Preaching to the birds
April 7, 2014 8:56 PM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall.
Matthew 7:26-27 (NASB)

NestI suspect that most people who visit this blog are familiar with the preceding Bible verses, and their context, where Jesus warns against putting one's trust into things without a firm foundation. He was, of course, not giving a lecture in architecture or civil engineering, and His intent was to address spiritual issues more than the mundane, practical things of life. But...that's not to say that there are no practical implications to this parable.

It's also quite possible to apply this principle to non-human undertakings, and if you substitute "bird" for "man," and "front door wreath" for "sand," and "West Texas winds" for - well, the parable does hit that one on the head - the logical conclusion might be this sad scene, which greeted us this afternoon after work.

Broken bird eggs on concrete

We had not even noticed the nest in the wreath until a couple of days ago, and I hadn't had a chance to see if there were eggs in yet (although I told Debbie that surely the birds hadn't yet laid any). But, judging by the carnage on the concrete, there were at least five, and possibly six eggs of unknown avian origin. Very sad, but...really birds? What were you thinking?

The nest is intact, and the wreath has been re-hung (and more securely), so we'll see if the parents were sufficiently traumatized that they'll give up on this location. But perhaps they'll try again. After all...Matthew 6:25-27.

Rites (and blights) of spring
April 5, 2014 12:29 PM | Posted in: ,

Spring has sprung (despite the temps in the 30s yesterday morning), as evidenced by the return of hummingbirds and barn swallows. The latter will apparently try to take up residence in the same nest they built on our front porch last year, provided they can run off the wren squatters - which, up until the swallows showed up, had no interest whatsoever in said nest, proving that birds are people, too.

The advent of spring, along with our best guess as to when the last freeze has occurred, also precipitates the annual ritual of the Torturing of The Sheltered Potted Plants. This takes place every year (hence the "annual," in case you were distracted by baby squirrels), and involves trundling out of the garage and onto the driveway the bougainvillea and other semi-tropical plants that we've nurtured through the winter. They somehow sense the change in season and begin to put on lush, pale green foliage even in the relatively dim light of the garage.

This, of course, is a display of bad judgment on their part, because they seem to forget what it's like to be thrust back into the brutal West Texas outdoor climate. And so we repeat the sad spectacle that's shown below. I'll let you try to guess which is the "before" and which is...well, you know.

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Incidentally, these photos were taken six days apart, but it took only about a day of 85º weather to turn the plants on the left into what you see on the right.

Fortunately for all involved, bougainvillea are pretty hardy and within a couple of weeks will be back in summer shape, until the cycle begins again next November.

Ode to a Bulb
April 3, 2014 10:03 PM | Posted in:

I subscribe to a small number of retail email lists that notify me of "special deals" on items that are of general interest to me...primarily electronics and some sporting goods. I rarely end up ordering anything via those e-flyers, but the one exception is Best Buy's "Deal of the Day" email. I've gotten some really good savings on things like memory cards and flash drives; these items pop up on the email frequently. And now I have another product that I'll be watching for: light bulbs.

The primary lighting source in our home is 65-watt equivalent indoor flood lamps in recessed ceiling fixtures (aka canned lights). I've never counted them but I'm guessing we have about thirty, and that adds up to a pretty significant investment in light bulbs. Our current bulb of choice is that evil incandescent model that haunts Al Gore's nightmares.

I've never been enamored with CFL bulbs. I gave the swirlies a whirl in our previous house and didn't see any greater life in those bulbs as compared to incandescents, and found the non-instant-on feature quite annoying. I'm all in favor of saving energy, but just can't see the devil in incandescent bulbs that everyone claims is lurking there.

I would, however, be quite open to trying an LED bulb, even though the strings of LED Christmas lights we used in the past were ridiculously wimpy. So, when Best Buy advertised these LED indoor floods for half price, I was intrigued. I put an order in for three of them, and have been using a couple in our home office for about a week. I'm very happy with the result.

LED light bulb

Even though the bulbs are slightly smaller than the ones they replaced, they're actually brighter, and they put out almost no heat, which will be a blessing when (if?) we get into serious summer. I have no idea if their lifespan will come close to the ridiculous-sounding claim on the box, but even if it's only half as good, it will still be better than the incandescents.

At a couple of sawbucks per bulb, I'm not anxious to undertake a wide scale replacement of all our bulbs, but at half that price, it begins to make more sense. So, I'm going to keep an eye out for future deals in the daily email, and see if the bulbs will actually make a noticeable dent in our electric bills.
I noticed this evening that someone had added my Twitter account to a group called "Bloggers in TX." That poor misguided soul had apparently not noticed the infrequency with which actual blogging-like activity occurs around here, but now I feel obligated to live up to his expectations. So, here're some buzzards.

Buzzards come home to roost in Fort Stockton, Texas
Capistrano has its swallows; Fort Stockton has its avian garbage disposals.

Best Dance Memories - Boogying on a Flattop
March 17, 2014 9:44 PM | Posted in:

This is the second in a series of recollections of favorite dancing memories. You can read more about why I'm writing about this here (along with an account of our very first public dance).

In 2011, we were vacationing in San Diego and found ourselves swing dancing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway, during a fundraiser for the YMCA. The event had a WWII-era theme and many of the attendees were dressed in fashions of the Forties. (I have underwear that's approximately that old, but that was the extent to which we participated in that aspect of the soirée.)

It's hard to overhype the allure of dancing to a live big band atop one of the most storied battleships in history, surrounded by equally historic warbirds and looking out over San Diego Harbor at night. We were a bit bemused by how few people actually danced, but weren't complaining  since the temporary dance floor laid on the deck was on the smallish side. We still occasionally had to slip off that floor and onto the deck itself, and dancing around those huge steel rivets just added to the special ambiance of the night.

Attendees at this event also got a private guided tour of the carrier-turned-museum, and that was icing on the cake.

This was one of our first experiences with out-of-town "dancing in the wild," as we like to call it, and it's a very liberating feeling to know that while you won't necessarily dance as though no one is watching, you can certainly dance as though no one you know or will likely ever see again is watching.

As a non-dance-related aside, we also got a reminder of the difference between the economy of West Texas and, well, the rest of the [non-Texas] nation. Despite having a population of approximately ten times that of Midland, the fundraiser brought in only a fraction of what we typically see around here. We've been blessed, and we seem to have a generous population who realizes it.

Random Thursday: The Sunday Graphic Edition
March 16, 2014 2:18 PM | Posted in:

I just received an official notice from the OBO (Official Bloggers Office) that unless I post something immediately, I'm in danger of losing my official blogger credentials, along with all privileges and appurtenances accruing thereto. After looking up "appurtenances," I decided I couldn't risk it, so...this.

Currently in Midland, Texas, winds are out of the north and windspeed is approximately Mach 8. In other words, it's a typical calm spring day in West Texas. Here's the view from our window:

Nothing to see here; move along
Artist rendering; not to scale

Speaking of gritty experiences, I just filed our 2013 federal income taxes. I would very much like to express gratitude for making enough money last year to have to pay (and to be able to afford to pay) income taxes, but all that comes to mind is #TooSoon. Fortunately, we have a government that has proven time and again to be excellent stewards of the funds willingly allotted to it by its citizenry and...and...well, I almost was able to type that with a straight face.

Anyway, once again this year I used the online version of TurboTax and if I was female, unmarried, forty years younger, and a science fiction character, I'd have TurboTax's children. I heart TurboTax. But their service is obviously designed for people of all, um, levels of sentience. I realized this when I agreed to take a survey after filing my taxes, and came across the following two questions.

Not sure about whether you're conscious?

If you're confused about the second question, that might be a logical explanation for being confused about the first one.

Speaking of the government and confusion, have any of you local folks noticed that our current president hasn't visited us, not even once? I'm at a loss to explain this, as West Texans have always been know for their hospitality, and ability to look past petty political differences to find the inevitable if tiny bits of common ground. Of course, some people are better at this than others.

Constitutionally protected speech
At least it's not a Ford

Frankly, I find it a tad distasteful; Bill Watterson's artwork deserves more respect than that.

One of my major accomplishments this weekend was changing the batteries in a clock, a timepiece we've had for several years, but one which I've obviously never paid much attention to. Notice anything a little strange about it?

The 14th month is my very favorite
The calendar function on this clock is perfect...if you live on one of Jupiter's moons

In closing, just when you start to think the world is a rational place after all, you spot something like this on Twitter:

Define 'intelligent'
"Reality check on aisle 13, please"

Given the enormity of the implications of the preceding, all I can say is...oh, look...a baby squirrel!

A blatantly ripped-off photo of a cute squirrel

God's blessings are not a zero sum game
March 2, 2014 5:00 PM | Posted in:

bless·ing [bles-ing] noun
1. the act or words of a person who blesses.
2. a special favor, mercy, or benefit: the blessings of liberty.
3. a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
A friend recently shared this article on Facebook. The author is decrying what he feels is an inappropriate and non-Scriptural use by Christians of the word "blessing" in reference to good things of a material nature that we sometimes enjoy. He says we should stop using that word with respect to financial and material somethings and instead just say we're "grateful." He admits that he's dealing in semantics, but feels that in this case, the semantics are meaningful and shouldn't be ignored.

I disagree with his premise.

You can be grateful, but it's just a nebulous emotion unless you're grateful to someone. (Aside: This is why I'm always confused by atheists who observe Thanksgiving.) And why be grateful unless that someone has given you something special? And, gee, that sounds to me an awful lot like a blessing.

God's blessings come in many forms, and who are we to limit them to an arbitrary standard, however well-meaning?

Material blessings are Scriptural. Many references to them are found in the Old Testament (take a look at Deuteronomy 28:1-14...but be careful; in this rather significant passage, God actually ties His blessings to faithfulness!) and the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. His character doesn't change.

So, if a person living on a subsistence income is unexpectedly given a significant donation, would that person be justified in claiming a blessing from God? If your answer is "yes," then what is the threshold where such a gift is no longer considered a blessing, but is instead something for which that person is to simply feel gratitude?

I don't know why some are blessed with wealth and many more aren't. I don't understand why some saints have lives full of physical pain and challenge, and others appear to live lives free of stress and full of ease. I'm pretty sure both situations are not as black-and-white as we think; the former doesn't guarantee misery or the latter, joy. We'd do well to remember that God's economy is different than ours, given that He has a view of infinity and ours is rather less.

What I do believe is that God's blessings aren't a zero sum game. The wealthy aren't blessed by God at the expense of the poor. I find nothing in the Bible to support that view.

Now, I want to be very clear about something. I abhor the "name it and claim it" approach to theology. The so-called "prosperity gospel" is a distortion of Biblical principles and its proponents have been responsible for great harm to the body of Christ. But the acceptance, recognition, and even celebration of material blessings does not automatically put one in that camp.

These are questions worth discussing but at the end of the day, the real question - and the one area where I do agree with the author of the article - is not what have we been given but what did we do with it?
One of our local TV stations posted a link on Facebook to its report on the decision by Midland Park Mall to prohibit the carrying of concealed handguns on its property. It's unclear whether these are new signs, but the mall's policy and the station's spotlight on the signs are drawing the reactions you'd expect from a conservative West Texas community like ours.
 
Against my better judgment, I skimmed through the comments left on Facebook, and amid the usual misconceptions ("that's the mall's rule and you can't be charged with anything but trespassing if you violate it") and overreactions ("I thought this was America") - and despite the almost unanimous condemnation of the mall's stance, there was one subtle-but-common thread: nobody suggested ignoring it.
 
I realize it's risky, if not downright stupid, to draw any sociological conclusions from a Facebook comment thread, but that observation obliquely affirms one of the basic arguments in favor of granting the right to bear concealed weapons - or, perhaps more to the point, against the idea that prohibiting concealed carry makes things safer. It's a trite saying that when firearms are banned, only criminals will have them, but the Facebook conversation seems to confirm that those who support concealed carry are also generally a law-abiding group, and are apparently not willing to break the law even if they deem it to be unfair or illogical. 
 
And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think I can safely assume that this same philosophy is not held by the criminal element in our society. Otherwise, they would not be, you know, criminals.
 
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a concealed handgun permit. And while I fully comply with lawful prohibitions posted by businesses - and would never boycott a business simply for implementing that prohibition - I absolutely don't buy into the argument that they're making things any safer. Midland Park Mall may or may not lose any business over their stance on this issue, but its management has lost credibility with a chunk of its customer base.
About a year ago I posted an announcement regarding an upcoming series on public television called One Square Mile: Texas. One of the planned episodes was to feature Midland. Those plans have come to fruition and the Midland-centric segment will air on February 27 at 7:30 p.m. on our local PBS station.

stonegate.jpgHowever, you don't have to wait to see it, as an online pre-screening is now available. The producers also tell me that the episode will be available online at pbs.org and on the www.OSMTX.com website.

I strongly recommend this episode to all Midlanders, as it offers a different perspective on life in our city than we're accustomed to seeing in the national media. It's actually a series of personal stories, told by individuals and without any outside commentary or narrative. In other words, Midland (or, at least, this one square mile of Midland) speaks for itself. If you live here, you'll recognize all of the locations and perhaps some of the individuals featured on the program.

The production values are very good, and the filmmakers have managed to document various aspects of life without giving a feeling of intrusion.

I don't believe this episode is intended to be a comprehensive overview of what it's like to live in Midland. In the filmmakers words, "the purpose of the series is to explore what life actually is like for the people living and working in these square miles and to shed light on what it actually means to be Texan in contemporary American culture."

As I stated in my original post, there are many aspects of our city that aren't represented in the square mile chosen for scrutiny. You won't see any of the extremes in wealth or poverty that are to be found in other sections of Midland; there's no direct focus on the oil and gas operations that keep us alive and the only commercial activity that's present is retail. What you do get to see is a glimpse into the lives and perspectives of a few of the people who live here; you can judge for yourself whether the creators achieved their stated purpose. For me, it was a pleasant way to spend a half hour.

Today's editorial in our local newspaper notifies readers that the publication will no longer issue endorsements for political candidates, ending what I assume is a decades-long practice that still exists at many - if not most - print media. [The practice of political endorsements by newspapers goes back more than 150 years, according to this fascinating analysis.]
 
On its Facebook page, the Midland Reporter Telegram solicits opinions as to whether it's appropriate for the media to endorse candidates for office. The responses weren't numerous, but they were unanimous in condemning the practice.
 
I don't care one way or the other. Whether it arises from a multi-person board or a single editor, a newspaper or magazine endorsement carries no more weight with me than that of any other reasonably informed individual. In fact, an explicit endorsement is much preferred from the more insidious implicit endorsements that often permeate a publication through biased reporting and slanted coverage of the candidates and campaigns. Figure out a way to end that and I'll support your Nobel prize nomination.
 
In fact, the on-the-record endorsements have often served as validation for my own positions, although perhaps in a different way than the publication intended. For example, it's almost guaranteed that when the New York Times endorses a candidate for office, that person's opponent will get my support. (The last Republican presidential candidate endorsed by the Times was Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952. It's hard to believe, but I was too young to vote.) In the unlikely event that that newspaper ever adopts a bias-free reporting philosophy (and hires a staff that can put it in place), my entire political strategy will be cast adrift*.
 
*Just kidding. I have no political strategy.