Friday, February 14, 2014

Five Days in February

The call came through last Thursday evening, through the rabbit rescue.  Someone called up and said they found a "baby rabbit" in their back yard.  I asked some questions to try to determine if it was domestic or one of the native cottontails.  They said it had small ears and a long tail.  I was like, really?  Bunnies don't really have long tails.  The person said her neighbor told her it was a baby rabbit, and she had no idea what to do with it.  I told her to bring the little one to me and I will have a look.  This is what they brought:
Turns out they found a baby pack rat.  The little one was so tiny, I was taken aback.  He really needs to be with his momma.  I've had baby cottontails brought to me about that same size, and it's always been a terrible ordeal keeping them alive.  They just don't do well, because nothing can really take the place of their mother's care and milk.  But I knew I really had no choice.  Turning this little creature away would doom it to a certain death.  But I had no experience with anything other than a cottontail.  One thing was certain to me:  I must try.

So I researched the care and feeding of baby pack rats, and found a surprising amount of information.  Rats, as a general species, have nutritional requirements that are similar to humans, so their babies do best on soy-based infant formula.  Baby rabbits do better on kitten milk replacement formula or goat's milk.  So I set up a glass tank on the kitchen table, on a heating pad to keep the baby warm.  I put pieces of flannel on the bottom, along with some rabbit fur I had saved from trimming an angora rabbit a while ago, and constructed a warm and soft nest for the little guy.  I fed him with an eyedropper, a process he didn't care for but he put up with anyway, and left him alone for the night.

The next morning he was still with me, and he quickly became familiar with my fingers rubbing him and picking him up.  I took photos and sent them to my friend Julia, and she immediately named him Ratatouille, or Bebbeh R for short.  I had to wrap him in Kleenex when I fed him because it seemed more formula would come out of the sides of his mouth than he would swallow.  When he decided he had had enough formula, he would push the eyedropper away with his tiny hands, and firmly close his mouth to make it hard for me to insert the end of the dropper.  I did get some formula down him, but it was very difficult to make sure he did not breathe some of the formula into his nose.  That was my biggest fear, that he would aspirate the formula into his lungs.  He would do some very sweet, adorable things like grab onto my thumb with his arms and legs and cling to me.  This is what I would see every day:

I would feed the little one three times a day.  He seemed to be doing okay, and every morning I would apprehensively come into the kitchen to check his tank, and every morning he would be curled up in the warm, soft fur and would immediately jump up and move around when I touched him.  He seemed to have a good day, followed by a not-so-good day when he would not eat as much as he did the day before.  But he did seem to be putting on a little bit of weight, so I began to be cautiously optimistic that he was doing well.  He would stand up on his long, thin, wobbly legs and move around as best he could.  It was such a joy to watch him.
I had to give him a little bit of a bath after every feeding, because of the formula getting all over him, but that was okay.  I actually became really excited about the third day because he was passing a little bit of solid waste.  This was actually a really good sign, because it meant he was taking in nutrition and processing it.  Of course the Holy Grail for me would be if I could get him to stay alive long enough for his eyes to open up.  Once his eyes were open, then he would be able to forage around for his own food and eat more on his own.  So it became a race to get him to the finish line, which is his eyes opening.
I would check up on Bebbeh R dozens of times a day.  I thought about him constantly.  It's hard to understand, unless you've been through something like this, how this incredibly tiny, frail droplet of life can take over your existence, and so much of your time and energy.  He had captured my heart the very first night that I had him, and each passing day made me a little more optimistic for him survival.  I actually allowed myself to think about what he would be like when he grew up and became much more aware of me and where he was.  Would his wild instincts kick in and turn him into something difficult to handle?  Most likely, but I was fully prepared to release him back into the wild when appropriate, or keep him with me if he wanted to.  After a couple of his not-so-good days, I would always be apprehensive when I checked him in the morning, but he always seem to hold on and make it through another night.
Time would run out on Bebbeh R on Tuesday night, five days after I first got him, when I noticed he did not look well and I could hear little clicking noises when he breathed.  My worst fear had come to realization, as it was a sign that he had developed pneumonia.  He was not interested in eating, and there was precious little I could do other than hold him in my hand, stroke his tiny head, and let him know I was here.  I said goodbye to him and went to bed.

The next morning, Wednesday morning, I woke up and found him dead under a blanket of soft rabbit fur.  I was not particularly surprised, but I was extremely disappointed and hurt.  I put my entire heart and soul into keeping this little one alive.  Realistically the odds were stacked against him from the very start, being just a couple of days old and extremely tiny.  But I did allow myself hope that he, through some miracle, would make it and survive.  That was not to be, and once again I learned that the bitterest pill to swallow is dashed hopes, and seeing your very best efforts come to naught.
I miss you, Bebbeh R, and I am sorry you had such a very short life on this earth.  I would do anything to have you back for one more try.  You really did take a bit of my heart with you when you left.  You were unforgettable, and so delicate and sweet that I just can't find words to adequately describe it.  I am absolutely certain that you knew I was there, even though you never saw me, and I take a lot of comfort in the knowledge that, for these five days in February, you knew you were valued, loved and cared for.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: The Year In Review (Part 3)

Here we are in the strange, surreal, no-man's-land between Christmas and the start of the New Year, and 2013 is on death row.  There will be no last-minute reprieve from our 400-year-old, hatchet-faced governor, nor a last-minute phone call from Amnesty International.  2013 sits in its dank little prison cell, marinating in melancholy, and dejectedly gnawing on its bitter last meal of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises.  So, when the prison chaplain shows up at the door with his Big Black Book of Contradictory Nonsense to make one last-ditch effort to redeem the soul of this year before it gets marched off to the electric chair and be plugged into eternity, 2013 will spit in his face with cheerful defiance and blurt out, "Stuff it, Padre!  I apologize for NOTHING!"  There were some good things in this year, some bright spots of greenery in a desert of bland mediocrity, and we're going to remember some of them:

The WELL, BUTTER MY BISCUITS AND CALL ME SCREWED Award goes to the redoutable Paula Deen.  Paula was the nation's Buddha of Bad Eating, the Princess of Pork Belly, the First Lady of Fricasseed Funk, and a Southern-Fried Cracker Queen whose toothy, perfect smile graced dozens of magazines every time I stood in a grocery store checkout line.  She was like a lowbrow Martha Stewart, but without all the murderous psychopathic qualities and barely-concealed hatred for the people who buy into her house-of-mirrors media empire.  In Paula Deen's world, there was no problem that could not be fixed with a couple of pounds of butter and a big ole mess of possum skracklings, or a hundred other things I would never consider putting in my mouth.  Well, maybe except for the problems that will arise from injudiciously dropping the N-word at a court deposition, seemingly tolerating an atmosphere of sexual harrassment at the restaurant she co-owns with her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers, or letting plans slip out about a "plantation-style" wedding with black waiters in white jackets.  Fancy white jackets are apparently one of the many wonderful perks slaves enjoyed during their working vacation, I mean, servitude to white people, if that old Duck Dynasty scumbag is to be believed.  For the national media, it was Thanksgiving Day and Paula was the biggest, fattest turkey they had ever layed eyes on, and they went after her with a vengeance usually reserved for mass murderers or child molesters.  Paula immediately went on an I-so-sorry tour of morning talk shows and seemed genuinely repenitent for her gaffes.  But Our Lady of Perfect Gravy is nothing but resilient, and as recently as this month was spotted cheerfully visiting a bunch of backyard chickens in Savannah.  Hang in there, Paula!  Redemption is yours for the asking, just don't say the N-word out loud anymore. And yes, I don't mind if I have another one of your delicious crescent dinner rolls.

The CRAP HIT THE FAN, THEN HIT IT AGAIN 90 MINUTES LATER award goes to the movie "Gravity."  According to - the Careless Whispers preferred resource for movie statistics - the highest grossing film of 2013 was "Iron Man 3," which earned over $400 million in its US release.  Pretty impressive, when you consider that the third installment of a film franchise featuring a second-tier Marvel Comics character can pull down nearly a half-billion dollars worth of scratch.  I'm not sure why that is, but I'm thinking it has something to do with the appeal of its star, Robert Downey Jr., who seems to be very talented and a good person, and not as grubby and unkempt as Johnny Depp.  But this item truly moves into WTF? territory when you consider that "Iron Man 3" made TWICE as much in foreign release, bringing its total worldwide gross to nearly $1.25 BILLION!  Well played, Buena Vista Pictures, for a $200 million investment.  It's been a very nice Christmas for you, indeed.  I haven't seen 95% of the major movies of 2013, but one I did see and enjoyed very much was "Gravity."  This movie had EVERYTHING!  Sandra Bullock in her underwear!  Authentic looking space hardware!  Mind-twisting special effects!  George Clooney's GHOST!  A cloud of hypersonic satellite debris ripping the crap out of a space station, and then doing it AGAIN ninety minutes later as it circled the earth!  Oh, my inner science nerd was having a field day with this movie!  A number of other people agreed, because "Gravity" made $254,592,000 domestically and $653,292,000 worldwide, on a production budget of $100 million.  Not as much as Robert Downey Jr. in an aluminum jump suit, but still nothing to sneeze at.  Contrast, if you will, the number 54 movie of the year, "Ender's Game," based on the novel by homophobic garden gnome Orson Scott Card.  That resounding flop of a movie had a worldwide gross of $88 million on a production budget of $110 million, costing Lionsgate Pictures over $20 million, more if you factor in the advertising and promotion money the studio had to spend publicizing that stinker.

The IT'S COMING!  IT'S COMING!  IT'S... NOT COMING! award for 2013 goes to Comet ISON. We astronomers are a prickly lot.  Some might even consider us dour; spending endless nights when normal people are sleeping, freezing to death while peering morosely into tiny glass eyepieces attached to big metal tubes, hoping to spot a dim smear of gray light from an object impossibly far away.  People just don't grasp the awe and excitement we feel when we do see that tiny bit of fuzzy light, knowing that it took 50 million years or more to travel to our earthbound retinas and register in our tiny mammalian brains, and that it, in fact, represents an entire galaxy composed of hundreds of billions - if not trillions - of stars, with many billions of planets circling them, and many millions of intelligent civilizations with sentient beings very different from humans, who may be looking right back at us with the exact same sense of astonishment.  We get really excited about stuff that happens up in the sky, and a whole lot of stuff does happen.  But, ironically, we are bound by our gravitational attachment to Earth, and being able to see many astronomical events depends on exactly where we are on Earth and what time zone we're in.

For instance, by all accounts the most amazing, mind-blowing astro-event you can witness is a total eclipse of the sun, but the path of totality - which is the only place to be, really - is a tiny little strip of land often 50 miles in width or less, and almost always in the most remote, desolate, god-forsaken location possible, such as the Antarctica, sub-Saharan Africa or the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Even if, through the greatest of luck or the most expensive of efforts, you find yourself in the VIP seating section for a solar eclipse, you are still at the mercy of a passing weather front, which can most surely obscure your much-sought-after vantage point and basically ruin your life.  I lucked out majorly in May 2012 when I was able to see a very rare annular eclipse of the sun, and I only had to drive 5 hours to northern Arizona, which was totally worth it.

Other celestial events are more widely observable, such as the aurora borealis (or the southern hemisphere counterpart, the aurora australis), but they are best viewed in high latitudes, above 50-60 degrees.  Here in Phoenix, at 32 degrees north latitude, we never see the northern lights, and if we did, it would probably mean big trouble, since the earth would have to be blasted with an epic, historic radiation storm to see them down here.  Other astronomical sights are very widely viewable, such as meteor storms, or total lunar eclipses, which are visible over entire hemispheres with clear skies.  Another such event is a comet.  The appearance by Comet Hale-Bopp, a number of years ago, was a world-wide event which sparked huge excitement and interest in these dirty snowballs which cross our path every so often.

When Comet ISON was discovered, immediately the hype started.  Portrayed as the incipient "Comet of the Century," lots of people painted vivid word pictures about the "Christmas Comet," which would grace the skies in December, make a close encounter with our sun, and (remember these words ==>) if it survived, would continue on a path which would take it even closer to our planet.  It would then put on a spectacular show in January, with some people saying (be still, my heart) that it could be as bright as the full moon.  Many astronomers (myself included) dreamed many, many dreams of a brilliant comet hanging suspended in a clear winter twilight sky, gossamer tail extending almost to the horizon, and being there for weeks if not months on end.

Astronomers tracked ISON with pain-staking precision, and the expectations grew faster than the comet did in telescopic photographs.  Things started to unravel a bit in September when some Debbie-Downer-type astronomers said ISON wasn't brightening quite fast enough as it plunged through the outer solar system toward the sun.  But we didn't care because comets are notorious non-conformists and will do whatever they please, light-curve predictions be damned.  We watched in breathless anticipation as satellite-based solar observatories saw ISON cruise in past Mercury, getting bigger and brighter as it approached our central star, finally disappearing in the harsh glare of the sun, an Icarus with white wings soaring into the light and heat.

Now, those three words I asked you earlier to remember: "if it survived"?  This is where they come in.  ISON swung around our Sun, barely a million miles above its searing surface and then.... broke into a bunch of pieces.  Scientists the world over expected to see a big, brilliant cometary body with a long, bright tail sweeping in front of it, but instead saw a small, indistrict bright patch with a tiny tail, which eventually got smaller and smaller until there was nothing but small pieces left.  It was officially declared dead a couple of weeks later.  Thus, Comet ISON, the "Comet of the Century" became Comet ISON - the DUD of the century, leaving us astronomers severely disappointed and demoralized.  But we went right back to scanning the skies in hopes of being the first person to spot the next incoming Great Comet Hope, which would again be granted the mantle of Comet of the Century, and this time maybe will actually fulfill that promise, instead of breaking all our astronomical hearts.

The ALL THINGS MUST END... SOMETIMES BADLY award goes to the series finale of Dexter.  The Showtime series finished up its eight-season run earlier this year, not in a blaze of glory, but a resounding THUD, reminiscent of the sound your head makes when it hits the side of the toilet as you rush to puke into it.  When it was firing on all cylinders, Dexter was a stylish, intelligent, and well-written tour de force through the labyrinthine mind of a serial killer.  His "dark passenger," as he called his murderous alter-ego, alternately surfaced and retreated in the ever-changing facade that Dexter presented to his family, friends and the outside world.  But things really derailed for the last season, and in the climatic episode, Dex was shown carrying the dead body of his sister Deborah Morgan out of the hospital in the midst of massive hurricane evacuation through crowds of police and public-safety officers onto his boat, and NO ONE STOPPED HIM.  After dumping Deb into the ocean, the last we saw of Dexter was him driving his power boat directly into the swirling maelstrom of the approaching storm.  Well, "the last" until he surfaced inexplicably somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where he labored as the Unhappiest Lumberjack Ever (or stunt double for a post-apocalyptic Bounty paper towel commercial), living in numbing isolation in a dreary, decrepit boarding house, with only his memories of his previous life in Miami.  I can't remember another series finale that was so thoroughly and universally condemned and reviled by fans and critics alike, with levels of hateful derision and virulent contempt normally reserved for Republican presidential debates.  Sorry things ended so badly for you, Dex, but it could have been worse.  You could have been one of your fans. 


TV Shows I Like:  Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Live From Daryl's House, Later with Jools Holland, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sons of Anarchy, The Rachel Maddow Show, Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Nurse Jackie, House of Cards (on Netflix).

Things I Love:  Rabbits, animals in general, my dear friends (both local and Facebook), Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue, hiking, secret crushes, sunsets and sunrises, astronomy, sushi, my friend Meme's homemade Chinese Seafood soup, chocolate, writing, photography, artwork, dinners with friends.

Here's hoping 2014 is a turning point for our country, and we can get back to being the great nation we truly are.  Sometimes it's very hard to see that potential.  I wish there were no unwanted and unloved children and animals, everyone had a decent standard of living and health care, and a decent place to live.  I wish people in power weren't so evil and hypocritical and dishonest and deliberately ignorant.  I wish people would mind their own damn business and stay out of the lives of others with whom they have no reason to meddle.  I hope people continue to turn away from religion and other stifling, suffocating poisons of the human spirit.  Most of all, I wish for peace, love and continued health for my friends.  I hope I never lose the sense of child-like wonder I feel when I look up into the night sky, or into the eyes of a beloved rabbit.  I also hope I never lose my belief in angels and miracles.  If I die tomorrow, it will be with the knowledge and satisfaction that I have lived my life exactly as I wanted to live it, and I have no regrets.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: The Year in Review (Part 2)

Hey, we're on a roll here. Not really, but cut me a giant slackburger with cheese, okay?  It's Christmas.  Here are some more highly desirable and coveted awards for the Year That Almost Was - 2013!

The ONE-TRACK MIND/NO-TRACK BRAIN Award goes to the Republican Scandal Industry:  "Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  OH LOOK! A SQUIRREL!  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi.  Benghazi."

The WINTER OLYMPICS AWARD FOR SPECTACULAR WASTE TIME AND MONEY goes to the government shutdown last October.  This was when the Republican party completely lost their minds and got hijacked by a bunch of noisy, obnoxious douchebags in their own caucus and brought the entire US government to a complete halt.  The Tea Baggers, ostensibly led by pasty-faced bed-wetter with questionable citizenship Ted Cruz (aided by his completely demented, Alzheimers-ridden father), threw a hissy fit and turned what should have been a routine budgetary procedure - raising the federal debt ceiling, something that Republican false idol Ronald Reagan did 18 times during his reign of error in the 80s - and tried to use it to cripple the Affordable Care Act which also debuted in October.  Because that's the way one of the oldest representative democracies in the world changes legitimately-passed laws that run afoul of a bunch of dimwitted loose cannons in the House of Representatives - by shutting down the government.  Millions of federal employees furloughed, national parks closed, airport security compromised, for what reason?  Less than three weeks later the Tea Baggers capitulated in a hugely embarrassing loss, gaining ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than a monstrous amount of bad publicity, the Republican party rightfully buried under the condemnation and derision of the public, and the Office of Budget and Management estimating that over $64 BILLION dollars of taxpayers money were completely squandered by this useless exercise in constipated government.  And the target of their misplaced ire, the Affordable Care Act, was completely and utterly unscathed by all this (although it definitely had problems of its own making, more about that later).  Hope you enjoyed your little 64-billion-dollar tantrum, Tea Baggers, because the result was that most people in this country had their pre-existing opinion reaffirmed - that you are a bunch of selfish, useless, idiotic dicks.

The WHY ARE YOU STILL ALIVE? Award goes to Miley Cyrus and her delightful twerking episode on her appearance at the MTV Video Awards (or something, I can't tell any of those award shows apart anymore).  Stretching the definition of "entertainer" to nearly the breaking point, Ms. Cyrus and her grotesquely large tongue made their entrance from the inside of a gigantic teddy bear complete with Battlestar-Galactica-Cylon scanning red eye.  And things went downhill from there.  Floundering and gyrating around on stage like a zombie scarecrow with a severe neurological disorder, she made her way through a bunch of confused dancers dressed up like plush animals.  Then singer Robin Thicke sashayed out of nowhere, decked out in the latest football referee formal wear and warbled out his current song "Blurred Lines" (which, I'm embarrassed to say, I find irresistibly catchy and have on my MP3 player).

But, cultural critical mass and nuclear detonation was achieved when Cyrus bent over, backed into Thicke's crotch and did some half-hearted spasmodic twitching which the kids nowadays call "twerking."  500 years ago folks would have called it "St. Vitus' Dance" and burned her at the stake.  Well, the next day the American public went completely batshit crazy, just like they did when Janet Jackson had her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Superbowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake, and kiddies all over the world were treated to the unexpected sight of her boobie and nipple shield (and I'll bet THAT made for some interesting post-Superbowl parent-child conversations).  Every single pundit went into overdrive and were unanimous in their conclusion that this is America, not some godless wicked society which would allow such a wanton display of abysmal taste and moral dissolution.  Ironically, this really IS America, and the only bad publicity is no publicity.  Instead of being banished to the outer reaches of cultural Siberia, Cyrus received an unprecedented avalanche of publicity which she funneled right into the release of her latest music album, resulting in spectacular sales and well over 35 MILLION likes on Facebook.  Jesus Christ's Facebook page, by comparison, has fewer than 6 million likes.

So what are we to make of this, when a very marginally-talented, utterly forgettable celebrity behaves in an overwhelmingly crass and tasteless fashion, and immediately reaps an enormous, priceless bonanza of attention and publicity?  In our culture, sensationalism trumps quality any day of the week, and people delight in watching others degrade themselves, the more publicly, the better.  What we can expect in the future is more of the same, because nothing succeeds like success, and Ms. Cyrus has very clearly shown us that the reward for bad behavior is infinitely more lucrative than the reward for good behavior.

The "PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THERE'S SOME OTHER WAY WE CAN SCREW UP" Award.  The name of this award comes from a scene in the classic movie "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."  After a particularly awkward and uncomfortable dinner with a delegation of Klingons, Capt. Kirk says, "I'm going to bed now.  Please let me know if there's some other way we can screw up tonight!"  This award is given to the most monumental screw-up of the year, something that was so horrifically misconceived and so dismallly executed that the inevitable carnage was spread far and wide, from sea to shining sea.

Everyone knows that the staff here at the Careless Whispers blog (me and 17 rabbits) is nothing but even-handed and impartial (I would have said "fair and balanced" but those dirtbags at Fox News have ruined that phrase for the rest of eternity), and we assign blame wherever appropriate, regardless of political affiliation.  Thus, this award goes to the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA had been in the works for a long time, and is the signature legislative achievement of the Obama administration.  Central to the idea of health care reform is a national website which would allow people to shop for health insurance and sign up online.  The website is widely reported to have cost over $400 million dollars when it went live on October 1st.  For nearly HALF A BILLION dollars you'd think you'd get the Lamborghini of websites, a platinum-standard of efficiency and user-friendliness.  What we got instead was a clunky, poorly-designed mess which was well nigh impossible to navigate.  I got on the site about two weeks after launch and it was incredibly slow and tediously frustrating.  There were many things wrong with it, too many to list here, but suffice to say it was a big pain in the ass to use.  I stopped using it whenever it took 20 minutes to get some information back after you hit ENTER, and the questionnaire part that gathered personal information was a complete mess, asking ridiculous questions and taking an unacceptably long time to do anything.  I went and did something else for a month and came back to the site, and it had improved considerably.  I found a health care plan which I liked and the rest of the process was really pretty easy.

But the damage was done and the entire country went crazy.  The Republicans jumped on it like a pack of ravenous hyenas on a geriatric antelope and took every single opportunity to inflame and misinform the public regarding the entire concept of health care reform.  At this writing, the Obama administration has just barely begun to drag itself out of the mammoth crater it dug for itself and hopefully by this time next year, the extreme screw-up that greeted the launch of the ACA will be a distant, unpleasant memory.  But not before the Republicans squeeze every single drop of political advantage out of it.

Next up:  Part 3, in which we tie up the loose ends and send 2013 to the Promised Land.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013: The Year In Review (Part 1)

Like the rheumy old geezer you're forced to sit next to in a theater or on a three-hour plane flight, 2013 is coughing, hacking and wheezing its way into the outhouse of history.  While not as bizarrely awful as 2012 (and that was due in large part to the presidential election), this year will go down as having more than its share of weird, unsettling and just plain annoying happenings.  So, let's take a look back at the crazy quilt of human folly that was 2013 and present some well-deserved awards for galaxy-class stupidity, starting with our premiere award:

The MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Award:  We thought we were going to get through this year without millions of right-wing dimwits getting all whipped up into a frenzied lather over some faux-controversy, like they did with the Chick-Fil-A idiocy last year.  You might remember that the COO of C-F-A made some ill-advised comments to religious publications that he was proud of financially supporting some groups that advocated a "traditional definition of marriage" (a.k.a. homophobia and bigotry disguised as piety).  When some people suggested we may want to direct our discretionary spending to a restaurant chain that wasn't quite as intolerant and hateful, the conservative sheeple were summoned into action by the right-wing garbage-mongers on Fox News and other pseudo-journalistic bastions of stupidity.  What better way to show your innate homophobia than by running down to your local Chick-Fil-A outlet and ordering up a big mess of their nasty fried chicken?  Yeah, that'll show those queer-loving liberals - go out and buy a shitload of artery-clogging, greasy animal parts.  A lot of people really had no intention of eating what they bought; many of them threw the food away immediately.  But gol darn it, they were going to make a STATEMENT and stand up for the First Amendment rights of some idiot who insists on sticking his nose into the lives and business of fellow Americans.

Back to 2013:  Fox News tried to get the ball rolling by kicking off their annual "War Against Christmas" pseudo-controversy.  When it appeared it wasn't getting enough traction with their easily-distracted-by-shiny-objects viewers, they decided to let slutty Botox abuser Megyn Kelly spew some incomprehensible drivel about Santa Claus only being white or... something? I don't even know.  But the shitstorm really spooled up to high gear when the patriarch of a clutch of barnyard animal-human hybrids that appear in some ridiculous reality show called "Duck Dynasty" cut loose with a rambling diatribe in GQ magazine that was pretty stunning and extreme in its stupidity, racism and homophobia.  Now I've never seen "Duck Dynasty," nor would I ever consider soiling my brain with whatever genetic-cesspool nonsense those hairy snake-oil salesmen are perpetrating on a dimwitted, gullible American public.  I spend my entire life avoiding those kind of people and trying hard to convince myself they don't really exist.  But you would really have to be living on some other planet these past couple of weeks to not have heard about this crapfest on nearly every news outlet.  The A&E network almost immediately tried to distance itself from the one program on their schedule that was an absolute cash cow, and "suspended" the noxious old fart from his own show.  Always eager to show its clout, the right-wing stupidity machine went into overdrive and cast this suspension as a heinous, unwarranted violation of someone's First Amendment Free Speech rights.  There's that pesky First Amendment again.  It's almost as misused, misquoted and misinterpreted as the Second Amendment.

The right wing loves to shriek like a stuck pig whenever they imagine someone violating their own rights, but gleefully and willingly will try to curtail the rights of any group of people they don't agree with, such as gay people seeking marriage equality or adults seeking to maintain access to a legal birth control procedure.  Then you get irrelevant, obsolescent gasbags like the scrawny, brittle, trailer-trash queen Sarah Palin dragging herself out from under some rock and shoving her pinched, ravaged face in front of any camera she can find, forcefully broadcasting her opinions like anyone gives a screaming shit about what she thinks.  The ignorant conservative hordes jumped up at their leaders' command and goose-stepped their way down to their local Walmart or Cracker Barrel restaurant and willingly blew their (irony alert) welfare checks on useless crap they really didn't need, just because some media hack told them they were defending some pseudo-celebrity's right to free speech, and snapped up every bit of Duck Dynasty schlocky merchandise they could get their fat, stubby fingers on.  It's astonishing to me that those idiots will do whatever their right-wing puppet-masters tell them to do, without a smidgen of critical thought.  As long as they see other people like them doing the same thing, they think they are on the right side of things.  Adolf Hitler would be so proud.

It's really difficult to understand how this country has changed so much that some repulsive, grubby old scumbag can spout a load of vile, disgusting hatespeech to a national magazine and then have millions of idiots defend his right to call gay people "terrorists" and make astonishingly ignorant statements about how black people were better off under slavery.  Twenty years ago someone saying that would be roundly criticized and condemned from every part of the political spectrum.  Nowadays, you could come out in favor of child molesters and as long as you managed to sneak in some Bible quotes, you will get people defending you and your right to be an asshole in public.

How did that happen?  I think it's the result of a number of things; one of them being the death of civil political discourse and intellectual thinking in this country.  The internet and social media have given everyone a global, anonymous platform to expel any and all kinds of hateful, disoriented thinking, with little or no consequence or accountability.  The gun lobby has set an example of scorched-earth policy by vehemently opposing even the smallest, most innocuous and toothless tightening of gun laws in this country.  Even the slaughter of 20 innocent children in December 2012 meant nothing to them.  The only thing they cared about is the fictional "slippery slope" which would surely lead to the government forcibly confiscating everyone's firearms if they banned one assault rifle or extra-capacity ammo clip.  Throw in an ignorant, uneducated population that accepts claptrap like that as gospel, and the spineless, cowardly stooges in Congress who are firmly in the back pocket of the gun manufacturers, and you have a great example of neo-fascism knocking at your door disguised as "patriotism."

But I digress.  Thankfully, Christmas is providing a welcome (albeit short) relief and distraction from all this small-minded stupidity, but I fear the argument will only be resurrected next month as the new season of that Duck Dynasty trashfest starts up.  It seems the conservative parts of the population will put up with absolutely any kind of horrible stupidity and intolerance as long as it's painted with the varnish of "religious expression," which has become the dog whistle to automatically incite the vast unwashed hordes to jump up and do whatever they are told.  After all, Jesus is on their side.  Or so they think.

Therefore, I give the Much Ado About Nothing Award to Duck Dynasty and their mindless followers for all their spectacular bigotry and ignorance.  They have taken the entire country one giant step closer to hell.

Friday, October 11, 2013

End of the Experiment

Once again the greatest representative democracy the world has ever known finds itself in a maelstrom of confusion and insanity.  Thanks to the shamefully stupid Tea Buggers and their lethal demagoguery, the whole entire US government is shut down, brought to its knees, spinning its wheels while nearly a million federal workers are idle, national parks and recreation areas are closed, and numerous programs that provide real help to real people are shut down.  Welcome to the end of an experiment.

Our system of government has always been a social experiment on the grandest of scales.  Imagine a form of government born of the ideas of freedom, liberty and equality for all.  Something quite like that had never really been seen on this planet prior to the 18th century.  Thousands of years ago when primitive humans were first starting to gather together and form settlements, one of the first governments to evolve was a monarchy, a "king" to rule the others.  This ran through a couple of permutations, such as an oligarchy (rule by a small, chosen group of people) or plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or theocracy (rule by religious leaders) but by and far it proved a fairly workable way to keep a bunch of farmers and shepherds kind of toeing some sort of line.

For a long time monarchies worked well, and still do in a number of countries in the present day, but as large number of people became more educated through technological advances such as the printing press, they soon outgrew the confines of royalty and royal lineage.  As the world expanded, wealth (and resultant power) became more distributed, government likewise expanded and adapted.  People were demanding more of a say in how their lives were run, and various forms of representation were created.  General assemblies, or bodies of citizens representing other citizens, began to take root in Europe, one of the earliest being Iceland's Althing, created in the year 976.  Eventually hybrid systems of government were created, merging kings with prime ministers and parliaments and a new form of representational government took hold.

The US government was born at the confluence of a number of serendipitous forces.  Initially formed by those fleeing religious persecution, it was a brand new world, full beyond measure of immense natural riches, free from the limited land mass and resources of Europe and the stifling weight of history and their stodgy traditions.  America was a clean slate, a chance to start anew, to get it right, to create the most perfect form of government that humans could possibly dream up. And dream they did.

The Constitution that came out of the late 1700s has become the gold standard of good government.  Not perfect, but better than anything else that has been around.  Even though it has been amended 27 times (with a 28th amendment proposed - one that would make all laws applicable to everyone), these adjustments have allowed the government to change in response to a rapidly changing world.  Some of them have been foolhardy (No. 18 - Prohibition) but others have been true to the finest expressions of the best of humanity (No. 13 - Abolition of Slavery and No. 19 - Women's Suffrage).  The great social experiment that is the United States of America was in full bloom, and doing very well indeed.

Scientists will tell you that the best experiments are those which are conducted in a closed system; that is, an environment where everything is carefully controlled and random outside forces kept to a minimum.  Even under the best of circumstances, a running experiment will start to degrade as entropy creeps in and wear and tear causes deterioration.  Our government has been beset with destabilizing forces from inside and out, from those which occur in nature to those created by our own shadow natures.

It seems the worst forces that befall our nation and disrupt our constitutional government are those created by ourselves.  In the past century, two devastating world wars, a number of smaller but still very significant skirmishes (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) have caused great stress.  The threat of nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe has been shaping policy through most of this century.  But most insidious, it seems, are the forces of greed and religion.  They form a double-headed serpent, and it is at the nexus of those two where the most damage is done.

The past two decades have seen the ascendency of greed and religion in our government at a level that can scarcely be comprehended.  Like some kind of virulent zombie virus, it has taken over vast segments of the population and most of Congress, turning them into blathering idiots, and malignant ne'er-do-wells.  Complicated by a Supreme Court that has some of the most backward-thinking, regressive conservatives around, the complete corruption of our government by money has been aided and abetted by heinous, abominable rulings such as Citizens' United, which virtually assured the democratic system will be irretrievably choked and debased by an enormous influx of special-interest monies and corporate meddling.

Religion, and in particular Christian fundamentalism, has also insinuated itself into our legislative system at all levels.  Like a many-headed Hydra, it manifests itself in an appallingly large number of ways, from advocating to pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control because it violates their "freedom of religious expression", to taking over school boards and forcing changes to their curricula to include bogus, intellectually untenable pseudo-sciences such as "intelligent design", to doing everything they can to prevent certain segments of the population from exercising their right to vote.  Using their religious beliefs like a shield, they cowardly pass preposterous laws designed solely to prevent women from exerting control over their reproductive destinies by forcing them to undergo unnecessary medical procedures such as ultrasounds, and enacting biased, draconian regulations that make it nearly impossible for planned-parenting agencies to legitimately and lawfully provide needed and wanted services.

We have seen the wealth of this nation being concentrated into the top 1% of the population, while everyone else considers themselves lucky if they just tread economic water.  This has caused this wealthy segment to tighten and consolidate their control over the Republican party, which is essentially working for the Koch brothers and the Dick Cheneys of the world.  Wars are started under the flimsiest of pretenses, bolstered by blatant lying and disinformation, and private corporations rake in the profits.

Sure, there are many evil people in this country who will gladly take this nation down a pathway to complete destruction if it meant getting their political agenda in place. All this is ultimately made possible by an uneducated, disinterested electorate, for whom critical thinking and skepticism are unknown concepts.  Too many people are more than willing to let Fox News or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or dozens of other conservative blowhards tell them exactly what to think and do.  They find it much easier to hate people who are different from them, and they make these "other people" convenient, easy scapegoats for the awful things their legislators - who they themselves had voted into office - do to the quality of their life and the complete ruination of the future of their children.  They just don't give a crap, and are too stupid to care.

The drama going on in this country now - the government being held hostage by a gang of 30 or 40 zealots, blinded by their own radical ideology to the damage they're doing - and the upcoming threat of a debt ceiling crises - which nearly all knowledgeable economists in this country agree would be a complete and unmitigated disaster on a global scale - is unprecedented, certainly in my lifetime.  I have never seen the country so thoroughly polarized, even back in the worst days of the Vietnam war, when our society was nearly ripped apart by a costly, tragic war which we eventually lost.  These Tea Baggers don't care how much damage and hardship they inflict on millions of people, or the millions and millions of dollars that will be shamefully squandered by a completely unnecessary government shutdown.  The only thing they care about is getting their own way, and they don't care how many lives are wrecked in the process.

Sadly, I'm beginning to think the great social experiment in representative democracy that is the United States of America is starting to wind down, to sag and break apart under the weight of its own misdoings and corruption. Our system of government is being poisoned by right-wing ideologues and religious zealots, who are pulling everyone down into their toxic cesspool of psychotic paranoia and dissolution.  I don't see a way out for America to save itself.  We may come out the other end of this somewhat intact, but we will be so changed that we will no longer be the America we once were.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Syrian Minefield

The dire situation in Syria has exploded on the world stage and the global reaction to it has quickly become the geopolitical version of an M. C. Escher painting.  You know what those are - mind-bending drawings of staircases that go around and around but end up nowhere, or buildings with unending twists and turns which also lead nowhere.  Likewise, the political twists and contortions that are still going on also seem to expend a lot of time, energy and media bandwidth but fail to go nowhere.

It all started several weeks ago as the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, feeling threatened by a rebel insurgency that wants to see it gone, turned chemical weapons on its own people.  We all cringed at the photos and videos of the dead and dying Syrian civilians suffering the ravages of what has to be some of the most horrific and awful weapons ever created, next to nuclear.  President Obama, being the highly moral person he is, was thoroughly appalled and horrified over what had happened and rightfully condemned the government in Syria for violating a U.N. proscription against the use of chemical weaponry.  Saying the Assad regime crossed a "red line," Obama left it quite clear that he felt a military response against such an atrocity should not only be appropriate, but almost mandatory.  Obama expected the American people and the rest of the world to be properly and instantly outraged, and to fall in line in support behind him in moving forward with a military strike which would cripple or eliminate Syria's capability to gas their own helpless, innocent people.

What he got instead of support was ... virtual silence.  Obama was all set to go ahead with the attack using his powers as head of the executive branch without consulting Congress.  There was a clear precedent to this when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq about a decade ago, on a wildly dubious and ultimately untrue basis of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be something between astonishing incompetent intelligence information or just plain old-fashioned lying through your teeth.  But conspicuous in its absence in the wake of a terrible atrocity was a groundswell of incensed clamoring for immediate military action.  Where were all our allies in the West - Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, even Poland?  Surprisingly, the prickly French, who seem to delight in taking a contrary position to whatever the U.S. is taking, were the most agreeable to a forceful response to Assad.  The American people, while recoiling in disgust to the human tragedy, were also recoiling from the prospect of dipping our toes in another Middle East quagmire, with Iraq and Afghanistan being prominently featured in their reasoning.  Baffled and caught off-balance by the blatant non-response to a humanitarian catastrophe, Obama still went ahead and tasked the Pentagon with coming up with a plan of action and risk-assessment for what was being portrayed as a "surgical" strike.

This whole Syria issue has taken on a life of its own.  It has split into two different news stories: the first being the gas attack itself, and the second being the political reaction to the gas attack.  The second story has grown so rapidly that it has overtaken the original event, relegating it to the status of an afterthought or a mere detail in a bigger picture.  It has produced some very unusual and novel things, like Republicans calling for calm and restraint in the face of an opportunity to attack another country, which is like a starving dog turning down a big piece of filet mignon, or Democrats screaming to let the bombs fly sooner rather than later.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad looked like a character out of a John Waters movie on an interview today.  He denied that chemical weapons were ever used by his forces.  In fact, he made some vague, unsupported assertions that HIS military forces were the ones who got gassed.  Assad is quite a creep, and looks like he would be most comfortable in the back row of an X-rated movie theater.  When asked about the deaths of the people he is supposed to serve, he acted like he just got caught by his wife, making out with a trashy waitress he met at the downtown Damascus Hooters restaurant - deny, deny and deny some more.

The situation is very fluid and things change every day.  Now the Russians have come up with a proposal to put all of Syria's chemical weapons under international control, to be eventually destroyed.  This may be an out for all concerned that avoids a military conflict.  The American people are staunchly against any military involvement, and many make the "slippery slope" argument that a "limited surgical strike" will lead to American boots on the ground, and another Afghanistan in the making.

There are so many variables, so many possible ways this can play out.  If Congress does give the go-ahead and the U.S. goes through with the attack, how will the Assad regime react?  How will his neighbors feel about another country lobbing rockets at someone right in their back yard?  Will Syria pop a couple of missiles over the fence on Israel?  Would a surgical air strike against Assad's chemical weapons capability actually do any good?  It would be virtually impossible to cripple his entire chemical weapon stockpile, and would he then be much more willing to use whatever remains?

If Congress says no to the whole thing, would that encourage other dictators to use chemical weapons because obviously they could do that and get away with it?  What will a "no" vote do to American prestige and influence all over the world, but especially in a region where fear and intimidation are the main glues that hold together a fragile peace?  What will that do to the Obama administration as its second term plays out?  Will it cripple an already lame-duck president and compromise his ability to push through all the other things he wants to accomplish?  Will it be more difficult for him to get his way on other issues, like the upcoming debt crisis and immigration reform?  Will Obama himself be seen as weak and dithering on important issues?

Obama's move to drag Congress, kicking and screaming, into the fray may be either a good idea or the worst idea ever.  Now Congress will be on record as either opposing or approving an air strike, so they will share either the credit or the blame.  But bringing this incredibly dysfunctional body into center stage may be really dumb, since Congress seems incapable of doing anything constructive or useful.

We will probably get the first vote on the Syria matter in a couple of days, when the Senate votes to invoke closure on the topic, and deny any use of the filibuster (the Republicans' weapon of choice when they can't get their way by, you know, actually coming up with good alternative solutions to a problem) to gum up the works.  The House of Representatives looks like to won't vote for a couple of weeks on the matter, conceivably giving the Assad regime time to move its chemical stockpiles around and conceal them, or "harden" them by making it tougher to find and destroy them.  This will also involve moving them into civilian neighborhoods so if the chemical weapons do manage to get blown up, the gas will be released and cause horrific collateral damage and deaths of innocent people.

This is a quagmire of the first order, and one which definitely changes daily and often seems to evolve by the hour.  It would be completely fascinating to watch if it wasn't for the fact that so much is riding on what will happen when the U.S. and the world finally decide to take some sort of action against a heartless dictator who sees no wrong in subjecting his fellow citizens to die in a gas attack.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Running Down The Clock

Summer in the desert is starting to wind down, on this, the first week of September.  You wouldn't know it just from the temperature, because it was 110 degrees today.  It sure felt hot outside and the next couple of days are predicted to be moderately cooler, maybe all the way down to 108 degrees.  Summertime kind of quietly weasels its way into your life during the month of May, but it always needs to be dragged out - kicking, screaming and clawing the ground - all through September and half of October.

But there are subtle indications that the wheel of the seasons is beginning to turn.  It is becoming noticeably darker earlier these days.  When I left the gym yesterday at 6:55 pm the sun had already set, the first time that has happened since last April.  I read something where the sun's position in the sky doesn't change much from the summer solstice on June 21st through Midsummer Day (this year on August 6th).  After that date, the sun begins to move more swiftly in its southerly journey to the autumn equinox and then the winter solstice.

In the nighttime sky, when it's not full of monsoon clouds, the stars are starting to belie the passing months.  Scorpio the Scorpion is beginning to slink away toward the southwest horizon.  For just a couple of weeks, you can spot two beautiful crowns in the sky - Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, a little below the scorpion's glittering stinger, and Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, low in the western sky not far from the sparkling orange Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the sky.

The Great Square of Pegasus is starting to vault its way up the eastern sky.  A large, nearly perfect square, it's easy to spot and is a sure sign of autumn.  A little less obvious is the constellation of Andromeda, hanging on to one of the corners of the Great Square for dear life and trailing it as it rises in the sky.  With binoculars, it's not hard to spot a smudge of dim gray light in the boundaries of Andromeda, and the multi-million-year-old light which finally has made its way to your retinas after crossing a gulf of 12 quintillion empty, frigid miles.  This is the Andromeda Galaxy, an island universe of billions and billions of stars, similar in shape to our own home galaxy, the Milky Way, but even larger.

The two galaxies are part of what's known as the Local Group, a collection of dozens of galaxies bound together gravitationally in our own little neighborhood in space.  Astronomers are pretty sure Andromeda and the Milky Way are speeding toward each other, and will most likely collide in a couple of billion years.  Surprisingly, they also think the two galaxies will just pass through each other, the distance between individual stars being vast enough so that the probability of a star running into another star is extremely low.  But the collective gravitational tidal forces will be more than enough to bend and warp the two galaxies into very distorted shapes, and invariably millions of stars will be cast off into intergalactic space, to wander the deadly cold vacuum as rogue stars, in desolate solitude.  Over even more billions of years the two galaxies will dance and loop around each other, colliding over and over again.  Eventually, in the far distant future, the galaxies will merge into a super-galaxy and probably even the supermassive black holes in the two galactic centers will merge into one ultramassive black hole.

In fact, astronomers have spotted a couple of galaxies, 30 times farther away than Andromeda, which are in the process of colliding.  This ultra-slow train wreck of galactic proportions has been going on for hundreds of millions of years and will continue on for many more millions, leaving a huge mess of stars, gas, and dust strewn over an impossibly vast area of space:

So, sometimes I think about our home galaxy being on an unavoidable collision course with an even larger galaxy, and I dream about what that might look like, assuming Planet Earth is still in one piece and there will be humans living on it in a couple of billion years.  No matter who or what is around at that time, it will be the greatest show in the entire universe.  For now though, I have to be content with dreaming about the cool, crisp autumn mornings which are also slowly, inexorably inching their way to us, and the dramatic cranberry-colored sunsets which give way to dark, deep and chilly nights.  And the 110-degree summer days will be a distant memory.