Sunday, October 30, 2005

Let us now praise famous men

I just read that the Senate turned down a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25 per hour. The last time the minimum wage was increased was in 1997. In the meantime, the Senate has increased the yearly pay of senators by $28,000 to the present $162,000.

If we assume the senators work 50 weeks a year (as a lucky minimum wage worker would do--and bypassing the difficult nomenclatorial issue of defining "work" with regard to senatorial salaries), the basic hourly wage of a senator is $81.00 per hour, at present, excluding proceeds from graft and corruption, the value of the socialized insurance and pensions they get, or the value of the travel allowances and free office space the taxpayers provide for them.

So, senatorial salaries, bare bones, are $81.00 per hour.

Or, to look at it from another angle, they have given themselves a $14.00 per hour raise in the same period during which minimum wage workers have gotten a $0.00 hourly increase in wages. I did not try to figure an hourly value for any increase in the value of taxpayer-provided perks, much less add-ons from crooked dealing, which anyway varies from senator to senator, or so we should hope.

Meanwhile, economists have good news for the poor: core inflation is not rising. Your $5.15 per hour will buy you about as much now as it bought last year--as long as you don't buy food, gasoline, or heat your house. "Core" inflation is a little different from the "inflation" the rest of us encounter. Core inflation excludes gasoline and food and heating, all of which have risen steeply. Average heating bills are expected to increase by over 50% this coming winter.

The vote was a straight party-line vote, except 3 Republican senators with reelection difficulties who belatedly discovered the plight of the poor and voted for the $1.10 per hour raise, and one additional Republican with a conscience. Or at least a dollar and ten cents worth of a conscience. I don't know which Republican it was, but we should be thankful for his vote.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A really sad cat story

Subtitle: mistakes parents make

I peered closely with my reading glasses at my book, trying not to be distracted by a domestic outcry in the other room. In the back of my head I was hearing Kay shouting “Put him out! Put him out right now, Eve. Eve, the cat is going to throw up, put him OUT!” I heard the sound of Kay lunging at the cat, the spasmodic bullfrog croak of a vomiting cat “urruupp, urrupp, urrupppp” abruptly terminated by the slam of the back door. Eve burst into tears. She was 8 or 9 years old.

“Eve!” Kay shouted, “Why didn’t you go grab the cat and put him out when I said to? He just puked on the rug and all over me and you were just sitting there on the couch ignoring what I was telling you to do!”

The cat’s improbable name was Toto, as in we aren't in Kansas anymore. We didn't have a TV and Eve had gotten creeped out when we started reading the Wizard of Oz to her so she knew nothing about Dorothy's dog Toto. I don't remember how she came up with the name.

Eve was weeping.

“Mom” [muffled with sobs] “Mom, it’s cold outside. Toto might freeze. He might die!”

At that point I interjected, “He won’t freeze. He’s a cat and he’s covered with fur and he won’t freeze and he was vomiting.”

“He was sick,” she wailed. Why don’t you take him to the vet?”

“The vet’s closed. Eve, cats vomit all the time. He won’t die.”

Her face was stung with tears.

I was saying “Why didn’t you do what Kay said? You were just...ignoring what she said. Sometimes you have to act fast. If the cat is vomiting and someone says to put it out you do it right then.”

My voice had filled the room and drowned her and her face floated toward mine.

“But Daddy, Toto’s sick.”

“That the point! I exclaimed, exasperated. “We don’t want a sick cat in the house throwing up.”

“But Daddy if he’s sick and he dies I’ll feel guilty and I’ll never be able to tell him I’m sorry and...” the rest of her statement dissolved in her tears.

“He’ll be OK,” I said.

Outside I heard the snarly whine of two tomcats winding up their yowls like the rpm’s of electric power-tools, ending suddenly with paired explosive shrieks, “yeeooorrrrggghhh, yeeoooourrrgghhhhh, YEOWWWGHGGG!”

Toto was an outdoor tomcat and had an enemy that lived in the commercial stables across a field from our house.

I ignored it. “You need to do what we say, Eve, sometimes it’s important to do what we say.”

“Daddy, if he’s still sick tomorrow will you take him to the vet?”

Every time we took him to the vet it cost us big bucks. I was not enthusiastic about taking the cat to the vet. But I did, every time. Eve loved the cat. A year previously when I had found the cat as it lay unconscious in the rain in the yard, I had wrapped it in a towel and taken it in a smelly wet bundle to the animal emergency clinic. The cat was in shock because it couldn’t piss on account of a urinary blockage. They resuscitated him. The vet told us to feed Toto expensive special food and that the condition would probably recur anyway. It had, twice. Catheterized cat. I think it was a couple hundred bucks each time.

So I said “Yes, we'll take him to the vet if he's still sick, but Eve, if we’re gonna have animals, you’ve got to help out, not get in the way.”

Eve’s crying subsided into silent anger. She glared at me, red-eyed.
In the night she had a nightmare and came and got in bed beside Kay.
The following morning when I went to get the paper the cat was not waiting on the porch. The frost was thick on the grass between our house and the creek. The gray cirrus clouds were turning a puffy orange over the creek-bottom pecan trees. The horses shuffled and huffed in the morning cold, browsing the frosty grass.

That afternoon when I got home the cat was still not there. I rode an exercise bicycle in the evening cold on the back porch while Eve did her homework. She seemed to have forgotten about the cat. She asked me about her spelling words.

About dark I walked in the patch of brush where the cat often stayed, not far from our house. The wind rose from the north. I pushed through the leafless thicket of hog plum which was bristly and clawed at my jacket. But there was no sign of any cat.

The following day when I got home from work the cat was still missing. Kay and Eve were preparing to search for him. We live below a cliff on Onion Creek, and the creek and cliff blocked the cat’s travels in one direction. The domain of the enemy tomcat blocked his wanderings in another. So we walked toward a big abandoned house on the place adjacent to us on the west, and opened the rotting back door and tramped up and down the stairs in the musty bat-dung air. “Daddy, Daddy, he’s been here. Here’s a dead bird. He’s been here and killed it.” A desiccated sparrow lay on the dusty floor. “It means he’s been here!” said Eve, elated. I touched the bird with my toe, and it was a papery shell with feathers stuck to it, a mummified bird that had been dead for weeks. Our beagle raced through the rooms baying with excitement.

A thorough search of the abandoned house produced no cat. We went out. Kay told Eve to go look in a shed, and I walked back to the stable. I opened the door and called in a falsetto catcall “kiiiddeekiddeekiddee.” Silence. A horse nuzzled past my shoulder, interested in the smell of hay. Then I saw Toto, curled up on top of an old icebox. I could tell he was dead. I went over and touched him. He was heavy and cold and stiff. He was a big cat.

Eve and Kay came walking up. Eve for some reason turned away and went over to run water into the horse trough.

I whispered to Kay that the cat was dead.

“You’ve got to tell Eve” she said, sensing that I was considering hiding the corpse. “She said she wanted to know if anything happened to him.”
“Eve” I said. She turned and looked at me with alarm. I said, “Toto’s dead.”

She cried for about an hour.

I laboriously dug a hole with a pick in the hardpan gravelly earth near our house and when it was a couple of feet deep I stuffed the carcass into the hole but it was like trying to bury a big, powerful spring, and various parts like the legs or the tail kept popping out of the hole. Finally I got the cat lodged in the bottom of its shallow grave and I filled the dirt back in and then put two big heavy rocks on the mound to keep legs from sticking out or the dogs from digging up the cat’s body.

Eve and Kay brought out a little wooden cross they had made, and I hammered it into the ground and Eve said a prayer. “God let Toto go to heaven and take care of him let Toto be happy all his... all his... all his soul’s life.” This was a childlike prayer, in keeping with what I expected from her, but Eve startled me, afterward, when she said to me “Did you have to tell me? Why didn’t you just go bury him and never tell me and keep it a secret. I’d rather you had."

Friday cat blogging

Grendel searching a stack of wood for lizards.

Grendel, having caught no lizards, thinks he will take a nap in the sun, if the guy with the camera will leave him alone.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Flowers, doves, and dogs

As part of my 2-day (and counting) personal boycott of political posting, I'll share my Onion Creek walk with you. The weather is cooler and Bella gets to go along--she easily gets overheated in the summer, so she has to stay home when I take long walks then. So she loves fall.

Bella on the trail of...well, whatever it was, it's long gone. But she is still interested.

Dove in the flowers. This is a mourning dove who was foraging on the horse trail through the snakeweed, now regarding me with concern and about to take flight.

More flowers. I think this is a Thelesperma species. Usually we get some rain in September and October (though not so much this year) and we have a final florescence of a few autumn plants in October.

Crow silhouette. He's watching me leave the park from his perch on a sycamore which has already shed its leaves.

Plus, an Inca dove on the sundial at home a few minutes ago

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A gathering of whitewings

This morning I went out and found a small conclave of whitewing doves at the birdbath by the sundial. Whitewing doves are now one of our common birds in Austin, thanks perhaps to global warming, and are not shy like mourning doves and inca doves. They are nice looking birds, with a sleekness that reminds me of cedar waxwings, but, like all pigeons, they are a little dim. I had forgotten to fill the birdbath, but it seems to make little difference to them.

The gathering

A closer view

Dove in a tree

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The curious matter of torture

Vice President Cheney, not content with his role in Plamegate, has been leaning on John McCain to accept a loophole in the Senate's anti-torture amendment to the defense appropriation bill.

Basically, and stripped of needless circumlocution, Cheney wants it written into the bill that the CIA can conduct torture whenever it wants to, and that any American governmental action on foreign soil deemed to be a counterterrorism operation can also resort to torture.

You have to wonder what in the hell Bush and Cheney think the authority to torture people will get them. The entire world now knows they have been using torture--in fact we know that some CIA-held prisoners have died in custody, presumably interrogated a little too intensively--and given the Bush administration obsession with power, the most charitable explanation of why they want to keep this power is that they value power for its own sake, and are simply loath to give up any they presently have.

But it looks like they would step back and ask a simple question, which is: what has their de-facto power to torture, and their willing use of that power, gotten them in the way of "intelligence"?

I mean, most of the civilized world considers torture to be wrong on moral grounds, not pragmatic ones. But even for people with a palsied sense of morality, like Bush and Cheney, you'd think the atrophy of the moral sentiments would not necessarily imply an equal atrophy of their wits. Look at what the power to torture has gotten us. We have tortured people to death in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden is still out there, as is Mullah Omar (remember him?) and the re-grouping Taliban is in fact getting stronger. Evidently torture has not helped us in Afghanistan very much.

How about Iraq? Well, that's pretty easy to answer. We see the results every day.

What of importance did Manadel Jamadi tell us? He was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison, tortured to death by the CIA, and then photographed packed in ice by soldiers at the prison. At that point "a high-level CIA operative" supposedly tried to hide the facts of Jamadi's death after Army personnel found his corpse. So did we learn from Jamadi the location of the WMDs?

If Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld had actually gotten any useful information from a tortured prisoner, do you think they would have failed to trumpet it? The Bushies are totally willing to imperil our national security to further their political agenda, as we have seen in the outing of Valerie Plame. So does anyone imagine that if we had gotten the least shred of useful information from a tortured prisoner, that such "success" would not have become an instant talking point with the Administration and its trained parrots in the media?

That was a rhetorical question, as you can see.

Maybe the explanation of Cheney's pro-torture campaign is that Bush and Cheney are simply addicted to hearing what they want to hear. And it is becoming harder and harder for them to hear it. And the one thing a tortured prisoner can be relied on to do, is tell you what you want to hear.

Or to put it in less of a tasteless joke way, I think the roots of torture lie with the psychological needs of the torturer. An obsession with control and power is the hallmark of the Bush government, far beyond any need for results or any pragmatic consequence. In that psychological context the continued power to torture must seem both logical and necessary to the White House.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The curious matter of prison rapes

Six officials of Texas's prison system were acquitted a few days ago of violating the civil rights of a Texas prisoner, Roderick Johnson, who claims he was raped multiple times, reported it multiple times, and was told by prison officials simply to stand up and fight like a man if he didn't want to get raped. The prisoner is gay, which no doubt worked to the detriment of his claim.

But that's not the whole story. There is a strong sentiment in Texas, and I believe in the rest of the country, that criminals have it coming. The novel legal principle, "break the law, get raped," is one expression of the underlying vengefulness at the heart of our criminal justice system, a kind of schadenfreude at the core of our idea of how to deal with crime.

Sadly, this cuts across political boundaries. I have read, and heard, a number of expressions of satisfaction from my fellow liberals at the idea of Tom Delay being traded around in the Texas prison system like cigarettes.

The Texas prisoner who lost his case reported being raped 48 times, and claimed he was bought and sold by Texas prison gangs. The civil rights trial was held in Wichita Falls, whose population is perhaps as pure a distillate of nasty spitefulness towards homosexuality as could be found in Texas, or perhaps anywhere outside of the tribal areas of Afghanistan, and the verdict was pretty much a foregone conclusion if only for that reason. Let us hope the jury would not have held that a heterosexual woman would deserve to get raped 48 times because she was heterosexual. (Perhaps they would, of course, if they thought she was asking for it in some way. But that's another issue.)

But if Mr. Johnson had not been gay, I think he would have stood a good chance of losing his case, simply because, in the eyes of many Americans, having broken the law is itself "asking for it," and a little extra piling on, so to speak, is A-OK with them.

I don't think I can prove this, but if someone as unintuitive as George Bush can go with his gut, certainly I can do the same, and with far less catastrophic results. I think there is a connection, a commonalty, between such different events as Abu Ghraib and prison rape and police on the street tasering people just to teach them a lesson, and public satisfaction at criminals getting what they "deserve." The connection, I think, is a psychological common thread of reactive rage.

This may be the remnant of our founding puritanism, which has over time curdled, like sour milk, especially in the overheated climate of southern religiosity, but is found somewhere deep in the American soul, even among those of us who are not Baptists.

The recent popularity of the colorful term "frog-marched" with regard to the much-longed-for indictment of Karl Rove indicates not only an acceptance, but a satisfaction at the thought of not only Mr. Rove being justly indicted and ultimately convicted for his crimes, but being humiliated as well. The visual here, in my mind's eye at least, is one of Mr. Rove being handcuffed and hoisted by his armpits by the police officers removing him, his feet occasionally tippy-toeing the floor, from his office. A comic thought, but, sadly, a mean one.

But one can protest, "but he _does_ have it coming." Well, yes, he is obviously one of the people behind the outing of Valerie Plame and the vindictive smear of her husband, and is deeply involved in the coverup of that, and very likely some of his actions have been felony violations of the law, for which he should be, and hopefully will be, held accountable.

But that's different from being humiliated upon arrest, or later raped in prison. In other words, there's something about many of us, as Americans (and I can certainly see it in myself), that confuses justice with the inflicting of pain on people who, rightly or wrongly, are the objects of our fear and loathing.

Of course, maybe that's just me: possibly it's just an unfortunate remnant of my having been brought up in small-town Texas. But part of my dismay at the Texas prison-rape jury decision is that I think I understand where they are coming from, and how, with a different set of issues, I might well feel the tug of temptation to vote vindictively. I think to myself that I would resist this tug, but maybe that is just the even-stronger temptation of self-flattery.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Today's walk in Mary Moore Searight Park

This is a municipal park of about 350 acres at the south edge of Austin. It's rapidly being surrounded by cityedge development. About a third of the park, I'd guess, is devoted to a frisbee golf course, where I venture to go birdwatching only in inclement weather or very early in the morning, when frisbees are unlikely to flying. Frisbee golfers seem a bit territorial--I think they feel perhaps resentful of birdwatcher intrusions onto their, um, what do you call it, anyway? frisbee links? Anyway, I try not to disturb their sport. There is lots of room in the remainder of the park for the rest of us.

Today was a good day for a walk. In October we have a last burst of wildflowers in Austin, mostly compositae, nothing to write home about, but something to enjoy. This is a Maximilian Sunflower.

They usually have multiple flowers close to the stem. The plants are 3 or 4 feet high. The roots are edible, though I have never dug one up to see how they taste--according to what I have read, they taste like the tubers of their close relative, the Jerusalem artichoke.

Live oaks and junipers, both common in the park, tend to get kind of gnarled and twisted as they age. So I started taking pictures today of gnarly stuff.

Here's a juniper trunk

Here's a live oak, half the tree dead, the other half alive

Here is some ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) on a live oak limb. It's a bromeliad.

Here is a close-up view. (You can click on any of these images for a little more detail.)

And finally, a yet closer-up view. Here you can see some green. The plant appears silvery gray from a distance.

I finished my walk by crossing a small concrete dam across an arroyo, used to trap water for livestock when the Searight family was ranching here. This puts me behind the picnic ground and nearly back at my car. So here's a final photo of a father and daughter enjoying the benches in the shade of a juniper tree, as I left.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Friday cat blogging

Gray is like, Oh no, is it cat blogging day again?

Meanwhile, Grendel's thoughts are elsewhere

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Two faces of Texas

This is what I am greeted by today when I start my walk at Onion Creek greenbelt, outside Austin. Not much room to park my car today.

That's pretty bad. Fortunately it ends at the fence. When I go a few hundred feet I find the following:

A little path through cactus and hardscrabble vegetation in a dry area of the park. This was one of Kay's favorite places for us to walk.

A Turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus)--one of our nice fall flowers.

A tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton) resting on frostweed (Verbesina virginica) flowers. The tawny emperors have been around since July, and most of them are getting a little worn looking.

A twisted mesquite tree and backlit poison ivy, along with saplings of hackberry and cedar elm.

The path back to the car. Mustang grapevines on the left.

Judith Miller steps up to the plate

This morning's astonishing words:
Those who need anonymity are not only the poor and the powerless, those whose lives or jobs might be in jeopardy if they speak up publicly, but even the powerful," Miller said. "All are entitled to anonymity if they are telling the truth and have something of importance to say to the American people.

--Judith Miller, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf a proposition to shield reporters from having to reveal their sources.

Jesus Christ. Look at that. Ms Miller steps up to the plate on behalf of those most in need of protection--the rich and powerful.

That's really nauseating.

All we have to do to reject Ms Miller's proposed shield law is to look at something in the second half of her statement "...if they are telling the truth..."

They weren't telling the truth about Iraq.

And if she is claiming that Libby and her other source whose name she amazingly can't recall told the truth about Plame being Wilson's wife, well, that little truth is precisely what it was criminal to divulge, and certainly does not constitute an important truth the American people needed to know.

But Miller is not really interested in our taking at face value the truth-plus-importance proviso in her defense of privilege for the rich and powerful--it is a rhetorical gambit that blows that defense out of the water, in fact, if you think about it for a moment. It just sounds good--but on examination, it invalidates the justification she is proposing for shielding her particular sources from public view.

She has in fact unwittingly pinpointed the difference between her source and Deep Throat back in the ancient and heroic days of investigative reporting, that she and all government stovepipes now use to justify their present demeaning of the very concept of investigative reporting. Karl Woodward's source was blowing a whistle on criminality in government. Miller's source was committing a criminal act, and hoping to use Ms Miller as she had been used before, as a willing and able stenographer.

Here is a reporter who was a career-motivated conduit for government lies, who functioned essentially as Rumsfeld's right hand woman in getting us into this depraved war, and who was perhaps as personally responsible as any single individual outside of the government itself, for our having needlessly murdered more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and 2000 (and counting) Americans, and could no more have been ignorant of her reportage being untrue than I am of the world being round, pretending--after she tops off her WMD reportage with outright complicity in Rove and Libby's slime attack on Wilson-- to purity of motive in the protection of the rich and powerful from exposure in a criminal investigation .

Give me a break. Give us all a break.

This quote from Gene Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette sums it all up admirably:
It wasn’t a whistleblower case at all. It was the exact opposite : the most powerful people in the United States using the press to damage a whistleblower by endangering his wife, something even the Mob won’t do.

And Judith Miller stands on principle, to protect the most powerful people in the United States from exposure as the criminals they are.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Reminder of a failed love

Once—it must have been in June of 1968— I woke up in a bright and lovely world, in a tent with a sleeping woman beside me, in the Manzano Mountains in New Mexico. A cathedral-shaft of light defined by glowing dust motes floating in the tarpaulin-canvas tentsmell that tents no longer have today, fell from an opening in the door onto the woman's face, a face that seemed so beautiful at the time that that the image comes back to me now, clear in my mind's eye, 37 years later.

It seems odd when I think about it now, that many people would have considered her face to be plain. Such people did not know her. For people who knew her, it was a face of astonishing composure, integrity, compassion, decency, serenity, clarity, and strength. And with her high cheekbones and full lips she had a strange and compelling physical attractiveness. Her face was luminous. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Many years later, in April of 2001, two months before she died, and the last time I ever saw her, I momentarily could see the same face behind a mask of age and illness.

I ran across a picture of her today, while looking through another box of photos. A faded print. One of the few I have. Sadly, the only photos I have with both of us together are out of focus.

Sara Clark was the only other woman, besides Kay, I have ever been in love with. Oddly, she and Kay died within a year of each other, both of cancer.

The stellars jays up in the pines were rasping the air, shredding the peace and quiet, eventually waking her up. We looked out the tent door down onto the high plains to the east. We were camped at the edge of the ponderosas, and a line of oaks and blindingly backlit yellowgreen cottonwoods marked the creek a hundred yards away. At the time I wrote a self-indulgent young man's poem about this, which I will spare you, containing a conceit about Danae and a quote in Latin from Propertius. The poem was totally ridiculous. But the vision of her beauty that inspired the poem still comes to me at unexpected times, with a vividness that catches at my breath.

We bathed in the creek. We emerged cold and happy. We packed up our gear and moved on.

Our love affair lasted five years and was, as they say, tempestuous. But the memory that came to me this morning was from a time before any tempests set it. That summer with Sara was when I first discovered the beauty of the mountain west, as well as the happiness of a committed love.

I won’t tell you what went wrong, because this is a blog post, not a book--except to say that we were both young and foolish, and that I was by far the more foolish.

She was perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever known. She once wrote me a letter, during a more troubled time in our relationship, astonishing, when I read it now, for a young woman under 30, containing her reason for forgiving me my part in our break-up, as well as a credo I know she actually believed and lived by.
I have found one way to feel compassion without fail: convince yourself of what you know is true, that each person you encounter is terminally ill, is dying. If one can do this, really believe it, compassion flows. My friend—or this stranger— will not last the hour/night/week/month/year. Who can refuse the last request of a dying man? Who can wish that he spend his last hours in any state but that which he calls happiness? He is dying. It works. Try it. I burst into tears when I held in my heart the knowledge of your terminal illness….One is very gentle with a dying person…I look at the cat & I know the cat is dying. I look at Pretzel [the dog] & know that she will soon be dead. I too am dying.

And now she is dead.

She left behind a daughter and a husband, whom I never knew, and a multitude of friends, some of whom I do still know. Like Kay, she died way too young.

Sara Clark as a young hippie

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Occasional cultural notes: I visit Cabela's

As part of my occasional and ongoing series of reviews of retail store reviews (maybe to be filed under "Americana" if I could find a way to archive stuff on Blogger by anything except date) I went to look at our new and gigantic Cabela's roadside store Friday evening. It's a huge structure on I-35 in the little town of Buda (pronounced byooda) a few miles south of where I live--one of these vast roadside steel-building places, kinda like a factory outlet store, except that it's really a hunting and fishing equivalent of Walmart. Except it's not that either. It's a big box specialty store of a kind I would have found hard to imagine before I walked into it. For one thing, unlike Walmart, they have some _really_ expensive merchandise inside. More of that in a minute. They also have a lot of cheap shit made in China.

They call themselves an "outfitter's supply" store, which calls up visions of a wholesale packsaddle and mule shoe provisioner, but, of all the outdoor gear in the place, profuse in quantity and kaleidoscopic in kind, I must say, I did not see a single saddle for a mule or any farriers' stock anywhere in the place, though given the size of the store I could have overlooked them. The place is as big as the nearest Walmart Superstore 10 miles up the road in Austin, maybe bigger.

It plays to the fantasies of hunters and fishermen, and would-be hunters and fishermen, and I think the basic, unifying-theme fantasy of this strange place is a vision of Teddy Roosevelt's America. They have set up big expedition tents inside the place, like you would find in a camp of northwoods hunters in 1900, except that the tents, that would hold 15 or 20 fold-up cots, aren't canvas or made in America. Nothing much in the way of Sierra Club ethic pack it in pack it out ultralight carry-it-yourself tentstock, here.

The ur-image would be that of robust jolly hunters sitting back in camp in very comfy and sturdy camp chairs, as befits a modern hunter's girth, drinking beer and exchanging untruths and eating venison cooked on a big campfire. The Teddy Roosevelt vision has been somewhat militarized, I am sad to say--the place has a good quarter acre of military-looking camouflage clothing.

At one time, as recently as a few years ago, hunters sensibly wore day-glow orange to the hunt, so as not to be mistaken for trophy bucks and shot, but apparently hunters now must either have bought into a face-blackened commando self-image, or they have discovered that deer can see orange, or both. Unfortunate, in any case, if only for the possible toll of trophy sized deer-hunters. There is still a small section of traffic-cone-orange vests and hats, for traditionalists or those who place more stock in saving their lives than in bringing home venison, but the decor of the store--not just the clothing section, either--is camo.

You can even get camo face-masks, to really fool the cervids into thinking you are a tree--the complete outfit is hat, face mask, coat, vest, shirt, pants, and boots, all in southern-command airborne-ranger jungle-camo, and you can get it all here, and more. One stop shopping, also, maybe, for paramilitary and drug-cartel outfitters on their way south.

There is well over a quarter acre of guns and gun supplies--there is even a little store-within-a-store, called a gun "library," where collectable guns are bought and sold. I personally stopped and for several minutes admired, the workmanship and ornamentation of a Purdey shotgun, an over and under 12 gauge fowling piece with a price tag of $139,999.

Impressive. The price, I mean. I think this is part of the museum-exhibit aspect of the store, intended to sell whatever self-concept it is that impels people to rush out of the "library" and buy $600 shotguns they can't afford any more than the Purdey, but which will not max out their Visa card. (Someone who actually tried to buy the Purdey would probably be in danger of arrest, suspected of being either a drug kingpin or an indictable money-launderingTexas politician. Alarms would go off in Ronnie Earle's office.)

There are a good many 5 to 10 thousand dollar shotguns also. And lots of collectable revolvers and pistols. As I was looking at the shotguns, some guy came in to sell his antique Colt SAA Peacemaker. Those run $1500 to $6000 depending on vintage and condition.

The store had two museum exhibit areas, one of predators, big cats, stuffed, in naturalistic Museum of Natural History settings, and another of large herbivores, mostly horned arteriodactyls, also deceased and stuffed, in Northwoods autumn maple-leaf diorama settings; the animals in taxidermic pseudo-animation, looking more robust than many of the customers, some of whom were cruising around slowly in wheelchair shopping carts, hunting, fishing, and camping goods piled high in the basket in front.

Primed by the store's ambience, the customers fan out into the actual sales sections of the store. I mentioned the huge area of guns. The gun section has walls of long guns, cabinets of handguns, and many aisles of gun paraphernalia--handloading tools, cleaning equipment, carrying cases, telescopic sights, spotting scopes, targets--you name it. They have a little island of binoculars, to see trophy mountain sheep on distant mountainsides, including top of the line optics any birdwatcher would be happy to have--Swarovskis and Leicas--down to shrink-wrapped $39.95 more-or-less ornamental field glasses for hunters to wear around their neck with their camo gear, part of the costume.

On the other side of the store, and equal to the guns in acreage, is the fishing section. I didn't go over there, but I could see that it had lots of fishing poles, no doubt some of them fancy and expensive. I'd guess some fly-fishing gear was on display, if not sold much--Texas is not trout-stream central. But a guy can buy his fly rod and tackle-box of pre-tied flies and dream of his big week in Montana, if he still hasn't reached his credit card limit.

Between the camo clothing and the fishing poles there is a relatively inconspicuous section of normal jackets, shirts, hats, and other clothes--by normal, I mean not camo. I guess they can't fight Walmart in selling blue men's shirts or pink women's parkas.

To move on: there was a section of canoes, kayaks, and boating equipment. Plus the parking lot outside has a lot of kayaks and canoes, which are now found in the colors formerly popular in hunting gear, various shades of shocking orange. Gets people into the store and into a good mood, I guess.

Back inside the store, to the west of the guns is a bowhunting section, with hundreds of high-tech composite block-and-tackle carbon-fiber titanium multiple-pulley hand catapults for sale that are bows in the sense that genetically engineered soybeans with fish dna are members of the plant kingdom. If you buy a bow, they have an archery range to try it out. But, if I read the sign correctly, only if you buy. (Upstairs, though, there is a laserbeam marksmanship gallery to try out your aim with a fake gun, with a carnival-barker-voiced talking deer's head over the door to draw you in, and entry is free, no gun purchase required. Also, no bullets fired. The guns have a recorded bang.) There was one small rack of real, and I must say very esthetically pleasing wooden bows, beautifully made. I was afraid to look at the price tags.

On to a section of knives and knife-sharpening equipage. I think I remember a $300 device for keeping your kitchen and or hunting knives razor-honed to finger-amputation sharpness. My knives, needless to say, are dull.

Camping equipment is upstairs. As mentioned, they don't have much truck at Cabela's with lightweight backpacker equipment. This is heavyweight stuff. Indeed, this is a heavyweight store. My feeling is that you drive to your campsite in the same Hummer you drive to the story to buy your tent, ideally; tents you can snap extra rooms onto like space station modules, to sleep any number of extra drunk hunters in. Tents that many getting-drunk hunters can gather round the fire in front of. Tents that Theodore Roosevelt himself would recognize as a tent, except for the space-station materials used. But the look is the same.

They have a big cafeteria upstairs. It was closed for the evening, but dollars to donuts they do not sell veggie-burgers.

They have very friendly employees. The older ones are mostly pot-bellied men with closely cropped hair, and then there is a cohort of younger employees, fresh-faced young men with closely cropped hair, and attractive young women, who look like the older employees must have once looked--fit, outdoorsy, and active.

My going-away impression was one of sensory overload and what the hell are these people thinking. Except for the high-end Leica binocs I can't afford, or maybe an orange impact-resistant kayak, there was nothing there I could see myself owning. I guess that's what liberalism does to you. The optics were the only thing I know anything about, really, and honestly I would not buy binoculars here, even if I could afford $1,900 for the Leicas when I could buy them from a web retailer significantly cheaper.

So they don't cut into Walmart's customer base. Thus I am led to wonder: where the hell do the customers of this humongo "outfitters' supply" store come from? I think it may be an actual travel destination. Or at least for some I-35 travelers, it could be a looked-forward-to place to stop for a few hours. I-35, or its international extension, runs from Mexico City to Minnesota. You go out in the parking lot, and the ground shakes with the traffic 200 yards away. Giant trucks are responsible for most of the shaking, but there are lots of cars amid the truck convoys. Potentially, I-35 is a huge market.

Not coincidentally, in my opinion, the state shut down the only big rest stop that I know of in the 50 miles on either side of this store, which was a few miles from here, at the very time this store was built.

Weary travelers must stop somewhere.

Now I apologize to the management of Cabela's or any Republicans who might accidentally find this blog, for a tone in this post that might be mistaken for irreverence towards commerce.

For I am truly and honestly interested in both the cultural and political significance of this store. Up till now I have talked about what we might call cultural matters. But--and this is no laughing matter--the taxpayers of Hays County and the state of Texas are both payng what is in all but name a bribe to the ownership of Cabela's, in exchange for Cabela's putting their emporium here rather than somewhere else on I-35, or I-10, or I-Somewhere Else.

Tax subsidies, tax breaks and incentives paid to Cabela's added up to more than $60 million. At least that's what we know about. Plus Cabela's sued Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to try to keep newspapers from obtaining documentation of possible further payments.

The village of Buda and Hays County are contributing $40 million of the $60 million, and the state has thrown in $20 million for road improvements (including better exit ramps, naturally), and a slush fund called the governor's Texas Enterprise Fund will kick in several hundred thousand dollars.

Buda has turned its municipal water tower into an advertisement for the store and reportedly is putting up billboards as well. I have read that Texas Parks and Wildlife is stocking Guadalupe bass for the store's 60,000-gallon aquarium.

I didn't see the aquarium. But I could have overlooked it--it's a big place.
Cabela-sized tent, but of another era, equipped with one possible Cabela customer self-image

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday cat and dog blogging

Grendel about to pounce. Sadly for Grendel, the lizard he hopes to pounce on is on the other side of the glass.

Bella near Onion Creek.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi...

I was reading about Harriet Miers, and why some of the important wingnuttery like Pat Robertson have faith that she is reliably anti-abortion. It's because she is an apostate Catholic who drifted to Episcopalianism, then to Presbyterianism, and then to something called the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas where she was re-baptized by full immersion, her Catholic baptism apparently being suspect, and most recently she has become part of a rump faction of the Valley View congregation which meets for worship service in a hotel.

So, as you can see, she is rock-solid in her beliefs.

Yesterday I was reading some of my wife's notes on humor. Kay was an anthropologist, and one of the courses she occasionally taught was about why people in different cultures laugh. Kay's belief was that it is ultimately kind of a mystery. But Kay thought that one variety of humor, jokes, were usually mean-spirited, and that that was _why_ they made people laugh.

That's why there are so many political jokes.

A priest, a unitarian-universalist minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar, where a heated discussion about abortion is going on. The bartender turned to the spiritual authorities who just came in, and asked them when life begins.
The priest said life begins at conception.
The unitarian minister said life begins when a baby is born.
The rabbi said life begins when the youngest child is out of college and the dog dies.

Jokes and true believers are natural enemies, because followers of the truth realize that jokes are by nature seductive, disreputable, malicious and contrary to the public good. A man laughing at a joke is a man reveling in someone's misfortune or the overturning of the good and established rules of decent behavior. Jokes are an expression of what Jungians would call the shadow, an eruption of rebellion and hostility, expressed, however, in a far better way than street muggings and war. So jokes are good, in a weird way.

Or are they? Chaucer's audience laughed at the Miller's tale (wherein a man is tricked into kissing someone's anal sphincter in the dark, and later returns the favor by applying a hot iron to the selfsame bodypart of one of the tricksters in vengeance.) A laff riot. Would we laugh today if we spoke Middle English? Probably.

Many jokes are actually disgusting. Jokes, jibes and funny stories exuberate in filth and announce amusement with shit, stupidity, genitalia, drunkenness, aliens, drug addiction, bureaucrats, the other sex, stuffed shirts, sexual prowess or the lack of it, folks who smell bad, inferior nations and peoples, deformity, fools, victims, losers, morons, crazy people, rich people, the President, victims of starvation in remote continents, aggies, elephants, the alleged habits of the people of neighboring countries, dead babies, sex with animals, crime, improbable and cruel happenstance, and death. This is not an exhaustive list.

I laugh at some of these things. Others, not. Those of us who oppose racism, for example, don't like to hear jokes that contain the n word, the most taboo word in modern English, or worse yet, that go on to malign black people openly and explicitly. I find that it offends me. Is there a part of me that wants to laugh? Not lately. I often find myself not laughing at jokes about other racial minorities, or women with yellow hair. So I wonder if I am becoming a tight-lipped true believer. Maybe it's just the influence of Buddhism, which either kills your sense of humor outright, or, if you are a Zen Buddhist, it makes your sense of humor incomprehensible. I'm a Zen Buddhist, I hasten to say. Or maybe I'm just getting older.

But to get back to the President's nomination of Harriet Miers:
Who's there?
Harriet Miers.
Harriet Miers who?

More reasons why New Mexico is a great place to visit

Miscellaneous travel notes, obsolete, as usual--this was several years ago.

The ranger woman recommended the Willow Creek area as better than Pueblo Park. Said Pueblo Park was better in the winter. "Right now it's hot." It was also dry. I think we got a permit at the ranger station for our camp stove, which ran on propane. There was a fire ban. No open fires, and no gasoline stoves either. But propane, for some reason, was OK.

The drive from the highway to Mogollon was steep, with switchbacks. Mogollon was a little mining town, abandoned, now partially filled with retirees and with the beginnings of an art colony. Beyond Mogollon, the road was gravel and the switchbacks very steep the first half of the way, then a little better after that. The whole drive took about 2 hours. Willow Creek was right beyond a partially regrown clear-cut area.
The creek was a clear, cold stream with a mossy bottom. Our tent site had 4 tall trees, a spruce and Douglas fir on each side of the tent.

A weather-beaten man in an old, battered Toyota pick-up loaded heavily with camping gear, or more likely, his worldly goods, drove by slowly. The guy waved, went to the end, came back, stopped, with his motor still running. He got out, a little guy with a cowboy hat and no shirt, mumbled something about how it was too hot, and washed his face, after taking off his hat, by totally immersing his bald head in the stream by our tent. That taken care of, he introduced himself as Pancho, his dog as Lefty. He shook hands with me, Kay, and Eve, with formality and deliberation. "Where I come from, we always shake hands" he said.

Kay asked if his gray and black dog Lefty was a bluetick hound. This amused him. He was drunk. "No, ma'am. It cer-tain-ly is not." He said that it was some kind of Australian breed. "Herding dog. That dog's been working hard. Me and that dog." Pancho had rough, small hands, abraded with cuts and gouges. "What do you think of these hands? (long pause) I got these hands WORKIN."

He was a very slow talking drunk, and tended to lose the train of his thoughts. He told us the roundup was done and that he had come up to take a month off. He began to tell us that he could live in the woods if he chose to, because he he was very expert in matters of camping, hunting, and fishing.

"Best place to fish is the beaver ponds."

Kay asked where they were, and how many ponds there were. This stumped him for a while, because answering two questions at once taxed his powers. He counted internally, silently. 4, 5. "Five ponds, ma'am. Up there, up the creek." He offered to show us. He said we could see the beavers "of an evenin."

We talked about the fire ban. He first said he was going to eat cold camp food, but then confided ("I'll say you're lyin' if you tell a soul") that he intended to build an illegal fire. "If you know how, like me, you won't start no forest fire."

He rolled a cigarette. Very slow process. Painful. "Law says I can't smoke this cigarette." (lights it, with his lighter, which works properly--he seems surprised--"I love it when things work" he says) "But I know how to smoke so I don't start no fire. No sir. That ranger lady in the cabin up there is a very fine lady. What she don't know won't hurt her." He intended to build a very small fire very early in the morning. He offered to lend us a skillet, if we needed one.

He told us he had been a special forces captain in Vietnam, and had been captured by the Viet Cong, who had starved him, forcing him to eat coffee grounds and eggshells. "I don't much like to speak of that," his eyes moistening with emotion.

He said that on Memorial Day he was with some "old guys, that was in World War two, and I shook their hands and said how much I appreciated what they done for this country." Long pause. "You know, though, what hurt my feelings?" Long pause. "They didn't say they appreciated what WE done. Us Vietnam veterans.. That hurt my feelins. They think they're special, cuz it was a world war. Whereas ours was just a conflict. That hurt me." He went on to mention some misfortune of bureaucratic record keeping such that he couldn't even prove he had been in Viet Nam.
He composed himself, saying "...but that's OK"

I wanted to get a photo of the beavers so he took us to the beaver ponds, which were about a hundred yards away. He stopped his pick-up in the middle of the creek. But no beavers were visible. While we were sitting in the creek he said that he was really fond of "cowboy poetry." "I just dabble in it. But I keep a daily. You know what a daily is?" We didn't, exactly. It was where he wrote down things he liked. He illustrated by reciting the whole of the Marty Robbins version of the Strawberry Roan from memory. Kay asked him if he would sing it.

"No, ma'am--I'm not Marty Robbins."

Later on, about dark, I walked up to where his pick-up was parked to see if he wanted to come have some coffee we had made, but he was asleep in the cab of his truck with his boots still on, the door open, his dog on the floor beside him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chavez's gift to Osama, Bush's gift to us

Pat Robertson, not wanting to be left unnoticed while the lunatic running the asylum nominates his personal fish-camp litigation lawyer for the Supreme Court, has announced that Hugo Chávez sent "either $1 million or $1.2 million in cash" to Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

How does Robertson know this? "Well, sources that came to me. That's what I was told."

Here Robertson actually manages to sound even more peculiar than he actually is. A Venezuelan spokesman had a more prosaic explanation:
Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, told state television the claim about Venezuelan funding for bin Laden stemmed from a false accusation made in a Miami lawsuit that was dismissed some time ago.

Venezuelan officials have said the lawsuit was based on a false claim by Juan Diaz Castillo, an ex-pilot of Chavez's presidential plane. Officials said the funds actually were sent to India in 2001 for humanitarian aid after a massive earthquake.

You gotta wonder if Robertson's vagueness is intended to get the kind of people who are exhorted on late night am radio to put their hands on the speaker to receive the radio pastor's special prayer blessing and then send a ten dollar love-offering in the morning mail to the radio pastor's post office box in Tulsa, to believe that the information came directly from Jesus.

If so, then maybe Robertson has failed to make a smooth transition from radio pastorship to building a politically effective organization. Or so let us hope.

On the other hand, Bush's confidence in Harriet Miers is a little unsettling in its similarity to Robertson's confidence in his sources.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Republicanism in a nutshell

I seem to get Krugman in my email even though I can no longer go to the New York Times itself for it, and today's column explores the Republican indifference to, and/or incompetence in, rebuilding the Gulf Coast. In so many words Krugman says the wheels can't come off their plan, if it turns out they have no plan at all, and have no intention of doing anything other than posturing and promising. "..if we assume that Mr. Bush remains hostile to domestic spending that might threaten his tax cuts--and there's no reason to assume otherwise--foot-dragging on post-Katrina reconstruction is a natural political strategy."

So, we have one more problem with the Bush Administration. Halliburton takes the money and runs. Add that to cronyism and incompetence in the emergency itself. Actually, let's make a list. I haven't ever made a dirty laundry list of just how badly fucked up the Republican administration is.

Let's see. In no special order:

The Republicans attempted to destroy social security. Not very popular, thank God.
But, nevertheless, even now the Republicans sit on their thumbs while corporate pension plans are increasingly being ditched solely for the benefit of wealthy stockholders. The pensioners, of course, get screwed, getting a far less adequate government consolation prize instead of their promised, and worked for, pension--as long as the government funds hold out, which may not be long if corporate America keeps this up.

The Republicans passed a Byzantine and expensive drug "benefit" that, while it benefits the pharmaceutical industry, is unlikely to benefit even the few who have the energy and accounting skills to make sense of it.

The national debt is out of control--a far greater percentage of the GDP than it ought to be.

Catastrophic trade deficits.

Accelerated outsourcing of America's manufacturing, so that we now have an economy based on Walmart, which sells cheap stuff made in foreign sweatshops, and Krispy Kreme and Burger King, who sell cheap and deadly flavor-enhanced artery glue, and an enormously expensive but imploding health care system, which even before implosion gets less less than one half the bang for the buck than the next most costly health care system in the world.

An inadequate plan, or maybe no plan at all, for dealing with an outbreak of bird flu.

An inadequate plan, as we saw last winter, for protecting the public from _any_ influenza outbreak.

The terrible and immoral war in Iraq, based on arrant lies, that has killed about 2000 Americans and, as of a year ago, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 Iraqis, plus a good may thousand Iraqis killed since then.

Torture planned and justified from the white house itself, by a man who is now the Attorney General, and (we presume) with the approval of a man whose nose does not get longer every time he lies, but whose mouth increasingly wobbles with a weird tic every time he says more than ten words, prior to his maniacal but, at the same time, astonishingly mechanical smirk.

Increasing poverty--while the rich get richer, and the vastly rich get vastly richer.

Increasing economic insecurity and decreasing health care affordability for the middle class.

Increasing frequency of bankruptcy, and, soon enough, when the housing bubble bursts, a very foreseeable explosion in foreclosures.

Punitive bankruptcy laws, intended to fuck over the poor (and soon, when the housing bubble bursts, the middle class) to further the profits of banks and credit card companies.

Those same banks encouraging people to refinance their houses and then buy SUVs and Las Vegas gambling trips with the money they have borrowed against a home equity that seems remarkably like the equity owned by stockholders in the South Sea Bubble at a time when, as Pope put it, "...corruption, like a general flood, did deluge all, and avarice creeping on, spread, like a low-born mist, and hid the sun." Kinda like now.

An increasingly oil dependent economy which flies in the face of reality itself (well, hey, reality has been superseded in this administration) even as global warming is upon us, even as peak oil is near, if not here already, with no plan _whatsoever_ for dealing for oil scarcity. (Building bridges to uninhabited islands in Alaska to jump-start the uninhabited island economy is not a plan.)

Catastrophic environmental decisions have been, and are being made by this Republican congress, and similar congresses whose purse strings have, de-facto, been controlled by right-wingers since the Reagan administration--whose ongoing financial priorities, for one example, have led to the accelerated destruction of Louisiana wetlands, and, for another example, New Orleans levees that proved to be both inadequate and defective. Meanwhile, giant highway subsidies and pork for Halliburton continue unabated.

Tax refunds for the rich. Tax protection for rich dead people. (Tiny tax-break bribes for the middle class, which have so far worked as expected, since we are not yet asked to pay them back, as we must inevitably be asked to do, with enormous interest, to pay down the national debt to a reasonable amount.)

Cronyism in important appointments, like Bush trying to, and possibly succeeding in, naming a Supreme Court justice whose expertise has hitherto been displayed in fish-camp litigation on behalf of , who else, George Bush. Like "Heckuva Job" Brown. Like Mr. Safavian, whose arrest came shortly after arranging the no-bid Gulf Coast contracts for, who else, Halliburton. Like countless nominal-job Young Republican toilers in the vinyards of ideology; their salaries and benefits, handsome ones, unlike yours and mine, paid by the taxpayer.

K Street finally after two centuries of anarchy put on a strict pay-to-play basis, enforced by Tom The Hammer Delay. Or his designated sucessor, if he follows Mr. Safavian and perhaps the Plame-leak crew, to jail. Laws for sale to the highest bidder. Not strangely, the banks and the drug companies often bid very high.

Vote fraud, which, while not a Republican innovation, has been made by them into a high-tech art form, featuring, for example, lengthy computerized rolls of disinfranchised voters who, legally, it turns out, are entitled to vote. Not to mention the most brazen and bizarre gerrymandering in American history, in my own, and Tom Delay's, state of Texas.

A higher education system that is increasingly either out of the reach of ordinary American families, and which, to the extent that college is presently available to them, requires the student assume a mortgage approximately as burdensome as for the purchase of a modest house. The trend is for the house to get bigger.

Related to that, perhaps, we have a ruling party that panders to gross ignorance, encouraging religious zealotry and bigotry and antiscientific stupidity like creationism and "intelligent" design (which I am sure they privately sneer at) to get votes. Or, and this is an even more fearful thought, perhaps they don't sneer at it.

Finally, I suppose I should mention the general Republican Kulturkampf against every advance in in human compassion in the last hundred years, and many of the advances in human reason.

And the odd thing about my list is that I know there is a lot of stuff I'm forgetting.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Old friends, seen too seldom

Went out to a potluck dinner with old friends last night, which as usual was a pleasant event. The food was good. Opinions were expressed--especially by the only man in the room actually older than I, and who thus wore the honorary mantle of geezer--and disagreed with, but not in a way that interfered with anyone's digestion. People, as always, appeared noticeably older than I remembered them, just as I do in their eyes, no doubt. The occasion was the 54th birthday of the host.

Most of the people last night were part of what Kay and I called the "potluck group," whose membership stayed reasonably constant for a couple of decades. Kay loved social events of any kind, especially at our house, so we often hosted the potluck group while she was alive. For about 20 years.

Since Kay died, partly through Eve's insistence, we continued to occasionally have potluck dinners at our house, though that felt (and still feels) weird, because somebody important is missing. But such potlucks were a feature of Eve's growing up, so when we have them here it has seemed to give her a sense of continuity. And though it reminds me of Kay's absence, I enjoy it myself. Odd, that you can enjoy something that reminds you of loss. Maybe that's just me.

I should mention that the children of the potluck group, the older ones anyway, were Eve's childhood friends. So when we have dinners at our house Eve has made sure to insist that they come, along with young people in her own current circle of friends.

Her efforts to enlarge this tradition to include her college friends has been challenging--some of them were not too clear on the concept of "bring prepared food to share with others." Eve patiently tried to educate them on this, with some success. At the last couple of events at our house, they seemed to be catching on, including the "help clean up afterwards" part if they stayed late. I suspect they think the whole idea is kind of quaint and rural--but they certainly seemed to enjoy the food, and the party. Some of the dishes they brought were tasty, actually, although possibly purchased at a deli rather than cooked in their student apartments.

Unfortunately, Eve missed the one last night because she was away on a caving trip--but she has been wanting to have one here at home soon, and so I will, hopefully, be seeing many of the same group again soon--soon enough that they may not appear noticeably older.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Friday flycatcher blogging

Yesterday as I parked my car where I start my birdwatching walk at the Onion Creek greenbelt, a scissor-tailed flycatcher was sitting on a wire above me, occasionally picking off bugs. I took 10 or 15 photos trying to catch him in the air. I got one. The others were of his head or his tail feathers or the bug or empty air. He was pretty quick.

This is an adult male. He'll be going back to the tropics in 2 or 3 weeks.

Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) waiting on a wire...
Tyrannus forficatus waiting

...and he makes his move
Tyrannus forficatus flying

Friday cat blogging

Gray wakes up...

...and realizes I have the camera in his face again

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Yet another open letter to John Cornyn

Faxed to the senator after his torture vote.

Dear Senator Box Turtle:

Despite the astonishing record of your speeches and votes, not to mention your moral views on turtle marriage, I keep promising myself I will not be taken by surprise by anything you might say, do, or vote for. But, alas, you are always ready to go the extra mile in the Republican Long March back to the 12th century.

You forced me to break my promise to myself most recently when, last night, you joined 8 other members of the primeval-ooze faction of your party in voting for torture.


Now, I realize that Primeval Ooze Republicans consider anything to the left of Savonarola to be Marxism, but I had not until now realized that even this faction of your party would in fact advocate that America join the peculiar company of Attila the Hun, Tamur the Lame, and Genghis Khan in our treatment of captives.

But indeed even more surprising, in the light of that vote, is Ooze Faction on-the-record opposition to the release of the photos and videotapes of the torture that you have now so clearly demonstrated, by your vote, that you approve of.

If indeed you believe in punishing evil-doers by pulping their thighs with clubs until they are dead, and in the intelligence-gathering utility of Army-issue sodomy of captured Arab boys, why do you wanna keep it a secret? Why are Primeval Ooze Republicans so irrationally against the release of the torture photos and videotapes currently held (and suppressed) by what I, personally, am sad to have to call our Government?

Don't you think we need to let Americans, and the world, know what America is coming to stand for under the guidance of the Primeval Ooze faction of your party? In the light of your own ideology, it makes no sense to suppress the record of the torture.

Bring it to the light of day, and then you and the other members of your faction could finally come out, and wear that "Primeval and Proud" lapel button openly, and to the acclaim it deserves.


Jim McCulloch

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A perhaps meaningless anecdote on the subject of communists

No political significance here today, folks, just some distant memories that came up while writing the previous post.

When I was a college student in the early 1960s at the University of Texas (at a time when there was only one University of Texas, so the afterthought "at Austin" was unnecessary) a student effort arose to end racial segregation at some local movie theaters. The demonstrations against the segregated theaters lasted a year, and were ultimately successful, unlike almost every other political action I have been involved in since.

The several hundred students who took part were, as far as I could tell, the sum total of liberal or left-wing young people at the university at that time. Ever since then I have assumed, almost always correctly, that my political views were representative only of a tiny, and maybe even beleaguered, few. This realism has served me in good stead over the years.

Also, it was where I first met my future wife.

But I digress. One of the students I met was an actual communist. Quite a novelty. His name was Horace, and unlike John Stanford in San Antonio, whom I wrote about in the previous post, Horace was a secret communist, not a public one. I don't know if he was actually a member of the CPUSA or not, but he said he was when he got drunk, and in some other circumstances as well, usually unfortunate ones.

Nevertheless, given his normal penchant for secrecy, and given that Horace may have changed his views in the intervening years, I'll keep his last name quiet. But some of my readers will know who I am talking about. Horace was a quiet guy, who always seemed very reasonable, till you got to know him and observed that, among other things, he often showed up for work at his job at a used bookstore with bruises or a black eye or other physical damage, which, if you asked him, he would explain were the result of his being beaten up by frat boys. Horace was fiercely dedicated to communism, and tended to mention his wish to overthrow capitalism and the American Way of Life in the wrong venues.

Once, sometime in the early 60s, I'd guess 1962, I ran into him on what's called "the Drag," the main business street next to the UT campus and he asked me if I wanted to go to a John Birch Society meeting with him.

"Why not?" I said, without thinking about it much.

The meeting was in the student union ballroom. The ballroom was full, and the audience was bunch of people who were old, by my standards at the time, and overweight by anyone's standard. An overflow was milling around in the lobby outside, waiting to be frightened and thrilled by the invited speaker's accounts of treason within the government and the halls of academe.

We stood there before the speech, and Horace, usually very reticent, struck up a conversation someone who appeared to have some kind of gatekeeper duties at the door.

"What do you really know about Communists?" Horace asked him.

"Well, when you listen to the speech you'll find out. We know they've formed clandestine cells and infiltrated the government and the universities..." etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. He went on about Communism and Commies for a while. They're everywhere.

"No," Horace said, "have you ever actually _met_ a communist?" A few curious spectators had turned to listen to us. The guy stared at Horace like he had asked a stupid question. They're like spies. They infiltrate. They don't don't exactly show you their party membership cards.

Horace said "Well, y'know, you may be right about their being everywhere. But wrong about the membership cards. For example, _I'm_ a Communist."

There was a moment of silence kind of like Horace had just said he had leprosy. More of the onlookers turned to stare at us. The crowd of Birchers had by then converged, not in a friendly way, to listen to Horace. The guy Horace was talking to seemed to be trying to figure out if Horace was serious.

After all, despite a beyond-sincere belief in the omnipresence of Communism, this man, like all the several hundred others including, no doubt, the featured orator, had never actually met a member of the Communist Party, and probably didn't ever expect to. (This was long before the New Left and its kaleidoscope of communisms, real and self-proclaimed). Would a Baptist expect Satan to materialize at a camp meeting?

"You wanna see my membership card?" said Horace, pulling out his wallet.

The guy was still staring at Horace and trying to figure out if this was a joke. Suddenly he turned and pointed at me, and asked Horace "OK, is this guy a communist too?"

Horace, who was not trying to be funny--he never tried to be funny--said "No, he's a fellow traveler."

I guess that clinched it. The guy decided we were just student smartasses. He laughed nervously, and turned to listen to the speeches which were about to start. The little knot of Birchers around us dispersed. I actually don't remember what happened after that, but I think I got Horace to leave with me, contrary to Horace's natural instincts, which would have been to stay and eventually say something that would get him beaten up.

I lost track of Horace, over the years. I hope he has not come to grief.

Monday, October 03, 2005

How not to be a subversive

In a comment to one of my blog posts a few days ago peacebug tells the story of trying to get the Army to stop sending her high school daughter recruiting propaganda, but ends with a real concern "... that by standing up for myself and my daughter, I would shine a light on us that I will regret."

This is an understandable worry in Bush's America. Bush's war is seeming strangely like Vietnam to me, even though we do not have a draft. Yet. Probably we won't. But somehow we have the same end result--poor people getting sent to fight in a brutal and murderous and pack-of-lies bloody war.

For whatever reason, Bush himself never makes any mention of his own abortive military service. I suspect it is less a matter of shame about skipping out on his last 2 years than the simple fact that the Vietnam war never concerned him personally, even if it inconvenienced him some, because he knew in his heart that no grandson of Senator Prescott Bush and son of Congressman George Bush could ever come to grief in a war fought by peons. No doubt, though, he hated every minute of his actual time in uniform, which for what it's worth was probably even less than the time I spent.

I joined the Army reserves in 1965 to avoid going to Vietnam, the same reason that Bush 2 years later joined the Air National Guard. But unlike Bush, I actually felt a certain alarm about getting killed in Lyndon's war, so I felt pretty lucky to get into the reserves, which at that time, were not being called up and sent off to fight.

Everyone in the Army, whether reservist, National Guard, or regular Army, had the same basic training. Mine was at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, during the summer. It was pretty awful. Ft Polk was a pestilential hellhole of yellow wooden barracks strewn over bare red dirt where there had once been loblolly pine trees before the bulldozers prepared the ground for military training of the young.

What I mainly remember at this distance in time is standing at attention for roll call every morning gazing, already sweating, at the great red ball of the sun which would torture us for the rest of the day, beyond the glaring silhouette of the first sergeant who would be howling curses and imprecations at his unworthy charges. Soon, across the post, there would be dusty columns of men marching under banners and often to the beat of a drum, to various training venues, counting cadence as they marched and occasionally chanting stuff like "Ain't no use in lookin' down, ain't no discharge on the ground," as the distant updrafts of pigeons rose wings flashing their own cadence in the blue empty sky. I envied the pigeons.

I will not tell you stories about basic training, except to say that the first sergeant was just as sadistic as the DI in Full Metal Jacket, but not nearly as articulate, and nobody murdered him.

After basic, I was sent to be trained as a medic at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, where it was not as disagreeable, and I had a little free time occasionally. There I met and became friends with a guy named Joe Partansky, from San Francisco, a college graduate and philosophy major, who with the real-world acumen common to philosophy students had actually gotten drafted, and so stood a greater chance of going to Vietnam than I, and as a combat medic, which is probably worse than going as an infantryman, hazard-wise.
We spent a lot of time trying to think of ways out of the Army which would not involve going to jail, so we evolved a bizarre scheme to get kicked out of the Army. It was kind of dumb, or more to the point, a grasping at straws, but we thought for reasons of stupidity and optimism that it might work. At least I did. Joe might have been smarter, and may have just been entertaining himself.

San Antonio at the time had a notorious local and public Communist. Most communists were thought to be secret operatives, spies. Remember this was in 1965, years before the end of the cold war, and a couple of years before the rise of the New Left had made leftists ho-hum even in central Texas. Now in 1965 there was an actual, barely legal communist party. But being a card carrying member of the CPUSA could get you in real trouble. San Antonion's known public communist was named John Stanford, and had I think he had occasionally filed lawsuits on behalf of Gus Hall's party (Gus Hall being the leader of the Communist Party of the United States), and had nonetheless avoided going to jail. I don't recall how, or if, he made a living.

He was in the phone book. So Joe and I decided to call John Stanford on the phone and tell him that we, local soldiers, were interested in discussing communism with him and possibly joining the Party. And no sooner than we hatched this plan we placed the call, confident that the phones were tapped, and that we would soon be called in and summarily given some sort of less than honorable discharge as security risks, which at that point both of us would have been happy to accept.

But John Stanford, who was a polite and mild mannered and possibly starved-for-conversation individual, was happy to chat with us and invited us over to his house when we had our next weekend pass, to discuss communism and world affairs and have dinner. We accepted. I think we showed up in uniform, just so the FBI could not possibly miss us, from their white van parked down the street.

But when we got there we saw no white vans anywhere. Now John was extremely gracious and accommodating, and his wife had cooked us a delicious supper, and as it turns out we had a lovely time, as we say. Now in the course of the evening John asked us very skeptical and probing questions, though in quite a jovial way, and midway through the meal Joe and I both realized that John thought that we, ourselves, were FBI agents, and very transparent and clumsily disguised ones at that.

At this juncture, (and later, in talking to Joe about it, I learned that he had the same reaction) I felt a sudden and burning need to convince John of the truth--and it really was the truth--which we leveled with him about, of our ridiculous plan to get out of the Army.

As we unfolded our cockamamie scheme, John continued to be gracious, amused, and amusing. Obviously, he did not believe a word of it. Less than a word of it. But he seemed willing to play along with the FBI's little game. He said, well, yes, probably the FBI is watching you guys, wink wink, but I doubt if you will get kicked out of the Army, or something to that effect. The dinner went on and we discussed world affairs, the War, and left-wing issues of the day.

The upshot of all this was that we were invited back, and went over for dinner with the only out-of-the-closet Communist in San Antonio and possibly in Texas, every weekend for a couple of months, I guess, till our training had come to an end.

John was always gracious and urbane--he had the manner of an accountant with an actual sense of humor--and believed us as little at the last as at the first. As far as we knew, we never got on any subversives list. Perhaps those were more innocent times.

Or perhaps not. I have never put in a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI records on myself. I doubt if I will, so I'll never know.

But we certainly did not get discharged.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

It's not Friday, but...

Grendel obligingly poses with, and perhaps comments on, two recent books:

Grendel curls up

The long emergency
Grendel, um, grooming himself

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The harder you run...

I've been reading a book, by Richard Layard, entitled "Happiness," which is turning out to be more interesting than I thought it would be. The cover is offputting, with the word "happiness" arranged in a typographic toothy grin on the dust jacket.

But you can't judge a book...

Layard is a British economist. Unlike your average economist he has apparently been pole-axed by the obvious: once you leave third-world poverty behind, further increases in GDP do not increase individual happiness. After he picked himself up from his realization, he wrote a book about it.

There is a lot of research that has been done, some of it ingenious, about what makes people happy and unhappy. So he sets out to relate this to economics and public policy. Strangely--for an economist, at least--his book has some of the look and feel of a new-age self-help tract, which, though not necessarily a bad thing, especially if accompanied (as in fact it is) by cleverly buried common sense and a good many provable facts, is very likely to enrage his peers.

I am just guessing about that, though--I haven't read any of the reviews by his fellow economists. Nor is this post a review of his book. For one thing, I haven't finished reading it. Maybe in another post I'll come back to it.

But it jogged my non-linear-thinking tendencies into their usual overdrive, and I started remembering the nasty racism that was buried in some rightwing commentary on New Orleans: namely that the victims were fat.

Of course, the victims were also, by and large, black. Now, if they were fat, so went the not-so-hidden reasoning, it is one more bit of evidence that "they" have no self-control or moral fiber, and, moreover, they certainly can't be starving, like people in Darfur or Somalia, so...

The conclusion at that point is left to the racism and rightwing stupidity of their audience, but one assumes that it would be: New Orleans flood victims do not deserve our sympathy or help, and they should perhaps be slimmed down somewhere and relocated and put to work at substandard wages. I guess. I actually don't know what moral conclusion one is supposed to draw from the frowns of the talking heads as they disapproving shake their wattles as they view the visuals they put up of exhausted, but overweight, black people sitting huddled on sidewalks. But the usual self-aggrandizing talking-head moralizing was clearly spinning out of control with this idiotic visual trope that kept popping up, not just on Fox, but on all the networks, seemingly as involuntary a reflexive twitch as Bush's weird jaw movements and mechanical head nodding when he makes a speech. In other words, these people can't stop themselves any more than Bush can.

But poor white people in America also tend to be obese. So is obesity among the poor, black or white, a moral flaw, or a response to degradation and misery?

In reading Layard, I'd have to say its very likely the latter.

Layard says yes, America is more prosperous than in 1950. Twice as prosperous, GDP-wise. Although the prosperity is not evenly distributed, even the poor have more money and stuff than they had in 1950. Yet, every study done shows that Americans at all social levels are not happier now than they were then. They same is true of other first world countries, but in some cases the divergence between wealth, which in America at least skyrockets, and happiness, which flatlines, is not as dramatic as in this country. But the pattern is consistent everywhere.

Once you get beyond the danger of starvation, wealth does not buy happiness. And indeed, some segments of the American population are increasingly hard-beset by the factors that research has shown to very reliably produce UN-happiness.

Many of the hard-beset are the people we call poor. No, they are not starving. In fact, eating cheap, abundant, unhealthy, usually profit-subsidized food drenched in laboratory-perfected artificial flavorings and grease, and advertised with Satanic effectiveness by an entire industry devoted to psychological manipulation, is one of the few pleasures readily available to ordinary working people.

It is not surprising that our poor are often obese. Eating to excess is one reaction to unhappiness. And, to relate this to a couple of my previous posts, turning to God is another. My feeling is that fundamentalist religion is may be a kind of instinctive ideological feeding frenzy, in a vain hope of incorporating happiness by filling up with God. Fault can be found with this theory, of course. Layard, as far as I have read in his book at least, says nothing on this subject. Don't blame him for this idea.

But how about the rest of the population, which is not gaining on happiness no matter how hard they run?

They can afford higher-end pleasures than a big bucket of fried chicken. And indeed, they buy more and more expensive toys. I have one in front of me as I type. Anyone reading this has a similar expensive toy. If any such reader was alive in 1955, a moment's reflection is likely to verify that their own personal happiness quotient is unlikely to have improved over time, and even if it has, computer-ownership is unlikely to be an important cause of such good luck.

I won't go into the factors that Layard mentions as beneficial to happiness, but they are not very surprising. After all, we all have our own built-in happiness detector, which tells us when and if someone is bullshitting us about stuff like this. Family, friends, the esteem of others, a sense of community and trust, security of livelihood and reasonably secure prospects for yourself and your children, if you have them, and an attitude of generosity and compassion towards others--all the usual suspects in promoting human happiness are mentioned, I think.

And he goes on at some length about things that can be demonstrated to serve as a detriment to happiness, which are the following: the pursuit of money and the pursuit of status, particularly if accompanied by cutthroat competition and fear and loathing of others in the same rat race.

That's basically pretty much it, though I haven't finished the book and he may have more to say on it as I read on.

Now if we reflect on the right-wing agenda for this country, we find an agenda almost guaranteed to increase the unhappiness of almost everyone in this country. Including the winners as well as the losers.

I was watching a film I rented the other night, called "Born Rich" done by a wealthy heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune, which is a documentary about himself and his vastly wealthy young friends. They have what everyone in the Republican party is striving for, yet-- they are a bunch of lost and miserable children. It was a very good film, in an odd way. I recommend it.

Republicans, especially, should watch it.