Saturday, April 30, 2016

This week in birds - #204

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

Get out the oranges and the grape jelly! The Baltimore Orioles are on their way. Early May is usually when they arrive in my yard. I'm putting my oriole feeders out for them and hoping that they don't pass me by this year.


Did you hear about how the large hadron collider in Switzerland was brought down by a weasel? Yes, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator was brought to its knees by a beech marten, a member of the weasel family, that chewed through wiring connected to a 66,000-volt transformer. It put the collider offline temporarily, but it was curtains for the poor marten. The collider is expected to be out of action for a week while the connections to the transformer are replaced. Any remains of the intruder are likely to be removed at the same time.

R.I.P., marten. Your last act made headlines around the world.


Nest cams and other types of cameras set up to record and transmit the action of Nature in the raw can sometimes show images that shock the sensibilities of viewers. So it was with a Bald Eagle nest cam in Pennsylvania this week. The video clearly showed the parent eagles feeding their eaglets a dead cat. Whether they killed the cat or picked it up already dead is unknown. Eagles do scavenge as well as hunt. Either way, it is one more reminder if one was needed: Please keep your cat(s) indoors where they are safe from wildlife and wildlife is safe from them.


Climate change has already disrupted the lives of half a billion people around the planet as drought and heat waves create water shortages and wreck crops, resulting in hunger on a massive scale.


One area where drought is rampant is in India, which is suffering its worst drought in fifty years. Already, many farms, hospitals, and schools have had to shut down because of water shortages. 


Thirty years ago this week the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl occurred. The human death toll from the disaster is really unknown. People are still dying as a result of their exposure and the site will continue to be a threat for at least another 3,000 years. Nature itself, though, has recovered to a remarkable extent. The area around Chernobyl, essentially devoid of human activity, is being repopulated by plants and animals.


Summer is cicada season and five states are preparing themselves for an auditory onslaught by the raucous 17-year cycle periodical cicada. After 17 years underground, the adults will be emerging and will be ready to make some noise in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. If you live in one of those states, you might want to invest in earplugs!  


Good news regarding the Kakapo, New Zealand's extremely endangered ground-dwelling parrot: So far, 37 chicks have survived this year, making it the most successful breeding season for the bird in twenty years. A veritable baby boom of Kakapos.


The Peacock's tail feathers make a glorious visual display, but it turns out they also create an auditory display. In addition to spreading the feathers to show his lady friends, the Peacock also rattles them to get their attention.


Migratory shorebirds need protection from human activities on the beaches they frequent and that includes humans walking their dogs - especially letting dogs run free off the leash. The harassment by dogs is just one more stressor that the shorebirds, weary from their long journey, don't need.


In guidelines released on Monday, China halted plans for new coal-fired power stations in many parts of the country, and construction of some approved plants will be postponed until at least 2018. Coal-fired power plants have been one of the main causes of China becoming the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.


Central Park in New York is a welcome sight for migrating birds and a Mecca for birders who want to see them. This week a Swainson's Warbler, a rare and very shy bird, was causing birders in the area to drop all their plans and converge on the spot in the park where the little bird was hanging out. 


All animals, most scientists agree, sleep in some way. Some doze standing up; fish sleep while floating; some birds are allegedly even able to sleep on the wing. But until now the stages of sleep experienced by humans have only been documented in mammals and birds. Now, however, researchers have found what they believe to be the same phenomenon occurring in lizards.  

Do you engage in REM sleep, my little green friend?


New research shows that the evolution of beak shape in birds of prey has been constrained by the birds' skull shape.


The Black-throated Finch is now extinct in New South Wales. A few of the rare birds still exist in Queensland, but mining activities could push them to extinction there as well.


Never underestimate the value of even small green spaces. Small urban green areas can be home to a dazzling diversity of vertebrate and invertebrate species, as well as plants. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Random Friday

Here are some things that are on my mind on this last Friday in April.

1.  Remember that old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"? Well, we certainly do live in interesting times, but this week I'm particularly thinking about interesting weather. 

We are no strangers to extreme weather here along the Gulf Coast and Mother Nature has delivered that in spades recently. Since April 17, we've had a total of 12.77 inches of rain and the forecasters tell us that more is on the way this weekend. 

The last storm that came through, early Wednesday morning, was especially destructive in our community. One woman was killed when a tree fell on her house; others were injured and some areas were flooded again before they had even recovered from the floods of a week before. 

The storm knocked us off the electricity grid from 4:30 in the morning until 9:30 that same morning. Even so, we were a lot luckier than many of our neighbors whose power was out all day. We heard the sound of generators and chain saws throughout the day Wednesday. It was enough to make one think that hurricane season had come early this year. 

2.  As you can imagine, the rain has played havoc with my gardening. Fortunately, our house and yard are on a bit higher ground than many in our neighborhood, but our soil was completely saturated by all that water and many areas are still spongy to walk on. At least we've had a few days to dry out before the next deluge comes.

I've spent the week doing clean-up, pruning, trying to stay ahead of the weeds, and setting out some of the plants I had started under my grow-lights. On the bright side, I didn't have to water those seedlings when I planted them!

3.  So, this was the week that Game of Thrones returned to HBO and Jon Snow is still dead, but I think they are just messing with us and he'll wake up like Sleeping Beauty at some point. 

Maybe most importantly we learned that the Red Woman is actually the Gray Woman. What's up with that??? Speaking for Gray Women everywhere, I think this may be the most revolutionary GOT story line of all.

4.  April, of course, is the month that major league baseball returns. As a lifelong baseball fan and a long time Houston Astros fan, it's a time I always look forward to. 

Last year was an excellent one for the Astros and their fans. They had a really good season and made it all the way to the playoffs. Individual players swept many of the year-end awards, and several prognosticators predicted they would win the pennant and possibly the World Series this season. On paper, their chances looked really good, but they don't play the games on paper.

April has proved to be the cruelest of months for the Astros and their fans. They are off to a 7 - 15 start, a win rate of .318. We are disappointed and frustrated, but we have to remind ourselves that it is a long season. October is still five months away and there is plenty of time to recover from this bad start.

Interestingly, in spite of their team record, for the first three weeks of the season, individual Astros won the Player of the Week award in each week! Tyler White, Jose Altuve, and Colby Rasmus are on their game. Now the rest of the team just needs to pick theirs up.

5.  I am a constant reader and historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I'm currently reading Helen Simonson's latest, The Summer Before the War. The war in the title is World War I, so the time period is 1914 and the setting is Sussex, England. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Simonson's last book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. It was a very gentle and uplifting story, a relief from some of the more bloodthirsty fare that I sometimes read. So far this book is in much the same vein and yet, knowing the horror that will soon be visited on these people, one is moved by a sense of foreboding. 

Reading such stories gives us a clearer awareness and understanding of a historical period and gives us some reason to hope that such history may not repeat itself.

What is going on in your world on this last Friday in April?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Playing the woman card

(Update: Gail Collins also wrote on this subject today, with her usual humor. Be sure to check out her column.)

The odious Donald Trump just can't seem to stop insulting women. He is an equal opportunity misogynist. He insults women from his own political party as easily as he insults Democratic women, but, of course, his most extreme and downright bizarre insults are reserved for his probable opponent in November's general election, Hillary Clinton.

Thus, in his victory speech after winning primaries in five states on Tuesday, he just couldn't help himself. The only thing Clinton has going for her, he opined, is the fact that she's a woman. If she were a man, he said, she'd probably only get 5% of the vote. He sneeringly chastised her for "playing the woman card."

Well, Hillary Clinton is a woman and if anyone has a right to play that card, it would be her, after having devoted her professional life to trying to raise the status and improve the lives of women and children around the world. I wrote about her efforts four years ago, as another of our interminable presidential election cycles was in full swing. Here is that blog post. It seems pretty apt again this week. 


June 27, 2012

Hillary Clinton, my hero

There is a long and very positive piece in The New York Times Magazine about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entitled "Hillary Clinton's Last Tour as a Rock-Star Diplomat."  I read it with some avidity since Clinton is a hero of mine, one of the people that I admire most in the world.

I am certainly not unique in being a Clinton-admirer. She is the most admired woman in this country, topping that list year after year and is arguably the most admired woman in the world.

There are good reasons for all that admiration. Wherever life has taken her, Clinton has always worked to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place, especially for women and children. She has taken up the cause of women and children around the world and made elevating their status a prime aim of her professional life.

By all accounts, she has been relentless in pursuing her passion for women's and children's rights. Everywhere that she goes in the world as Secretary of State - and she goes everywhere! - that cause is always part of her agenda. She is ever on the lookout for ways in which the lot of the common women in the countries where she visits can be advanced and, in her dealings with heads of state and diplomats, she is not shy about bringing these topics up and making them a part of the negotiations.

Improving the lot of women in developing countries often means paying attention to the most basic of human needs. Things like making access to clean water easier or providing ways of cooking food that do not pollute houses and the atmosphere and make families sick. Or making sure that women and children have access to health care and that women can have the means to limit the numbers of their children. Our Secretary of State is attuned to such commonplace needs and makes them a part of her writ. After all, there are rock-solid data that show that the key to improving society as a whole lies in improving the lives of women. As a rising tide lifts all boats, the rising status of women raises the status of all humanity. Not everyone in the world of politics and international relations accepts that truth, of course, but Clinton does and she is its most effective ambassador.

Clinton has said that she will end her term as Secretary of State with the end of President Obama's first term, regardless of the outcome of this year's election. I would very much hate to be the person who tries to fill her shoes when she goes.

It will be interesting to see what the next act of Hillary Clinton's life will be about. She has certainly earned a rest if that is what she wants, and, indeed, she may want that for a while. I suspect it will be a short while.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Blue-eyed grass

Out by the goldfish pond, the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) has been in bloom for a while. This plant is a California native, a clump-forming perennial in the iris family. The plant, indeed, looks like a small iris. The grass-like leaf blades grow from 6 to 12 inches tall and stand erect like iris leaves. 

The bright blue flowers are carried on a tall branching stalk that bears clusters of bloom all along its length.

These pretty and delicate blossoms are quite long lasting. When they fade, a seed pod containing abundant seed develops and eventually breaks and scatters the seeds around the area. Thus, the plant can pretty easily spread.

Blue-eyed grass grows well in sun or part shade - mine is in part shade - and it is said to be tolerant of most types of soil as long as it has good drainage. It is also tolerant of wet or dry conditions. It does not require irrigation and so is drought-tolerant, but if planted in a wetter area, it will adapt and do well there, also. It will survive cold down to around 0 degrees F., and there are reports of it surviving in even colder conditions.

Are you getting the idea that this is a very versatile plant? You are correct! It is a very nice plant to grow with grasses, sedges, poppies and lupines, and meadows of native plants. I've certainly enjoyed having the lovely little blooms in my garden.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen: A review

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q, #1)The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me since I generally like Scandinavian mysteries. It was sitting there in my reading queue, so I thought why not? I'll read you next.

Then I started reading and I groaned because it seemed this was going to be just another moody Scandinavian mystery with a dour, emotionally and psychologically damaged detective with a crazy ex-wife. But I kept reading and soon discovered how wrong my first impression was. This was one funny book!

Well, perhaps I should explain here that the main mystery involves a horrendous crime starting with the kidnapping from a ferry of a young, dynamic, and beautiful Danish politician. Details of her kidnapping and the crimes against her are sprinkled throughout the book, interspersed with the chapters that detail the detectives' efforts to solve her mysterious disappearance, and some of those chapters are very hard to read, particularly if one suffers at all from claustrophobia. Fortunately, the chapters about the detectives are much lighter, some of them laugh-out-loud funny. I found myself frequently chuckling at the interactions between the two main characters.

Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces us to Carl Mørck, a detective with the Copenhagen police. We meet him as he is just recovering from a terrible experience.

As he and two partners were following leads on a case, they were jumped by two gunmen. In a hail of bullets, one partner was killed outright; another was paralyzed and there seems no hope for his recovery; Carl Mørck was shot in the head but escaped with only an interesting scar. His shame and guilt, however, is that he never drew his weapon during the shootout.

Carl is a brilliant and intuitive detective, but he is also a pain in the butt. None of his colleagues wants to work with him, so when his boss gets news that funds have been allocated for a new department, an ideal solution occurs to him: He will assign Mørck to be the head and only member of the new department.

That is Department Q, The Keeper of Lost Causes. The commission of the department will be to reopen cold cases, lost causes, and clear them.

Carl Mørck is not amused by his new assignment. So he sits with stacks of these "dead" cases on his desk and plays games on his computer. Then he learns something about the amount of money that has been appropriated for his department and he demands of his boss, Marcus, that he hire an assistant for him, someone he envisions as a janitor to keep the place clean. He also demands more up-to-date equipment and a car. Marcus gives him everything he asks for just to keep Carl in his basement office and out of his hair.

The "janitor" that Marcus sends him turns out to be much more than that. His name (he says) is Hafez el-Assad. He is a Syrian refugee, a political asylee, who, slowly, during the course of the book unpacks a bewildering package of skills and knowledge.

Who is this man and what is his background? When it comes to detecting, he matches the brilliance of Carl Mørck. Even though he is not supposed to be involved in the investigatory side of the department, he manages to insinuate himself and Mørck gradually learns to depend upon him, even though he is still suspicious of his background.

Assad prods Carl into action on the case files covering his desk, and the first one they pick up is that politician who was kidnapped back in 2002. It is now 2007 and that case is very cold indeed.

As Carl and Assad look at the case file, they realize that it was sloppily done. Things were overlooked or mishandled and slowly they follow every little discrepancy, teasing them out, and looking for a solution to the problem.

Reading the interactions between Carl and Assad was just a delight. They play off each other very well and as their relationship grows and deepens, the humor becomes both drier and broader. I fell in love with charming Assad and even dour Carl and I am eager to learn more about them in future books. I think Jussi Adler-Olsen has created a couple of winners here.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 25, 2016

The grosbeaks are here

Each spring and fall, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Blue Grosbeaks pass through my yard on their way north or south. I haven't seen any of the blue guys yet, although I am sure they are around, but over the weekend I had some Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at my backyard feeders. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera at hand when I saw them, but here are some representative pictures from previous years.

The adult male gives the species its name. It is unmistakable with the red breast and the big chalky white beak.

The female looks a bit like a large sparrow but, again, with that very big white beak - the "gros beak."

They most often travel in pairs, so when you see one, generally, its mate is nearby.

They are lovely birds. This pair was likely on its way to somewhere much farther north for the summer, either along the northern tier of the United States or even into Canada. But with any luck, we'll see them or their relatives again in the fall.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Shakespeare's sonnets

April is Shakespeare's month. He was born in April, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon and died on April 23, 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon. In between, he invented - or at least reshaped - the English language.

April is also National Poetry Month. Could there perhaps be a connection? For in addition to his immortal plays, we also have 154 sonnets that are attributed to him. Here are three of his greatest hits. 

Sonnet XVIII

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet XXIX

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Sonnet XXX

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

This week in birds - #203

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

Pied-billed Grebe, one of the very common water birds of this area.


Diplomats gathered in New York on Friday, Earth Day, to sign the climate accord that was reached in Paris last year. Whether the goals set by the accord will be achieved depends primarily upon the actions of the world's biggest polluters, namely China and the United States.


One of the shortcomings of the climate accord that has been pointed out by some is a failure to adequately address the air pollution that is the single biggest cause of disease and death in the world today.


Meanwhile, back in our real world, 2016 is already the hottest year on record through March. Each of the first three months passed the records for those months that had been set only a year ago.


The oldest known living tree in the world is a bristlecone pine named Methusaleh by its protectors at the Inyo National Forest in Central California. The Forest Service will not publish the location of the tree or even show a picture of it for fear that it would be overwhelmed by visitors or be the victim of idiots who might harm it as has happened with other similar trees. The tree is estimated to be 4,847 years old.


Although Methusaleh is not likely to become a tour destination, ecotourism does hold promise for protecting some areas. In Colombia, conservationists are hoping that increased ecotourism will encourage more protection of birding sites. Colombia has more bird species than any other country on Earth.


Dan Tallman's Bird Blog stalks the wild ephemerals, early-blooming spring flowers in Minnesota, and he gives us pictures.


A lack of genetic diversity is generally a recipe for disaster and possible extinction in a species, but scientists have discovered a species that contradicts that formula: the island fox, a small canine that has lived in isolation on the Channel Islands of California for thousands of years. Genetically, the foxes are nearly identical to each other and yet they seem to be thriving.


Hunting is usually the preferred method for controlling populations of white-tailed deer, but some suburban communities are trying something different: birth control for Bambi


The labor and environmentalist movements are sometimes thought to be inimical, but, in fact, they have common enemies and could band together against them, making a more potent force. 


Wildfires, once largely confined to a single season, have become a continual threat in some places, burning earlier and later in the year, in the United States and abroad. They have ignited in the West during the winter and well into the fall, have arrived earlier than ever in Canada and have burned without interruption in Australia for almost 12 months. The cause of all this seems to be the warming climate.


We are now witnessing the fastest growth rates ever recorded of CO2 measurements. This record-breaking growth is an expected consequence of the near record-breaking fossil fuel usage combined with the largest El Niño event in several decades.


We heard last week about the disastrous bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, but here is some good news about coral reefs. Scientists have discovered a new sponge and coral reef some 600 miles long at the mouth of the Amazon River.


Why did many of the bird-like dinosaurs survive when most of their cousins became extinct? Scientist suggest that it may have been because they were able to eat seeds.


There has been some very hopeful news on many fronts out of our neighbor to the east, Louisiana, recently. An Audubon report details efforts to rebuild the barrier islands which help to protect the coast from storms and provide bases for important ecosystems. For one thing, the islands are providing new nesting areas for seabirds. Good for you, Louisiana! 

R.I.P., Will

April 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest playwright in the English language and I can't let the day pass without acknowledging it. Even The New York Times got into the act with an obituary in today's online edition. Trust me, it is worth a read.

All of which started me thinking: If William Shakespeare were alive today, what would he think of social media? Would he be on Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? Could our greatest playwright learn to express himself in 140 characters? Would he accept my "friendship"? Would he, heaven forfend, be a blogger??? 

What would Will think about our tendency to express ourselves in acronyms or shorthand?

Maybe it is just as well that he is long dead and doesn't have to hear the depths to which the language that he so lovingly crafted has fallen. R.I.P., Will.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Widow's Tears by Susan Wittig-Albert: A review

Widow's TearsWidow's Tears by Susan Wittig Albert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Hide from the wind, run from the water," is a mantra that is well-known to Gulf Coast residents. It is something that we hear every hurricane season when there is a storm stirring in the Gulf and headed our way. The wind can create chaos and damage, but the water will kill you. And water pushed by the wind is more deadly still.

Unfortunately for the residents of Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900, when the killer hurricane smashed into their island, there was no place left to hide, no place to run, because the island had already been effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Through that long, horror-filled night, all the residents of Galveston could do was to try to stay alive and wait for the storm to pass. We'll never know for sure how many of them didn't make it. Estimates of casualties range from 8,000 to 12,000. Thousands were washed out to sea and never seen again; many, many more were buried under piles of debris, some of them never found.

This terrible tragedy is at the center of Susan Wittig-Albert's book, Widow's Tears. The story goes back and forth between that awful day in history and the present. The two points in time are linked together by a ghost story.

The sad ghost here is a survivor of the Galveston storm, a woman who lost everyone she loved - her husband, her five children, her two beloved servants - in that storm. She later built a replica of her Galveston home near the little Central Texas community of Round Top, where she lived with her companion for the rest of her very long life. She lived into her 90s and never stopped grieving for all she had lost. Even after death, she still grieves.

The story that Wittig-Albert gives us is that a friend of Ruby Wilcox has recently inherited this house of tragedy and she wants to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast, but the supernatural happenings in the house give her pause. Since Ruby, the purveyor of a New Age shop in Pecan Springs, is psychic, her friend hopes that she may be able to reason with the ghost and she asks her to come and help her.

Frankly, I found the ghost story to be the weakest part of this novel. It didn't really grab my attention or interest. What I did find fascinating were the chapters that took place in Galveston on that fatal day in 1900. I'd always heard a lot about that storm; it's a tale that gets quite a bit of play here just about every year during hurricane season, but I had never really read that much about it. Reading it really brought it all home to me, more so because I was reading it during a time when we were living through a major storm with torrential rains this week.

It was very interesting to read about the arrogance of the weather forecasters of the day who kept assuring the residents right up until they went under water that such a storm would never hit Galveston. That combined with the architectural style that was so popular in the town and that was highly unsuitable for withstanding storms and the lack of foresight and planning on the part of the city's leaders essentially doomed the island city and its residents. Reading about it just made me doubly thankful for modern technology and well-trained meteorologists who typically give us several days warning when a storm is on the way.

Wittig-Albert starts each of her chapters with information about a particular herb and its uses and then ties that in with the happenings she relates in the chapter. It's one of my favorite parts of these books. I find the herbal lore engrossing.

So, to sum up: Galveston storm story - fascinating; herbal lore - engrossing; ghost story - meh. But, on the whole, it was a fairly interesting read that held my attention.

View all my reviews

Earth Day

Earth Day is an annual event that was first celebrated in hundreds of schools, colleges, and universities in the United States in 1970. The date is now recognized and celebrated in 193 countries each year on April 22. It is a special day to demonstrate our reverence for our home planet and support for protection of its ecosystem. 

The anthropologist Margaret Mead had this to say in 1978 regarding Earth Day:
Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.
Earth Day is being celebrated this year by at least 167 countries signing the landmark Paris Agreement on climate protection. The warming climate is now perhaps the greatest threat to life on Earth. 

The famous picture of our planet, that beautiful "blue marble" taken from space by astronauts on Apollo 17.

It's great that we have this special day to call attention to the need to protect our planet, but, really, we should make every day Earth Day.

Maybe we can't save the Earth on our own but each of us can do our part. Every little bit matters. Be kind to our Mother.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Republican nightmare

How the Republicans see President Obama...
White House photo.

Winter is coming. 

Or is it already here?

Throwback Thursday: The never-ending Paul Ryan myth

In this blog, I typically write about whatever I happen to be thinking about on that particular day. Thus, the blog serves as a kind of diary, and it is interesting from time to time to look back at what was on my mind five years ago, six years ago, etc. Today, I'm looking back five years and I find once again that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Five years ago, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was being lauded by the Washington Beltway press as the serious, intelligent, wonky Republican, a "Young Gun" savior for a party that seemed to be veering out of control. The basis of all this dewy-eyed "analysis" was the budget that he had just presented.

When he introduced his "budget," he said that it was not a budget but a cause. As details of his opus became clear, it was obvious that the cause was Ayn Randian. Ryan remained true to his primary political influence. 

As House Speaker today, he still remains true to it and he's still presenting that same budget every year.

April 8, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: April showers

Texans like to brag that everything is bigger here. It's a sentiment that I have heard expressed in many ways regarding any number of things since I married a Texan and moved here back in the mid '70s. Little did I know that the boast would also be appropriate for Texas-style April showers.

We live about thirty minutes outside Houston, that behemoth city that sprawls all over much of Southeast Texas. Houston is notoriously flat, with a downtown that is about 50 feet above sea level. The city slopes downward toward the Gulf Coast and it is crisscrossed by numerous bayous, streams, and rivers that drain into the Gulf. Anytime we get a heavy dew, it can be prone to flooding.

Well, we had a very heavy dew over the weekend. A storm reached us early Sunday night and settled in to spend the night. All Sunday night and Monday morning thunder rolled and rain fell, often in torrents. It brought back unsettling memories of Hurricane Ike in September, 2008.

When I was finally able to check our rain gauge at mid-day on Monday, I found that we had received 9.60 inches of rain. I was actually surprised. I had thought it would be more. Some areas not far from us received as much as 17 inches. We were relatively lucky. 

Much of Houston and Harris County were not so lucky. They are in the throes of yet another of their periodic massive flooding events as more water flows in from upstream, and many of the waterways have not yet crested. 

At our place, we are more or less high and dry. There are no flood waters threatening our house, although there is plenty of standing water in low parts of our yard. And it is raining again today. Several years ago, we had a French drain installed along the back and southern perimeters of our house, draining down to the street. It's probably the best thing we've done since we've lived here.

We live less than a mile from Spring Creek, one of those many aforementioned waterways that traverse the area, and it is out of its banks and currently flooding a major highway that crosses it. The weather forecasters are saying that our rain should be tapering off toward the end of the week and then perhaps we'll have a chance to dry out.  

Texans are certainly no strangers to weird weather of all kinds. In 2010-2011, we suffered through extreme drought and had no rain for months. Plants died, large trees died, animals died. It was horrible. We were under water restrictions and were not able to water our gardens sufficiently. I told myself then that I would never again complain about too much rain, so don't consider this a complaint! It's just a recognition that all those boasts about things being bigger in Texas - even their April showers - may have some basis in truth. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: A review

The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 "Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?"
- from The Story of the Lost Child

I couldn't wait any longer to get back to the story of Elena and Lila. I had read the first three books of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels over the past five months, interspersed with my other reading. Now it was time to face up to the end; to find out how the relationship of these two women, built on a foundation of childhood friendship and resentment, would resolve itself.

In returning to the story, I quickly felt again my irritation with Elena. Do you ever feel the urge to reach into the pages of a novel you are reading, grab a character by the shoulders and shout, "No! Don't do it! You're being stupid! Can't you see that he is just like his sleazy, philandering father who disgusts you?" That's exactly how I felt throughout reading about Elena's grand passion for Nino. Really, Elena, he's such a jerk!

So, at the beginning of this book, Elena has abandoned her marriage to the professor, Pietro Airota, father of her two young daughters. Essentially, she also abandons, for long periods, those daughters, as she goes on the road following Nino and pursuing her career as a writer. She and Pietro arrive at a more or less amicable agreement for divorce and she expects that Nino will divorce his wife and then the two lovers will marry and live happily ever after. Silly woman! Nino, of course, keeps his marriage and thus his connection with the in-laws who sponsor his successes in life. He also keeps Elena as a bit on the side.

Okay. Those are the points that annoyed me about the character, Elena. But what I loved about this book, about all the books in the series, is the beautiful writing. With a precise and subtle prose, Ferrante evokes Naples of the '80s, '90s, and '00s with all of its political and social turmoil and violence, its cycle of poverty and the limitations imposed by social boundaries. And she shows us all of this through the ups and downs of the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena.

Lila and Elena are so intricately and lovingly drawn that, even though the narrator is always Elena and we see things through her eyes, one feels that one is not just reading a story by one woman, one is living a story of two women. Living it, breathing it, experiencing the moments of triumph, of pleasure, but also the moments of unspeakable tragedy, loss, and manic grief.

While Elena experienced success as a writer and traveled around the world, Lila never left the old neighborhood. She stayed there and built her life. Along with Enzo, her partner, she built a successful computer company, state of the art for the '80s. In addition to their company, Lila and Enzo also produce a beautiful child, Tina. At the same time - literally - Elena and Nino produce a daughter. By now, Elena, too, has moved back to Naples and the two young girls grow and play together, even as their mothers did a generation before.

As Elena's writing career often takes her out of town, Lila takes care of her three daughters and becomes like a second mother to them.

This all sounds very prosaic, doesn't it? After all, it's just the story of two women who are living their lives along the paths they have chosen and experiencing all the love and loss and domestic dramas that are a part of sexual relationships with or without marriage and parenthood. And yet, the novels are so much more powerful than that simple explanation and it is difficult to put into words just why that is true.

Part of it may be that Ferrante manages to portray not just the lives of the two women but the life of the city and the country, and, indeed, world events of the period. I found particularly appealing and fascinating all of the history of Naples that she was able to weave into the story, especially in this final book. Having the historical context of the social and political boundaries and confinements made many of the events described so much more explicable.

Many reviewers have remarked upon the fact that these books read almost like an autobiography and the characters and events do seem very personal to the author. But that could be said of many literary masterpieces, and I am thinking particularly of many grand works of the nineteenth century with which it seems to me that these books have much in common. I think it is probably not a coincidence that when Lila and Elena come into some money in the first book, My Brilliant Friend, they decide to use it to buy a copy of Little Women. That decision comes up again at the end of this book. And, no, it is not a coincidence. Nothing about these books is coincidental. They are brilliant works of the imagination of a very talented writer.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Paul Revere's Ride

Monday, April 18, is celebrated as Patriots' Day in some states, most notably in Massachusetts where it is a very big deal indeed. It commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution.

Part of the festivities in Massachusetts include a reenactment of Paul Revere's legendary ride. In reality, Revere was not the only one to make that ride but in Longfellow's famous poem about the event, he rode solo. Thus, history becomes legend and legend becomes myth.

I loved Longfellow's poem when I was a child. I think it was the rhythmic cadence that first attracted me, and, long ago, I was able to recite it from memory. I can't really get past the second stanza now, but I still enjoy reading it. So here it is once again.

Paul Revere's Ride

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
Then he said, "Good night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade, —
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay, —
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry-tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders, that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, —
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.