Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hannibal And Noodle

Yeah, I don't remember.
I've complained before about my inability to recognize birds.  I'll no sooner get one solidly deposited in the memory bank than I see it again a week later and the best I can say is that I've seen it before. It's, you know--that one. That one. With the little thing on its--hold still, dammit. You know! That one.

Which is why I bake cookies for the Birdathon van. A person should contribute.

But it has come to my attention that many people, maybe even most people, don't see birds at all. They register only as flitters on the periphery, and unless they're making some kind of racket, they fly, as it were, under their radar. I realized this when my neighbor, who knew I had an affinity for the little fluffsters, reported with great excitement that he saw a pheasant in the tree outside my window.

So chalk one up for me: I did know enough to know he did not see a pheasant in the tree outside my window. He went on to describe a northern flicker, which is indeed a fine and fancy bird: a vest full of polka-dots, a necklace, an orange kilt, a red mustache. How my neighbor could have failed to notice such a large, snappy, well-turned-out bird before, even though it is dirt-common around here and perches on the wires going weeka weeka weeka and hammers on his chimney flashing just for giggles and looks like nothing else, not even a pheasant, I do not know.

So I have begun to appreciate that I have managed to accumulate some small measure of ID skills over time. I'm best at the fifteen or so species that are likely to show up outside my window. But I now recognize a ruby-crowned kinglet even when he's not showing his crown, and also a pine siskin, both of whom were mysteries to me not that long ago. I don't expect to gain a vast breadth of knowledge, but now I have a new aspiration. I want to be able to tell individual birds apart. You know, my birds. The ones in my tree.

I know it's possible because Julie Zickefoose knows all her birds by name, and their hat sizes, and whether they're drop-in people or she should call first, and everything. So when you're looking at the feeders on her deck, and ask what some bird is, she might say "juvenile semi-mottled snapplecrapper" or whatever, but she might also say "Oh, him? That's Fred." Fred looks a little different, or acts a little different. Fred has that arrogant cant to his shoulder, and a quelling eye. Julie knows. She's got something special in her pocket just for him.

But right here in the small birdscape outside my window, I'm starting to see individuals. I have a female house finch in residence who has cowlicks over both ears. She seems to be just fine but she has these little horns. So there's one. I probably won't be able to do this with my bushtits. If I hollered "Hey, Fred" to my bushtits, they'd all go off at once, and that's just a plain fact.

I thought my ability to distinguish hummingbirds would be confined to sexing them, which is easy, because of their hats. But there's way more going on than that. I don't like to cast nasturtiums, but this hummer that has dominated our feeder--Hannibal Nectar--is one rotund little ball of holy-hell. He has really packed on the grams. You fry up three of him and perch them on a bed of rice, you've got yourself an entree.

But then there's Noodle. She squeaks in any time Hannibal isn't looking. And she has the girth of a standard Ticonderoga pencil. She couldn't beat up Hannibal if she had brass knucklets, ten friends, and started last week. I'm accustomed to the proper size of an Anna's hummingbird, and there's variation, but I'm frankly worried about both of these. Soon Hannibal won't be able to lift off without dropping like a plumb-bob and Noodle could disappear in a shag carpet.

There's not only a size and coloration discrepancy. They act different. You know how non-cat people think cats are all alike? Right. Well neither are birds, as it turns out. Noodle always picks the port closest to the window so she can look out for the big jerk. She looks left, right, up, down, and then she lowers the hose in and sucks out everything she can. (Birds do not actually suck. They'd need lips, and they're all notoriously slim about the lips.) Hannibal comes way more often and drinks less at a time, because he knows he's in charge. He picks any port he wants and kicks back like he's in a recliner. But he's also the only hummingbird I've seen that makes a regular habit of checking out the nectar feeder from underneath. I know what he's doing. The fat little fuck is looking for Cheetos in the seat cushions.

Poor Noodle. She should be making a nest soon, and I hope she's real cozy in there, because that's one place she can get away from Hannibal. I'd love to bring her a welcome-wagon gift. Maybe a nice spider pot pie.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Re-tired Beats Snow-tired

The meteorologists have gotten ridiculously good, and precise, too. It's not at all unusual to look up the forecast and read "light rain beginning in nineteen minutes, tapering off in late June." But they totally missed our twelve inches of snow last week, and I'm inclined to blame Editing. Editing told them to knock it down to three inches, because Portland never gets a foot of snow. But then we did. And it was fluffy. This was the kind of snow where every knob and twig becomes soft and plump and perfect. Rubensesque, even.

And the cherry on the sundae is I do not have to deliver mail, anywhere. I do not have to go anywhere. I guess I don't even have to get out of bed to pee if I don't want to. This snowfall is all the more beautiful for me not being a mailman in it.

I never had a problem walking around in the snow delivering mail. But they always made me drive. On steep, narrow streets. Occasionally sideways. The kids would be out of school and sledding in the street, and they'd see me perched at the top of the block and scootch over just a little so I'd have a mitten's-worth of space on either side of my vehicle, and I would stand on my brake and lean out the window and bellow at them in a voice that would drop an exorcist. "Get over! GET OVER! MOVE! GET YOUR HEINIES UP ON YOUR PORCH! ALL THE WAY! I'm not moving till you do! I'm going to TELL YOUR MOM!" The kids saw me only on snow days and they had a very different opinion about me than their parents. Their parents thought I was sweet as pie, but it's the kids that have grown up and are running the show now, and this is why everyone pays bills online and the post office is dying.

Anyway, as soon as I'd gotten the kids good and hollered onto their front porches, I would let up on the brake and brush up on my petitions to the Lord until they sounded natural and lurch down the street looking for shrubbery to veer into just in case I missed the one asshole kid I was planning on using to stop my momentum.

There was once an old, wealthy man in town whose videoed trip down an icy block in his Mercedes became an internet sensation. It was a steep one-way street, and he mashed into every single parked car on the left until there was a gap, and then he swerved down the right side to nail every single one of those cars, and got lucky and spun into the bumper that sent him into the Sexy Cowgirl With The Lasso and rocketed around the middle target and set off the whistles and barreled into a lamppost or two and just missed Tilt and then--and then--he just caught the lucky flipper at the bottom of the street and shot right back up to the top to do it all again more thoroughly, and the phones of insurance agents all over town began lighting up and ringing simultaneously, ding-ding-ding, and that street, ladies and gentlemen, was on my mail route.

But last week it snowed voluptuously, and we went for a little walk in it. A little voluntary walk in the snow, whilst not delivering mail. A walk in which we observed people delivering mail, although we, ourselves, were not so doing. Then we filled up the bird feeders and rigged up a heater for the hummingbird nectar whilst continuing to not deliver mail, and we stepped into a brewpub toward evening and had ourselves a nice pint whilst at the very same time not delivering mail, and, my friends, it was a beautiful thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

One Way For The Little People To Get Ahead

The other day it occurred to me to wonder where Marie Antoinette was buried. "Here and there," I imagined.  So I looked it up. Turns out it was here and there. First here, then there.

Originally her various segments were gathered up and tossed into a mass grave, but a few decades later someone thought better of it and pulled her out of oblivion and buried her properly, with attribution. Then it occurred to me to wonder what got everyone so ticked off at her in the first place. You do not want to tick off the French people when they're in a mood. It isn't all cheese and goose liver over there.

She was born into Austrian royalty, and, like all good celebrities, didn't bother with a last name. Back in those days entire countries tried to patch things up with each other by marrying off their fancy people, and Marie's parents had sixteen kids, which should have ensured peace throughout Europe. Marie was pencilled in for marriage to the French dauphin when she was eleven, and four years later she was married by proxy. Standing in for the groom was her brother the Archduke Ferdinand, who had to take time out from plotting how to live long enough to start World War I. The wedded couple met for the first time a few weeks later and then underwent what is referred to as a "ritual bedding," but it didn't take, and the marriage was not consummated for another seven years. Apparently it was just a matter of a lack of enthusiasm, and after the intervention of Marie's oldest brother, who made some suggestions and got the balls rolling, they began to produce a few children.

Marie was young and cute and popular with the people but gradually her reputation suffered. She was suspected of having a lover, one or two of whom would have been easy enough to conceal under one of the mile-wide skirts that were all the rage at the time; people will talk. But then when she ushered in a whole new fashion of narrower dress, she caught hell for that, too. When a woman starts to get up in the world and have ideas of her own, the world is going to try to bring her down.

Well, once you get accused of being too elitist, which is pretty much par for the course when you're royalty, it's all downhill. She had her own golden palace and she kept her own private server in there, lots of them in fact, and no one would shut up about that. And the newspapers and pamphlets of the day were full of tales and accusations: orgies, murder, incest, and what-have-you, and everybody believed it and spread it around even though it wasn't true. They just started making shit up, like that famous "let them eat cake" line, which she didn't even say, but people will believe absolutely anything if it conforms to their preconceived notions. She tried to boost her numbers by commissioning paintings of herself being all maternal with her children but no one was having it. It was all too late.

Also? The Royals and the Catholic Church didn't pay any taxes. Just the little people, and they started to notice.

There's always trouble when some people have all the money and everyone else starts to notice. At least if you're royalty. It's pretty clear to everyone that you didn't do anything to earn all that dough. For some reason, though, these days people don't always come to the same conclusion about other super wealthy people, even if they clearly have more than anyone can be said to have earned. Even if they started out life with a slab of cash and invested it in baroque financial instruments involving your pension or your neighbor's mortgage and never chipped a manicured nail, or they drove a company into the ground and sold off the good bits for themselves, for some reason hard-working people will admire them and think they must deserve everything they have.

Maybe if we just required them all to wear ermine and tiaras, we could take that handbasket we're riding in and collect a few severed heads.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Up Shit Crack Without A Paddle

It's come to my attention that there is an animal called a pearlfish that thinks it's the bee's knees to live inside the anus of a sea cucumber.

I'm not one to disparage someone else's lifestyle choices, although at first glance this one seems bleak. But it's a scary world under the sea. That's why I live so far inland. Watch any video footage of ocean life and it's clear that a lot of folks down there have to spend all day trying to remain undigested. That nice pebbly portion of the ocean floor suddenly sprouts eyes and a giant maw. Rocks morph into octupi. Half the population is wearing camo. When push comes to shove, you can't always tell if you're retreating into a nice little cave or somebody else's belly.

So the pearlfish prefers to emerge from the cucumber's anus to feed under cover of darkness, when it's safer, and spend the daylight hours under the cover of--well, let's call that darkness too.

That's the pearlfish deal. Find yourself some kind of critter that looks like a table vegetable, locate its butthole--to no one's surprise, this is done by smell--and invite yourself in. Personally, I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing as a sea cucumber, or that it might rent out to fishes. If there are sea Brussels Sprouts, they could go condo.

Pearlfish are found inside several other kinds of critters as well, including clams, starfish, and sea squirts. I do not know what a sea squirt is, and frankly, in a discussion about butthole invasions, I'm not motivated to find out. But the pearlfish was so named because one was first noticed stuck inside an oyster. Perhaps there was a sea-cucumber shortage, and the fish noticed something homey about the oyster, and wandered in and looked around for the cable hookup, and got mired in the mother-of-pearl goo. This is going to be a downside of even your better butthole living. There's always a danger you're going to get stuck in the crusty bits.

Sea cucumbers don't really have crusty bits. Their buttholes are the terminus of a combo respiratory and waste system wherein everything whooshes in and out with some regularity, so the pearlfish need only position himself tail-first and slide in on the intake stroke. If he prefers not to go in tail-first, he can station himself at the door and knock a couple of times, and the butthole goes who is it and opens up, and then it's full speed ahead and start measuring for drapes. (Lest this strike you as primitive, know that you and I are also susceptible to a gentle knocking. Healthy human beings have a reflex response to tactile buttular stimulation, called an "anal wink." Isn't that friendly?) Anyhoo, although I'm not in a position to know for certain, I like to imagine the cucumber finds that the fish feel sort of nice, or they'd certainly fart them out of there.

I'd like to imagine that, but I'd be mistaken. There's not much in this for the poor sea cucumber. Although some pearlfish are quiet tenants, some start eating the sea cucumber's nuts. It just depends. This explains the back-end-first tactic of cucumber butthole invasion. The cucumber is really not interested in having its gonads chomped on. So when the fish tickles the cucumber with its tail, the anus slams shut. Unfortunately for the cucumber, it breathes through its butt, so before long it's going to have to open up again. And when it does, the fish is right there and all ready to back in.

Now, the sea cucumber is not without defenses. It produces a powerful toxin that should, by rights, poison any fish setting up an unauthorized camp. However, the pearlfish coats itself with an especially thick layer of mucus. For protection. Also, lube.

None of this sounds ideal from the point of view of the sea cucumber. But that's the thing about points of view. Every intrusion in a personal orifice is also someone else's chance to lay low and grab a few winks before heading out for dinner.

Nature abhors a vacuum, which is what Nature has in common with my cat, and if you show it a hole, it's going to find something to stuff in there. That's just a fact. There's no real percentage in trying to fight Nature, but I'm keeping my underpants on just in case.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Affordable Joy

I was a happy child. I'm basing that on the fact that I'm grinning in all six existing photos of me as a baby, and also because that was the report from the front lines. I was a "handful," but I was happy. I think you get born with a bunch of that, if you're lucky, like scoring red hair or a musical bent. But also, my parents didn't mess it all up. They appeared to be on the same page regarding whatever discipline I got, and never fought with each other to my knowledge, and in general led me to believe that everything was in good solid hands and I could expect certain outcomes and didn't have to guess or play the odds or one against the other. Also, I didn't have all that much stuff.

I had plenty. I had everything I needed. That would be food and affection and limits and drawing paper and rules about using extra drawing paper underneath so I wouldn't dent up the cherry dining room table, and other rules. I was appreciated and hugged and laughed with and laughed at and I had a clear idea what I could get away with (nothing, according to me; everything, if my older siblings are to be believed).

I was thinking about that when Dave was hunting around for a pencil sharpener. He was looking for a plug-in model but had to settle for one of those little square numbers you have to actually shove the pencil into and turn all by yourself with your other hand. Evidently it worked great. He was impressed with the point, although he's still wondering where the plug-in one is. It reminded me of back-to-school shopping when I hadn't even been to school yet.

It was grand! Mom had a list sent to her from John Marshall Elementary as I was to enter first grade. We went to Robinson's Five And Dime and started checking things off the list. I remember one of the items was a "pencil case." That was a little zippered bag--was it plastic? Did they even have plastic then? Pre-plastic. And pencils (Number Two: five of them). And one of those little square pencil sharpeners. It worked great! There'd be that little crunch inside, tiny violence in the box, and even the scent was sharp: carbon and wood, earthy and pungent, as though everything you would ever make might already be in there. And a Composition Book.  Those had a mottled black-and-white cover. And a big square Gum Eraser. And a ruler.

This was the most extended period of Acquiring Things That Would Be Mine that I had ever experienced. The only other way to get new things was to grow out of old things (and then you were likely to get your sister's even older things) or get two new dresses for school in the fall or get toys on your birthday or Christmas, and not that many of those. Man, we were flying through that list! My pencil case was blue. Why would I remember that with fondness almost sixty years later? Because we didn't have a lot of stuff.

If we had, I wouldn't remember any of it. I wouldn't have cared about it. Happiness comes cheap, and a lot of the time that's the only way it comes.

As an adult, I romanticized the days when people my mother's age could have been delighted with a Christmas orange in their stockings. I knew that kind of joy was a thing of value you can get only by not piling on.

We're likely to be coming up on those days of value again. Our profligacy will have to come to an end soon. We can't keep pirating unearned energy out of the rocks. We won't be able to afford the doo-dads we thought we could when the big vein was being mined and we were living off the jackpot like it would last for all time. The good news is our children will be happier.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

For Unto Us A Child Was Borne

This was a special Christmas for us, because we had an authentic child staying with us--the real item, past manger-size but not old enough to know what Christmas is. Furthermore, it was a Grade-A button-headed toddlemuffin of a child with a freight of eyelashes and a disarming wobble. A real peanut. There's no adequate defense against one of those.

This particular child belongs to a niece we distinctly recall as having been a child herself, only yesterday, but now she's a genuine mommy and a wonder to behold. We had the privilege of their company for only three days, but I am left to puzzle how anyone accomplishes this mommy thing, because it can go on for quite some time. It requires a raft of patience and stamina and wipey-cloths, and it sort of makes me think I should have had more appreciation than I already did for my own mother, although, as I remember it, I was never a speck of trouble.

Because since the last time we saw this child, she has elected to stand up and walk around, and by gum that is what she wants to do. There is nothing in the house so interesting to her that there might not be something even more interesting around the corner. And as much as  it seems clear she is a bright child, did you know that you can't trust the little bugger to keep herself alive for one second? You have to follow her around all the time. There's no "Mommy's going to shut her eyes for a moment so be good." No, she's going to throw herself down the stairs or touch fire or eat glass just the second she gets a chance.

And by "you" following her around, I pretty much mean Mommy.  Sure, Dave and I did some toddler-following, but by far the largest share of it was by Mommy. Mommy who is a walking maternal Swiss Army Knife of pertinent items, her pockets bristling with binkies and string cheese and toddler kibble and pacifiers and baby-mops. Mommy who swings that baby onto her hip like it's a potato chip, and does it twenty times an hour, even though it actually weighs a thousand pounds. And Mommy herself looks to weigh about a hundred pounds soaking wet, which by the way is the condition she is most likely to be in. Babies are leaky. Did you know that? They're squirting every which way. There's usually a pacifier around but that only plugs one of the holes, and meanwhile the rest of them are churning away more or less continuously.

DANGER: Do Not Touch.
This is especially true if the toddler in question is a little sick, which this one was. Poor little bean was running a bit of a temperature and making with the occasional petite cough and adorable sneezle. No matter: her joy and good cheer were distributed with equal generosity, as well as her virus in the form of a fine green mist with intermittent chunkiness; Dave took a direct shot to the open mouth, which is not fair, because of course you're going to be bent over a baby cooing, they know that. I wasn't worried. I figure babies get sick because of lack of exposure, but we've had time to get most of the viruses already.

So when my own temperature spiked, it gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate that if I were a Mommy, I'd still have to be tending to my baby, even though I was pretty sure I was not capable of any such thing, or even washing or feeding or wiping myself. My hair hurt. Dave trotted off to the store to get me orange juice and he cleaned up the house and made me soup. He has always basically been a very good Mommy in a big fur suit. I don't like to push it, but I thought about crapping my pants and seeing how that goes.

He went down like timber a day later.

Upon sober reflection, would reasonable older adults willingly let a Trojan horse of a contagion bomb into their house again just because it's this cute? Oh yes indeedy. In a hot, fevered heartbeat.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Misters Happy

You all remember Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy with his gigantic eight-foot pink spike of flowers that lasted for months and months? That Mr. Happy. He was from down south but we planted him as a tiny rosette in 2014 anticipating the flower spike in 2015 if we could just keep him alive over the winter. Californians prefer things a little hotter than we like them here. But Dave wrapped Mr. Happy in plastic and added a light bulb and saw him through the coldest days and sure enough he lived long enough to erect a towering pink spike with impressive staying power. And that was that. Mr. Happy is a two-year plant.

But! Last spring I had a look around and found all these tiny little rosettes that I didn't recognize at first; especially in the pepper garden that Mr. Happy towered over. They all had a distinctive rash of speckles that didn't clear up. Mr. Happy! He'd gone all Charlotte's-Web on us. There were dozens at first, then hundreds of Mr. Happies all over the place.

Sure enough Echiums like Mr. Happy are self-fertile, so there is no reason to introduce a Mrs. Happy, and what he'd done all summer long was play with himself and spray his seeds all over everything. I weeded out most of his kids last summer but still had a few dozen placed hither and yon, and I hoped for a mild winter. A giant pink spike of flowers is startling enough in Portland: an army of them would pin people's ears back and cause sensitive souls to fan themselves and make for the fainting couch.

But now it's December, and it's been cold. They're starting to look right sulky. I fret about them. I bring them up in conversation a lot. "Mister Happies" never sounded right. I've started referring to them as "The Misters Happy."

That's old-timey. My spinster great-aunts Gertrude and Caroline, who lived together and both to an overripe age of about a hundred and forty, always used stationery printed with "The Misses Brewster." Neither of them married. They both graduated Smith College and taught English, and then they retired and sat around in straight-backed chairs and waited to die. Every year we would get a fruitcake from The Misses Brewster, wrapped in foil, or maybe it was a plum pudding; it was dark and ponderous and antique-looking and dense as a black hole and it was accompanied by something called Hard Sauce, which is not especially hard. It was pretty tasty, but if you ate too much at once you'd want to take to your bed with a spot of laudanum. My father told us that Aunt Caroline was the one who made the thing, wrapped it up, addressed the box, slathered it with stamps, hitched up the mule, and saw it to the post office, and Aunt Gertrude took the credit.

Aunt Gertrude was the elder of the two. That's the sort of thing that should make more of a difference when you're four and two than when you're 104 and 102, but apparently it didn't. Dad also told us Aunt Caroline had once found a man she wanted to marry, but he was Jewish, and the family did not approve. So she never wed, and she instead looked after her older sister until she finally quit waking up, and then she died herself.

The Misters Happy are not going to live to a hundred. They're looking at two at the outside, but that's okay with them. They don't know beans about fruitcake, but if everything works out right, they'll be spraying seed from spring to fall, and they don't mind if you watch.