Then, the defense calls a witness, an associate of the minister's, who casts aspersions on and causes doubt about the motives of all those who have testified against the minister. Indeed, he makes them look like fools.

Rathbone becomes aware that he knows something about this witness - something that would call all of his testimony into question. He knows where there is evidence, safely locked away, that could aid the prosecution and help them to overturn the defense witness's statements. Should he give that evidence to the prosecution? Should he recuse himself from the case, even with the knowledge that the prosecution will probably not be able to bring the case again? What is a judge to do when the ethics of his profession and the cause of simple justice conflict? The decision that Rathbone makes is at the heart of this story.

That decision gets him into deep trouble and he needs the help of his friends, William and Hester Monk, to find evidence to extricate him from the difficulties in which he finds himself. Of course, the loyal Monks, as well as their foster child whom they have saved from a life on the streets, are up for the task.

The germ of the idea for this story and its basic outline held promise, but in the execution of the story, Anne Perry again spends, in my opinion, too much time telling us over and over again, ad nauseum, about what upstanding, moral, exemplary citizens William and Hester are and how they have suffered and overcome obstacles, how they are so admired and loved by their friends and associates. I understand that for some people who may be coming to this series for the first time, exposition of the history of the characters is perhaps a necessary thing, but shouldn't once be enough? Is is really necessary to spend page after page throughout the plot revisiting this history? Well, it wasn't necessary for me anyway, and I admit I skipped over some such passages just because I didn't want to read again about how noble these characters are.

I have long admired Perry for her ability to bring the Victorian era to life, particularly in her explication of the inequality which women suffered and the abuse which was often visited upon children. She has always been especially eloquent about the poorest of the poor and the agonies and humiliations which they often endured in an essentially unjust society. But incessant repetition of even heinous examples can reduce one's sensitivity and begin to dull the impulse to empathy. I am afraid that is what's happening to me with these books. Yes, I agree, child abuse is terrible. Sexual exploitation of children is horrific and I certainly don't wish to become inured to it. But there is a sameness to these stories by Perry that makes it harder to react with fresh outrage with each retelling of the tale. I think perhaps it is time for me to move on to something else on my reading list.  

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The long and short of it

I've mentioned here before that I'm not really a fan of the short story. Earlier this year I ventured into the genre to read the much acclaimed short story collection Tenth of December by George Saunders, but it, frankly, left me cold except for a couple of the stories. I couldn't really see what all the shouting was about. Still, since all the critics raved about the book, I had to consider that perhaps my disaffection for it was due to something lacking in myself rather than in the book itself.

Mostly, I am not even tempted to read short stories, but, over the years, there is one short story writer that I have been drawn to and about whose writings I have been curious, even though I have to admit I've never actually read any of them. Now that that writer has been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, it becomes even more urgent that I rise above my unreasoning prejudice and read the works of Alice Munro.

From what I know of Munro's writing, her theme seems to be women and their concerns. She writes about the mundane life of ordinary women. Women like myself. Her topics cover the range of the stuff of our lives: love, security, jealousy, lust, housework, husbands, ambition, aging, boredom, children, and regret. Always regret. She writes of women in poverty and of financially secure and successful women. All of these are subjects that interest me, so why haven't I read her before now? The only excuse seems to have been that aforementioned "unreasoning prejudice" against short stories.

People who give advice to writers always tell them to "write what they know" and Alice Munro knows very well the life of an ordinary woman. She's been a wife and a mother, struggling to carve time out of her busy days for her writing. When her kids were young, she and her husband owned a bookstore. Her life was always full of family concerns. She was 37 before she published her first collection of short stories. She is now 82 and her stories are widely read and loved. She is a best-selling author with a well-balanced life that we might all envy, a woman who seems supremely comfortable in her own skin. She has won practically every literary prize on offer, and now she has capped it all with the Nobel.

No more excuses or delays. I must read this woman's writing. It goes on my "to be read" list for the coming weeks.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Emmett Till

James A. Emanuel, an African-American poet who created poetry out of the scourge of racism, died on September 27 at the age of 92. His death was announced last week.
His poetry has been somewhat neglected, at least in his native country, possibly because he spent much of his long life living in Europe. At the time of his death, he lived in Paris. In addition to his work as a poet, he had served as a professor of English at the University of Grenoble and the University of Toulouse, among others.

Perhaps another reason for the neglect of his poetry is that he never bothered with the trends of the moment or with political correctness. But his poetry about the evils of racism was heart-felt and powerful. Here's one that speaks to me particularly, for many reasons.

Emmett Till *

by James A. Emanuel

I hear a whistling 
Through the water. 
Little Emmett 
Won't be still. 
He keeps floating 
Round the darkness, 
Edging through 
The silent chill. 
Tell me, please, 
That bedtime story 
Of the fairy 
River Boy 
Who swims forever, 
Deep in treasures, 
Necklaced in 
A coral toy.

* In 1955, Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago, for
allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, was murdered
by white men who tied a gin mill fan around his neck and threw his
body into the Tallahatchie River. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Caturday (and Chickenday): Kung Fu Rooster and Black Cat

This short video features perhaps my two favorite domestic animals - cats and chickens. Guess which one is truly chicken!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton: A review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first few pages of this new Sue Grafton book grabbed me, and I looked forward to one of her typically interesting and entertaining reads. But the further I progressed with my reading, the more antsy I got. The story just didn't seem very coherent. It wandered here and there to no discernible purpose. Words, sentences, whole paragraphs seemed thrown in just to increase the word count and didn't appear to this reader to be advancing the story or making the characters' actions more explicable. In the end, I concluded that W is for wordy. Too wordy by far.

I've been reading these Kinsey Millhone adventures ever since A is for Alibi and, on the whole, I've always found them gripping, and, by now, Kinsey seems like an old friend. So, I was very sorry to feel somewhat disappointed and let down by this latest entry.

The story here revolves around the issue of homelessness as exemplified by the homeless population of Santa Teresa, Kinsey's home town. She becomes involved when a homeless man dies one night, of apparently natural causes, in his sleeping bag on the beach. At the morgue, it is discovered that he had a slip of paper in his pocket that had Kinsey's name and phone number on it. There is no other identification, so the coroner calls Kinsey thinking that she might be able to identify him. She dutifully goes to view the body, but she's never seen him before and has no idea why he had her name in his pocket.

Though she was unable to identify him, she is intrigued by the mystery of his identity and decides to investigate further. She finds some of his friends among the homeless community and finally learns his full name. She's then able to trace his sad history and learns that he was convicted and imprisoned for many years for a crime he did not commit. Finally exonerated and released, he visits his three children in Bakersfield only to be rejected by them. He had a favorite uncle who once lived in Santa Teresa and so he comes there, hoping to find relatives.

And guess what relative he turns up? Yep, it seems that Kinsey is a cousin. Although he had never had a chance to contact her, it turns out he had, surprisingly, made a will leaving her all his worldly goods.

His wrongful imprisonment had brought him a settlement of some $600,000 from the state of California and very little of it has been spent. It looks like Kinsey's days of living from paycheck to paycheck may finally be over.  

A few weeks before this death, a shady private investigator named Pete Wolinsky was shot and killed in a bird refuge in Santa Teresa. It looked like a robbery gone wrong, but there were no witnesses and few clues and the police were making little headway in their investigation.

On the surface, these two deaths seemed totally unrelated but as Kinsey dug deeper into the mystery of the homeless man on the beach, she began to discover some strange linkages. And one of those linkages involves a medical researcher who may have been involved in some way with both of the dead men.

It becomes a complicated tale of misunderstandings, betrayals, and, ultimately, outright fraud. And Kinsey finds herself right in the middle of it.

In a long series like this, it is natural to have some ups and downs in the story-telling, and especially near the end of the run, it's easy to see how the writer might run out of steam a bit or perhaps get a little bored with her character. It may be unfair to cast such aspersions on Grafton's work, but, truly, this entry did not meet the standards that I've come to expect from her.

We've still got X, Y, and Z to go. Here's hoping the author gets her mojo back for that final trio of alphabet mystery books.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Dainty Sulphur butterfly

Sometimes you get lucky.

I was sitting on my backyard bench by the pond over the weekend with my camera in my hands because I was trying - unsuccessfully as it turned out - to get some pictures of a red dragonfly. Then, Fate brought me another subject for my photography efforts. A tiny butterfly landed in the grass near my feet and I aimed the camera at it and snapped.

When I looked at the picture later, I realized that it was a butterfly I had never seen before. Actually, it was so small, with a wingspread of perhaps an inch, that it is possible I had seen it before and had simply not noticed it.

That's often the case of some of the tiny butterflies. We are distracted by the Monarchs and the various swallowtails, all large and showy butterflies that grab our attention, and we forget to notice some of the smaller treasures that are right there under our noses.

The Dainty Sulphur certainly qualifies as one of those treasures. It is a pretty little butterfly and the smallest of the family of butterflies known as whites and sulphurs, In fact, it is so distinctive and different from other sulphurs that some taxonomists believe it should be accorded a separate subfamily of its own.

This butterfly is a year-round resident from Guatemala and the West Indies northward to Florida and the southwestern states, including Texas. Its preferred habitat is dry, open areas such as weedy fields and sandy coastal flats. It flies just a few inches above the ground and nectars from a number of different flowers, especially those in the aster family. Congregations of the little butterflies can sometimes be found at mud puddles or on patches of damp sand.

Surprisingly perhaps, this tiny critter is migratory, except for the population in Florida which appears, for unknown reasons, not to migrate. The butterflies expand their range northward during the summer months, pressing on all the way to the northern tier of states where they perish in the winter cold. The next year the northward journey begins all over again.

The caterpillars of the butterfly feed on a variety plants, mainly members of the aster family.

The Dainty Sulphur is present in my area throughout much of the year. Now that I've made its acquaintance, I will be on the lookout for it in the future.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The happy, happy Swiss

It's always interesting to peruse research about which countries have the happiest, healthiest, most contented citizenry, and so, when I saw this headline about Switzerland, of course I had to read the story.

Switzerland is a small, landlocked central European country with few natural resources, and yet it has a strong and thriving economy and, according to all measurements, one of the happiest populations on Earth. How does it achieve this success?

The answer seems to be that it invests strongly in the main natural resource which it does have - its people. According to the World Economic Forum's 2013 Human Capital Report, Switzerland invests more in the health, education, and talent of its people than any other country in the world. To determine this, the Forum examined 51 indicators of how various countries invest in their people and how they are leveraging those investments in terms of productivity and a robust economy. Their director, Saadia Zahidi, says, "Countries that invest in human capital end up getting returns in terms of economic growth. And then countries that have that economic growth are able to reinvest further in human capital. So you have this virtuous cycle that's established."

What a novel concept - a society investing in its people in order to ensure their health, happiness, and success in life, which in turn promotes the economic growth of that society. I wonder what the United States might be able to learn from such a country. Well, the story lists five things that Switzerland can teach the rest of the world about creating a robust economy and a healthy, happy population.

1. They have excellent health care with universal coverage, the healthiest population in the Western Hemisphere, and a government that spends only 2.7 percent of GDP on health care which is only about a third of what we spend.

2. Their people are not only healthy but happy. The country was ranked the world's third happiest country in the UN's 2013 Happiness Report. They have the eighth lowest rate of depression in the world and the country is consistently rated among the countries with the highest levels of well-being.

3. They invest in top-notch education. Among Swiss citizens aged 25-64, 86 percent have earned the equivalent of a high school degree, which is substantially higher than the global average of 74 percent. The Swiss also have higher average test scores in literacy, math, and science.

4. They care about talent and innovation. According to the Forum report, Switzerland is first in the world in innovation, on-the-job training, attracting talent from elsewhere, and for government-provided training. They are number two for pay being related to productivity and number three for retaining their own talent.

5. They've created an environment where people can thrive. The Swiss have created a system that allows people and companies to leverage their human capital. This is enhanced by ease of transportation and internet connectivity which is ensured by governmental policies and actions.

Isn't it interesting how all of these stories about successful countries always begin with "They have excellent health care with universal coverage"? It's one thing that the most successful and happy societies on Earth all seem to have in common.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Manning brothers

I am a baseball kind of person - a faithful fan of the Houston Astros through thick and thin. In recent years, it has been all thin, but never mind. Losing is part of the game. They'll win again, maybe even next year.

So, I don't really pay much attention to football, except that, as I've mentioned here before, I do follow the careers of the Manning brothers. It's a legacy from my youth when I was a big fan of their father, Archie Manning.

I still am a big fan of his and I've transferred that interest and loyalty to his two sons who now play in the NFL. So far this year, Peyton and Eli have given new meaning to the words "thick" and "thin."

Poor Eli and his New York Giants have definitely been on the thin side. They have yet to win a game.

Meantime, the elder brother, Peyton, is riding high and is right in the thick of things. He's already broken several passing and offensive records this season, but I'll bet if you asked him, he would admit that the most fun he's had all year was running for a touchdown on his 37-year-old legs yesterday. The best part about it was that he faked everybody out, including the cameraman.  

That play could almost make me a football fan again.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Poetry Sunday: To Autumn

Autumn with its fog-shrouded mornings and hint of coolness in the air is finally with us. Yellowing and falling leaves and darkness which falls an hour earlier than it did just a few weeks ago. Roadsides ablaze with yellow flowers. Fruit trees bending under their ripened load. Birds gathering to make their journey south. The many joys and beauties of this wonderful season - let's celebrate them this week with a poem by John Keats.

                              TO AUTUMN.
    SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
        Steady thy laden head across a brook;
        Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; 

           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. 

                                          - John Keats

Friday, October 4, 2013

Bring on the stupid

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act this week along with the government shutdown orchestrated by the tea party Republicans has surely brought out some of the most world class stupid reactions recently seen on our political stage. When you consider all the vast stupidity that has occurred in the political arena in recent years, you begin to get a true idea of just how insane this week's actors on the stage have shown themselves to be.

I think the one who tops my own personal list - and, admittedly, he has lots of competition - is Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R. - Texas, of course!) berating a park ranger at the World War II Memorial and telling her that she should be ashamed of herself because the memorial was closed. As if she personally had made the decision to close the memorial when, in fact, it was Neugebauer and his fellow tea party posse members who locked those gates. Neugebauer and other tea partiers, like Michele Bachmann, who showed up to have their pictures taken with World War II veterans who had traveled to the city specifically to see that memorial were shocked, shocked that anyone would dare to close it to the public.

Of course, their outrage was purely for the cameras and it certainly did not extend to all those pregnant women, infants, and children who are not getting their supplemental food this week or all those Head Start kids who have been kicked out of their classes because of the tea party's actions. No, their photo-op outrage only extends to old white guys in wheel chairs.

Another day and another stupid statement from a Texan. This time from our dear leader, Rick Perry. In a campaign appearance in New Jersey this week, Perry opined that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act was a "criminal act." He said, in part, " If this health care law is forced upon this country, the young men and women in this audience are the ones who are really going to pay the price. And that, I suggest to you, reaches the point of being a felony toward them and their future." Perhaps Ricky could benefit from a brief review of the history of  the law.

The Affordable Care Act was passed by the House of Representatives and then by the Senate, after which it was signed into law by the president. It was then reviewed by the Supreme Court and found to be constitutional. After all that, there was this little thing called an election last year in which the candidate for the Republican Party promised that on his first day in office he would repeal the law. The Democratic candidate, President Obama, promised to implement it. The Republican candidate was defeated, rather resoundingly. So, Ricky, I really do not think that word "felony" means what you think it means.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) joined the stupid hit parade by remarking that the president was perfectly willing to negotiate with the Iranians but not with Republicans in Congress. Well, that could be because the Iranians are more reasonable than Republicans in Congress.

And McConnell's teammate, Rand Paul (R-KY) chimed in that so far there had been no debate about Obamacare! Randy, you might want to read two paragraphs back, the paragraph beginning with "The Affordable Care Act was passed..." In fact, the ACA was debated extensively for eighteen months before it was passed and it has been vetted through every branch of the United States government and found to be viable and legitimate.

Finally, the last word in stupid comes from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) who said, "People are probably going to realize they can live with a lot less government than what they thought they needed."

Yep, forget about NASA or NOAA or the National Institutes of Health with their totally unnecessary attempts to find cures for diseases like cancer or the Food and Drug Administration with all those food and drug inspectors. We don't need no stinkin' researchers or inspectors or scientists! At least not in tea party world.

And so, until such time as Speaker John Boehner finds the courage to stand up to the tea partiers and allow a vote on a bill to continue funding the government - a bill that would certainly pass with bipartisan support - the government shutdown and the uncertainty that it brings to our standing in the world will continue. Sad. And so, so stupid.


UPDATE: Another take on the gross stupidity of the moment.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Price of Darkness by Graham Hurley: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Graham Hurley is a very effective writer of police procedurals. He has a sure feel for the way that police officers think and operate and a succinct method of writing about those things that brings them vividly to life.

The setting for Hurley's Faraday/Winter novels is the island city of Portsmouth off England's south coast and its nearby rival city of Southampton. The city is known to locals by the affectionate nickname of Pompey and that is the name that is often used throughout the novels, especially in those sections that are told from DC Winter's viewpoint. It is a city that has a seafaring history - and present - and is mad about its football team. The city and its surrounding area are major characters in these stories. One can't imagine them happening anywhere else.

Throughout the Faraday/Winter series, a recurring character has been the local crime lord Bazza Mackenzie. The police have tried repeatedly to bring him down but have been notably unsuccessful. A kind of grudging respect has grown up over the years between Mackenzie and DC Paul Winter. They can sometimes be found down at the local pub, having a pint together.

As this book opens, we find that that respect has blossomed. Winter, always the iconoclast and outsider, has finally committed one infraction too many and has been kicked off the police force, the only life he has ever known as an adult and the only thing he is really good at. Soon after being cashiered, he was offered a job by Bazza Mackenzie and he took it! It appears that he has gone all the way over to the dark side. Or has he?

Meantime, DI Faraday and the Portsmouth police are investigating the murder of a high-profile local property developer. The murder was accomplished with meticulous planning with virtually no clues being left behind.

Only a few days later, another murder occurs. This one looks like a political assassination, possibly a terrorist action. A low-level government minister is shot in the head while his car is stuck in a traffic jam. The shooter was riding pillion on a motorcycle which was then able to make its escape.

The two murders appear to be unrelated and are investigated on two different tracks by different teams, but as Faraday and his team investigating the property developer's death dig deeper, they begin to find some troubling connections which lead them to think that perhaps the two are somehow related. But how, exactly? Putting the pieces of the puzzle together is never easy.    

It comes as no surprise really when we learn at length that the whole story of drumming Winter out of the police has been a set up. In fact, he has gone undercover to try to infiltrate Mackenzie's organization. But once in that organization, he finds a level of respect and indeed affection for him that he never found with the police. He then finds that his "handlers" with the police have not been especially forthcoming and truthful with him about just what his stint as an undercover agent will mean to his career. All of which makes Winter begin to wonder if perhaps the best career choice for him is to throw in with Mackenzie for real.

The investigation of the two murders eventually uncovers a heartbreaking tale of personal and political betrayal which will be all too familiar to readers who are aware of the economic realities of the bloodthirsty way that big businesses often work in today's society. The Price of Darkness is at its heart a study of the desperate measures that some people will take when society and the institutions they have depended on let them down.

Graham Hurley weaves a modern tale that seems torn from today's news stories. It's a story with which many of us will empathize. Unfortunately, in the end, he leaves a lot of loose ends. Many of the issues raised in Faraday's personal life are left unresolved, as is Paul Winter's status. At the end, we are left believing as we did at the start of the story that Winter has fully signed on to the Mackenzie regime. But is that really true? I guess we'll just have to read the next book to find out for sure.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Eastern Fox Squirrel

The utility wire that runs over the back of our property is a highway for the Eastern Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) that populate my yard. These extraordinarily nimble, agile climbers are able to use the wires to make their way around the neighborhood, even when there isn't a conveniently placed tree. Trees, of course, are their favorite ways of getting from place to place.

The fox squirrel is the largest tree squirrel in North America, bigger than the American Red Squirrel and Eastern Gray Squirrel both of which are sometimes mistaken for this squirrel. It can found over most of the eastern and central United States, west to the Dakotas and Colorado, but is generally not present in New England and most of New Jersey, as well as western New York and northern and eastern Pennsylvania. It can, however, be found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as northern Mexico.

There are three distinct color patterns of fox squirrels in different geographical areas. In the northeast, they are gray above with yellowish underparts and in the south, they are black with a white stripe on the face and white tip on the tail. In the area where I live, in Southeast Texas, they are gray above with rust-colored underparts.

These squirrels live in deciduous and mixed forests and can even be found in cypress and mangrove swamps. They like to dine on many kinds of nuts from those trees, especially acorns, hickory, walnut, beech, mulberry, and hawthorne seeds. They also will eat green shoots and buds, fruits, berries, corn, and insects. They will store nuts for their winter use. They later locate those stores by their keen sense of smell.

Foxy can mate at any time during the year, although their mating frenzy in my yard seems to reach its peak around December. About 45 days after a successful mating, the female gives birth to two to four young, usually in a nest in a hollow tree. If they can't find an appropriate hole in a tree, they will build a leaf nest in a fork of the tree. The young are weaned when they are about eight weeks old and become independent by the age of three months.

Although they are usually solitary animals, I often will see four or five of the squirrels feeding peaceably together in my yard. They feed on the acorns and on birdseeds fallen from my feeders. I also have a squirrel feeder in my front yard, although I am not diligent about keeping it filled and, in fact, it has been empty for a while. It doesn't seem to have bothered "my" squirrels who all look sleek and well-fed.    

Squirrels, of course, adore sunflower seeds and other birdseeds and they will steal from the feeders if they can. I used to have quite a battle with the critters who stole from this feeder in my front yard. Several of them would descend on the site and empty the feeder of seeds in short order. Since I invested in a "squirrel baffle" for the post, that has ceased to be a problem.

Eastern Fox Squirrels can be gregarious and playful and often seem to enjoy chasing each other around and up and down trees. They also have an extensive vocabulary, some of which I've learned to interpret. For example, I understand their warning, "Look out! There's a cat!" There's also a distinct sound they make when there's a hawk in the area. Plus, there's just a lot of chattering that they do back and forth, maybe gossiping about their neighbors or discussing the weather. They are, in fact, great fun to observe and are among my favorite backyard critters.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Best laid plans...

We had planned to visit Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge this week for a spot of autumn birding. It is one of my favorite sites along the Texas Coast to see birds. Ted Cruz and his delusional band of bomb throwers put a stop to those plans.

They've put a stop to vacationers' and sightseers' plans all over the country. Trips that people have planned, in some cases, for months, perhaps their only vacation of the year, have been disrupted by a bunch of tantrum throwers who can't accept the decisions of voters, because they don't really believe in democracy. Like a two-year-old, they are going to hold their breath until they get their way, even if it kills you!

National parks and monuments and other such federal facilities are popular places for travelers, not just from this country but from all over the world. Imagine someone who has traveled halfway around the world and wants to visit the Statue of Liberty or Yosemite National Park while he is here, but when he goes there on the assigned day for his visit, October 1, he finds the place closed, because Republicans are determined to achieve through blackmail what they have not been able to achieve through the ballot box in a full and free election. Such a visitor might be forgiven for thinking that this is no way to run a country. And he would be absolutely right.

It is a mad way to run a country and it must be stopped if we are even to survive as a country. The only way to do that, apparently, is to make the Republicans pay such a heavy electoral price that they will become more reasonable and willing to actually do the work of governing, if not for the sake of the country then at least for the sake of their own political survival.

That won't be easy, given the gerrymandering by Republicans across the country that has made their districts virtually inaccessible to any Democrat, but as disgust grows over the shenanigans of this "Do Nothing but Repeal Obamacare Congress," perhaps the odds might improve just enough to make it possible. One can only hope.

The tea party Republicans' obsession with denying health care to millions of Americans is obscene beyond my ability to describe. I will always believe that that obsession is fueled in great part by racism, by pure hatred of a president whom they consider a usurper because his father was black and his skin is black. They have disrespected him from the day he took office and have never ever tried to work with him in the interests of the people of this country.

On the contrary, they have tried every way they can dream up to wound him personally and to wound his presidency and make it a failure. They were determined to make him a one-term president and when that strategy failed and he was reelected by a wide margin in last year's election, they simply renewed their determination to make him fail by any means available to them, including forcing him to repeal the signature domestic accomplishment of his first term. As The New York Times put it in an editorial today referring to Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Republicans:  
They are desperate to make it appear that Mr. Obama and the Democrats are the ones being intransigent, hoping voters will think that everyone is at fault and simply blame “Washington.” Mr. Boehner even mocked the president on Monday for refusing to negotiate over health reform, as if he actually expected Mr. Obama to join in wrecking a law that will provide health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans under threat of blackmail. (My emphasis.)
The Republicans’ reckless obsession with destroying health reform and with wounding the president has been on full display. And as the public’s anger grows over this entirely unnecessary crisis, it should be aimed at a party and a speaker that are incapable of governing. 
They are incapable of governing. They don't want to govern. They want the government to fail. They don't deserve a seat at the table. Let us hope that when the election takes place next year, voters' memories will be long enough to remember this incident and the plans and lives that have been disrupted and that they will send these clowns back home where they can - it is hoped - do less damage to us all.