Saturday, July 22, 2017

...In Which I Introduce The Adjective "Penish"

So I was just taking a break from the annual shaping of my topiary boxwood salamander and I decided to go around the corner and buy some new shoes, and I found some, and put them up on the counter, and got my credit card out, and the nice lady said it sure was a nice day, and was I was doing anything special on such a nice day?

And I said no, I was just shaving my salamander.

And it got kind of quiet, giving me a chance to reflect that that might have sounded a little dirty.

And then she told me to go ahead and slide my chip into the bottom end.


So I figured we were even.

The transaction went smoothly after that. She said she liked those shoes, because they were so comfortable, and I thought that was odd, because why would anyone buy uncomfortable shoes? Then I realized it was probably just one of those things people say, and I smiled and picked up my shoebox and turned to go.

"Have fun with those salamander whiskers," she said, and I'm all, whuh? Who thinks salamanders have whiskers? What are they teaching kids these days?


It's bad enough that I have a twenty-foot boxwood salamander right in the front yard and no one ever notices it. Admittedly, I have it facing away from both the sidewalk and the entrance path, because I have a thing for subtlety, but still. People's eyes skim right over it. I believe their brains register it as a low hedge. You know: a low hedge with four legs and visible parotoid glands. As if.

I get why people don't always pick up on the topiary frog in the back yard. Especially after that time I accidentally lopped off his right front leg, which took a while growing back, and after last winter, when a load of snow produced some slumpage on the right side. Sensitive people are naturally going to look away from frog slumpage.

But whiskers?

Then I had one of those moments of grace wherein it occurs to me that people aren't stupid or mean so much as they're underinformed, and then I took my moment of grace a notch higher and thought: what if some salamanders do have whiskers, and I'm being crabby for nothing? I visualized something on the order of the mustache on a catfish. Not hairs, per se, but little curb-feelers, perhaps something a blind cave salamander might make use of.

After all, there is a Tailed Frog right here in Oregon, and I didn't know that was a thing until a few weeks ago. He doesn't have a true tail, but he develops something that looks like a tail when his cloaca becomes genetically exuberant and swells up in a notably penish fashion. Nobody wants to call it the Penis Frog but that's essentially what he is. With his fancy dangling cloaca he can actually insert himself into the female frog and fertilize her eggs internally. Your average frog mates in a nice quiet pond where he can dribble sperm over her expelled eggs and everything works out, but tailed frogs like to be in rambunctious water. If they tried standard external fertilization, the eggs and sperm wouldn't see each other until they'd reached the Pacific Ocean and the whole enterprise would be even more of a miracle than it already is.

So. Salamander whiskers.

I looked it up.

No whiskers. There are lots of larval salamanders with frilly gills, but those are more muttonchops than mustache, and you certainly wouldn't want to shave them off. That would be cruel.

But it all goes to show there are all sorts of things in this world, and perhaps I should be less judgmental about my young friend, the shoe store lady. Perhaps I should go back and thank her for the shoes, which really are exceptionally comfortable. Right after I finish shaving my salamander, and drenching it in fish fertilizer.

I probably don't need to mention that.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tiny Little Voices Going Beep Beep Beep

Whenever I hear it,  nyank nyank nyank, my world lights up just a little bit more, because I know there are nuthatches around. I adore nuthatches. If it weren't for all the other cute birds, they'd have the cute franchise sewn up. Red-breasted nuthatches aren't at all uncommon but it wasn't until a couple years ago that I saw or heard them with any regularity at my house. That first year I heard lots of them. We even hosted a couple in our birdhouse, when they aced out our chickadees Marge and Studley Windowson, who were still measuring for the piano when the nuthatches bombed in with first-and-last and the security deposit. It didn't work out well for the nuthatches, though. Their tenancy turned out to be a complete disaster and the Missus wasn't even speaking to her mate when she flew off for the last time. This year I haven't seen any nuthatches at all, here. I've assumed the whole place brings up bad memories for them, and I'm sad about that.

Interesting fact: Dave can't hear nuthatches. Whenever we're walking and I point them out, he looks baffled. Even when I imitate them and point in their direction he can't hear them, or me. Apparently they beep in a very narrow frequency range and he doesn't have the bandwidth for it. My voice is in the same range. A lot of the time he can't hear me either. Apparently.

On the other hand, I can't hear the dog that drives him nuts. Our neighbor has a dog that she lets out into the back yard to deliver updates to the neighborhood. Everything the dog has to say he says in the first five seconds, but he's real thorough, in case anyone passing through a half-hour later has missed the first bulletin. It's not really that I can't hear him as much as I tune him out. He has a low voice, like Dave, whom I also don't always hear. Apparently. Probably I don't hear the dog because I get a lot of sleep and I'm thinking about other things.

I'm sure this annoys Dave though. It's pretty annoying when something is driving you nuts but your partner is all "what-ever" and smiling like the freaking Buddha. It makes you feel small and petty. I'm not sure why the Buddha didn't get his ass handed to him more often than he did.

Some of the time the dog is barking, I'm thinking about something I'm writing, or want to write. Sometimes there's almost nothing going on in my head. Sometimes I'm thinking about how I feel pretty good, which means I might have ovarian cancer, which often presents with no symptoms. Sometimes I'm just thinking about how nice and quiet it is.

"Haven't heard the dog barking in a while," I might say, at the risk of irritating Dave, if in fact the dog had been barking up a storm and I hadn't noticed.

Dave's head pops up, ready to refute, and then his face relaxes. "I don't hear anything," he marvels.

Yay! The nuthatches must be back!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Me And My Big Tool

Everyone should have a hod carrier to call her very own. What is a hod carrier, you ask? Well, that's what Dave was one of. The way he explains it--and he's perfectly happy to explain it in the presence of bricklayers, who can be thick and scary--you have your bricklayers, and you have your hod carriers. And all your bricklayers do is lay bricks. Your hod carrier is the one that sets up the job, anticipates the needs, gathers the materials, makes the cuts, does the math, brings the rocket ship home, and makes everything work. So the hod carrier is the brain and heart of the operation, and the bricklayer is the meat.

The point is, hod carriers take care of all the little details in your life so that it runs smoothly and everything you need is ready at hand before you even know you need it. If your personal hod carrier is, like mine, particularly good, you can go through life assuming groceries magically appear in your refrigerator and toilets are always clean. The toilet paper replenishes itself, gas tanks are always topped off, the bird feeder is full, and the cat is never hungry.

Even now, after all these years, I have the sorry habit of thinking that if I have everything I need or want, it's just because that's the way life is. I don't always give proper credit. But I do know to come to Dave for special requests. I think of him more as a multi-use all-in-one tool, with nothing missing but the little toothpick.

There's the Extend-A-Dave, with which I retrieve objects from high shelves. It operates wirelessly, triggered by a pointing finger and pitiful whimper.  "Ennh ennh ennh," I say, and point, and the crackers float down to the counter level.

And then there's the Stompinator. The Stompinator has size thirteen shoes and it can compact an overflowing yard debris container into a solid wad a third the previous volume. Yesterday I chopped up a bristly conifer and jammed it in the container. A mass the size of an entire Christmas tree towered above the lip. The Stompinator wadded it up in a minute and pulled four extra conifers in on top of it. There's still room for your softer weeds.

So there you have it: the Stompinator and the Extend-A-Dave, all in one easy tool. But wait! There's more!

One time we spent an entire day yarding out hedges and vines and stickery bushes and shoving them into the pickup truck to take to the dump. Limbs were married together and thorny branches intertwined and the entire tangle of rejected vegetation howled with malice. It was a mess. Nothing, it would appear, would be pulled out easily. Because the situation was insufficiently dire, we also did this on a 95-degree day, which is known to be fatal to Pacific Northwesterners. Dave pulled the truck around to the spot we needed to disgorge our debris. "How are we ever going to get this all out," I whined, plucking impotently at a vine and shouldering my rake in despair, and Dave handed me the rope from the tarp and said "Well, just coil this up for now," and I did. I spent a half minute coiling the rope around my elbow and I stashed it in the cab and then I turned around and our truck was flat empty.

Dave had a plywood sheet in the bottom of the truck and strength not generally required of 21st-century men and he'd gotten himself in the back of the bed, lifted the plywood sheet up, and dumped the entire load in fifteen seconds. He busied himself for another minute sweeping the dust out, shut the tailgate, and climbed behind the wheel.

And that's why he's also called The Big Dump. Happy 34th anniversary, sugar plum, that's the story I plan to stick to.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dearly Beloved

I was minding my own business until the crows started up, and then I decided to mind theirs. You get a little group of crows all going off at once this time of year, and odds are pretty good that somebody's cat needs skedaddling. By the time I walked outside, the racket was tremendous. And there, in the sky, was a gyre of at least a hundred opinionated crows. It was something.

"What is that?" my neighbor said.

"I'm not sure. But it's something."

"It sure is," he said.

A dogwalker came down the alley and looked up. "Wow, that is really something," she said, confirming our guess. The crows went round and round and round. They were circling above Sumner Street, just to the north. My neighbor Gayle poked her head out of her door with a look of abject horror.

"What are they doing, Murr?" Gayle is terrified of birds. Even the tweety variety. It might have been an early Hitchcock exposure. This was more than she could tolerate. She knows I like birds and, like other people who know even less about them than I do, she considers me an expert.

"I don't know, Gayle. But isn't it something?" Everyone agreed that that was exactly what it was.

An August Crow
Thing is, I have acquired a bit of bird knowledge. I've done some readin', and some writin', and I've also done some simple observin', resulting in what I consider reliable enough lore, even if I've never read it anywhere. And what I know about our crows is they go downtown to roost in the evening most days of the year, and they get together in nice raucous packs to do it, but they don't do it during nesting season. They stick around and jam stuff in their kids' front ends to get them to shut up for a second. That's what's happening now. A little later, in August, the adults will molt and look like shit for a few weeks. Then when they're all snappy again they gather the kids and hit the roosting scene downtown. This is too early for that. I briefly considered the possibility that there was a dead cow on Sumner Street, but rejected it. Even though that would have been a Life Cow for my yard list.

I settled on the possibility that one of the crows got into a can of malt liquor and started feeling a lot better about her lot in life, and then someone else showed up. "Go ahead, Harriet," Millie would say, "one little sip isn't going to kill you. Let the men feed the kids for a minute." Millie always thought Harriet had kind of a stick up her ass, to tell you the truth.

Harriet beaks away at the can and starts to feel kind of good too. "I mean, it's brawwk brawwk brawwk all day long, am I right? And I told the little shit, pick up your own damn walnut. It's right there in front of you. Put it in your face." And Millie is all "You know it, girl," and then the whole block shows up, and everyone's going on and on about the entitlement kids seem to feel these days, and would the world come to an end if the girls just checked out for a little while? Fine and dandy to get all that help with building the nest but it wouldn't kill those eggless wonders to take over all the feeding for a lousy half hour.

And so on.

I mentioned my theory later to my friend Margie. "Crow funeral," she said briefly.

Oh. Well, crumb. Maybe so. Margie's husband had once plunked a crow with a BB gun and then their dog pulled the stuffing out of it in the street, and, she said, the crows showed up from miles around to circle and complain. And they didn't forget, either. They harassed him and the dog every time they came outside for years. Windshield wipers fell off their truck, roof shingles began appearing in their yard, their home insurance lapsed when the annual bill failed to appear, and their credit rating mysteriously tanked. Don't mess with crows.

I looked up "crow funeral" and it's a thing. Scientists decline to characterize the crows' behavior as "grieving," preferring to assume instead that the crows are merely assessing what could possibly have gone wrong with the deceased crow, so as to avoid a similar fate themselves.

Horse poop. Scientists are so afraid of anthropomorphizing that they refuse to entertain the most obvious hypothesis. And these suckers were not investigating an unexplained death. They're crows. If they were doing that, there'd have been a chalk line around the body, somebody would have a pipette and test tube, someone else would have conducted a test for lead, and the one that looks most like Peter Falk would say, "Excuse me, ma'am, I don't want to be a bother. Just one more thing..."

That's just a fact. Could have been any one of them. They all look like Peter Falk, in August.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Glabrous Tidings

When last seen...
I understand you can have your eyebrows dyed now, either to make them show up better or the opposite, depending on which affliction you imagine you're suffering from. I'd be willing to try it but my eyebrows entered the witness protection program years ago and I don't know where they are.

I know, I know. I whine about this too much, and nobody else cares about the availability of my eyebrows for viewing. I can already sense some of you delicately suggesting that I move on, that this particular ship is over the horizon, that there are other things to attend to here at the dock. Which causes me to doubt myself: am I that guy in Tiananmen Square, standing alone against the tanks of unsightliness? Or am I that ragged soul clutching a Confederate flag and pouting about heritage?

I will move on.

In general, hair grows at a rate of about a centimeter a month, or a bit more in the United States, where we round up to an inch. The way body hair works is it grows to a certain length according to its aspirations, and then it falls out and a whole new one pops up in its place. It can do this sort of thing over and over for years and years and then at a certain point the futility of the whole proposition becomes evident to the follicle, and that's that. The follicle has been stuck on the same career path and never getting ahead and never retiring its debts, and once the kids are gone it pulls the plug. In some dramatic cases, the entire scalp decides to start over, ditch the knick-knacks and move into something shiny and easier to clean.

The fur enterprise has been going on for a very long time. Even well before the rise of mammals proper, there were critters with hair. We know this because some was found in a fossil turd dating back to the Permian. This is the earliest indication yet that mammals, when they eventually arrived, were destined to be delicious. Most mammals nowadays have quite a thick pelt of fur, with a few exceptions that include pigs, elephants, and me.

I used to have more of a pelt. I distinctly remember appreciating my own arm hair, and being grateful that I'd taken after the arm-hair side of the family and not the bald-armed Norwegian side. But now I can hardly see my arm hairs. I used to think maybe the hairs on my body got farther apart as I grew up, but this can't account for the sparsity, because I never got all that big. So I guess they just fell out.

Now I have virtually no arm hair, or leg hair, and also one other place I recall having had a bit of a patch. That would be an area that hasn't been all that busy of late anyway. If there's not a lot of activity in your inbox and outbox, you can keep your desk pretty clean.

Another thing you can do with your eyebrows is pluck them, to remove eyebrow hairs where you don't want them. I'm going to get right on that as soon as I finish mowing the sidewalk.

In the meantime, I haven't given up on the prospect of rounding up my missing eyebrows. If I get one more chin hair, I'll have me a posse.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Thanks, Don and Roberta!

When I first came to Portland, the go-to hiking guides were written by Don and Roberta Lowe. There's always a nice picture in the back of the couple, clean-cut Don in his darkroom and smiling Roberta in a plaid pencil skirt and a sensible Pixie cut. As far as I know, no one else had decent trail guides to this area. They had the franchise. Nevertheless, I suspect they didn't get rich. People in the olden days accepted a reasonable remuneration for their efforts and weren't expecting the big score.

I used these guides to death. The glue on the spine didn't hold up in the rain, and the pages kept falling out, which was actually handy, because then you could take the individual pages in your pack and reintroduce them to the complete volume later, after your shower and beer. Eventually other people started doing the work of documenting trail conditions and directions and elevation gains, but I kept with Don and Roberta for a good long time, because I already had the guides, and the new people were asking serious money for their books, and after all the terrain didn't change that much, did it? I picked up a few new books but I haven't yet thrown out Don and Roberta's oeuvre, which now exists as piles of individual pages loose inside the covers.

Some of their instructions are antique at this point. "Be sure to fill your water bottle before you go," they warn, "because some water sources are not reliable through the season."

"Not reliable," meaning some of the trickles might dry up. Not: the water is loaded with Giardia and you'd best have four quarts loaded in your pack if you don't want God's Own Diarrhea for the next eight weeks.

Wasn't that many years ago that I had their hiking guide with me as I introduced my friend Linder to the wonders of pikas and ferns and alpine meadows, and we hesitated at one juncture, unsure of the correct path to take. I fished out the guide and quoted: "Veer left at the old hemlock stump."

At that intersection, everything visible was considerably past stumpage. Linder paused and framed her query in a calm tone.

"Murr, how old is that hiking guide?"

I consulted it. Well! Not old at all. Shoot! Look at that date. I was a young adult. Which could not possibly have been long ago. Nevertheless, I did the math.

"Um, forty years?"

Linder said nothing.

"Is that old?" I wondered. There was no answer.

Today I got out my Don and Roberta Lowe hiking guide to guess at how far Dave and I just hiked. We'd gone up to Salmon Butte, the site of a former lookout tower. The guide had a photo in it depicting the scene from the top: snow-covered peaks in the distance, a rocky prominence, and a two-lane road that is utterly not in existence at the moment. I had to do some more math to come up with the answer, because the current trailhead is a good mile and a half away from the Lowes' trailhead. That kind of thing is happening more and more up here on Mt. Hood, and basically we approve. Some of the trails were accessible from old logging roads, and now those roads are being decommissioned. They pull out the culverts and return the streams to their natural topography; they use earth-moving equipment to shove some hummocks and low spots in, hoping to discourage motorbikes. The first few years these trails look unreasonably wide, and then the alders and such start to fill in, and by about year five you can hardly tell there was a road there at all.

Possibly your quadriceps can tell. We're kind of tired. We had a twelve-mile hike with considerable elevation gain that used to be a nine-mile hike when the estimable Lowes hiked it. And that is just fine. That is quite within our capabilities. Spooky thing, though? This is such an amazing coincidence, and there's no explaining it: in the forty years since our hiking guide was published, we got forty years older.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Oh Vanity, Where Is Thy Sting?

There are two doors to our downstairs toilet--possibly a design flaw--and if I don't make a point of shutting them all the way, I can count on my cat Tater to bump open the first door with her nose, glance at me, execute a graceful arabesque, and then stroll out the second door, leaving me open to the breezes. Her motivations are selfless: she is giving me an opportunity to admire her.

Which is admirable in itself, inasmuch as a lot of folks believe she has let herself go. It's emotionally healthy. I could learn from her. But I haven't felt real admirable in a while, thanks to a brisk and efficient visit from menopause. What's that, junior? Oh menopause is just a little heads-up. It's the universe's way of saying brace yourself, sugar bun, there's a bunch of stuff coming up for you to worry about, but at least you don't have to worry about being pretty anymore. 

So I don't waste a ton of time worrying about my looks, but it does occur to me on a nightly basis that I'm going to look like shit, dead. Assuming I'll die in my sleep (in a way other people will refer to as "peaceful," not knowing the terrifying content of my last dream), I have a pretty good idea what my survivors are going to see. Because as I drift in and out of sleep, I have become aware that my face and body, in their most relaxed state, assume an arrangement best described as "puddling up." Sometimes when I roll over, I have to pick parts of myself up and rearrange them on the mattress so I don't get a crease. It ain't sexy.

"She looks so peaceful," they'll say. Then they'll give in to curiosity and lean in, squinting.

"What IS that?"

"Huh. Oh, that's her lips."

"No, that. Over on the side of the pillow."

"Yeah, that's her lips. See? They're sprawled out on the edge of her left cheek, there."

"Man! I thought that was an old taco or something. What're her lips doing so far away from the rest of her face?"

"Looking for the cool spot, maybe?"

"And shouldn't there be breasts of some sort?"

"Sure. See [pointing]--that's one right there, sort of wedged underneath the armpit. You can tell if you follow it out from the chest. The other one has to be around here somewhere too. Turn the light on."

"Got it! It's hanging off the edge of the mattress. We should put these back."

"How we gonna do that?"

"I dunno. Fold 'em on a 45 and roll 'em down the front like shirt-sleeves?"

"Sure. What's all the rest of this stuff? All along the sides?"

"Huh. Now that we got the light on it, it looks like it's just the rest of her skin. It done come unmoored, somehow. Like frosting that didn't set up."

"Right? Aww. She looks like a big flying squirrel."

"A-dorable! Well, we should probably call the coroner or something, see if they can get this all scooped up."

All right, y'all. First one on the scene, have fun, but I'd be much obliged if you could get me resheveled and spruced up proper for company. Take all the time you want. I'll leave a couple spatulas and some duct tape and putty on the nightstand, and there's beer in the fridge.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Homewreckers

There were seven of us altogether, picking a delicate path through the forest duff, lifting stones and peeking under logs. Maybe the passing hikers mentally supplied their own crime-scene tape or something, but nobody asked us what we were up to.

What we were up to was looking for amphibians. There's not a lot that can cheer me up as reliably as a good salamander, but I've gotten out of the habit of looking for them. I used to live back east, where every other rolled log would yield two or three glistening beauties, and when I moved out to this damp paradise I assumed I was entering salamander heaven, but I wasn't. Not only were they scarce, but the few that were here blended together in my mind.  No bright orange, no speckles, no red cheeks, no yellow dots to be found. Pacific Northwest salamanders run the gamut between dull brown and dull blotchy brown, and they're shy, too. I gave up even looking.

So when the local Audubon Society advertised a field trip for local amphibians, I signed up. Finally I'd be tagging along with an expert. It seemed challenging. The field guide likes to point out distinctions such as "third toe on hind foot slightly longer." I figured the best I could do was be in a position to admire our amphibians without exactly knowing what name they answer to. That's basically what I do with birds, actually.

And it was challenging. All seven of us looked under everything in sight and we came up with only six critters all day long, representing only three species. But instead of having to settle for a marginal level of competence, I discovered that I have those three species totally nailed now. We learned the Dunn's salamander has no lungs or gills and doesn't breed in the water, so he was going to be under a flat stone in the mossy damp above the stream but not close enough to be in danger of drowning. We found two, both so hard-won that I won't forget that the dingy mustard stripe on his back stopped short of the end of his tail, just as advertised. Dunn's, nailed. And we knew the baby Coastal Giant salamanders are under rocks in the stream and they do have gills, and after we'd Tupperwared a few of them we could definitely see their heads are squarer than other salamanders'. Larval Giants, nailed.  And there was a certain kind of barky, punky log that the Ensatinas favored: the little lovelies with the constrictions at the base of their tails and the orange armpits. Ensatinas, nailed. When you look for these guys this hard, you notice them hard too.

Larval Coastal Giant
So it hasn't been that long since I learned from my friend Mark Lynch that rock cairns are a scourge. I always liked them. It's fun to stack rocks into towers. Cairns frequently mark the trail on an otherwise featureless scree-filled expanse. Never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with them. One day we found a gorgeous cairn of perfectly graded stones in the middle of a stream. When we came back an hour later, it had been taken apart. I was appalled. Vandals! I couldn't imagine who would do that.

Mark explained that every stone used in a cairn is a stone displaced, a bit of habitat destroyed. And it's gotten so popular to stack stones that in many places the ground is completely cleared. Okay, I thought. I guess, I thought. Seemed a little fussy, though.

Not no more. Now I know that this stone is perfect for a Dunn's salamander and those in the stream are exactly right for Giants, and our instructor spent all day unsuccessfully looking for Torrent Salamanders under stones right at the edge of the stream, so I know what they like and need. They weren't just stones any longer. They were homes. So who are the vandals? The cairn builders. Not the cairn destroyers. How would you like it if a giant came and plucked your little home away to stack it on some others? Oh right--that pretty much describes Portland's hot real estate market. Which is leaving a lot of people homeless.

People who build cairns aren't trying to produce a homeless salamander population. They think they're doing something satisfying and artistic. We nudge the thermostat up a bit so we don't have to put on a sweater, and halfway across the world a coral reef bleaches out. We're not mean; we're oblivious.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Every House Has A Story

"Every home has a story," according to a local architectural firm. They specialize in maintaining integrity of historical houses and that's why they talk about a house's story so much.

Our house has three stories, if you don't count the basement. There's not much of historical value to it, even though it is quite old by Portland standards. Of course, Portland standards for antiquity are pretty pale. By the time anyone rolled off the Oregon Trail and fetched up at the confluence of a pair of major rivers, they were too busy knocking dust off themselves to build a house. There were people here long before the 1800s but they weren't white, and so they don't figure into history. We have a mere handful of white-people houses that were built here in the mid-1800s. Since every one of my great-grandparents was plenty alive at the time, it doesn't seem that long ago to me.

The original house
My sister Margaret bought a perfectly ordinary house in the Maine countryside that was at least 175 years old. Nothing much holding it up but spiderwebs and stubbornness. It's not a distinguished place. Like a lot of other Maine houses, it started small and then various crappy rooms were scabbed onto it over the years. You just keep stapling stuff together and throwing a roof over it until you can reach the shed without going out in the snow. It's got funk shui. But still, there's nothing in Portland that old.

You want old? You want stories? Our friend Linda lives in France in a beautiful stone rowhouse, and it dates back to the 1400s. One day her husband Tom was in the back garden observing the shared roofline and they couldn't figure out what was below one section of the roof that they knew had to be theirs. They ended up punching a hole in the wall and they found an entire room they didn't know they had. Might've been a safe house in World War II. In Portland your house doesn't have to be all that old to be historical. It just needs to be associated with someone who made it big in lumber, say, or moss futures, and maybe got his name put on a grade school.

Lots of houses here make the list that aren't even as old as my dad would be. And ours goes back to 1906. According to the official records, it was built in 1926, but that is not true. Mrs. Kraxberger said so.

Mrs. Kraxberger showed up one day with an Instamatic camera in the company of her bored great-nephew when it was his turn to ferry her around. She grew up in the place, she said. We ushered her inside. We'd been doing some renovation. Dave had recently attempted to find the studs in the kitchen walls, finally giving up in aggravation and ripping a gash all the way through with a circular saw or a chainsaw or possibly a small nuclear device. There was no rhyme or reason to the studs. Two would be twelve inches apart and the next one would be yards away. Windows were hung from the ceiling joists. Truly hung: no studs underneath. Dave had been yelling about it for weeks.

Mrs. Kraxberger was four-foot-nothing before she got osteoporosis, and she snapped a bony grip on our kitchen counter and peered up at Dave, who was trying his darnedest not to loom. "This room used to be the entire house," she croaked, speaking of the single-story kitchen everyone assumed had been an addition. "My father built it all by himself. And do you know," she went on, proud as anything, "he didn't know the first thing about construction?" She beamed. Dave nodded madly while trying not to let any words leak out.

So the kitchen had been the whole house, and Mrs. Kraxberger's parents lived in it, and the kids lived in a tent in the front yard. The larger portion was added a few years later, and the second story got dormers in 1926, which is when the city caught wind of things.

Recently I discovered the house addresses had undergone a change in 1929, and I found out what our address had been previously. A short internet search later turned up a Miss Jane Farrelly who lived in the house in 1919. Her sister had married a Kraxberger. Miss Jane Farrelly was a member of the Mazamas, a prominent hiking club here. You have to have climbed a major peak--Mt. Hood, or Mt. Adams, for instance, or Mt. St. Helens, which used to be majorer than it is now--to be a member.

Suddenly a light flickered onto a sepia-toned past, and Miss Jane Farrelly appeared before me, grinning and squinting into the sun, leaning on a wooden ice axe, all woolen knickers and sweater and lace-up boots and verve.  Miss Jane later moved to an army base in Alaska and died, never having married, in 1941. I like Miss Jane a lot. I have an old wooden ice axe I keep in the old part of the house in case her ghost shows up. Every house has a story, and ours has a good one, even if I have to make most of it up.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cats Just Want To Have Fun

When I was a kid, I found a baby robin on the ground. I got the standard rescue equipment: a shoebox, some Kleenex, and a worm to be named later. Then I went to look for the worm in our compost pile. We had a compost pile because Dad was a liberal.

But I was squeamish about worms. I gripped it best I could and dangled it over the gaping chick, but the worm veered away at the last moment and I freaked out and dropped it and it went squirming around the little bird's feathers and I ran off with the willies. I don't remember if anyone intervened but I suspect the rehab effort resulted in a backyard burial.

What did I know? I know I thought one big worm would be quite enough for a little bird, but that's not actually true. I know this because of our chickadees Marge and Studley Windowson, and because of my friend Julie Zickefoose, who keeps getting wheedled into taking care of baby birds because she knows how. If you're going to make an entire bird out of the little goober that emerges from the shell, and fast, you need to really shovel in the groceries. Julie reports that your basic baby bird needs to be fed every half hour all day long for weeks, which is quite the imposition on an adult human with other stuff to do. Marge and Studley, who are likely to have four babies going at once, are bombing into the nest box every other minute with bugs, all of which they had to find themselves. It's exhausting. The year the weather went all wonky and the bugs were scarce, both of the Windowsons looked like shit. They ran themselves skinny.

The skinny year
It's a really big production. Months. Even before you get the eggs going, there's this elaborate nest to make out of grasses and stuff all woven together perfectly without using any fingers. That takes weeks. There's a little cup in the middle of it that has fluffy material like fur worked in special, so as to be cozy. Then come the eggs and the incubation period, during which Studley has to find double the usual amount of food to feed himself and Marge, and then the truly heroic business of cramming bugs into the chilluns all day long. Every year, I am immensely proud of them.

Marge and Studley are Dave's particular favorite little buddies. Well, and everyone who looks like Marge and Studley, which is basically all of the chickadees. He it was who built the nest box for them. We have had our pets--three, including two happy cats who have been advised they are invasive species, and are not allowed to stalk birds. The chickadees are the closest wild items that might qualify as Dave's pets. He loves them.

This year everything was right on schedule. The nest was started in early April, incubation a few weeks after that, and then, in mid-May, both Marge and Studley were flying in and out of the box. I opened my window in case I could hear peeping, but I couldn't. It takes a few days for it to become audible from my window. And then, that soon, activity ceased. I never saw both Marge and Studley at the same time. Finally Marge, or possibly Studley, flew to the nest box with a caterpillar, looked inside, hopped in, and hopped out again a minute later, still with the caterpillar. And flew away, and never came back.

When the flies showed up, I had Dave take the box down and we looked inside. The nest was perfect. You could still see the cup with the fuzz around it, almost in pristine condition, because nobody got big enough to stomp it down. There were four tiny desiccated bodies.

My birder friend Max said this is what happens when one of the parents dies.

I have two neighbors whose cats roam my yard. The cats' names are Anjali and Sid. Like Marge and Studley, they get to have names because someone cares about them. Personally. Both neighbors know how I feel about outdoor cats. They're both apologetic. I'd even gotten an email from one of them when she decided to start letting her cat out. "I can't keep Anjali in anymore," she said. "She wants to be outside so badly. But let me know if there's anything I can do to keep her from hurting your birds. Anything."

"You could put a CatBib on her," I said. I'd even bought a dozen to give away. "It's highly effective. It doesn't keep them from moving or climbing, or shitting in my tomato patch, but it interferes with that last pounce when they're hunting."

"Oh, that thing looks weird. I would never hang that on her collar," she said.

"Or you could give her one of these wide, bright collars to wear. It's not quite as effective, but it makes it a lot easier for the birds to spot them," I said.

"Oh, no, I couldn't make her wear that. It's so undignified."

Not long after, I found the tag and collar of the other woman's cat. Sid. It was directly underneath my bird feeder. The chickadees in particular like to take their seeds to the low branches of the nearby azalea. I returned the collar to the owner. She looked remorseful, and yet, somehow, helpless.

I don't have four new chickadees. Sid doesn't have his collar. But he and Anjali have their entertainment. And their dignity. And maybe they have Marge, too.

This is personal, now.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Real Estate Gets Real

"This place is great!"

"Right? Except I think the chickens are depressed."


Our neighbors Hannah and Kate just bought their first house and we were taking a tour. We'd seen the pictures of a swell chicken coop in the back. They'd liked that too. They were thinking of having chickens some day. When they got the keys and started to move in, damned if they didn't already have chickens. Did they know the place was going to come with chickens? Had that been discussed?

Well, no. But there they were, three chickens, plus a note with their names on it.

Hannah consulted it. "The black and white one is Henrietta, the orange one is Ophelia, and Suzie is that funky one over there."

"What makes you think they're depressed?"

"Well, they haven't laid any eggs in a couple days. I mean, think about it. Their people just abandoned them..."--she blinked back a tear--"...and now they have two mommies."

Henrietta did look a little down in the beak.

The real estate game is not what it used to be. When I bought my first house, I didn't have to pounce on it. I moseyed, more. The first one I'd looked at was on a double lot with an ornamental cherry tree. The flow of the house was odd, but it had a huge kitchen I could imagine cooking in if I learned how to cook, and I loved the garden space.

It was 1978. Nobody was moving. Americans were being held hostage somewhere, you couldn't gas up your car on the even days, and everyone was hunkered down in their houses with Malaise. It wouldn't be Morning In America for another few years, when money would start to flow out of everyone's pensions and into the financial sector where it became pretend money and perked people up for a while before it got siphoned uphill and vanished from the middle class altogether. Meanwhile, a half dozen homes were going begging in Portland for about a buck-fifty each and I had all the time in the world to think about it.

The place with the double lot and the cherry tree was okay but the listing agent had moated it with bark dust, sprayed the whole inside of the house Navajo White, and put down a shag wall-to-wall carpet in deep rust. "That's the first to go," I said, right in front of him, and he shrugged bleakly. He was sitting at a card table in the dining room with a little stack of business cards and expected to be there for months.

But after a few weeks I said "What the hell, we can change the carpet," and I bought it, and Dave and I moved in and spilled champagne on the rust carpet first thing, and didn't replace it for a long time, because it would cut into the beer budget. I picked up a $20 sofa at a garage sale but it was too scratchy to lie down on. Mostly we sat on the floor and tried to not get burglarized. The neighbor kid burned our cherry tree down. The listing agent got murdered in California. I wondered if it was really possible to pay out $368 a month for like thirty YEARS, which was three times more than I'd ever paid for rent, for longer than I'd even been alive.

These days, if your real estate agent is sharp, you can hear about a likely house the day it's listed, but if it takes you more than twenty minutes to get there, you've already lost it to some dude who's still on the golf course. The phone in his pocket has had a three-way with his agent and lending institution, and automatically fired off a heartfelt essay to the seller along with an order of fresh cookies delivered by drone. Oh, plus he also has an extra hundred thou to chip in. He probably got it from your pension in the '80s.

This makes regular buyers jumpy: you know, the kind that tended to their credit ratings and saved up a 20% down payment. Chumps! After they lose the first two houses, they're bidding on certified ratholes and upping their offers to include an extra year's salary, season tickets to the opera, and a bank to be knocked over later.

Somehow Hannah and Kate, who are on a string of good luck including getting married (GO FILLMANS!), stayed calm, found a nice place, and didn't go over their budget. I think the seller agreed to leave the appliances. The chickens were a surprise. They're fine with it, but I think it's rude. I've never heard of anyone doing something like that without talking about it first. Well, except for our friends Scott and Kevin, who sold their place and left behind two pigs, three alpacas, some significant goatage, and a waddle of ducks for the new owners. But I think they talked about it first.

Pretty sure they talked about it first.

Anyway there was a fresh egg in the coop later that morning. Probably better than what the alpacas dropped off.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nobody Likes Big And Gassy

Looks like they found another planet with a good potential for life, and this one's relatively close, too, although astronomers have such a different idea of closeness it's a miracle they ever procreate. This one's about 39 light years away from us and that's a good long trip without even a Dairy Queen. They're pretty pumped about it too. It's named LHS 1140b and it appears to be rocky, habitable, and case-sensitive.

It's bigger and rockier than Earth, too. In fact, it is said that if you weigh 167 pounds here, you'd feel like you weighed 500 pounds there. My guess is there's not a lot of sprinting going on. It will be Thud City all the time. I'd rather be on a planet a little less dense than ours. Just enough to get a nice lift, so I can finally feel like those runners who poink around in their skivvy shorts like they've got rubber pistons in their calves and even pogo in place when they're held up by a stoplight--like why the hell? In my twenties, I got so that I could run for eight miles but it never felt remotely springy. I was smacking that planet with everything I had, the whole way.

There's a limit to how big a rocky planet can get, because after a certain point it has so much mass and gravity that it has to go for stardom instead. But rockiness in general is a good quality in a planet we could imagine living on. It's so hard to land properly on a gaseous giant. Sucker looks so promising from a distance but then you get there and you just keep going through for miles and miles and miles and it smells like farts all the way down and then you finally slam hard into the rocky interior, by which time you're already dead nine ways to Sunday. Like maybe there could be life on Jupiter, but not the relatable kind.

To get a rocky planet, you start with just a bunch of rocks and pebbles and dust flying around all haywire and everything is hitting everything else until some of it starts to stick together, and after a while the biggest piece is all hey now, hey now and gathers its arms around most of the rest of the available material, and things start to settle down. By the time we get a nice round planet we can stand on, it's already gone through that committee stage and has come up with something everyone can agree on. Your minor eruptions are just part of the cost of doing business. It's ready to rent.

But things that count as legitimate life aren't necessarily much like us, even on this planet. You won't necessarily get legs and antennae and internet capability and such. Sometimes it's just a little squirmy bit of material like a bacterium that shows some intention, and that's admirable enough, considering that a lot of us have no plan at all. Some of us are just a big waste of carbon, if you want to know the truth.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Welcome To William And Ole's Crapasbord

If you, like me, are hanging off the left side of the political spectrum, you already know that cultural appropriation is bad. (If you're not, you've never heard of it.) Here's the deal: if you're in the dominant tribe, you're not supposed to swipe some other tribe's stuff as though it's just yours for the taking. It's disrespectful, and if you're capitalizing on it, it's unfair, because you have more resources at your disposal. Bo Derek shouldn't cornrow her hair and act like she invented it. White hippies at the Eugene Country Fair have no business erecting a totem pole. Whatever Miley Cyrus is doing with her fanny, she should stop right now. A lot of this comes down to who has the money and power and who does not. There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and we've been instructed to pay attention to where that line is, so mostly I do.

I'm willing to listen and learn and I do know that it's never up to me to decide what other people shouldn't be offended by.  But I'm not persuaded that a lot of harm has come to anyone because white people are opening fancy restaurants that don't serve White Food, whatever horror that is. I'm not saying I'm right; I'm saying I've yet to be persuaded.

It gets fraught in a hurry. The immigrant Dagnabbian population is concerned about some white guy opening a Dagnabbian Fusion restaurant and appropriating the cuisine that had been passed down to the Dagnabbits through the ages, without even any respectful attribution. Except for it being referred to as Dagnabbian Fusion cuisine in all the fancy magazines. And meanwhile people are catching on and the Dagnabbian food carts are pulling in cash hand over fist without even having to pay for a brick-and-mortar establishment. And some are aggrieved by the place even being referred to as Dagnabbian because it is not authentic: their grandmothers would never have failed to include the seasoned fish eyeballs in the broth, and you mustn't use linen placemats on Wednesdays. On the one hand, you must acknowledge your Dagnabbian appropriation. On the other hand, you'd better not.

People, meanwhile, are following their tastebuds.

Disclaimer: I am fish-belly white. It wasn't anything I planned--it was more of a collusion between my parents--but when I came out the chute, that's how I turned out. Not saying I wouldn't have planned it this way if I could have. It's totally awesome being white, most places. You have to live with blotchy, unattractive skin, but you can also live your whole life assuming no one is looking askance at you, not police, not your neighbors, employers, shopkeepers. If there's anything standing in your way, you may rest assured it's probably you.

So I'm not complaining.

But if I were a creative chef and had to dance with the ones what brung me, what would I have to work with? Norwegians are swell, and the invention of the little cheese slicer cannot be praised highly enough, but these are people who eat canned corn during corn season. The English wrote some fine sonnets and some sturdy laws too, but they boil hamburgers. Heritage will take you only so far. "William and Ole's Crapasbord" is not going to fly. Nobody's going to be breaking down the doors for the lutefisk and kidney pie. Investors will be sorely disappointed and the proprietor will probably be legally compelled to publish an apology to the community in the business section.

Successful white-owned Thai establishment
So if a creative white person can't appropriate someone else's superior culture in her kitchen, and the only way for her to not rub people the wrong way is to open a Swedish massage, what are we forcing her into? What historical line of work is left for the heirs of this dour, pale culture? Basically, knocking people over the head. Empire-buildin' and slave-holdin'. We got enough of that going on right in the financial sector. It don't make it right.

Besides, what's the point of overrunning all those countries for all those years if you can't steal their stuff?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

No Caws For Complaint

I don't like to complain, but sometimes I do anyway.

More than one person has sent me a video of a sweet little girl who feeds crows and the crows respond by leaving her little trinkets as a thank-you. She's got hundreds of baubles and treasures by now. The whole thing is adorable.

All our crows ever leave us is alone. And we've been sucking up to them for years.

I know at least a half dozen people right here in town that have personal crows. We like crows too. We know how smart they are. We figured they're so smart they'll know how much we like them and appreciate all the little ways we try to make their lives more pleasant. We think they'll start to approach us on their own and ask if we maybe have an extra walnut, and tip their heads to the side and flare their rictal bristles at us as a sort of howdy-do. The relationship will progress, we'll give them fancy British names like Nelson and Chauncey and Percy, and ultimately they will converse with us in a form of English that is imperfect and yet still easier to understand than Matthew McConaughey. We will all sit around of an evening enjoying walnuts and beer as the sun goes down. We're grownups and have no need of a bunch of baubles; one or two would be fine.

But none of that has happened. We line up walnuts on the wall and they observe us and take them away just as soon as they're sure we're not looking, because they know that would give us too much satisfaction. It makes us feel like pimply seventh-graders who are trying too hard and still don't get to sit at the popular lunch table.

I don't know where we went wrong. I remember at one point I found their cawing sort of obnoxious and I went out to the yard and cranked my head up to the treetops and yelled HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! just so they could get an idea how annoying it was, but that was years ago, and I'm really sorry. But they may have pegged me for an asshole then and there, and passed the information down through the generations. I don't know. I've been real nice since then.

It's nesting season now and some of our crows have young'uns hopping around on the ground. That is what they have evolved to do: hop around on the ground for a few days before they're old enough to fly. I'm not sure how they get to the ground without getting all dented up but maybe they get just enough wind resistance from flapping their nubbins to cushion their landing. Their folks keep an eye on them and do their best to rout predators and scalawags, but it's not a perfect system as long as there are domestic cats around. The crows have been working on their strategy since the Cretaceous but domestic cats have been around here for a few hundred years tops, and this is true even if you've had a cat all your life and so did your Grandma--that's still not forever, sugar pie. Over a third of American households host a cat, and that's quite the uptick from zero.

So now we've got upwards of, let's say, fifteen cats per city block and fourteen of those are well-fed, subsidized, vaccinated, healthy, glossy little killing machines that are let out of the house so they don't get all mopey and also so they can shit in the neighbor's tomato bed instead of in the icky-poo litter box. Most people who let their cats out to terrorize wildlife are real softies, but their concern extends to only the one species. House cats are obscenely effective at killing wildlife. So I try to make my own garden a sanctuary by discouraging them. It's effective only inasmuch as all my neighbors' cats now blast out of the yard whenever they hear me turn the doorknob, but you know? I can't be turning my doorknob all day long.

Anyway, because it is that time of year, we have noticed that our crows occasionally make a particularly pointed racket, and when that happens, I go out and spot the crows and see exactly what direction they're racketing at, and then I go running and hollering in that direction and flush out the inevitable cat, and I have been hoping the crows are noticing which side I'm on and will henceforth reward me with their companionship and approval, but they haven't. So be it. I still wish them the best.

But when they're in full molt in August and have to slink out of the lunchroom all ratty-tatty, I plan to point and snicker.

Because I am an optimist at heart, I prefer to think of the following twenty seconds as a concert just for us, by our own personal, if recalcitrant, crow: