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Showing posts from April, 2011

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: A review

In Anna Karenina , Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All of Anne Tyler's families are different and that is certainly true of the Tull family that we meet in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant . We meet the family initially as its irascible matriarch, Pearl Tull, lies dying at age 85. Caught between life and death, she is beset by memories and by regrets. She struggles to tell Ezra, her favorite son, that he should have had an alternate mother, but she is unable to form the words. Her memories take her back to the time, some 30 years before, when her husband, Beck Tull, deserted her, leaving her to raise their three children on her own. Beck was a traveling salesman and his children were used to him being away from home, so none of them noticed any difference at first. Their mother refused to tell them they had been deserted. She pretended - for years! - that he was just on another business t

But...but...but I thought you wanted out!

The governor of our state, who was last heard from threatening to secede from the United States, is suddenly doing what he has made fun of other states for doing: He's asking for federal assistance to handle our drought and wildfires . Of course, the truth is Texas has been getting federal assistance of one kind or another all along and will continue to get it no matter how much of a hissy-fit the governor and legislature throw. But to hear Rick Perry tell it Texas stands alone with help from no one. Today, Perry stuck his foot in it even more by complaining about President Obama showing concern about Alabama and the other states so hard hit by this week's tornadoes - states that have lost over 300 lives as well as inestimable property damage. How come he's concerned about all those states and not Texas, Perry wonders? He sounds like a jealous fourth grader. Really, how petty can you get? Pretty damned petty, not to mention clueless, if your name is Rick Perry.

More wake-up calls from Mother Nature

There was an interesting article on the DailyKos website yesterday about Earth's climate . It was published before the latest and most devastating round of tornadoes that hit the South, killing (at last count) more than 200 people, injuring many more and virtually destroying some small towns. The timing of the publication thus proved ironic. The article talks about the warnings that have been given repeatedly by climate scientists over the last 30 years or so about what we can expect from global climate change, especially if we continue to refuse to acknowledge our part in it and take steps to reverse some of the damage we have done. The bottom line is that we can expect to see a dramatic increase in extreme weather - storms, droughts, floods, extended heat waves. The planet's normal climate regulators, such as polar ice caps and the troposphere, are being overcome, damaged and even destroyed by Earth's unnatural warming, with disastrous results. One always has to ac

It's not about the birth certificate

So Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate has been released to the public and is now available for anyone to examine. That means there will be no more questioning of his legitimacy as president, the silly season can end, and we can get on with discussing our serious problems, right? Wrong. The people who questioned the legitimacy of Obama's presidency and his citizenship will still find reasons to question it. Why? Come close and let me whisper in your ear. BECAUSE IT HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN, STILL IS, AND EVER WILL BE ABOUT HIS RACE . The people who have questioned his citizenship are racists pure and simple. They cannot stand the thought of a person with dark skin being president. Do you really think if the situation had been a white president with fair skin and blonde hair whose mother was from North Dakota and whose father was an immigrant from England and who was born in, oh, say Alaska in 1962, they would ever for a

Who could have guessed that people actually LIKE Medicare?

So the Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the Paul Ryan budget plan which would destroy Medicare as we know it and then they went on break. They went home to meet their constituents in town hall meetings. Perhaps they had been reading the Washington Post or watching the inside-the-Beltway pundits on the cable news programs and so expected to be greeted as conquering heroes. Those boos and pointed questions from angry voters must have come as quite a shock to their delicate psyches. Wherever the people who voted for this draconian plan have met the public, they have found that people do not like what they did. They are asking the congresspeople questions like, "Why are you trying to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the poor, the children, while at the same time you are giving additional tax breaks to the richest people in the country?" Apparently, the congresspersons are finding it difficult to answer that question, as well th

"Treme" - lous thoughts

I didn't watch the first season of " Treme" on HBO last year, but my family did, and they kept nagging and nagging me, telling me how great it was and how much I would love it until, as the second season of the show was looming, I gave in and took to HBO On Demand and watched all ten episodes of the first season in just a few days. All things considered, I think I was smart to view it this way. I'm not really much of a television junkie and I can't claim to have watched other David Simon series like "The Wire" or "Homicide" so I came to "Treme" as a Simon-virgin, so to speak. Having now watched the first season and the first episode of the second season, I might want to go back and look at some of his earlier work. "The Wire" springs immediately to mind. For the uninitiated, "Treme" is set in New Orleans. The first season's episodes begin three to four months after Katrina. The city is in ruins. So are

Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King: A review

Just in time for Easter, I've finished Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. The non-canonical Gospel of Judas, which is the topic of this book, was purportedly found in Egypt in the 1960s or 1970s. Its provenance is somewhat shaky, but the only known copy of the work, in the Coptic language, has been carbon-dated to around 280 of the Common Era, give or take 60 years. It is believed that this is a translation of an earlier Greek work which was in existence at least in 180 C.E. when the influential Christian priest, Irenaeus, spoke out against it and other writings that offered an alternative view of the circumstances and meaning of Jesus' life and death. Elaine Pagels and Karen King are two respected scholars of Gnosticism, the philosophical tradition from which the Gospel of Judas springs. They explain how and why the author of the work (who, obviously, was not Judas Iscariot but apparently someone sympathe

Maybe God is mad at Texas

Remember Hurricane Katrina? Remember the response of certain evangelical Christians - most notably Pat Robertson - to that terrible storm? Robertson and his ilk gloated that Katrina was God's wrath made visible. God hated New Orleans and America because of our so-called soft-pedaling of homosexuality, among other sins, and so hundreds of innocent people - children, women, and men - had to suffer horrible deaths and a great city had to be virtually destroyed to appease an angry God. As far as I am aware, the same characters who denounced New Orleans as it was drowning have had little to say about the state of Texas that is now frying. It seems to me, though, that if God can send a flood to drown New Orleans, He could probably take the water away from Texas and let it parch in the hot, drying sun and the relentless wind that has been blowing here for weeks now. Virtually all of the state is now officially in drought . Some of us are already in what is termed an "exception

Wordless Wednesday: Guarding the feeder

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The ten least peaceful states

The Institute for Economics and Peace recently released a report of its rankings of the 50 states according to their peacefulness. Their rankings were based on five factors: 1. Number of homicides per 100,000 people. 2. Number of violent crimes per 100,000 people. 3. Number of people in jail per 100,000 people. 4. Number of police officers per 100,000 people. 5. General availability of small arms. Using these criteria, these are the top ten least peaceful (or the top ten most violent) states: 1. Louisiana 2. Tennessee 3. Nevada 4. Florida 5. Alabama 6. Texas 7. Arkansas 8. Oklahoma 9. South Carolina 10. Maryland The thing that I notice first about this list is that most of them are in the South and that most of them are among the poorest states in the country. I'm not sure how Nevada managed to insert itself in the list, but it does have a very high unemployment rate and perhaps suffers from crime related to its gambling industry. But I would definitely surmise tha

Low taxes = Failing infrastructure

Among the industrialized countries of the world, there are at least twenty-six with higher tax rates than the United States . Most of them also have a more equitable standard of living ranging from their richest to their poorest citizens, as well as a stronger safety net to catch citizens who, for whatever reason, fall upon hard times. And most of them have infrastructures in good repair, some of them absolutely state of the art when it comes to mass transit and moving people safely from one place to another. The state of the infrastructure in this country is an embarrassment and is getting worse day by day, and where is the money to reverse that trend? Looking at individual tax rates in this country, on this 2011 Tax Day, the effective tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers is 17%. 17%!!! And there are those who say that they should get further tax cuts. Meanwhile, the government is drowning in red ink. The situation could be helped immensely with even a slight increase in

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith : A review

Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency are back once more with more gentle tales of the human heart and human perfidy. The case which is claiming Precious' attention this time around is one of cattle mutilation and killing. Cattle are currency in Botswana. They are also close to the soul of the people of Botswana. They are revered and when two of them are needlessly and cruelly killed, Precious must find out what happened and make sure that no more cows are made to suffer thus. Her client, the cattle owner, is a furtive and secretive man who thinks of himself as a well-respected member of society, but Precious soon learns that he may be overestimating the regard of his neighbors. As her investigation continues, he becomes a suspect himself. Meanwhile, Charlie, the mechanic's apprentice and ladies' man, is in trouble again. This time it seems that he may have impregnated one of his girlfriends. When he is confronted by a hostile Grace Makutsi abou

"Raise our taxes, please!"

Happy Tax Day! Only it actually isn't Tax Day this year. Because of a holiday celebrated in the District of Columbia, all taxpayers get an automatic extension on the due date of their taxes until Monday, April 18. In my household, though, we don't need no stinking extension! We paid our taxes on the traditional Tax Day, today. Didn't even wait until 11:59 P.M. as we have in some years. I do consider it a patriotic duty to pay the taxes that I owe, which is why I so deeply resent those who use every excuse and every loophole to wriggle out of fulfilling that duty. My observation is that, generally speaking, such people are a lot more wealthy and a lot more able to pay their fair share of taxes than my household, which sharpens my resentment even more. Because of this, I was very happy and a little surprised this week to read about the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength . This is a group of some of the wealthiest Americans who came together last year during

The President's Speech

Full disclosure: I didn't hear President Obama's speech about the deficit and budget policy yesterday. I just heard about it and read about it later . But it seems to have been a pretty good speech, none of the stuttering or embarrassingly weak statements we have come to expect from him. He did defend Democratic principles in a fairly robust way and that was a pleasant surprise. It certainly was not what I had expected, nor I think what many had expected from this president who never saw a compromise he didn't like, especially if it is one that causes him to backtrack on everything he's ever SAID that he believes in. Of course, we knew he could give a good speech. The test will be whether he can live up to it. Can he stand firm in defense of those principles he expounded on so eloquently? You'll forgive me if I don't wager any money on it. Our experience has been that as soon as the Republicans start attacking, he will start backpedaling, trying

Who needs an "environment" anyway?

We're getting the details of the budget measure that was agreed to last weekend and it is not a pretty sight. Forget, for a second, all the goodies for the rich and the pointy-stick-in-the eye for everyone else that are contained in that foggy piece of legislation. For now, let's just concentrate for a moment on some of the things that it does to the environment around us and to the sciences related to that environment. To quote the Times story about the agreement, "There are myriad restrictions and budget cuts for environmental initiatives in the proposed budget." Here are just a few: - $49 million would be cut from programs related to climate change. - $438 million would be cut from programs supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy. - $638 million would be cut from environmental cleanup efforts by the Defense Department. - $997 million would be cut from funds through which the Environmental Protection Agency provides money for loca

The absentee president

In his regular op-ed column in The Times today, Paul Krugman had a harsh assessment of the performance of President Obama . I'm sorry to say that I think the president richly deserves every stinging word. In 2008, American voters were crying out for new leadership. They wanted a moral leader who would get the country out of the morass it had been in for the previous eight years. They wanted a strong president who would stand up for the right against the forces of evil that have too often had their way with our government in recent years. They wanted a stark change in direction for a country that was headed to hell in a handbasket on the fast track. They thought they were electing an audacious leader who would not hesitate to make moral judgments and would once again put the country back on the right side of history. Instead, they got a wet noodle of a president who cannot seem to stand firm on anything, not even on the most sacred values of the Democratic Party - values th

Silent Sunday: Amaryllis time

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"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 t

Exit Music by Ian Rankin: A review

Anyone who follows my book reviews is probably already aware that I am a big fan of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series. Mysteries are my favorite genre and the Rebus series is really one of the best, in my opinion. Rankin can always be counted on to give us believable characters and situations and always there is in the background the wonderfully funky and historic city of Edinburgh, a smallish town in a smallish country where everybody and everything seems intertwined. And always in the middle of it all is Rebus, a cop who hates being hamstrung by rules, but a cop, who at his core is a very moral man. That's what drives him crazy. What keeps him sane is the music. Rock music. It is the background noise of his life. It tells the story of his alienation, his lost loves, his broken marriage, the daughter who has drifted away, the dead friends, the ghosts of cases without a "result." Those ghosts haunt him at night as he sits in his favorite chair in his living room,

Extinction is forever

Mass extinctions are nothing new in the history of this planet. Scientists have identified at least five events in the history of Earth in which an estimated 75 percent of all species then on the planet disappeared in a few million years or less. Many scientists believe that we are now in the midst of a sixth such event and that this one is largely being caused by human beings. The impetus for this suspected mass extinction is human-caused climate change . Scientists suspect that their study which identified this phenomenon may actually be underestimating the impact and just how many species might disappear. Although it is virtually impossible to link any one species' fate to global warming, there is no doubt that animals' ranges are changing in response to the changing climate. I saw an example of that just today on a road trip here in Southeast Texas. I saw a bunch of Black and Turkey Vultures at a carcass next to the road and when the birds flew up, I noticed that one

Blood on his hands

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Jones, the Florida man who styles himself as a preacher, presided over a mock-trial at the church where he is the pastor. On trial was not a person or a philosophy but a book, the holy book of the religion of Islam, the Quran. I don't have any details of this so-called trial so I'm not sure who was present to speak in behalf of the "defendant". Since the whole thing was not only a mock-trial but a mockery, I don't imagine anyone defended the Quran, and when the trial was over, Jones pronounced the book guilty and set fire to it. In these days of the Internet and instant access to news from every corner of the world, even in the most out-of-the-way places, it didn't take long for this bit of theater to become known throughout the Islamic world. The reaction was only too predictable . In the tinderbox that is Afghanistan where our troops are engaged in trying to push back the Taliban and give the country a chance at peace a

Silent Sunday: The Name of the Rose...is 'Ducher'

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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah, is somewhat known in Texas where I live, but I doubt that it is much known in the rest of the country. It should be. One would hope that S.C. Gwynne's powerful book, Empire of the Summer Moon , which came out last year, and was one of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of the Year, has made it more widely known. Cynthia Ann Parker was a nine-year-old Anglo girl living on the frontier of Texas near present-day Dallas in May of 1836 when the Comanches swept down from the plains onto her family's fortified compound and overwhelmed the family. Several members of the family were brutally killed in the attack and two women and three children were captured. The reality of such raids at the time was that men and infants generally were killed outright. Women and children were taken captive when possible. The women would be gang-raped and otherwise brutalized. They might become slaves to a Comanche family or they might be to

The myth of American exceptionalism

You often hear American politicians extoll our country as being the greatest on earth. We have the greatest political system, the greatest educational system, the greatest health care system. I'm here to tell you it is all a crock of well-ripened horse manure. We have a political system that is bought and sold to the highest bidder. There is no "one person, one vote" anymore. Corporations have thousands, millions of votes because they buy them with millions of dollars. The ordinary, individual citizen stands little chance of having his/her voice heard. One way that they have been able to exert some power in the past is by banding together. There is strength in numbers, but very soon, if the Republicans have their way, that ability will be taken away as well. As for the Supreme Court, the final arbiter in our system of government, it has become so thoroughly politicized that the final votes can be counted virtually before arguments are heard on any issue - 5-4 in