Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

A new year is always a chance to begin anew and

 do it better this time. May 2015 bring you joy, 

peace, good health and all good things. 

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Picturing 2014

The end of the year is a time for reflection, for looking back over the year almost gone and remembering. As a part of that process, I've been reviewing some of my blog posts of 2014 and the pictures that accompanied many of them. Here are some of my favorites, most of them from my own backyard.

January - American Goldfinches were everywhere in the garden and at the feeders, still dressed in their winter drab.

February - The leucojums, one of my favorite spring bulbs, were blooming. 

March - I saw and photographed my first Giant Swallowtail butterfly of the year in the garden.

April - Many of the amaryllises were in blossom.

May - The Eastern Bluebirds were already busy with their first family of chicks for the year. The first of three.

June - The Echinaceas were in full flower.

July - Dragonflies in many colors were everywhere! They filled the air of the garden in the late afternoons.  

August - The beautyberries were already ripening and the Northern Mockingbirds had already found them. 

September - The first of the Rufous Hummingbirds had returned and were happily feeding on the Hamelia blossoms.

October - One of my favorite backyard visitors was this little green treefrog.

November - The Whooping Cranes were returning to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast, their winter home.

December - The Christmas cactus was in bloom, right on time. 

And there you have it - one version of my blogging year as told in pictures. Frankly, I've had a blast doing it! Thank you for sharing it with me. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville: A review

The Ghosts of Belfast (Jack Lennon Investigations #1)The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gerry Fegan is a haunted man. The former IRA "hard man" can't escape or turn off the memories of the people he has killed, particularly the innocent and those who didn't need to die.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland had no place for mercy and Fegan had tortured and killed, without compunction, at the behest of his bosses in the movement, those who engineered the deaths of others but never got their hands bloody. Now he is followed day and night by the shadows of twelve people that he killed - twelve people who are seeking vengeance through Fegan against those who ordered and caused their deaths. The only way he will ever find peace is to give them their vengeance, turning his skill in the art of killing against those who directed his activities in the past.

Gerry Fegan, when we meet him, has recently been released from prison, where he served seven years. Prison and all that he experienced there changed him. He has developed a conscience.

He has tried to find release from his torment through liquor, a familiar path in the culture of Northern Ireland. It hasn't helped and now he is seemingly a hopeless drunk and maybe more than a bit insane.

One day, as he goes to visit his mother's grave - the mother who was ashamed of him and who refused to see him on her deathbed - he meets an old lady in the cemetery. She is the mother of a boy that he killed years ago and whose body he hid. The woman begs him to tell her where her son's body is so that she can give it a decent burial. Fegan finds that he cannot refuse her.

The old woman in the cemetery tells Fegan that sooner or later, everybody pays and the dead will set the price. The dead who follow Fegan have set his price: It is the deaths of the instigators of death. From the greedy politicians to the corrupt members of security forces, the street thugs and bystanders and even a priest who allowed it to happen - they all have to pay the price. Then Fegan will be able to sleep through the night without being wakened by the screams of those he tormented and killed.

There is one little problem with Fegan's vendetta. Northern Ireland has finally exhausted its thirst for blood. It has entered a peace process with England and Ireland, and reminding people of the crimes of the past threatens that peace process and could destabilize the country's fledgling government. Many people have reason to want Fegan stopped, to have him gone from the landscape. A double agent named David Campbell, one of those people lost in the nether regions between the forces of law and those of terror, agrees to take on the job of disposing of Fegan.

Meanwhile, as Fegan goes about his own task of tidying up the mess that is Northern Ireland society, he meets a woman named Marie and her little daughter, Ellen. He is drawn to them and reminded of what it is like to care for someone. 

Marie is an outcast of society because she had an affair with a cop named Jack Lennon. He abandoned her when she became pregnant with his child. (Interestingly, this book is styled as the first in the "Jack Lennon" series and yet he never makes an appearance, except in the story that Marie tells.)

This was Stuart Neville's first novel and it is a stem-winder! At a certain point near the end of the book, I could not put it down and I found myself reading far past my normal bedtime, just because I had to know what happened. The story gathers steam from beginning to end, a bit like a runaway train, and the pressure to continue reading is intense. In reading about the book, I learned that it had been nominated for several awards, including best first mystery novel of the year 2009. I am not surprised. I certainly would have voted for it!

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Make Me Strong in Spirit

As we come to the beginning of a new year, here is a prayer to strengthen us, a meditation for our consciousness.

Make Me Strong in Spirit

by Abby Willowroot

Make me strong in spirit,
Courageous in action,
Gentle of heart,

Let me act in wisdom,
Conquer my fear and doubt,
Discover my own hidden gifts,

Meet others with compassion,
Be a source of healing energies,
And face each day with hope and joy.


May 2015 be filled with all good things for you and those you love.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

This week in birds - #139

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

A colorful male Mallard at rest on the calm waters of a pond. Mallards are among the many species of ducks that frequent our area in winter.


Mistletoe is one of the iconic plants of the holiday season, greatly favored by lovers, but did you know that this parasitic plant also provides food, shelter, and nesting places for many animals in Nature, including birds? In fact, some critters could hardly survive without it.


Scientists have been busily redrawing the avian family tree. The new schematic affords a much clearer picture of the interrelationship of many species and of how birds came to be who and what they are.


Now that the governor of New York has banned fracking in his state, environmentalists in other states - like Pennsylvania, for example - are pressuring their state governments to do the same, as evidence mounts regarding some of the hazards of the procedure.


Some people freak out at the idea of having wolves, bobcats, bears, and mountain lions around, but a new study in Europe shows that large carnivores and humans can coexist in an environment without negatively affecting each other.


The California Spotted Owl is the only subspecies of the Northern Spotted Owl that is not protected under the Endangered Species Act, but environmentalists and conservationists are now calling for it to be added to the list of those protected. The owl is endangered by loss of habitat from logging and from wildfires.


When fossilized footprints of dinosaurs are discovered, it generally creates headlines. Fossilized footprints of shorebirds - not so much. But such tiny ancient footprints exist, right there alongside their dinosaur cousins.


If you have spent much time observing butterflies, you've probably noticed that many of them have a noticeable shine or sheen to their wings. How do they get that? Well, it turns out that it comes from an incredibly complex nanostructure of longitudinal ridges and crossribs


"Clean coal" is not a real thing. It is a fantasy created by public relations marketers. There is NOTHING clean about coal or the way it is produced and utilized.


Colombia is one of the richest areas on Earth for diversity of bird life. Thus, it is particularly troubling to learn that 122 species of birds in the country are endangered.


The persistent drought in the southwestern United States is causing some birds, like the tiny Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and the Verdin, to nest later in the year. It is harder to provide for growing chicks and to maintain population numbers in the extremely dry environment.


"Nature in the Ozarks" features a picture of a beautiful and unusual moth endemic to the eastern United States. It is the Green Marvel Moth. Its larvae feed on plants in the viburnum family.


BirdTrends 2014 features information about trends in numbers, breeding success and survival of British birds.


There is an unreasoning bias in some quarters against moths, but, in fact, they are very useful creatures in their habitats. Moreover, many of them are very beautiful. Only a very few species are destructive.


Around the backyard:

Okay, I admit I am beginning to be worried. My yard is still essentially a cardinal-free zone. In past years, Northern Cardinals would disappear from the yard and my feeders for a few weeks in the fall, but by the end of December, they would return in strong numbers. Not this year. My Project FeederWatch weekly reports often do not have any cardinals. I only see one or two a few times a week. What has happened to the birds?  

Another thing. By now, I should be having several Pine Warblers at the feeders, but so far, I have not seen a single one! Now that's just weird.

It's true that we have had an unusually mild fall and winter so far, with no killing frost. Only a couple of times has the temperature flirted with freezing, so perhaps there is still plenty of food in the wild for these birds. But it is very disconcerting to look out at my feeders that are usually covered in birds at this time of year and see...nothing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler: A review

Full Dark House (Bryant & May, #1)Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is sort of Phantom of the Opera meets Sherlock Holmes, with the role of Sherlock being played by Arthur Bryant and Dr. Watson by John May. This was the first in the Bryant and May series featuring the London Police Department's Peculiar Crimes Unit. Some of the crimes here are very peculiar, indeed.

The roots of the mystery are in the World War II period when London is being hit by the Blitz and theater productions are staged with the purpose of keeping the spirits of the populace up. In this instance, the production at the Palace Theatre is a rather risque interpretation of Orpheus in Hades. The theater itself seems to be haunted by a ghostly presence that does not approve and that is attempting to close the show before it opens.

It begins with a dancer in the production being murdered in a particularly cruel way. Her feet are chopped off and thrown away. Two other murders of cast members follow. All are murders that might possibly have been interpreted as accidents, but upon closer scrutiny by members of the PCU are proved to be crimes.

Bryant and May, at this point, are just beginning their careers. They are barely twenty but already display the cranky personalities that they will become well-known for in later years. This is their first case together and we get to be present at the forging of their relationship, a friendship that will last for more than half a century.    

Christopher Fowler switches back and forth between the present and the World War II era in the telling of this story, which I found a bit disconcerting at first, but finally I managed to get into the rhythm of the tale. Fowler takes us from the first case of Bryant and May to what appears to be their last.

We find the octogenarian detectives still working at the Peculiar Crimes Unit in the new century. While doing research for his memoirs, Bryant becomes intrigued by some aspect of that old case, the Palace Theatre murders, and begins reinvestigating. In the midst of his inquiries, a bomb explodes at the offices of the PCU one night and the charred remains of an elderly male along with a set of false teeth are discovered. Based on the teeth, the remains are identified as Arthur Bryant.

John May is devastated by the loss of his old friend and determines to find his killer. He discovers his friend's notes of that first case and sees that he was working on them. May comes to believe that the identity of the killer is to be found somewhere in that first case.

This darkly comic and suspenseful novel is an interesting introduction to a new series. The characters of Bryant and May seem a winning combination. Bryant employs unorthodox techniques of investigation based on intuition and on help from spiritualists and others with alternative views of the universe. May represents the logical and dogged nitty gritty police work side of the team. Together they are a formidable investigative duo.

The plot is filled with unexpected twists and with fascinating characters that keep one guessing throughout. The Full Dark House of the Palace Theatre is a creepy place where one would not want to walk alone at night - or even in daytime. It's good that we have the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit along to keep us safe.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I wish you a merry...whatever!

At this season, whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope they will be happy and peaceful and that you'll have people that you love with whom to celebrate. 

Happy Hanukkah! 

Merry Christmas! 

Happy Kwanzaa! 

Happy holidays! 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My year in books

There have been some really good books published in the last year and I've been fortunate enough to have read a number of them plus having reread a few oldies but goodies from my past. As I look over the list of books that I've read in 2014, it's difficult to pick the cream of the crop, but I've considered each month individually and tried to pick my own personal Book of the Month. For some months, even that has been impossible and I've had to include more than one title. Here, then, is the extended list of my favorite books read (so far) in 2014.

January: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini - In my review of this book, I wrote, "This story stretches all the way from Kabul and the villages of Afghanistan to Paris, Greece, and, finally, San Francisco, but everywhere it goes, it is about family relationships and how we love and take care of those closest to us and what we owe not only to parents, children, and siblings but also uncles, aunts, cousins, and all those with whom we share blood. It is a multigenerational story about how decisions and choices made today can resonate and affect future generations." I gave the book five stars in my rating.

February: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert - In this well-written book that popularizes scientific concepts and principles, Kolbert discusses the five previous mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet and reveals why scientists believe the sixth one is in process.

March: The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol - This book by a French writer is, at its core, about the difference that having enough money makes in a person's life. As a way of getting at that core, the book explores relationships and infidelity and how people deal with all that and the long-term consequences of a well-meaning lie.

April: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri - The main action of this book takes place in post-World War II India as it is attempting to gain its independence from Britain. We experience it through the eyes of two brothers with very different personalities and outlooks and, as the years go by and one of the brothers emigrates to the United States, we see how the personality and memory of the absent brother continue to dominate his life.

May: (1.) Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat - We meet Claire on her seventh birthday which is also the seventh anniversary of her mother's death. It will be a momentous day for this luminous child and her beloved father and the lucky reader gets to experience it all. The novel is set in Danticat'a native Haiti, just before the earthquake that devastated that island nation in 2010.

(2.) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - On the surface, the novel is all about hair, about caring for the hair of black women, but underneath is a rich tapestry of the experience of a Nigerian immigrant to the United States and her experiences upon returning to Nigeria - where she is viewed as an "Americanah."

(3.) The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly - I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Connelly's character, LA lawyer Mickey Haller, someone who I believed might finally be able to fill the hole in my heart left by the absence of Perry Mason.

June: One Hundred Years of Solitude By Gabriel Garcia Marquez - This was a book that I had read many years ago, but after Marquez died this year, I decided to reread it as my homage to him. After all those years, I found it still to be an overwhelming story full of so much detail that it is hard to absorb, but ultimately, a profoundly stunning reading experience.

July: Someone by Alice McDermott - This was a deceptively simple story where nothing very dramatic or earth-shattering happened. Indeed, it is a story about the lives of ordinary people in an ordinary neighborhood in New York. They were people with whom I could easily identify and perhaps that's why I enjoyed the book so much.

August: The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo - This was the tenth and last entry in the Swedish writer couple's ground-breaking police procedural series featuring detective Martin Beck. I loved reading the series and could have put all ten books on my list of favorites for the year, but I settled for the last one, because I think it was my favorite.

September: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - This story of the heroic Bravo Company's return from the war in Iraq to be feted at the Thanksgiving Day football game featuring the Dallas Cowboys - and more particularly, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders - was funny and poignant and insightful in just about equal measures and, in the end, it gave those of us who have never been on a battlefield some sense of just what that must be like.

October: Back Spin by Harlan Coben - I surprised myself by actually liking this third entry in Coben's series featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar. Although I hadn't been too impressed by the two earlier books in the series, this one grabbed and held my attention all the way through.

November: The Plantagenets by Dan Jones - If I had to choose my favorite book of the year, I think it might be this one. This popular history treatment of the first real royal dynasty in English history had all the drama, the blood and the sex of Game of Thrones, but it was for real!

December: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - Admittedly, the month isn't over and I'm still reading, but I don't think I'm likely to find a book that I will enjoy more this month than this tale of the passionate but unlovable ex-math teacher who was the sun at the center of the solar system of the small town of Crosby, Maine. For me, it was one of the many un-put-downable books that I was fortunate enough to encounter this year.

There you have it. My own personal and quirky list of the best of the best of 2014. The list could have been longer. For example, it was very hard for me to leave off The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, the latest entry in her Armand Gamache series, one of my favorites, but after all, one does have to draw the line somewhere! I can only hope to find books that are just as entertaining and enlightening in 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monarchs of winter

Many times in 2014 I've bemoaned the absence of Monarch butterflies from my garden. Their visits have been few and far between. Lately though, and somewhat surprisingly, there seems to have been an uptick in their numbers.

I often see them visiting the late blooms that still hang on in the garden here in late December.

And just this week, I was surprised to see a mating pair in united flight across my backyard. I followed their flight and watched them land high in a limb of my next door neighbor's pine tree.

You can just see them tucked in among the pine needles here. They remained there for at least an hour.

But elsewhere in the garden there was evidence of other Monarch pairings. Checking out some of the milkweed that is still in bloom, there was evidence that it had been munched, but I didn't see the caterpillars that had done it. Then I looked at the fence/screen behind the bed where the milkweed lives and there they were - three fat caterpillars!

Not only were they taking a walk on the fence, but the pellets of poop were proof they had been there for a while. 

I wondered if perhaps they were looking for a place to pupate, although they did not look quite fully grown.

Apparently, they were just enjoying a morning stroll before getting down to the business of eating their way through the milkweed once again, because when I went back to check on them later in the day, they were back on the plant, happily having their lunch.

It was heartening to see this evidence of Monarch fertility. May their tribe continue to increase.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Shortest Day

This poem pays homage to the traditions of Winter Solstice, the time when the old year ends and the new year begins - never mind what our calendars say. It happens today at 5:03 P.M. CST.

As the days have gotten shorter and shorter and grayer and grayer in recent weeks, we've looked toward this day, the demarcation of seasons. Tomorrow the day will be just a little bit longer and a little bit lighter and for that fact we rejoice, knowing that, if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.

The Shortest Day
Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This week in birds - #138

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

The Cedar Waxwings are back! Just in time for the holidays and what a gift they are. A small flock of the nattily dressed birds have been making their way around the yard, renewing acquaintances with all their favorite trees, this week.

I always look forward to seeing that first waxwing in the fall. I know I say this about all my backyard birds, but they really are one of my favorites.


Drought continues to be the big environmental news in the Southwest, even though the recent storms in California have offered some relief to that parched state. Some of the southwestern states have taken steps to reduce the amount of water that they draw from the Colorado River in order to keep from exacerbating the reduced water available to the river system.


A recent study showed that Golden-winged Warblers abandoned their breeding grounds in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in April 2014 just ahead of a devastating system of tornadoes that struck the area. Scientists believe that the birds sensed the coming storms through infrasound and they fled to avoid them. That would not be too surprising. Migrating birds' lives depend on their ability to sense changes in the weather.


One of the arguments of climate change deniers is that even if more carbon is being added to the atmosphere that's a good thing. After all, plants breathe carbon dioxide, don't they? We'll be able to breed races of super-trees! Well, not so fast, the scientists say. It seems that increased carbon only works to spur growth up to a point. Then the trees and other plants max out on their consumption of the greenhouse gas. Those darned scientists! Always throwing cold water on our pet theories with their stubborn facts!   


A study in the U.K. indicates that seabirds are able to avoid those offshore wind turbines that are springing up along the coasts of many countries trying to produce more clean and renewable energy. Gannets in the study avoided the area of the turbines altogether, and even though gulls flew there, they avoided the big blades. 


The "Tetrapod Zoology" blog on Scientific American has an interesting post about one of the most common mammals that we are likely to encounter in the wilds on this continent as well as Eurasia. It explores confrontational behavior in the animals and their bipedal ability. 


A birder who had been kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist group in the Philippines two years ago was recently released. One of the first things he did on gaining his freedom was to post about a critically endangered bird he had seen - the Sulu Hornbill. He included a picture he had taken of the bird before he was captured and warned others to steer clear of the area which is controlled by the terrorists.  


President Obama has had a very busy month, but he found time in it to protect the environmentally important Bristol Bay in Alaska. The Presidential Memorandum withdraws the pristine waters of the bay from which 40% of the nation's wild-caught seafood is harvested from any future oil or gas drilling.


The "Prairie Ecologist" discusses contrasting approaches to prairie management with references to A Sand Count Almanac, Aldo Leopold's seminal work in the field of conservation. 


Oil spilling from a wrecked tanker in Bangladesh is endangering a unique mangrove forest and the rare animals that live there.


Pictures record an encounter between an Oriental Pied Hornbill and two Changeable Lizards. Spoiler Alert: Things did not turn out well for one of the lizards. 


The Arctic is being baked by global warming. It appears that the effects of global climate change are most pronounced there.


Meanwhile, a new report details that few Americans have given much thought to the present or future health effects of a drastic change in the world's climate.


The story of the evolution of modern penguins is written in the bones that show the development from the fossil bird Hesperornis to the current day Chinstraps, Adelies, Emperors, and others. 


We just keep learning more and being amazed by the reasoning abilities of crows. A new study utilizing a pattern-matching game has revealed that they are able to make analogies and recognize repeated actions. Indeed, corvids do seem to be the brainiacs of the bird world.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: A review

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge is a large woman with a loud voice and a big personality. If we were to compare Crosby, Maine to a solar system, Olive would be the sun around which all the planets orbit.

Olive is not a lovable woman. She is outspoken and opinionated but has trouble expressing her own emotions. As we progress through the thirteen short stories that comprise this portrait of her, however, we learn that she is a woman who loves passionately and deeply. It is her tragedy that she is not able to express it.

Short stories are not my favorite form of writing, but these short stories seem a particularly appropriate way to reveal Olive to us. Each story features different characters, often long-married couples, sometimes former students of the formidable Ms. Kitteridge - she taught math at the junior high school until her retirement - and sometimes just people passing through the little town, but we see Olive through their eyes. She does not necessarily feature as a character herself in all the stories, but the strongest ones do have her at their center.

While we get to know Olive through the eyes of others, we get to know Crosby through her eyes. She is not pleased with what she sees. Her world is changing and she is not happy with those changes.

Olive is married to Henry, the town pharmacist, who is an easy-going, affable kind of guy, one who is liked by everyone. Others often wonder how Henry can stand the irascible Olive. One of the characters, Jane Houlton supplies the answer to that question.

"He loves her," said Jane, with a tone of admonishment. "That's how he can stand her."
And love is at the center of these tales. The love of husbands for wives and wives for husbands, parents for children and children for parents, love between friends, and love between strangers. Love, however silent or poorly expressed, rules these lives.

One of the amazing things about Olive is that she has an intuitive understanding of people. Perhaps it comes from all those years of teaching and observing children, but she seems to have an unerring instinct for what people need, what is lacking in their lives.

She sees one of her former students sitting alone in his car and feels immediately that he is in trouble and has lost the will to live and so she goes and sits with him - uninvited - and talks him back from the brink.

She sees a young anorexic woman and this large woman is able to identify with her.

Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back, and said, "You're starving."
The girl didn't move, only said, "Uh - duh."

"I'm starving, too," Olive said. The girl looked over at her. "I am," Olive said. "Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?"

"You're not starving," Nina said with disgust.

"Sure I am. We all are."

"Wow," Nina said, quietly. "Heavy."
A perceptive woman to see that we are, indeed, all starving for something and we try to fill our emptiness in different ways, whether with doughnuts or sex or music or walks by the river.

And those are the kinds of insights that we get from Olive Kitteridge. It is a tour de force of writing by Elizabeth Strout. It's not surprising that it was the Pulitzer Prize winner for literature in 2009.

View all my reviews

Iguanas 1, Kitten 0

Welcome to your Friday morning chuckle.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas dinner that pleases everyone: Dreaming the impossible dream

The family Christmas dinner will be at my house again this year, as it is every year. That means that once again I am stuck with trying to plan a menu that will have something to appeal to all my picky eaters. The task gets harder every year.

This year nearly everybody is on a diet of one kind or another and even those who aren't fall in the category of the aforementioned picky eaters. We have people who eschew bread or sweets of any kind. Then there are those who claim gluten intolerance and/or lactose intolerance. We have people who are following the Paleo diet. I have one guest who will eat any vegetable as long as it's potatoes or green beans - and nothing else. Some will not eat pork, so a Christmas ham is out of the question. But then I still have some who expect a traditional Christmas feast with all the trimmings!

How to reconcile all these conflicting dietary demands and ensure that no one has to go away hungry? Well, believe me, it ain't easy, but I'll try. The key is to find some compromises that everyone can live with.

Poring over my cookbooks won't be much help, as most of them are from places and eras that didn't worry so much about the extra butter or breading or cream. So, I turn to my good friend Google and visit various sites for Paleo diets and gluten-free dishes. In doing this research, I get some help from my two daughters who have searched out some recipes that I might be able to use. By this weekend, I hope to have finalized a menu. Then all that remains is the shopping and the preparation. Hubby does the shopping and I do the preparation.

There's one other limitation on the Christmas menu and that is the energy of the cook. I love having everyone here for Christmas and I enjoy the challenge of the planning and preparation, but it does wear me out. How wonderful it would be some year to have no responsibility except to sit and enjoy my guests. 

I think after next week I'm going to be ready for a nice end-of-year vacation.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: December reptiles and amphibians

We got a cold front, or at least a cool front, through last night that lowered our temperatures to somewhat more seasonal levels, but prior to that, the last few days have felt more like Indian Summer than Almost Winter. Daytime temperatures have been in the 70s F. and it didn't cool down a whole lot at night. So maybe it isn't surprising that some of my favorite backyard critters, the reptiles and amphibians, that had disappeared during our quite cool weather of a couple of weeks ago, put in an appearance once again as they came out to enjoy warmer temperatures.

It's not often that one sees little green treefrogs out enjoying the sun on a December day, but there he was. He lives in a bed where crinums grow and throughout the summer I would often see him sunning himself on one of their broad leaves. Nevertheless, I was just a bit surprised to see him there this week 

Then I went to sit on the glider on the patio and when I looked up from my seat, this is what I saw - another little green treefrog resting on the metal bar from which the glider swings. The canopy over the glider is above him and he had found a very warm spot just there underneath it. 

The green anoles - yes, that's what he is even though he appears brown at the moment - were out en force. This is my little patio buddy that I was used to encountering on and around the patio during the summer and fall.

At night, even the Mediterranean geckos have been out once again, patrolling the ceilings of my front and back entry porches. 
Except for brief intervals of cold, it has been an unusually warm December so far. I wonder if I'll have frogs, anoles, and geckos on Christmas Day this year?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tripwire by Lee Child: A review

Tripwire (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I needed an antidote to the news of the day. In a world where political leaders and their apologists on the right straight-facedly justify the use of torture and where policemen are not held accountable for killing unarmed citizens, it seems that justice is as rare as unicorns. I wanted to visit a world where bad guys are actually punished for their bad deeds. A Jack Reacher novel seemed like an appropriate choice.

I had read the first two Reacher novels (Killing Floor and Die Trying) and wasn't all that impressed, but at least I felt sure that in Reacherworld evil would not triumph. So I dipped into Lee Child's third offering in the series.

We meet Reacher in Key West, digging swimming pools by hand and building up his already prodigious muscles. He has this job, plus a second one as bouncer at a club, because he's low on cash and needs some ready money. Things have been going along swimmingly, so to speak, for three months, and then a private detective from New York turns up looking for him. Reacher is suspicious and doesn't admit to his identity when approached by the man. Soon after that incident, he discovers the man's body on the street. He's been horribly murdered.

Reacher wonders if the man's murder has anything to do with his search for someone named Jack Reacher and he decides to backtrack the murdered man and find the client he was working for in order to get to the bottom of things. His investigation leads him to the home of his mentor and former commanding officer in the Army, General Leon Garber. He finds that Garber has recently died but that his daughter, Jodie, for whom Reacher has always carried a torch, is very much alive and more beautiful than ever.

Garber had been trying to find Jack because he wanted him to take over the investigation into a Vietnam era soldier who is listed as MIA. Garber was ill and knew he wouldn't be able to complete the investigation. Reacher and Jodie follow up on the information that they have and it leads them into a web of pure evil.

If I had hoped to escape stories of torture, this was definitely the wrong book to turn to. The bad guy here, who calls himself Victor "Hook" Hobie (that's also the name of the MIA) revels in torturing his victims and every few pages throughout the book brought more descriptions of his acts. It was depressing to say the least.

And in between the torture scenes, we get to read about the lovemaking of Reacher and Jodie, long separated by life events and never able to express their love for one another until now. Indeed, much of the book reads like a romance novel. I know a lot of readers just eat this stuff up and more power to them, but I find it most often turns me off rather than on.

The mystery at the center of the story - what happened to Victor Hobie in Vietnam and is he really that evil character who now goes by that name - is easy enough to figure out. I got there way ahead of Reacher. Of course, i wasn't being distracted by the delicious Jodie.

It's really hard for me to rate this book. It's not truly awful but it would be wrong to say I enjoyed it. In a perfect world, I'd give it two-and-a-half stars. Since that isn't possible, I'll be generous and give three.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - December 2014

We are still waiting for that first killing frost here in my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas. We normally expect it around the tenth of December but Jack Frost is tardy in touching us with his icy fingers this year. The result is that all of my blooms that I showed you on November Bloom Day and, indeed, most of the ones from October Bloom Day are still pretty much in place. There are only a few additions.

The loquat tree has been in bloom all month. I dug this seedling from my daughter's garden six years ago and planted it here. This is the first year that it has bloomed.

I have a couple of yellow Esperanzas. This particular one got cut back severely last winter because it had grown too large. I guess I discouraged the poor thing because it has been slow to bloom this year, but finally, here in December, it is putting on its first real flush of blooms. 

The ever-blooming azaleas are still...well, ever-blooming.

As are the cyclamen, of course.

And the violas.

The 'Radazz' Knockout roses are in bloom again, just in time for Christmas.

And several of these late-blooming brugmansia blossoms are still hanging on.

There's the Christmas cactus.

And the bromeliad.

But what would Christmas be without at least one poinsettia. It's so warm here that this one is enjoying the weather outside. I can only hope that by Christmas it will be cold enough that I'll need to bring it inside. I hate those 80 degree F. Christmases!
Visit our host Carol at May Dreams Gardens for a list of other gardens that are participating this December's Bloom Day. It's always a treat to see what gardeners around the world are growing each month.

Happy gardening and I hope that whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year are joyous and peaceful. Most of all I wish you a New Year filled with all good things. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Poetry Sunday: People Who Take Care

Here's to some of the most under-appreciated, underpaid, overworked, and most essential people in our society - the caretakers. Where would we be without them?

People Who Take Care

by Nancy Henry

People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody
people who take care of people
are not worth much
except to people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor
people who take care of people
are not important to most other people
are not respected by many other people
come and go without much fuss
unless they don’t show up
when needed
people who make more money
tell them what to do
never get shit on their hands
never mop vomit or wipe tears
don’t stand in danger
of having plates thrown at them
sharing every cold
observing agonies
they cannot tell at home
people who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift
that moves with them from room to room
that keeps them on the floor
sometimes they fill a hollow
no one else can fill
sometimes through the shit
and blood and tears
they go to a beautiful place, somewhere
those clean important people
have never been.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

This week in birds - #137

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

One of my very favorite winter visitors - yes, I have many! - is the little Chipping Sparrow, seen here in a picture from last winter. They are said to be in the area already but I haven't seen any in my yard yet.

Part of the proposed wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico has been built and, just as conservationists feared, it is having a devastating effect on the wildlife there. Habitats are being destroyed, migration routes blocked, and some species cut off from their sources of food and water. In an effort to get the wall built, environmental laws were waived. Just as in the effort to combat terrorism, laws protecting human rights were waived. It seems we are a people who only adhere to our principles when absolutely convenient.


Evolutionary geneticists have published a new study which confirms that a "big bang" occurred in avian evolution after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Their findings redraw the avian family tree and throw new light on such topics as the loss of teeth in birds, the development of birdsong, and cold-weather adaptations in penguins. 

As to the loss of teeth, yes, birds did once have them, but they seem to have lost them around 116 million years ago.


For 10 of the last 14 years, California has been in drought conditions. These have been most severe, of course, in the last three years. The recent storms that have dumped a lot of rain will no doubt help, but they are insufficient to reverse the dry conditions. Climate scientists believe strongly that global climate change is exacerbating the drought.  


One of the riders on that omnibus budget bill that Congress passed this week and that the Senate is now considering will prevent funding that would make possible the listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse as an endangered species. It will also hamstring conservation efforts for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse that was just recently given endangered status. It is likely that we will be seeing a lot of this sort of thing over the next couple of years.


Conservationists fear that we could be facing the loss of up to one-half of our bird species because of climate change. Losing half our birds isn't just about missing them at the bird feeder. It's also about the cost of allowing North America’s climate to shift so radically that it’s fundamentally changing the environment for hundreds of plants and animals. And it’s about the snowballing results of these changes well into the future.


The preservation of natural areas has a measurable effect upon the quality of tap water in urban areas.


The Salton Sea in California is critical habitat for migrating birds, especially water birds, but it may be doomed unless the state takes action to save it.


Hydropower from the Amazon would seem to be a natural - a no-brainer - but there are indications that it might not be as sustainable as once thought.


The Audubon Society of New Jersey reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list the declining Red Knot as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.


The largest Pygmy Cormorant roost in the world is on the Sava River in Belgrade.


The release of methane gas, a byproduct of present oil and natural gas drilling practices, remains a serious contributor to the greenhouse effect that is warming the planet. It is a problem which the EPA must find a way to combat.


Cackling Geese look a lot like Canada Geese except they are a LOT smaller, in effect looking like miniature Canadas. They often flock together so if you happen to see a really small Canada Goose in a flock, most likely it's a Cackling.


Environmentalists in this country face a lot of challenges including often being denigrated and called some pretty awful names, but at least (Knock wood!) they don't face the violence that is often the case in South America where in Ecuador recently, an indigenous leader was killed just before a planned public protest in Lima, Peru.


Around the backyard:

Although the yard is still pretty quiet, the Yellow-rumped Warblers, affectionately called "Butterbutts," were doing their best to liven things up this week. Their efforts were much appreciated. Wonderful little birds!