Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

The whole country's just full of people who when these things happen say "these things happen" and that's why they happen. - Ethel Merman from the 1963 film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
So...I'm going to have to be one of those people today who says these things happen. And I'm talking about swine flu. What's the deal? What are people hearing that I'm not hearing about this flu? What I'm hearing is nothing that tells me swine flu is any more pernicious than regular seasonal flu, which kills 36,000 people in the US annually, and 500,000 around the world. Swine flu has been around since 1930. This new strain of the bug seems to respond to Tamiflu - of which the US holds at least 50-million courses. If all you people who aren't sick run out and use up the Tamiflu, then the 36,000 people who might get the flu and die won't be able to take it. So, how 'bout we stay calm? Nothing has been restricted (unless you're a member of the vice president's family) except unnecessary travel to Mexico. So, there go the summer plans for Cozumel. Time to freak out? You can't get the flu from eating pork - but you should try to resist that puckered up swine with the lipstick on. How many of you live near pig farms? Really? Did you hear Egypt slaughtered 250,000 pigs today? Oh my! This is not a bio terrorist attack. If it is, the terrorists are likely quite disappointed with the slow progress of the death plot and the easy tips for avoiding exposure to the virus. Really, friends - unless you're the mother of this little girl, and the photo below was taken on your family trip to Mexico, may I suggest you take a deep breath? If you just can't resist being caught up in the frenzy, at least promise yourself a daily check of the facts at Here's the boring thing about facts, though - they don't change daily. So, if you just must stay agitated about the flu, watch the Wall Street Journal's health blog. At least the reporters at the WSJ seem more committed to relaying information than they are to making you stay tuned to their station for the next 10 minutes of commercials. (FYI-That's what those emotionally charged "up next" headlines on TV are all about.) And, if you just need a healthy, funny reminder of how quickly we go crazy...put It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in your Netflix queue this week. Breathe. And wash your hands. Peace.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April Showers Bring...?

We've had three days of rain in Central Texas...which makes us all believe in redemption. If you live here and water by the house number rule, camp by the burn ban decision, and pray for cotton farmers and ranchers you've never know what I mean. A few days of rain almost makes us forget that drought is still with us and summer is still ahead. We leave umbrellas in our cars, and run - but not too quickly - for shelter. Once inside, we throw the windows open, because we like to listen to the rain here in Texas. We exchange pleasantries with strangers like, "Sure is messy out there," but one of us always ends by saying, "Yeah, but I don't mind the rain." "Me neither," we always say. And the smell of rain on dirt that's been wrung dry by 17 of the most precipitation barren months in history - oh it's so sweet. So... we forget how bad things really are... The same is true with the U.S. economy, right? We end the day today with all stock exchange arrows pointing up, the federal reserve saying the recession seems to be easing, even Starbucks' losses for the quarter are coming in lower than expected. It's raining financial hope, right? Sounds so soothing. Smells so sweet. The drought's not over after three days of rain in Texas. I bet I'll have to practice some water conservation again this summer, go without fires at the campsite, and let my lawn - eventually - turn a shade of brown that isn't very pretty. Oh poor me, huh? I expect the same to be true of my financial landscape. I don't imagine, for an instant, that any of us will be putting out buckets to catch a deluge of financial gain until we've had to make a few hard choices...and sweat. Oh, poor us, huh?
Percent of World's Population Living on Less Than $2 a day
I say we leave the umbrellas in the car...just so we don't look like whiners. Peace.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bad Things Happen...

It's the oldest story in the book... Literally. The story of Job. You know - in the Bible. It's the one about the guy who suffered the contest between God and Satan - the righteous man with everything going for him who suddenly finds himself beset with bad upon bad? The man who loses his wealth and his children, then wakes up one day covered with boils? The guy whose wife tells him to curse God and die...whose friends pretty much tell him the same? Every faith tradition has its version of the story, which presents the question we'd all like an answer to: Why do bad things happen? Job came to mind this morning as I scoured the World Health Organization's posts about a possible swine flu pandemic. I have to admit, I was enjoying the ludicrousness of the latest news way too much. I found myself conjuring up an image of Barack Obama sitting at his desk on 100th-Day-Eve by dawn's early light. Before him was the list of "must fix" top 10 issues: 1. the economy that collapsed under the watch of the last leader 2. the greedy, unrepentent bankers 3. the bumbling auto makers 4. the outrageous budget deficit 5. the wars in iraq & afghanistan 6. the swords rattling in pakistan 7. the underpinnings crumbling in india 8. the bellicose chest pounding in iran 9. the pirates off the coast of somalia And...this just in: 10. SWINE FLU at near pandemic status Never mind the list of campaign promises. Those were made in the pre-Job days. I don't pretend to know where President Obama falls on the "Righteous Man Meter"... but I do know he carries the domestic hopes of the majority of Americans on his shoulders, along with the international hopes of most of the world. It's politics, of course, not church... But hope for a better world is our church in action. Check your faith stories. When hope dies, evil triumphs. I like carrying my vision of the President of the United States at his desk to the moment he picks up his pen with his left hand and begins to draw boxes beside each issue on the list. Then he writes, in all caps, above his new column of boxes "DONE"... and he moves on with the belief that there will be a check in every box. Eventually. In the meantime...wash your hands. And be part of keeping hope alive! Peace.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Someone Open the Flu...

...and let Rick Perry's hot air fly out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chimney.
Waah! Waah! We don't want your stinkin' tax-and-spend stimulus money, and we may just choose to leave the whole lot of you in our sweet secession dust,
said our oh-so-eloquent governor less than two weeks ago.
Aack! Aack! Our kids have swine flu and we need 38,000 courses of antiviral meds from - um - the union we threatened to secede from 12 days ago,
says the same brilliant guy now. May I just say a couple of things in defense of Texans who sometimes think before they speak? At least 3.5 million of us voted for Barack Obama, and we're going to live in the country that elected him. We hope we don't have to move to do that. And we hope the rest of you will embrace us as the slow drawlin' Texas democrats we are. Really, not all of us are idiots. I promise. Yes, we've deserved every "pack up your drought-ridden, urban sprawling, pig shit farming, meth-addicted territories and leave!" Thanks, Governor Perry. Love it when you get us in the news. Did you wake up on the morning of April 15, feeling like Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto? Did you think you'd stage a sneak attack on the federal government and, somehow, make a threat to secede sound like the roar of a winner? Were your inner voices chanting "Remember the Alamo" that morning? Did you wake up 10 days later, with the news of swine flu showing up in your great state, feeling like the biggest goof on the planet? What were the inner voices saying that day? "Oh crap?" I hope so.
Sam Houston leading the charge on Santa Anna's troops at San Jacinto...the battle that won Texas independence from Mexico, April 21, 1836...Texas became a state 9 years later.
Workers disinfecting a classroom at Byron P. Steel High School in Cibolo, Texas...where at least two confirmed cases of swine flu have been reported.
Somehow, I believe Governor Perry has nothing to worry about. I'm betting the union he's not so sure he wants to be part of will send some version of a response that looks like...
"Sure buddy, we got your back."
Don't forget your manners, gov. Thank the nice people in Washington. Peace.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back Off News Dogs...

I realize the news business is not as much fun when the President of the United States uses words like "bellicose" instead of "misunderestimated." Where's the entertainment value in ivy league words, used in correct context, in a well thought out sentence? But I'm weary of the stir from our television/newspaper/magazine/blog pundits to over-polarize us all. It's as if standing alongside the American public and cheering "fight, fight, fight" is all they have left in the push to successfully sell air time and column inches. I used to be in the news business, and I understand the dance between the public's right to know the truth and the public's need to laugh/be outraged/see blood. But I'm tired of being sold to the lowest bidder for my emotional investment in the daily headlines. Today, it's from MSNBC...and I confess, I took the lure. It's the Give President Obama a Grade poll. A friend sent the link to her favorite democrat friends, and urged us all to go to the site to give the president an A - in a counter attack move on all the republicans who were going to the site to give President Obama an F. In fact, with over 2-million responses at the site so far, the Fs are winning:
If you were grading Barack Obama on his performance as president, what would he get? * 2911119 responses
He gets an A 36%
He gets a B 6.9%
He gets a C 5%
He gets a D
He gets an F 39%
Not a scientific survey.
No doubt, the survey will make the news tonight. One of the worst side effects of this "duke it out" political presentation is that it's rubbing off on our working congressional representatives, who apparently feel they'll only make it to the 5 o'clock news or the front page of the newspaper if they say something ridiculously far right or far left. So much of it is irrelevant and inane and misleading - where can the determination our founding fathers had for a well informed electorate be headed? We used to expect this behavior only from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore. Now the extreme has become the usual and we're all feeling like we need to wrestle in the mud with anyone who sees the world from a peak or valley different from our own. I'm ready to be bored with the news. Just the facts, please ma'am and sir. I'm eager to hear the word compromise used in a few sentences. From my elected reps. I'm wishing we the people would stand up and say, once and for all: The president has been elected, inaugurated, and has served 95 days in office. He is intelligent and popular and delivering on his promises. Let it be. Don't you think it's time for we - the people - to stop bowing to our most visceral selves and start listening to our reasonable inner voices? This is not a wrestling match. This is a democracy. A good one. These issues: the economy, health care, war, education...these are our problems, not just the problems of the party of the President. Can we become activists for truth and understanding? Is there any other reliable path to peace?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Torture...

If you read newspapers, you've undoubtedly wept over stories about parents who tie up children and deprive them of food, or who burn them with cigarettes, or beat them with boards. You've cringed at news of husbands who mutilate and sexually terrorize and endlessly threaten violence against wives. I can imagine you've even been outraged when you've heard about animals that have been malnourished or beaten or chained in a yard without water. Yesterday, we were inundated, again, with US torture stories, after President Obama approved the release of justice department memos detailing the lawyer-okayed ways our interrogators have tried to get information from bad guys for the last 7+ years. So, what do you think NOW about water boarding suspected know, the people who might have had something to do with September 11, 2001? Are you able to dehumanize these people enough to approve of the many ways in which US interrogation officers worked to coerce them to talk? One of those men in today's news is Abu Zubaydah, a suspected high level Al Queda operative who was reportedly water boarded 83 times in August of 2002. He actually turned out to be schizophrenic, and a rather low level Al Queda operative. Here's an old picture of they don't show us on TV...taken, probably, when his mother still hoped he'd grow up to be a brain surgeon, or something. Another one of those evildoers we're seeing on the TV screen today - one who was reportedly water boarded 6 times a day for a month in March of 2003 - is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This man has apparently said he came up with the idea for 9/11, sold the plan to Osama bin Laden, and managed all operations of the horrible deed from A to Z. The same photo is always shown of KSM - wild hair, handcuffed, scruffy, hairy chested. Here's what he looked like before he was a criminal detainee in our war on terror (next to that familiar photo from the TV). I'm not trying to make a defense for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A little over a month ago, he and three other alleged 9/11 plotters released a statement to a Guantanamo military judge that called:
U.S. allegations "badges of honor" and declared themselves "terrorists to the bone"
What bothers me is what we do to OUR people to make them capable of torturing THOSE people. What line is crossed in a human being's soul that allows him/her to completely disregard a beating heart, a breathing lung, a flailing arm? I may be the last person to actually see the video below. I caught glimpses of it...what I could stand to watch...last night on MSNBC. It's a "water boarding reenactment" produced by Kaj Larsen, who is an award winning reporter for current TV. Larsen is also a former Navy SEAL, and a Harvard grad, in case you need credentials. It's a difficult thing to watch. Very difficult. What happens in the captor/captured scenario that allows this kind of human-on-human action to even be possible? Really...are memories of these images enough? Or is something else at work? Whatever it is surely not named peace.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pirates of the Aden

I just can't get those dead Somali pirates out of my head. It's a quote from the Washington Post that's been haunting me all week:
(Defense Secretary Robert) Gates said the four pirates involved in taking Phillips hostage were 17 to 19 years old -- "untrained teenagers with heavy weapons."
And here's what a couple of those untrained teenagers look like with their heavy weapons... I mean - look at them in their basketball shorts. Like they came right from a pick up game somewhere to hijack an enormous container ship determined to make the dangerous short cut from Asia to Europe through the Horn of Africa. It kills me. So I've been reading about Somalia and pondering the faces of these kids who have so little to lose that they'll stare down navy warships, and set themselves up to be picked off by highly trained military snipers. Don't get me wrong...I don't like hostage taking, ransom demanding pirates. But neither do I like illegal trawlers, aka natural resource stealers, aka fish thieves...who were the first to introduce the Pirates of the Aden to the financial reward of piracy. Somalia is a 246 square mile country - slightly smaller than the state of Texas. 10 million people live there, most of them on less than $2 a day. The per capita GDP of Somalia is $500, making it one of the three poorest countries in the world. There are at least five governments operating there, which means there is nothing but confusion and unrest and civil chaos. They grow sorghum and bananas and sugarcane in Somalia. They used to refine petroleum and sugar and manufacture textiles- but industry has mostly shut down because of the civil unrest in the country. It seems about all Somalia has going for it is 2,000 miles of great fishing coastline. Unfortunately, the country can't keep a Coast Guard together, so fishing fleets from around the world have been illegally fishing an estimated $300 million worth of seafood from Somali waters every year since the last functioning government in Somalia fell - 1991. $300 million dollars worth of natural resources - stolen from some of the poorest people in the world. Are you getting the picture? Seems the native fishers grew a little weary of being out-fished by better equipped and unlicensed foreign ships, so they began seizing the illegal vessels and demanding payment from the ships' governments, which did not want to have unlicensed trawling operations "outed." Easy money. But the pirates got greedy. Who can blame them? Take a look at the UN Human Development Index for Somalia: Only 29% of the population has access to improved water sources. Just 26% have access to improved sanitation. There is 1 doctor for every 25,000 people in Somalia (the US has 1 doctor for 390 people). Life expectancy in Somalia is 47 years old (77 years in the US). The adult literacy rate in Somalia is estimated at about 24% (86% in the US). We have no idea what it feels like to be a young Somali man, but some anger might begin to conjure up the truth of it. And some helplessness and hopelessness and, ultimately, recklessness. They were busy in the water again today, these young pirates. This time 500 miles from their home coastline - in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
"Somali pirates are getting wilder and out of control," pirate spokesman Ali Sugulle said on April 11. "They go too far away from the Somali [coast] and go to the Kenyan coast even."
Wilder and out of control... They're kids. comes when people have a few basic needs met.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Organic Grumbling

I talk about planting a vegetable garden every year. I have a dreamy vision of myself in the cool of a summer morning, out in the lush patch of herbs and veggies that I've watered and fed and loved into being. I see thin and healthy people, happy and satisfied at the dinner table. I ponder recipes for fresh salsa, herb steamed fish, and homemade pickles. I imagine this project as the start of genuine sustainability and responsibility in my life. Alas...planting season has come and almost gone, once again...and there is no vegetable garden. It's probably just as well. Because that deep longing I have for sustainable growth right outside my back door does not come with a yearning to study good gardening practices, or to dig, or to pluck funky looking bugs off the backsides of leaves. It's just the picking and eating that sounds like fun to me. You may call me a friend of the Little Red Hen. We should all pause for a moment to think about how often we want only sowing. I'm thinking about gardening today not because I'm in a mood to ponder my wistful nature, but because I am proud that Michelle Obama has made good on an intention to grow some food in the yard. The yard, of course, is the White House lawn. The garden is a collaborative project between the First Lady, a 5th grade class from a Washington, DC elementary school, the US Secretary of Agriculture, and at least a handful of White House staff. This, I thought, is the garden of my dreams. A staffed garden. (Mrs. Obama does say everyone - even the president - will pull weeds). Kudos to the country's First Mother for wanting her daughters, along with a classroom full of other kids, to see where healthy food comes from and what it takes to grow it. For starters, the 5th graders seemed surprised to find out 55 kinds of organic vegetables in 1,100 square feet of dirt costs about $200 to plant. When Mrs. Obama asked the students what they thought the supplies to create the garden cost, one student apparently said $100,000. Of course, not to be factored into the cost of the White House kitchen garden is a "crop protection product" ... aka pesticide. In case you missed it, this is an organic garden. No chemicals. So, here's the best part of the gardening news...the Mid America CropLife Association is up in arms over the absence of the latest in crop protection technologies. The executive director of MACA sent the First Lady a 900 word letter encouraging a more All-American approach to the garden than organic:
As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing a safe and economical food supply. America's farmers understand crop protection technologies are supported by sound scientific research and innovation.
Oh my! Can it be that we can't even have a vegetable garden at the White House without choosing sides and throwing, um, tomatoes? Really - is there something unAmerican about an organic garden? I doubt my great grandmother thought she was being an unconventional liberal when she tilled homemade compost into the dirt in Southern Illinois, or when she sent the grand kids into the garden to pull squash bugs off the zucchini. Here's what seems most organic to me these days - the apparent human need to whine and blame and grumble. It's growing faster than the dandelions in my front yard. Is there a crop protection product for that? Head to your yard. Kick off your shoes. Wiggle your toes in some cool dirt. Breathe. Let the grumbling go, not grow. Peace.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Whole New World

In 2006, my oldest son spent 3 weeks in Europe - a great college graduation adventure gift from his Grandmother. He went with his best buddy, had every guidebook, phone card, train ticket, pocket translator, and back pack specialty known to humans. We worried about only one thing.... That he would look like an American. Because in 2006, you may remember, we were not the belles of the international balls. In fact, our no-end-in-sight war on terror...yes the one declared "Mission Accomplished" in June of 2003...was anything but accomplished, and the mission had become more than a little muddied. Our friends and allies in the EU talked about the war in Iraq this way: "the U.S. led invasion of Iraq," and in March of 2006 a survey showed a majority of Europeans believed the invasion had increased the threat of terrorism in the world. The UK was beginning to withdraw troops. Italy's president was promising complete withdrawal of Italian troops by December 2006. In Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Romania, Denmark and Slovakia (all countries with troops in Iraq), public opinion was turning sharply against the war. And our president was quite unpopular.
Next week, my younger son leaves for a month in Europe...a touring trip with his band, Balmorhea. Our preparation focus has been on securing bass bows and eliminating anything bulky from his very limited luggage space. This time, our biggest concern is that he'll fall in love and never want to come home. Americans - in 2009, post G20 - are quite popular. All he needs is an Obama sticker on his bag.
President Obama, Prime Minister Berlusconi (Italy), President Dmitry Medvedev (Russia)
What a difference a few years, a political awakening, an election, and a real leader in the White House makes. By the time I get to Europe - perhaps it will be my turn in a few years - I pray the entire world is at peace. Could happen...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Big Hearted Giving Without Fear

I do so hate to shop. One might even say I have a fear of shopping. A phobia. Except there is, apparently, no such phobia. Check out the indexed phobia list online. There are 530 irrational fears listed there. Included is: 1) the fear of the number 13 (Triskadekaphobia); 2) the fear of pointed objects (aichmophobia); 3) the fear of lockjaw (tetanophobia); even 4) the fear of sermons (homilophobia)! How can there be no fear of department stores, malls, or Walmart? No Shopaphobia? My mother and sisters frequent a place they call "Digger Dillards." Can you conjure up the scene there? Does it make your head swim and your pulse race and your stomach ache? If it doesn't, you are certainly NOT a shopaphobic. For you, I will elaborate... A gift-giving season is like the arrival of a plague. We shopaphobes just want to stay in our darkened rooms until the danger passes, venturing only occasionally to an online store that won't rob us for a delivery fee. To complicate my version of this shopping illness, I am also a person who likes to support socially responsible alternatives to the traditional gift. Unfortunately, my friends/family could easily grow weary of the heartfelt (easy online access) gift certificates to worthy causes that I love to give. And eventually they will have enough pairs of TOMS shoes in their closets. I am quite concerned that I am running out of options. Enter the hefty gift-giving season bearing down upon us: Graduations, Mother's Day, Father's Day, weddings. Aaaaaack. What to do? Check out this cool site, my benevolent shopaphobic (and shopaholic) friends:
A bag for a bag. A gift for someone you know on the brink of a new adventure, AND a gift for someone transitioning from "no job" to "job"...from "I'm nothing" to "I'm someone important"...from "I'm invisible" to "look out world, here I come!" That feels good. (And, delivery is free!) I'm throwing open the blinds, taking a deep breath, facing the day without fear. The phobic response quieted once again...ahhhhh. Peace.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Toast to Iowa

Summer vacation in Iowa anyone? I think an enterprising college student I know in Indiana would do well to head for Dubuque and open a wedding chapel - because guess what???!!!?? Iowa's Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage today! Wow! Iowa! America's heartland. The food capital of the world. Home of Cap'n Crunch. Birthplace of John Wayne and the Eskimo Pie. There was only a hint of alarm in the air when Massachusetts allowed same sex marriage in 2003, and barely a ripple of angst when the same came from Connecticut in 2008. Those states are, after all, on the East coast. And California...well, who wouldn't expect California to support gay marriage (until last November when voters acted something a bit more like Texans than Californians and decided to UNsupport the law). But, Iowa? Yes, indeed. We look now to the great state of Iowa for a sanity check on the nation:
“The Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”
That's what Iowa's supreme court justices said in a summary of their decision this morning. They also said this:
“Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike. Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.”
Amen. And, amen. Perhaps the decision will hold a little longer than the 5 months of California same sex marriage licensing last year. At least the constitution writers in Iowa made the task of amending the state's document a little more rigorous than California's. An amendment to Iowa's constitution requires a unanimous vote of TWO sessions of the state's legislature, and then voter approval. A referendum and lots of church money will not do it in Iowa. So, a bow and a salute to Iowa today - standing up early and tall in the fight for what is right in this country. Leaning proudly into the state's motto:
"Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain."
Iowa - looking the rest of the country right in the eye today with the defiance and determination painted by Iowa's native son, Grant Wood, in 1928:
American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1928
Pick a fight with those two. I dare you. Peace.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Day in the Life

I work in the yard to clear my head. As soon as I saw the sunny skies of Austin this morning, I began to plan to immerse myself in fallen leaves, fresh hedge clippings, and flats of petunias. The therapeutic value of this work to my soul far exceeds the ache in my back that will linger over the next few days. There's so much about digging and planting and even pulling weeds that nurtures thoughts of the Creator and the Created. I couldn't wait for the temperature to move past 60. As I pulled on my yard shoes, I began to wonder what my counterparts in the countries I think about so often would do with a bright and sunny day. Would they head with a hoe to the lawn? And so I came back to the desk. First I checked the weather reports: a little cold in Afghanistan, but good gardening weather in Iraq and Israel. Then I began searching for images of homes and lawns in Baghdad, Gaza, Sderot, and Kabul. All I want to do now is crawl back into bed, close the blinds, pull up the covers, cry, and pray. It's not that the photos are all that terrible. Certainly, I have not found pictures that remind me of Texas suburbia - but I didn't expect to. The disabling pieces of my search for photos from these locales are not the images, but the stories that come with the images. I have read real-life, in-the-present-moment accounts from soldiers and students and mothers and fathers and reporters. All fighting, working, living, and best they can... in war-torn towns with war-ravaged neighborhoods. So my bubble of imagining a life just like mine in the Middle East has burst. There is very little chance that yard work tops the list of things to do today for folks in Iraq, Israel, or Afghanistan. Unless it is to tenderly care for the grave of a loved one.
Baghdad Gaza
May our insularity be ever on our minds as we go about our easy lives. Peace.

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