Thursday, March 31, 2011

Grand Cayman

Following our adventure in Jamaica, the next port of call on our itinerary was the island of Grand Cayman. I have to confess I was looking forward to this one quite a bit, with its pristine Caribbean beaches. After Jamaica--as fascinating and engaging as it was--I wanted a little decompression time in a country with a more solid economy, where tourists didn't have to be quite so vigilant.

One thing's not immediately apparent about Grand Cayman when booking a cruise--there's no cruise ship terminal on the island. While there are docks for smaller vessels, nothing is available for the enormous cruise ships, so they anchor offshore and passengers have to be tendered in on ferry boats. While heading ashore, we motored past a pair of tall-mast sailing ships, something Captain Jack Sparrow would not find out of place in his wildly successful pirate movies. Turns out that's not terribly far off-base, as these ships make up Jolly Roger Cruises, which look like a lot of fun if you've got the time to spare. We didn't have the time, however. The Wife had booked a bridal shoot/trash the dress photo session through her photography business, Lisa On Location, and we had to reach Smith Cove by 9 a.m.

Smith Cove, Grand Cayman

Most of the passengers seeking sand and sun head north to Seven Mile Beach--all of our ship's beach excursions went that way--but we'd selected Smith Cove for its beauty and isolation. In fact, when we flagged down a taxi, the driver was surprised by our preferred destination: "But there are no facilities there!" By facilities, we soon found out, he meant restaurants and shopping centers. Smith Cove wasn't a tourist trap, so why would tourists want to go there? He dropped us off, and promised to return at noon so we could go get lunch and return to the ship.

Isopods and sea urchin at Smith Cove, Grand Cayman

Smith Cove, if you can't tell from the photos, was a very good call on our part. It's a little patch of paradise on Earth. The beach area itself is fairly small, and flanked by low cliffs of eroded limestone so pockmarked and dark it could pass for lava flows. The cove itself, protected by reefs and rocks, had exceptionally calm waters. Exceptionally clear water as well. Crystal clear, the kids and I were amazed at the tropic fish--electric blue, flashing silver, yellow tiger-striped--swimming fearlessly around us and between our legs. No wonder this is considered one of the top snorkeling areas in the Caribbean. You didn't even have to get into the water to see the marine life. Crabs were scuttling everywhere, and pill bug-like isopods four inches long clung to the rocks near the waterline. Sea urchins were all over the place, and both are visible in the image above.

Rain-dappled green coconuts

Rain showers blew through several times, but they couldn't dampen our spirits. What's a little rain in paradise? They did dampen the coconuts, however. Coconut palms grow everywhere in the Caribbean. I guess the closest Texas equivalent would be hackberry trees, but nobody eats hackberries. Green coconuts. Mmmm. If I'd only had a machete...

Trash the dress photography shoot at Smith Cove, Grand Cayman

Lisha showed up right on time, and it wasn't long before she and Lisa were laughing and chatting back and forth like old friends. She donned the bridal gown and posed for some fantastic glamour shots on the rocks over the cove. The she changed into a second bridal gown Lisa's picked up cheap at a thrift store and dove right into the Caribbean for a no holds barred trash the dress shoot. Lisha had a blast. Lisa had a blast. And we came away with some spectacular photos.

Bridal photography shoot at Smith Cove, Grand Cayman

Once the shoot was over, we said our farewells to Lisha and spent the rest of the morning romping in the clear waters and playing in the sand. It was great. The kids caught tiny sand crabs and found hermit crabs among the rocks. Rains blew up and drenched us, but we were at the beach, so what's the big deal with being wet? As noon approached and our stomachs started grumbling, we packed up and gathered at the parking area for our cab ride. About 20 minutes later it became clear he'd ditched us and wasn't coming. Hiking the two miles back to the ship wasn't a popular option with three kids in tow and my having to lug about 50 pounds of photography equipment. One complaint about Grand Cayman--it is not terribly pedestrian friendly. There were no sidewalks along the road back to port, and no real medians to walk in, either. Fortunately, we found a lovely restaurant less than 100 yards down the road, tucked back toward the shoreline. We called a cab from there and a short while later we were tendered back offshore.

I did manage a little shooting of my own before all was said and done. I set up the tripod and pulled out my old Canon XTi, which doesn't get a lot of use these days since The Wife's Canon 50D and 5D mark II can far out-perform it for most types of photography. But the XTi is still my first choice when it comes to infrared photography. The infrared blocking filter, or "hot mirror", is not as strong as those in the other cameras, meaning I can get better results with shorter exposures. I framed my shots, focused, then threaded in the opaque 720nm filter over the end of my lens and shot away. I only managed a few shots before the skies grew overcast with another approaching rain shower (overcast conditions reduce contrast dramatically in infrared photography, and produce dull, dull, dull images), but I'm more than happy with the false color photos I ended up with:

Smith Cove, Grand Cayman, in infrared

Smith Cove, Grand Cayman, in infrared

No, there were no mystery fruits on this stop. No shanty town mansions or beer vendors in the street. Traffic was calm, and the entire atmosphere was relaxed (things may have been hopping across the island at the famed turtle farm, but I'll never know for sure). All we experienced was a wonderful, relaxing day at one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and thanks to the intermittent showers, we had it pretty much all to ourselves the entire time. Ain't life grand?

For more photos from our Grand Cayman excursion, visit the gallery at Lisa On Location.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Make it Jamaica

I spent last week in the Caribbean. Your sympathy is appreciated. The ordeal was overwhelming, with fine food and gorgeous locales dominating my every waking moment. It's a wonder I survived to tell the tale. We made several stops--with far too much to report for one single blog entry--so I shall break up my tale into several pieces, starting with our first port of call, Jamaica. The Wife has her writeup posted at her blog, for those of you interested in her take (along with some great photos).

You remember Jamaica, the tropical tourist paradise of the 1980's "Make it Jamaica" television ad campaign. That Jamaica is sadly long gone, wiped out in 1989 by Hurricane Gilbert which, in the span of 24 hours, wiped out the island's economy and threw more than half the population out of work. It was a devastating blow from which Jamaica has never recovered. But vestiges remain. Natural beauty abounds, and the people, despite rampant poverty, are a cheerful bunch with great pride in their nation. They have a lot to be proud of.

Having no interest whatsoever in the gated and secure tourist havens on the island, we'd contracted with a local guide named Michael well in advance, in order to see the real Jamaica. Our ship docked in Montego Bay, and armed guards patrolled the gated port of entry, refusing to let us out until our guide had been located and identified on the other side. This was our first clue that Jamaica wasn't as tourist-friendly has it once had been. The second clue came on the other side of the security perimeter--an extensive, tourist shopping village, filled with modern, hexagonal shops and large glass windows sat utterly abandoned. We're talking acres of market space, laid out as a grand outdoor mall that must've been busting at the seams with vendors and tourists shopping to their hearts' content 25 years ago. Today, the only people there are random taxi drivers looking for a quick fare and a woman calling herself "Eyelash" who offers to braid anyone's hair in cornrows for $20. It seems to me that the shopping center could be revived by pushing back the security fence 50 yards or so, but what do I know?

We drove through the city of Montego Bay into the smaller, hillside community of Tucker. "Nobody goes hungry in Jamaica," explained Michael, and I am inclined to believe him. Pretty much every tree and bush we passed along the road produced some type of fruit, coming into season at different times of the year so that there is always some of nature's bounty available for those to eat who don't have anything else. Appropriately enough, our first stop was a tiny hillside farm on the outskirts of Tucker, where the farmer grew all manner of tropical fruit (along with chickens and rabbits) for his own consumption, with the remainder sold to neighbors. The economy is a small, local scale one, and the farmer (whose name I've sadly forgotten) laughed when I asked if he sold his produce at a market.

Jamaican farmer points out breadfruit tree

If there is a tropical fruit that exists, this man most likely had it growing somewhere on his few acres clinging to the edge of the hill. There were several types of bananas (including the ubiquitous plantain and also super-sweet honey bananas), star fruit, bread fruit, coconut palms, pineapples, avocados, squash, tomatoes, cacoa trees, coffee trees, sugar cane, prickly pear, sour oranges and a smallish, super-sweet varietal of orange he assured us is only grown on Jamaica.

Jamaican soursop or custard apple

One of the most interesting fruits he had for us to sample was the apple-sized, green-skinned ball in the image above. It had a thick rind, not entirely unlike an orange, but it was very smooth. Inside, the pulp was ivory colored and creamy in texture, with semi-large black seeds in the core. The the creamy pulp was mild in flavor, tasting of mild banana and vanilla. "Custard-like" is over-used, but that's the best description for this. Between the farmer's thick accent and other fruits he shared with us, I missed the name. Online searches have proven frustrating as well. I've narrowed it down to either a Jamaican soursop or custard apple, but descriptions and images don't perfectly match up with either. If you ever get the chance to try one, however, I highly recommend it.

Jamaican farmer cuts open a young coconut

The other big surprise waiting for me came when the farmer whipped out his trusty machete. On Jamaican farms, the machete is the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife--it's used for everything. He gathered several orange-hulled coconuts and hacked the ends off, so that there was an opening for a straw in the side. Then the coconuts were distributed for us to drink from. Now, folks who know me know that I can't stand coconut. The texture and flavor are utterly repulsive. The scent is tolerable, but to put it plain and simple, I don't like the stuff. Yet this humble farmer was sharing some of his valuable crop with me, and it would be shameful on my part to decline. So I took a sip. Friends and neighbors, Robert Mitchum probably said it best with his song "Coconut Water". This stuff tasted nothing like any coconut I've ever had. The unripe, young coconut had a mild, slightly sweet juice inside that tasted wonderful. It didn't taste at all like coconut. It didn't taste like vanilla, but it had that same sort of subtle flavor profile. And the jelly! The immature coconut meat had a gelatin-like texture we used shards of husk to scrape out once the water had been consumed, and the jelly had that same, wonderful flavor. If this stuff were readily available in Texas, I'd definitely become a regular fan.

Flower in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Remember how I said earlier that nobody goes hungry in Jamaica? Well, nobody goes without flowers, either. Everything bloomed here, usually with spectacular results. There were more beautiful flowers per square yard here than I've ever seen before, and most of them I had no clue as to what they were. There were quite a few Pride of Barbados, but most, like the wonderful crimson raceme above, are a beautiful mystery.

Cinder block home in Montego Bay, Jamaica

That beauty doesn't hide the poverty, however. The majority of the population around Montego Bay live in humble accommodations, to say the least. Very few homes have running water, with bathing and washing done in the rivers and streams. Houses are simple affairs, often constructed by squatters on any spot of available land, and many cling precariously to the hillside. We drove past a dump, and many shacks constructed from debris scavenged from there. One thing that really stood out, however, is the apparent pride Jamaicans take in even these simple buildings. A surprising number of them had these impressive covered patio entrances, framed by Greek columns. This grandiose feature was incongruous considering the ramshackle nature of the rest of the houses, but was a very common building trend.

Montego Bay houses

Another common trend was the bright, tropical colors the houses were painted. Bright, joyous colors were the order of the day--at least for those homes that had reached a general state of completion. More often than not the houses were only partially finished, raw cinder block walls and sheet metal roofing seen more often than not. Michael explained that the residents would get a little bit of money and build until the money was exhausted. Then they'd start saving again, until they had enough cash to make more progress. Some homes took years to complete, and houses with incomplete second floors were regular sights.

Grand piano at Hotel Grace in Montego Bay, Jamaica

We toured the colonial-era Hotel Grace, one surviving vestige of Jamaica's more prosperous past. The stately manor occupies one of the highest points in Montego Bay, and commands a spectacular view over the city and harbor. It is now a special events venue, hosting destination weddings and other high-end happenings. My daughter, Fairy Girl, spotted a grand piano and took her cue to play a rousing rendition of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" to the delight of everyone there. It was a special moment for her, one I'm happy to have been a part of.

The Pork Pit restaurant in Montego Bay

Afterwards, we drove over to The Pork Pit, our most touristy destination of the day. Frequented by tourists and locals alike, the place had open-pit grills and was evocative of the best old-school barbecue stands in Texas, but here they specialized in jerk pork and jerk chicken. I have to say, they are really, really good at what they do. I had half a pound of jerk pork with rice and beans, and it was spectacular. The hot pepper sauce/relish in the squeeze bottles was phenomenal as well. I could've eaten until I burst. A sobering moment came when Michael (who we'd bought lunch) mentioned that he loved jerk pork but could only afford it on special occasions. Here was our guide, a quick-witted, relative sophisticated business man who made a good living compared to most of his countrymen, not being able to afford his culture's signature meal. That was a poignant reminder of how precarious the Jamaican economy is for all but the most wealthy of Jamaicans.

Jamaican newspaper vendor

By far, the majority of Jamaicans we saw scratched out a living similar to this newspaper vendor, who sold papers in the middle of the highway during rush hour. Traffic is chaotic in Montego Bay, resembling a Shriners' parade go-cart scramble. And there was no median for the vendors to stand on, so they made their way through the traffic. In addition to newspapers, we saw others hawking fruit, soft drinks, and in at least one case, Red Stripe Beer to the passing motorists.

The streets of Montego Bay, Jamaica

The streets of Montego Bay itself were constantly crowded. Peddlers sold all manner of items on the sidewalks as foot traffic pushed by. There was much litter everywhere. It was noisy and raucous, but most people seemed happy from my limited vantage point. Our guide pointed out tourists walking down the sidewalk (there were very easy to spot, I assure you) and then pointed out their guide, explaining they'd have been robbed by now were they not with a knowledgeable guide. I was not inclined to disbelieve him, and for most of the trip The Wife and I tried to keep our Canon cameras out of sight--or at least inconspicuous--as possible.

Dump-Up Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica

We wrapped up the day at Dump-Up Beach, a gated beach park frequented by locals and tourists alike. Music played from loudspeakers, and locals would break into impromptu reggae song at the slightest provocation. Most of the tourists were American college students on spring break (although there were some Brits as well) and these students were more often drunk than not. Several of the local men took the opportunity to chat up the American co-eds, and the co-eds didn't seem to mind. Still, the beach was well-kept and quiet. The sand was white and clean, and the water crystal clear and amazingly still, making it easy to catch glimpses of fish beneath the surface. Across the bay we could see our ship docked, and the troubles of the world seemed a million miles away. During our afternoon of driving around Montego Bay, we passed high-walled resorts for Sandals and other hotel chains. The people holed up in there were missing everything that made Jamaica unique. My children experienced another culture, and saw first-hand how hard life is for many people elsewhere in the world. I hope it gives them a better appreciation for the many luxuries and advantages they enjoy.

View of Montego Bay from Hotel Grace

I'd like to return to Jamaica some day, but probably not for quite a few years. I'd like to hope that the passage of time will help the island regain its footing and lift itself out of the crushing poverty it's fallen into, but I have no great confidence in this. Tourism alone can't rescue the country, and there's little industry otherwise that can boost it from within. Still, in any place with this much natural beauty, there's always hope.

For more photos from our Jamaica trip, visit the gallery at Lisa On Location.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Greetings from Jamaica! Or Grand Cayman! Or somewhere else out in the Gulf of Mexico! I don't really know where I am right now, but I'm probably having a better time than you right at this minute. There's a generous amount of rum involved, I can assure you, so today's Friday Night Video has a bit of tropical flair, Blondie's "The Tide Is High." It's an entertaining song, breaking the band out of its comfort zone, but honestly, has there ever been a more wretched music video? I wonder how much of that wretchedness has to do with Debbie Harry's vacant, glassy-eyed stare? She may well have taken herself a trip to Jamaica, but odds are she didn't restrict her intake to rum.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Syd Barrett.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Pink Floyd's one of my favorite bands, and I even got to see the band live in the Alamodome during the Division Bell tour. But for anyone who knows them solely for Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, there is a whole other Pink Floyd that's pretty much as far removed from the Roger Waters/David Gilmour concept albums as possible. Band founder Syd Barrett was a songwriter of unparalleled whimsy, embracing psychedelia whole-heartedly, with the aid of many, many illegal drugs. This ultimately destroyed his mind and led to his replacement in the band by Gilmour, but not before he'd produced several quirky albums with Pink Floyd and a like number of his own. His solo work often suffers from shoddy production values, but his songs are invariably catchy, bizarre and ultimately addictive. Here's one of Syd's better-known singles, "Gigolo Aunt." Enjoy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... R.E.M..

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring is here! Oh, spring is here!

...Life is skittles and life is beer.

Okay, enough Tom Lehrer. I've been obsessing over spring gardening since February with my grafting and other such inane chatter, so I figure instead of words it is time to share photographic mayhem of the growth unfolding in my back yard. First up is one of the pear grafts, which is not only still alive, but flowering like there's no tomorrow. This particular graft is what I believe to be a Garber pear:

Pear blossoms

This other graft is not flowering, but it is leafing out quite nicely. This is the second type of pear graft from early February, and unfortunately I have no clue as to what type of pear this might be. I'm guessing on no evidence at all that it may be a Kieffer, simply because the old tree I took it from is ancient, gnarled and half-dead, so it may be one of those 100-year-old homestead pears you hear about on occasion. This summer I'll be sure to try and examine the fruit to see if I can get a better I.D.

pear graft

Elsewhere, not quite so dramatic as the grafts but no less significant is the bud break of my Fredonia grape vines. Grape vines always look dead until they burst forth with their rose-and-green leaves in the spring. A few months from now, they'll be sporting bunches of purple-black grapes.

Fredonia grape vine

And my passion vines return! All over the yard, the crisp green shoots are emerging from winter dormancy. Incarnata produces lovely, fragrant flowers and delicious fruit. My over-large Texas native is still growing strong, but there are also seedling offspring, crossed with the smaller, more traditional incarnata I have growing elsewhere. These wonderful plants spread aggressively, but in the wild they seem much more subdued and restricted in their range.

passiflora incarnata

Fairy Girl's La Feliciana peach is blossoming as well. It only made one peach last season, although to be fair, that was only its second year in the ground. With the cold winter we had, there's potential for a lot more this year.

La Feliciana peach

These are the muscadines I have growing over the dog run fence a short way down from the Fredonia grapes. Muscadines don't like to root from cuttings, so layering in soil to force root growth is the best way to propagate this type of native grape vine. I've found that 16-20 oz. plastic soda bottles work very well for this. The muscadines don't like my heavy clay soil much, but I add sulphur to bring down the PH and with a little boost of nitrogen they'll produce nice, fat clusters of nutty tasting slip skin grapes.

muscadine layering

My fig is leafing out as well, and if you look closely to the left of the stem, you'll see one of the first early crop figs forming already. I've got no idea what type of fig this is--it's an open eye type that spoils quickly once it ripens--but it's mildly sweet and decent enough to eat when fresh. With luck I'll be able to trade for some budwood over the winter and graft some improved varieties onto this one.

fig tree

That's pretty much it for the back yard, with the exception of some dewberry vines around the side of the house (they took root by accident and don't quite get enough sunlight to produce well). What do you have growing at your place?

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The root of the problem

The school funding shortfall is not Governor Perry's fault, and he's not to blame for the thousands of teachers facing unemployment, nor for the degraded state of education in Texas. Yeah, right. From today's San Antonio Express-News:
The economic recession has contributed to sagging state revenue, although the problems took root in May 2006 when the Legislature cut school property taxes in response to a Texas Supreme Court order to fix an unconstitutional funding system.

Perry and other state leaders promoted a revised business tax to help pay for the school property tax cuts.

The non-partisan Legislative Budget Board and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, then the state comptroller, predicted the swap would create a revenue shortfall of at least $23 billion over five years. Perry dismissed the warnings, arguing that property tax cuts would ignite economic growth that Strayhorn and the LBB had ignored in their calculations.

This year, John Heleman, chief revenue estimator for Comptroller Susan Combs, told lawmakers a $5 billion-per-year budget shortfall would continue to repeat itself in future years unless they adjusted revenue and expenses.
A liar's one thing. But a liar that won't man up and own his own lies is lower than the slime on a channel cat's belly.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Save Texas Schools!

Save Texas Schools
Why should Wisconsin have all the fun? Texas isn't known for its protest rallies. Folks around here generally aren't the radical types--even back in the days when the state was Yellow Dog Democrat, the population tended to have a conservative, don't-rock-the-boat outlook on society. So if you can get 10,000 Texans of all political stripe to turn out for a cause on a Saturday afternoon that doesn't involve high school or college football, well friends and neighbors, you know something's up.

The Wife and I packed up the kids this morning and made the trip up to Austin to participate in the Save Texas Schools rally. In case you've been living under a rock, Governor Rick Perry, in his infinite wisdom, has proposed a budget that cuts $10 billion from public education (and this doesn't even count the cuts to higher education, which is another issue entirely), which will result in nearly one third of teachers in Texas being laid off, and class rooms going from 22 students per to 40-50(!). The reason for these staggering cuts are simple: Texas schools are funded almost entirely by property taxes, and in 2006, Perry pushed through massive property tax cuts. Trouble is, he neglected to adequately compensate for those cuts with alternate funding sources, so Texas schools are facing a catastrophe of Perry's creation, and our dear governor is disavowing any responsibility. He's refusing to consider any new revenue sources, any new taxes, or tapping the state's $9 billion "Rainy Day Fund" to plug the shortfall until legislators can come up with a solution.

Fed up with Perry's stubborn refusal to deal with the problem in a constructive manner, not to mention the legislature's dithering, we--along with 10,000 of our closest friends--trekked to Austin for a march and rally to let our displeasure be known. What follows are some of the interesting photos The Wife shot during the day. This is only a small sample of them, though--check out her Save Our Schools photo gallery for more (there's some great stuff there, you really should check it out).

Save Texas Schools

My contempt for Gov. Perry is well-documented. I was gratified to see that my feelings are shared by many. Of course, with any big rally, the signs are the most entertaining part. Texans are no less creative at this than others, and Lone Star pride was a running theme. Probably the most pervasive image was an updating of the famous "Come and Take It" flag, substituting a no. 2 classroom pencil for the original brass cannon.

Save Texas Schools

It didn't take long for the ubiquitous Charlie Sheen reference to make its way through the crowd, leaving a trail of laughter in its wake.

Save Texas Schools

On thing I've seen online that troubles me is a dismissal of the rally, and by extension, all "Save Texas Schools" activity, as nothing more than greedy teachers union agitation. Why is this troubling? Because there are no teachers unions in Texas. At least not by any substantive measure. Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning unions here--as throughout the south--are impotent and mostly irrelevant. There is no collective bargaining, so Texas school funding deficit can't be blamed on any convenient union scapegoat (that's not to say certain parties haven't tried, though).

Save Texas Schools

I've recently endured some unpleasant insults--both oblique and direct--regarding my stand on public schools in Texas. That public schools are a waste of money, home schooling and private schools are better, and public school teachers are essentially worthless. I tend to react strongly to this. I come from a teacher family. My father taught high school for 22 years, and after that served on the school board for the better part of a decade. For all his faults, he was dedicated to teaching. He educated students who didn't cotton to no learnin' and went out of his way to help out the less fortunate, giving summer jobs to the less fortunate and always managing to "accidentally" over-pay them while boosting their sense of self-worth. My wife comes from a teaching family, too, and my father-in-law was as passionate about science in the classroom as he was about giving his best to the track team he coached although they were hampered by woefully inadequate facilities. He then spent years working as an assistant principal, trying to ensure a solid education for all while dealing with transfers into his school of students who'd departed Austin ISD because of "discipline problems" who had no interest in education of any sort.

Save Texas Schools

We have friends who are teachers--pretty much every teach who has ever had our children in class, going out of their way to engage and stimulate our daughters, giving them personal attention when they need it most. These same teachers thank us profusely when we send an extra box of tissue to school, since they're out in the classroom during cold season and there's no money in the budget to buy any more. Teacher who pay out of pocket for books to stock the classroom library, because, again, there's no money otherwise. Teachers don't go into teaching because of the glory, or the massive paychecks, or the cush working conditions. Teaching is a calling. That's something legislators and anti-public schooling types don't seem to grasp. So is it any wonder I take it personally when public school teachers are denigrated, and respond--forcefully--in kind? This is my stand, and I make no apologies for it.

Save Texas Schools

There was a time, no too long ago, when Texas Republicans and Democrats generally agreed on the importance of public education. That a strong public education system was the most valuable public good in the state, that and educated population meant a valuable population, attracting well-paying jobs and elevating business, the economy and ultimately social services. Somehow, somewhere, this went off the rails. Texas now ranks around 36th nationally for education spending per student, a ranking that would fall to 50th out of 50 states if Perry's budget plan passes. Texas students currently rank around 42nd nationally in the classroom, which prompts jokes about the Arkansas and Mississippi state legislatures passing resolutions that "Thank God for Texas!"

Save Texas Schools

As I said earlier, around 10,000 people from across the state turned out for the rally. The kick-off march stretched seven blocks. There were buses everywhere. There were people from Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth. One bunch drove all the way in from El Paso. There were teachers, parents, children, college students, grandparents, black, white, Hispanic... it was as pure a sampling of Texas' demographic as anyone could want. Everyone coming together for one purpose, to keep short-sighted politics from devastating Texas education for years to come.

Save Texas Schools

Earlier this week, Perry dismissed the coming rally, saying (with disingenuous flair), "The lieutenant governor, the speaker and their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell. That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts." That smarmy, condescending comment immediately brought to mind Pontius Pilate famously washing his hands. A little melodramatic, of course, but the imagery is vivid nonetheless.

Save Texas Schools

Umbrellas were out in full force, symbolizing the demand that the legislature tap the state's $9 billion rainy day fund. Were the great Stevie Ray Vaughan still alive, he'd surely be singing "It's Flooding Down in Texas." What wasn't out in force was the Tea Party types. Online chatter had them staging a counter-rally to praise Perry for his hard line against, well, I suppose teachers and those darn pesky student who want to learn. Although The Wife and I looked for them, we never saw any. We saw a few "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but these were usually paired with "Come and Take It" flags, so I don't think they counted.

Save Texas Schools

All in all, it was inspiring to see so many Texans, from all walks of life, turn out to show they care about education. The United States is great because of education--the G.I. Bill following World War II produced the single most educated population in history, an advantage that took 60 years for the rest of the world to catch up to. Home schooling works for some, private school for others, but as a state, as a nation, these are not solutions that will render us competitive on a global state. Public education is the key to the future success of America, and we've got to strengthen our schools and reverse the appalling dropout rates rather than eviscerate the education budget and vilify our teachers. I'm teaching my children the value of education, and how to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. The rally today was a tiny step in that direction.

Save Texas Schools


Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

Let me close with a portion of Perrin-Whitt CISD Superintendent John Kuhn's amazing speech on the importance of public education. Kuhn is he of the eloquent open letter on behalf of all public education, which should stir the heart of any true Texas.

Where's Sam Houston when you need him?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Hold on to your hats, folks! Instead of a retro throwback to some obscure 80s hit, I'm featuring a brand new song in today's edition of Friday Night Videos. Check out this video for "Uberlin" by this hot new group called R.E.M. What? Curse you, 80s, you've snuck up on me again! Oh well, the song is new, even if the band isn't. And while "Uberlin" isn't the kind of introspective guitar-driven rock from Document everyone wishes R.E.M. would get back to someday, it wouldn't be out of place on their later albums, such as Automatic for the People or even Out of Time. Which is to say, it's a good listen.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Eurythmics.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011


It must be spring, because suddenly I'm obsessing over plants and stuff, particularly those of a fruiting inclination. As I've mentioned before, I've been busily grafting new scions onto my pear trees, and some of the earliest grafts from February are starting bud break, so that would indicate the grafts are indeed taking (as opposed to dying). Encouraged by this, I do believe next year I will attempt grafts on the peach tree and the plums.

But that's not what I did last night. The kind fellow who sent me those Acres Home and Tennousi pear cuttings also was generous enough to send along some pomegranate cuttings as well. I'm not sure if I've ever related this story before, but pomegranates were among the first--if not the first--plants I put in the ground when we moved to New Braunfels. I went to a local nursery with a sterling reputation for my poms, and got burned. Bad. Turns out the nursery had recently been sold and immediately took a turn for the worse. The person helping me sold me what was supposedly "Wonderful" pomegranates, which is the most common commercial cultivar. He also insisted I needed two for pollination, otherwise they wouldn't fruit. The moron was wrong on both counts, either out of ignorance or greed, I don't know. Being new to the gardening thing, I deferred to his advice, and only later discovered pomegranates are self-fertile. I also learned, to my chagrin, that neither pom was of the "Wonderful" type. One fruited all right, but is a white-fleshed variety that is quite tart and nearly impossible to tell when is actually ripe (since the arils/seeds inside don't turn red). Plus, the fruit seems susceptible to a black, scab-like mold or somesuch which is quite unattractive. That's still better than the other plant, which turned out to be a double-flowered, non-fruiting variety. And the double-flowers don't ever seem to open entirely, so the ornamental value is diminished. Personally, I suspect these were both grown from seed--perhaps originally from a "Wonderful" plant, perhaps not. But since pomegranates don't come true from seed, I'm stuck with the luck of the draw.

I have more faith in these cuttings, though, since they come from fruit-obsessed home gardeners. I got six cuttings of the cultivar "Mae" started last night, with six more needing attention. And there's a dozen cuttings of the cultivar "Cloud" needing attention, too. Here's what I've found online about these types:
Mae is a University of California-Davis release. This heavy bearing clone was rated tops in taste. It bears medium to large fruit having a sweet, tangy, red flesh and yielding a sweet-sour, rich red juice.

Cloud is a release from the University of California-Davis pomegranate collection. It bears medium to large fruit that are pale pink on the outside with a golden yellow blush. The flesh is a glistening, very pale, whitish salmon pink and has a mild, sweet taste.
I abraded the bottom end of each 12" scion, wetted it, then dipped it in Rootone powdered rooting hormone. The plant then went into the rooting container, which consists of a 20 oz. plastic soda bottle with the top cut off and holes punched in the bottom. Inside was filled with a 50/50 mix of peat moss and pearlite. The whole affair was thoroughly watered down and put in my office window. Pomegranates are reputed to be very easy to root from cuttings, so much so that some folks just stick the scions straight into the ground where they want the plant to grow and leave it at that. I'm not quite so confident, so I'm using the method I've had success with before for grape hardwood cuttings.

The downside is that I don't really have anyplace to put the new plants, assuming I do get them to root. Even with a 50 percent failure rate, I'd still have a dozen pomegranates on my hands. I expect I'll take several to Columbus for my mom's house, since they'll make an attractive ornamental that needs pretty much no care at all. And I'll take some to Bastrop for my mother-in-law, who has lots of space where pomegranates could happily grow. And I'd keep at least a few for myself and attempt to container grow, at least until the winter when they go dormant, so I can attempt to graft some of these improved cultivars on the disappointing plants currently growing in my yard. Both of the existing plants are quite mature, and I have no desire to go through the trouble of chopping them down and removing them in favor of a tiny, undeveloped cutting. No, grafting's the only way to go.

And to think, until a little over a month ago, I'd never grafted a single plant. Now I'm grafting everything.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

My utterly uninteresting Saturday afternoon

I pulled a half-inch mesquite thorn out of my heel a little while ago. Got ahold of it with the nail clippers, because the tweezers couldn't hold a grip, and pulled it out. The damn thing kept coming and coming. Hurt like hell. Apropos of nothing, but I thought I'd share.

Today wasn't as productive as I'd hoped it would be, but I feel strangely compelled to share. Today I spent a significant amount of time working on fence repair. Shifting soil and drying wood over the past seven years has resulted in several panels of our privacy fence coming loose from their support posts. This is problematic because A) we don't want those panels falling, and 2) we don't want the dogs getting out. Additionally, more than a few of the vertical fence slats have rotted through around the nails, and have become loose. Armed with a spool of 16 gauge wire, I set about tying up all the loose lumber. Not an elegant solution, I know, but buying a bunch of new fence slats isn't in the immediate budget. As for the fence panels coming free of the posts, I'm thinking seriously long wood screws are in order. Our clay soil is shifting, and the posts are pulling away from where they once were. It does indeed pose a challenge. Ah, the perils of home ownership.

Once I finished my temporary repairs to the fence, I turned my attention to my grape vines. I've got them growing over the dog run fence, and in all honesty, they haven't done as well as they should, mainly due to my inattention. I cleared a lot of dry grass and dead sedges away, then pruned back some overgrown honeysuckle--both Japanese and coral variety. Then I tackled the grapes. The first on my list were two Fredonia grape vines. I chopped away a LOT of these, as they always seem to grow where I'm not training them, and not grow where I am training them. I've now got a whole bunch of hardwood cuttings between 8" and 18" long, so if anyone wants to try their hand at rooting them, give me a shout and we can work something out. Next up were my muscadines. I was happy to find that the one vine I'd tried layering last winter had put out a significant root mass in the plastic soda bottle I'd used as a makeshift pot. I cut the vine from the main plant and it is now transplanted into a larger pot sitting on my front porch. I followed that up with setting several more vines into soda bottles filled with soil to promote layering for next year. I've found I like muscadines a great deal--the nutty grape flavor appeals to me--so I want to establish some vines in Columbus and Bastrop at my relatives' places. Unlike other grape species, muscadines won't normally root from hardwood cuttings, so the layering method is necessary. The muscadines really ran wild last year, and I felt sick as I cut back many, many strong, healthy vines to bring them under control. I didn't get any muscadines last year, probably because I didn't add sulphur to the soil as I had in year past. Muscadines like soil that's mildly acid, yet the Houston black clay here east of Interstate 35 is alkalai. The sulphur counteracts that. Lowes and Home Depot apparently don't carry Dispersul any more, so I picked up a small bag of granular sulphur from the Plant Haus. It's only enough for one application, but that'll be enough for now. Hopefully, I'll get a good crop of grapes of all type this year. Eventually, when The Wife and I purchase some rural acreage (that's the plan) I'll be able to plant some wine grapes as well and enjoy a little bit of everything. But muscadines and Fredonia grapes are what I have now, so I'm making the most of it.

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Friday, March 04, 2011


Last month I posted about my attempts to graft pears in my back yard. Through online gardening forums, I connected with a fellow who was kind enough to send me some pear wood from some of his trees to attempt grafting with as well. I finished the last graft today, and none too soon--the warm weather hasn't prompted bud break yet, but I'm noticing some swelling buds on my pear trees. Get this--the swelling buds are mostly on the pear scions I grafted last month! Which means the grafts are taking, and the scions are getting nutrients and not dying. There's still a lot that can go wrong, but my fingers are crossed. Hopefully, these new scions will be able to take as well before the weather gets too hot.

I currently look not unlike a Dalmatian, as the pruning sealer I was using developed a bad case of the sputters early on in the process, resulting in as much of the black gunk ending up on my person as the trees. Just thought I'd share.

For the record, I figure I'll do a roll call of what edible-producing plants I've got growing in the yard currently:
  • Moonglow pear
    • Warren graft
    • Garber (?) graft
    • unknown graft
    • Acres Home graft
    • Tennousi graft
  • Warren pear
    • Moonglow graft
    • Garber (?) graft
    • unknown graft
    • Tennousi graft
  • La Feliciana peach
  • Santa Rosa plum
  • Methley plum
  • Cheyenne pecan
  • Pomegranate (unknown, white fleshed, tart)
  • Pomegranate (unknown, non-fruiting, grr)
  • Fredonia grape vines (2)
  • Ison black muscadine
  • Late Fry bronze muscadine
  • Passiflora incarnata (aka Maypop passion fruit)
  • Passiflora foetida var. gossypiifolia
I've also got a dewberry plant on the side of the house, an accidental transplant that doesn't quite get enough sunlight to fruit dependably, but that hasn't stopped it from making thorns. The fellow who sent me those pear scions also sent me cuttings from his "Mae" and "Cloud" pomegranates, which should produce much better fruit than the one I have, so I'll try my hand at rooting them. Not bad for a small, subdivision lot. I'd pack in a lot more if The Wife would let me. Ultimately, we plan to buy some rural acreage to eventually build on, and I've already got a wish list of cool plants to grow there, including paw paws, "cannon ball" black walnuts, olives and Devine cold-hardy avocados. My goal is for my family to eat year-round from the perennial trees and bushes, with a formal garden being a happy luxury. You know, for when civilization falls and everyone goes all Mad Max. :-)

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Friday Night Videos

You know if you ask the Eurythmics to write a song about love, you're not going to get some kind of mushy, goo-goo eyed ballad of syrupy affection. Instead, you're probably looking at something bleak, cynical and very, very bitter. Something like "Don't Ask Me Why". Which is beautiful and elegant, and pretty much a gorgeous love song, apart from that bleak, cynical and bitter business. This one came from the tail end of their time together, right before Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart broke up as a band (and long after they broke up as a couple) when they couldn't buy a hit with gold bullion. This should've been a monster hit. Instead it barely charted in the Hot 100. Interestingly enough, it presaged the direction Lennox would go musically with her successful solo career, although without much of that afore-mentioned bitterness, cynicism and bleakness.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Shawn Colvin.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Texas And Other Planets

So, Lou Antonelli has a new book out. This is news like Charlie Sheen saying something crazy is news. Happens pretty much every time you turn around. Lou has become one of those, whatchamacallit, "proflific" authors. He writes short stores. Lots of 'em. Fortunately, most of 'em are pretty good. Dandy even. I know there have been one or two occasions where I've been struck with a twinge of jealousy because Lou thought up a clever concept before me (and by "before me" I mean "never in a million years would I strike upon that idea").

Lou published his first short fiction collection, Fantastic Texas, back in 2009. It was a compilation of all of his science fiction and fantasy stories set in--you guessed it--the Lone Star State. Fast-forward to 2011. Lou's got his second collection out, Texas & Other Planets. This one contains a bunch of Texas-themed stories, but as the name implies, there are some other planets thrown in there for variety.

Oh, and I wrote the introduction.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Why would Lou, who seems a relatively sane and level-headed fellow (the Charlie Sheen reference above notwithstanding) commit certain career suicide with such an ill-considered move? Well, I'll tell you: He's trying to commit career suicide. It's the only explanation. That, or he felt some sort of misplaced obligation due to the fact that I was the first editor to ever publish him back when I served as fiction editor at RevolutionSF. I published quite a few of Lou's stories during my tenure, all but one (if my memory isn't betraying me) eventually earning some Year's Best honorable mention or other. I generally use overblown, gushing comparisons when discussing them, such as "Evocative of a classic Asimov logic puzzle, with better characters" or "channeling Bradbury." They're mostly included here, along with Lou's "A Rocket for the Republic" which marked his first professional sale to Asimov's. It was also Gardner Dozois' final buy before he stepped down from the editor's chair. He wanted to go out on top, I suppose. In any event, I bust Lou's chops pretty good in the intro, so it's safe to say he'll never make the mistake of asking me to write another intro for him again. That's probably a moot point, though, because of the career suicide and all. So what you folks need to do is rush over to Amazon and buy that book right now before it's too late. You'll be glad that you did.

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