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?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Moses Supposes Erroneously

Vivi
I don't like to admit it, but there are times when--can I be honest?--I walk into a business establishment and I would really prefer that the employees were the same race as me. I'd just feel more comfortable, all right?

Well, okay, that has happened only one time, but it was last week. Fact is, I was already well along the road to getting through my whole life without having had a pedicure. I'd never felt any need for a pedicure. Or a manicure. Memory being what it is, I am not absolutely certain I even used a razor on myself on my wedding day. I did take a shower. I am, depending on how you look at it, a low-maintenance woman, or a woman of deplorable hygiene.

Cosmetically impaired, anyway. I keep clean. I didn't always. When I was in college, I showered every day, but the washing machines cost 25 cents, and that put a hole in my pizza budget. I'd come home for the summer and both my mother and my trustworthy sister gently suggested I could use some deodorant, but I couldn't smell myself, and I thought they were nuts, and besides it sounded like an Establishment position. Now I am in a city full of fine young people whose hoodies have never made it through the rinse cycle, and I'd like to say right now, Mommy? I'm sorry.

Point is, I hadn't had a pedicure, and I figured I never would, but then a couple weeks ago Dave came home with an unreadable smile on his face, and our friend Vivi at his side. Vivi had talked Dave into having a pedicure with her. Vivi is a Brazilian/Swedish bombshell with a big heart and a big brain and big pretty much everything, and if Vivi had told Dave to walk off a cliff, we'd be scooping him up with a spatula right now. So Dave took his fifteen-mile-a-day feet and had them carved into near-original condition, and he was looking pretty pleased about it, too.

It all led to my friend Linda suggesting we could just go ahead and have a pedicure our own selves, to celebrate our successful eclipse-viewing. So we did.

There I was in a massage chair that had knead-knock-and-flap setting and rolling flesh-mashers and a particular rotating knob in the seat area that I was pretty sure I'd have to pay extra for, with my feet in a warm bath and a tiny woman on a stool below me, and I know it's wrong to generalize, and it's wrong to make assumptions, but I couldn't help but think this woman--let's call her Kim--had gone from being a cardiovascular surgeon in her native land to a leaky boat to this gray paradise, just to hunch over and scrape away at my 63 years of unmolested toe jam, and who would willingly do that? Besides Jesus, I mean.

Two young women sauntered in and sat nearby like they did this every week, and so did two older women, and all of them appeared to regard this state of affairs as routine maintenance without which they would not care to be seen in public. For the times they might want to be seen in private, a portion of the spa in the back was dedicated to even more personal services.

We'd been told to pick out a nail polish color, and I hovered over the sensible corals for a while, and then was drawn to something completely different, something that really stood out, on account of it being the only green in a sea of red and pink, and instead of thinking that this might be an unpopular color for a reason, I grabbed it. "Kim" did not react, but conversed with her colleague in her native cardiovascular-surgeon language, quiet as moth wings, and whatever she was saying, I was pretty sure I had it coming.

So here are my feet, all smooth and ridiculous.  I can see now that this is not a good color for toes. Not at all. In fact, the only reason anyone would have this color painted on her toenails is if it matched her bridesmaid dress. And she couldn't see it past the puffy sleeves. I hope Kim got a big kick out of it. I owe her that.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Smoke On The Water, Fire In The Sky

Overlooking Crater Lake and Wizard Island
A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part Four

We had arrived in Trail, Oregon, a remote dot on the Rogue River. At eleven o'clock at night, after 12-1/2 hours on the road, we had not noticed any stars, but the trees were towering over us in a gang and my eyeballs were not really tracking much anyway; surely we city folks would be treated to a skyful of stars the next night. Meanwhile, we had the clear blue depths of Crater Lake in Oregon's only national park to look forward to. Sure, it's depicted on the quarter, but we heard it's even better in person.

The next morning we woke to an inflamed sun smoldering in a butterscotch sky. The same webcams that had boasted a blue lake yesterday were apparently on the blink: flat gray. But we had an hour to travel and anything could happen.

It smelled funny out.

We figured we'd start out at the lodge, where we could learn all sorts of interesting geological and botanical things, but the parking lots were full, and so we slid back down to the Rim Drive, and we pulled over there to have a look at just the right spot, right smack in front of Wizard Island, and we got out, and we stood on the rim, and Yes! There it was--see? That sort of darker gray shape against the lighter gray expanse of probably-water? No, left of where you're looking. There you go!

Well, the Blanket Fire was only about a quarter-mile to the west, on the slopes of the old volcano, and the wind had shifted since yesterday. It could shift again, though. Right? Sure it could.

High above us, a pig flapped by on strong pink wings.

Meanwhile, we knew we were standing at the exact perfect spot on the rim of the caldera, because with our backs to the lake, and the sun on low power, and our arms in the air, we could get three bars, and stare at our tiny screens, and thereby learn that Crater Lake was formed after a massive volcanic eruption that lopped a mile off of Mount Mazama and redistributed it as far as Saskatchewan, all of which we knew already. Also, that it is the deepest lake in North America and the ninth deepest in the world, which we also knew.  Also, the name of that actor lady who was married to the guy who directed the movie with the fellow with the screwy teeth. Were those his real teeth? Damn. Down to one bar.

Well. We were still friends, and we were still ambulatory, and we found us some waterfalls, and some flowers, and some butterflies, and a decent place for pie on the way back to the cabin, and an astonishing stone canyon barely containing the mighty and muscular Rogue, and a handsome troop of Zuni hot shots taking a break from firefighting, and a beer and a bowlful back home, as the bountiful river slid away to the sea. There were no stars. There was a tree full of oriole nests hanging over the river. One of them was built to last: half of it was made out of fishing line.

That's what you do. You take what you find and you make the best of it. We're short on blue lakes and the Milky Way, but we've got friendship with over forty years of weight on it, and it's pressed into crystal by now. We can throw a lot of light.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Down To Zero

A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part Three

So let's review. Oregon is largely on fire. There are four of us in the car. All vital personal equipment including bladders are all well over 60 years old. We're out of sandwiches; we are three baggies of provisions to the good (pistachios, M&Ms, cherries); and we are currently parked on a four-lane highway in dimming light. The little shithead that lives in Linda's phone now suggests we are going to arrive at our destination at 7:30pm, but has developed a smirking tone when she is permitted to speak. We have traveled almost ninety miles in six and a half hours and zero miles in the last thirty minutes. Dinner options, according to Yelp, include an establishment renowned for its chicken-fried steak that is either two miles or three hours away, depending. The pistachios look good.

I was still puzzled by this exodus to the south, until the brake lights illuminated a sea of California plates. In a flat tone, Linda updated our ETA to 9:24. Ignitions turned off. Ahead and behind, men extracted themselves from their cars and walked to either side of the road, where they turned their backs to traffic and stood quietly with head bowed and hands folded in front of themselves, probably praying. A half hour later women went to pray a little deeper into the woods. I remained in the driver's seat, alert to any opportunity to half-inch ahead, and monitored the condition of the sciatic nerve in my right buttock. It was not ideal. Perhaps, I thought hopefully, a medic could do a root canal on it and pack it with ground glass for a little relief.

All around us, people meandered around and between cars, exchanging pleasantries. Two sylph-like sisters strolled the shoulder singing an angelic duet. The car in front of us had a nice dog and a promising cooler. Biff and Skippy were a hoot. No one's navigation app had any helpful advice, but Moonchild was going to get back to us after she studied her eclipse-day star chart. That bird lady? There was no getting her down. I took down Hank's address for my Christmas card list. The Hankster!

The hills to fore and starboard were ominously filling up with what appeared to be smoke. I turned to Linda. "What does the little shitty person in your phone say now?" I queried, possibly with an edge.

She glanced at her phone, snapped it off, and turned to the window with a look like a mother whose child has been caught pooping in the city pool.

Hours later, we approached Chemult, which I had thought we had passed already. And hours after that, we finally reached our turnoff highway in dead dark. I pasted my attention to a fuzzy white line, dropped the accelerator to the floor, and rocketed to our destination (or, as my vintage eyeballs would have it, hurtled into the void).

Actual time of arrival: 11:00pm. First beer down: 11:02.