Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday cat blogging

Gray opens one eye to see what is going on.

plus Friday zoo blogging available

Friday, January 19, 2007

I haven't been out much...

...because of several days of rain followed by an ice storm. It is still cold (for Austin) and muddy--not good for trekking around outdoors. But I have been keeping my bird feeder filled, and the birds come to me. This bird, a downy woodpecker, is not at the bird feeder but is busy investigating my fig tree, which, no longer encased in ice, kept the bird interested for 15 minutes, which must be a week in downy woodpecker time. I think the ice may have split the bark to reveal some food source--in any case I don't recall seeing a woodpecker in the fig tree before.

Downy woodpecker
Downy woodpecker

click for larger view

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Obsolete travel notes--Honduras before the Hurricane, part 2

Another in my obsolete travel notes series. Travel accounts tend to become out of date quickly, but I have found that I actually prefer travel writing that has arrived at great obsolescence, and describes places that you will never see, or that cannot be seen anymore by anyone, the past being a country difficult of access, to borrow the cliche. I usually take notes when I travel, but only write up a narrative years later, when I can sort out what part of what I saw has fallen away from the commonplace world as I know it, as--ideally at least--some of it may have done.

The Mainland
Bustling, raw and ugly, San Pedro Sula looked like global-economy hell. If you took Odessa, Texas, tripled the population, narrowed the streets and filled them with a few thousand badly tuned used school buses, and allowed only whimsical garbage pick-up for six months, you would have something like the same civic charm. But there was a certain prosperity. It had the raw vigor of rich and unscrupulous people on the move and poor but industrious people trying not to go under.

We had gotten off the plane from Roatan Island, where we had spent Christmas. (Honduras before the Hurricane, part 1) It was still Christmas in mainland Honduras, actually--Christmas in Latin America continues until January 6th. We had to spend a day in San Pedro Sula to await our baggage, which did not return with us on the plane from the island, for unknown karmic reasons. So we ate at the Hotel Skandia lunch counter. Prosperous, possibly wealthy, Hondurans, dressed rather elegantly, were passing the time there, leisurely, a no-hurry latin concept of lunch settling out of the otherwise get-rich-quick capitalism atmosphere for two hours in the middle of the day.

We walked around seeing the sights, and went into the cathedral. It had been built in the 1950's, but looked much older. Inside, they had erected a festive fifty-foot thatch Christmas tree over a framework of iron, behind the main altar, and installed a creche below it. A few faithful, on Tuesday in the morning, knelt praying. One man, in front of a big crucifix in a side chapel, had his eyes closed and his hand on the life-sized-Jesus' bare thigh. The man's family knelt around in a semicircle, all of them praying. Had we thought, we would have prayed for our safety on our bus rides.

Busride to Copan. Mostly local passengers, but a few tourists. A thuggish-looking German let Eve use his large, sharp, hair-trigger switch-blade knife to peel her apple. His girlfriend was very delicate and beautiful. Both carried enormous packs on to the bus, and heaved them in a big stack in the back, where the space was contested by men carrying bushels of fruits and vegetables bought in the market in San Pedro Sula to their fruitstand in Copan. One of the market guys conversed with Kay about his life's ambition to go the US to work and earn enough money to buy a used Toyota pickup and come home with it so he wouldn't have to ride the bus every morning with his day's inventory, competing for space with more frivolous travelers. Let us hope that by now he has achieved his goal.

The forest along the road as we went upcountry had mostly been cut down for agricultural purposes, just as it had been in Mayan times, but now, as then, they left occasional huge whitebarked trees in the fields. One kind was called Ceiba, another kind I can no longer find the name for. The reason for leaving these trees uncut in the field is said to be religious.

The bus ride was long, and as we settled in and started to doze off, "Bang! WHOCKAwhockawhacka!" Everybody woke up. The bus was tilting and careening back and forth across the road as it slowed down. Blowout. The bus finally weaved to a stop. The bus crew, 2 men and 2 boys, jumped out and changed the tire in ten minutes. The driver displayed his impatience by taking off his sunglasses.

Town of Ruinas de Copán (formerly San Jose de Copán) is on a low hill overlooking the river that flows past the archeological site. The Mayan site is a quarter mile upstream. The streets of the town are cobblestoned. The Spanish woman who runs the hotel wanted her 25 Lempiras per person in advance. Cold shower. Cold showers in the tropics are just as cold as anywhere else. We took our laundry to a friendly American woman who lived up the steps (one very vertical street ends in steps) around the corner. She had been living there several years, and seemed to have found a niche for herself. A laundress in Ruins of Copán. What strange lives you encounter, when you travel.

Copán. The guides attaching themselves to shoals of wandering tourists were somehow central to the odd theme park atmosphere, making it a little hard to imagine the human sacrifice narrative they were promoting, even if the big stones sitting like giant turtles in front of the pyramids and statues were indeed used to spread-eagle sacrificial victims to cut their hearts out with flint knives. We were walking around in a pleasant, well-mowed archeological park with little boys selling replica figurines all around us. Big stacks of stone skulls, however, looked ominous even in their present setting. Was the discoloration of the stone altars blood, or weathering, or something painted for touristic purposes? The Mayans did practice human sacrifice, but generally only of captured kings or generals. Think Saddam Hussein and his men, for a modern analog.

The second and third squares of the park were less restored than the first, and free of roving guides. The stonecarving looked to me like something Chinese.

We walked to the river. We found some Germans camped there; the German guys had gone into town to get supplies and drinking water, leaving a statuesque young woman who was unselfconsciously wearing a tiny bikini and tending a fire. Campesinos hoed weeds in a nearby field and ogled her, as were two guys covered with mud, squatting in their underwear digging clay in the riverbank to make the Mayan replicas to sell to tourists. A bunch of girls on the opposite cliff, dressed very conservatively, giggled as they looked down at the young German woman.

Bus to Gracias. A woman paid the bus driver an egg for a ride of a few miles.
Castor beans grew commonly along the roadsides; I never got around to asking why. Purple morning glories twined along the fences. Poplars shimmered along dry creeks. Tall white daisies, high as sunflowers, clustered along the road. We saw an occasional spectacular orange-flowered tree that I found out, by inquiry, was called llama del bosque, "flame of the forest." That was the name of a restaurant we had eaten at in Copán.

We passed a town called Flores, meaning Flowers, on the dirt road stretch of highway on the way from Santa Rosa de Copán to Gracias. Flores was a nice-looking town, except for the town square, which was not only barren of flowers, but barren of almost anything. No vegetation, statuary, or benches--nada. Flowers everywhere but here.

In Gracias, we ran into a Dutch woman ("La Olandesa") who was friendly and told us about the town. She later took us to some hot springs. She had come to her little town as part of some Peace-Corps-like program, and then she stayed on after the program ended, as a restaurant owner, daredevil jeep driver, and "women's advocate" (her words). She was full of smiles, spoke Spanish and English, in addition to her native Dutch, and had a cheerful female Honduran sidekick who seemed to be a sort of partner in the restaurant and the women's advocacy. Both women had buck teeth and intelligent faces. La Olandesa was very social, and a crowd gathered in the evening at her restaurant, surrounding her with gossip and persiflage. Enjoyable company.

Next day, La Olandesa drove like a madwoman to get us to the hot springs, down a chuckholed, spinal-compression-injury rocky road two or three miles. The hot springs consisted of several rocked-in swimming holes. The water was warm, not hot. Big broadleaf trees shaded the place, and a Flame of the Forest. We stayed there, for an hour or so, floating in the warm water, till the jeep came back. There was a little concession stand, a few Hondurans soaking in the springs. People were rubbing a green clay on their faces to improve the health of their skin, they said.

Cloud forest. We got a ride in the back of a pickup from some guy who took us to the cloud forest--La Olandesa's jeep was now in need of repairs. The clouds were nearly down to the town level. We soon got up above the pueblo, and looked down on the cloudbank bright in the sun that covered the village. From the park entrance we hiked in for an hour and a half, through trees like Colorado with a tropical understory. There was a coffee field by the visitor center. A friendly dried-up and sinewy woman in a plain dress, with two wild skinny dogs loping along ahead of her, came striding up the trail and opened the center (which was really a small, abandoned-looking wooden house) and showed us a map of the park. We walked along the stream, which was pretty and clear. I got a drink out of it, assuming the water was OK, which it was. Three colors of mint grew there, blue, purple, and white, the latter two with a menthol smell. Sycamores grew orange-leaved like fall maples next to the stream, under the pines, along with lots of tropical broadleaf trees. On the walk back, at the level of the park entrance, I noticed a sometimes-tended banana field along the trail, possible belonging to the park attendant.

Oak tree leave shone like metal in the sun.

We didn't have time for a more extended stay, and we had a plane to catch in San Pedro Sula. We took a quick meal in a small restaurant in Gracias with velvet-painted Elvises on the wall, before leaving on the bus. (What's the plural of Elvis--"Elvi," maybe?) Bad Elvi.

The bus back to San Pedro. We had noticed that an assistant usually started a bus driver's engine, then when everything was ready for the great man himself, the bus driver would ascend to his seat, with ceremony, place his sunglasses before his eyes, and ease the bus into gear. A bus driver would no more dream of wearing a seatbelt than a bullfighter would wear kevlar armor. This driver was a burly man with menacing handlebar mustaches, whose driving pressed every advantage, who passed at high speeds on on blind curves and hills. I believed that the guy would someday go out in a blaze of glory. Fortunately he did not do so that day. He got us to San Pedro Sula nearly an hour ahead of schedule. I had been fearful that my failure to pray in the cathedral would cost us dearly, but someone else on board must have prayed enough for all of us.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The magic touch

It is never a good thing to have a president on a mission from God, as we see with Mr. Bush's chutzpotic (I have been waiting for a chance to fuse chutzpah and despotic into a single word, and our President, sadly, gives it to me) unilateral decision to raise the stakes in Iraq. Bush has always been able to brazen his way out of trouble, but the last time it really worked flawlessly for him was the 2000 election, when he gambled that he could take office by simply acting as if he had won. And sure enough, he has been living in the White House ever since.

So at this point I think this habit is hard-wired into his administration. A message from the American people, delivered by the last congressional elections, can't compete with the message of past successful effrontery. He believes, and has believed all along, that magical thinking creates its own magic.

What his magical thinking envisions, and what he may have in fact created, is a situation where the country may be boxed in, and either we have to accept what everyone must regard as catastrophe--in this case, coming home from Iraq with nothing to show for it but 3000 American dead, 650,000 Iraqi dead, plus civil war and anarchy in a failed state we have left behind--or double down, and widen the war to Iran, which is what I think he wants to do, and, unless he is deterred by Congress and the public, what he is probably going to do.

The fact that it seems insane should not make us worry any less. Look at his history. And look at the signs. We have a recently published story--and perhaps it is not just based on rumor--that we have given the Israelis the green light to conduct a nuclear strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israelis have denied any such plans, but of course they have denied for years that they even have nuclear weapons.

We have our raid a couple of days ago on an Iranian consulate. We have ramped-up saber rattling, demanding the Iranians stop supplying the insurgency, and a plan to place more American troops along the Iranian border. (The absurdity of the idea of a largely Sunni insurgency being funded and supplied by Iran is a fine point that will be lost on a public, and possibly on Congressional foreign affairs oversight, where an important committee chair does not even know the difference between Sunni and Shia.) We have aircraft carriers being deployed to the region, and Navy aircraft obviously are not going to help secure the streets of Baghdad. So what are they for?

Allow me a moment of dystopian imagination, here. (Hopefully it will turn out to be as mad as George Bush and all his march-hare neocons.) If his plan is to box us in to a situation we can't retreat from, a military confrontation with Iran certainly fits the bill. Once that spirals out of control, we are committed for another few years--and we certainly don't want to change ruling parties in the middle of a war, do we?--until that war becomes, itself, another disaster, larger and uglier and more dangerous for both our security and our civil liberties even than the Iraq war has been.

I think that's were George Bush imagines his legacy to lie. He thinks that God will pull this thing out of the fire for him, and if it takes a bigger fire for God to consider personally stepping in, well, hey...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

George Will and the minimum wage

George Will, a syndicated--and no doubt highly paid--conservative scold, tells us, in his column today, that raising the minimum wage to something higher than $5.15 an hour is a bad idea. His evidence is that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression. Well, that's not his only evidence, but that's what he leads with, which indicates the quality of what is to come.

Will, he of the perpetual dyspeptic scowl and tightly buttoned collar (could it be that his mood, if not his conservatism, could be helped by loosening his tie?) goes through the usual litany of falsehood and half-truth to make his case, but it seems scattershot and perfunctory. It's hard to wear what appears to be a Rolex and get too indignant about the laboring classes making too much money. (Well, hard it may be, but his duty is clear. So he manfully sets about it, frown firmly in place, as always.)

Mainly, he says, the poor don't need a higher minimum wage. The poor already make more than the minimum wage, he says. (Six dollars an hour, perhaps? And that because of _state_ minimum wage laws, of which Mr. Will, as it happens, disapproves. Ah, well.)

Having said that the poor don't need higher wages, he then adds triumphantly that most of the workers getting the minimum wage are not poor.

That's true pretty much by definition. If you tried to live by yourself on the minimum wage, you could not pay the rent, much less eat. So you have to live with others. Poverty is defined by the government in terms of households, not individuals. So if you live with one and a half other minimum wage workers, you are above the federal poverty level, which is almost as much of an indictment of the government's definition of poverty as it is of Mr. Will's intellectual integrity.

Other parts of Mr. Will's Heritage press release re-write do not cohere well. For example, he tells us that higher minimum wages will increase high school drop-out rates, luring unwary youths with the promise of easy money. He also tells us that higher wages will increase unemployment.

Now, as it happens, this last factoid has been shown in to be untrue in the aggregate, but, alas for Mr. Will's thesis, true for one subgroup of workers--part time _student_ workers. In other words, high school students are about the only class of people who find it harder to get work when minimum wages are raised. Mr. Will ignores this fact when claiming, on the word of two un-named "scholars" that school enrollment will drop 2% if we raise the minimum wage 10%.

You can't have it both ways, George.

But, actually, conservative apologists for the stacked deck and the screwing of the poor, regularly do have it both ways, simply because they do not care about the truth or consistency of what they utter or write, any more than about compassion or fairness, much less equality (a word that probably makes Will shudder. Everybody can't have a Rolex, right?)

When I imagine Mr. Will, above, wearing a paper cap and a work-stained apron, instead of his suit and tie, behind the counter of a franchised fast food place, it is not out of ill will or unfriendliness, but as imaginary but nevertheless heartfelt acknowledgment that he, over and above other workers would be, on the basis of his merits alone, one of the two thirds of minimum wage workers who, he says, get a 10% raise inside of year.

The free market, as Mr. Will says, must be given its due.

Three views of an orange-crowned warbler

This warbler was rustling in some leaves behind my house. It seemed very busy, and let me get close enough to get some good photos. Although I couldn't tell as I was taking the pictures, it seems to have found a small gelatinous delicacy to eat.

Orange-crowned warbler 1

It finds something
Orange-crowned warbler 2

...a mid-morning snack
Orange-crowned warbler 3