Thursday, August 3, 2017

And When They are Old They will not Depart from It

I began gardening as a young child, hoeing weeds in my parents' garden, picking peas in my maternal grandmother's garden, and working in the flower beds of my paternal grandmother's garden. As a child, I wandered the fence rows of the eight acres we lived on in Old River, Texas, picking blackberries and nibbling on the seeds of peppergrass. Those eight acres were once a part of a much larger portion of land owned by some of my ancestors, the remaining of which my grandparents and an uncle owned, across the gravel-topped road of Woodland Lane from our house on a hill.

When I was a teenager, one of my first cousins became interested in gathering wild food; I think Karen had read a book by Euell Gibbons, the natural foods guy whom I remember from his claim that many parts of a pine tree are edible. Several of us tested that claim by brewing up some pine needle tea. It tasted terrible, even with added sugar. Then we crawled under a barbed wire fence to gather purslane (Portulaca oleracea) in a pasture next to my cousin's house. Karen had directions on how to cook this prolific plant native to India and Persia; though it's grown as food elsewhere, it's primarily considered a weed in the U.S., except for its cousin, the moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), which is grown for its colorful flowers.

We boiled the purslane in a pot on my aunt's stove and added butter and salt. I remember having a chance to taste it--a flavor I compared to boiled okra--before my uncle "cottoned on" to what we were doing. He grabbed the pot and flung its contents out into the backyard. "You're going to poison yourselves!" he yelled, thus cutting short our culinary adventure. He was afraid that we hadn't identified the plant accurately.

I haven't eaten purslane since though I have often pulled it up as a weed.

However, those early gardening and foraging experiences have remained with me as I have long been an avid gardener. As college students in the early 1980s, Tom and I gardened in a small plot on land owned by Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The university would hire someone to disk up the land and then divide the land into plots. Those of us who lived in married student housing were then invited to choose a plot on which to raise vegetables. We did this for two or three years and grew such a good garden that students toiling in neighboring plots were envious of our success. They were convinced that we had somehow managed to procure a naturally better plot than they--though our trucking in chicken manure from the Poultry Science department and my getting on my hands and knees to pull weeds were the true causes of our success.

So one year, someone rushed to choose the plot we had had the previous year, and, coming in later to the choosing process, we ended up with a corner plot that hadn't been improved. Not daunted, we improved that plot as well, and somewhere I have a faded photo of my twenty-something self standing among flourishing green corn stalks.

Tom and I have gardened together ever since those early days of our marriage as poor college students, from Texas to Louisiana, to Minnesota, to Georgia, and back again in those three states before our latest gardening experiences here below the White Mountains in eastern Arizona. Over the years we've tried new plants, such as mesclun mixes and arugula, some of my now-favorites for green salads, which I first began growing in central Texas. In the late 1990s in Georgia, we began experimenting with heirloom tomatoes, such as Green ZebraYellow Pear, and Cherokee Purple. I would slice up a colorful collection of heirloom tomatoes, season the slices with a little salt and arrange them on a white platter--a dish I called "tomato snacks" to encourage my young children to eat their vegetables. The colorful palette worked.

For almost 40 years, Tom and I have planned our spring gardens together, reviewing the stock of seed we have saved from previous years, poring over seed catalogs, drawing up ideas for new garden arrangements. I imagine that as long as we have a plot of land somewhere, we'll be gardening until we are unable to hold a hoe in our hands or press seeds into soil. 


our Arizona garden, early August 2017
the kitchen garden in mid-July
This is the first time I have grown hollyhocks successfully--and these came up volunteer.

This is one of several different pepper plants--getting big!
from Fall/Winter 2008, Atlanta Review



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What is Enough to be Happy?

The large grapevine is growing well on my Secret Garden room.
We've had a very wet monsoon season so far this year, with the rains beginning about the second week of July. Today is unusual in that it's almost 11 AM, and the sky is still fairly clear. This July, clouds have been building up mid-morning, with the first drops of rain falling sometime between 10 AM and 11 AM and frequently continuing off and on throughout the day and occasionally at night. The hummingbird festival we attended last Saturday at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area was rained out at 10:45 AM.

The rain has been good for the garden, overall, though the cooler temperatures have retarded the growth of my basil, which loves hot weather. I planted basil seeds about a month ago, and the plants are still less than three inches high. In Louisiana, the basil would be waist high by now. And as basil is one of my favorite herbs, its success is one of the barometers by which I measure whether or not a place is a good place to live.

I've been measuring in my mind other barometers to which I refer when assessing whether or not this area is a place we can remain happy enough as Tom's retirement inches closer: 
  • friendliness of neighbors (check); 
  • possibilities of outdoor activities (check); 
  • access to diverse cultural activities (not so much); 
  • at least three seasons (check); 
  • sufficient stability and growth of the local economy (meh--What's going to happen when the coal-reliant power plant shuts down?); 
  • acceptance of progressive ideas (not so much); 
  • variety of good restaurants (no);
  • possibilities of like-minded companions (making progress; I need to work harder at making connections with people).
  • opportunities to participate in the community (mixed results--and my tendency to isolate myself in times of stress doesn't help)
  • access to excellent healthcare (not locally)
Every place has its advantages and disadvantages, so once I've gone through the barometers, I ascertain how the disadvantages can be counterbalanced by something else. So basil doesn't grow well here in the cooler rainy season? Grow it in the greenhouse next year. So I miss bookstores and theatres? Maybe it would be enough to drive 4 hours to the nearest city to spend several weekends a year. Or do I, as one of the subcontractors remodeling our kitchen suggested, make do with high school plays (Fiddler on the Roof  being his idea of ultimate theater). 

So I miss being able to choose between an Indian or an Ethiopian or a vegan or a vegetarian or a Vietnamese or a noodle restaurant? Here at home, Tom and I can dust off those many cookbooks we have and create our own adventurous culinary destination right here in our kitchen. (Last night was vegetarian--I made a green pepper and squash casserole with vegetables from the garden and Tom's homemade yogurt.) And we always look forward to trips to Seattle and Austin to visit the kids and to dine out every night on good food.

And so it goes. We have moved around so much out of necessity that making a decision to move out of desire is fraught with misgivings, with the hard-earned knowledge that happiness really doesn't depend on place but on attitude (though place can certainly affect the attitude).

So we continue to work at creating here a place to which we may like to retire. We've had the kitchen remodeled though it's not finished because of sloppy electrical work. 
kitchen right after we moved in

recently remodeled kitchen (still in progress: electrical work remaining, touch-up painting to do above the counters, back splash to be added above the stove, and bar stools bought and painted red for the kitchen island
I've repainted several rooms, and love the results. We are in the middle of landscaping projects, and our garden is beginning to bear fruit. The yard is an ongoing project as we're planning to plant native grass seed in a side yard, build a woodshed in the wood lot to keep the firewood dry, and decide which native plants get to stay and which get pulled up as weeds (a continuous battle). We are even thinking of turning a room at the back of the house into a pottery studio.

On what does happiness depend? That's a question with different answers at different ages. As I head into old age, I want to be happier and more content than I've been in the past. It remains to be seen if I can deliver....because it really does depend upon me.


Tomatoes taking over the greenhouse --They seem happy.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Turning 60 and the Story I tell of Myself

"It seems to me that I am a character from a work of fiction. This is a serious intuition; it goes deep. For our imaginings about ourselves, whether written down or not, are a composition. Consciousness is like a law of form. My cat, Tiny, does not dream up any stories about himself." --Czeslaw Milosz, A Year of the Hunter, journal entry of Sept. 19, 1987

In 1987, when Czeslaw Milosz wrote those words, I was two months from realizing that I was pregnant with our first child, I was suffering from depression, and I was teaching full-time at Texas A&M University, my alma mater, as a lecturer. Tom and I had just moved back to Texas after four years in Louisiana, where I taught in the English Department while Tom finished his PhD in forestry.  I was to discover that drastic changes in my life tended to induce anxiety as I worked to establish myself in whatever new place to which we had located. Over time and after many moves, I have created for myself a fiction--well, not so much a fiction as a story of myself as someone who can adapt easily to new situations.

And so I can adapt, but it's not easy, and it's not without emotional trauma. Now I am adapting to turning 60 at the end of the year, far away from my children and from friends with whom I have kept in touch with over the years. Six years have passed since my last job as a part-time tutor in a learning center at a community college; ten years have passed since my last part-time teaching appointment at a community college; fourteen years have passed since my last full-time teaching appointment, one in which I had achieved a promotion to assistant professor (non-tenure track) and a stint as the director of a summer program for Japanese citizens. Seven years have passed since I last published a poem and about that many since I last wrote one.

In those intervening years, I have struggled to re-invent myself outside of my professional life. It was easiest to postpone that re-assessment while the kids were at home. Once they left on their own adult adventures, the story I told of myself seemed to falter into broken sentences, missed metaphors, faulty plotline. What story can I tell now? One that will get me past 60 and into old age?

When one moves to a new place far away from the old places after one's professional life is over and done with, one discovers no one is interested in that old life. If you remain in the place where you established that professional life or where you have lived for many years, your storyline remains intact; you cannot understand the futility of continuing the story in a totally new place past middle age, beyond your professional life and all the myriad experiences that created the tapestry of your backstory. Really. No one is interested in that story.

We recently had neighbors over one evening for snacks and drinks on our patio, and I mentioned that I missed the culture of cities where I had lived. We had been talking of this place where we live now, a four-hour drive to any major city, in the heart of Apache County, Arizona. Our neighbors are retirees, with a winter home elsewhere and a summer home here in the foothills of the White Mountains. They were telling us of how much they love the peace and quiet of this area, and I mentioned that I miss the culture of cities where I had lived, particularly that of Decatur, near Atlanta, GA. I missed being able to go to a movie on a whim, knowing that I would be able to see the latest production; I missed being able to go to a bookstore when I was bored, to go to a coffee shop and to watch the people passing. I missed the music venues, the festivals, the diversity, the restaurants, the walkable community where we had once lived.

One of our neighbors asked, "Where did you grow up that you now miss those things?"

"I grew up in the country," I said.

"So what makes you miss the stuff you just described?"

I was taken aback and realized...these are people who don't know my story of growing up in the country yearning for something bigger, of going to university and being the first college graduate on the maternal side of my family, of getting married at a young age, of being awarded a graduate degree after two years of teaching freshman composition, of teaching at major universities and regional colleges, of writing and publishing poetry and personal essays in small regional publications, of trying a bit of journalism in a northern Minnesota town, of raising a family while teaching and moving around the country as Tom found new jobs, of getting a full-time teaching position at a university that allowed me to grow intellectually and professionally, of directing a summer program at that university for students of all ages from Japan, of participating in poetry workshops directed by well-known poets, of creating and displaying an art car, of traveling--to England, to Japan, to Mexico, to various states of the U.S.--of making friends and leaving friends along the way.....

That's a too-brief summary of the old life. What story do I tell of myself now? 

This is the story my blog tells: Anita is interested in politics and the effects of our political choices, writes about her cats and their presence in her life, is sustained emotionally and physically by gardening, likes to make things,  is introspective, and seems to like taking photos of pollinators.

But this is only a small part of the story I tell myself. We all have hidden depths we rarely reveal outside the observable fiction of ourselves.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Mythical Power of Marble Statues and of the Lost Cause

"Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901."
One day when I was a young teenager sitting with my sick grandfather while my grandmother did chores, my grandfather began singing that old song of the South, Dixie:
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
 Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
"Do you know that song?" my grandfather asked me. No, I didn't. He was shocked and proceeded to teach me the words: In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on one frosty mornin', look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

It was one of the two times in which I felt as if I were getting to know my grandfather, as if a loving connection were being forged between us. The second was the time that he asked me about my dreams and hopes of the future, and I described to him my plans of attending college and perhaps becoming a writer. Then one day, my grandfather overstepped those boundaries with a fumble at my breast and a thrust of his tongue in my mouth.

To me, that's what the Old South is like: it comes on as genteel, paternalistic (all those slaves were really so well taken care of, and the South was really just insisting on the rights of freedom, you know, states' rights). One imagines the large veranda of the plantation home, (white) women in hoop skirts  and gentlemen in white jackets sipping mint juleps and bourbon and, of course, all that brave gray southern soldiery against the bright red rebel flag. Then, in the breeze come floating the scents and smells of slavery, the sound of whips against bare backs, the wails of parents being separated from their young children, the old master or the old master's sons or nephews fumbling at the breasts of the slave girls who have no power to resist them.

After the Civil War, the South did exceedingly well at perpetrating that proud, paternalistic myth, the myth of righteous rebellion. And it's a myth that has spread beyond the South. I am always shocked to see Confederate flags flying at the gates to western ranches or reproduced as bumper stickers and window clings on pick-up trucks driving down the streets of the small Arizona town where I now live and in the Northwest where I have traveled. What the fuck? I wonder. Are these people really glorifying the South and slavery?

Well, of course they are, even if they, themselves, don't recognize it, as they have been seduced by the myth of the South, of righteous rebellion against an overbearing government. So many people today still do not understand the continuing mythical power of all those statues glorifying the Lost Cause. As Garrett Epps writes in The Atlantic,
This was--and to a remarkable extent still is--a society embued with myth and propaganda. We were taught to believe that these marble men--who staked their lives and fortunes to fight for chattel slavery--were the equals of the nation's founders, and far superior to any Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant.
There simply is no way to hold that belief and at the same time believe that blacks are equal before the law or even before God. That's not a coincidence. Defenders of Confederate iconography argue that the statues represent simple historical memory--reminders that the South was the cockpit of America's most cataclysmic war. But they are actually post-bellum propaganda. Segregation did not become Southern dogma [until?] well after the compromise of 1876. It was not firmly locked in place until Woodrow Wilson's ascent to the White House in 1912. In other words, segregation was constructed in precisely the period in which the monuments were put in place. They did not symbolize past battles, but present and future white supremacy.
A commemorative statue that most illustrates how those statues of the Lost Cause represent "white supremacy" rather than some anodyne "historical memory" is the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans. This monument was erected in 1891 and celebrated that "day in 1874 [when] a few thousand armed men from a paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League, many of them former Confederate soldiers, squared off on Canal Street against a contingent of mostly black police and state militiamen." The group wanted the resignation of the recently elected Louisiana governor, a former Union colonel, and when he refused to resign, they charged, and kept him holed up until Federal troops arrived to rescue him and restore him to his state post. 

The White League was responsible for racial terrorism in 1874-1875, and their racism is clearly illustrated in the group's platform:
Disregarding all minor questions of principle or policy, and having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races...It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and their efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinions and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man's government in the city and the State.
The statue commemorating that attack celebrated white supremacy. If there were any doubt it didn't, fifty-eight years later, in 1932, the year my father was born, "city leaders added an inscription explaining that the battle represented the triumph of 'white supremacy'":
McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and lieutenant-governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state. 
Propaganda and myth, however, work so insidiously to undermine history
Up through the 1970s, respectable opinion held that the battle really had nothing to do with race. As one newspaper editorial put it after the obelisk was defaced with black paint in 1970, it was a battle against "interlopers...sent to the community to loot, to confiscate lands and to otherwise misrule Louisiana." 
In much the same way, Civil Rights leaders and participants were called "outside agitators" in the South. I remember as a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s hearing that phrase used to describe those advocating for full civil rights, as if the South (and Texas, where I grew up) were a place where African-Americans were treated fairly and had no reason to complain. The myth is of blacks happy with their circumstances until someone or something outside the happy place/plantation--the federal government, "outside agitators," "northern aggression"--stirs them up. That myth denies the agency of slaves, the agency of later black citizens, and gives it all to paternalistic whites.

I keep in a china cabinet in our dining room two photographs. One is of a handsome, white-bearded black man, seated, holding a white child, about three years old, flanked by two young white girls leaning on his knees. The man has a very solemn expression. On the back of the photo is this inscription: "Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901." Katherine is my husband's grandmother, and Mary and Helen are her sisters. "Shirley" is, as far as I have been able to discover, an old family retainer who worked for the Nugent family in their second home in Salem, Virginia, and maybe even in their previous home in New Orleans. The mother of these children was Mary Nugent Armstrong, my husband's great-grandmother. I have learned a lot about the Nugent family by reading some of the hundreds of family letters we have. Mary's father, Perry Nugent, was once a rich man in New Orleans, a president of the Cotton Exchange. [He lost just about everything in the 1880s.]

This photograph, however innocently intended and cherished, represents the myth of the South: the beloved servant, happy in his station, surrounded by the white children of his former mistress. The nostalgia is reflected in the inscription, where the black man is honored not with the title of "Mr." and his last name but with the name by which the family called him, Shirley. The nostalgia is reflected in the beautiful silver frame which encases the photograph. 

Years later, I found a second photograph of this man in the large collection we have of Tom's family photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. The photo was not framed. In front of a plain background, the man sits with two beautiful black children, one perched on his knee, perhaps the age of young Helen, another, leaning against his left leg, perhaps the age of Katharine or Mary. The people are not identified; the photo has no inscription beyond that of the photography studio, Maury Bros., in Roanoke, VA, & Salem, VA. What has always struck me is the contrast between the expression on this man's face, this younger "Shirley" surrounded by his two children or grandchildren, and the older "Shirley" surrounded by the white children of the family for whom he had worked for many years. The younger man has a much more open expression, less solemn, proud and happy. 
This photo was taken long after the Civil War, but it's very possible that this man had once been a slave. Here he is "free," and his children and grandchildren might have lived long, enjoying his company, rather than being ripped from his arms and "sold down the river," where they would have worked hard in cotton fields and been subjected to physical and sexual violence. But the South then was on the cusp of instituting Jim Crow laws, laws that not only prevented blacks from voting but that kept them subjected still to white rule, "slavery by another name."

I framed the photograph and placed it with the one of my husband's grandmother and great-aunts, as an antidote to Southern white nostalgia, a nostalgia that negates the terror of white rule that continued far into the twentieth century and whose consequences we still reap today.

Those monuments to the Confederacy are steeped in nostalgia, a white-wash of history. As Garrett Epps writes:
[t]hose monuments, that reverence for the Lost Cause and its leaders, do lasting damage to all that live in their shadows....
...Formally segregation died in July 1964--but it lived on in the minds of those taught to weep for the red and the gray, and it lives on in the hearts of their children and grandchildren. It poisoned the heart of Dylan Roof, who killed nine African-American worshipers at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; I suspect it lives on in the heart of the man who now sits in the cabinet seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.
My city, state, and region is still troubled by the echoes of shots fired in April 1861. It is poorer, more violent, less welcoming, less democratic, less healthy, less educated and less livable because some of its people cling to the myth that men can be flawless demigods while taking up arms to maintain their human property. 
The statues should come down, all of them, the way the Stalin statues came down in Eastern Europe, the Saddam statues in Iraq.
And those who continue to fly the Confederate flag or promote "states' rights" with no recognition of the bloody and tainted history of that phrase should be educated of their ignorance. Michael Harriot reminds us that
[a]side from the fact that by 1860, many Americans had realized that slavery was cruel--so much so that they were willing to go to war to end the practice--the people who defend monuments that celebrate white supremacy and black genocide are just like their ancestors: indignant about continuing an evil practice.
Even if their descendants didn't think of it as evil then--we do now! Championing a bygone era that fought for human bondage is like sitting back and fondly remembering the good old days when a man could beat his wife for burning the pot roast. 


Links in this post:

Dolores Monet. "Women's Clothing of the South in the American Civil War." Bellatory. 5 December 2016.  https://bellatory.com

Garrett Epps. "The Motionless Ghosts that Haunt the South." The Atlantic. 14 May 2017.

"Louisiana White League Platform (1874)." Website: Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/

"Liberty Monument (New Orleans)." Wikipedia. Updated, 15 May 2017.

Andrew Vanacore. "Among contested New Orleans monuments, Liberty Place marker has always been a battleground." The Advocate. April 14, 2017.

Anita Dugat-Greene. "The Nugents: The Second Generation." blog post at Left for Texas. 16 August 2013. https://leftfortexas.blogspot.com

"Slavery by Another Name." Wikipedia. Updated 12 May 2017. [Description of Douglas Blackmon's book--more information here: 
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06202008/profile2.html]

Michael Harriot. "Why Wypipo Love the Confederacy, Explained." The Root. 2 May 2017.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Everything the man touches....

...turns not to gold, but to ash. And his phoenix rises not of his own doing but because others are complicit in helping him in his vast weakness. Banks found him too big to fail, and so they backed him while he abandoned his own investors. Radio hosts and television producers found him brash, profane, vain and vulgar in his gold-plated penthouse. And so they interviewed him, promoted him,  and burnished his image for higher ratings. A large portion of the American public found in him a strongman, an authoritarian daddy who promised to spank and humiliate everyone and everything they hated about their culture, their own lives, and a world that refuses to accept their exceptionalism. Leaders of authoritarian governments find him ignorant, prideful, gullible, and easily manipulated to their own ends. He is a man of his times made powerful by the ventriloquists behind the screen as well as the viewers in front of the screen who have been duped by the propaganda of reality TV and a news empire created and bolstered by predators and con men.

A couple of days ago I read an interview with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of a new book titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder's books on the second world war, genocide, eastern Europe and eastern European leaders have been awarded prizes and have received international acclaim. In that interview, as well as in other articles by Snyder that I have read, Snyder predicts that Donald Trump will attempt to take advantage of some national disaster to overthrow democracy. His point of comparison is the Reichstag fire of 1933, the fire at the German parliament started by arson. The arsonist was identified as a young communist (though others have suggested that the Nazis themselves started the fire as a false flag), and Hitler used this fire and the fear of communism to suspend civil liberties and to establish his dictatorial power in what had been a young democracy

Any person with an understanding of history and authoritarian personalities could see in Donald Trump's presidential campaign fascistic tendencies, but to draw parallels between Trump and Hitler, to claim that it's "inevitable" that Trump will try to overthrow democracy in much the same way seems a comparison about which one should be very cautious. Eight years of listening to people screaming that Barack Obama was going to take away their guns and establish a dictatorship pretty much moved me into the arena of reading, research and careful deduction when it comes to drawing conclusions about our leaders. I certainly don't want to be like those idiots.

And so while I read the interview with interest and cautiously agreed with the points the historian was making, I hesitated to share on social media an interview titled "Historian Timothy Snyder: 'It's pretty much inevitable' that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy."

And then, a day or two after I read the interview, Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.

What?! James Comey's public statements about Hillary Clinton's emails just days before the election likely helped Donald Trump get elected president. At the time, Trump praised Comey for re-opening the e-mail investigation (emails which, of course, turned out to be nothing worth investigating--not criminal but careless). In their first meeting after the presidential inauguration, Trump greeted Comey with an air kiss and a nuzzle.  But Trump's support soured when FBI investigations came too close to him. And then, like many of the current president's actions and decisions, the narrative of those actions and decisions shape-shifted as the public reacted.

When I read online about Comey's firing just minutes after it became public knowledge, the White House narrative was that Trump fired Comey on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. While Sessions has a dubious history of public service, Rosenstein has had, until now, a stellar reputation as a "straight-shooting law-enforcement official respected by members of both parties."  For his part, Rosenstein is unhappy that the administration used his reputation as cover for Comey's firing. But that's how this president works: duck, cover, deflect, re-direct.

Then the narrative shifted: No, it was the president's decision, and he told Rosenstein and Sessions to come up with a memo justifying the decision. Oh, and Comey deserved firing because he unprofessionally handled the Clinton email case; he should never had talked publicly about an FBI investigation, especially so close to the election (an explanation which directly contradicted Trump's praise of Comey during the campaign and just after the inauguration).

As journalists of the Washington Post report
But the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, paint a conflicting narrative centered on the president's brewing personal animus toward Comey. Many of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss internal deliberations. [my emphasis]
Trump was angry that Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump was frustrated when Comey revealed in Senate testimony the breadth of the counterintelligence investigation into Russia's effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russian probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.
 The descriptions of Trump's "brewing personal animus" in this report and others illustrate again how, to Trump, everything is about him. He is a massive egotist. In an interview with Lester Holt of NBC today, Trump claims to have fired Comey because Comey is a "showboat" and a "grandstander." No one out-showboats or out-grandstands Trump and gets away with it! Trump's firing of Comey was a grandstand in itself--directing the termination letter to be delivered to FBI headquarters by his long-time personal bodyguard; firing Comey when he was across the country in the middle of addressing FBI agents; having Comey receive the news through a televised report, with a ready-made audience to witness his humiliation. This is Trump, the well-coiffed, perfectly polished and groomed actor of The Apprentice. Our president runs the government like a goddamn reality TV show.

In that interview, Trump and his spokespeople also make claims that other sources contradict. Trump describes an FBI agency in disarray and his deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has suggested that FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey's leadership. But journalists from The Washington Post report that "[w]ithin the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear...Many employees said they were furious about the firing, saying the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the FBI's independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job." And in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Andrew G. McCabe, acting director of the FBI, "rejected the White House's assertion that Mr. Comey had lost the backing of rank-and-file FBI agents."

The lies, obfuscation, and contradictory narratives that come out of this White House are amazingly brazen. The increasing authoritarian tendencies aided and abetted by those highly appointed in the administration, by elected officials, and by those closest personally to Trump are deeply troubling. At times like these, historian Timothy Snyder advises us: 
The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than [in] a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that, it really can make a difference--but again only at the beginning....
...be as courageous as you can. Do you actually care enough about freedom that you would take risks? Do individuals actually care about freedom? Think that through. I think if enough of us take the little risks at the beginning, which aren't really that significant, this will prevent us from having to take bigger risks down the line. 
We are still at a stage where protest is not illegal. [Note: States are now trying to crack down on protests:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/08/donald-trump-anti-protest-bills] We're still at a stage where protest is not lethal. Those are two big thresholds. We are still on the good side of both of those thresholds and so now is the time you want to pack in as much as you can because you could actually divert things....
....Every day you don't do something, it makes it less likely that you will ever do something. So you've got to get started right away.  
Let's get started. 


Sources linked to in this post:

Chauncey Devega. "Historian Timothy Snyder: 'It's pretty much inevitable' that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy." Salon. 1 May 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. "The Reichstag Warning." The New York Review of Books. 26 February 2017.

Ian Kershaw. "How democracy produced a monster." The New York Times. 3 February 2008.

David Ferguson. "Pres. Trump nuzzles FBI Director James Comey's cheek after blowing him a kiss at White House event." RawStory. 22 January 2017.

"Attorney General Sessions: A Rubber Stamp for the Chief Executive?" at theusconstitution.org

David Leonhardt. "Rod Rosenstein Fails His Ethics Test." The New York Times. 10 May 2017.

Pamela Brown and Evan Perez. "Rosenstein unhappy with White House handling of Comey firing: sources." CNN Politics. Online. 11 May 2017.

Ali Vitali and Corky Siemaszko. "Trump Interview with Lester Holt: President Asked Comey If He was Under Investigation." NBC News. Online. 11 May 2017.

Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz, and Robert Costa. "Inside Trump's anger and impatience--and his sudden decision to fire Comey." The Washington Post. 10 May 2017.

"Latest Developments on Comey: Active F.B.I. Chief Contradicts White House." The New York Times. 11 May 2017.

Adam Gabbatt. "Anti-protest bills would 'attack right to speak out' under Donald Trump." The Guardian. 8 May 2017.

A few other sources I read in the last couple of days:

"Reichstag Fire." Wikipedia. Last edited 27 April 2017.

Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, Michael S. Schmidt, and Peter Baker. "'Enough was Enough": How Festering Anger at Comey Ended in his Firing." The New York Times. 10 May 2017. 

Alice Ollstein. "Amid Comey Fallout, Senate Intel Chairs Discuss Russian Probe with Deputy AG." Talking Points Memo. 11 May 2017.

Lucian K. Truscott IV. "Americans are witnessing a slow-motion coup." Salon. 10 May 2017.

Josh Marshall. "Into the Abyss: Trump Fires Comey." TPM. 9 May 2017.

Josh Marshall. "Some Key Fact Points to Get Our Bearing." TPM. 10 May 2017.

Elizabeth Wydra. "Bad Law." Slate. 9 January 2017. 

William Saletan. "The White House is Lying about Comey." Slate. 10 May 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Spring at Casa Malpollos


Snow covers peach blossoms on March 28, 2017
Last year we put in our first full garden in Arizona where we live near the White Mountains, at 7200 feet above sea level. Most of our gardening experience has been in the South (Texas, Georgia, Louisiana) except for a couple of years in northern Minnesota. The monsoon season begins here at the beginning of July, and most long-timers don't begin planting until May. However, we decided to experiment, and I planted cool season seeds (arugula, mesclun mixes, radishes) on April 10th. I followed suit this year, and these cool season plants survived the late freezes that are common here. But the warmer season plants that survived early planting last year were hit hard by those late freezes this year.

The weather here is not consistent, and gardeners are frequently disappointed. Friends who live just five miles away, nearer the Little Colorado River and at a little lower elevation, have never had apples from their apple trees. Yet last year, even though many blooms were killed in a frost, we harvested plenty of apples for canning. This year, we had such warm weather in March that we were encouraged by all the peach and apple blooms. Then the area turned colder, with freezing temperatures and snow the last week of March. 
the snow of 27-28 March 2017--peach tree full of blossoms, covered with snow





















We were amazed, however, to see tiny fruit swellings on the peach, pear, cherry, and apple trees--only to be disappointed again by a late freeze and snow on April 29th and 30th. All the little fruits were killed, as well as the tiny, curling leaves just emerging on our grape vines. Even the hardy, ornamental Russian sage was killed back, its spring leaves withering in the cold. I wait to see if those will sprout back. 
The snow of April 29-30, 2017

The garden after the snow of April 29, 2017
With so many spring-flowering plants affected by those snows, the bees, which had been covering the blooms of the fruit trees, began swarming the hardier plants. I had planted arugula and mesclun mixes last fall. The plants hunkered down, survived the winter, and are now in bloom and full of bees every day.
Arugula and mustard flowering in the early spring garden--These plants survived the winter.
The arugula, mesclun mixes, and radishes we planted in early-to-mid April are doing well, potatoes have sprouted, and the garlic has 5- to 6-inch leaves. The parsley that I planted by seed last year also resprouted; they are biennial plants. Today I made a great salad with those greens and parsley.
Arugula and mixed mustards, early May garden
We have also added to our animal quotient on our little half-acre "suburban farm." When we bought this house, the previous owners had chickens and turkeys; we kept the chickens, ate the roosters, and now have four hens left from the original flock. In March, I purchased six little Wyandotte chicks (purported to be pullets at the local feedstore so there better not be any cockerels among them!). For the first three weeks, we kept the chicks in a large box in one of our spare bathrooms where we could set up a heater as well as a heat lamp. Then, as the weather warmed up, we moved the chicks to a rabbit hutch that we put in the garage, again with a heater and heat lamp set up to keep the growing chicks warm. Yesterday we moved the chicks to the hen house. They are in a small cage that Tom built in order to help the older hens and chicks become acquainted, with as little anxiety and pullet pecking as possible. In a week, we will release them into the larger hen yard.
One (of the two) black hens checks out the chicks yesterday (6 April 2017)
chicks in the hen house--The cage will keep them separated from the older hens for a week.
Now we are experiencing the high winds that the area is famous for--wind and very dry weather. Gardening here is a challenge, but so far, we've been up for the challenge.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Art Car #2: A Different and More Diverting Obsession

Last week I deleted the Facebook app from my cell phone and posted on Facebook that I would be off the site for a while. Social media eats up so much of one's time, especially if one is retired (or unemployed) such as I. The notifications are difficult to ignore. Who has responded to that latest post? What news outlet I've liked has gone live with an update or a video interview? What's the latest outrageous tweet from Donald Trump and how is the world responding? 

As I extricated myself from the time-suck of Facebook, I decided to divert myself further with art and craft. What better way to deal with the damaging effects of a Trump administration than to focus on art? It's certainly how I got through the Bush administration and the horrifying consequences of the Iraq war: I created an art car which I first drove in the 2003 Houston Art Car Parade and thereafter in parades in Austin; Baton Rouge;  Houston again; Decatur, GA; and Atlanta, GA. 

Instead of being outraged over every Trump tweet or despairing over an administration that cares little for responsible and transparent statesmanship, free of conflicts of interest, I will be obsessing over something a lot more fun to do: creating Art Car #2. This doesn't mean I won't be lobbying my Congressmen (and they are, unfortunately, all men!) to act in ways I think are best for the future of our planet and its inhabitants. This doesn't mean I won't be keeping up with the news. I'll just be obsessing less over what I cannot control. 

Today I finished the first installment in my art car, a covering for the steering wheel. While I am still mulling over a theme for the car, I have decided that art car #2 will be a yarn car primarily, with a crocheted and pieced covering that can be removed from the outside of the car. My goal is to have a completed art car by the 2019 Houston Art Car Parade.

We'll see how it goes.



Monday, March 27, 2017

A Reflection on the First Bees of the Season

one of the first bees I've seen this season--several buzzing around peach blooms
For the past few years I have been stalking bees and other pollinators in my gardens, first in Louisiana and now in Arizona. Taking photos of pollinators has opened up a whole new world to me, a world that we usually pass with little thought. I have identified creatures that I didn't even know existed and have watched dramas unfold in flowers. Paying attention to bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, and other pollinators has also made me more aware of the importance of sharing this world responsibly. It's an awareness that's gaining ground with a lot of people, including some corporations. 

The breakfast cereal Cheerios recently highlighted the plight of bees, some species of which are disappearing from our landscapes in record numbers, in a campaign the company called #BringBacktheBees. Every package of Honey Nut Cheerios provided information that encouraged customers to go online to order free packages of wildflower seeds (over 1.5 billion seeds, according to the Cheerios website). In addition, General Mills left a blank space on its packaging where the cereal's mascot Buzz the Bee usually appeared. The ad certainly had an important message, but like a lot of advertising, it over-simplified the problems of reduced habitat and threatened and endangered species. Some of the flower seeds included in the packets are native to some areas in the United States, but not others. This might not be a problem, necessarily, but the flowers might not be ones that native bees of an area usually pollinate.

The other issue is that while honeybees have had some serious problems in hive die-off and those problems have transferred to feral populations of honeybees, it's the native bees that are most seriously endangered. Honeybees are exotic to this country, introduced from Europe by white settlers. Because honeybees are used commercially in agriculture, from those bees transferred from farm to farm to pollinate fruit trees to those bred for honey production, European honeybees will always have moneyed support to fund research when a serious issue arises. Native bees and other pollinators, however, are extremely important in pollinating native plants, and these pollinators are often overlooked in popular Save-the-Bees campaigns. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pollinators face threats from habitat loss and degradation as well as over-use of pesticides:
As native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, crops and non-native gardens, pollinators lose the food and nesting sites that are necessary for their survival.  Migratory pollinators face special challenges.  If the distance between the suitable habitat patches along their migration route is too great, smaller, weaker individuals may die during their journey.
According to research, native bees do a tremendous amount of work pollinating fruit and vegetables, with honeybees supplementing that pollination. In the words of one researcher, "honeybees can't do it alone." Native bees are most efficient in pollinating watermelons, tomatoes, blueberries, and squash, among other fruits. I have witnessed squash bees pollinating our squash plants here in Arizona. 
bee in squash flower (I took this photo in our garden in 2016)
And every year I listen for the arrival of bumblebees in our tomato patch. They seem less prolific than other bees. Yesterday while trying to take photos of bees visiting the blooms on one of our peach trees (blooms which will probably be hurt by freezing temperatures expected this week), I heard and then saw one lonely bumblebee buzzing around the blooms at the top of the tree. 
This was the best photo I could get of the first bumblebee I have seen this season.
Bombus huntii?
I have never understood the urge to create large, uniform swathes of green lawn and roadsides, and knowing what I know now about the degradation of pollinator habitats, I am even more adverse to those boring expanses of green, often made even more desolate by pesticides. In Louisiana, I let a large patch of daisy fleabane grow in a corner of our yard and was rewarded with being able to view and photograph the hundreds of pollinators that visited that patch. 

Here in Arizona, I am encouraging patches of native flowers as well as allowing dandelions to grow in the small grassy lawn that a previous owner planted in front of our house.
dandelions in our lawn
Yesterday I counted four different species of bees pollinating the peach blossoms in one tree (with the coming freeze, at least the bees got some pollen; we're not likely to get peaches.) Each species had a different buzzy hum. The natural world is full of music, if we only stop to listen.
bee landing on a dandelion in our front yard
bee landed and at work gathering pollen
deep in pollen