Thursday, March 29, 2007

Time Out

I need a "time out" from daily blogging to catch up on overdue correspondence and also to work on some technical and design improvements for Pandababy.

I'll be back next week.

Monday, March 26, 2007

My Irish Grandmother and Other Heroes

Clara May Barchus, born in 1882 to Oregon Trail pioneer Constant Barchus and his wife Elizabeth Sherrill, was the daughter of a red-haired, fiddle-playing Irish American. Clara grew up on a farm with five brothers and two sisters.

Her days were spent close to the land. She went berry-picking with her mother in the summer, and they made pies and jam from the fruit. Her mother kept a Holstein cow, and Clara helped churn the butter. Her father owned two beautiful horses that pulled the hay wagon, and also served for riding (usually bareback).

Clara helped her mother in the kitchen, making bread and other food for the family. They worked for hours every day in the kitchen to feed a family of ten. When dinner was ready, her mother would stand on the porch and ring the large bell to call the men in from the fields.

My grandmother died (of adult onset diabetes) before I was born. Her parents both died when my father was a baby. All that I know of their lives, I know from research into public records, and from visiting distant relatives who had pictures, heirlooms, and sometimes stories.

A third cousin introduced me to an elderly aunt who remembered Clara's father and brothers playing the fiddle for a barn dance in the early nineteen-hundreds. A great-uncle recalled haying with Clara's father and listening to him tell of his journey over the Oregon Trail as a young man in 1864. (The Oregon Trail is over 2,000 miles long, and the average day's journey was twelve to fifteen miles, some days less.)

Simple joys, like a glass of freshly churned buttermilk, or a nutting party, were significant. Joking and singing, the whole family worked hard and long hours for the basic needs of life. Clara's blind grandfather, who lived with them the last few years of his life, would follow a rope guide to the vegetable garden where he pulled weeds, finding them by touch. There's always work to do on a farm, and everyone from the youngest to the oldest contributed.

Clara's family, and the neighbors around them, were unified in a way few in this country are today. Nearly everyone farmed. They were born, grew up, and worked on a farm. They attained an intimate understanding of each other because of their shared experiences farming and their shared dependence on their farms and their farming neighbors.

Even with the limited medical care and other negatives of that time, I think their lives were good, and maybe better than we can have today. When they went outside at night and looked up, the Milky Way in all its glory streamed across the heavens, undimmed by pollution and city lights. Instead of watching American Idol for entertainment, they practiced for their own variety shows. They didn't need to check their vegetables for an "Organic" label -- they picked the vegies from their own 'organic' garden.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Waiting for the sunshine

Yes, ol' sol is still out there. The sky brightens and darkens according to whether it is night or day. Here in Oregon, that doesn't mean we get sunshine. We have grey skies. Or mostly grey with a patch of blue. Or grey skies that are dripping with water in various intensity, from just-beyond-dew to drenched-in-a-second.

But no sunshine. Not all the way down here on earth. The photons bouncing around outdoors are not as bright as those in my home office.

This is the time of year I daydream of tropical beaches, and lay outlandish plans to visit one. Walk? no, too far. Swim? no, maybe sharks. Drive? tempting. Fly? not if I can help it. Take a boat? YES! That's it! take a boat. Cruise? too expensive, too short. hmmm.

Some people dream of trading in their home equity for a motor home and travelling around the country. Too bumpy.

I dream of turning my house into a nice, big sailboat and sailing off into blue skies and sunshine.

Just a daydream.

But I feel better already.

Friday, March 23, 2007

"Silver Metal Lover" a classic Science Fiction novel

Tanith Lee, 1981
ISBN: 0-553-58127-9

Perhaps there are others like me, who missed reading "The Silver Metal Lover", a classic Science Fiction novel when it was first published a quarter century ago, and published again in 1999.

The heroine, sixteen-year-old Jane, comes of age in the book, so I suppose it would be classified as a teen or young adult novel in the Science Fiction genre. It is also a funny and moving romance, a commentary on what it means to be human, and a satire on political expediency.

In some future world, where the rich have escaped to mansions in the clouds, and the poor live like New York City poor in the depression years, two unlikely people find love and fulfillment in the slums. Although the plot is about love between a girl and a robot, the novel is not erotica. The crux of the novel is about a young woman asserting her identity. Tanith Lee uses a light but deft touch to show Jane's overbearing mother, and Jane's shallow friends. Lee creates a convincing world, one where Jane's choices make so much sense, that they seem normal and not bizarre at all.

I read the novel a month ago, but Lee's poetic descriptions are vivid to me now as I write this. Lee understands how to build empathy for her characters and tension in her scenes. She keeps her part of the writer-reader bargain: she delivers the magnificent climax, the fulfilling ending.

Tanith Lee is a prolific writer, and this book, although one of her earliest, is still a favorite among her fans. It reads like a dream, one that I didn't want to end. Don't miss it.

I wrote this review last year for the Forward Motion TBR boards. Check out the other reviewers there, for some satisfying reading. Lazette Giffords review of "Hunter of Worlds" (also in the SF category) led me to one of the most unforgettable SF books I've read in decades.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"The Modern Ark" - Join the Zoo

Yesterday I purchased a membership in the Oregon Zoo.

When I was a child, my parents took me there to see Rosie the elephant, the zoo's first Asian elephant. I was transfixed by the sight of Babar come to life. Years later in Chicago, we visited an elephant exhibit where the elephants were kept behind glass in a cement and tile room, chained to the wall. I remember feeling horrified by their captivity.

Since then, I've had a love-hate relationship with zoos. In San Diego in the 1960's, I was again entranced by animals in a zoo. The captives lived in outdoor pens behind a moat, provided with landscaping that mimicked their natural habitats. My wonder as I gazed at the amazing diversity of life was only occasionally marred with twinges of guilt that my pleasure was purchased with their captivity.

It's been over fifty years since I first saw Rosie the elephant. I have grown up and so have many zoos. No longer merely a freak show of species to amuse the crowds, zoos have become the foremost guardian for the future of endangered animals, and the primary source of education on the meaning of environment and survival.

"The Modern Ark", by Vicki Croke, shows how zoos are becoming gene banks for panda bears, gorillas, and other threatened species. Working closely with each other, zoos are using modern DNA analysis to prevent inbreeding among small surviving groups of animals. Vicki shows that "Zoos have the potential to save more biodiversity than any other private organization." (page 243.) Instead of every zoo holding large and identical collections of animals in overcrowded and dismal surroundings, zoos are are focusing on unique collections, becoming expert in the care and breeding of animals that are housed in much larger and carefully designed enclosures.

The Oregon Zoo here in Portland opened conservation programs Great Northwest and Cascade Crest exhibits in 1998, and launched the Future for Wildlife in 2002. Mountain goats, black bears, eagles, cougars, elk, sea lions and otters leap, climb, soar and swim in their natural habitats, while scientists and students study them for ways to preserve them in their northwest environments.

While some zoos are racing to fulfill a complex destiny of education, conservation and preservation, others have not yet made the paradigm shift in their comprehension of their potential. Does your zoo have conservation programs, or programs for genetic preservation of species? Is there leadership in your city with a vision of the new zoo who support funding for DNA preservation of endangered species.

What's in your zoo?

Monday, March 19, 2007

"Butterfly and Hellflower", Language and Honor

Butterfly and Hellflower is written in English - sort of. Portions are in jargon or slang, which I found as delightful as the paragraphs in plain English. Originally published as a trilogy in three consecutive books - "Hellflower", "Darktraders" and "Archangel Blues", "Butterfly and Hellflower" is the omnibus edition of all three together, inscribed on the dedication page,

"To Chris Jeffords, with honor."

The relevance of this book, which I read only this month, and which was published over fourteen years ago is two-fold: language and honor.

Eluki Bes Shahar, author of this curious and classic volume of Science Fiction, is also the author of Regency Romances under the name Rosemary Edgehill. I'm sure that one of the common themes between two such disparate genres is honor: honor in the intentions and motivations of the heroine, and honor in her actions. In novels that interest me, conflict appears quickly in the story. In novels that interest me the most, conflict is not merely a fight or even a war, but in the opposing needs, desires and loyalties of the main character. In a book like "Butterfly and Hellflower" -- or a much more complex and recent book, such as "Talyn" by Holly Lisle -- the heroines may suffer, they may risk death and things worse than death, they may make mistakes and endure the consequences, but they keep their honor. It is not that they are not tempted to do something less than honorable -- it is that they fear losing their honor more than they fear anything else. They would rather die than live without honor. It is not that they cannot change their minds, be persuaded, learn something new -- but their integrity is not up for grabs.

If the real world were overflowing with examples of honor and integrity, I might not care so much to read about it in novels. Is it because honor is in such short supply these days that even the word has fallen out fashion, or has the word fallen out of common usage because honor itself is no longer common? I fear we lost the practice before we lost our understanding of word. If that is so, could a renewed comprehension and respect for the word bring honor itself back into common practice and expectations?

Honor is still in demand in the military tradition, in the practice and fraternity of the fire, police and emergency workers, as we clearly saw on 9-11. If honor is not equally at home in the halls of Congress and the boardrooms of great corporations, it is because it is not welcome there, not expected there, not in demand there.

And that is the shame of it all. If our nation is to have honor, it cannot be treated like the family silver, polished up for special occasions and then left to tarnish in between events. Honor, to be honor, must be threaded through every aspect of our daily lives -- work and play, business and worship, family and strangers.

If, like me, you enjoy Science Fiction and are hungry for honor, even if (only) in a novel, you might enjoy reading "Butterfly and Hellflower".

This excerpt is from the fly-cover:
"I was making my way around wondertown; free, female, and a damn sight over the age of reason, when I saw this greenie right in front of me in the street, about to mix it up with K'jarn and six of his werewolves. And hell, it was seven-on-one and I never liked K'jarn anyway.
That was my first mistake, rescuing a Hellflower. It turned out he was Valijon Starbringer, son of one of the Hellflower hig muckety-mucks, the meanest, toughest, mercenaries in the universe. And now he said he owed me his life, said it like he hated it, like he'd rather be dead than owe me.
And me, Butterfly St. Cyr, darktrader, interdicted barbarian, and the partner of Paladin, a death-to-possess Old Federation Artificial Intelligence, all I wanted was to get Valijon out of my own life and get back to business.
Some folk might call my business smuggling, but, hey, I know how much I can bend the law and when to stop before it breaks me.
Anyway, I probably should have walked away right after that street meet. But the next thing I knew I heard the kid had got in trouble and wound up in jail. So what could I do but break him out. And since I set off every alarm the Free Port had while doin' it, there was nothin for it but to blast out of there, taking my new pet Hellflower with me. After all, where was the harm? He'd see a little of the galaxy he'd never seen before--just as long as he didn't ever tumble to Paladin bein' on board--and after I delivered my cargo, I'd drop him into the lovin arms of his all-too-powerful da.
That was the plan anyway, but the rest of the galaxy seemed to have other ideas, ideas that included seeing that Valijon never made it home alive..."

Faster, Pandababy, Go Faster

Pandababy has a new 'minimal' template, for faster loading into your browser. Somehow I stumbled upon a handy tool - an analysis of loading times for my blog, at WebSiteOptimization.com.

I wish I could remember where I found the link, so I could thank whoever posted it.

While I'm still not satisfied with the how long it takes for a new user to upload this blog, I have made it a little faster. Being tardy to "answer a knock at my door" would be rude, would it not?

The people at Web Site Optimization have a noble cause: to make the Internet faster for everyone, by showing what makes web pages slow to load, and showing how to correct it. Their tool is free, and easy to use.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

An old scandal not dead yet

A fundraising marketer phoned on behalf of the conservative coalition of the Republican party last weekend. Usually I hang up as politely as possible on phone solicitors, but I was curious as to what conservative Republican leaders were thinking, so I agreed to listen to a brief recorded message from Michael Reagan (the son of former President Ronald Reagan).

I was not impressed. The solicitor wanted me to answer a brief survey after the recording. The first question was along the lines of 'What is the most important issue facing the country today'? I was given several choices, including illegal immigration, health care, balancing the budget, and the war in Iraq.

In response, I asked "What if I think the most important issue facing our country today isn't in your list?" Naturally, they asked me what that would be.

"Honor. I think the most important issue right now is honor in our elected representatives -- that they do the right thing for the people."

"Oh yeah", the voice on the phone answered, "Honesty."

"NO. I said *honor*. I want our leaders to stop plundering our country as soon as they are in office. I want them to care about honor more than they care about manipulating my vote."

"Well, yes, they should be sincere," the voice replied again.

And that is where I lost it. I didn't even know how angry I've been for the past few years, but here was someone wanting me to donate to a political cause, and they had a list of things they thought their constituents cared about, and they couldn't even get the number one thing on the list right!

So I gave them my opinion, free of charge, free of hate language or cuss-words. Just my opinion. I told them that if I could find a politician with honor, I'd donate to them and not care which party they represented. I added that after voting Republican for forty years, I had changed my vote, and the party leadership could thank themselves for that, because their actions were the reason why.

I'm outraged about the abuse of the young pages in Congress, and the cover-up of that abuse at the highest levels of the party. There was a reason no one confronted the abuser: they didn't want to rock the political boat. They thought they needed that slime ball's cooperation.

What a terrific irony, that the very thing they sold their honor for was the thing that they lost when the story came out. They traded integrity for power, and they lost power.

I may be unrealistic to believe that our Senators and Representatives in Congress ought to be honorable men and women who do the right thing even when it is inconvenient, but I know I'm not alone in my feelings, because the last election was very punitive to the Republican party. Even though it was a Republican who blew the whistle, the fact that they had to go against their party leadership to do so was too large a factor to ignore.

"Well, that is old news" you say? I think if it is still rocking the political boat, still motivating people to withhold their support and money, then it is news that is about to become very interesting again, and soon.

The candidates for the next presidential election are jockeying for position and trying to raise money. McCain, that experienced realist, didn't even bother to go to CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) this month. He's read the writing on the wall, and he understands the voters.

We feel betrayed by the evidence of rampant cronyism and disillusioned by vital offices such as FEMA being handed out like political plums to the grossly under qualified. We the people are in visceral pain over the blatant influence peddling, even trying to turn the attorney generals offices into political footballs.

With a two party system, when both parties decide to abuse the powers of office, where do the people turn?

I envy the British and Australian people for having a parliamentary government, but I don't know if that would help us at this point. The quality of government will reflect the quality of those in leadership. Does the quality of those in leadership reflect the quality of the voters, of the country?

I dread the coming presidential elections more than any election in which I have cast my vote. I'm afraid that no matter who is elected, the trading of honor for power will continue.

I'm afraid that who is elected doesn't matter anymore. In a democracy, that is truly something to fear.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Shield and a charming legend

St. Patrick lived from 385 to 461, and one-thousand five hundred and forty-six years later his legend is still strong.

How much of what we know of him today is truth, and how much is myth? The very language he spoke then has been transmuted by the passage of time into something he wouldn't recognize.

The prayer known as St. Patrick's Shield may be found in countless versions, long or short, rhyming or not, and some even set to music. Many of the versions note that another name for St. Patrick's Shield is "The Deer's Cry". Why? (I was the kid who always asked "why" - and still am today.)

Reading this short and charming legend of St. Patrick, I was again reminded of why I love this saint.

The following excerpt from "The Deer's Cry" resonated with my love of earth and sky.

I arise today,
through the strength of Heaven;
light of Sun,
brilliance of Moon,
splendor of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind,
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Irish to the Bone

Hooray for my Irish ancestors who came to America over 250 years ago. Here's to the clans (or sub-clans) of Barchus and Moore -

and a toast for the rest of my Celtic ancestors: Scot clans Anderson, McKenzie and the Welsh clan Evans: Here's to the women strong and proud, and the men they married, brave and true.

God Bless the Irish.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Punctuation is Funny

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
By Lynne Truss, copyright 2003
ISBN: 1-592-40087-6

Punctuation is a funny subject if the writer is Lynne Truss. In the understated and humorous manner of P. G. Wodehouse, Truss discusses the usage, history and fine distinctions of quotation marks, semi-colons, exclamations marks! etc., as demonstrated in this quote from the back cover:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife novel and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

My son gave me "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" last year for my birthday. At first I felt dismay -- a book on punctuation for a birthday present?

Discovery: it's the perfect present for a writer.

Lynn's forty-two-page essay on the comma is a marvel of humor, history, and literary correspondence. At the hands of Lynne Truss the apostrophe, colon and semicolon are hilarious subjects. The distinction between a hyphen and a dash is risible!

The most vexing questions for many writers center on quotation marks, used with commas, periods, etc. The author illuminates the quirks of punctuation with discussions of historical usage. Writers began using quotation marks about three hundred years ago, therefore the British style and American style developed separately and are opposite. Even more confusing is the use of quotation marks inside a quotation. Lynn Truss slices and dices all the dots and squiggles with aplomb.

I recommend reading "Eats Shoots & Leaves" at any convenient time: waiting at the dentist, in the bathtub, riding the subway. There is one time I recommend against reading the book. If you have a sense of humor, do not read this book while you are eating. Lynn's sly humor is sprinkled throughout the book, and spontaneous laughter combined with swallowing food can cause choking.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Pandas and Snow Leopards and Elephants - Oh My!

Does your heart melt, like mine, when you see a baby panda, a snow leopard cub, or a new-born elephant? Do you, like me, experience a breath-catching awe at the innate grace and beauty of those animals, grown to adult size and roaming free in their natural terrain?

The Giant Panda is still an endangered species, with only one thousand pandas remaining. Expansion of the human population into the panda's habitat, and the resulting destruction of their food and shelter, is squeezing the rare vegetarian bear out of existence.

Snow Leopards - perhaps as few as 3,500 of them, are hunted to near extinction for the monetary value of their fur and organs. Human poverty is the source of their endangerment.

Imperiled by success, Elephants are again threatened with extinction. While their habitat is over-run by expanding human populations, elephant populations which increase are (ironically) accused of 'over-breeding', and threatened with culling. South African officials add that they will kill entire families of elephants, as they "wish to lessen the grief of the survivors".

The elephant - largest land animal on earth; the snow leopard - a great cat that doesn't roar; the Panda Bear - a carnivore subsisting on bamboo: all are unique marvels, representative of lesser-known species already extinct or on the verge of disappearing from our planet by the thousands.

In her book "All Hearts on Deck", Frankie Seymour writes, (humans are) "a species which must learn compassion or die along with its victims..." (page 111); and also "I am convinced that the only thing that can save us now is compassion, and the intellectual recognition of compassion as the only motivation that is moral or rational or pragmatic. If we fail to accept compassion as our paradigm, it is possible, just possible, that some of us may survive anyway--but not in any world or any society that I would wish to see survive." (page 155)

In her novel "The Light Bearer", Donna Gillespie writes, ""If I live, I won't serve out of duty, as you did. Perhaps duty, that is where we went off course. If we serve it should be for -- for what? For love, love for what might be." (page 222)

For love of what might be,
for love of a world
where pandas roam free -
where whales dive deep -
where elephants don't grieve
the slaughter of kin --

let us serve with compassion.

Let us despise the gold
that poisons wilderness rivers
and ivory carved from tusks once living
and soft fur that knew the purr of a great cat.

Do we need to be draped in the evidence of murder
to feel beautiful?

Let us mingle our voices in a pool of compassion
that drowns out the drumbeat of
all who maintain that mankind must be first
and last until we are only -- all that is left.