Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Three Essentials

Surviving self-quarantine requires a flexibility of spirit. One quickly learns what is essential to living and what can be done without. Dave and I? We're set. We've got beer, toilet paper, and mealworms.

Hell, I'll eat anything. But I won't be caught during nesting season without Studley Windowson's favorite food. Chickadees gotta eat.

In early March, when we were just getting an idea what was coming, a friend did me a favor. "You have enough mealworms? Because you might not be able to go to the store whenever you want." Oh shit! We stocked up. Turns out you can buy mealworms online, of course, just like everything else. "I'll take 500," I typed, and a week later a small box marked LIVE ANIMALS landed on my porch.

I should have remembered you can buy grubs by mail. I delivered plenty such packages. It can be ominous. You get a parcel stamped LIVE ANIMALS and it makes a dry, rattling sound when shaken, you're best off leaving it on the porch, ringing the bell, and running like hell. If they don't see you, you can blame it on your replacement carrier.

This box was fine. I'm not sure what I expected. When I buy them in the store, they come in a ventilated plastic tub with wheat meal. Inside this box was a simple cloth bag with a drawstring, and inside that were my five hundred mealworms, naked and in zippy condition, congregated around a piece of crumpled-up newspaper. I decided to decant them into a cottage cheese container so I could keep them in the fridge. Next to the beer. Refrigerated mealworms are less motivated to beetle up.

They didn't exactly pour out. Lots of them were pretty attached to the newspaper. I got the bright idea of upending the bag over a colander and batting at it until they dropped, and then transferring them to the tub. It was going pretty well. Except the bottom layer of mealworms wouldn't slide out.

Because they were poking themselves through the holes in the colander. From underneath, it looked like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Why, my friend asked, with that look that people often give me, didn't you use a bowl?

Shit, I don't know. Might as well ask me why, when I'm hopping around trying to get my sock on and I crash to the floor, I don't let go of my sock. People have asked me that. It's the same answer. Shit, I don't know.

I think somewhere in the back of my mind I made a connection between the little ventilation holes you have to have in the worm tub and the colander holes. I don't always think things all the way through. Anyway, after an entertaining five minutes or so of playing Teeny Tiny Adorable One-Finger Whack-A-Mole with my colander, I got them all into the tub. You know, probably.

And Studley is all over it. He and Marge have eggs cooking right now and within a few days it will be Peep City, Start Up The Gravy Train. Meantime, he's hauling worms off to Marge about as fast as we can pinch them out. He's got skills. If we're twirling our fingers in the wheat meal trying to scare up a worm--they hide--he gets impatient, lands on the side of the tub, and spears three invisible worms at once. He's learned to hover like a hummingbird in front of a window if he sees us indoors. He's the best damn bird in three counties and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Nothing Left To Lose

"You young people," our beloved English teacher once scolded us, "you've cleaned up all my beautiful dirty words!"

It was true. There wasn't a part of speech we didn't drop an F-bomb in, and the word didn't hold a sting anymore. We'd rendered it harmless. Meaningless.

Something like that has happened to another F-word, too. And Freedom was a pretty good idea, worth fighting for. Our founding fathers were on the right track: freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to peaceably assemble. All of these freedoms are rightfully enshrined in our documents. Blood was spilled for them. They represented humanity at its finest.

It was a worthy aspiration, but in a new land with so much room in it for rugged individuals to push into, the concept of freedom was destined to lose its shine. Freedom began to be equated with acquisition. Unearned ownership. Plunder. In a country unconstrained by boundaries or kings, we all became little kings. Survival still took pluck and initiative, but freedom for some meant slavery for others. Or genocide. We got some things right, and still felt free to massacre.

We didn't let freedom ring. We let it metastasize.

We let ourselves imagine that a family that runs domestic cattle over untold acreages is being deprived of liberty if we insist they account for the damage accrued to the rest of us: loss of habitat, of water, of wildlife. We let ourselves imagine our freedoms should drive other people's freedom underground: the customer unserved. The medically fragile left to die for our freedom to infectiously assemble.

It's beyond juvenile. "It's a free country!" That's what kids my age used to say whenever someone told them it was bedtime, or scolded them for sass. They didn't know what it meant to be free but they didn't care to be told what to do. At least, when I was being brought up, that retort got the attention it deserved. None.

It would all work out if there were fewer of us. Multitudes fewer. But we're densely populated all over the planet, and everything we do affects everyone else. There must be rules. Freedom cannot be unrestricted, or it results in loss of freedom. If Americans during a quarantine think their freedom is being threatened, they have already been compromised by a wealthy class that has paid dues to ensure we do not notice that they've already taken away our freedom. They've taken away our ability to organize by telling us unions deny us our "freedom to work"--to work for scraps, for no security, for no benefits. We have the freedom to accept what little they are willing to give us. Tell an American her freedoms are being stolen, and you can steal everything she has. You can leave her desperate after one month without a paycheck, and she won't even suspect there's something wrong with a system that produces so much wealth for so few while leaving so many in poverty. You can convince her someone even poorer than she is the real thief.

Get the people all riled up for some shitty little freedoms like not wearing a mask or not baking a cake, and send them to the polls, and you can pick their pockets clean.

Will we stand for that? Or will we stand together, and thrive?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Echoes In The Braincase

One of the perks of a digital life is it is possible to present oneself to others neatly giftwrapped, and even add a rumpled bow of modesty and self-deprecation. One can think about it. Engineer it. Why, not too long ago one of you fine commenters here said I was "smart."

This is not so easy to pull off in person. And it's particularly hard to do in the presence of younger people. And I don't know what happened, but there are more and more of them around all the time.

I am well tolerated by the younger people in my life, all of whom I cherish. Now they are smart as hell. They have interesting opinions and different perspectives. I like to listen to them and every now and then I like to snap back with something witty. Problem is, a lot of the witty zone coincides with "things I just thought of five seconds ago." And things that happened five seconds ago live in a sort of quickly escaping vapor. I usually remember the first few words of my witty remark, but then I stick in placeholder grunts, hoping the rest of my thought will stroll by, but sometimes it doesn't, and then I have to say "I lost it there, but it'll come back."

The young people give me a fond and indulgent smile and assure me it will come back, even though it won't, and they know that by now. It's embarrassing. But they're so darn nice. "She's slipping," I see in their thought balloons, but you can see smiley emoticons in there too. I can't refute it. The whole thing has led me to be a better listener, or look just like one. I don't enjoy people witnessing my thoughts evaporate. Acting like I'm listening keeps me from looking as foolish, and is a good idea anyway.

I'm not actually listening. I am at first, but then I start thinking of something else altogether, usually a scene in a novel, or a reminiscence, or the state of the world, and my only connection to the conversation at that point is the attentive look on my face that I hope is still pointed in the correct direction. AND THIS IS WHEN I'M TALKING TO INTERESTING PEOPLE.

Authentic Old Person, With Bran
I'm not as embarrassed around people my own age. We're all kind of a mess. True, in my case some of them watch my neurons failing to connect and secretly put it down to the beer, but they understand anyway. If it wasn't the beer, it'd be something else.

There's a theory going around among older people that this phenomenon has something to do with having one's head so filled with wisdom that some of it needs to be off-loaded, and we have gained insight into what is important to keep and what is not. This is, of course, self-serving baldercookies. The fact is, if there were any more dead air in our brains our neurons wouldn't even touch each other.

Herewith a real dialog example:

     Me: "I'm trying to think of that word. You know, that word? That means, like, you really enjoy something, but it isn't anything you did yourself."

     Person: "Plagiarism?"

     Me: "No, no, more like something...vicarious." 

     Person: "Hmm. Vicarious?"

     Me: "Yeah! That's it! Thanks!" [bounces away]

     Person: [listens for head rattle]

Yes. That really happened. Probably. I do write fiction. It's either real or it's not, I don't remember.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Data Dump

There are things you just don't want to hear if you're a writer. No, not "While I'm not the right agent for this project, I'm grateful you sent it my way, and I'm wishing you the best of luck." Not that. We're used to that. That is, at least, a response.

No, what you really don't want to hear is the guy at the Apple Store, where your laptop has been quarantined for five days, ask "How important is your data to you?"

...Whuh?

How important? You mean, everything I ever wrote? Those data? I would really like to keep those data. Thank you so much.

And in the future, if there is some possibility that everything I ever wrote is no longer among the living, you really need to work on your communication skills. Work up to it. Don't say my data is dead. Say it's up on the roof, and you're getting a ladder, and you're sure everything will be just fine. Tomorrow, say it looks like my data is trying to jump off, but you're pretty sure you can bring it around with a can of tuna.

Everything I ever wrote
As it happens, I have all my data on a little external hard drive the size of a deck of cards. It's embarrassing, but probably everything I ever wrote and ever will write will fit in that thing. The Library of Congress will fit in that thing. I bring my deck of cards to the Apple Store and hand it over, and the boy behind the counter, who talks very fast and doesn't know how to speak in Elderly, whisks it away behind a curtain. He plans to empty out my entire laptop and shove a new system in it. "It's really something," he explains. "I no sooner get rid of all your infections than they just keep pouring in." It was fine until about three weeks ago, but apparently it's the worst case he's ever seen in all his, what, twelve years of life. They're setting up a ventilator.

One-half of one novel
The next day I pick it up. He says everything is fine. My data are back relaxing in the living room, and all my passwords have vaporized, but everything should run real smooth.

Well. Except I can't get any mail. Last mail was five days ago. Can't send mail. Can't find out who rejected my query letters. I was poking at everything and suddenly an Apple Support page popped up with a chat robot that actually put me online with a human within a minute. He was wonderful. Got my browser working, checked things out, but couldn't get me my mail without my email password. What is it? he asked.

I don't know. I don't even know whether to call the outfit whose domain I'm using, or my internet provider. They're not the same people. I decide for the time being to go to my 11-year-old desktop that's been sludged up for a year and see can I find any mail. It wakes up like a drunk. Press any kind of button on it and you can hear it whirring around like one of those lottery tumblers being cranked. You can hear all the little zeroes and ones banging around in there for minutes before it poots out a possibility, and you have to check it against your stack of tickets to see if there's a match. Wal, shit, it drawls. Ah dunno.

It's now too late to call the domain people, and the internet people aren't people. They're chat robots, and when I type in my email address, they claim they've never heard of me. And I pay them way too much for that.

The next day I call the domain people, who are real people and who answer the phone in two ringy dingies, and I will be DAMNED if they don't turn out to be the people in custody of my passwords! They update them and I write them down and I type them into a box on my laptop and my mail comes whooshing through! For one of my accounts. Not the writing account. Same procedure doesn't work at all for that one.

And all morning my mail in the one account works, except when it doesn't, and my cursor disappears and then shows up again later, and I can't comment on my own blog, and I'm afraid to go into that whole thing in case the entire Blogger site slams a door in my face and I can't post a new piece for the first time since 2008.

"How's it going?" Dave asks, keeping enough distance that I"d have to use a gun to kill him, which  he knows I don't own.

I don't answer. He reads my face and springs into action. Brings beer. Hides the razor blades.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Great Tits!


Social media have allowed us to be so familiar with each other that I sometimes get the same link sent to me by numerous people. "Salamander poop," thirty different individuals might say. "I know who would like a picture of that!"

Recently I was multiply blessed with a link to an article featuring what at first glance appeared to be a jaundiced chickadee standing astride a wombat.

The bird in question was not, however, a chickadee, but a great tit, and it was not so much a wombat as a vole. This does not mean a great tit cannot take down a wombat but they are never in the same continent at the same time, so we have yet to observe it.

Black-capped chickadees like Marge and Studley Windowson are great tits also, maybe the greatest in many ways, but we are not to call them great tits, because that title is taken. Great tits live in Europe and are related to Cinereous Tits and Japanese Tits but not so much Turkestan Tits, although there is controversy. Ornithologists can come to blows over such things.

Coming to blows, however, is not what many people think of when they think of songbirds, preferring to consider them passive packages of good will. They are adorable, sweet-singing, and swell-hearted, we think, and not capable of the sort of predatory violence that will net them a dinner of vole brains.

That is because people generally aren't paying attention to birds at all. Birds are not all confining themselves to striking terror in the sunflower patch. 

Studley Windowson, one of the greatest birds of all time, is no vegetarian. He's delicate with seeds, withdrawing them one at a time and neatly cutting them up for himself before going in for seconds, but hand him a mealworm and he will pin the unfortunate larva down with one foot and tear off segments at the dotted line until he reaches the end.

It's not actually known if the great tit in the photograph took down the vole by itself or if it just happened upon the carcass, but it is known that it pecked into its head for the brains. Brains are the creamy filling in the corpse Twinkie. And they're not even that particular about whether the brain donor is dead or not. It is known that the great tit will prey on hibernating bats, always drilling through to their brains. Evidently bats sleep hard.

Marge, the "little woman"
None of this violence should be any surprise to anyone with access to a jay. Our local scrub jays are not remotely afraid of me or anything else. They ought to lose a fight with their larger cousins the crows, but crows give them a wide berth also. They may be bigger, but they're not psychopaths like the jays. The jays have their shivs out all the time and they'll come at you screeching like the shower scene in Psycho. (Thanks to reader Mary Jansen, who first pointed this out, I can never hear them any other way.) They land right next to me when I'm gardening in case I turn up a larva and I always flip it to them, because I do not like the way they size up my eyeballs.

And of course you have your shrikes that not only kill frogs and mice and whatnot but spear them on a thorn to eat later and also to let the general population know who's in charge. A rodent will never vote to impeach a shrike no matter how much evidence you pile up.

And then, Lord. The bushtits. The bushtits are very tiny members of the Tit family and plenty murderous in their own right. They may be no bigger than a fuzzy ping pong ball but they always, always travel in gangs and they will work together to flush a herd of aphids and pick off the old and lame ones. You only think they're cute because you're not a bug and don't go to their meetings.

Then you have your vampire finches. They land on boobies and peck on them and drink their blood. Presumably this all started when the finches were going for mites in the boobies' feathers and then they sort of evolutionarily got carried away. And the boobies don't even mind. That's how itchy they are.

Meanwhile, great tits have been known to attack the tissues of recently hanged people. This has caused me to revise my wishes for the disposal of my body. I would like to be strung up in the woods somewhere and nibbled on by chickadees. See that it happens, people.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Thirty Questions You Totally Shouldn't Be Asking

Here you go, straight from Conspiracy Central: thirty loaded questions about the pandemic that "people should be asking themselves," most of them heavily implying something sinister is afoot, something we need to get to the bottom of. I admit it: I read all thirty. I'm not making these up. And the reason I'm not asking myself these questions is I already know the answers. So obviously I'm just the person to clear up this crap before it goes coronaviral. Ready?

4. Why should you stay inside but yet heat and sunlight kill the virus? You, in particular, should stay inside so you can read up on how things work. But no one is telling anyone to stay inside. Get on out there, Petunia! Get some fresh air! Sunlight plus time is a disinfectant, so you can leave a plastic bin, for instance, outside for a few days and there shouldn't be any virus on it. If you leave your personal self outside for a few days and stay real still and don't move and don't touch any orifices, yours or a friend's, probably people could lay a finger right on you and not get a virus. Try not to breathe on them though.

5. Why can't kids (who are not at high risk) play on an outdoor playground, where sun kills this virus? Okay. Sure! Let the little buggers play on the playground! Kids are famous for not touching each other or bunching up or getting each other smeary or leaking fluids out of their orifices, so everything should be just fine, as long as one of them hasn't acquired the virus somewhere else! They wouldn't, like, share the playground equipment, would they? Or laugh, or talk, or shriek, or snot on things? Then they're good to go. Oh, that high risk bit? Your kids can get real sick too, but you're right, it's mainly Grandma we're protecting by trying to contain this thing. Although another way to go might be to have the oldsters laminated and park them in the basement. Send down a bucket of creamed peas and a fruit cup every few days.

7. Why is it okay for government officials to get a haircut, but not common citizens? Really? This is a thing? You mean government officials like the President? That's not a haircut, that's an installation. I'm guessing no "government official," whatever you mean by that, is getting a haircut unless they have someone who lives with them cutting their hair, or unless they're stupid or vain. Same as "common citizens."

8. Why the fear, when this virus has less than a 1% death rate? This virus is so new and so little data have been gathered that no one really knows the mortality rate yet, although it's generally pegged at over 1%. I guess we can only speak for ourselves on this one. The death rate for people in my age group is more like 4-11%, and it's not a nice death, and you get to die alone. I don't want it. Also, if my chances of getting killed in a car were one in a hundred trips, I wouldn't get in a car. You go ahead on, though, you tiger, you!

9. Why are areas like Chicago and New York gearing up for mass vaccination? Because they're smart and well-run.

11. Doesn't shelter in home mean there is a whole population of people not staying home so we can? Excellent question. Yes.

12. Why are they dividing us? Another good question. Wait. Who are you calling "they?"

13. How do people not know that we are a Republic, not a democracy? Huh. A little off-topic, there. I'm going with "nobody learns anything in school anymore," because as an Oldster I certainly know that we are a republic, meaning we elect our own representatives to legislate, rather than just everybody voting on every little thing all the time and seeing what shakes out. We are also a democracy, in that we democratically elect our representatives. I'm going out on a limb here, but something about your question makes me suspect you don't know any of this, but think this has something to do with our two major parties?

14. Where has the flu gone? Oo! Oo! I know this one. Bill Gates had the flu shipped out for the warmer months per his usual schedule and will have it re-installed next October, just in time to terrify people into accepting his vaccines, through which he intends to microchip everyone in the world, and then do, well, I don't know what. Something sneaky.

15. Why do the homeless consistently demonstrate the lowest infection rate? They don't. Jesus.

17. Why are they telling us to mask up after two months of lockdown? Really? Uh, because we still have no cure or vaccine for a dangerous and highly infectious disease. I'm not sure you're paying attention.

21. Why are the common people being controlled by government and no one is controlling the government? Hey, I've got one for you. What the hell is wrong with you?

23. Why are some doctors speaking out and then getting silenced? You mean Dr. Fauci?

25. What does a computer geek have to do with a pandemic and why does he want 7 billion coronavirus vaccines? He's a humanitarian.

28. Why did Dr. Fauci say in 2017 that there would be a "SURPRISE PANDEMIC" and then runs the pandemic team? Same answer, both clauses: because he is an expert on pandemics.

29. Why are they infringing on Christians [sic] freedoms? Whuh? Who? They who? Calm down.

And just for fun, let's go back to #3, which we skipped earlier.

3. Why can't you have an elective surgery, but you can have an abortion which is elective? Elective surgeries are those that are either unnecessary (like cosmetic surgery) or that can be reasonably postponed. Abortions, whether medically necessary or legally requested, cannot be reasonably postponed. This question doesn't seem to have much to do with our pandemic response. It feels more like a sniper shot from the Pro-Life movement, herein defined as a group advocating for the right to life for humans from blob till birth, and for a while after that, with exceptions for capital punishment, war, famine, black people running around blackly where they don't belong, and of course people over 65 during a dangerous pandemic.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Tomatoing Too Soon

My parents were genuine antiques. My dad wore a dress as a baby and later he had a pet burro. Mom remembered barnstormers flying low over the farm. They were adorable when they got to reminiscing, but I still rolled my eyes sometimes.

Like the thing with the apples. You could get a few kinds of apples at the Safeway--Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Stayman--but my parents would grimace over a Delicious apple and start naming all the old apples they missed. They could go on for hours. They'd just light up at the mention of some of them. Apples! Sheesh. Just buy Pop-Tarts and count your blessings, I thought.

Now, of course, there's a whole market in Heirloom Apples and the local nursery will have at least fifty varieties available during their annual Apple Festival. They're good, but by the time you've had fifty apple dice on a toothpick you no longer remember which ones you liked. It's a bit much, but my parents' ghosts are smiling.

And of course there are heirloom tomatoes. I'm never sure about them. I figure they're going to have purple stripes and be shaped in cross-section like something that lives on the ocean floor. Not Regular, in other words. I look over the seedlings at the nursery and am confounded. I'm only going to get three plants and call it a day, and I don't like to guess wrong and be filled with regret. So every year I pretend to consider the heirlooms and then get a Big Boy and an Early Girl and a random cherry, usually Sweet 100.

The chairs are six feet apart.
Now I'm negotiating with our local nursery for an online order that I can pay for by phone and pick up in their parking lot. It was time to look for tomatoes. But they didn't have any tomatoes in their vegetable spreadsheet. Oh well, I thought. It is a little early to plant them. Oh wait! It's because they have a whole other spreadsheet just for tomatoes! Heavens to Elizabeth, as my parents used to antiquely say.

It's not even a big nursery. They have over a hundred varieties of tomato. They have one called Banana Legs. Big White Pink Stripe. Bloody Butcher. Dancing With Smurfs. Mortgage Lifter. Speckled Roman and Striped German. Stupice. Purple Bumblebee ("dusky purple with metallic green striping," so help me God).

There are descriptions. Meaty! Flavorful! Elongated! Slightly squat! Fluted! And, of course, "determinate" and "indeterminate." That has something, I know, to do with how they grow. And how you're supposed to treat the little princesses. It feels like just another way of getting things wrong. One of them sort of shrubs up and the other sprawls into the street. I never remember which is what, so it just makes me feel bad and contributes to my getting the Big Boy, Early Girl, and standard cherry every year.

But this year, by gum, I'm going to do it. I'm going to buy three completely screwy varieties of tomato. I'm going all in! Headlong! Hell bent for leather! Katie bar the door! I'm getting Cosmonaut Volkov, Paul Robeson, and Chocolate Cherry.

I feel I owe it to Mom and Dad.