Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seeing C.K.

Ah, man, I can't stay mad at Louis C.K.

I know I'm supposed to. There are rules. And currently the rule is anyone who does anything creepy to an unwilling woman or girl is off the planet. We are so done with that. Out goes the bathwater: screw the baby. "He was one of my heroes," people say, "but now he's dead to me."

He's not dead to me. He is brilliant and funny, my two favorite things. This is a man who managed to express my precise opinion on abortion, hilariously. That shouldn't even be possible. I like him a whole lot and that hasn't changed. I'm not suggesting other people should feel the same way. You should feel what you feel.

Actually, my transgression is even worse. I didn't even get mad at Louis C.K. I was just like, aww, dude.

I've had my own stories of contending with bad or worse male behavior. But I do not maintain a reservoir of rage that must be kept on boil. I know people who can steam for days over a perceived slight from a store clerk. I'm luckier: there's nothing that has ever been done to me that I haven't quickly either forgotten or forgiven. I'm not proud of this, because I didn't have to work at it. It's as natural to me as my eye color.

People can't understand how someone they admire can have this awful dark side. It doesn't make sense to them. But humans don't necessarily make sense. Humans are complicated. They're big bulgy bags of contradictions: they're full of heart and full of shit both; they're a cluster bomb of bon-bons and thumbtacks and honey and bullets. There may be no way to reconcile the contradictions, but it is thumpingly obvious they exist. And they're not rare.

Most of us have things we're ashamed of, that we won't tell anybody. It's the human condition, but it does seem like you're in for a harder haul of it if you own a penis. Them little buggers is opinionated. And there aren't too many guys who aren't going to give those opinions some weight.  "I don't know," they'll say to their penises. "That seems wrong. Still, you make a good point."

Sheep. Knotholes. The neighbor's wife. Or daughter. Guaranteed there's more than one man in this world who is in love with his sofa, and its soft vinyl buttons. Or your sofa. There's a load of shame out there. Maybe someone will just be a garden-variety adulterer. Maybe he'll go to his grave knowing he was as good as he could be, but wishing he'd scrubbed his browser history first.

And yes, I know that there is a difference between having urges and acting on them, and between acting on them appropriately and foisting them on others. There's also a difference in the effect a person might have on others. In identical scenarios, one victim might be scarred for life, and another not even consider herself a victim. There's a huge range of misbehaviors and reactions to those misbehaviors.

We once had a mayor and governor who arguably did more than any other person to make Portland what it is; he was smart, powerful, a visionary. We were poised to be another sprawling, car-centric metropolis, but instead we are now a tidy, contained bundle of vibrant neighborhoods, and a crucible of creativity. We will always be in this man's debt. But he groomed a 14-year-old girl for sex, kept it quiet for decades, and was never brought to justice. Now this man cannot even show his face in this town. Doesn't matter what else he did.

The patriarchy hurts men, also.

I don't condone any of this shit. But I don't write people off readily. Maybe it's easier to see things in black and white, but I can't do it. I'm going to draw a distinction between a congressman who sends dick pics and disgraces himself, and a president who boasts of overpowering women he does not even consider fully human. I'm willing to ignore a senator who plays footsie in the bathroom stall to negotiate sex with strangers--unless he has made a point of pushing anti-gay legislation. I understand the malignant role of power when a movie mogul forces himself on starlets; I'm less persuaded that Louis C.K. was in a similar position of power, although that case has been made. Louis C.K. has a personal problem that he made someone else's problem, but he was his own worst victim: he humiliated himself. By his own hand. As it were.

How can a man as brilliant as he is also be a portly old wanker? Well, he is. And that doesn't erase the good.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Boarders

That first year in this house, although I had swept up plenty of tiny little dropped hints, I didn't lay my eyes on an actual working mouse for several months. I was on the phone with my friend Katie at the time, and I saw it zipping by in the kitchen, and, if memory serves, I yelled EEK and pulled my feet up on the sofa like a girl. She talked me down and stayed on the phone until  I had walked into the kitchen and looked around, because she suspected otherwise I'd be stuck on the sofa all night with a bladder full of beer, which was true. Even then I was more comfortable with invisible mice than audacious ones.

Which makes no sense. If there is such a thing as collective memory in a species, there should have been no mice anywhere near me. I had recently spent two years of my life dispatching lab mice in violent ways, and even though those days were over, any alert mouse should have gotten a creepy feeling as though there were little white mouse heads on toothpick pikes all around the perimeter. That image should have been wired right into their brains. And I've seen their brains. Lots of them. So there's no reason I should be afraid of a mouse. It should work the other way. It's all context, I suppose. Plastic boxes of biddable mice in a lab are one thing, and a single mouse with an agenda in my kitchen is quite another.

They still startle me, but I got used to them. We don't get all that many. And we've had a cat for almost thirty years.  Not the same cat. Larry was very interested in chasing mice. I don't know if her eyes were that good. She'd track one down, and it would skeeter out from under her and head for the hinterlands, but she could not be peeled away from where she'd seen it last. I'd get exasperated to the point of picking her up and lobbing her at the specific hinterland I knew the mouse had gone to but she'd snap right back to her legacy location. Basically, Larry was always going to be the last kid picked for the mousing team.

Tater is more businesslike. She's caught a few of them, and, unlike Larry, she renders them inoperable right away. She's a Git-R-Done kind of cat. The other night we found a gigantic mouse stiff on its back in the basement. Saints be praised, Tater is apparently not the type to drop prizes on the bedcovers.

We haven't gotten enough mice to keep her entertained, over the years. But this year might be different. Just as soon as it gets dark out, things start scurrying. There are ominous scratching noises behind the wallboard. There's thumping. Someone has set up a bowling alley in the basement rafters. There's a party going on in the crawl space and another on the roof. They couldn't make more noise with a vuvuzela. Skittering is one thing: I have no desire to know what's making all this racket.

And that was before something moved into the attic above the kitchen. Whatever it is, it's big. And gallopy. I snuck a peek through the access door, but slammed it shut again as soon as I saw the disco ball. The furniture has been shoved aside for a Twister mat. I hear pinball. Back when I was feeling more optimistic, I thought it was a squirrel. Then a bunch of squirrels. Or rats. Or some major rodent. Or a raccoon, which isn't even a rodent at all, but an animal so untrustworthy no other mammal wants to share a genus with it. But even raccoons aren't capable of hauling in a billiards table and getting it leveled. This sucker is loud. This sucker is huge.  I did an internet search. Biggest rodent. I think it's a capybara. There's a capybara in our attic.

I don't know how a capybara managed to squeeze into our attic. But when you think about it, squeezing into our attic is no big feat for an animal that walked all the way over here from South America during fire season. And I have no plans to get the ladder and flashlight again and have a look.

As always, invisible works for me.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How To Hide A 3,000-Pound Pineapple

See, if I did happen upon a nodosaur, which looks like a 3,000-pound tailed cockroach with spiky armor, it might not occur to me that it would benefit from any sort of camouflage. Modern enormous animals such as the somewhat smaller rhinoceros just stand around all big and gray and obvious because nothing is really likely to take them down, and they know it. (They've missed the bet with modern humans, but it's too late to come up with a new plan now.)

But studies suggest that the nodosaur did use protective coloration, which is an extremely neat possible fact that scientists have only just maybe discovered.  (There is disagreement among paleontologists, and until there is more of a consensus, or until the nodosaur becomes the focus of a new religion, we shall not employ terms of certainty.) Specifically, it is thought that at least one particular nodosaur--Borealopelta markmitchelli, named for the very excited fellow who spent seven years preparing its fossil with tweezers and a gnat's paintbrush--employed a camouflage strategy called "countershading," in which the top of the animal is darker than the bottom, or belly. Modern examples include the deer.

There are a few currently operating mammals that use the exact opposite of countershading--light on top and dark underneath--to signal to the world that they, personally, do not give a shit, and are thus dangerous and unpredictable (skunk; honey badger). But countershading is more popular in readily-edible animals.

Presumably countershading makes the deer, say, harder to make out in the landscape. Its shape is altered, for one thing. "Oh look," your mountain lion might say, "there's the top half of a deer floating through the woods. Crumb! I prefer belly meat. I suppose I shall let it go." Nevertheless deer are routinely caught and eaten, which might happen if light conditions illuminate the belly side instead, and conceal the top part with all the scary pointy bits on it.

Try to spot the deer.
No, no, no, that's not how countershading works. Ha ha! What's really happening can be illustrated with a plain beach ball or a particularly round deer. The object throws shade on itself so that the lower half of it looks darker than the top half.  If the lower half  is lighter in color, the natural shading will make it look more uniform and two-dimensional and thus harder to see.

"That looks almost like a nice, chewy nodosaur," an ancient theropod might say.

"Except it looks like just a cartoon of a nodosaur," the ancient theropod's buddy might say back. Both carnivores watch the landscape for a while, the ancient breezes riffling through the feathers on their tiny forearms.

"Wait just a minute," Theropod One says. "There's no such thing as a cartoon yet!" And the pouncing begins.

This tells us a few things. One: if an armored pineapple the size of a rhinoceros needed protective coloration, there were some seriously bad-ass predators in the Cretaceous (about which there is, indeed, some consensus). Two: scientists are marvelous.  The presumed coloration of Mark Mitchell's dinosaur was posited by teasing out a chemical signature of the breakdown of a reddish pigment from 100,000,000-year-old fossilized skin. These days, your average middle-aged woman can't go a week without her roots showing.

Another possibility, of course, is that there was some bad-ass vegetation in  the Cretaceous that needed sneaking up on. They've still got the stomach of Borealopelta intact, with its last meal inside. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

This Is About A Box Of Dicks

Picture a big ol' box of dicks. They're wriggling around, they're eating oats. Something about that image just sticks with you. It's hard to stop thinking about it, especially if you have ever admired a worm bin. It's jolly.

It may not strictly be a real thing. In fact, there is some talk that it is more like a bird's nest of dicks, and not a box at all.

But this is the very image brought to us courtesy of a Heinrich Kramer--"Heinie" to his friends--who presented it in his 1487 opus, Malleus Maleficarum. In this book he lays out the case against witches along with advice on how to spot them and try them and burn them to a crisp. He was also the chief proponent of the idea that witches were mainly women, who were disproportionately drawn to the Devil due to their insatiable lust. At least, one assumes he was not able to satisfy them.

Women do seem to get a bad rap in certain circles that usually do not contain women. There is a very good reason for this, and it is that women have a way of making men feel funny in the tummy, but then they can't always be counted on to do anything about it, and that ticks the men off. Women shouldn't be able to just go around willy-nilly bewitching people into feeling things they can't control. 'Specially the real purty ones, amiright, Heinie?

Mr. Kramer was a Catholic clergyman with a particular interest in witches and he wrote his book shortly after he had to leave Innsbruck. He had been accused of inappropriate behavior; also, during a tribunal, he displayed such lurid and obsessive interest in the sexual habits of a female on trial that he even creeped out the bishop, who thought he was crazy and expelled him from the city.

One would think that would be that, but there's a lot of evidence that being crazy is not an impediment to political success, especially if you're really sure of yourself. Kramer soon received explicit approval from the pope via some Bull to continue to prosecute witches and then he wrote his book and went all in. About that box of penises: apparently, men kept discovering their penises missing, or much reduced, or inoperable, and the obvious conclusion was that witches had taken them and boxed them up, twenty or thirty at a whack, sometimes placing them high in a tree. One unfortunate fellow was said to have consulted a witch about his missing member and was told to climb a tree containing a nest of penises and pick out any one he wanted, but it didn't work out for him. He picked one of the larger ones, as one does, but he couldn't have it because it belonged to a parish priest.

This is a compelling story: great hook, strong arc, leaves the reader hanging on every word. But what evidence did Mr. Kramer present that it is true? Well. First he discredited his critics. Then, according to his manuscript, he declared: "This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk." Good enough! Sales went through the roof for the next 200 years. Only the Bible sold better.

Something about this penis story sounds awfully familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. Oh wait.

"You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there," someone said recently, in response to a question about Obama being a Muslim and setting up Muslim training camps. It's not much of an answer, so in all likelihood it didn't resonate with anybody, and Muslims should have no fear of persecution, any more than women should fear being tried and executed for witchcraft. Some forty to fifty thousand were, right up through the 18th century, but that was then. People used to be stupid. Nothing like that could happen now.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Oh What An Untangled Web

So there I was minding my own business when someone mentioned that orb-weaving spiders made up their webs fresh every day. Like everyone knows that. Like, it's certainly the kind of thing a person who tries to pay attention would know. Especially if she were an attention-paying person whose father photographed spiders for fun and who has an actual degree in biology. "You mean they suck their whole web back up their butts and start over every day?" I asked, betraying myself.

"Pretty much," came the answer. Well!

I had no idea. In retrospect, I think I know where I went wrong. I never wake up early enough to notice what my spiders are doing. Also? I can go weeks without making the bed. I've fixed skirt hems with Scotch tape. If I went to the trouble of crocheting something as magnificent as a web out of my own butt, I'd let it go as long as I could. Throw on a patch as needed, and call it a day.

But orb weavers are better citizens than me in that respect. It turns out to be true: spiderwebs have existed for more than a hundred million years, but most last only a day. The spiders do not suck them back up their butts: they eat them, and start fresh, usually in the evening. It's probably a sensible thing to do, evolutionarily speaking, since they count on their webs for snagging the groceries, but who knows how it got started? Could be some of them just got peckish of an evening, and ate their webs, and then they were all dammit and they had to start over, and those are the ones who were most successful and got their genes passed down. Score one for gluttony.

Speaking of gene-passing, male spiders are probably the most libidinous creatures on earth. They'd have to be, since they survive courtship only 20% of the time, and if they try for a twofer, they're done for. The longer the male remains mounted, the deader he's going to be. He might get away with a five-second job, but if he hangs on ten seconds, the female is going to eat him, and not in a good way. So that extra five seconds must really be something. It's not too bad for the female either. Her suitor might use a special silk strand that vibrates in such a way as to entice her--that would totally work on me, too--and also he brings dinner. In the form of himself.

Almost all spiders have eight eyes, set up in various ways and pointing in various directions, which is helpful for keeping the kids in line, in those species that watch out for their kids. Most don't, on account of being dead at the time, like Charlotte. You will recall that Charlotte's kids all parachuted away from Wilbur the pig, except for three, and that is indeed what happens in many species. First thing an itty bitty baby spider does is stick its butt in the air, and if there's any breeze at all, it tugs silk out of the spider. I imagine that feels kind of nice. And once the strand of silk is long enough, it takes off on the breeze and carries the spider away, because it is so very tiny and lightweight. It's a nice start to life.

But other spiders do tend to the chilluns, like the wolf spider. The wolf spider will carry her egg sac around on her spinneret, holding her rear end up in the air so as not to drag it in the dust, and then when the eggs hatch, a thousand teeny tiny spiders climb up her legs and pile up on her abdomen, and it doesn't creep her out at all, so don't you complain.

Because I felt remorse over not having known about the daily web construction, I recently observed a spider right outside our window, and discovered all on my own that she achieves such perfection in her web by measuring it out with her own foot. She grabs a previous portion of the web with a foot while dabbing her butt on the radius to attach the strand, so it's always exactly the same distance away. I discovered this my own self, although, as it turns out, this is not information new to science. I can't help that.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A World Series, And Everyone's Out

We love baseball. Any kind of baseball: major league, park-league, softball, even the kind where short people dribble the ball off a standing tee and charge off to third base to wave at Grandma. All of it. It's the greatest game in the world. And, in as good a sign as I know of that America is headed down the wrong path, no one seems to play it anymore. A casual stroll through any neighborhood here reveals perfectly sound softball fields with nobody on them. Kids can be found playing something close to soccer, and basketball courts usually get some action, but we're  hard pressed to find anything baseball-like to watch. At this point, I'd go to all kinds of trouble just to see a game.

Which we proved the other day.

A tiny notice in the paper said the Gay Softball World Series was taking place all week long right here in Portland, and one of the fields was within walking distance! Huzzah! I inked Tuesday on the calendar.

Tuesday turned out to be the day the ash from the gorge fire was falling on Portland and we had been advised by all media to stay indoors and breathe shallowly, because we are old farts. But we're contrary old farts. When have we ever listened to advice?

Delta Park was only four or five miles that direction (I am waving my finger vaguely northwest), and we zigged and zagged our way through the residential areas with confidence. A gentle breeze scuffed up the ash in the alleyways but we persevered. We're old: we got skills. And nose hair. Then we pulled up at Columbia Boulevard and frowned at the next mile.

One of the things we appreciate about Portland is that we can walk just about anywhere. There are sidewalks and blinky crosswalks and water fountains right there on the street. But suddenly, past Columbia Boulevard, things got real auto-y.

4,000 people at Delta Park and the ladies' rest room was empty.
After slogging on the narrow, trash-strewn shoulder of a loud, fast road, we bailed out onto a little service road and confronted acres of warehouses with cyclone fences. The service road wasn't going the right direction. "Let's bushwhack," I said. Dave looked grim. Bushwhacking wasn't the sort of  thing an urbanite in a pedestrian-friendly city should be expected to do. Plus, he wasn't nearly as confident as I that we'd ever find the field.

"And," he muttered, "I'd put the chances that we will actually find a working softball game today at zero." This is Dave's style. He likes to be pre-disappointed so as to save time later. But he followed me. We skirted several hundred yards of cyclone fence on something like a human deer trail--well-worn, narrow, its side shoots spangled with trash and tent-parts and petering out in the blackberries. Rounded the corner, reconnoitered, checked slant of red sun, dead-reckoned, bent our ears toward any crack of a bat, opted for a winding trail over a slough and behind another cyclone fence, stayed true to instinct, wound through a sea of Dumpsters to a new patch of payment, and lo!


And just beyond, the five pristine softball fields of Delta Park.

"This is great!" I said to the first friendly face. "Are there any women playing today?" My new friend looked wary.

"Well, this is the gay World Series," he said, cautiously.

"I know. But are there women?"

He paused. "Depends on how you look at it," he said.

There were women, as it turned out. Three or four, on just a few teams in the D-division. That's just the way it is. No offense taken. There aren't many women who can compete with grown men, and that's just a fact. The D-division was fun to watch, but relatable. In that they made mistakes. "Run it out, run it out!" I hollered. "Where's the backup, where's the backup?" I hollered. I have no skill at all, but I know how to play, and holler. The Seattle Honey Badgers lost, but they didn't give a shit [you know you want to see it again]. We came back Friday and Saturday.

The smoke was gone. The A-division was tremendous. The beer was outstanding.

And on our way out, we caught the end of the Masters tournament: age fifty gets you in. I've been after Dave for years to join a Masters team, but he won't do it: too sure he'd be disappointed in the skills and strength he's lost. As though the point of a Masters team is to prove you're still twenty.

"Look at that there," I said. "You could totally play on that team. You could star on that team."

He could. Even he could see it. At 66, he could play any position in that field.

And he wouldn't even have to stop to tinkle on the way to home plate.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Me Too

Me too, naturally.

I'll start with just a couple, for now. The earliest ones. Nothing too dreadful, or too early--I was raised in a family of decent people and well shielded.  I knew not to take candy from strangers, but what designs those strangers might have had on me were a mystery. Art Linkletter was on the tube, not Girls Gone Wild.

No, my introduction to the peril of being female began only when I'd just started to develop. Eleven, maybe, or twelve. It's not a good time of life. It's the beginning of the end of innocence, and by that I mean the condition of being whole in oneself, the pilot of one's own consciousness, the skinner of knees and the collector of caterpillars. If you're as lucky as I am, you get to be that child for a good while, rowing your own boat in a protective flotilla, allowed to drift at will with a cargo of your own imagination.

Then things start to change, and it becomes ever clearer that navigating the world and its demands and betrayals is going to require some compromise of the spirit, some deceit and pretense. And that's just to keep your head above water among your peers. But there's a wider world.

The first time, I was walking down the block to Robertson's Five and Dime, as I had done for years, every time I found a few pennies in the sofa cushions. I was nearly there when a man, a grown man, pointed at me and grinned. "Hey, I know you," he said.

I probably looked perplexed, and I probably smiled back. As one does.

"You work at the bar, right? That's it! I've seen you dancing at the bar. Oh, yesss." He was really grinning now.

I can't remember what used to be on that corner next to the dime store, but now it was a topless joint. That was a new thing then, and a scandal in the neighborhood. The man grinned harder and his eyes traveled down my body. My new body. I smiled again, probably, and told him I didn't work at the bar.

"You sure look like her though. You could."

I ducked into the dime store, bought a Maryjane, and peered through the window to make sure the man was gone before I walked home. Not that he wasn't friendly. He was real friendly.

It's a mild enough story, but as poor as my memory is, it stands out. What's interesting about it is not the man's ploy, his game, his easy, casual assertion of his own power. There's nothing special about that. "When you're famous, they'll let you," a powerful man says, but even those with nothing going for them will play up any edge they can conceive of, and that edge is often over women. All women, any woman. We're all in the same lower caste and they'll make sure we don't forget it. There's nothing more mundane than that story. What's interesting to me about this story, and the next, is my own reaction.

First, a sense of menace, accompanied by the first realization that I would have to negotiate life more carefully from now on, and take other people into account in a way I'd never had to do. I was suddenly not a little girl anymore, but a little girl in costume, in drag, and people were going to look at me in a different way, and at the same time no longer see me at all. So I felt menace, and loss. But also something else. 

Do I really look like the dancer at the bar? Could I really be mistaken for the dancer at the bar?

[No, eleven-year-old little Mary B., no, no, no. Christ on a stick. That man knew you were not a dancer at a bar.]

And so I felt as though I had dodged a bullet, but also that I might have some power of my own, something that made other people notice me. That I had some new currency in this new world, something from the props department I could use as I climbed the big stage and learned how to act.

That night, I took my shirt off, threw my shoulders back, and examined the progress in the mirror. It's a strange bit of business to witness on yourself. I did not want to grow up, but as long as I had to, I wanted something I could work with.

This is how it starts. If you ever wondered why some women accept this situation as normal and consider unsolicited attentions a compliment, become accomplices in their own subjugation, this is how it starts.

That's not entirely fair, of course. Most people, anywhere on the sexual spectrum, try to attract. It's all part of the game. The unfair part is that men can really mess you up. They can kill you.

Story Two, not long after. I'd been in the church choir since I was little. I'd graduated to the adult choir with my dad, and Ronnie Oldham was acting different. Mr. Oldham was old and fat and had never paid me any mind at all, but now he was waggling his eyebrows and making low whistles at me as I walked past. "Oh, brother, George," I heard an adult say to my father. "You know your little girl is growing up when Ronnie starts taking an interest." Everyone chuckled. It was general knowledge.

I'd gone into the empty rehearsal room to retrieve something when Mr. Oldham came in behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around, he covered my mouth with his and forced in his tongue, squeezed my breasts with both hands, and backed me into a wall. One of the women in the choir came in and said, "Now, Ronnie, you know better than that," and he left the room immediately. My reaction? I was really relieved that lady came in when she did. And I was also as embarrassed as I'd ever felt in my life. Absolutely humiliated, eight shades of crimson, paralyzed, incapable of speech. Exactly as if I'd been caught doing something wrong. What else could I have done? I had never been given a script in which I could say "no" to an adult.

But somehow I was partly to blame.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

You'd Think They'd Be On Snow White's Side

The Trump administration has announced the rollback of major provisions of the Obama-era Poison Apple Elimination Act, prompting outcry from progressives who hate freedom. "How can the Republicans be in favor of poison apples?" they demanded on the Senate floor. Majority leader Mitch McConnell's cheeks plumped in an indulgent smile.

"The government should not be in charge of determining which apples are poison and which are not," he explained tartly. "This is simple overreach. The market is perfectly capable of sorting out the apple situation."

"That is absurd," thundered Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, exhibiting the first stages of flabbergastion. "It is entirely within the government's purview to protect American citizens from poison in their food."

McConnell had already left the chambers. "Hogwash," he replied, through a spokesman who vouched for his familiarity with hogwash. "This entire bill has had the effect of damaging the Apple Pie industry. Democrats simply don't trust Americans to choose their own fruit products."

"Democrats Wage War On Apple Pie," read the tabloid headline. Yellow-headed anchorettes from Fox News drummed the theme. Sources say the original Poison Apple Elimination Act was the brainchild of Democrat Senator Phil Necro after he was discovered trying to kiss a beautiful young woman who was already dead and in a casket. "I was merely trying to smell her lips to determine the cause of death so we can avoid this dreadful calamity in the future," he said, shortly before resigning to spend more time with his family.

In an interview on Fox News, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan assured Democrats that this action should not be taken personally. "The President is merely trying to target waste in government by rolling back all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2016. It is not possible," he said, "to conduct the careful review that Americans demand and expect while these laws are still on the books. They must be withdrawn before they can demonstrate any effects."

Democratic leaders met behind closed doors with speechwriters and polling experts to speculate on how they had become the anti-apple-pie party. It was agreed that nothing good could come of pointing out that Republican Rep. Morguetrotter had been caught in exactly the same situation as Senator Necro without suffering reprimand of any kind from his party. "I can hear it now," groused the consultant from Public Relations, adopting a mocking tone. "What Mr. Morguetrotter does in his free time is not something the American people care about. And unlike his Democrat counterpart, he didn't introduce needless job-killing legislation that hamstrings the apple pie industry. In fact, the congressman is proud to say he didn't do anything at all."

Everyone slumped.

"We can go ahead and let that Morguetrotter business play out on Facebook, as usual," the consultant went on, "but our constituents don't spread 'gotcha' memes like that as much. They're too wrapped up in climate change and civil rights issues."

"As well they should be," Merkley snapped. "Did you see that massive giveaway to the coal industry those assholes are cooking up now? They're pulling us out of solar and wind until they've taken down all the mountains in Kentucky."

The consultant riffled the papers in front of him, and stabbed a finger at one page. "Ah. Here it is. The Heritage Emissions Protection Act?"

Merkley lowered his head to his desk and began to pound slowly.

"Thing is, they keep funneling all the money to their wealthy cronies while ginning up all these controversies to distract us. Like that NFL taking-a-knee fiasco. How did that peaceful protest get to be a dig at our armed forces? How did we lose control of that story? It's utter bullshit."

"I know! Let's do it their way! 'Republicans take stand against jobs and American workers' rights by demanding that professional players exercising freedom of speech be removed from the football field.'"

"I'm on it," said an aide, tapping away at his phone.

"Fake News!" the President tweeted twelve hours later. "Nobody loves field Negroes as much as Republicans do. Believe me."

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dispatches From The Crust

I recently mentioned that I have moments of doubt while writing. Not many, and not often, but more often than I used to. Some of the stuff I've learned hasn't stayed learnt.  I wrote a sentence the other day with about fourteen more clauses in it than anyone really needs, and by the time I got to the end of it I was just shoveling in pronouns with no confidence that they were the right ones. In those cases, I get a machete and whack at my sentence until I get control of it again. But it would be nice to be certain. It's humbling to feel at sea in my native language.

It's not just language, though. Thanks to the social media, I'm much more likely to weigh in on other issues. I'll stick my opinions out there like I'm planting flags on conquered territory--fervently, righteously. There are so many people who need correcting, and I'm just the one to do it. It's easy to let fly without lining up your shot first.

There are times I'm sure I'm right but can't say exactly why, and there are times I'm not sure I'm right at all. Humility can be a good thing. It's a big wide world out there, and I haven't learned everything about it yet, and unlike some people I won't name but didn't vote for, I know how complicated it actually is.

So I came across a thread about all the natural disasters that are happening all over the world, and someone said climate change was exacerbating the earthquakes, and as much as I like to sound the alarm about global warming, I don't like to attribute things to it promiscuously. There's enough misinformation out there already, and I didn't want to see someone set up a straw man that some Denier could knock down. Far be it from me to suggest we're not screwed, I typed, or words to that effect, but that's not how earthquakes work.

Because, you know, I'm all science-y like that.

Tectonic events are shaped by things that are beneath us, not to put on airs. Heat within the earth, friction and pressure, that sort of thing. This guy contending that we're getting earthquakes now because the crust is heating up? I suspected him of also having the inside skinny on The Rapture. So I just made my comment and flang it out there.

And there it dangled, nice and slow, so I could get a look at it. And doubt crept in. Was there something I hadn't read about? Some new discoveries? Did I go off half-cocked? And what does half-cocked mean, anyway? How much else don't I know?

Lots, as it turns out! Yes indeedy, score another one for humility--global warming is affecting earthquakes. It's not going to create one that isn't all cooked up and ready to go, but it can trigger them in a number of ways. A fault ready to slip can go off if the weight of the atmosphere eases up on it because of a good low-pressure typhoon. Rainfall can result in landslides massive enough to release strain on a fault. Ice sheets maintain a load on the crust, but when they melt, the crust levitates. The surface of Iceland is rising fast as glaciers disappear, and it's expected this release of tension will pull in more magma below. Et cetera, et cetera.

I lie in bed and think about it. Do I believe it? Our cat Tater weighs a thousand pounds when she lies on my feet. I'm trapped. There will be no rolling over until she gets up. And when she finally does, limbs are gonna fly.

I believe it.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Comma Mistake

I got into a tiff with my word processing program the other day. I've got a new laptop and it came with a lot of features I don't need, like its own opinions. I'm always willing to listen to another point of view for a while, but not if it's going to be yap yap yap all day long.

This is a Mac program, and it is constantly weighing in with what is wrong with my writing. But I'm comfortable in my native language. Why, I'd even say I am above average in it. In fact, it is very uncommon for me to wonder how to phrase something, or spell something, or punctuate something. I know some folks who are even more reliable than I am, but not really that many, if you don't mind my saying so.

Because I used to use Microsoft Word, I'm accustomed to having my prose light up here and there. It's Microsoft's way of saying "Really?" And I check it, and often as not I say Yes, really. I meant to say "recombobulated" or "flappety." And every now and then it catches a typo, for real. There's one word I'm always sticking an extra "m" in, the first time--it escapes me now, but there is one. So it's useful. As long as it doesn't go ahead and correct everything for me without checking in first, I'm okay with it.

The Mac program is willy-nilly retyping everything without permission. I know there's an off switch on that and I plan to flip it, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. And the other day, I typed the following sentence:

        "How wet is it?" we asked.

Stupid program kept capitalizing the "we." I'd fix it, and it would just retort with another capital letter. I'd smack it down, and it would pop right back up. And this went on enough times that a little zephyr of doubt floated into my brain. What if I had it wrong? What if the way I want to write that sentence was never right in the first place?  Just a couple years ago, I discovered I was supposed to capitalize quotations in the middle of a sentence, and that was news to me. So it can happen.

Worse, these hesitations happen more frequently now. It's an age thing. Words come up missing, and I find myself wondering about things I used to know for sure.  It's like being the youngest kid in the family and you say Remember when Uncle Buddy cooked the cow pie in a crust and tried to serve it to Mom, and your older sister says It was pond scum on pizza dough, we don't have an Uncle Buddy, and by the way you're adopted.  It's unsettling.

In this case I was certain my word program had gotten all flustered at my question mark. As far as it was concerned, the question mark meant we were now at the end of a sentence, and it was time to start a new one. With a capital letter. But it was being a real bitch about it. 23 out of every 24 hours I would be confident I was right, but this was that other hour--the dark hour in which I look up "oligarchy" for the thousandth time--and I thought, well, I'll just ask my Facebook friends. Two or three people I trust will confirm I'm right, if I am. It's not such a bad thing to be humble. It's not shameful to admit doubt.

That said, here's a really good cure for humility: go online for advice. Scores of friends weighed in. A thundering majority tried to correct something that wasn't wrong. I was supposed to put "i" before "e" except after Labor Day; I was warned to avoid relative clauses whilst Mercury was in retrograde. There was a fire sale somewhere on commas and people were offering them to me in buckets. "Stick a comma here," someone would say, and someone else would be equally enthusiastic about the comma but insist it go somewhere else. This went on for a while.

I love my friends. I do appreciate all the help. I'm keeping my original sentence as originally written, and--no offense?--I have a whole other idea where you can stick your comma.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Encore Avec Le Petit Pantalon Grenouille?

Throughout most of human history, women were not expected to make a contribution to science. They were expected to make a contribution to dinner, and to reproduce prolifically, and maybe do a little light sewing. Those who did help to advance the cause of scientific inquiry labored in obscurity. This made them crabby.

Take Madame Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur, for instance, without whom Monsieur Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur could never have succeeded in his quest to determine what a male frog brings to the procreation table. In the early 1600s, the state of understanding about the male's role in fertilization was fluid, but murky. Some contended that an egg only was required. Others fingered the sperm. It was a popular belief that one or the other contained an entire miniature being that only needed plumping up, like a sea monkey. The so-called "spermists" believed the male sent the tiny being into the female where it began to grow; the "ovists" believed the tiny being was already in the egg to begin with. It was not understood in the latter case what the point of the semen was, unless it was just there for encouragement.

M. de Reaumur began by trying to accumulate any materials that might be required for successful fertilization, in the privacy of his own sal de bain. Ha ha! No, he used frogs. Female frogs were certainly known to produce eggs, but what did the males produce? In order to find out, he decided to outfit the little hoppers with tiny pants to contain their effluent, but he wasn't about to make them himself. Mme. de Reaumur was used to this sort of thing by now. She duly produced a series of frog trousers, one pair after the other, refining the design to accommodate her husband's complaints. The first pair was made from a pig's bladder, as requested, but the leg holes were too big, and the frog kept climbing out of them. The second pair was more form-fitting, and, inspired, she added rear pockets, which ruined the frog's line. "Taffeta, darling," her husband suggested.

"Again with the tiny frog pants?" she muttered, the third time, only in French, and trudged off for more pig bladder and taffeta while the Monsieur went back to his precious thinking room. The third and several subsequent versions were problematic because of the frogs' anatomy, with their skinny legs and plump paunch, but inasmuch as this was also typical of men's physiques at the time, she knew just what to do, and soon produced taffeta frog pants with suspenders. "Voici," she said, tightly, "and maybe Mr. Genius Fancypants Science-Boy could think about inventing Spandex some day."

M. Ferchault de Reaumur dressed his male frogs for love, and after what appeared to be a successful introduction to the gravid females, he examined the trousers for secretions, but either did not find any, or got bored and wandered off to piddle around with geometry; in any case he did not report his findings.

After the divorce, M. de Reaumur began new experiments with frogs, butter, parsley, and lemon, and the Mme. provided for herself nicely in her new career designing loungewear for the King's hamsters.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

With The Greatest Of "EEEEEEEEEEs!"

If I were going to do something on my birthday that was really special, something no one would ever expect me to do, what do you think it would be? If you guessed "Jump out of a perfectly good airplane," you'd be right! I would never do that.

I did, however, take a zip line tour. I thought that was something I could manage. I'd been a little taken aback when I suggested the zip line to my friends who were coming for the eclipse, and they fired back NO so fast I thought our emails had collided in mid-air. How bad could it be, I wondered?

I'm the most trepid person I know. I won't even jaywalk. There is a tremendous number of ways to maim yourself or perish altogether, and I have reviewed every one of them, and make a point of avoiding them. I can barely play piano in public. It all seems extreme, but keep in mind that I am a person who tips over while putting on socks, walks into closed doors, and sometimes get a bolus of tap water stuck in my throat.

Our Guides
Dave's not like me at all. Before they locked him out, he used to climb up to the top of the Fremont Bridge arch, which is located right under the sun. He likes the rush of adrenaline you get from a good scary ride. I think it's possible a rush of adrenaline could kill me. My cousin Jerry just got on some numbskull ride where they belt you delicately onto a park bench and drop you off a cliff, and I'm sure they have all the logistics worked out for that little number, but if I did it they'd be pulling up a corpse. My bowels and bladder would be empty and my lymph and bile would be looking for a way out too.

They're careful with the zip lines. Guide has you all harnessed in and strapped to the mothership and all you have to do is sit down in your harness and fly. I had a death grip on my harness even though it was not possible to fall out of it, and if it did fail, it wouldn't matter what I was holding onto. It would be like Thelma and Louise grabbing the dashboard. "Relax!" he advised. Sure! I made it to the next platform and the guy's buddy nabbed my knotted-up body out of the air.

Not a platform. Platforms had no railings.
It was the platform I wasn't prepared for. It's the size of a legal envelope and there are ten people on it.  We're all hooked to the tree in the middle; my fingernails are well into the bark. Plus, it's moving. "Now I want you all to back up to the very edge of the platform and lean back," he said, apparently not kidding, because everybody did it. "See how much room we have now?" I did. There was lots of space now next to the tree, so I stayed put.

As soon as I got my breathing under control, they pointed us across an undulating walkway fifty feet in the air, made of gapped toothpicks and dental floss, with no handrail.

I did get more comfortable, but I was still not about to fall backwards off a raised platform, as instructed, or sail on my back with my arms and legs out ("dead man style," the guide said, thoughtlessly), or anything else other than tip myself gently into the void. I know they're not going to let me die. I know they're not even going to let me get hurt. I can see I'm tethered to the cable. It doesn't matter. I  have a longstanding policy of not jumping off of things and it's done right by me so far. It's wired in. I see a raised platform like that and I'm looking for the gibbet.

Note launching motion
But I don't understand all those other people on the platform who are turning cartwheels and bouncing like fleas.  How is it they're able to do that? Why are they so brave?

"They're not brave," my niece Elizabeth said. Elizabeth came along and, as her birthday present to me, positioned herself as the only person on the tour who was obviously more freaked out than I was. "It's not brave if you're not scared. We're brave."

Damn straight we are. Next year? I'm going to have two slices of birthday cake, and screw the acid reflux.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Oh, well, shoot (as they say). I don't know.

We've got a problem with guns. We don't agree what it is, but no matter who you are, you have to admit we do a lot of shooting in this country. We blast away. Most of us don't, but this is one of those areas where one person can have an outsized effect. And the fact is, other nations do not experience the violence that we do routinely here in the U. S. of A. You know, unless they're in a war. So there's something going on. Can't keep pretending there isn't.

Does that mean that we're likely to be shot? Naw. If you got in line with the next 25,000 people you see, one of you might get plugged. You're way more likely to drop dead of heart failure, but no one's aiming bacon at you. At least not often enough.

There's talk about background checks but a lot of that is another slam on mentally ill people. It's not just mentally ill people. All kinds of people are ready to put some hurt on random strangers. I suppose if we were somehow able to examine everyone who bought a gun we might be able to sieve out a potential nut job once in a while.

So we have a situation in which reasonable people, people I know and love, people who will never perpetrate a crime, who merely want the ability to defend their house and home in the way they feel comfortable with, and maybe pop a deer every now and then, are so horrified by the utterly unreasonable prospect that someone is going to try to take away their guns, their protection, that they have drawn a line: and the line is somewhere past All weapons, Always. They might not need a military-style assault weapon capable of mowing down a crowd of people, personally, but they will defend to the death someone else's right to have it. Preferably someone else's death.

It's that slippery grassy knoll argument, I guess.

But where, I'd like to know, should that line really be? Anti-aircraft missiles? Nukes? Where, on the continuum that began with muskets in the Revolutionary War, do we draw the line?

I'd draw one line right through the National Rifle Association, if I could. The NRA positions itself as the friend and stalwart champion of Joe America, but gun safety classes notwithstanding, I can't see that this propaganda pump is truly dedicated to anything other than enriching arms manufacturers, and they're wildly successful, too. As long as they continue to persuade people someone's coming after their guns, sales will continue to spike. As they do after each mass murder. You'd think we'd already achieved full gun saturation (and all the safety it brings us), but you'd be wrong. Evidently there's no number of guns that is too many.

I'll admit it. I would feel safer in a country that didn't fetishize guns. But am I coming after anyone's guns? Hell no. Them folks is armed.

This blog post was written, but not published, in December 2015. I never had any doubt an appropriate time would arrive.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Stand Up. Sit Down. Fight, Fight, Fight.

It began when quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped quietly to one knee during the national anthem, before a football game. He explained later he was declining to honor a flag for a country that oppresses people of color. "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," he went on.

He's right. There are. Young black men in particular are reminded constantly that their lives are not worth as much as mine. That they're expendable. That our justice system continues, as ever, to serve some of us and not others. Under the rain of daily indignities, one might expect rage and fury, and not the composure of a man on bended knee.

Which did not prevent white people from getting hysterical. It's disrespect! It's a slap in the face to all who have suffered and died for our flag! All over the social media, on pages littered with racist memes, their friends' if not their own, they declared themselves appalled and affronted by this simple assertion of self-worth.

Soon the memes were joined by an historical photograph: Martin Luther King Jr. on one bended knee, head bowed, leading fellow protesters in prayer after they were arrested. As always, it could be bent to serve any viewpoint: an admonishment to racists? A proper posture for a Negro? Or this, from a woman who claimed--somehow, without being struck by a thunderbolt--to have a great deal of respect for MLK. Her comment: "If those NFL players who are taking a knee during the national anthem had their heads bowed like Martin Luther King Jr., that would be acceptable."

Acceptable. Good to know.

I didn't have to check to see that she was not alive when MLK was. It was clear. Martin Luther King Jr. was not beloved of white people like her until well after he was murdered and safely in the grave. If only Colin Kaepernick had bowed his head, it would be acceptable? If only!

If only he had bowed his head. And held a kitten. During Amazing Grace, and not the national anthem. In his own house. Where we can't see him. And certainly not in a sacred arena like a professional football stadium.

Oh, Petunia. Trust me! I was there. You would have hated MLK. He was trying to get people like you to pay attention. He was trying to keep his people alive, see them educated and voting, set them free. He was trying to shake you up.

Ours is not the flag of North Korea, of Russia, of any totalitarian state. Not yet. This flag is the symbol of our freedom and duty to protest. If our soldiers have fought and died for a flag, that would be travesty enough; but it takes nothing away from their courage and sacrifice to note that they have often fought and died in service to the most powerful among us and the mineral resources they have built their fortunes on, to the despair of all people unlucky enough to have been born over those resources. "Freedom" is a code word designed to guarantee your complacency as we wage war for any reason. Freedom is what you're trying to take away by compelling a man to salute, by insisting on  a deferential posture.

A disproportionate number of our brave military men and women are African-American, and they will come home from their service to the same country they left, in which they will be passed over for housing and employment, in which they will be tailed in the marketplace and harassed by officers of the law, in which they will be caricatured as thugs, in which they will have to strategize daily to remain alive, in which they must instruct their young children how to survive, in which they can expect no justice even when their sons and brothers are murdered, again and again.

In which they are living a different and harsher reality than you, Petunia, that you choose to remain ignorant of, or refuse to acknowledge, or believe that, fundamentally, they deserve.

Petunia? This isn't even that hard. The only thing being asked of you, for now, is to pay attention. To hush for a moment and listen when your fellow Americans are trying to tell you something you do not know, or do not wish to know. You should bow your head. You should be ashamed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

It's A Fly Ball

We have flies. Not a ton of them, really, just your standard set, and they're almost all in the outdoor stairwell going down into the basement. It's always a bit startling to open the basement door and see all those flies out there. They're mingling and talking over each other like they're at a church social. I don't know why they've picked that spot.

Because ever since those awkward early years at this house, we've kept the piles of cow poop in the stairwell to a minimum. We're likewise short on corpses. It is a bit untidy, and that might be attractive to flies, but it's hard to understand the draw. Being flies, they're marginally annoying even though they don't bite or anything. Probably we should install a frog.

I looked up "flies in the stairwell" to see if there was some reason they hung out there. To my chagrin, Google instantly supplied a billion articles about killing the hell out of flies, which was not what I was going for. I'm cool one-on-one with a swatter, but I always assume if you start spraying small beasts with poison, you'll eventually drop a tiger. Anyway I don't need to get rid of them. I just want to know what they're talking about.

My research proved to be a dead end. However, there was a lot of interesting advice about natural fly control, including the old "put some poop somewhere else" gambit. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that flies like poop, but I already fling the neighbor's cat's poop back over the fence, and my stairwell flies are still here. One woman on a forum was eager to underscore the poop-fly connection. "I have a pet rabbit whom's poop attracts the big fat juicy ones," she contended, and I'm not surprised. I think it's in them's nature.

But check this out. Have you heard of this? You put a penny in a plastic bag half filled with water and hang it near the flies, and they'll go away. People swear by it. I can't help but wonder if a couple of nickels would work even better.

It's not foolproof. One woman complained that although she tried the water-bag trick using fifteen pennies, flies were still hanging around her dog kennels. There's just no explaining something like that, you'd think, but someone did helpfully suggest she'd used too many pennies. is ambivalent about the efficacy of water bags. They wouldn't say one way or another, although they took a skeptical tone. It's relatively easy to construct an experiment with proper controls and an array of bags and pennies, and you can accurately measure fly concentration by tallying up the poop spots they leave behind, if that's the way you like to spend your time. The mechanism is thought to have something to do with the refraction of sunlight in the water bag amplified by the shininess of the pennies. The flies' compound eyes are completely taken unawares by it and they have to move away to unfrazzle themselves.

Could be so. I'm tempted to try it out, except for two things. My basement stairwell is a perfectly fine place to store flies, and I can think of worse places. Also, there is no direct sunlight in the stairwell. That's right: I am infested with flies where the sun don't shine.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Money, Honey

Can we talk about money?

By now you've probably heard that most of today's money is in only a few pockets. Not that many at all. And the rest of us, well--some of us are doing okay, but a whole lot are barely scraping by. There were always rich people but not like this. And they're really not kicking in the taxes so much anymore. They're leaving that part of the social contract to us.

I understand how we got into this predicament--the system is rigged twelve ways to Hallelujah--but what I don't understand is how the rich people got the poor people on their side. So many people wish they were rich that they actually admire rich people, no matter what. There's something about obscene wealth that makes people think: oh, they totally earned that. Why? They must have, because they have it. We really don't ask for much more proof than that.

Speaking of the Queen--we're the same way with royals. They get poop stains in their drawers like everybody else but we think they're special because of the crown. They've got the kit, they've got the outfit.  Of course, your own daughter wears that stupid princess costume and you might drop her a curtsey once or twice just to play along, but you still expect the sequined little pinkster to do the dishes and clean up her room. We all have responsibilities. You shouldn't be able to get out of them by waving a scepter around.

We teach our sons and daughters to share. Rich people, though, are to be admired and commended for  accumulating just as much as they can, and keeping it to themselves. They shouldn't have to pony up much for the good of society--that's commie talk. "I might be rich some day," ordinary folks say, "and I won't want my loot taken away, either."

Sugarcakes? Don't fret. Nobody's coming after your Dodge Caravan anytime soon.

Even the crappiest widget-maker on the line thinks she works harder than her coworkers. It's easy to talk her out of the union; easy to get her to believe her poker prowess will set her up prettier than a dull, plodding old pension plan. It's a snap to get her to hand over her money to a newly liberated financial sector, operating under newly minimal oversight. So a lot of our richest people siphoned off middle-class cash into opaque financial instruments constructed of pure bullshit. They won the big score, and now they're set. It's quite the caper they pulled off.

But aren't rich people the job creators? Shouldn't we leave them alone so they don't get in a snit and quit making us jobs?

Hmm. Let's see. Some of the most successful players got that way by doing the exact opposite of creating jobs. They arranged acquisitions and mergers and destroyed companies and unions and (by the way) lives.

One of the steamiest piles of money originated through the hard work of a single entrepreneur named Sam Walton, who may ultimately have done more than anyone else to destroy the middle class. He created plenty of jobs, but they weren't in this country. And three of the top twenty richest Americans got on the list by cleverly also being Waltons, and for no other reason. They made shrewd sperm selections. That's earning it, all right.

You know who the job creators are? You and I are, if we are so fortunate to have just enough money to buy a haircut, and a latte, and a book, and dinner out. Doesn't need to be a lot of money, either, just enough that we feel comfortable swapping our dollars around. We don't have to be rich to be rich enough.

But wait--how about Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, and that gang? Didn't they invent things and develop things and earn their money?

Well paint me red and call me Natasha, but I'm saying no. Not all of it. Maybe the first half billion. Maybe two billion. Draw the line wherever you like, but there's a number out there it is not possible to be worth. Not really. You get to that number, scoop it on up and enjoy your life. Put it in the win column. We're confiscating the rest.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett know this. That's why they started The Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of their fortunes. It's a start, and it still leaves them plenty of walking-around money. Plus, they'll even let you wait to give it away when you're dead. But for most of these luminaries on the Forbes list, the thought of scraping by on a half a crap-ton of money is a real scrotum-shrinker. Right now they're sitting pretty. They've got nothing left to worry about but their souls, and the consensus is that can wait a bit.

How can anybody acquainted with his own mortality hoard so much treasure in good conscience? And if he in fact does not have a sense of his own mortality, is there anything we can do to drive it home?

Don't make us get our pitchforks.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spare The Hotrod And Spoil The Child

If you're raising kids these days, you'd best toe the line. We know a lot more about parenting than we used to and we're all willing to jump in--as a village, you might say--and cluck at you if you're doing it wrong. Don't think we won't. We will raise eyebrows and widen our eyes in your direction. Or, you know, call the cops and have your kids taken away, depending. If you spank your child, say. Or vaccinate it, or refuse to vaccinate it. Or even for such a mild transgression as Springfield native Alana Nicole Donahue recently committed.

She got in trouble for towing three children in a plastic wagon with a short rope attached to the bumper of her car. Reportedly she was doing 5mph in a roundabout, and just continued to go around and around, but that's only sensible when you consider that the wagon had no brake, for Pete's sake. It's not like you can just stop, so you pretty much have to commit. Which she probably was smart enough to recognize after she began by towing the kids through the neighborhood at 30mph. The two-year-old got all upset when the wagon briefly went up on two wheels but toddlers are notorious sissies, as everyone knows. Anyway apparently a number of citizens who hate freedom and have the nanny state right in their contacts list got Ms. Donahue in trouble.

The two youngest were her own children and the eight-year-old was a nephew. All in the family, and no harm done. It's all a big to-do over nothing much; what else are you supposed to do when you're just trying to watch Family Feud in peace and the kids are all whining that they're bored and you don't even like your sister's kid and you're two and four years too late for an abortion?

Maybe the case can be made that this particular genetic patch could use some weeding. But the fact is we're raising a bunch of pantywaists. Gone are the old days when the neighbor lady would send us to the corner store for a pack of ciggies. "Run," she'd say, "and take the scissors with you. They need to get some air too." Nothing was all that sharp in that house, not even the knife that was set aside for digging the toast out of the toaster. We learned what was dangerous by experience, which is by far the best method, for the survivors.

Raising Little Dave.
But we were very safety-conscious. On snow days we'd always test the sledding velocity on Suicide Hill by sending the skinny kid with the flippers for arms first, because he was the most likely to be able to slide under a car unscathed and he was always cheerful no matter what. We were rinsed off only once a week, on Saturday night, but we were regularly exfoliated, old-school, using asphalt. We got sent out to play kickball in the street and also World War Three, which involved throwing rocks, after being duly warned not to do anything that would put an eye out. As far as I know no one did put an eye out, or take candy from strangers, and if there was a little culling of the population here and there it didn't upset anybody for very long. Stuff happens. That's one of the lessons.

But you start siccing the po-po on some poor woman just trying to show the kids a good time, who may not have the money to buy them each a personal digital device to stare at, and you'll end up with adults that don't know a damn thing about centrifugal or maternal force. And they'll never be able to handle Boston traffic. Sissies.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Noberry Home

It was early September, time for Mary Ann and me to go on our annual huckleberry hunt. This year I hadn't had a chance to check out the crop in advance, so we didn't know what to expect. The last two years, boy howdy, the bushes were nuts. Huckleberries pushed at the margins of the forest like they were behind the velvet rope at the nightclub, saying Pick me! Pick me! And, like roadies with all the power, we were able to select just the prettiest ones most likely to put out.

"But you never know," we said this time, perfunctorily modest. The fates frown on audacity.

You never do know. Still, we approached our berry grounds with all the anticipatory glee of a postal worker taking his paycheck to Reno. And we pulled up to our accustomed turnout and charged into the woods with empty buckets and full hearts.

A half hour later, the hearts were running a pint low but nothing else had changed.

"Huh," we articulated.

"Do you suppose it's been picked over?" Mary Ann wanted to know.

With a Huckleberry Hound.
No, I didn't. They don't all ripen at once, and ordinarily you can see little berries all green with ambition right next to their voluptuous sisters. What we had here was that rare non-existent variety. We'd brought along our friend Margaret and a huckleberry hound for good luck, without vetting either one properly for auspiciousness. But berrying is a bright and hopeful pursuit and we gave it all we had. An hour in, I had thirteen berries to my credit. They huddled along the bottom of my bucket like the skinny, morose kids about to be picked last for dodgeball. There were few enough that I got to know them by name, and have favorites.

Two hours in, I had begun to scan the smaller alders in case our berries had switched teams since last season. Whereas the alders failed to turn up any huckleberries, it must be noted that they didn't produce much fewer than the huckleberry bushes did.

Well, you can keep this sort of thing up for hours at a time, especially if you are content to sift quietly through the dappled light of a fir forest to no particular end. There is a restorative quality to the early-autumn slant of sun in the woods, and although this year it has a pinkish cast from not-so-distant fires, it still feels like a benediction. And one of the beauties of our local berries is that you don't have to bend over for them. In fact, I'd say just about all the berries that weren't there this year were at waist-height, probably.

After 7.5 berrypickerhours and a consolidation, we had finally covered the bottom of one bucket, assuming it was kept level. We could achieve two pies if we used jar lids for tins. And added apples.

But that's two more huckleberry pucks than we've made all year. We're chalking it up as a win.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On Sucking

The cloud's silver lining is more of an ash gray at this point, but here it is: the predicted highs of 100 in Portland in Jesus Johnson September did not arrive because wildfire smoke obscured the sun. This is what counts for good news in Climate-Change-Denial Land.

At sundown, it was 87 degrees and snowing. Snowing something. Because my idea of quarantining young men between the ages of 12 and 28 has never gained traction, we now have 33,000 acres of pristine forest on fire, and counting. The Columbia River Gorge, strenuously green and laced with waterfalls, is systematically being incinerated and its ash redistributed over the Portland area. This follows a particularly hot and dry summer season which we have been advised will be our new normal. Anywhere you live, actually, you may now expect a new normal, but--our short attention spans aside--novelty is not in itself a worthy goal. The wildfire currently consuming the Gorge is a direct consequence of humanity's systematic extraction and burning of otherwise dormant carbon stores over the last couple hundred years. With punctuation provided by one or two young assholes with firecrackers.

We first heard the news while eating lunch in a diner on Mt. Hood. The waitress brought over a glass of water with a plastic straw in it. "Hold the straw," I forgot to say. Seems like straws come automatic these days, and it always surprises me. I can't think of anything I drink that needs a straw, let alone everything I drink. There's a campaign on now to get people to say "no" to straws. It probably started with the heartbreaking video of a rescue worker pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle's nostril. Straws, and all other plastic garbage, have a way of making it to the ocean.

Things are going to have to change around here, and straws seem like easy enough targets to start with. Because when do we ever need a straw? If we're not prone in a hospital bed with only a bendy straw between us and nutrition, when do we need one? Must we suck? So. At the very least let us campaign against straws.

I tried, when I got a glass of water at a local brewpub that prides itself on being environmentally friendly. They answered my letter promptly:

While the concern for sea life is pressing, most of Portland's garbage goes to the Columbia Ridge Landfill, which is located east of The Dalles and away from the Columbia. There would have to be some extenuating circumstances for our plastic trash to make its way into the ocean.

Extenuating circumstances! Yes. And yet those are what somehow manage to send 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic to our oceans. Sad, as they say, but that's circumstance for you.

We used to use biodegradable plastics for straws and to-go wares. Unfortunately, Portland stopped accepting these items in their composting program, and we had to take a hard look at our disposables. We ended up making the decision to stock a high post-consumer recycled content straw, because if it's all headed to the landfill we want to make sure that we're using a plastic that has lived through more than one cycle and been utilized to its full potential.

Okay. However, there is such a thing as a paper straw. And, there is such a thing as not needing a straw in the first place. I grew up without plastic straws and air conditioning and a lot of other things that we now apparently need. So did the rest of the humans that existed before about 1970, which is quite a good portion of them, all told.

A friend offered an explanation for the sudden proliferation of straws. "I think it started with lipstick," she said. "Lipstick is too hard to wash off glasses, and requires human scrubbing, which is not cost-efficient. Thus, straws are provided with each glass in case the human plans to put lipstick on it." All righty then, that makes sense. Lipstick: another plastic tube containing significant amounts of palm oil retrieved for profit from monoculture plantations for which gigantic swaths of primary forest have been razed, resulting in 80-100% loss of native species, and also containing compounds that kill fish and plankton and cause mutations in amphibians, packaged together in order that we might provocatively accentuate our pieholes, and necessitate the use of plastic straws to trim labor costs.

Dear lord, dear large theoretical sky person who cares about us and watches over the sparrow that falls, by all that is holy--and I would include here the moss and ferns and pikas and salamanders of the Columbia River Gorge--may we humans begin to define "what we need" as what we...actually...need? And, failing that, dear lord, might you allow us to suck less?