Saturday, January 18, 2020

It's How We Roll

If you have to get into a mishap with your automobile on New Year's Eve, I can think of no more adorable way to do it than to get buried in tumbleweeds. It's like facing off against a marshmallow cannon. If you're sitting in your car under thirty feet of tumbleweeds, thoughts and prayers are, for once, an appropriate response. As long as no one chucks out a cigarette butt.

This is what happened to five cars and a semi-truck in Washington. I guess it was something. First you're driving along, then you notice some tumbleweeds rolling across the road, and some more, and at some point you have to slow to a stop, and then there you are under a couple stories of tumbleweeds. You could drive through them but you can't see. You have to call the authorities on your cell phone, and listen to them snorting and hooting at you over at 9-1-1 before they send out the snowplow.

Tumbleweeds have iconic status in the West, and they should, but not necessarily in the way most people think. Here on the range I belong, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds, the man sings; the lonely dead shrubs bouncing along the prairie say Western Expansion as well as anything else. We relate to them. The world is wide, the sky's the limit, we go where the wind takes us, because we are free.

And on our way let's get rid of those pesky buffaloes and Indians because nothing says freedom like a world scraped clean of buffaloes and Indians. Tell you what, let's get rid of the wolves and grizzlies too. Let's stick a billion non-native cattle out there and obliterate the prairie ecosystem while we're at it, and then let's watch our soil blow away with complete shock and a little reproachful glance at God, who was presumed to be on our side.

Ah, the romance of the tumbling tumbleweeds! They are synonymous with the great frontier, an ancient spectacle, a natural wonder, rolling free since time immemorial!

In Russia.

Well, boy howdy, guess whut? We didn't have any tumbleweeds at all until 1870, a mere 150 years ago, when they arrived in South Dakota in a shipment of flax seeds from Asia. About as long as we've had kitty-cats, I reckon. We think they've been here forever because we get our information from 20th-century cowboy westerns. The first tumbleweed landed somewhere and grew, and died, and snapped off, and began tumbling, releasing a quarter million seeds all by itself. It didn't need much water to germinate but managed to suck up an astonishing amount of it later, to the detriment of the native plants. It's one hell of a weed: it easily colonizes disturbed areas, and, shoot, we've been disturbing areas as fast as we can. I mean, Disturbed Areas Are Us.

Here's a cool tidbit: around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the cars were buried on New Year's Eve, the tumbleweeds suck up nuclear waste before tumbling off to new adventures. They try to pulverize them before they tumble, but, hey. Fun!

They're a pest. Someone discovered a fungus from Central Asia that does a number on them, and there's talk of setting that non-native organism loose on the buggers here to see who wins. Can't see any downside to that.

So: there's your icon. Invasive non-native species gains foothold and quickly routs the competition, takes over the landscape, and gobbles up all the resources. It's the Great White Dream. What's not to love?

USA! USA! USA!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Oh, Cold Snap!

Word on the street is we might get some snow this week. Worse, it might get down to twelve degrees. Twelve degrees. Which is probably fine if you live in a place that's supposed to be twelve degrees, because then you would have bear skins in your cave, and wolf and fox carcasses hanging up and extra Sinew and Sinew Skills, plus the secret of fire. We don't have any of those.

Here in our cave we can't get anything to stay lit and there's nothing but damp squirrels to stitch up.

The newspaper helpfully offered advice of what to have on hand for the coming cold snap. It wasn't a big list. I don't think they're even trying anymore. (They did make a joke about the stores running out of kale like last time, but that's not funny--that really happened.) It was pretty much peanut butter, toilet paper, and extra flashlight batteries. They need to add more items because putting the peanut butter right up next to the toilet paper like that is a little too vivid. And really, who needs to run to the store to stock up on toilet paper? If you don't have enough toilet paper on hand, it's its own emergency.

We're not going to the store to stock up on peanut butter because we are old-school and still have survival skills leftover from yesteryear. By that I don't mean anything as fancy as whatever my mom and her family did on the farm, where they had to drill through snowdrifts to get to the outhouse and shovel coal into the stove and whack random edible critters for dinner. North Dakota winters required a level of stamina we don't much see anymore. When my Uncle Cliff finally sold off his cows, I, a city girl, wondered aloud if he didn't kind of miss them. They were cute. He was a mild-mannered and pleasant man and his response was both louder and more vehement than I'd ever expected from him. The upshot was no, he did not kind of miss his cows. Sixty years of walloping their butts into the barn for milking every single, uh, blessed day, twice a day, in all kinds of weather was quite--as it turned out--enough. Thank you.

No, our skills are not of that caliber, and neither are we. However, if we're hungry, we will walk to the grocery store. This is because we are very good at walking and willing to do it, and also we live within three miles of several grocery stores. We live in a walkable place on purpose. We walk to the bigger store with backpacks and if it were not for the occasional kitty litter run or a sale on canned goods, we wouldn't drive at all.

Also, we'll be okay if the store's card readers are on the fritz. We have cash. On hand. Because we're boomers.

If the grocery store runs out of food we could be in a bit of trouble after a while, but it's nothing we anticipate. What we are supposed to do is be prepared with at least three weeks of provisions in case of the massive catastrophic earthquake they've been promising us, and no, we don't seem to have done anything about that. But we do live next to a person who is prepared and we've been very very nice to her over the years.

It's a plan.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

I'll Just Do Them By Hand

I'll be the first to admit I don't have much talent for spatial visualization. I park my car using audible data from the curb. I routinely look at something bigger than my head and think "I can eat that." Also? Your dishwasher doesn't make any sense to me. I don't care who you are.

There's a section on the IQ tests where they show you a shape in two dimensions and you have to figure out what it would look like folded up. I can't do that. I can't tell if it will be a box, a swan, or a dreidel. If it weren't for the verbal comprehension part of the test I would've been institutionalized. I used to try to cut out shapes to sew my own stuffed animals and they all came out sad and flat. It was like I had a nice store-bought collection of animals and a separate roadkill set.

But your dishwasher doesn't make sense. There can't be that many dishwashers on the market. No two are alike, except that there's no figuring them out. I know what to do with my own, now. I'm sure it didn't make sense at first either, but after a while, you figure out what goes where from experience. If you load the plates here, there's no place for the bowls. If you stick the big bowl there, the little shallow one won't fit along the side. It's very personal.

Our friends KC and Scott are major food people. When they remodeled their kitchen, they went ahead and put in two dishwashers. That never occurs to most people. They were not about to hand-wash the cooking pots, or stack dirty dishes waiting for the first batch to get clean, and that was that. Regular people design their kitchens so that they're standard and ready to sell to someone else. The four of us are not regular people. (Dave's countertop is six inches higher than standard, and we have two refrigerators. One for the beer. If the next people want something different, they'll have to nuke it and start over.)

They should make dishwashers with cut-outs like those old hand-tool pegboards. I am paralyzed by the sight of foreign dishwasher pegs. They look like a shishkebab assembly line. I see the basket for the utensils, but are my friends handle-up or handle-down people? Do they spear the glasses or slip them between the peg rows? What are the rules? 

Once you decide on, say, where a plate goes, you can keep on stacking them in there in parallel. But they might be on the diagonal and you'll end up with unused corner space. If the proprietor of the kitchen happens to come by while you're puzzling, he'll invariably hover and tsk and twist his hands, and finally say "Usually what I do is..."

That's the key right there. It doesn't matter how you put the dishes in. They're just going to get rearranged after you leave.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Holy Nova!

Either a supernova  or a mammogram.
So the Good Star Betelgeuse might be on the way out. One thing is guaranteed, humans being what they are (gullible, imaginative, and self-centered in the extreme): if Betelgeuse goes ahead and dies on us in a fiery explosion, a lot of people aren't going to be content to admire it for the awesome spectacle it is, but will impute all sorts of significance to it. It will be a sign of something: impending doom, God's Moral Flashlight, anything but the collapse of a massive star that has about run out of fuel and can no longer overcome the force of gravity. Nope: people already believe that their lives are disrupted whenever a planet looks like it's going backwards but isn't. They're not going to let a supernova go by without wringing as much meaning out of it as they can.

For instance, there's quite a lot of speculation that the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to Jesus's bed of straw was actually a supernova. Now, right off the bat you have that problem with witness reliability: Matthew was the only Gospel writer who even mentioned a big star, which you'd think one of the others would have noticed. Especially if it was moving around the sky and pulling up short and parking right over the baby.

But evidently there was a doozy of a nova on February 23, 4BC. And some scholars, based on various things known about King Herod, put Jesus's birth at anywhere between two and six years before his birthdate, which is a good trick all by itself, but maybe not a problem for the divine.

We can't take everything the Gospel writers said to the bank. They don't agree with each other. Everyone has the blessed event taking place in Bethlehem, which concords with an earlier prophesy, but some have Joseph and Mary and the babe hieing off to Egypt and others have them right back in Nazareth, having only popped off to Bethlehem for the census.

(Think about that for a moment. We get all upset when someone bangs on our door for the census, or we have to fill out and mail a form. Imagine how a modern person would feel about making a road trip for the purpose. On a donkey. Pregnant.)

Anyway if it was that particular nova, once again, we're dealing with something that actually took place 21,000 years earlier, so if it really was announcing the birth of the Savior of Mankind, that was some slick planning. The only thing we know of that was happening around then was that people were moving to the vicinity of Canberra, Australia. And generally speaking it isn't mankind that needs to be saved when people start occupying territory, it's the animals that already lived there. Nevertheless, the whole coincidence--star blowing up, baby born 21,000 years later, mankind redeemed--is considered by some to be a mystical slam dunk, because God.

Now if good old Betelgeuse were to collapse this year, it really would've happened in about the time Peter the First of Portugal was born. Peter was in love with his wife's maid and his own father hired men to decapitate her; he had her dug up again, but nobody is reported to have sailed into the sky or anything, and he had to settle for matching tombs so that at least they could be together at the Last Judgment.

To be fair, lots of supernovas haven't panned out, Messiah-wise.

But let's stick to the convention that the significant event is the arrival of the light from the explosion to our planet. In that case, if Betelgeuse goes off now, we should start looking around for a new savior, and it's none too soon. I would've put my money on Greta Thunberg, but I guess it's too late.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Duck! It's Betelgeuse!

The internet is abuzz with rumors of the imminent demise of the star Betelgeuse, but it also claims that illegal immigrants are allowed to vote and Hillary Clinton has people murdered, so I wouldn't get too worked up about the star. The huge bright star has dimmed appreciably in just the last month, however, which could be a precursor to its becoming a supernova, or not.

As awesome as that would be--you'd be able to see it in the daytime--it's probably fruitless to spend the night in a lawn chair waiting for it. You're liable to be chilly, and also disappointed.

Because although Betelgeuse is a big fat red star and is entirely expected to blow up sooner rather than later, "sooner" is a relative term: the human lifetime is not a standard measure for any number of things happening in the universe, no matter how we might feel about it. And besides that, the idea that Betelgeuse is going supernova at all is misleading. As a recent philosopher once put it, it depends on what the meaning of "is" is. If that sucker lights up the sky this month, it really did it in the fourteenth century, and we're only just hearing about it.

Betelgeuse is an Arabic word meaning Orion's Armpit. Orion, the Great Hunter, is the biggest brightest constellation in the sky and viewable from every hemisphere, right where he was installed by Zeus as a favor to a couple of goddesses. In spite of a nice set of nebulas below his belt he is universally assumed to be facing us, which makes Betelgeuse the star at his right shoulder. He is instantly recognizable by his belt and by the line of stars descending from it which we're going to go ahead and call his "sword," and never mind what those goddesses say.

Humans take everything personally. Orion might be a great hunter to some, but in some quarters he's a bison, and elsewhere he's a child's string game, like Cat's Cradle. In any case, even if you see a sword hanging from a belt, how it's hanging is a trick of perspective, because them stars ain't anywhere near each other.

Reminds me of the time we were admiring the view from East Zig Zag Mountain, from which five serviceable volcanoes can be seen, and a young woman asked me what the mountains were. So I told her. Mt. St. Helens on the far left, then Rainier, etc. She thanked me and went back to her picnic rock where I overheard her boyfriend explain that I was full of shit, because Rainier is to the left of Mt. St. Helens.

Which it is, from Portland. But not from East Zig Zag. Mt. St. Helens could have been spewing ash and geologist shrapnel into the air and he still would have called it Rainier, which (he further explained) is much bigger than that little dinky one I pointed out. (It's also fifty miles further away, Idiot Lips.)

So from here we see a nice big great hunter but if you could see the same stars from some other elbow of the galaxy it might totally be Mildred, The Needlepoint Artist. Hope her sore shoulder gets better.

Happy Birthday to my niece Elizabeth!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

An Inconvenience Of Frogs

Around the holidays it seems like no one has enough time. There's too much to do. It doesn't feel as good as it should. It's stressful.

For instance, for the volunteers of the Harborton Frog Shuttle, late December is probably a time when there are still more gifts to buy, cookies to bake, family newsletters to mock, and holiday open houses to avoid. It's raining. Nobody is driving fast enough. The Frog Shuttlers are just like everyone else, with maybe better rain gear. But the frogs themselves measure time differently.

The frogs might look at the last Friday night before Christmas and think: Hey. It's raining. We're horny. Let's go downhill to the pond and score. And the Frog Shuttlers think: Hey. It's raining. Everyone's driving too fast. Let's go nab us some frogs.

The frogs we nab won't appreciate it. But they're going to get a lift across a four-lane highway with heedless traffic on it, whereas a lot of the frogs we don't manage to nab are going to turn into road snot. We're as motivated as they are.

The frogs are in a holiday spirit. There is nothing like a steady downpour in the dark to put a frog in a festive frame of mind. They're not stressed; they've got everything all wrapped up already. The dudes come down first, mostly. They're going to stake out their portion of the swamp and practice their moves. I've got your package right here, they say. Come let papa give you a hug and I'll show you how to open it.

If anyone can roll her eyes, it's a frog, but after a while, in the spirit of the season, the big females begin blooping down the hill bloated with eggs and look over the prospects.

And the thing about it is, they will do this without any regard whatsoever for the imaginary needs of Frog Shuttlers. You don't have Christmas wrapped up? Frogs don't care. You have your jammies and bunny slippers on and a Christmas movie cued up and are just starting to think about pouring yourself a nice stiff toddy because it's Me time and God knows you're tired because you've done every damn thing for this family but do they appreciate it? They don't.

Neither do the frogs. It's raining. It's dark. It's Go Time.

And that's the best thing the frogs do for us. They pull us out of our time, our concerns, our petty obligations, our artificial schedules, and put us on Frog Time. Pacific Standard Frog Time. When the air is fresh and the geese and owls and chorus frogs are in charge of music and the night might offer you fifty more plump, rubbery chances to do something for somebody that they won't appreciate.

It's a new year. Instead of marking time, find a new time zone. Mountain Chickadee Time. Daylight Saving Wildlife Time. Eastern Kingbird Time. Pay attention to their needs, and a lot of your own will fade away.

Friday, December 20, 2019. 224 male red-legged frogs assisted, 14 female. Happy New Year y'all!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Ages Of Man (And The Little Ladies)

I know what baby boomers are. I'm less clear about all the new lettered generations and Millennials. Who are they? And who cares? Not us baby boomers. Everyone else is just a prequel or an afterthought. We're the ones who count, which is why we find it so baffling that we're dropping dead.

But I got to wondering about all the names we give our generations, and time periods in general, and it occurred to me to look into the historical record. Here's the thing about me and History. I don't know any. If I ever did, I've forgotten it. And that's a problem, because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Not that I'll be able to tell.

Anyway, I'm not at all certain what or when the Middle Ages were. Or the Dark Ages. Or Medieval times. So I looked them up.

Guess what? They're all the same thing! The Middle Ages started in 476 CE when the Roman Empire fell, with what I assume was a freakishly specific thud.  See, I didn't even know the Roman Empire fell all at once. I assumed it sort of dwindled away; everyone misplaced their sandals and the gladiators started doing lunch instead of fighting and the paper boy quit even trying to hit the porch. Turns out it fell, like, on a Tuesday.

By the way, that CE thing? That's what we used to call AD, Anno Domini. Most scholars nowadays prefer to take the religion out of the time references, so Year Of Our Lord is out the window, and Before Christ is out the window, and we have Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) instead, although, coincidentally, they are still divided by one particular year when somebody was born under a great star. But it could've been anybody, I guess.

So the Middle Ages began in 476 CE, and ended with the Renaissance. The Middle Ages were when everyone forgot how to make concrete and we were overrun by Christians and people threw their poop out the windows. There was a whopper of a plague that took out a third of everybody and, times being what they were, was generally blamed on sinfulness rather than fleas. People started beating themselves and each other up to atone for it all, and even engaged in wanton murder of those suspected of insufficient piety. For your garden variety heretic, the Renaissance couldn't come soon enough.

Actually there was a ton of cool science and math going on during the Middle Ages, but it was going on in Muslim countries, so the Europeans wore red crosses on their sweaters and had themselves a Crusade. They thought if they could murder enough people they would be assured a spot in heaven. They fought Muslims for, like, 300 years, nobody particularly won, and lots of people died, although, in fairness, they would have by now anyway.

Meanwhile, back  in Europe, for the entirety of the Middle Ages, nobody clever or important was born, except for Hildegarde von Bingen, who didn't count, for ovarious reasons.

It's the Renaissance folks who named the Middle Ages: some dull, middle interval between the great Greek and Roman civilizations and their own enlightened selves. It's a bit dismissive. And now the Middle Ages have been further subdivided into Early, Late, and Right Spang In The. It was dull. Many of the participants weren't even aware they were in the Middle Ages at the time. So you see the level of sophistication we have to work with.

Those ancient Greeks themselves thought there were five Ages Of Man: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron, and Leatherette. All of those people BCE had to figure something was up as they were running out of years, but when they got to zero, lo, time miraculously started up again.

Anyway, now we're naming generations hand over fist because we don't have time for ages anymore. We've got your Greatest Generation, also known as the Dark Ages because it didn't have any boomers in it; we've got boomers, yay boomers; we've got Generation X, named after what needed to be solved for; then we have Generation Y, which is the same thing as Millennials by the way, and now, ominously, we've got Generation Z, and no more alphabet. It's all winding down, folks.