29 January 2009

Just a quick note ...

...that we're back to perpetual springtime here in Northern California. Outside my window, through which the sun is shining, there's a bird singing the most lovely song.

It's January 29. Sigh.

Atheism and morals, oh my ...

As an atheist, I don’t so much reject the ideas surrounding “God” as I reject the rigidity of the people who believe in that “God” and feel it’s their duty to force me to believe like they do.
There’s an interesting discussion going on in the posts over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, regarding the merits of theism vs. atheism. Sullivan controls which comments from his readers we get to see, so in that regard he’s “moderating” the discussion. In the latest post, the writer, who studied philosophy, points out that really, a belief in “God” is not so much in a personified “old man in the sky” as it is a concept encompassing human morality as a force for good. As such, the writer feels, it’s ridiculous for atheists to refuse to accept God’s existence. After all, that would mean we’re refusing to believe in morality.
I’m no philosopher and it could be that I’m taking the writer’s meaning wrong, but I think this is complete horsepucky.
It may be different for other religions, but all the Christians I’ve ever known have believed with all their hearts that God is an actual living being and takes the forms of both the “old man” and the amorphous “everywhere” being who’s invisible but is involved in every single thing happening on Earth at any given moment, from the fall of the tiniest sparrow from its nest to the ingrown toenail I wish fervently would cease to exist.
Not only that, but a great many of the Christians I’ve known do their daily best to convert others to their beliefs. They have absolutely no respect for my non-belief or in the beliefs of other religions; in fact, we’re all condemned gleefully to burn in the same hellfires, while the good Christians herd cloud-sheep while strumming a harp with their god-father-brother Jesus in heaven.
Furthermore, most Christians seem to believe that since I don’t – and won’t -- believe in their God, I’m an evil person who’s guided by their wicked snake/red devil/fallen angel Satan, and I’m a grave danger to them and their children and their way of life.
Heh. Ants on my kitchen counters have reason to fear me, but that’s about the extent of it.
Here’s the thing: I’ve no problem with Christians believing in their God-trio and his/their rules regarding how to live. I actually agree with most of the Ten Commandments and with most of what Jesus had to say about getting along with my fellow human beings, particularly his wise advice to reserve my judgement on the behavior of others, since I’m no saint myself.
I really wish Christians would listen to their "God" more closely, actually. Jesus offered a lot of good advice, like doing unto others as we’d like them to do unto us. (Sorry, I mangled that, but you catch my drift).
But it seems to me that a lot of Christians don’t walk the walk, except maybe on Sundays when they're showing off their "goodness" to their fellow Christians. They frequently pass righteous judgment on people who don’t share their beliefs, and some of them do violence to disbelievers and even start wars against them and revel in their deaths. It’s OK for Christians to hate, I guess, never mind what Jesus said. They hate us “sinners” but they sin quite frequently themselves. The difference is that because they’re “saved,” their sins are already forgiven. They believe that their places in heaven are already arranged, simply by virtue of their belief.
Now, to me, that’s not being moral. That’s not being kind to our fellow human beings, or treating them like we’d like to be treated ourselves.

As an atheist, I think I have pretty high morals, but I don’t put my nose up in the air over them. I don’t hate other people, even the ones I don’t agree with. I don’t feel an urgent need to convert anyone to my non-beliefs. I like doing good deeds and helping people when I can. I probably differ with most Christians when it comes to my sexual morals, but my deepest philosophy there is to do no harm. I’ve no fight with gay men, lesbian women, the transgendered or the bisexual. I’ve no problem with out-of-wedlock sex or even teen sex (it’s natural, after all, and pretty much irresistible) just so long as it doesn’t harm either person, they practice safe sex and avoid unwanted pregnancies. Finally, as long as people are good to each other, and to me, we’ll be friends and I wish them all peace, love and happiness.

I’m just another old hippy, bucking the status quo.
I think atheism is equally as valid as Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or Wiccan, or any other belief system. Anyone can choose to be moral and good without the benefit of a belief in some “god” or other. I agree that there’s a certain comfort in believing that there’s more out there for us than just this short life on Earth, but I don’t think it’s vital to leading a good life or to happiness.
Instead, I believe that we’ve got just one life. And because of that, we might as well use the gift of breath and consciousness well by being loving, kind and generous beings who care enough about the planet to try to make sure it stays a good place for future generations to live out their lives.
I don't need to believe in "god" to justify my existence. I just try to follow the Golden Rule. It's enough for me.

28 January 2009

"War on terror" ends

Today marks a week since President Obama first walked into the Oval Office, sat down at the Big Desk and got to work.

The man’s no slouch. He’s made instant changes to a lot of things that needed changing in order to make America a democracy again, ruled by the People, the Constitution, and the law. Obama is working hard to rebuild America’s credibility at home and all over the world. If he keeps on like this, he’s going to succeed.

And on Monday, with little fanfare, President Obama put an end to Bush’s catastrophic – in all senses of the word – “war on terror.”

I didn’t parse this by myself. I listened to Obama’s interview on the al-Arabiya news network online on Monday. I thought his responses to the interviewer’s questions were calm, sane and thoughtful. As it was his first one-on-one television interview since becoming president, I thought it both interesting and strategically clever for him to have given it on Arab television.

But it took the observant and wise Roger Cohen, who writes the blog Passages for the International Herald Tribune, to point out to me what Obama really did on Monday: end the "war on terror."

I read Cohen’s post, “After the War on Terror” this morning. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
Because nothing has changed, really. There are still terrorists in the world. The conditions – societal, cultural, political – that give rise to terrorism, still exist, and as long as the tactic works, terrorists will still kill innocent people to make their point. Terrorism isn’t new in the world; indeed, it’s one of the oldest tactics on Earth for manipulating governments and their people, and it’s been used since time out of mind by disenfranchised individuals and groups, and governments themselves, to do just that.

No, what’s different now is that finally, after eight horrendous years of treating terrorism as if it’s a foreign army, fightable with air strikes and phosphor bombs and the occupation of foreign countries by American soldiers, Obama has given America a shake and said, forcefully, “Think!”

Before the idiot George W. Bush and his enablers came along, America knew how to fight terrorism. We weren’t always real good at it, but we knew the basics, and one of the first rules is "Don't fight terrorism with terror." Instead, you fight terrorism first with prevention, then with intelligence and finally with solid, boring police work. It’s not glamorous, but it’s effective. Once caught, the terrorist faces the laws the land and stands trial, like any other criminal. The punishment, if he’s found guilty, fits the crime and is not excessive. And if the country doing the prosecuting is moral and fair, then the issues which motivated the terrorist to commit his crime will be studied and, if they’re credible, steps will be taken to resolve them.

That’s the moral way to fight terrorism. It’s the right way. The only way, really. But the most important step is that first one – preventing terrorism in the first place. Doing so is difficult. Governments are notorious for disenfranchising populations – we only have to look to the decades-old, ongoing tragedy involving the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Gaza Strip to find a perfect example. Another is Northern Ireland. As the years pass the injuries grow and become more complex, more ingrained on both sides. Grudges deepen and hurts are not forgiven or forgotten. As the crimes committed by both sides go unpunished – or overpunished – and unresolved, things only get worse and worse, until it seems impossible that any solution can be found. The disenfranchised groups, which are weak and have few means, fall back on what they see as their only option – terrorism and guerrilla war, which are cheap and occasionally effective. Governments respond by becoming terrorists themselves, raining death and destruction down on innocent civilians. And the vicious cycle continues, sometimes for generations.

That’s why prevention – avoiding situations that lead to the disenfranchisement of certain populations and, if it’s already happened, then working diligently to find a solution that is acceptable to all sides – is so important. Once the terrorism monster escapes its bonds, it’s very, very hard to stop.

But that’s what President Obama did when he sat down to that interview with al-Aribiya on Monday. He took the first, most important step in fighting terrorism: He offered respect to the Muslim world, showed he understood the issues involved, and spelled out America’s new, rational willingness to work with them for peace. He put the responsibility for an end to terrorism on the shoulders of all sides, equally.

That was clever. It was moral. And it’s like a deep breath of fresh, clean air after eight long years of breathing the Bush administration's hot, noxious swamp gas.

25 January 2009

Winter returns ...

...to Northern California.

The high pressure area that was stalled over the state has finally dissipated or moved on or whatever they do. It's snowing. Lightly. I doubt we'll get much of it at this elevation (3,200 ft.) but it's good to know that above us, it's snowing, too. And up there, it will be steady all day and sticking hard.

It's hard to describe how relieved I am. There are few things that I have any control of in the world, and in terms of day-to-day life, predictability is tenuous, at best. But one of the things I've always been able to hold onto is that in the winter, the weather will be chilly and wet. Here in California, it might not be as cold as I'd like, but I could always look forward to the rainy season, short as it is. This season, after a lovely Christmas teaser of truly cold temperatures and plenty of snow, the weather went haywire and suddenly, we were living in a balmy, very early springtime. For me, it was jarring. A betrayal, almost. It really did affect my mood, making me mopey and hopeless.

I guess I really need seasonal changes. Being able to experience them was one of the main reasons that we moved to this area, along with the wonderful, fertile soil for gardening and my love of evergreens and Stellar's jays. At this moment, watching the snowfall, I'm at peace.

22 January 2009


Ohmygosh, we may get snow this weekend!

That’s right – after more than two weeks of bland, warmish, sunny weather up here in the Sierras, a “cold low pressure area will drop down over the region this weekend … and could bring good snowfall to the mountains Saturday and Sunday.” That’s according to my old friend the National Weather Service. The snow, they’re saying, could fall as low as 2,500 feet. Heheheh… that’s me.

And it’s raining right now. It started late yesterday afternoon, while I was outside sweeping dead leaves and pine needles off the little patio out back. The rainfall was very light – hardly more than a mist – but taken along with the welcome gray sky, it was a tonic to my parched soul.

Last night was the first time I’ve built a fire in the woodstove in a long time. It just hasn’t been cold enough. Sure, the temp drops considerably overnight, but a woodstove fire is a thing of nature. Once it gets going, it’s not like you can just turn it off. So if I built a fire first thing, early in the morning as is my winter habit (the second thing I do in my somnambulistic morning ramble after feeding the dog, who insists on being my first priority, without fail), we’re sweating and ripping off clothes by mid-morning because outside, it’s a balmy 60 degrees, the birdies are tweeting and the bees are roaming the camellia bush, which is the only thing blooming right now. From that point on, I can’t wait for the fire to die. I throw open windows and bitch about the weather. It’s just plain too warm for January.

But right now, this morning, the fire is blazing, there’s a good, soaking rain falling (and has been all night – I woke several times to the soft drum of it on the roof) and, while it’s not very cold, it’s damp and chilly enough to make the fire welcome and, did I tell you? It just might snow this weekend.

My delight in this is far more important than my own, selfish and admittedly strange obsession with the necessity of Winter Weather in the Winter and my own creature comforts. California has been drying out for about three years now, with each successive winter just as dry or dryer than the one before. The state is literally panting for water. For people who love the sunshine and hate gray skies, it’s paradise. For the rest of us, not so much.

The fact is that most of California is naturally very dry, even in normal, wet years. We humans, however, have altered the land so much that it needs far more water than it would naturally get, and if we don’t get normal rainy seasons, and snow up here in the Sierra, our water supply is threatened and the state suffers. Spring and summer, with their higher temperatures and lack of anything resembling rain are tinderbox seasons anyway. Wildfires start easily. Now, add a prolonged drought to the mix and the whole state is poised to become one mass firestorm.

So we who live here depend on our short, wet winters, even if we bitch about them, spoiled children that we are. But If the winter isn’t wet, we’re in real trouble.

I hope this change in the weather stays for a while, like through April. I hope it rains and rains and rains in the valleys and snows like hell up here in the mountains. And then, when the weather inevitably changes and warms with the angle of the sun, all that snow will melt and fill the reservoirs all over the state to overflowing. Summer will bring fires because summer always does. But there will be plenty of water with which to fight those fires that threaten communities, and plenty of drinking and irrigation water for us here in the north part of the state and our thirsty, desert-transformed-to-parkland neighbors down south.

Even without global warming, California goes through occasional droughts. It’s just the way of things. But I hope, with this refreshing, cleansing rain I’m watching out my window right now, that this particular drought is over.

The Voice of the Rain

And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form'd, altogether changed, and
yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck'd or unreck'd, duly with love returns.)

--Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

21 January 2009

No regrets.

"History will be the judge of my decisions, but when I walked out of the Oval Office this morning, I left with the same values that I took to Washington eight years ago. And when I get home tonight and look in the mirror, I'm not going to regret what I see -- except maybe some gray hair."
-- George W. Bush, on the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th President of the United States of America, Jan. 20, 2009

This … 60-year-old adolescent – spoiled, ignorant, self-important, callous – this monumental, malicious fuck-up still feels he has nothing to be sorry for. He regrets nothing about his catastrophic presidency except a little gray hair, which interferes with his image of himself as a sexy, handsome youth. That he’s slightly disturbed by his gray hair, which came as a natural result of genes and aging, not because of any real worry or stress during the last eight years, makes me sick to my stomach.

George W. Bush caused the deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers by lying this country into an illegal war against a country which posed no threat to us, but he has no regrets.

He ruined the lives of tens of thousands more Americans when they were dreadfully injured or maimed in that war, both physically and psychologically, but George has no regrets.

He caused the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children, but he has nothing to regret.

He shat upon America’s Constitution and her People, but he has no regrets.

He presided over the collapse of America’s and the world’s economy, bringing us all to the brink of global depression through his policy of giving to the rich at the expense of the poor, looking the other way as the deregulated market and financial sectors gleefully took part in a massive, global Ponzi scheme, and encouraging Americans to buy, buy, buy even if they didn’t have the money for it. People are losing their jobs, their homes, their life savings, and their chance for a quiet and respectable retirement, yet George has no regrets.

There are countless other disasters Bush was either responsible for or was up to his neck in, including the government’s shameful response to Hurricane Katrina, the detention without trial and torture of prisoners taken during his propaganda War on Terror, the lawless spying on Americans and destruction of their civil rights, and the total corruption of the nation’s Department of Justice, but except for the fact that he’s grayer than he was in January 2000, he has no regrets.

This man is a monster, a horror. He’s both a common criminal and a war criminal. If this nation does not abide by its own laws, which require his prosecution and the prosecutions of his cohorts, we will squander any credibility and good will that the election of Barack Obama as President restored to us as a nation and a people.
If we allow Bush and his gang to go free, to not face justice and a fair trial; if we turn our faces and allow them to be above the law; if we try to “move ahead” without at least trying to cleanse this monstrous stain from the moral fabric of our democracy, we will have lost our democracy once and for all.
Finally, Osama bin Laden will have achieved his goal of destroying America, helped along handily by George W. Bush, who has no regrets.

20 January 2009

President Barack H. Obama

His inaugural speech:

My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition. Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans. That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction. This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do. Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government. Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.

We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate. Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true.

They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]." America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

President Obama wrote those words himself. Today is a great day in history, one that I'll remember with thankfulness, relief and pride in my country and its people for the rest of my life.

Yes we can.

19 January 2009

Prayers and poems ...

I don’t believe in a Great Sky Spirit, whether it’s the Christian God or any other. But I do believe that people, when called together under a common cause for the good of all, generate a kind of power. Call it the Power of Good, if you will. I’ve been irritated by all the hoo-haw over Pastor Rick Warren giving an invocation for Barack Obama’s inauguration because, first of all, I think this is an excellent occasion to show the pragmatism and seriousness of “the separation of church and state.” A public prayer sort of ruins the whole concept, you know?

But despite my irritation it seems that Mr. Obama wants the bigoted Mr. Warren there, presumably to lay a little soothing on all those panicky fundamentalists out there. I can understand that even if I don’t like it.

So I was glad to find out, after weeks of liberal upset over Warren, that Obama asked gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robison to open Sunday’s Inauguration concert with a blessing and prayer. At least a real, live, loving and non-bigoted person would be giving it, I thought. And then I read the text, thoughtfully provided by Joan Walsh at Salon.com:

“O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears -- tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless this nation with anger -- anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

Bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child, Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for all people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.

Give him stirring words; We will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace. Amen."

You don’t have to believe in God or be a Christian to wholeheartedly join in that prayer.

Later. MUCH later …

I was just looking at my Yahoo home page, which I have nicely arranged with lots of news. And there I saw, under “NYT Opinion,” an editorial titled, “Mr. Bush’s Gentlemanly Goodbye.” This made me snort with disgust. I ran the cursor over it and the teaser appeared: “The Bush administration may be leaving the country with big policy problems. But George W. Bush deserves a big gold star for the way he is leaving his office.”

I yelled at poor Mr. Data, my faithful Dell laptop, who certainly didn’t do anything to be treated that way, unlike Mr. Bush. “A gold star! Codpiece doesn’t deserve a gold star! He doesn’t deserve friggin’ anything! Maybe an F-! Or detention! Ghahhhhh!” Then I clicked on the title to read the editorial, which was posted an hour ago. I had to know which gasbag wrote this one.

It was Norman Ornstein, whom I’ve never heard of. But he’s a “resident scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute, that rabid colony of right-wing, neoconservative, fundamentalist Christer thought. If you can call what they do thinking. Honestly, looking at our country and the trouble we’re in right now, who in his or her right mind would give Bush a gold star for the job he’s done as president except one of these malicious vipers at the AEI?

Yes, I should calm down. In reality, Ornstein was writing about how nicely Bush has accomodated Obama in the transition. Never mind that such an action should be automatic, given the gravity of the situation and the office. We should expect nothing less of any outgoing president. For this Ornstein thinks Bush should get a gold star? For being a good boy? Not throwing a temper tantrum? For not putting a whoopee cushion on the oval office desk chair?

After eight years of BushCo's and the neocon's nasty, dangerous, destructive bullshit, I’ve just about had it. I don’t have any more patience. Call me crazy, but these rattleheads need to be certified and locked up forever in a securely guarded warm place with soft walls, rubber spoons and plastic bowls of Jell-o. They’re … well. This:

let’s save pity
for the millions of victims
of bush’s conscience.

for bush
there ought to be
only howls of ’shame’
execrations, and
a speedy trial
where he stands in the dock
with his co-conspirators and -perpetrators.

he is the best proof
of the truth
of his argument
that there actually is
such a thing
as evil

That poem was written by commenter Steve Elkind on Judith Warner’s "Domestic Disturbances" blog post, "Bush and Bauer, Running on Empty," yesterday. Warner posited the idea that we ought to find some pity for Bush in our hearts because of his stunning inability (or outright refusal) to perceive his many mistakes.

But Elkind has it right. Bush and his cronies don’t deserve pity. They’re evil. Evil can be stupid as well as smart, as we’ve seen since the turn of the century. And it has nothing to do with “Satan,” who I don’t believe in any more than I believe in “God.”

Yet I do believe in evil. I’ve witnessed it in action on a daily basis for years now.

It's almost time, President Obama. You don't mind if I call you President, do you? In just a few more hours, you'll be inaugurated and you'll go down in history with that title, anyway. I already think of you as the President of my country. You're going to do a good job, with the help of the People. You've made me proud of America, and us, again.

You got here just in the nick of time. Let's get rid of this evil, shall we?

17 January 2009

Needed: Ideas

I'm stuck in the mental mud these days. Though I'm itching to write, I can't think of anything interesting to write about. It's lame, I know. There are millions of topics out there, and goodness knows America is standing on the cusp of some profound -- and hopefully good -- changes. I should be brimming over with ideas for posts.

But no. Here I am, wordless. Bereft.

Perhaps you, my patient and beloved readers, will give me a little nudge with some ideas? I'll be quite appreciative. In the meantime, have a great holiday weekend. And, hey! How about that Obama?

11 January 2009

I'm blue.

There are honeybees looping around the yuletide camellia blooms outside my kitchen window. The dog is exploding little cream-colored tufts of wispy under-fur, the prelude to his annual spring/summer Shed-Like-a-Musk-Ox Phase. Up on the street, small children are screaming and laughing as they run and play in the bright, sparkling-clear sunshine.

The fire in the woodstove, which had gone out overnight and which I re-lighted, shivering, with some considerable, sleepy, cussing effort at six this morning, is finally blowing cozy, heated air into the living room, but now I want it to stop. I peeled my fleece jacket and socks off an hour ago. Now I’m considering changing my sweatpants for shorts and just doing away with my T-shirt altogether, because when I look at the outdoor thermometer I discover, with sputtering disbelief, that it’s 64 balmy degrees out there. It’s only 10 a.m. I turn the woodstove fan off and slide the windows open.

It would be a pretty spring day if the trees weren’t bare. Some of them still have a few, tenacious dead leaves. Those tiny, swelling nubbins that will be fresh green leaves a few months from now are barely starting. It’s not spring yet. It’s winter, and early winter at that. Solstice isn’t even a month behind us and dusk still comes before five.

On my Yahoo home page, the Weather Channel has added an asterisk to the name of my town, meaning that the National Weather Service has posted a Severe Weather Alert.

Hah, I think. Boy, have they screwwwed up this time. What’s it gonna be? There’s not a frickin’ cloud in the sky. Rain on the way? Sleet? Snow? Wind? Oooh! Blizzard conditions! White out! Should I stock up on cocoa and soup bones, root vegetables and dried apples? In the hedgerow that borders the patio, a wee wren hops, quick-quick, hunting for tasty bugs to gobble up. A helicopter whaps by, high overhead, out of sight. I wonder, instantly, where the wildfire is. The only reason helicopters fly around here is to fight wildfires. Jeez, it is close? No, wait. It’s not late spring. It’s not summer. It’s not even dry, baked-out fall. I suppose a wildfire is possible, but it sure as hell isn’t probable. Not in January, even here. They’re probably out for a Sunday fly-around with the windows open.

I click on the red caps spelling out SEVERE WEATHER ALERT, rolling my eyes, wondering how the NWS could possibly think there’s dangerous weather imminent in this relentlessly sunny, chirpy, blue-skied little corner of the world.

And then I start laughing. The Severe Weather Alert is warning me that a gigantic high pressure area has planted itself over California, effectively diverting all that lovely rain that’s falling in the Pacific Northwest around us and then on eastward. Down in the valley, it says, it will be a little cooler than up here on the West Slope of the Sierra due to an inversion layer that’s formed, pushing the warm air up the mountain. Forecasts for the next week are for sunshine and temps in the mid-to-high 60s.

This counts as Severe Weather to the NWS? What wusses they are! I guess if I really tried I could get a sunburn, or perhaps if I decided to take a 15-mile hike without bringing water, I could suffer a heat-stroke, but it’s more likely I’d just wear a blister on my big toe. Hell. I’m sorry, NWS. This is not Severe Weather. This is strange weather. Twilight Zone weather. Why-Did-I-Buy-Three-Cords-of-Firewood Weather.

I suggest you try a new category for your Weather Alerts as a nod to global warming. How about “Alarmingly Mild Weather Alert”? Or maybe, “Freakishly Unseasonal Weather Alert”? Don't worry. If the daytime temps drop below 80 or it starts snowing in July you can still use them.

I know. I’m getting bitchy now. But I miss winter. I feel gyped. We hardly had any winter, and it only just got here! I know, I should be grateful for what did come. We actually had a white Christmas. It really did get bitterly cold for a while. The streets were icy. Going outside required first uploading a hat, gloves, a heavy coat and boots with a good tread on the soles. If the fire in the woodstove went out, it got really cold in the house and when I looked at the woodpile, so neatly stacked against the harshness of winter, I felt pleased. Secure.

Now I just feel duped.

And yes, it’s possible that it will get cold and wintery again in February. It has the last two years, anyway, so I have a little hope to hold onto. Both years, winter lasted about two-and-a-half weeks, and both years the winter weather was replaced before February ended by day after endless day of mild, coolish nothing. Rarely any clouds, and no rain if it did happen to cloud over. The temps went from frigid to … today. Mid-60s. And then it got warmer, and warmer, and then it was May and it was just plain hot. Still no rain, and no hope for any. We had wildfires instead. The high temps finally started cooling down in mid-November, stayed coolish but mostly sunny through December and even well into January.

And now? Has winter really already come and gone? This is making me seriously blue, folks. I cannot articulate how freaking tired I am of mild, sunny weather.

Oh. Maybe I just did.

09 January 2009

Vote for the best

My friend Blue Girl in a Blue State (formerly a Red State) is up for Best Diarist in the 2008 Weblog Awards, and I would be most pleased if all of you would just click that little link for Best Diarist and vote for her, because you know what? It's really easy. And she is the best.

BG is a warm, talented writer. She pulls you right in with her stories about life, family, politics, and her peony bush. She even raises her voice in song every Christmas. Blue Girl is funny. She's sometimes sad. She's wise. She's very observant. She has a wicked sense of humor -- and of justice.

Oh, yeah: She'll make you smile. Everybody likes to smile.

So just go vote for her, will you? For me?

07 January 2009

So much for that ...

We took the Christmas tree down yesterday.

Yes, I know. Most people tackle that grim chore somewhere between Boxing Day and January 1, but I’m slow. I like to drag out that ephemeral holiday spirit a little bit longer. Because, when it finally hits – for me, right around the Solstice – it’s such a sweet feeling. I get all grandma-y and little girlish. Hearing “Little Drummer Boy” filling the air while I’m getting fleeced at the grocery store makes me all weepy with sentimental memories. Rum-pa-pum-pum, rumpa-pum-pummmmm … sorry.

So with only a few days to go before The Big Day, I haul the 7-foot-faux-fir tree and Christmas ornaments out of storage and get busy as Bing Crosby croons Xmas tunes in the background, logs crackle in the woodstove and the cat snores on the ottoman. It’s like my mind turns into a bowl full of jelly. Pathetic.

Because no Christmas would be complete without non-working twinkle lights, this year the middle section of the tree didn’t light up when I plugged it in. After about an hour of fiddling, changing tiny light bulbs and tinier fuses – and surprising Mr Wren by whipping a wee set of screwdrivers out of the junk drawer – we decided, both of us still amazingly jolly, that it didn’t matter. Once we put the ornaments and tinsel on, no one would notice the dark part of the tree.

We spent a cozy hour decorating it, oohing and ahhhing over the various ornaments, nearly all of which have some story attached from years past. When we were done, the tree looked beautiful and glittery, homey and sweet in a trimmed-down, spare, Thomas Kinkaid sort of way. At any other time of year, Kinkaid’s paintings make me reflex gag, but this was different. I was awash in Christmas spirit.

Before long, I started having urges to bake cookies. But they went away quickly when I ran the list of required ingredients through my mind. I’d have to make a special trip to the store just for sugar, fresh flour and milk, and don’t forget the red and green and silver sprinkles. And then I’d need to hunt down that old set of cookie cutters, which are genuinely retro (read ‘old’) and really cute, but where in the world did I put them? I think I last made sugar cookies in 1987. And where would I roll out the cookie dough? Do I even still have a rolling pin?

Oh, never mind, I told myself. There’s no one around to eat all those cookies anyway, since Mr Wren and I aren’t allowed to anymore. Note to you youngsters out there: Someday, the triple whammy of high cholesterol, too many accumulated pounds around the middle and alarmingly high blood glucose levels will come to live with you, too. So enjoy those sweet, spicy Russian tea cakes and gooey pecan pies while you can. Heh.

But back to my story, whatever it was. Yesterday, after fairy-lighting our lives day and night for two and a half weeks, the bloody Christmas tree came down. Off came all the tinsel and all the gew-gaws. We packed them all away in their dusty plastic bins without a second thought. Then we broke the tree back down into its three, strange sections, stuffed them back into the coffin-like box they came in and as Mr Wren held it closed, I sealed it tightly with silver-gray duct tape. Mr Wren suddenly discovered caked mud on his gardening shoes and went off to clean them, and I dragged Christmas 2008 back to storage, where it will remain, forgotten, until Solstice 2009, when I expect the spirit will hit me again.

This all took maybe a half hour. The place the tree had occupied for a little over two weeks looked cold and empty, suddenly bereft of all that twinkling, sparkly warmth. I kept looking over there, a little nostalgic. And then in the distance, Bing choked on a chestnut and the last of the Christmas spirit dissipated. The house looked normal again, except for the dying poinsettia plant Mr Wren insisted on buying.

And now to the point.

What is Christmas spirit, anyway? I’m not religious, so for me it has nothing to do with the highly-suspect, miraculous virgin-birth of a god-man 3,000-and-some-odd years ago. Is it just relief from finally succumbing to two solid months of merciless, relentless Christmas advertising, Christmas songs, and Christmas decorations everywhere I look? The ol' “if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em” syndrome?

Or is that moment, during the Solstice, when you realize that the solar year is, indeed, about to end forever. The trees are mostly bare and the sun’s arc through the sky is low and cool. Winter has arrived, and while it will be cold and bleak for a while, we’re on a straight shot to the first crocuses and daffodils of spring and then, the warm, fecund abundance of summer. Does Christmas spirit descend on that moment when we stand on the cusp of all that’s already happened in our lifetimes and everything that will come, good or bad, and realize it? When all we can do is look forward with hope?

And then the magic wears off. The decorations of the season start to look shabby and more than a little gaudy. The leftover. broken candy canes just won’t disappear and the turkey carcass, so lovingly bagged and tucked into the freezer for turkey soup, now looks like a bunch of unappetizing, desiccated, pointy bones -- and more than a little morbid. Everyone has already told their Christmas-with-the-family stories, the gifts so carefully chosen are gathering dust already and the bills are coming due, just like they do every year. The future, which was put on hold for a few days, then kept on hold for a few more, just won’t wait anymore.

So yesterday we took the Christmas tree down. I think I’m ready for 2009, which is saying something. Last year, I left that damned tree up until July.

05 January 2009

What's old is new again

Since I was old enough to hold a crayon, I’ve loved to draw. As I grew up, losing myself in my imagination while drawing probably kept me from going crazy with boredom. Doing it took intense concentration and a willful letting-go of the here-and-now, a break from the grinding reality of school and cleaning my room. It got me in trouble sometimes, because I’d draw rather than do math homework. I’d draw rather than play with my cousins. I couldn’t help it.

When I was older, people started calling me an artist. I believed them – there were indeed original drawings and sketches appearing on the paper in front of me. And I was, and still am, possessed of an artist’s mentality. I daydream. I procrastinate. I’m sort of quirky and nerdy. I’d rather be creating people and worlds in my mind than interacting with them in real life. My home is filled with color and movement, with art and whimsy. Bare spaces disturb me. Neatness makes me nervous. I get bored easily and always, always need something to keep my mind occupied.

But as a young adult I lost confidence in my art. I had to make a living, and everyone knows that artists starve and live in garrets. I was an average student – my A grades were always in art and English – and because I’d been told I’d “be an artist when I grew up” for so long, I didn’t know if I could do anything else. I had to find out. I was working but broke all the time, and it seemed that I was never really going to be a “famous artist.” I had no idea, really, how to go about being one. I just sketched and painted whenever I had an opportunity.

So, one day, in a fit of boredom and with a longing to see some other parts of the world, I joined the U.S. Air Force. There I discovered that I could, indeed, do other things besides draw. I directed fighter jets in aerial dogfights. I got married, had a child, was divorced, served my time in the AF and was discharged honorably, and found other jobs. I married again, went to live abroad, returned to the U.S. and divorced again. Found work as a journalist, as a reporter and an editor. And I married a third time – to the man I’d originally married, the father of my daughter – and kept on working. And working.

And during all that time, I rarely drew. Instead, I turned my creativity toward writing. I love to write. To me, it’s like painting a picture with words, when it goes right. The skill and craft of it fascinates me.
And then I was laid off from my job as an editor. I haven’t found a new job yet, though I’ve looked. I’ve spent my time off work writing – something I’ve dreamed of doing. So far, though, no Great American Novel has made an appearance. I’ve written a lot of blog posts and I’ve done some freelancing for actual money, but it looks like I’m never going to be famous for my works of literature.

My talent for drawing, while long neglected, remains as strong as it ever was. I’ve been thinking about taking it up again for quite some time. But man, I’m rusty. I’ve been fearful. What if I can’t draw anymore? What if what I draw isn’t any good? What if it really sucks? And who decides that, anyway?

Well, I’ve decided none of that really matters. I know I can draw. I know it gives me pleasure and joy. Who cares if what I draw isn’t very good? The more I draw, the better I’ll get. And drawing will open up another, long-neglected part of my mind. There are worlds in there, waiting to come out. Opening that doorway to them will make me happy.

Inspired by this incredible website, I bought myself a couple of Moleskine notebooks and hunted down a good drawing pencil. I decided I’d bring the notebook with me whenever I was out and about. If I had to wait for something, rather than reading a book, I’d draw whatever was in front of me. Or whatever I felt like drawing. A cottage in the clearing of a dark forest? A galloping horse? An owl’s fierce, yellow-eyed gaze? My own foot? It didn’t matter. I’d just draw.

Shown above are the first two drawings that came as a result of my decision to draw again. I enjoyed doing them. I was a little self-conscious, sketching in public, but I’m sure I’ll get over that as I do it more. They’re not great art. But I’ll get better, and faster, at capturing scenes, at rendering perspective, at shading for depth. After all, drawing while waiting around is deliciously stolen time that would only be wasted otherwise.

Who knows where making a new beginning at something so old will take me? Might as well find out.

P.S.: You can click on the drawings to "embiggen." I love that word.

04 January 2009

Satisfaction is ...

... a full wood ring.

It occurred to me, as I was loading heavy, stove-length splits of firewood into the wheeled cart I use to bring them into the house, that this is one chore I never mind. There I stood in the 28-degree, early morning, just out of bed. I was wearing rubber-grip gardening gloves on my hands, thick socks with wool slippers on my feet, and a fleece jacket over my thin cotton pajamas, enjoying myself.

Bringing in wood is far more satisfying than, say, scrubbing the bathroom or unloading dishes from the dishwasher. It beats vacuuming and mopping the floor by miles. I’d much rather fill the wood-ring than do laundry, though I do like the smell and feel of clothes, towels and sheets fresh out of the dryer, still warm. But there’s something special about bringing in wood.

For one thing, there’s a price. My hands are getting worse and worse with rheumatoid arthritis, so there’s a certain amount of pain involved in bringing in firewood. I used to be able to grasp each split one-handed; now I need to lift each one with both hands, carefully. It slows me down, but now that we keep a couple of racks of wood under the carport, protected from the weather, I don’t really mind. When I finish the chore, and the ring is full, I’m always rather proud of myself. I did it in spite of the RA. I took care of myself. I’m a tough little bird.

Then, there’s the simple, physical labor of the chore. We buy almond-wood each season. It’s a good hardwood, dense and nice-smelling. It’s very heavy. Each split weighs at least three pounds. It doesn’t sound like much until you need to lift and stack 50 pieces of it. Now, this isn’t exhausting work, by any means, but it’s truly what I regard as a chore. It takes some strength. Some determination. By the time I’ve moved those 50 or so pieces of split wood from the woodpile outside to the ring inside, I feel like I’ve done something.

Then there’s the security of a full wood ring. As most of my readers know by now, Mr. Wren and I heat our house through the winter only with the woodstove. Our house, built in the early 1970s, is equipped with electric baseboard heaters. To our dismay, we discovered upon moving into the house in November of 1997 that keeping the place warm was going to cost us about $100 per week. There was no way we could afford that then, and we still can’t. So buying wood, stacking it, and burning it in the woodstove became not only necessary, but vital. Today, that full wood ring symbolizes at least three days of day and night warmth. It means old man Winter has to be content with howling outside the windows, not freezing us inside, too.

And finally, there’s the reward. That’s the delicious, comforting warmth of a wood fire. There is just nothing better than backing up to the blazing stove and feeling that heat penetrate my cold, stiff joints and muscles. When my hands are aching, holding them in front of the radiating wood stove is sublime. It feels so very good. Without the work I did, this warmth would not exist. And that gives me a deep and abiding feeling of accomplishment.

It doesn’t hurt, either, to know that the three cords of wood we buy each summer for the winter ahead costs us about the same as one winter month of electric heat.

Now that’s satisfaction.