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Showing posts from January, 2010

Nature Sunday

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Greater Yellowlegs in flight at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast. The yellowlegs is one of the iconic birds of the Texas Coast in winter.

Obama in the lions' den

Did you see the appearance of President Obama at the Republican House members' retreat yesterday? I didn't watch it live, but I did see the replay of it last night on MSNBC. It was very interesting political theater. Several commentators made the analogy to the Prime Minister's question time in England when the PM stands before the elected representatives and takes their questions. The main difference between that and what we had yesterday is that any representative, including members of his own party, can query the Prime Minister, thus some of the questions are bound to be friendly. In yesterday's exercise, all of the questions were adversarial, if not downright hostile. Most of the questioners prefaced their question with long statements chastising the President. Happily for his supporters, the President did not give an inch and gave as good - actually better - than he got. He answered their questions, told them to their faces when they were actually mistatin

Psst! Wanna buy a ticket to a tea party?

For weeks now, we've been hearing about a planned convention of the "tea party" movement in Nashville next week. The organizers have touted the slate of true-blue (or maybe I should say true-red) tea partiers who would be speaking at the event. Among those heroes (or heroines) of tea partydom were Martha Blackburn (R-TN), Michele Bachmann (R-MN, or is it Mars?), and Sarah Palin (R-Fox News). Well, now, two of the speakers, Blackburn and Bachmann, have pulled out, citing belated concerns about congressional ethics rules. Only the stalwart Palin continues to stand four-square with the tea party convention organizers. The convention has all along presented problems for the truly grassroots section of the TP movement. You see, it is a "for profit" venture. Several groups have looked at the success of the TPers in stirring people up and thought, "How can we co-opt this movement and make a buck off of it?" (It is the American Way, after all - the fr

My inexpert analysis of the State of the Union address

I watched the President give his State of the Union address last night. It's a good thing I did because I wouldn't have recognized the speech as "analyzed" by many "experts" in the media. It was a good and honest speech, I thought. It was unlike many of the hyperbolic speeches we've come to expect on such occasions. I was convinced that he believed and meant every word that he spoke. If I didn't necessarily agree with him on every single point, still I honor his seriousness of purpose and his continuing attempts to talk to people, including the self-important puffed-up politicians that were in the room with him last night (yes, including the Supreme Court justices), as if they were adults, and intelligent adults at that. I was struck again that he refuses to give up on bipartisanship and on trying to change the toxic atmosphere in Washington. He talked about the deficit of trust and the need to reduce that deficit. He continued to reach out t

The martins are coming! The martins are coming!

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Late January is the time our most beloved swallow, the Purple Martin, makes its appearance throughout much of Texas, and indeed all the states on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This year some of the birds didn't even wait for the page on the calendar to turn. They showed up on December 31 . The birds usually don't show up in my yard just northwest of Houston until early February, but since they have already been reported in the area, I am on the alert for them, ready to open the doors of my martin mansion and raise it high to welcome back one of my favorite birds of summer. Purple Martins have a long and remarkable relationship with human beings on this continent. The Native Americans were the first to put up gourd housing for the birds. This continued for centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene and took up the practice. Over time, this symbiotic relationship has become so strong that Purple Martins in the eastern part of the continent are totally dependent upo

Pop goes the bubble wrap

I had a package delivered by FedEx yesterday. As I opened the box and started removing the packing, I discovered that my treasure had been enclosed in a thick layer of bubble wrap. That meant double pleasure for me: I got what I had ordered, intact and in good shape, AND I got to pop some of those little pillows of air in the bubble wrap as I unwrapped it. I have no idea why popping bubble wrap is such a pleasure but it is, and I feel sure that that, in part, accounts for its success over the last fifty years. Yes, it is true - coincidentally with the arrival of my package, yesterday was bubble wrap's fiftieth birthday . Funnily enough, bubble wrap did not start life as a packing material. It was invented to be a kind of wall covering. It was not a hit in the world of home decor, but soon another use was found for it and the rest, as they say, is history. Bubble wrap had an enormous impact on the way America and the world did business in the latter half of the twentieth a

Texas bored of education

The militantly ignorant State Board of Education of Texas has struck again. They have barred children's book author Bill Martin Jr. from being included in the state's social studies curriculum. Martin is the writer of such books as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and another book which taught kids how to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Pretty dangerous stuff, wouldn't you say? We Texans certainly don't want our kids exposed to anything that subversive! The capital crime for which Martin was expunged from Texas' list of "acceptable literature," though, is that he has the same name as a philosophy professor at DePaul University who wrote a book called Ethical Marxism and it seems that the members of the "bored of education" are too lazy and incompetent to do the research that would reveal to anyone with access to Google that these men are two different people. Instead, they just barred all authors named Bill Martin. This group of

Voila' violas!

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A mid-winter bouquet just for you - violas.

Jean Simmons

When I was a child spending my Saturday afternoons at the Princess Theater watching their matinees, I thought Jean Simmons was the most beautiful woman in the world and I wanted to be her when I grew up. She was often in the matinee features, usually in a biblical epic or a blood and sandals flick. Nobody was better in those roles and I loved those movies. I particularly remember her in Spartacus . In fact, I was just thinking about that recently when I learned that there was a television remake of that movie. (And I really wish they wouldn't, but that's a subject for another day.) Ms. Simmons played a slave who fell in love with the gladiator Spartacus, leader of a rebellion that almost succeeded against the overpowering might of the Roman Empire. Spartacus, of course, was played by Kirk Douglas. The second most memorable scene of the movie for me was at the end when Spartacus is hanging on the cross and Simmons stands before him to show him their baby as he is dying.

The despoiler of school gardens

Do you know who Caitlin Flanagan is? Well, neither did I until this week. I have lived my entire life in happy oblivion of the woman, but this week, suddenly, her name kept cropping up in several of the gardening blogs that I regularly read. It seems that she wrote a piece for The Atlantic decrying the use of gardening as a teaching tool in schools and particularly excoriating school gardens. Garden bloggers were not amused. As a garden blogger , I count myself as one of the unamused. Who does this woman think she is? She believes that children should be learning Shakespeare instead of getting their hands dirty in a garden and participating in the "desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt." Where the hell does she think food comes from, the grocery store? I guess in her world it just magically appears on the grocery store shelves, never having touched "dirt." And since when did education become a choice between learning Shakespeare and lea

Making the grade

So, Barack Obama has been President of the United States for a year and a day now, and everybody and his/her kitty has weighed in on what kind of job he is doing and what grade he should get. Everybody except me and my cat Nicholas, that is. But now we are going to remedy that. Nicholas is very emphatic about the grade that he gives Mr. Obama. It's an F. As best I can determine his grading system is based solely on what he refers to as "the dog issue." I guess he means Bo. (I'm sorry to admit that Nicholas does have some prejudices.) As for the grade I would give the President, it is based on my own political prejudices. I am a liberal. In the political world as it exists in this country today, that means that I generally vote for Democrats because they come closest to the values I believe in. There are no liberal Republicans. Heck, there aren't even any centrist Republicans. There is only the far right and the lunatic fringe right. As a liberal, I v

Sometimes you just gotta laugh

There are days in one's life when one really needs a chuckle. If this is such a day for you, here are a few (bad) jokes that might do the trick. How do crazy people get through the forest? They take the psychopath. How do you catch a unique rabbit? Unique up on it. How do you catch a tame rabbit? The tame way! Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the possum and the armadillo it could be done. What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches? A nervous wreck! What do you call a boomerang that doesn't work? A stick! What do fish say when they hit a concrete wall? Dam! Why did Martha Coakley lose the Massachusetts Senate seat? Because she thought she had it in the bag, she took the people of Massachusetts for granted, she took a vacation when she should have been out working her butt off as Ted Kennedy would have been doing. Well, maybe that last one isn't too funny. Elections have consequences. The truth is, though, that Coakley deserved to lose. But the

Pruning

Pruning can be a very therapeutic exercise - for the gardener as well as the plant. I am a non-violent person. It is difficult for me to imagine a situation where I would resort to violence, but I admit there are things happening in this world that at times just make me want to bash something or someone - figuratively, if not literally. Enter my pruning shears. They are Felco #12s and they fit my hand perfectly. They make pruning an almost sensual experience, but at the same time they allow me to vent all my hostility and anger in perfect comfort. As I make my cuts, I think about all the people on the world stage who have irritated or appalled me recently. Whack! Take that, Rush Limbaugh. Snip! That's for you, Pat Robertson. I believe you need to be pruned WAY back, Sarah Palin. You, too, Glenn Beck. And as for you, national media, I'm taking you back to the trunk! Maybe the new growth will be more robust and productive. Today, I worked on the grapevines and

Winter in my heart

Mid-January is a difficult time for gardeners. On many days, the weather is too inclement to actually get outside and work in the garden, even in the relatively mild climate where I live. Many gardeners resort to dreaming and planning over the colorful seed catalogs that fill our mailboxes at this time of year. Others read books or draw up complicated plans for new beds and other additions and improvements they will make to their gardens. But by mid-January, I'm well-past all of that and looking for new ways to entertain myself. I'm looking for signs of the coming spring, something to relieve the winter that has settled over my heart. Slowly, I'm finding a few of those signs. Yesterday, a beautiful sunny mid-winter day, I found a green anole who was spread out, sunning himself atop the outdoor air-conditioning unit. I hadn't encountered any of these little lizards since our latest freeze and it made me smile to see him there. Walking around the yard, I saw tha

You should read this book!

I just finished reading a wonderful book, Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Have you read it? If not, put it on your "to be read" list. It is a terrific book. The story is set along the border between Washington and British Columbia and concerns a unique Border Patrol agent named Brandon Vanderkool. Brandon is a 6'8" tall dyslexic, borderline autistic, birder who is so finely attuned to Nature that he notices everything . This quality, it turns out, makes him a very successful BP agent. He catches smugglers and illegal entrants to the country without even trying, without even really wanting to, just because he can't help noticing all the tiny clues that betray them. Around this central character, Lynch has woven a lyrical story about life along the border, about dairy farmers and pot growers, a Canadian and American community threatened by America's paranoia about terrorism, about outsiders and people searching for love and belonging, and people just trying

Bookworms

There is a new bookstore in my neighborhood. It is called Bookworms. It has actually been open several weeks now but today was the first chance I had had to visit. There are few things more hopeful than seeing a new bookstore opening up. It's a sign that someone has enough faith in the literacy and the culture of this area to risk their money, effort, time and dreams in such a venture. I wish them well. The bookstore is small and it deals mostly in used books, although allegedly it carries new books as well. The only ones that I saw today all appeared to be used. It doesn't have a very varied stock, yet, and it has all its fiction together in one section, so lovers of specific genres have to wade through everything else to find what they want. Moreover, it has a lot of books by authors that I had never heard of, but it also had a good selection of books by some of my favorites and by others that I had been intending to read. I left the store with books by Anne Tyler,

The Clooney effect

George Clooney is a movie star with all the baggage that that implies. He has much in common with the movie stars of yesteryear - people like Cary Grant or John Wayne. Like them, he's one of those actors who always seems to be playing himself. In other words, he appears not to be acting at all. Every move is graceful and unaffected and un...planned. He just is. Recently, I heard a discussion about him and his art on Fresh Air on NPR. The person who was being interviewed said that Clooney refused to do accents in his movies, even if the role might seem to call for it. His reasoning was, "People know what I sound like. If I did an accent, it would distract people from the role I'm playing." Cary Grant might have made the same argument. It just so happens that in addition to being a movie star, George Clooney is also a very good actor. I was reminded of that today when I saw his latest movie, Up in the Air . In it, he plays a loner, a man who deliberately es

I apologize

So on the one hand, we have Pat Robertson blaming the earthquake in Haiti on the people of Haiti. He says it's all because, back in the 18th century when they rebelled and fought for their freedom from France, they made a "pact to the devil" and so they have been cursed ever since. Perhaps he thinks that the American colonies that rebelled and fought for their freedom from England at the same time also made a "pact to the devil." Well, I defer to Robertson on his knowledge of the devil. I suspect he has a much more intimate relationship with him than I do. In the future, he may get to know him even better. On the other hand, we have Rush Limbaugh excoriating President Obama for reacting to this overwhelming human catastrophe within 24 hours, whereas it took him THREE WHOLE DAYS to react to the incompetent underpants bomber! The fact that no one died in the underpants bomber's failed attempt and that thousands have already died in Haiti and many more w

Poor Haiti

When I was in the eighth grade (I think), I had to do a book report in English class. I don't remember why now but for some reason, I chose to report on a book by Kenneth Roberts called Lydia Bailey . Roberts was known in those days for writing sometimes overwrought historical fiction that always contained a bit of a mystery, a bit of romance, and a bit of suspense. Lydia Bailey was all of that. I had forgotten this book, or at least pushed it to the recesses of my mind, but what brought it back to the forefront today was the latest tragedy in Haiti. You see, much of the book took place in Haiti during the time of the rebellion led by Toussaint L'Overture in the late 18th century. In fact, that was the only part of the book that I actually remembered. When I looked it up via my friend Google today, I found that it actually started in Boston, moved to Haiti and then to the Barbary Coast. But what had stuck with me was Haiti. Roberts wrote vividly of the landscape and

The odd couple

PBS' Nature series on Sunday night had a feature on the amazing hummingbirds. They are the smallest warm-blooded creatures on the face of the earth and they live only in the Americas. There are more than 300 species of the little critters. Their hearts beat more than 600 times a minute under normal hummingbird activity. At night, when they enter a state called torpor in order to save energy, their heart rate can drop as low as the 30s and their temperature can drop from about 110 degrees down to the 50s. Some species of these tiny creatures, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, make a migratory flight of some 600 miles one way, twice a year. These are creatures for which the adjective "amazing" truly fits. I would even venture to use that greatly overused adjective (which I normally abhor) "awesome". I didn't get to see Nature on Sunday, but I DVR'd the show and watched it during lunch today. Of all the remarkable parts of the story, one par

Sarah the commentator

When Sarah Palin quit her job as governor of Alaska last year, I wondered how long it would take for her to wind up as a commentator on Fox News. Well, I have my answer, as Fox today announced the name of its latest acquisition. I must say that it seems to me that most prospective employers would be at least a little leery of hiring an employee who has quit practically every job (if not indeed EVERY job) she has ever held. But, of course, the normal rules and normal caveats don't apply to Palin. She's special, you see. And she's certainly landed in the right spot because the normal rules and caveats of journalism, such as fact-checking and telling the truth don't apply to Fox News either. The liar Palin joins the lying network - a marriage made...well, not in heaven, I think. Probably in a much warmer realm. It will be interesting to see just how Fox will use Sarah, and, dare I say, vice versa. Will they give her a script and a teleprompter, or will they allo

Iguanas and pythons and turtles, oh my!

The deep freeze that has hit virtually all parts of the southern United States over the last several days has wreaked havoc on the citrus crop in Florida. It has also caused a lot of misery for wildlife in the area that is not used to such cold temperatures. That's not all bad though. Florida has been a fertile ground for the growth and expansion of invasive species. Two members of the reptile family in particular have caused great concern in recent years - the iguana which can sometimes grow up to six feet long and the Burmese python which can reach lengths of 20 feet and pose a threat not only to wildlife but to domestic pets and to humans. The state's wildlife service has been working to trap and euthanize these potentially dangerous animals. The cold has suddenly made their jobs a lot easier. The cold temperatures cause the iguanas to become torpid and fall out of the trees they have climbed. They can then be picked up and euthanized. The pythons as well go into an

"You lie!"

So the latest talking point by Republicans is that no terror attacks occurred in the United States during the Bush presidency. Over and over they have repeated this revision of history since Christmas. And they do it with a straight face. I guess the first person I heard it from was Dana Perino, Bush's ditsy last press secretary. Then, Karl Rove, that paragon of honesty, joined in. Several commentators on Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, picked up the meme and repeated it ad nauseum . And now we have Rudy Giuliani - yes, THAT Rudy Giuliani of the "a noun, a verb, and 9/11" presidential campaign - claiming that there were no terroristic attacks on the country during the years 2001 through 2008. And his interviewer, George Stephanopolous, did not say, "What the hell are you talking about?" No, he just sat there and blandly went on to the next question on his script. That is my main quibble with this story. I no longer expect to he

Happy birthday, Elvis!

Yes, today is the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth. He was 42 when he died and he has now been dead for 33 years. And yet, he lives in the hearts of fans around the world, even many who were not born when he was alive or were too young to be aware of him then. I remember the first time I ever heard of Elvis Presley. I was walking along a dusty country road in Northeast Mississippi with my father. We had walked to the local store and now we were walking home. We came upon a neighbor of ours, a young man named Junior Johnson, who was also walking along the road. Junior was a guitar player. He played with local bands and he started talking excitedly to my dad about a gig he had played in Booneville, Mississippi recently with someone with the weird name of Elvis. I was pretty young at the time, but Junior's excitement was palpable and contagious and it made an impression on me. I remembered it later when we started hearing more about this Elvis person and it beca

Sherlock lives

One of the first grown-up books that I remember reading as a child was The Complete Sherlock Holmes , all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing starring his most famous creation, packed into one volume. How I loved that book and how I loved Holmes. He was an eccentric and an iconoclast, just what I longed to be. It was from Sherlock that I learned my love of the mystery. I still devour mystery novels by the dozens each year. In recent years, I've even been able to enjoy my old friend Holmes in well-written mysteries once again. Author Laurie R. King has a pastiche series going, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice , that stars Holmes and his protege Mary Russell, a protege who later became (horrors!) his wife! Conan Doyle may still be spinning in his grave over that turn of events, but, in fact, the series is very well done and I feel that it is true to the original spirit of Holmes. Holmes, of course, is one of the most enduring characters in literature and he

Training my brain

A recent article on adult learning in The New York Times made the following statement: "Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted." I was certainly distracted by that statement. If middle age now stretches all the way to the late 60s, then I feel positively young! Young as I may be though, I have to admit to some of the problems that are delineated by the article. Yes, I'm familiar with the experience of reading a book and then six months later being able to remember very little about it. Same thing with movies I've seen - even movies that I've liked. And then, of course, there are people. Specifically, people's names. I like to think that I never forget a face - but names? Fuhgeddaboutit. I usually do. So what's a young person like myself to do? How can I prevent my brain from ossifying and teach it to be more nimble? There's actually some good news in

We're havin' a heat wave!

Well, actually, strictly speaking, we in the northern hemisphere are NOT having a heat wave. In fact, throughout much of our half of the earth, it is bitterly cold just now. In my own neighborhood of the world, here near the southern coast of the United States, we are shivering in temperatures that we haven't experienced in many years. We are talking temperatures in the 20s F and possibly as low as the teens later this week. Such weather occurrences predictably bring out all the global warming skeptics and deniers to chortle triumphantly about how this proves that all the hoopla about global climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy. But if they bothered to turn their eyes to the south, they would see quite a different picture . In the southern hemisphere, especially the South Pacific, many areas are experiencing unprecedented heat waves, not so different from what we experienced in much of North America and other parts of the northern hemisphere just a few months ago and prob

"Reading deliberately" - a concept I can get behind!

Several of the book blogs that I follow ( The Book Lady , e.g.) are promoting an idea that they call "reading deliberately" in 2010. As I understand it, this means reading with a plan in mind, being mindful about what you read, and not just reading the light, fluffy stuff that goes in one eye and out the other. It's an idea that appeals to me. In 2009, I read 81 books. I know because I kept track of them on Goodreads . I never actually kept track of my reading before, but I'm pretty sure I never read 81 books in a year before. Looking back over my list, I can't say that there are any that I wish I hadn't read, but, if I had really thought about it more, perhaps I could have made better reading choices. It's a case of "so many good books, so little time" and do I really want to waste my time reading books that, in the great scheme of things, are worthless? The first book that I read in 2010 was such a selection. It was Killer Keepsakes

The anonymous haters

I love the Internet. I especially love Google. How did I ever survive without it? But I guess I am revealing something about my age and my mindset when I say that I will never get used to the hatred, vitriol, and, in fact, the filth that spews out on the world through the Internet "tubes" every day. And it is all anonymous, of course. That makes it worse somehow. All that passion is so...impersonal. A couple of the websites that I frequent on a daily basis are prime offenders in this regard. Anyone who expresses a contrarian opinion from the accepted orthodoxy is likely to get screamed at in CAPITAL LETTERS AND MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!! There may even be wishes for the death of the contrarian. This is something that bothers me all the time, but what really brought it to the front of my mind recently was the news last week that Rush Limbaugh had been admitted to the hospital with a possible heart attack. When I read some of the comments on the news story, I w

Wait'll next year and hope. Oh. It is next year.

January 2. It's just about six weeks until "pitchers and catchers report" and we begin revving up for another season of the greatest game played with a ball that was ever invented. And the fans of most major league teams begin revving up for another year of frustration and disappointment. That was certainly my fate last year. Frustration. I can remember no season since becoming a Houston Astros fan some thirty years before that was more filled with angst, anger, and hopelessness. Last year's team was hopeless almost from the beginning of the season. The main problem was that they had a manager who was clueless and incompetent. He may be a fine human being and he may have had success in other roles in baseball, but as a manager, he didn't know where to begin. He made excuses for his errors. He blamed his players. He blew up at reporters who asked him questions he didn't want to answer. Worst of all, he made boneheaded strategic moves in games that

New Year's Day for the birds

What better way to begin a new year than at a National Wildlife Refuge looking for birds. It has become a tradition with our family in recent years to spend New Year's Day at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and so that is where we headed in the early morning hours. Last year's New Year's Day at Anahuac was heartbreaking. Hurricane Ike had swept through just two-and-a-half-months before, totally devastating the area. There were piles of debris everywhere one looked - but no birds. We ended the day with only sixteen species on our list and two of those were the Black and Turkey Vultures. This year was quite different. From our first stop in the refuge, it was evident that life had returned. There were large flocks of ducks and geese flying as well as plenty of other water birds. Most hearteningly, there were Tree Swallows! This year we ended the day with a total of thirty-six species on our list - not a great total but respectable and certainly encouraging after la