Friday, February 27, 2009


While waiting for the finish to dry on the stairs, I'm working on my military plans for Afghanistan. The president called me again last night, but I told him I wouldn't be ready for a few days--maybe a week, considering how long it's taking for the stairs to dry--so he gave a speech about Iraq without my input. Oh well.

Speaking in front of an audience of marines today at noon, Obama could not have been more well received as he outlined a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq in 18 months. I don't doubt that some people will find fault with the speech and these plans. But watch the speech on C-SPAN if you get a chance, and listen to how the crowd connects with him. I'm beginning to wonder if Obama is actually a genius, or if he only seems so compared to W.

We have this firebush (Hamelia patens, a cousin of my wild coffee plant), in the back yard next to the koi pond. Every year I cut it back hard and it comes back happier than ever. Like many other plants in our backyards, the firebush has medical qualities and a rich history that we don't know anything about. This one is known by people around the world; they eat it, make tea from it, rub it into wounds. Who knew?

I'm also discovering that the situation in Afghanistan is endlessly complicated both politically (with the Russians, Pakistanis and others) and militarily. Developments in Pakistan are pretty remarkable and not well covered in the press. Recently, the Pakistani government ceded control of a large section of the country called Swat to the local tribes, and many of these sympathetic to the Taliban in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Here is a report from CNN:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stairs and Happiness

I've just finished with the third coat of finish on the stairs. As you can see, I have chairs at the bottom and the top, with ropes hanging between to help Cheryl and Willow remember where not to walk (and I think maybe one of the them has gotten the hang of it).

This project all started when we decided that Willow should not sleep downstairs alone. Poor Thud couldn't walk up the stairs, so he and Willow slept in the sun room downstairs. After Thud passed away we got Willow a princess bed and now she sleeps on the floor on Cheryl's side of the bed (naturally).

But to be honest, we missed having a dog sleep in our room. Willow has a favorite couch downstairs, and she would be perfectly happy to sleep there, but we prefer to believe she is happier staying with us. And possibly she is aware that we prefer to believe she is happier with us, so she actually is happier. Maybe that is true measure of happiness.

If left to her own impulses, Willow will run up and down the stairs at full speed and with all the strength of a world-class athlete and Frisbee master (I'm not bragging--it's a fact), ripping the stair steps with her nails. In the morning we have a new routine. We take one step down, wait 5 or 10 seconds, take another step, and so on, until she almost explodes from frustration. Then at the bottom she laughs and jumps up and down, as if it couldn't be more fun.

After the finish has dried for several days, I'll move the chairs and start on the other side. I probably should have a greater ambition in life but do not.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I neglected to say in a previous post that some plants in our Dead Zone seem to be happy there and at least pretend to enjoy it when I visit with them, such as this buttercup (Ranunculus repens). So it is not all bleakness and despair.

Also, today I'm starting work on the stairs. I'll give them a light sanding, then follow up with the polyurethane that I used in the kitchen. It is tough as nails: a good thing since Willow is scratching the steps in a disgraceful manner.

Last night we watched a nice movie called Taking Chance, a true story of a marine colonel who volunteers to escort the body of a young marine home from Iraq to Wyoming. The colonel, who is doing this for the first time, discovers that people along the way--the pilot and attendants and baggage handlers and passengers--are aware of his mission and are all respectful and somber. We learn that the entire trip is a ritual: the colonel stands at attention as the casket is loaded onto and off of the plane.

The script of the movie apparently comes from the notes of the real-life colonel. There is no pro-war or anti-war message; it's just a simple story about a young boy from a small town who died in Iraq and whose body is treated with great respect. After the funeral, the colonel flies back home and is no longer in his uniform and is now invisible to everyone along the way. At the end of the movie you see some photos and home movies. Simple and real.

The coming months will see a renewed discussion about whether or not Iraq was, or is, a mistake. "Don't give up. Don't let their sacrifice be in vain," people will say with the intensity of someone watching the final minutes of a close football game, as if the scoreboard will determine whether the home team played honorably. But no one really believes this or even wants it to be true. Politicians can make mistakes. World events evolve. Stategies adapt. The concept of honor and sacrifice goes on.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I have a few plants that are struggling in the area of the front yard that might as well be called the dead zone. I've found a few plants that can survive there, but all of them hate me, and this particular plant, a Jatropha integerrima, is about as sad a specimen as you will ever see, spindly and with only a few leaves at the top.

Our front yard was green with grass when we bought the house, but we turned off the water and watched it all turn brown and die. The dead zone is right in front. Not even the Spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) like it there, and they can suck water from stone.

The Jatropha won't give up, though. It throws out a few leaves and flowers when it can, and the new leaves are a glossy purple. Only a few feet away are some Jatropha that are very happy and perfectly indifferent to their struggling sister.

I just saw Obama give a speech about the mortgage portion of the bailout. Millions of people will be given the chance to avoid foreclosure by restructuring their loans to be a percentage of their income. This help will be going to people who really need it, that is, of course, if the bureaucracy is not corrupted along the way. Many people are just hanging on, hoping for a simple life that others, close by, take for granted.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The New Deal (updated)

I've been listening to the debate on C-Span today and it's apparent that Republicans will maintain their near-unanimous opposition to the stimulus bill when the vote comes, probably this afternoon. The outcome is not in doubt: the bill will pass, but possibly only 3 Republicans in both houses will vote for it.

The arguments are pretty predictable, but popping up now and again is an interesting debate about the Depression, Roosevelt and the New Deal. In case you already have some notions about the New Deal, there are a few Republicans, quoting a few economists, who claim that that the New Deal actually prolonged the Depression. They argue that this stimulus bill is just another New Deal and will be just as bad for the country.

So the Democrats are now picking up on this theme. I just heard someone quote Herbert Hoover, who in 1932 asked Will Rogers to think up a joke that would stop hoarding. Hoover also said that government intervention in the Depression would undermine the very basis of self-government.

Of course, Roosevelt had different ideas. He believed that the country needed some tangible reason to feel some hope. The New Deal provided real hope and real food for hungry people and real medicine for sick people. The stimulus package today has the same intent. But the Republicans are saying, in every possible way today, that the plan will simply make things worse, leaving their supporters (the people who actually have some confidence in them) without much hope at all.

Obama has already said that he will take the blame if the plan fails. At least we now have a president who is willing to take some responsibility. So, as of today I am no longer in charge of the economy (maybe I didn't do such a good job, anyway). Now I've got to straighten out this thing in Afghanistan.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Orchid Tree, Part 1

There are two main varieties of orchid trees around here. We have the less common and, to be fair, probably the less attractive variety planted in our side yard. It has never seemed quite happy there, and yet I dote on it more than any other plant in the yard. It is skinny and spindly, with ragged and spotted leaves.

The state of Florida has recently classified this tree as a "pest" plant--and that's too damn bad. My in-laws bought the tree for me after my mom passed away a couple years ago, so it has special significance, whether it cooperates with me or not.

Last summer Cheryl and I were leaving the house with some friends, on our way to dinner, and we heard a crash in the side yard. A huge limb had broken off of an oak tree and it landed right on top of the skinny orchid tree and squashed it flat, its poor trunk bent all the way to the ground. My friend and I grabbed an ax and chopped at the oak branch, rushing around in the rain (and no doubt looking very masculine), until the orchid tree popped loose and, to my amazement, stood back up straight again.

While most orchid trees in town have been blooming for a while, ours is just now sending out little buds. It belongs to the Bauhinia genus; I'm still not sure about the species, but this late-blooming is one thing that sets it apart. More on this later, when the blooms come out.

I hope our friends (the ones who recently had a death in the family) don't forget that they promised to let us get them a tree. Remember?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Iridium Flare

Last week Cheryl and I went to Tampa Theater with some friends who told us about the Iridium Flare, a phenomena that occurs when satellites pass over head after dusk and catch the sun at a perfect angle to light up the sky, like the brightest shooting star you've ever seen, lasting for about 10 seconds.

We walked from the theater to a street corner to wait for the Flare, which hopefully would appear in a gap of tall buildings. Because my friend had checked a website to calculate the timing and location of the flare over downtown Tampa (you can get find a calculator for your location here) we were able to do a countdown, which was fun. And the flare showed up right on time, tearing a big flash in the night sky. A few people walked by as we stood there, staring into the sky, but they paid no attention to us. How un-curious can you get?

Pretty cool. The movie was good, too, but I'm sure the memory of that simple flash in the sky will last longer for me.

In other good news, the two nights of frost did not seem to harm our mango or papaya trees, and the Tibouchina seems OK. Maybe the gods are feeling benevolent this week.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bring It On

Tonight the temperature here is expected to drop below freezing again, but you wouldn't know it by looking at our mango tree. It has thousands of flowers. Last year at this time it got hit hard by the frost and lost all of its flowers (and some side branches). And now look at it. Is it brave or just stupid?

I know, it is programmed for warmer climates. But you'd think it might have gotten a hint last year.

This morning, out of the blue, I remembered a guy I knew in college. We played in the orchestra together. He seemed a typical band geek, played the saxophone, I think--I really didn't know him well. A few years after we graduated I saw him in the bar where I played and we talked for a bit. He had gotten a job as a music teacher in southern Arkansas but only lasted at the school for two years. The school's principal and many of the teachers were small-minded, he said, and bigoted. He finally had a big disagreement with the principal and quit. Disillusioned, he took up drinking. At the time he worked at a factory in town. He showed me his hands, cut and blistered.

Was this guy brave or stupid, principled or lazy? I congratulated him for quitting the school. Then I asked him why didn't he look for another teaching job--anything other than a factory job.

It's honest work, he said, clearly with his feelings hurt and surprised that I didn't understand the sacrifices he had made to do the right thing. He was pretty drunk. I went back up to play again and he slipped out the door. Today I don't even remember his name.

Things are less complicated for the mango tree. Bring it on, it says.