Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We're number one!

The Guardian's headline was appalling, but not really surprising to anyone who has been alive and paying attention in Texas for the past few years:
Texas has highest maternal mortality rate in developed world, study finds
The story that followed gave the shocking facts.

A report in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology gives details of a study by researchers from the University of Maryland, Boston University's school of public health, and Stanford university's medical school. The study found that the rate of Texas women who died from complications related to pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014 to 35.8 deaths per 100,000 births in 2014. This represents a maternal mortality rate higher than any other state and higher than any other country in the developed world. 

Yes, we're number one - in women's deaths from the complications of pregnancy.

The report stated that the doubling of mortality rates in the study period was hard to explain "in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval." But, in fact, there is a war raging in Texas. It is the war against women's health options being waged by the right-wingers who control state government here.

This government has drastically reduced the number of Texas' reproductive health care clinics. At the time that the rise in deaths began, in 2011, for example, the state legislature cut $73.6 million from the state's family planning budget of $111.5. That cut forced more than 80 family planning clinics to shut down across the state. The clinics that survived this cut managed to provide services to only half as many women as before.

Then, of course, there is the state government's well-documented attempts to utterly destroy all Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. They eliminated Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funding that provides poor women with preventive health care. In one fell swoop, they wiped out the main - and, in some cases, only - source available to those women for cancer screenings and contraception. 

Texas is a big state and it is a long way to anywhere here. Closing all those clinics meant that 130,000 women could no longer access the care they needed, or else that they would have to travel long distances to access it - very difficult to do when you are poor to begin with and trying to hold down a job and perhaps care for two or three children. 

And the wrongheaded and downright cruel decisions of our state officials continue. This month Texas' health department allocated a precious $1.6 million of the $18 million that the state budgets for low-income women's family planning to an anti-abortion group that does not even provide basic health services! One shudders to imagine what the maternal death rate here might be like in another couple of years.

A follow-up op-ed that appeared in The Guardian after that initial story had this headline:
Politics is killing mothers in Texas   
For a political party and a state government that brags about its "family values" and its concern for "the health of the mother," this headline and the commentary that follows it testify to the stunning hypocrisy embodied in those Texas boasts.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen: A review

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Purity is the legal name of the central character of this book and moral purity as a concept seems to be the philosophical idea which the author wants to explore through his characters and their stories. He does it at great length in this interesting but rather ponderous novel.

(Full disclosure: I originally rated the book at a four-star read, but after sleeping on it overnight, I dialed it back to three stars. I think a bit of editing, trimming down some of those long passages that seem to go on forever repetitiously and to no great effect at advancing the plot, would have definitely made it a four-star.)

Purity Tyler, by the time we meet her as a young college graduate, has adopted her school nickname, Pip, as the name that she goes by. This Pip does not have any great expectations. She's in a dead-end job, burdened by crushing college debt and a lack of direction.

She is also burdened by a lack of knowledge about her family history. She was raised in a tiny cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a mother who borders on the insane and who will not tell Pip who her father is or even her (the mother's) real name. At some point, she had taken on a false identity for reasons that Pip cannot even fathom and she is completely paranoid about being discovered. But why? We have to read a few hundred pages before we get to the bottom of that particular mystery.

In addition to Pip and her mother, there are at least three other main characters in the story.

There is Andreas Wolf, originally from East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. He is now in Bolivia running something called the Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-type operation. In fact, Andreas is very envious of and competitive with Julius Assange and with Edward Snowden over the attention that their leaks and whistleblowing garner. He is a self-obsessed and manipulative character, who is apparently irresistible to women. Once he has had an affair with a woman, she stays loyal to him forever!

We also meet Tom Aberant, who runs an online investigative journalism magazine from Denver. He is the opposite of Wolf, a serious journalist who is quiet and unassuming but fiercely dedicated to his craft. 

Tom has an associate who is also his lover, Leila Helou. Leila is married to a famous author who is a paraplegic and she divides her time between the house where her husband lives and the home of her lover.

What do all of these characters have in common? Where do their stories intersect? There is a long-ago murder involved, but Pip is the key, and we have to do a considerable amount of reading to make all the connections.

This is a novel about secrets and lies and the damage they can do, particularly to relationships between parents and offspring. It's about manipulative, self-absorbed people who are so frightened of revealing themselves that they can never have truly intimate relationships with other human beings. So, even though there are moments of humor, Purity reveals an essentially melancholy view of life.

Franzen uses the narrative method here that is familiar from his previous books, The Corrections and Freedom; namely, he gives over large swaths of the story to each character, so that we hear Pip's, Tom's, Andreas', Leila's, and even Pip's mother's tale from each of their own perspectives. This includes, as it did in Freedom, the private autobiography of one of the characters. As a method of storytelling, it reminds me most vividly of the leisurely pace of the 19th century novel. That's not necessarily a bad thing - there's a reason why Anthony Trollope is still read and enjoyed - but it does tend to result in fat books that could have an alternative life as a doorstop.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The Afterlife

I've mentioned here before my admiration for the poetry of Billy Collins, one of our former poet laureates. He has been called "the best loved poet in America" and that may be right.

His poetry is deceptively simple and is always infused with his wry sense of humor and quirky way of seeing. I feature his poems here fairly often. And now, here's another one.

The Afterlife


by Billy Collins
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

Personally, I like the image of the "female God, a woman in her forties with short wiry hair and glasses hanging from her neck by a string." Now there's a God I could relate to!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

This week in birds - #220

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

This is the time of year when we expect to start seeing migrating Rufous Hummingbirds, like this juvenile from last year. So far I haven't seen any this season, although we have several Ruby-throated Hummers in the yard just now. I have cleaned, filled, and rehung all my nectar feeders just in case, and there are plenty of Hamelia blossoms for them to feed on, as well.  


The major environmental story of the week has been the massive flooding that has hit Louisiana due to torrential rains. Although climate scientists always caution us that we shouldn't attribute any one weather event to the effects of climate change, it's hard to deny that the warming climate is having a rather disastrous effect on weather such as this flood and the earlier one in West Virginia, as well as events related to weather like the wildfires in California.  Meanwhile, none of these stories get the attention they deserve from the national press because they are in all Donald Trump, all the time mode. Even the Olympics struggle for attention.


As you may have heard, in this 100th anniversary year of our national park system, there is a move afoot in Congress to give it all away. "Privatize everything!" is the rallying cry of a certain segment of our elected representatives. One of the wildlife refuges that they are trying to give away is in Puerto Rico. The authorization to do that was snuck into a supposed aid package for the island. Jamie Williams explains why that is such a bad idea.


Surprisingly little is known about the world's bat species. We do know that bats in the eastern part of North America have been facing devastation from a fungal disease in recent years, but, in fact, bats all around the planet are facing extinction from a variety of causes.


Research continues to expose the calamitous effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on the environment. The deadly pesticides have now been linked to the decline in population of native bees.


Darwin postulated that people, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor that grew limbs with digits. Its descendants evolved different kinds of limbs adapted for different tasks. But they never lost the anatomical similarities that revealed their kinship. On Wednesday, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago reported on research that shows that our hands share a deep evolutionary connection not only to bat wings or horse hooves, but also to fish fins.


Speaking of fish, here's a rather weird fish story: A piranha with human-like teeth is showing up in the Great Lakes, likely dumped there by aquarium owners who tired of them. The fish are sparking new concerns about the effects of invasive species on the lakes. 


A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that female Barn Swallows from North America and from the Mediterranean, although essentially the same species, are turned on by different traits in their males. They all seem to like the brick red breasts but have differing reactions to the length of their mates' tails. 


We know that plastic trash in the ocean is a major problem, that it is lethal to many of the animals that live there. Here's news about a project that may help to clean it up. 


Climate change is an overarching threat facing our national parks and the National Park Service is making contingency plans to be able to deal with it.


So, there is this bipedal bear in New Jersey. Yes, it is a black bear that walks on two legs and it has been observed by residents around Oak Ridge, New Jersey for the past two years. The bear's two front legs have apparently been maimed in some unknown fashion, and he has developed the upright posture as an adaptation. He has sparked a fierce debate about whether he should be captured and taken to an animal sanctuary to live out his life or whether he should be left alone since he seems to be thriving.


Everything we've read about coral reefs recently has been bad news. Well, here's some good news: A giant coral reef in a remote island lagoon halfway between Fiji and Hawaii that was declared dead in 2003 is now alive and thriving once again. Researchers are now on a quest to find out why this reef came back to life in the hopes that the knowledge might help them aid other suffering coral reefs.


Ecologists fear any plan to build a wall between Mexico and the United States as such a structure would be devastating to the ecosystem that we share with our neighbor. It would be particularly destructive to the large mammal population, including some endangered species.  


Rising temperatures in the ocean are leading to increases in a bacteria called Vibrio, which can cause fatal illness in people who eat shellfish from those waters or who swim in them.


Citizen science projects in all fields of scientific research are very popular. Enthusiastic amateurs in the field get to make observations and report them to the professional scientists as a way to contribute to the expansion of knowledge. They have a long history in this country, going all the way back at least to Thomas Jefferson. Citizen participation improves science; the more data the better.

Friday, August 19, 2016

World Photo Day

My blogging friend, Alana of Rambling with AM, clued me in to the fact that today is World Photo Day. It's a project that encourages photography enthusiasts around the world to upload their photos to the site, showing the images of their world. What a wonderful idea!

This is an event that began in 2010 and, since then, thousands of photographers from around the world have uploaded thousands of images that show perspectives of their world. Anyone who wants to participate has to first create an account and then will be able to upload their photographs.

Anyway, considering that it is World Photo Day started me thinking about my photographs and possibly sharing some of them with you. I usually show you pictures of my garden or of birds that I've seen, but here are just a few from one of my favorite trips that we took a couple of years ago to Big Bend National Park in West Texas.

The park features a stark and rugged but beautiful landscape with mountains, desert, and views into Mexico across the Rio Grande River. I took hundreds of photos. Here are just five.

A vista featuring desert and mountains with some of the desert-loving plants in the foreground. 

This "window" in the mountains shows the view into Mexico on the other side.

This formation is called "donkey ears."

Santa Elena canyon with the Rio Grande flowing through it.

Then, of course, there is this handsome hunk, not a native to this landscape, but doesn't he look right at home?

We had a wonderful trip to Big Bend and West Texas. The only bad thing about it was that it was too short.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Storm of Swords

For "Throwback Thursday," I'm continuing with the rerunning of my reviews of the books in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I read beginning in December of 2011. This is number three in the series, A Storm of Swords.


Monday, December 26, 2011

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R.R. Martin: A review

This series just gets darker and darker. George R.R. Martin continues to show no compunction about killing off his characters. Of course, he's got about a million of them so there are plenty to spare!

The clash of the kings continues in this volume. The five contenders for power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros wage their wars across the face of the land and no one is safe or secure.

Robb Stark still rules in the North and has not yet lost a battle.

The execrable Joffrey Lannister still sits on the Iron Throne most recently occupied by his putative father, Robert Baratheon.

Robert Baratheon's brother, Stannis, has been defeated and disgraced but still hangs on to his army and still plays the game of thrones. Meanwhile, Stannis' and Robert's other brother, Renly, is dead, possibly the victim of witchcraft.

And, across the sea, Daenerys of the House Targaryen, mistress of the only three dragons in the world, makes her way slowly westward, vowing to reclaim the Iron Throne that she considers rightfully hers.
In the north, beyond the Wall, Jon Snow is learning that keeping the chastity vow of the Night Watch is not always an easy thing.

The remaining members of the Stark family still are scattered and, in some cases, unaware of the fate of each other. Arya is in the wild, on the run, sometimes a captive but always moving onward to...where? 

Sansa remains a hostage of the Lannisters in King's Landing and she will become even more tightly tied by marriage to that family. 

The Lannisters also are seeing changes in their fortunes. Tyrion serves as Hand of the King at the behest of his father, while Jaime is himself a hostage of war in Riverrun. Both Tyrion and Jaime show some unexpected depth and complexity of character in this entry and one wonders where that is leading.

The action and the momentum switch back and forth among these powerful families and who can say where it all will end?

Martin is a master of keeping the action moving and the suspense high and providing that shock that the reader least expects. This book was over 1100 pages long and yet it seemed all too brief to me. Which is why I will now be moving right along to A Feast for Crows, the next entry in this epic series.