Sunday, October 29, 2006

A few Sunday close-ups

An orange sulphur butterfly, Colias eurytheme, on an unidentified salvia near my house

Two views of a common mestra, Mestra amymone, near Slaughter Creek in South Austin

Partial ventral view of the mestra's wings

Dorsal view

Variegated meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum, also near Slaughter Creek

Click photos to enlarge

Friday, October 27, 2006

The speaking of the English in Washington

I am, myself, to the manner born, in the speaking of English, assuming one is willing to grant that my native South Texas dialect deservedly bears same name as the language most commonly spoken in North America and the British Isles. I know that Lyndon Johnson, long ago, and George Bush, more recently, have cast doubt on that assumption, but bear in mind that LB J most likely would have forgotten how to speak English in DC, a very special place, and that George Bush's efforts to sound like a yokel are successful only because of native talent, not his origins.

But in general I have assumed that our current batch of Republican politicians actually are, like me, native English speakers, except for exceptional horrorshow visitants like Henry Kissinger, back again from the realm of the undead. The lesson here is never to assume nothin. Thus we have the Vice President, when asked on Tuesday in a radio interview, "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" answering, "Well, it's a no-brainer for me."

So what can this mean? Those of us who learned to speak our language at our mother's knee have somehow jumped to the conclusion that he is endorsing a specific form or torture called waterboarding. Indeed, what the hell else could the question have meant, and what the hell else could the answer mean?

Or so would ask your average native speaker.

Ah, but no. Mebbe we native speakers don't speak the language Mr. Cheney does. Tony Snow, the current White House glad-hand to the press, says the vice president "was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives and he was not referring to water boarding."

So it's not waterboarding, and moreover--according to Snow--the Vice Prez could not say what in fact he was really referring to because of security concerns. The particular nature of the lifesaving "dunk" is, God bless my soul, a State Secret.

But even if it's a secret, let's be logical about this. If he is not referring to waterboarding, or to some some ingenious but as yet unrevealed form of water torture, what other kind of dunk in H20 would the vice president possibly want us to share his faith in the life-preserving properties of? A warm bath? A nice shower with a bar of soap? Oh, boy, the VP would be treading on dangerous ground there, if only because of the justifiably poor image of concentration camp guards giving prisoners a bar of soap and inviting them into a shower room. I don't thing the VP really wants to go there. Not even he. Or let us hope not.

So a very modest application of ordinary logic to the combined statements of the Vice President and Tony Snow can lead to only two possible conclusions, which in this case are not necessarily exclusive, the one being that they are lying, or the other being that they do not actually speak English.

"Stay the course."

Friday cat blogging

Gray enjoying the afternoon sun. It has been a very fine day here in Austin. Gray approves of it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tuesday photo miscellany

Today I am afraid I will disappoint those visitors who come to this blog hoping for political diatribes, startling anecdotes, unfair and unbalanced philosophical viewpoints, or simply gossip. Maybe later.

As is usual lately, I've been out taking photographs. Unlike political blogging, nature photography works to keep the cortisol situation outside the danger zone. Here is a photo miscellany from the past few days.

Western ribbon snake, Thamnophis proximus. This species is highly variable. Our central Texas variety usually has a red stripe down the back, as this one does.

Fiery skipper, Hylephila phyleus, on a Palafoxia flower.

Black vulture landing at a vulture roost in the middle of Landa Park in New Braunfels, Texas. The roost is on an island in a small lake fed by Comal Springs, the largest natural spring in the state. It's quite a beautiful setting for a vulture roost. Cormorants and red-tail hawks also like it.

Turkey vulture overhead near Onion Creek

The damselfly that I mentioned in an earlier post, that I could not identify. I am reasonably certain it is a smoky rubyspot, Hetaerina titia. This species is also highly variable in appearance. I took a photo of one in Belize that was much darker.

Click any photo to enlarge

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dragonfly at Hornsby Bend, and another butterfly photo

It was a lovely day today as I walked along the river at Hornsby Bend, and I saw my first red-tailed pennant, a fairly spectacular dragonfly which--as the name implies--has a bright red tail. I also took a couple of photos of a damselfly I can't identify, and maybe I will put up a photo of it if I ever do identify it.

Red-tailed Pennant, Brachymesia furcata

There were thousands of snout butterflies out, mating, hanging around, maybe migrating--I am not sure about that. They have colorful wings, in flight, but normally when they land they keep their wings folded, and they look like dead leaves. I was trying to get pictures of the dead-leaf pose, and just as I snapped the shutter, the butterfly flew away, and I caught it in flight. So here's a rare photo--for me--of an American snout, Libytheana carinenta, in the air.

Click to enlarge

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday butterfly blogging

A white peacock, Anartia jatrophae, on the banks of the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels, Texas. This is a tropical butterfly, here at the northern end of its normal range, though individuals will occasionally wander much farther northward.

Click to enlarge

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wednesday dragonflies

Two dragonflies near Slaughter Creek in South Austin. The first is another female Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

This one is a Flag-tailed Spinyleg, Dromogomphus spoliatus, which has captured a skipper, probably a Southern broken-dash, Wellengrenia otho

Click to enlarge

The Age of Aquarius

I think contemporary Christian Evangelicalism is misconstrued by most of the rest of us as being an aberrant form of historic Christianity. I think that is a mistake. It's hardly Christianity at all, as the world has known it, for good or ill, down through the centuries. To be sure, it arose out of Christianity, but psychologically, it seems be a New Age feel-good cult. These people are hippies gone bad. (And I say this as an old hippie, gone bad in a different direction.)

It's true that the roots of the modern evangelical movement lie in the remnants of 19th century revivalism, the 2nd Great Awakening. The ecstatic conversion experience accompanying the big emotional-breakdown camp meetings became a marker, a sort of test, for authentic salvation (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin would, of course, all twirl in their graves.) That mid-20th century evangelical religion eventually made it officially so, of course, was in effect to ditch nineteen centuries of Christian theology and belief.

But for all its celebration of ecstatic conversion, 19th century Protestant revivalism had not yet forgotten the great questions of historic Christianity which defined sectarian boundaries within the Christian mainstream; questions of the nature of God and the nature of Christ; the mystery (or more strictly speaking, incoherence) of the Trinity; the intricate Rube Goldberg linkages of grace, works, faith, free-will and predestination; of the nature of the sacraments and of the structure and authority of the church and its hierarchy; and the history, nature and authority of the scriptural canon.

All that is pretty much gone. By and large modern evangelicals know absolutely nothing of any of it, regardless of where the nominal roots of their own lineage lie. Many evangelical sects, but not all, are descended from Calvinist churches, but contemporary evangelical eyes glaze over when predestination is mentioned. Some of the Pentecostal and Holiness groups are descended--historically, but not in any other meaningful way--from Wesleyan anti-Calvinist churches. Most of the current members of these groups have never heard of the controversy between Wesley and the Calvinists, and many of them have never heard of John Wesley.

Sad to say, there are even Catholic evangelicals, who share with their nominally Protestant brethren a total ignorance of Church history and doctrine.

Contemporary Southern Baptists (like other evangelicals) seem to know all about the Rapture, a bizarre doctrine first appearing full-blown in the mind of a 19th century (non-Baptist) preacher named John Darby, but know nothing of the traditional Baptist resolution of questions of theology, soteriology, and hierarchy in the brilliant--and in a way admirable--twin Baptist cop-outs of soul-competency and the priesthood of the believer, which, for all their unorthodoxy, at least have some antecedents in nineteen centuries of Christian mysticism and several centuries of anti-hierarchical radical Protestantism.

So what have the evangelicals replaced historic Christianity with? Well, like cowbird eggs in a magpie's nest, we find the Rapture and allied weird nonsense like dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, indeed a whole bubbling cauldron of crackpot millenarian woolgathering based on obsessive readings of the Apocalypse of St. John; not to mention fundamentalist scriptural idolatry as a sort of enabling background radiation. Lately we also find Republican Kulturkampf politics.

But above all that, the ecstatic conversion experience is firmly established as the feel-good centerpiece of their feel-good religion, to which, to be fair, all the Darbyist gibberish is actually secondary.

And the fact that the warm glow of conversion is now psychologically central to Evangelicalism and has as a practical matter replaced almost the entire baggage of former Christian orthodoxies has drawn vast numbers of the Boomer generation into the evangelical fold, like bees to nectar. And there are lotsa bees out there. (Sadly, they tend to vote, and vote Republican, more due to the cooptationist success of shrewd Republican strategists than to an inherent Republican-ness within Evangelicalism itself.)

Personally I think the cosmic convergence of hysteric frontier immigrant camp-meeting emotional release with New Age if-it-feels-good-it-must-be-true Boomer complacencies has come to fruition. The Age of Aquarius seems to be here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Curious perspectives from inside the beltway

Following are excerpts from a story by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Oct. 16 Washington Post about two unsuccessful Judiciary Committee amendments to Bush's bill which stripped legal rights from people whom the President declares to be "enemy combatants." The point of Smith's article is that one of the amendments, which he weirdly designates as the "extreme" one--which retained habeas corpus--never stood a chance of passage, whereas the other amendment, being "less extreme" (i.e. it severely curtailed habeas corpus, but did not abolish it outright) might have fared better. He offers little or no proof of this contention other than some vague hearsay. In any case, the amendment which he calls "extreme," that retained habeas corpus as we have known it, was the one that came to the full Senate, and it failed.

But the point of view implicit in the piece really seemed peculiar to me. The whole article was a considerably after-the-fact story postulated on the hypothetical votes of Republican senators who--acccording to Smith's imaginary hindsight--share Smith's own implicit view that the true defenders of civil liberties are those who would destroy the village of our freedoms in order to save it, perhaps leaving a grass hut or two still standing. Quite an odd notion, I think, made even odder by Smith's reversal of the normal meanings of the word "extreme."

I guess you could say his choice of terminology was tendentious, to say the least. Here are some highlights. (Emphasis supplied.)
The news reached Democrats working on the military commissions bill in the Senate cloakroom the morning of Sept. 27. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a sponsor of two amendments giving detainees a right to challenge their detention or treatment in federal court, had decided to bring the more extreme amendment to a vote...
On the detainee bill, Frist had make clear his desire to ensure that no amendment passed, spokeswoman Amy Call said. She said “we were worried about both” of Specter’s amendments. The more extreme version would have deleted the bill’s suspension of habeas corpus rights. The less extreme alternative, which Specter co-sponsored with Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Gordon Smith (R.-N.H.), would have allowed detainees to file a single habeas corpus petition after a year of detention.

So I decided to email Smith about this.

My email:
"Since when is preserving the right of habeas corpus 'extreme?'"

Smith's reply:
"there's nothing extreme about it. it's solely a relative term -- ie compared to the other amendment."

So I wrote back:
"Interesting. Let's say you have a physical object in front of you--say,
a yardstick. Which is the extreme end? Presumably, the end away from
you. Equally relatively, let's say you have two positions on habeas
corpus, abolish it or preserve it. Which is the extreme position?
Presumably, the one opposite your own."

To which he replied:

"let's try another example. you have two amendments in front of you: one would remove any reference to habeas corpus from a bill. another would leave language allowing one habeas petition after one year of incarceration. which is more extreme in political terms?
i repeat: it's solely a relative term -- ie compared to the other amendment."

Here ends the exchange.

I confess myself puzzled by Smith's answers. It would normally be thought disingenuous to call the lesser of two abridgments of our freedom the greater in its extremism. And despite his appeal to the relative in the switching the negative and positive poles of the issue, in his examples, it remains a conundrum in my mind. The only explanation for the wrong-end-of-the-telescope perspective here, that I can come up with, is that Smith sincerely believes that preserving habeas corpus is extreme in the context of an alternative that would partially abolish it--in other words, that Smith is a Republican or has, through inside-the-beltway osmosis, learned to think like one; or that he is profoundly illogical. And perhaps those positions are not all that far from one another.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Small pauses on the road to senescence

Having lived in Austin these many years now, I thought it was time to visit the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, a long-standing local attraction which I had never stopped to see. Locals are often the last to visit a local attraction.

I thought it was a nice place, but I may have been positively, and unfairly, influenced as an art critic by the young woman to whom I paid my $3.50 admission. As a somewhat hesitant afterthought, she said "Too bad you're not over 60. You'd be eligible for the Senior Citizen rate." Which would be $2.50. The fact that she considered me a not-quite-60 ticket buyer, but mentioned the over-60 fee just to be safe, gave a pleasant lift to my day--or else was a shrewd public relations move on her part. I am personally convinced she was sincere on account of her reaction when I told her I was 65, which was to eye me suspiciously as if I were trying to bilk the Umlauf Sculpture Garden of a dollar. I was unexpectedly, and vainly, pleased.

Charles Umlauf was a local sculptor who taught for many years in the art department at the University of Texas. His main claim to fame is the incredible number of public art pieces he placed around the state of Texas, mostly very large and perhaps exaggeratedly realistic (except for the absence of sexual organs on the male nudes) statues of and well-muscled athletic-looking bronze men, and lovely bronze women with signature upturned faces. Supposedly one of his models was Farrah Faucett, when she was an art student. The statues I have seen are mostly very pretty to look at, though there is something a little disconcerting about a several-ton bronze woman with Playboy centerfold proportions.

There is (relatively) little of that here. Much of the statuary is smaller, and I'm guessing is unsold preliminary versions of larger pieces, left in his workshop at the time of his death. I know have seen larger versions of some of the smaller statues elsewhere. I'm guessing the Garden showcases some artwork that may have been less appealing to Municipal Art Commission tastes but which may have been what he really preferred to do. I dunno. But at any rate some of the pieces struck me as displaying more whimsy and charm than his stuff I have seen elsewhere. Plus, in one to two cases, an unexpected element of the sinister.

According to their web page, I could have brought my laptop and surfed the web while sitting by the fern-shrouded lovers shown here. I am not sure why this would draw visitors, buy, hey, maybe I am getting old.

I am guessing this is Jesus

This is the most interestingly creepy St. Francis I have ever seen.

Another strangely mixed religious message. This is presumably Jesus, with the dove descending, but the halo (or is it a bishob's mitre?) looks like horns unless you look closely, and the cherub-heralds remind me of a flock of bats. (Apparently Umlauf sold a much larger version of this to an Episcopal Church in San Antonio. I'm surprised.)

Click on any photo to enlarge

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cloudy morning on Onion Creek

Onion Creek is dry in places because of the prolonged drought. There has been no real rain in the watershed of the creek for several months, and the daytime temperatures are still in the 90s. On the plus side, there is not much ragweed this year, and the poison ivy is stunted and burnt-looking.
The developing El Niño event should lead to rain here this fall and winter, but no sign of it yet.
This is how it looks now--well, strictly speaking, how it looked a couple of days ago.

The Lower Falls

Ammonite fossil in Cretaceous limestone. The leaf is about 3 inches long, for scale.

Mystery picnic table, long abandoned

Texas persimmon, Diospyros texana, more commonly called Mexican persimmon hereabouts. Very pretty trees. The small edible fruits are black when ripe.

Click any photo to enlarge

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Anecdote of the bull

My wife Kay died in 2002, and both Anna and Eve have expressed interest in Kay's diaries, which are hard to read due to her handwriting--not the best. So I have (very) occasionally been transcribing them. Each year she bought one of these little yearbooks with one blank page for every day of the year, to record her thoughts and the events of her life. Each diary has a good record of January, part of February, and a few entries from March--then nothing until Thanksgiving or Christmas, when she would write about the inevitable outbreak of holiday-season trouble in her large and tumultuous family.

The remainder of each of those years remains a mystery now, with only my hazy and imperfect memory to fill in the gaps.

Anyway, I just ran across this, and readers of my blog who knew Kay might find it interesting, a brief portrait of her as a girl, with maybe a clue of what she would be like as a woman. The entry is from 1989, but she is writing about something much earlier.
If Eve has helped me rediscover my childhood, Anna helped me rediscover my teenage years. She has a yearning to travel that I felt so strongly. "Mom, I just have to go somewhere." she would say, and I can remember saying it in that exact tone of voice with those exact words at exactly the same age. When I said it, at the age of sixteen, my parents, very wisely, found a Church of Christ missionary family, fundamentalists named Mr. and Mrs. Smith who were willing to let me come stay with them on Hacienda Huantepec in the small town of Pabellón, Aguascalientes, in Mexico. I was to teach their children and help with the driving. I had just graduated from high school and I wanted to be on my own so much that I was on the verge of running away.
I took the bus by myself and found the granja [farm], where they lent out their bull for breeding. I'm sure they performed other Christian services, but this was the most popular request. I dutifully drove a large truck with a bellowing bull to remote areas in the state, with Mr. Smith sitting beside me. Mrs. Smith stayed home with the children. It seemed a perfectly normal thing for a sixteen year girl old to be doing. On one occasion, it rained hard and we got stuck in the mud, Mr. Smith put rocks under the rear wheel, the bull bellowed and I gunned it and moved back and forth until I got us out. We moved forward through a rock bed creek after the road ended. We arrived as the sun came out into a place that I have, to this day, not been able to find on a map. The people were there to greet us, lined up in a row with English hymnals in their hand, left by a missionary who had visited them thirty years before. The hymnals were worn and they sang "a Mighty Fortress is our God" in strangely accented English as we walked up the slope with Mr. Smith bringing the bull and me following.

Needless to say, she later went into anthropology.

Kay as a young anthropologist

Monday, October 02, 2006

Three odonates

The first two are damselflies. The great spreadwing and the Comanche dancer belong to different families of damselflies. Unlike most damselflies, spreadwings hold their wings out from their body when at rest.

Great spreadwing, Archilestes grandis

Comanche dancer, Argia barretti

The dragonfly is a a black setwing, Dythemis nigrescens, a mostly Mexican species.

All were photographed at the Zilker botanical gardens in Austin. Click to enlarge any photo.