Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Physics Of Murr

So, I skinned my elbow up pretty good, there.

On the surface it's pretty easy to explain. I had a pitchfork and I was turning my compost pile, flip flip flip, which leans up against a block wall, and I uncovered a layer of some kind of little eggs--ant eggs? Fly eggs? I needed a closer look. But I had my bedroom slippers on and didn't want to put a foot in the actual compost pile. So I gauged the distance to the wall and decided to lean forward and put my hands on the wall, which would put my face directly over the eggs.

Unfortunately, the wall was further away than my body anticipated, and when my hands hit it, my arms sort of caved in and my elbows were on the wall (blood ensued) and I was (also) now at such an angle that I didn't think I'd be able to press out from the wall and get back upright, so I was stuck, unless I wanted to soil my slippers, which I didn't.

Anyone observing would have seen me flip, flip, flip, and then pitch forward onto the wall like dead timber. It wouldn't make any sense. That's because it doesn't make any sense.

This kind of shit happens to me all the time. I never was any good at physics. I know two laws of motion: "down" and "scabby."

This is why my friends once saw me charge flat-out into a small sapling. I thought it was bendy, and it would bow forward, and then fling me back. Wheee! It didn't. It didn't move. I just crumpled up into a wad at its base.

Or there was the time I folded up the legs of a card table. I'd gotten two of them snapped up, and then, to save time, instead of flipping the table 180 degrees to get the other two, I just leaned over it because I thought I was a whole five foot nine, which I'm not, and then an unscheduled somersault occurred, and the table fell one way, into a vase, and I went the other way, into a wall, and checked (first) for witnesses, and (then) for broken bones.

They were ant eggs, if you care.
All of which has led me to a new appreciation for humans,  a species with which I am often peeved. I don't know how to turn animals into meat. My tomatoes aren't reliable. I always have to look up how long to cook a potato. I'm not handy. I fall down a lot. I often forget how to swallow. I sometimes dream I can't breathe, because I'm face-down in my pillow not breathing, and the only reason I'm not dead is my head doesn't weigh much. I routinely make decisions with my physical self that are clearly, in retrospect, flawed. And yet I am alive. I am thriving. All my genes should have been edited out of the collective stash long ago, but here I am. And that is because other people pick me up when I fall down, and wipe me off, and invent penicillin, and slaughter vegetables, and arrange for clean water to show up at my very house, and (in some cases) are Mozart.

Thank you, people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

101 Semipalmations

Last year's Birdathon Day dawned auspiciously sunny and we hit the Willamette Valley hard, ready to kick some avian heinie, but by noon the mercury had shot through the top of the thermometer and the birds just parked it for the day. All we could see was the bottoms of their little hammocks, where they stretched out with their tiny feet up and hoped a bug would drop into their daiquiris. We had a respectable outing, but we definitely didn't bag our limit.

We sure didn't want a repeat of that, and we didn't get one. Fifteen sunny days ago, someone in Meteorology Central penciled in a rainstorm for this year's Birdathon Day, but when has anyone accurately predicted the weather fifteen days out? Why, fifteen days ago, thanks for asking! It was gray and drippy, and then grayer and drippier, and then biblically wet. This makes bird counting challenging. For one thing, a lot of the birds just hunker down somewhere in damp pajamas and dream about ordering in. In fact, home-delivered pizza capability is the main thing distinguishing us from the animals. It certainly isn't having the sense to come in out of the rain.

Second, if one did want to locate one of the dozen or so birds that pulled the short straw and had to venture out to find bugs for the family, one would have to try to do it looking through speckled eyeglasses and smeary binocular lenses and possibly through a steamed-up van window. It's not ideal. In fact, under these conditions it is not always possible to distinguish a bird from a bird decal on a team member's hat. This is why we were not able to count the New Zealand wrybill, even though I, personally, saw it.

We are tragically burdened by integrity. We have a rule that two people have to have seen or heard a bird before we can count it, and one of them has to be one of our team leaders, Max and Sarah (authors of Must-See Birds Of The Pacific Northwest). This specifically addresses problem team members like myself who are perfectly willing to contribute an eastern warbler that has never made it across the Rockies, even for a destination wedding.

We did find the Dipper right away. Dippers are not much put off by rain. In fact dippers make a living by strapping on goggles and walking along the bottoms of streams for food so they don't have to share it with sparrows. By that time it was dumping rain. I had on a pair of pants advertised as "highly repellent" (although I'm told they look nice), but nobody does repellent pants like a dipper. They come out of the water looking like Miss America.

The songbirds and such, not so much. We eked out a few bedragglers and sopsuckers and drenchtits. But we were headed for the ocean, where birds are famously indifferent to being soaked.  Even I am capable of recognizing a harlequin duck or a puffin or anything else with a fancy enough suit, but we needed numbers, dammit, and that means someone had to parse the shorebirds and seabirds and gulls. Shorebirds: that would include several theoretically different species of identical scampering fuzzballs. Seabirds are horizon dots that look like eyeball floaters. And the only things more annoying than gulls are the people who can identify them. Sure, they have their ideal field marks, on a seasoned adult. That's not what you're going to see. You're going to see something as variable as a city pigeon and then you're going to sigh in despair as your team leader looks into the scope for a nanosecond and snaps off: "Female Western-Glaucous hybrid, third-year, prom-night molt." And when you get over yourself and ask for assistance, they patiently explain about the ringed bill on the ringed-bill (that they don't even have until they're old enough to get their license) or the spots on their wingtips (but they aren't wearing shoes).

But we were ferociously successful. In trying conditions and damp underwear we wrestled that species list to the ground and headed home in the 99-species stinkhole, one mere mourning dove away from glory. And we would have taken that MODO, too, but instead we stopped off for a cup of acorn woodpeckers. Because we, my friends, gots class.

Then we picked up the mourning dove. Why not? Prime numbers are nice too.

Many of you wonderful people helped make our Birdathon fundraising team, The Murre The Merrier, a success. There's still time to contribute--we're real close to a heroically round number!--but I would like to salute the following friends now: 

Susan Alderman, Janyce O'Keeffe, Vicki Hollingsworth, Mary Ann Dabritz, Reynolds Potter, Kim Beard, Kathy Haranzo, Barb Padgett, Jane Hartline, Dallas DiLeo, John Schumann, Elizabeth Axelrod, Kevin Anselm, Margaret Herrington, Sharon McMahon, Chris Hill, Holly Doyne, Carolyn Barkow, Charles Barr, Amy Fritz, Heidi Schweizer, Mary Wyatt, Ruth Dabritz, Devon Spencer, Margo Reifenrath, Sheila McDonald, Carole Orloff, Liz Howell, Pat Zagelow, and my baby, Dave Price.   THANK YOU!!!                 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jammin' In The Hood

I'm walking outside, and there, on top of my topiary salamander, is a tiny plant that looks an awful lot like one I'd put in my flower boxes, only sadder and upside-down. And on the sidewalk, there was yet another, roots-up. Huh. Two of my five flower boxes have been raided and their contents strewn about. It looked like the work of adolescents in need of some impulse control applied to their pimply butts.

I suspect this even though I know there are miscreant corvids in the 'hood who make a point of pulling up shallow-rooted little plants. They are looking for nesting material and they don't really care all that much if it cost $3.99 for a 4-inch pot, especially the scrub jays, who can be downright disrespectful that way. But usually they'll just take one or two plants out of the boxes. They won't strip them clean.

Still, it is nesting season. Crows make a big ol' stick nest and line the center portion with nice soft material, and the nursery doesn't call them "bedding plants" for nothing. And of the eight plants that had been uprooted, I only found four plants. So maybe a crow did pull them out and brought them back home. And half of them didn't make the cut. "Too matchy-matchy," says the female, back at the nest. Or, "Again with the purple?"

We've got a couple good working crow nests within sight of our yard. One of them has been emitting a raspy bleat brraaak brraaak brraaak every ten seconds for days now. Periodically the bleats speed up, and sure enough an adult is circling the tree, and then you see him land and you can hear something being jammed down a throat, brraaak brraaak bluph bluph blaKACK KACK KACK, and there's a fifteen-second pause, and then it's back to your regularly scheduled bleating. I get a kick out of it. I  think: this is how nature provides for the helpless babies in the world. It makes them totally obnoxious and they never shut up and all anyone can think to do is go out and find something to jam in the noise hole.

Then I read up on the crow manufacturing process. And it turns out it's not the baby up there making the racket. It's the adult female. And she does this even before laying any eggs. She doesn't shut up until the eggs pop out, at which point there's a cone of silence over the nest so as not to alert predators; or else because she finds the egg thing too astonishing for words.

And all this time I thought Dave fed me because he loves me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Well-Blown Mind

So in the last post, I mentioned the conundrum presented to me by the neighbor man--the one about the tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it. You know the one. The neighbor man preferred to think of it as unanswerable. We want to think we know that the tree made a sound, but how would we know for sure if we weren't there? How do we know that anything at all exists outside of our range of hearing? Say--absent major explosions--a mile away? Well, I guess we're guessing, but we're on pretty solid ground to say it does. I realize now that it is another of the tales we tell to consider the nature of Faith. If there is a God, the story goes, He exists even though we can't see him or hear him, in the same manner that the very lonely tree does make a sound. That's faith. I think you could make the same case for science. Which is why I'm pretty confident that you can't stop global warming by calling it a hoax.

I also heard an analogy for Eternity when I was little. First we are invited to think about eternity, which, ironically enough, you can only do for so long. And then, if the grownups believe you are insufficiently awed, they say: "A huge boulder rests on an island, and every thousand years, a bird flies to the boulder and rubs its beak against it, taking away a tenth of a grain of sand. And when the boulder is reduced to nothing, a single day has passed in Eternity."

This struck me at the time as a lousy advertisement for eternal life, but I suppose if you throw in the wild card of Hell, it makes more of an impression.  Still, the whole thing rang false for me. It cheapened eternity. If eternity is supposed to have any significance at all, it shouldn't have ANY days. Eventually, given enough boulders and parakeets, you'd have yourself a month of eternity. You'd be making progress. But the point of eternity is there is never any progress.

It's probably a good idea to attempt to blow your own mind every now and then by contemplating the whole universe, but it's a waste of days (yours, which really are numbered) to do it all the time, when you could be burying your nose in a magnolia blossom. It's unfathomable. I did try to think about it the other day, and I discovered something interesting: it is exactly as weird to think about the existence of the universe as it is to think about it not existing. It feels exactly the same. Maybe the two conditions are identical.

Maybe the universe both exists and doesn't exist at the same time. I hope, in that case, it gets to have a cat. You know whose.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

You Make Your Own Electroluck

You hear it said that there is no sound in a vacuum, but that is not true. One of my earliest memories is my mom's Electrolux canister vacuum and it was plenty loud. I was very taken with it. It was gray and silver and red and it slid around the floor on little sled runners, and I'd be right behind it, on my hands and knees, scrunched up small so as to get the maximum benefit of the heat coming out the back. It was always cold in that house, seemed like. Mom must have gotten a kick out of pulling that vacuum cleaner with me scootching along behind like the rear end of a caterpillar, because otherwise maybe she'd have put a sweater on me. The grownups probably thought it was plenty warm enough in the house, but warm air rises, and when you're really little you can only rise so far.

I've heard that vacuum cleaners can easily be made to run quietly, and are in Europe, but in America the quiet ones don't sell because we think they can't possibly be doing anything. I still like the sound of a vacuum cleaner. It reminds me of innocent youth and a mommy who loved me very much, just not enough to put a sweater on me.

What they really mean is that there's no sound in a place with nothing in it, because there's no medium for the sound wave to travel through. You need Stuff for sound to wobble around in. Like dust in a vacuum cleaner bag. Or, you know, air molecules.  So sound is produced by a pressure wave moving through a medium. ("I summon the ghost of Juliet's grandmother," it might say.)

And that means it's very quiet in deep space. Once you've slipped the surly bonds of Earth (all the noise makes it grumpy) and there's nothing to bounce light off of or prod into a wave pattern, it goes black and silent. It's only because we're living inside a layer of planet-batting that we can hear anything.

But that doesn't mean nothing's happening out there. There are major furnaces operating in space and stuff blows up and, by rights, it ought to be deafening. But it isn't. NASA recently made a sound recording of the sun. They had to cheat to do it. And then they had to compress several days of recordings into a few seconds. But they caught the sound of a major coronal discharge, which the sun has a lot of.

The sun should have that looked at.

When I was little, the neighbor man asked me: if a tree fell in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, did it make a sound? He wanted me to get existentially challenged thinking about it, and he was all ready to pounce and say "But how would you know?" as soon as I made either choice, but instead I said "Well, I guess it depends on if you're thinking of the sound as something the falling tree makes, or it's something we hear in our ears," and I think that answer made him grumpy. The thing about the tree is that if it fell in a forest containing no air--and it would, trees need air--it would not make a sound, except through the molecules in the ground it hit.

Anyway, the universe is full of potentially noisy items that we could hear the hell out of if only there were air, so it's just as well there isn't. Still, I like to scrunch up small and look at the sky and imagine it humming and crackling and farting and making great hoots of celestial laughter. Why not? Makes me warm.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Buzzin' Cousins

The other day I tried imagining I was a fly, and I was reasonably successful, but that was because I didn't read up on them first. They have some admirable qualities but the whole package is kind of a deal-breaker. There are lots of kinds of flies, but I was thinking of the house fly, as distinguished from the, um, field fly. They seem sort of tidy and delicate. They have that reputation of being dirty because they land in stuff we don't approve of and track it in on their feet, but their feet are so little. It hardly seems they could bring in enough of a bacterial quorum to whomp up a good disease.  I guess they do, though, from time to time.

And they have that cute little mouth doodad. No nasty teeth or anything. It's just a little wand with a sponge on the end of it, and they dab it into their food. How bad could that be? Well, turns out they can't eat solid food, so if they want to get anything down, they have to soften it up by spitting or vomiting on it first.  I do not know if poop is soft enough that they don't need to throw up on it, but I certainly would.

Each female house fly shoots out about five hundred eggs in a lifetime, which is pretty good considering they only live two to four weeks. They lay them in batches of seventy-five or so. They only mate one time and then they store the sperm, because they don't really have a concept of "funky." Female house flies, it is interesting to note, can be told from male house flies because there's a lot more space between their eyes. The males' eyes are practically touching. Which invites, it seems to me, speculation about their intellect.

The eggs are laid somewhere moist where the ensuing maggots will have plenty to eat. Mud or poop does nicely, and so does a recently deceased animal, or a living sheep butt. I know about the sheep butt because that's where I once saw one of my most memorable patches of maggots. Our friend Scott's sheep, Einstein, presented one day with a thoroughly revolting condition in the uh-oh region, and it required a regimen of care that would turn any rancher into a tomato farmer. I couldn't even wear wool for a long time.

An article I read said the main problems with house flies are that they spread disease on their tiny feet and they're annoying. I find the second complaint a little precious. After all, the reason house flies have been associated with people for so long is that we are an excellent source of poop and garbage, so who's judging? But it is true: for something that does not bite us, they're pretty annoying. Even the winter ones (some do hibernate in lieu of dropping dead), which are so slow and logy you could swat them with an on-line newspaper, are annoying. And all they do is buzz dully and fly hither and yon to no purpose and aspire to light while pointlessly banging around on the windowsill.

I think they remind us of us.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Enjoying The Living Crap

It had been one of the first warm days of spring, and I was preparing to enjoy the living crap out of a few simple elements: a gentle breeze, a nice IPA, and a seat on the warm concrete front steps, just in the last perfect patch of sunlight. Earlier, it had been too hot; if I moved into the shade, one foot over, not quite warm enough. Friendly people walked by, neighbors waved. I'm not much of a sunshine person but I do love it when the sun warms you just enough and no more. The beer was splendid.

Just one thing was a little off. I smelled dog poop. And I am not a fan.

I hardly ever smell dog poop. By some miracle the entire society has changed over the last three decades such that people keep their dogs on little strings and bag up their poop. All this was basically unthinkable until not that long ago. There used to be dog poop everywhere.  Your neighbor's dog poop was in your yard and your dog's poop was in your neighbor's yard. Kids rolled around in it. It was chiggers and dog poop all day long.

"You look comfortable," my neighbor hollered, and I raised my beer, and said "Except I smell dog poop."

"NO!" she said, horrified. "Are you sure it isn't raccoon?"

Horrified, she was, I tell you. She's decades younger, and that's how much things have changed. Anyway, I was sure. I do have a poop field guide, but I didn't need to check it. It smelled like my childhood: honeysuckle, Pixie Sticks, thunderstorm ozone, and dog poop.

I checked my shoes. Clean. Some time in the 'nineties, my employer quit offering plain-soled shoes for our postal uniforms. You could only get the real grippy kind with a bunch of topography on the bottom. I hated them. I hated them because of St. Clair Street. There was one block of St. Clair that had a bunch of apartments, all pavement and parking lots and no dirt or greenery. And because this is Portland, and dog ownership is required by law, that meant there were two hundred dogs in that one block. Mostly little ones. Their devoted owners stuffed them in their purses with the makeup and the packet of tissues, walked outside, extracted them and set them on the sidewalk until they produced a pellet, just like popping a Pez. Probably 95% of these good people bagged the poop, but that still left a major raft of turdlets on the pavement. All I had to do is glance at the letters in my hand for one second and it was squish city. My plain-soled shoes could be depoopulated with one or two good scrapes on the curb, but the grippy ones with the waffle soles would get all mortared up. You had to lean up against the apartment building and turn on the spigot and use a stick to get it off. It took minutes and you still had to finish up with the indoor-outdoor carpeting at the apartment door.

Anyway, the poop was not on my shoes, but it was real close. Because I have a scientific mind, I found it by following some flies. It was right by the steps, about a yard away. So.

I really, really wanted to enjoy my seat in the sun with the beer and the nice passing people. I could have gotten a shovel and dug it in, or bagged it and put it in the trash, but half the point of being there was to be there, and not be somewhere else, doing some other thing.

The scientific term for this is "lazy." I looked at the flies. They seemed happy. I thought: let's try something. Tastes differ. The flies clearly like the smell of dog poop. What if I were to quit wrinkling up my nose, and become a fly, and imagine I like it too? I've always been credited with having a good imagination. The world is filled with annoying things, and we must do what we can, and then let the rest go. I leaned back. I owed it to myself, to the world, and to the sainted brewers of Ninkasi Total Domination India Pale Ale to give it a try. It had not been a high-capacity dog.

It worked. It took a second beer, but it worked.