Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cats Just Want To Have Fun

When I was a kid, I found a baby robin on the ground. I got the standard rescue equipment: a shoebox, some Kleenex, and a worm to be named later. Then I went to look for the worm in our compost pile. We had a compost pile because Dad was a liberal.

But I was squeamish about worms. I gripped it best I could and dangled it over the gaping chick, but the worm veered away at the last moment and I freaked out and dropped it and it went squirming around the little bird's feathers and I ran off with the willies. I don't remember if anyone intervened but I suspect the rehab effort resulted in a backyard burial.

What did I know? I know I thought one big worm would be quite enough for a little bird, but that's not actually true. I know this because of our chickadees Marge and Studley Windowson, and because of my friend Julie Zickefoose, who keeps getting wheedled into taking care of baby birds because she knows how. If you're going to make an entire bird out of the little goober that emerges from the shell, and fast, you need to really shovel in the groceries. Julie reports that your basic baby bird needs to be fed every half hour all day long for weeks, which is quite the imposition on an adult human with other stuff to do. Marge and Studley, who are likely to have four babies going at once, are bombing into the nest box every other minute with bugs, all of which they had to find themselves. It's exhausting. The year the weather went all wonky and the bugs were scarce, both of the Windowsons looked like shit. They ran themselves skinny.

The skinny year
It's a really big production. Months. Even before you get the eggs going, there's this elaborate nest to make out of grasses and stuff all woven together perfectly without using any fingers. That takes weeks. There's a little cup in the middle of it that has fluffy material like fur worked in special, so as to be cozy. Then come the eggs and the incubation period, during which Studley has to find double the usual amount of food to feed himself and Marge, and then the truly heroic business of cramming bugs into the chilluns all day long. Every year, I am immensely proud of them.

Marge and Studley are Dave's particular favorite little buddies. Well, and everyone who looks like Marge and Studley, which is basically all of the chickadees. He it was who built the nest box for them. We have had our pets--three, including two happy cats who have been advised they are invasive species, and are not allowed to stalk birds. The chickadees are the closest wild items that might qualify as Dave's pets. He loves them.

This year everything was right on schedule. The nest was started in early April, incubation a few weeks after that, and then, in mid-May, both Marge and Studley were flying in and out of the box. I opened my window in case I could hear peeping, but I couldn't. It takes a few days for it to become audible from my window. And then, that soon, activity ceased. I never saw both Marge and Studley at the same time. Finally Marge, or possibly Studley, flew to the nest box with a caterpillar, looked inside, hopped in, and hopped out again a minute later, still with the caterpillar. And flew away, and never came back.

When the flies showed up, I had Dave take the box down and we looked inside. The nest was perfect. You could still see the cup with the fuzz around it, almost in pristine condition, because nobody got big enough to stomp it down. There were four tiny desiccated bodies.

My birder friend Max said this is what happens when one of the parents dies.

I have two neighbors whose cats roam my yard. The cats' names are Anjali and Sid. Like Marge and Studley, they get to have names because someone cares about them. Personally. Both neighbors know how I feel about outdoor cats. They're both apologetic. I'd even gotten an email from one of them when she decided to start letting her cat out. "I can't keep Anjali in anymore," she said. "She wants to be outside so badly. But let me know if there's anything I can do to keep her from hurting your birds. Anything."

"You could put a CatBib on her," I said. I'd even bought a dozen to give away. "It's highly effective. It doesn't keep them from moving or climbing, or shitting in my tomato patch, but it interferes with that last pounce when they're hunting."

"Oh, that thing looks weird. I would never hang that on her collar," she said.

"Or you could give her one of these wide, bright collars to wear. It's not quite as effective, but it makes it a lot easier for the birds to spot them," I said.

"Oh, no, I couldn't make her wear that. It's so undignified."

Not long after, I found the tag and collar of the other woman's cat. Sid. It was directly underneath my bird feeder. The chickadees in particular like to take their seeds to the low branches of the nearby azalea. I returned the collar to the owner. She looked remorseful, and yet, somehow, helpless.

I don't have four new chickadees. Sid doesn't have his collar. But he and Anjali have their entertainment. And their dignity. And maybe they have Marge, too.

This is personal, now.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Real Estate Gets Real

"This place is great!"

"Right? Except I think the chickens are depressed."


Our neighbors Hannah and Kate just bought their first house and we were taking a tour. We'd seen the pictures of a swell chicken coop in the back. They'd liked that too. They were thinking of having chickens some day. When they got the keys and started to move in, damned if they didn't already have chickens. Did they know the place was going to come with chickens? Had that been discussed?

Well, no. But there they were, three chickens, plus a note with their names on it.

Hannah consulted it. "The black and white one is Henrietta, the orange one is Ophelia, and Suzie is that funky one over there."

"What makes you think they're depressed?"

"Well, they haven't laid any eggs in a couple days. I mean, think about it. Their people just abandoned them..."--she blinked back a tear--"...and now they have two mommies."

Henrietta did look a little down in the beak.

The real estate game is not what it used to be. When I bought my first house, I didn't have to pounce on it. I moseyed, more. The first one I'd looked at was on a double lot with an ornamental cherry tree. The flow of the house was odd, but it had a huge kitchen I could imagine cooking in if I learned how to cook, and I loved the garden space.

It was 1978. Nobody was moving. Americans were being held hostage somewhere, you couldn't gas up your car on the even days, and everyone was hunkered down in their houses with Malaise. It wouldn't be Morning In America for another few years, when money would start to flow out of everyone's pensions and into the financial sector where it became pretend money and perked people up for a while before it got siphoned uphill and vanished from the middle class altogether. Meanwhile, a half dozen homes were going begging in Portland for about a buck-fifty each and I had all the time in the world to think about it.

The place with the double lot and the cherry tree was okay but the listing agent had moated it with bark dust, sprayed the whole inside of the house Navajo White, and put down a shag wall-to-wall carpet in deep rust. "That's the first to go," I said, right in front of him, and he shrugged bleakly. He was sitting at a card table in the dining room with a little stack of business cards and expected to be there for months.

But after a few weeks I said "What the hell, we can change the carpet," and I bought it, and Dave and I moved in and spilled champagne on the rust carpet first thing, and didn't replace it for a long time, because it would cut into the beer budget. I picked up a $20 sofa at a garage sale but it was too scratchy to lie down on. Mostly we sat on the floor and tried to not get burglarized. The neighbor kid burned our cherry tree down. The listing agent got murdered in California. I wondered if it was really possible to pay out $368 a month for like thirty YEARS, which was three times more than I'd ever paid for rent, for longer than I'd even been alive.

These days, if your real estate agent is sharp, you can hear about a likely house the day it's listed, but if it takes you more than twenty minutes to get there, you've already lost it to some dude who's still on the golf course. The phone in his pocket has had a three-way with his agent and lending institution, and automatically fired off a heartfelt essay to the seller along with an order of fresh cookies delivered by drone. Oh, plus he also has an extra hundred thou to chip in. He probably got it from your pension in the '80s.

This makes regular buyers jumpy: you know, the kind that tended to their credit ratings and saved up a 20% down payment. Chumps! After they lose the first two houses, they're bidding on certified ratholes and upping their offers to include an extra year's salary, season tickets to the opera, and a bank to be knocked over later.

Somehow Hannah and Kate, who are on a string of good luck including getting married (GO FILLMANS!), stayed calm, found a nice place, and didn't go over their budget. I think the seller agreed to leave the appliances. The chickens were a surprise. They're fine with it, but I think it's rude. I've never heard of anyone doing something like that without talking about it first. Well, except for our friends Scott and Kevin, who sold their place and left behind two pigs, three alpacas, some significant goatage, and a waddle of ducks for the new owners. But I think they talked about it first.

Pretty sure they talked about it first.

Anyway there was a fresh egg in the coop later that morning. Probably better than what the alpacas dropped off.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nobody Likes Big And Gassy

Looks like they found another planet with a good potential for life, and this one's relatively close, too, although astronomers have such a different idea of closeness it's a miracle they ever procreate. This one's about 39 light years away from us and that's a good long trip without even a Dairy Queen. They're pretty pumped about it too. It's named LHS 1140b and it appears to be rocky, habitable, and case-sensitive.

It's bigger and rockier than Earth, too. In fact, it is said that if you weigh 167 pounds here, you'd feel like you weighed 500 pounds there. My guess is there's not a lot of sprinting going on. It will be Thud City all the time. I'd rather be on a planet a little less dense than ours. Just enough to get a nice lift, so I can finally feel like those runners who poink around in their skivvy shorts like they've got rubber pistons in their calves and even pogo in place when they're held up by a stoplight--like why the hell? In my twenties, I got so that I could run for eight miles but it never felt remotely springy. I was smacking that planet with everything I had, the whole way.

There's a limit to how big a rocky planet can get, because after a certain point it has so much mass and gravity that it has to go for stardom instead. But rockiness in general is a good quality in a planet we could imagine living on. It's so hard to land properly on a gaseous giant. Sucker looks so promising from a distance but then you get there and you just keep going through for miles and miles and miles and it smells like farts all the way down and then you finally slam hard into the rocky interior, by which time you're already dead nine ways to Sunday. Like maybe there could be life on Jupiter, but not the relatable kind.

To get a rocky planet, you start with just a bunch of rocks and pebbles and dust flying around all haywire and everything is hitting everything else until some of it starts to stick together, and after a while the biggest piece is all hey now, hey now and gathers its arms around most of the rest of the available material, and things start to settle down. By the time we get a nice round planet we can stand on, it's already gone through that committee stage and has come up with something everyone can agree on. Your minor eruptions are just part of the cost of doing business. It's ready to rent.

But things that count as legitimate life aren't necessarily much like us, even on this planet. You won't necessarily get legs and antennae and internet capability and such. Sometimes it's just a little squirmy bit of material like a bacterium that shows some intention, and that's admirable enough, considering that a lot of us have no plan at all. Some of us are just a big waste of carbon, if you want to know the truth.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Welcome To William And Ole's Crapasbord

If you, like me, are hanging off the left side of the political spectrum, you already know that cultural appropriation is bad. (If you're not, you've never heard of it.) Here's the deal: if you're in the dominant tribe, you're not supposed to swipe some other tribe's stuff as though it's just yours for the taking. It's disrespectful, and if you're capitalizing on it, it's unfair, because you have more resources at your disposal. Bo Derek shouldn't cornrow her hair and act like she invented it. White hippies at the Eugene Country Fair have no business erecting a totem pole. Whatever Miley Cyrus is doing with her fanny, she should stop right now. A lot of this comes down to who has the money and power and who does not. There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and we've been instructed to pay attention to where that line is, so mostly I do.

I'm willing to listen and learn and I do know that it's never up to me to decide what other people shouldn't be offended by.  But I'm not persuaded that a lot of harm has come to anyone because white people are opening fancy restaurants that don't serve White Food, whatever horror that is. I'm not saying I'm right; I'm saying I've yet to be persuaded.

It gets fraught in a hurry. The immigrant Dagnabbian population is concerned about some white guy opening a Dagnabbian Fusion restaurant and appropriating the cuisine that had been passed down to the Dagnabbits through the ages, without even any respectful attribution. Except for it being referred to as Dagnabbian Fusion cuisine in all the fancy magazines. And meanwhile people are catching on and the Dagnabbian food carts are pulling in cash hand over fist without even having to pay for a brick-and-mortar establishment. And some are aggrieved by the place even being referred to as Dagnabbian because it is not authentic: their grandmothers would never have failed to include the seasoned fish eyeballs in the broth, and you mustn't use linen placemats on Wednesdays. On the one hand, you must acknowledge your Dagnabbian appropriation. On the other hand, you'd better not.

People, meanwhile, are following their tastebuds.

Disclaimer: I am fish-belly white. It wasn't anything I planned--it was more of a collusion between my parents--but when I came out the chute, that's how I turned out. Not saying I wouldn't have planned it this way if I could have. It's totally awesome being white, most places. You have to live with blotchy, unattractive skin, but you can also live your whole life assuming no one is looking askance at you, not police, not your neighbors, employers, shopkeepers. If there's anything standing in your way, you may rest assured it's probably you.

So I'm not complaining.

But if I were a creative chef and had to dance with the ones what brung me, what would I have to work with? Norwegians are swell, and the invention of the little cheese slicer cannot be praised highly enough, but these are people who eat canned corn during corn season. The English wrote some fine sonnets and some sturdy laws too, but they boil hamburgers. Heritage will take you only so far. "William and Ole's Crapasbord" is not going to fly. Nobody's going to be breaking down the doors for the lutefisk and kidney pie. Investors will be sorely disappointed and the proprietor will probably be legally compelled to publish an apology to the community in the business section.

Successful white-owned Thai establishment
So if a creative white person can't appropriate someone else's superior culture in her kitchen, and the only way for her to not rub people the wrong way is to open a Swedish massage, what are we forcing her into? What historical line of work is left for the heirs of this dour, pale culture? Basically, knocking people over the head. Empire-buildin' and slave-holdin'. We got enough of that going on right in the financial sector. It don't make it right.

Besides, what's the point of overrunning all those countries for all those years if you can't steal their stuff?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

No Caws For Complaint

I don't like to complain, but sometimes I do anyway.

More than one person has sent me a video of a sweet little girl who feeds crows and the crows respond by leaving her little trinkets as a thank-you. She's got hundreds of baubles and treasures by now. The whole thing is adorable.

All our crows ever leave us is alone. And we've been sucking up to them for years.

I know at least a half dozen people right here in town that have personal crows. We like crows too. We know how smart they are. We figured they're so smart they'll know how much we like them and appreciate all the little ways we try to make their lives more pleasant. We think they'll start to approach us on their own and ask if we maybe have an extra walnut, and tip their heads to the side and flare their rictal bristles at us as a sort of howdy-do. The relationship will progress, we'll give them fancy British names like Nelson and Chauncey and Percy, and ultimately they will converse with us in a form of English that is imperfect and yet still easier to understand than Matthew McConaughey. We will all sit around of an evening enjoying walnuts and beer as the sun goes down. We're grownups and have no need of a bunch of baubles; one or two would be fine.

But none of that has happened. We line up walnuts on the wall and they observe us and take them away just as soon as they're sure we're not looking, because they know that would give us too much satisfaction. It makes us feel like pimply seventh-graders who are trying too hard and still don't get to sit at the popular lunch table.

I don't know where we went wrong. I remember at one point I found their cawing sort of obnoxious and I went out to the yard and cranked my head up to the treetops and yelled HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! just so they could get an idea how annoying it was, but that was years ago, and I'm really sorry. But they may have pegged me for an asshole then and there, and passed the information down through the generations. I don't know. I've been real nice since then.

It's nesting season now and some of our crows have young'uns hopping around on the ground. That is what they have evolved to do: hop around on the ground for a few days before they're old enough to fly. I'm not sure how they get to the ground without getting all dented up but maybe they get just enough wind resistance from flapping their nubbins to cushion their landing. Their folks keep an eye on them and do their best to rout predators and scalawags, but it's not a perfect system as long as there are domestic cats around. The crows have been working on their strategy since the Cretaceous but domestic cats have been around here for a few hundred years tops, and this is true even if you've had a cat all your life and so did your Grandma--that's still not forever, sugar pie. Over a third of American households host a cat, and that's quite the uptick from zero.

So now we've got upwards of, let's say, fifteen cats per city block and fourteen of those are well-fed, subsidized, vaccinated, healthy, glossy little killing machines that are let out of the house so they don't get all mopey and also so they can shit in the neighbor's tomato bed instead of in the icky-poo litter box. Most people who let their cats out to terrorize wildlife are real softies, but their concern extends to only the one species. House cats are obscenely effective at killing wildlife. So I try to make my own garden a sanctuary by discouraging them. It's effective only inasmuch as all my neighbors' cats now blast out of the yard whenever they hear me turn the doorknob, but you know? I can't be turning my doorknob all day long.

Anyway, because it is that time of year, we have noticed that our crows occasionally make a particularly pointed racket, and when that happens, I go out and spot the crows and see exactly what direction they're racketing at, and then I go running and hollering in that direction and flush out the inevitable cat, and I have been hoping the crows are noticing which side I'm on and will henceforth reward me with their companionship and approval, but they haven't. So be it. I still wish them the best.

But when they're in full molt in August and have to slink out of the lunchroom all ratty-tatty, I plan to point and snicker.

Because I am an optimist at heart, I prefer to think of the following twenty seconds as a concert just for us, by our own personal, if recalcitrant, crow:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Forecast Calls For Fog

Many of us have started to suspect our minds have done some economizing. Downsized on neurons. We just don't seem to have that same snap we used to, and it's harder to learn things, remember things, or even pay attention. It's particularly obvious when we hang out with younger people and discover we're not really tracking what they say at all.

Younger brains need to work faster because no matter what they're thinking about, they're also thinking about sex, whereas once we've made a note of where the nearest toilet is, we're all set, thought-wise. It's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact many spiritual seekers in the world struggle for years to achieve the same kind of blankness that we maintain effortlessly. Still, it can be concerning to discover that your mental acuity took the same bus out of town your hormones did.

Fortunately, you can exercise your brain in the comfort of your own home. Let's take a common scenario. Just to up the ante, let's assume you are in conversation with a young person; one of those annoying polite ones who is looking at you in anticipation while waiting for you to finish your sentence, even though maybe you weren't planning to finish it just then, thank you very much. You have both glanced out the window as a bird flies by. "What kind of bird is that?" your young friend says, which is just typical--they know everything about the Internets but they don't know birds! Unfortunately, you don't either, so you give it a good squint and then get up to look in the field guide, which is in the next room, twenty steps away. Now you have arrived at your bookcase and are facing it, but you don't know why. It's a puzzler! So let's solve it. Let's make a brain game out of it.

First, let's assume your feet had a perfectly sound reason for bringing you to this spot, and let's further assume that what was on your mind thirty seconds ago is in fact related to something in this room, possibly something right in front of you. What could it be? Let's look for clues. There's the dictionary. This is a promising start: odds are always really high you were about to look up "hegemony" again. You pull out the dictionary and it opens right up to "hegemony" and your missing tweezers fall out. Awesome! You tap your face to see if your main chin hair is long enough to pluck, and it isn't, but there is a bump you don't recognize. You go to the bathroom to have a look in case it's cancer, but it looks more like dried oatmeal, so you wash your face, and take the hand towel to the laundry room to toss it in the washing machine, and darned if the machine isn't full of damp clothes already. Which obviously is what you meant to do: hang out the laundry. The rack is already full so you fold the dry clothes and take them to the bedroom and on your way back to take care of the wet clothes you pause by the bookcase again. Hmm. There was something about the bookcase. You stare at it for a while and then go back to the original room, where your young friend is holding up her phone and saying "Wilson's Warbler?"

For some reason.

You peer at the phone and sure enough there's a picture of a bird of some kind on it and you shrug, but it's irksome, trying to make sense of these non sequiturs all the time. And does she ever get her nose out of that thing? Kids. You, on the other hand, have folded laundry and put it away, plus there was that other thing you were going to do, which will come to you eventually. What the hell is she smiling about? She probably needs spell-check to spell "hegemony," which you really should look up sometime. Little shit thinks she's so smart but she wouldn't recognize a road map if it came up and bit her on the bloomers. Honestly, the whole generation: show them a card catalog, they'll be looking for the cup-holder. And ain't none of them knows how to drive a stick, do they? Huh! That's what I'm talkin' about.

Pretty sure that's what I was talkin' about.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Wind In Their Sails

I'm not afraid to say I'm a coward. That's the only thing I'm not afraid of. Everything else is on the table. The fastest I've ever moved was the time I launched myself down two flights of stairs (I admit the gravity assist) to get away from a man who was beginning to have a grand mal seizure. I didn't realize that was what was happening to him, and my instincts drove me down at something approaching 120 mph, taking wind resistance into account, and ultimately behind a locked door and a refrigerator.

I'm not afraid of death, in principle; probably less afraid of it than many people I know who have a punched ticket to an afterlife. Nevertheless, my body and brain invariably catapult me away from danger faster than I can assess it. I even distance myself from a loud argument, like it's a snarl in tiger territory.

I don't take light rail often. The MAX train I'm most likely to be on would drop me off at the 42nd Street Station, which is where a fresh Nazi with a large knife just murdered two men and butchered a third. Had I been on that train at the time, I would have demonstrated my strength and courage by pushing out a window of the car and blasting across the tracks until my empty lungs left me gaping in the gravel.

The Nazi in question is in custody and has a lengthy history of vitriol and violence. Recently, at a rally, he dressed himself in a flag and tights like Superman. Like some kid wearing his skivvy-shorts over his pajamas, draped in a terry-cloth cape. His emotional range did not rise over the first-grade level either. This guy is incoherently pissed off. Life stranded him, somehow, left him lying on a beach with a dangerous sense of powerlessness. Seems as if there are more and more like him all the time. And all of them are starting to feel some wind in their sails.

He had gotten on the train intent on terrifying a couple of teenage girls, one black and the other wearing a hijab. This is what makes him feel alive. The man had slipped his hinges many stops ago and had more hatred than he could hold in.

And then three men intervened. One was a poet; one was a recent college grad; one was an Army veteran. Three men stood up and put themselves between an enraged, self-righteous wretch and his innocent targets. Two of these men lost their lives and the third is just hanging on.

Their mothers, right now, are wishing more than anything that they had raised more cowardly men.

We are urged to send them our thoughts and prayers.

I don't pray. It would feel like talking into a toy telephone. But I do have thoughts, and more.

Today, my thoughts are with the families of these three brave men, with my gratitude to their mothers that they did not raise cowards. Because of their sacrifice, the Portland community and the community of humankind can hold onto hope. Because of them, we can pull ourselves out of despair and complacency. I have thoughts, and I have a vote.

And my vote will never go to anyone who schemes to shred the fabric of our tribe into rags, who plays us against each other for profit. My vote will never benefit one bent toward war or its relative, greed. I would love to say that my vote might go to a Republican, and maybe some day that will happen, but today is not that day.