Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Phallically Burdened

Well goodness gracious, it hardly seems possible that it's been such a big secret all this time that women (A) are frequently devalued and harassed and worse and (B) don't like it, but evidently that's the latest news. Like, we've had five thousand years of recorded history and it's just coming up now.

I don't know why, to take a common yet current example, a man would grab a woman and jam his tongue into her face. I do know that it always comes as a shock--you don't see it coming. And that it's not trivial. It's gross as hell. It feels like you're being probed by an alien, but not in a good way.

Some of us are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore, and others of us have a more nuanced reaction. The really angry, take-no-prisoners women tend to skew younger, in my observation. Some of us elders perhaps have more expectation that things will change. We're having a moment here, and things are going to be different. We base this on having had more decades of seeing things actually change. The degree to which women used to be considered a decorative, inferior form of human can hardly be imagined now. It used to be a staple of comedy that "girls" were to be chased around the boss's desk, or sit around home waiting to be comforted when their cakes fell flat. Our concerns were trivial, and our reactions childlike. We were lesser beings. We were inconsequential.

When I was a kid, I accumulated some forty-plus stuffed animals and every one of them was a male, except for rubber-faced Mrs. Teddybear, who was a hand-me-down. She wasn't interesting. The rest had jobs and hobbies and personalities. Almost none of my classmates' moms worked outside the home. We grew up to be "Women's Libbers." That was a pejorative, but it did get us out and about, and able to have our very own checking accounts, even if we were still expected to cook the brown rice casseroles for the boys running the revolution.

One reason this old broad gives more leeway to certain miscreants than others is that I remember being a part of it all, doing things that shouldn't have been done, going along with things that used to be considered comedic, playing it for laughs. It's well established that I couldn't enter politics if I wanted to because there's way too much shit in my closet. There's not much (and not many) I haven't done. I've got plenty to be ashamed of, if I were inclined that way and had a memory. And even so, I think I'm an okay person with stuff to offer the world. I think some of the men who have something to atone for are, too. Check for signs of authentic contrition: it exists. We need way more women in positions of power in every field, but males should be allowed to evolve. And I trust they will.

I'm not saying my former complicity with the patriarchy is on a par with the unearned, malignant power of the males who exploited it. I don't suppose much of what I did actually hurt anyone. I probably haven't even broken any hearts, except for that one guy back in '71, and he really wasn't emotionally stable, just between you and me.

So yes, I think things can and will change. I never thought people would stop lighting up cigarettes any damn where they wanted. I never though people would pick up dog poop. Yet the air is fresh and I can go months without having to scrape my shoes against the curb.

Many men are now worried that "anything" they might do or say will be misinterpreted. But, guys, it's pretty simple. Pretend, as hard as you can, that women are fully your equals, until it starts to feel natural. And be willing to take no for an answer. It's quite easy to know when a line is being crossed. At least, it is for us. We've negotiated and enjoyed years of friendly banter and flirtation and never had any trouble finding that line. We can feel it. We know when someone is looking right through us and not seeing us. We know when we've been discounted. We know when someone is assuming ownership, is prepared to take possession. When we have a situation on our hands.

Let's get it all out there and put men on notice their secrets are no longer safe with us, and things will change. They will. It's happened before. But let's remember there are degrees of offense. A humiliating or dismissive ass-pat isn't as bad as a forcible kiss. Which is not as bad as rape. Which is not as bad as murder. Which is not as bad as war.

Which is not as bad as plundering a sweet planet and extinguishing its life-forms and enslaving its humans in order to shovel ever more treasure into a few, fat pockets. Focus, people, focus.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Angels And Pinheads

I took some philosophy courses in college. They were fun. There you are, just you and your noodle, batting stuff around. I doubt I'd do as well in philosophy now. My ability to concentrate took off for the corner store years ago and hasn't come back. Ask me how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and I'll start batting away, but my racket's come unstrung.

It's likely that wasn't meant to be a serious question anyway. These days it's used to make fun of people wasting time on ridiculously trivial points when there are more important things to think about. Like debating who is the ickiest Democrat of them all when the Republicans are busy burning up the entire planet. But in medieval times some people really did wonder about that angel thing. It was a way of considering the nature of angels, and whether they occupied any space at all. There is some consensus that they do not have a physical nature even though there are all those paintings suggesting otherwise. And that they're mostly men and chubby babies. What they are instead, it is said, are pure intelligences, and as such any number of them might be able to share a pinhead.

Which is a little silly. Let's face it: intelligences are not all equal. Some are stronger than others. Why, some intelligences could knock other intelligences right off the pin and take their lunch money. So I would posit that not all the available angels are going to dance on the same pin.

Moreover, I don't think any of them do. If there were angels on my pins, my sewing would go smoother. This, of course, assumes that any given angel would have some interest in how my quilts turn out, and it's entirely likely that they aren't giving it any thought at all. In general, I don't look to angels for comfort or advice. I can see how somebody might, but I'm too much of an introvert. You can wish for heavenly guidance all day long, but at some point you're going to have to do the dishes yourself.

So I haven't spent too much time on the angel density issue. I'm more interested in how many maggots can dance on the eyeball of a deceased rodent. This is of immediate importance to me, because we had a monster hatch of flies here last week. One day, no flies; next day, bazillion flies. Right now there are flies every the hell where around here. There's some evidence they came up from the basement. We didn't smell anything, but there might be a dead mouse behind the walls where we can't see it, and it got some flies all sexed up. With any luck, all the resulting maggots started life at the same time and will also drop dead around the same time. We've been hurrying up that process, but we're getting Swatter's Elbow. So that's why I'd like to know how many critters we're dealing with. Because I'm assuming this is all one litter.

The adult fly, it says here, lives for about 28 days, or as long as a standard uterine lining. We should see a significant decline in a month, then, assuming they don't get busy again. I can handle a month.

The angels don't creep me out as much, even though, according to the literature, they demonstrate some serious stalkerish qualities. They can get up on that pinhead and dance all they want, and I won't object no matter how many of them there are. I figure one good Flying Spaghetti Monster could cream the whole crew.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seeing C.K.

Ah, man, I can't stay mad at Louis C.K.

I know I'm supposed to. There are rules. And currently the rule is anyone who does anything creepy to an unwilling woman or girl is off the planet. We are so done with that. Out goes the bathwater: screw the baby. "He was one of my heroes," people say, "but now he's dead to me."

He's not dead to me. He is brilliant and funny, my two favorite things. This is a man who managed to express my precise opinion on abortion, hilariously. That shouldn't even be possible. I like him a whole lot and that hasn't changed. I'm not suggesting other people should feel the same way. You should feel what you feel.

Actually, my transgression is even worse. I didn't even get mad at Louis C.K. I was just like, aww, dude.

I've had my own stories of contending with bad or worse male behavior. But I do not maintain a reservoir of rage that must be kept on boil. I know people who can steam for days over a perceived slight from a store clerk. I'm luckier: there's nothing that has ever been done to me that I haven't quickly either forgotten or forgiven. I'm not proud of this, because I didn't have to work at it. It's as natural to me as my eye color.

People can't understand how someone they admire can have this awful dark side. It doesn't make sense to them. But humans don't necessarily make sense. Humans are complicated. They're big bulgy bags of contradictions: they're full of heart and full of shit both; they're a cluster bomb of bon-bons and thumbtacks and honey and bullets. There may be no way to reconcile the contradictions, but it is thumpingly obvious they exist. And they're not rare.

Most of us have things we're ashamed of, that we won't tell anybody. It's the human condition, but it does seem like you're in for a harder haul of it if you own a penis. Them little buggers is opinionated. And there aren't too many guys who aren't going to give those opinions some weight.  "I don't know," they'll say to their penises. "That seems wrong. Still, you make a good point."

Sheep. Knotholes. The neighbor's wife. Or daughter. Guaranteed there's more than one man in this world who is in love with his sofa, and its soft vinyl buttons. Or your sofa. There's a load of shame out there. Maybe someone will just be a garden-variety adulterer. Maybe he'll go to his grave knowing he was as good as he could be, but wishing he'd scrubbed his browser history first.

And yes, I know that there is a difference between having urges and acting on them, and between acting on them appropriately and foisting them on others. There's also a difference in the effect a person might have on others. In identical scenarios, one victim might be scarred for life, and another not even consider herself a victim. There's a huge range of misbehaviors and reactions to those misbehaviors.

We once had a mayor and governor who arguably did more than any other person to make Portland what it is; he was smart, powerful, a visionary. We were poised to be another sprawling, car-centric metropolis, but instead we are now a tidy, contained bundle of vibrant neighborhoods, and a crucible of creativity. We will always be in this man's debt. But he groomed a 14-year-old girl for sex, kept it quiet for decades, and was never brought to justice. Now this man cannot even show his face in this town. Doesn't matter what else he did.

The patriarchy hurts men, also.

I don't condone any of this shit. But I don't write people off readily. Maybe it's easier to see things in black and white, but I can't do it. I'm going to draw a distinction between a congressman who sends dick pics and disgraces himself, and a president who boasts of overpowering women he does not even consider fully human. I'm willing to ignore a senator who plays footsie in the bathroom stall to negotiate sex with strangers--unless he has made a point of pushing anti-gay legislation. I understand the malignant role of power when a movie mogul forces himself on starlets; I'm less persuaded that Louis C.K. was in a similar position of power, although that case has been made. Louis C.K. has a personal problem that he made someone else's problem, but he was his own worst victim: he humiliated himself. By his own hand. As it were.

How can a man as brilliant as he is also be a portly old wanker? Well, he is. And that doesn't erase the good.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Boarders

That first year in this house, although I had swept up plenty of tiny little dropped hints, I didn't lay my eyes on an actual working mouse for several months. I was on the phone with my friend Katie at the time, and I saw it zipping by in the kitchen, and, if memory serves, I yelled EEK and pulled my feet up on the sofa like a girl. She talked me down and stayed on the phone until  I had walked into the kitchen and looked around, because she suspected otherwise I'd be stuck on the sofa all night with a bladder full of beer, which was true. Even then I was more comfortable with invisible mice than audacious ones.

Which makes no sense. If there is such a thing as collective memory in a species, there should have been no mice anywhere near me. I had recently spent two years of my life dispatching lab mice in violent ways, and even though those days were over, any alert mouse should have gotten a creepy feeling as though there were little white mouse heads on toothpick pikes all around the perimeter. That image should have been wired right into their brains. And I've seen their brains. Lots of them. So there's no reason I should be afraid of a mouse. It should work the other way. It's all context, I suppose. Plastic boxes of biddable mice in a lab are one thing, and a single mouse with an agenda in my kitchen is quite another.

They still startle me, but I got used to them. We don't get all that many. And we've had a cat for almost thirty years.  Not the same cat. Larry was very interested in chasing mice. I don't know if her eyes were that good. She'd track one down, and it would skeeter out from under her and head for the hinterlands, but she could not be peeled away from where she'd seen it last. I'd get exasperated to the point of picking her up and lobbing her at the specific hinterland I knew the mouse had gone to but she'd snap right back to her legacy location. Basically, Larry was always going to be the last kid picked for the mousing team.

Tater is more businesslike. She's caught a few of them, and, unlike Larry, she renders them inoperable right away. She's a Git-R-Done kind of cat. The other night we found a gigantic mouse stiff on its back in the basement. Saints be praised, Tater is apparently not the type to drop prizes on the bedcovers.

We haven't gotten enough mice to keep her entertained, over the years. But this year might be different. Just as soon as it gets dark out, things start scurrying. There are ominous scratching noises behind the wallboard. There's thumping. Someone has set up a bowling alley in the basement rafters. There's a party going on in the crawl space and another on the roof. They couldn't make more noise with a vuvuzela. Skittering is one thing: I have no desire to know what's making all this racket.

And that was before something moved into the attic above the kitchen. Whatever it is, it's big. And gallopy. I snuck a peek through the access door, but slammed it shut again as soon as I saw the disco ball. The furniture has been shoved aside for a Twister mat. I hear pinball. Back when I was feeling more optimistic, I thought it was a squirrel. Then a bunch of squirrels. Or rats. Or some major rodent. Or a raccoon, which isn't even a rodent at all, but an animal so untrustworthy no other mammal wants to share a genus with it. But even raccoons aren't capable of hauling in a billiards table and getting it leveled. This sucker is loud. This sucker is huge.  I did an internet search. Biggest rodent. I think it's a capybara. There's a capybara in our attic.

I don't know how a capybara managed to squeeze into our attic. But when you think about it, squeezing into our attic is no big feat for an animal that walked all the way over here from South America during fire season. And I have no plans to get the ladder and flashlight again and have a look.

As always, invisible works for me.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How To Hide A 3,000-Pound Pineapple

See, if I did happen upon a nodosaur, which looks like a 3,000-pound tailed cockroach with spiky armor, it might not occur to me that it would benefit from any sort of camouflage. Modern enormous animals such as the somewhat smaller rhinoceros just stand around all big and gray and obvious because nothing is really likely to take them down, and they know it. (They've missed the bet with modern humans, but it's too late to come up with a new plan now.)

But studies suggest that the nodosaur did use protective coloration, which is an extremely neat possible fact that scientists have only just maybe discovered.  (There is disagreement among paleontologists, and until there is more of a consensus, or until the nodosaur becomes the focus of a new religion, we shall not employ terms of certainty.) Specifically, it is thought that at least one particular nodosaur--Borealopelta markmitchelli, named for the very excited fellow who spent seven years preparing its fossil with tweezers and a gnat's paintbrush--employed a camouflage strategy called "countershading," in which the top of the animal is darker than the bottom, or belly. Modern examples include the deer.

There are a few currently operating mammals that use the exact opposite of countershading--light on top and dark underneath--to signal to the world that they, personally, do not give a shit, and are thus dangerous and unpredictable (skunk; honey badger). But countershading is more popular in readily-edible animals.

Presumably countershading makes the deer, say, harder to make out in the landscape. Its shape is altered, for one thing. "Oh look," your mountain lion might say, "there's the top half of a deer floating through the woods. Crumb! I prefer belly meat. I suppose I shall let it go." Nevertheless deer are routinely caught and eaten, which might happen if light conditions illuminate the belly side instead, and conceal the top part with all the scary pointy bits on it.

Try to spot the deer.
No, no, no, that's not how countershading works. Ha ha! What's really happening can be illustrated with a plain beach ball or a particularly round deer. The object throws shade on itself so that the lower half of it looks darker than the top half.  If the lower half  is lighter in color, the natural shading will make it look more uniform and two-dimensional and thus harder to see.

"That looks almost like a nice, chewy nodosaur," an ancient theropod might say.

"Except it looks like just a cartoon of a nodosaur," the ancient theropod's buddy might say back. Both carnivores watch the landscape for a while, the ancient breezes riffling through the feathers on their tiny forearms.

"Wait just a minute," Theropod One says. "There's no such thing as a cartoon yet!" And the pouncing begins.

This tells us a few things. One: if an armored pineapple the size of a rhinoceros needed protective coloration, there were some seriously bad-ass predators in the Cretaceous (about which there is, indeed, some consensus). Two: scientists are marvelous.  The presumed coloration of Mark Mitchell's dinosaur was posited by teasing out a chemical signature of the breakdown of a reddish pigment from 100,000,000-year-old fossilized skin. These days, your average middle-aged woman can't go a week without her roots showing.

Another possibility, of course, is that there was some bad-ass vegetation in  the Cretaceous that needed sneaking up on. They've still got the stomach of Borealopelta intact, with its last meal inside. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

This Is About A Box Of Dicks

Picture a big ol' box of dicks. They're wriggling around, they're eating oats. Something about that image just sticks with you. It's hard to stop thinking about it, especially if you have ever admired a worm bin. It's jolly.

It may not strictly be a real thing. In fact, there is some talk that it is more like a bird's nest of dicks, and not a box at all.

But this is the very image brought to us courtesy of a Heinrich Kramer--"Heinie" to his friends--who presented it in his 1487 opus, Malleus Maleficarum. In this book he lays out the case against witches along with advice on how to spot them and try them and burn them to a crisp. He was also the chief proponent of the idea that witches were mainly women, who were disproportionately drawn to the Devil due to their insatiable lust. At least, one assumes he was not able to satisfy them.

Women do seem to get a bad rap in certain circles that usually do not contain women. There is a very good reason for this, and it is that women have a way of making men feel funny in the tummy, but then they can't always be counted on to do anything about it, and that ticks the men off. Women shouldn't be able to just go around willy-nilly bewitching people into feeling things they can't control. 'Specially the real purty ones, amiright, Heinie?

Mr. Kramer was a Catholic clergyman with a particular interest in witches and he wrote his book shortly after he had to leave Innsbruck. He had been accused of inappropriate behavior; also, during a tribunal, he displayed such lurid and obsessive interest in the sexual habits of a female on trial that he even creeped out the bishop, who thought he was crazy and expelled him from the city.

One would think that would be that, but there's a lot of evidence that being crazy is not an impediment to political success, especially if you're really sure of yourself. Kramer soon received explicit approval from the pope via some Bull to continue to prosecute witches and then he wrote his book and went all in. About that box of penises: apparently, men kept discovering their penises missing, or much reduced, or inoperable, and the obvious conclusion was that witches had taken them and boxed them up, twenty or thirty at a whack, sometimes placing them high in a tree. One unfortunate fellow was said to have consulted a witch about his missing member and was told to climb a tree containing a nest of penises and pick out any one he wanted, but it didn't work out for him. He picked one of the larger ones, as one does, but he couldn't have it because it belonged to a parish priest.

This is a compelling story: great hook, strong arc, leaves the reader hanging on every word. But what evidence did Mr. Kramer present that it is true? Well. First he discredited his critics. Then, according to his manuscript, he declared: "This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk." Good enough! Sales went through the roof for the next 200 years. Only the Bible sold better.

Something about this penis story sounds awfully familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. Oh wait.

"You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there," someone said recently, in response to a question about Obama being a Muslim and setting up Muslim training camps. It's not much of an answer, so in all likelihood it didn't resonate with anybody, and Muslims should have no fear of persecution, any more than women should fear being tried and executed for witchcraft. Some forty to fifty thousand were, right up through the 18th century, but that was then. People used to be stupid. Nothing like that could happen now.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Oh What An Untangled Web

So there I was minding my own business when someone mentioned that orb-weaving spiders made up their webs fresh every day. Like everyone knows that. Like, it's certainly the kind of thing a person who tries to pay attention would know. Especially if she were an attention-paying person whose father photographed spiders for fun and who has an actual degree in biology. "You mean they suck their whole web back up their butts and start over every day?" I asked, betraying myself.

"Pretty much," came the answer. Well!

I had no idea. In retrospect, I think I know where I went wrong. I never wake up early enough to notice what my spiders are doing. Also? I can go weeks without making the bed. I've fixed skirt hems with Scotch tape. If I went to the trouble of crocheting something as magnificent as a web out of my own butt, I'd let it go as long as I could. Throw on a patch as needed, and call it a day.

But orb weavers are better citizens than me in that respect. It turns out to be true: spiderwebs have existed for more than a hundred million years, but most last only a day. The spiders do not suck them back up their butts: they eat them, and start fresh, usually in the evening. It's probably a sensible thing to do, evolutionarily speaking, since they count on their webs for snagging the groceries, but who knows how it got started? Could be some of them just got peckish of an evening, and ate their webs, and then they were all dammit and they had to start over, and those are the ones who were most successful and got their genes passed down. Score one for gluttony.

Speaking of gene-passing, male spiders are probably the most libidinous creatures on earth. They'd have to be, since they survive courtship only 20% of the time, and if they try for a twofer, they're done for. The longer the male remains mounted, the deader he's going to be. He might get away with a five-second job, but if he hangs on ten seconds, the female is going to eat him, and not in a good way. So that extra five seconds must really be something. It's not too bad for the female either. Her suitor might use a special silk strand that vibrates in such a way as to entice her--that would totally work on me, too--and also he brings dinner. In the form of himself.

Almost all spiders have eight eyes, set up in various ways and pointing in various directions, which is helpful for keeping the kids in line, in those species that watch out for their kids. Most don't, on account of being dead at the time, like Charlotte. You will recall that Charlotte's kids all parachuted away from Wilbur the pig, except for three, and that is indeed what happens in many species. First thing an itty bitty baby spider does is stick its butt in the air, and if there's any breeze at all, it tugs silk out of the spider. I imagine that feels kind of nice. And once the strand of silk is long enough, it takes off on the breeze and carries the spider away, because it is so very tiny and lightweight. It's a nice start to life.

But other spiders do tend to the chilluns, like the wolf spider. The wolf spider will carry her egg sac around on her spinneret, holding her rear end up in the air so as not to drag it in the dust, and then when the eggs hatch, a thousand teeny tiny spiders climb up her legs and pile up on her abdomen, and it doesn't creep her out at all, so don't you complain.

Because I felt remorse over not having known about the daily web construction, I recently observed a spider right outside our window, and discovered all on my own that she achieves such perfection in her web by measuring it out with her own foot. She grabs a previous portion of the web with a foot while dabbing her butt on the radius to attach the strand, so it's always exactly the same distance away. I discovered this my own self, although, as it turns out, this is not information new to science. I can't help that.