Saturday, October 17, 2020

Evolving


There are lots of things no one has quite figured out about evolution. Is it gradual, or not? Why is there a relative lack of intermediate forms in the fossil record? Some species is happily cavorting or barking or ruminating away and then it's gone, and evidence of a later form pokes out of the stone, something smaller or pointier or more burrowy. What happened in between? I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who observed a caterpillar that looks like bird poop and wondered how that particular adaptation gradually evolved: sure, it keeps predators from wanting to eat it, but where is the percentage in looking just a little bit like a turd?

It was Gould and friends who postulated something he called "punctuated equilibrium," in which a species could be expected to remain pretty much the same for a very long time, and only an abrupt change in environment or circumstance would cause the various mutations rumbling away in the margins of the population to surge. Dog-sized critters didn't gradually inch up into horses. In this scenario, mutations are happening all along, but in a large population well-adapted to its environment, those little accidental genetic ideas are overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of standard-issue traits. One creature might show up with an adorable little horn between her ears and say "Look! I can drill holes with this thing!" and everyone else is all Yeah, that's just weird. And that's it for the horn until something happens in the environment that makes hole-drilling really handy.

It's suggested that these little developments lead to species changes only in the edges of the population, where a group might break off from the main herd and get isolated geographically, and at that point some of those accidental ideas get more of a hearing. Things could then change in a hurry, in a matter of generations. And if the diverging population meets up with the original species again, they don't even recognize each other anymore. "Ew, horns," they hear. "Gross."

"Yeah? Drill you," they say back.

Some events are more consequential than others. You get a lot of tectonic mayhem happening and all of a sudden you've got the isthmus of Panama, and everything changes. Marine species discover themselves in separate oceans. Llamas move into South America. Porcupines pass them going north. Warm Caribbean waters can't play with the Pacific anymore and now there's a serviceable Gulf Stream gyre affecting things in Northern Europe. It's a big deal.

That's what I think happens in politics, too. Things don't change too much and then there's a big event, or a series of them, and minds change, and things that weren't possible before are suddenly inevitable. Gay people are persecuted and killed in one decade, fighting unsuccessfully for basic civil rights in the next, daring to demand the right to marry in the one after that; it's too soon, they're told; it's too much; some county allows marriage on a Wednesday and yanks back the licenses by Friday. But the push is on. And more and more people are willing to come out to their family and friends. And they talk to other people. It's a cascade of truth. And all of a sudden gay marriage is legal. "Ew, horns," some people still say, but nobody reallly cares what those people think anymore.

We are now in a very unusual time. A formerly well-regarded nation can't keep its people healthy, or housed, or even fed, and we're on a fast track toward an unlivable planet, yet nothing seems to change. Billionaires are still isolated in their own country called Money and we're caught in the same gyre of power and greed that has dominated the world for centuries. On the edges of the population, ideas emerge: the rise of the commons, the rejection of racism, the deliberate restructuring of a world economy toward a just and sustainable future. The ideas are shouted down. Too radical. Too soon.

But a global pandemic reveals the fault lines in the system. Hurricanes and fire and drought lay their fingers on ever more people. Women speak up about their mistreatment at the hands of men and are heard. Cell phone video reveals how much Black lives still don't matter, and citizens finally listen, and learn, and march, and keep marching. Facing disasters all around, Americans begin to imagine life with adequate health care, with livable wages, with compassion toward each other and the stranger.

The ground is quaking. We're poised to tumble toward a more sustainable existence. It's a Panama moment.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Right Rock

 


I'm making rock walls again.

I've made a bunch already: rock-lined gravel paths meander through the garden. We're all about basalt here. I mean, half of Oregon is basalt from repeated lava flows so massive they shoved the Columbia River all the way up to Astoria even before Astoria had been properly invented. We've got shit-tons of basalt.

And it makes good walls. So I started looking for nice chunks of basalt lying around on the side of the road and Dave got used to me slamming on the brakes and hopping out to toss rocks into the back of my car. At least he was decent about it. Not sure he got used to it. Because at some point he just called up a gravel quarry and asked if we could pop in there and toss rocks into our pickup truck. (Dave, famously, likes to "knock a job out," whereas I am a fiddle-farter.) Doggone if the quarry operator, who had never had such a request, thought maybe we could, and we drove up there and checked in and he sent us to a remote portion of the property and we started lobbing in as much basalt as we thought we could safely drive home. The quarry operator looked at our haul and said, Hmm, how about ten bucks, does that sound fair? And we thought it did, and in fact we came back at least three more times, because I really, really like rock paths. At some point the quarry guy must have heard from a lawyer or something because he turned the spigot off, but at that point I was pretty much done.


It takes a while to put a nice rock-lined path together, particularly if you aren't shaping the rocks in any way, and aren't real strong, and have standards. You sit on your haunches and pick out one rock after another and turn it every which way until you find one that fits just right. The right one goes in chonk and it makes you so very happy. I do not know why I enjoy this so much but some part of my brain was set up to be a teeny tiny mason. I like to see things go chonk.

It feels a lot like writing, for me. I can toss off a sentence with the rest of them but I'm always revisiting it and trying out different verbs and turning them this way and that until something goes chonk.

    "Soon, all over town, we were seeing the improbable new style phenomenon called the muffin-top." Nope.

My rock walls aren't professional-looking,but they're still pleasing to the eye, and so satisfying to build that I don't care how long they take. They're not built to be walked on, but try telling a four-year-old that. Especially the first ones I made, when I'd put in a rock with no solid base at all because it fit so well with the next one over, and I'd back-fill it with dirt and strategic pebbles and hope it wouldn't pop out, but of course it eventually did. Later I worked harder at using good solid rocks with a fat base and those have stayed put better. 

    "Soon, all over town, people were perching size-eighteen buttocks on top of size-twelve jeans like their pants were an ass pedestal." Nope.

This spring I decided to cut in a new path. It's going all right. But it's a lot harder because the rocks I have left over are all the rocks that didn't work out the first time. They don't have good flat facets, or the shape is wrong, or there are too many roundy bits, or things stick out. It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together when pieces are missing and a third of them were swapped out for Parcheesi pawns. Or like having an old brain that won't supply the right word when you need it. But I've got time. I intend to prevail, however long it takes.

    "Soon, great rolling cumulonimbus mounds of flesh were thundering out of pants all over town."

Chonk.


Saturday, October 10, 2020

A Few Neurons Shy Of A Clue

 


It's not easy for a young person to fully appreciate short-term memory loss. I know because I still have a dim recollection of being a young person.

I remember being really good at Concentration, where you place cards face down and match them into pairs. Used to beat my own mom at that, even as a preschooler, and that makes a kid feel neat. It is exactly the same skill required to be a stellar mail carrier. I could walk up to an unfamiliar sorting case and within an hour I had all the slots memorized. I could make that case my bitch.

Every now and then we'd get a new hire. Some old guy: like, in his fifties even. They'd be so slow. It was hard to watch. They'd stand there with a letter pointed at the case and not move. We used to call it the "Postal Wax Museum." Poor old man! Kind of stupid, I guessed.

So here is a helpful visual depiction of Short-Term Memory Loss. Note the lump on the forehead. This was from taking a small item of trash to the trash can. In order to reach the trash can I have to duck under a vine maple branch. The depositing of the trash takes no more than two seconds, then I turn around and walk back. BAM.

Two seconds is too long to remember to duck under what you just ducked under two seconds ago. 

Short-term memory loss is the real reason we lather, rinse, and repeat. It's why the ends of our sentences go missing. It's why we end up walking into a room and standing there for no reason. It's why we don't interrupt people in conversation as much as we used to. You thought we'd just gotten more considerate? Hell no. Our clever rejoinder sailed away.

Short-term memory loss is why you make an eggplant parmesan and when you're all done eating it you find a big pile of parmesan on the counter. All grated and ready to go.

It's why it seems like I'm looking right through you. I'm searching for a word, and your head is in the way.

Short-term memory loss, to take an example from someone so close to me she may in fact be me, is why you walk a half mile to the grocery store, bag up your produce, and discover you have left your money at home, walk back home, go inside, have to pee, pee, and return to the store, and still don't have your money.

It's complicated. I can recite my library card number, which has eighteen digits. But that's only because I always forget to bring my library card.

Short-term memory loss is why I still don't know the name of our neighbor but he's known mine for twenty years and I can't ask now, but I do remember it's one of an old duo's names, either Chad or Jeremy, or Jan or Dean, Hall, Oates, or possibly Starsky.

If I haven't called you by name in twenty years, be kind. Figure out a way to work it into a conversation. Say "I cannot believe that I, Chad, of all people, lost my keys again!" In fact that one will earn you double points.

You think we've gone stupid, but it's just short-term memory loss.

Although I will be damned if I can tell the difference.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Soul, Man



There are things everyone says, so they're assumed to be true.

This is why I keep some things to myself.

Don't speak ill of the dead. Don't wish ill on the living.

That whole notion--that all human life is precious, that our souls make us something special--has never made sense. Perhaps all people are precious to God, but they're not to me. If Beethoven had a soul, it's worth more than Donald Trump's. There are people I will mourn and other people I won't miss at all.

I'm not sure what a soul is. It seems like something you invent to get out of dying. If I do have a soul, I'm quite certain my chickadee Studley does too. In any case, every one of us will die. Our souls will survive us, or they will fade back into fiction.

So I don't, mostly, wish ill on a living person. At least out loud. COVID-19 is purely awful. And I wouldn't, as the mandatory sentiment would have it, wish it on anyone.

But if I did, bingo, he would totally be the guy. I hope he recovers. And lives long enough to go to prison.

Why? Not because I enjoy imagining someone suffering. I don't. I'm at least that much of a liberal. But this man has been jaw-droppingly careless with other people's lives. People of color, immigrants, peaceful protestors, and, in the face of a pandemic, every still-breathing American. 

And now, for him, finally, the shit got real.

It got real for someone who doesn't believe anything is real and has duped half the population with his whims and fantasies and play-acting and ever-flowing fountain of bullshit. I can celebrate that. I do.

Because it's not just a pandemic. We're also well on the way to destroying our planet as a livable habitat for us and most of our fellow travelers. We know exactly how we got here, we know what to do about it--but criminally greedy souls are pretending we don't, and are blithely sacrificing their children. And yours. And Studley's children too. They are willing to risk it all, for a little bit of money. It makes no difference if half the people are willing to swallow their lies whole and ask for seconds. It doesn't make it less real. Shit needs to get real. If it takes a dead man to do it, I'm good with that.

I do not particularly believe that human life is sacred, or at least any more sacred than other life. But tonight, I was thinking about our souls and our pretense to immortality, and I put on a recording of Beethoven's Ninth, second movement. I cranked it way up. I lost my breath.

The top of my head tingled and dissolved and lifted off until it soared with the angels I don't believe in. It was as real as anything I know.


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Up For Nomination


 

I'm looking at a full-page ad here for Primal Max Red, the latest and greatest entry in the swelling male sexual performance market. Says here there have been over 200,000 studies of the enhancer, and that dude says it totally works. PMR results in a quicker, stronger, and longer-lasting "performance."

Performance! It puts me in mind of a puppet show, with the star in question popping up on the stage! Boy howdy! A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants! Let's call it seltzer.

The new pill is a combination of nutrients and nitric oxide, and unlike the famous blue pill's 5,000 mg of product, PMR contains "a bigger 9,000 mg dose." With the increased girth of the improved dose, researchers report a whopping 275% boost in blood flow in five minutes. Customers interviewed after regaining consciousness are enthusiastic. Side effects include light bruising of the torso.

 
 

Nitric oxide is the key to all this. Nitric oxide is what got the balls rolling and no one seems to care that its formula is "NO." According to the ad, nitric oxide won the Nobel Prize in 1998. That's the first time a molecule or atom bagged the big one since radium, which was awarded the prize in 1911 because otherwise it would have had to go to a girl.

Winning the Nobel Prize is a big deal and our little molecule should be proud. It's a much bigger deal than merely being nominated, as Donald Trump was earlier this year.

He's eligible because being nominated automatically proves your eligibility, and a ton of people are allowed to nominate, including politicians, cabinet members from an Earth nation, university professors, associate professors, adjunct professors, unpaid interns, and janitorial staff; members of l'Institut du Droit International, or members of the court of The Hague, or Barack Obama--he can nominate too. He didn't nominate Trump though. That honor accrued to a lutefisk-white fellow named Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who has been stinking up the Norwegian parliament for fifteen years. Christian loathes immigrants, idolizes Vladimir Putin, and believes climate change is a hoax--that the Arctic ice just melts every now and then because God loves us and wants us to have more oil. He was unavailable for comment as he was off to the North Sea to get photos of himself stabbing a whale with his shirt off.

There have been 318 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize this year alone. Trump also shares the honor with Adolf Hitler and Stalin (twice). It is considered unlikely that he will in fact win the prize, although he can take heart in the fact that Woodrow Wilson scored it in 1920. Mr. Wilson was fêted for getting the League of Nations started, but he is also renowned for significantly reducing friction between the races by keeping them the hell apart. He re-instituted segregation in government agencies, which had up till that point been appointing Black statesmen to positions of leadership in unacceptable numbers. He also innovated Regular and Colored toilets in federal buildings. White workers, he explained, felt very strongly about toilet-seat contamination by Negro and this was a way to bring peace to the work force. When Black leader Monroe Trotter brought a delegation to the White House to whine, for some goddam reason, Wilson, complaining bitterly about his tone, had him removed. Wilson, furthermore, was a pioneer in introducing the concept of achieving peace between racial groups by favoring one and incarcerating the other. He was ahead of his time.

For his part, Trump tweeted that if Anyone should get a Piece Prize it should be him, and he has been up for it for Years, thanks to a friendly fascist from Norway, and probably nitric oxide. 

This post was written before the announcement of Donald Trump's miracle encounter with the hoax virus, but I couldn't think of any reason not to publish it anyway.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Let's Web The Place Up!

 


It's almost October, and it's time to appreciate spiders again! As most people are aware, spiders are not insects, and at this time of year are more accurately members of the Piñata family. Your average female autumn spider can be recognized by her resemblance to an ottoman or small cargo plane. People seem to be quite upset at the size of spiders this time of year and yet those same people are not at all happy about encountering hundreds of tiny spiders in the springtime either. You really can't please some people.

The reason spiders are so husky now is that they are completely packed with the bugs everyone was complaining about earlier, only in a permanently disabled condition. Generally speaking your tubbier arachnids stay outside but every so often they will enter the homes of very loud people.

The trouble with looking up information on things like spiders is that the first two pages of links are from pest-control companies. This is not the place to get reliable information, and even the reliable information on these sites will often concede there is no real problem with spiders, but offer you twelve noxious ways to send them to heaven anyway. "There are 35,000 species of spiders and only a few of them bite," one will say, knowing that the casual reader has already blacked out at "35,000."

 

I had no more confidence in the chatty report in the newspaper that began "If you feel like you're running into spiders everywhere right now, you probably are." This is sort of unhelpful unless it is important for the reader to immediately determine if they suffer from delusional parasitosis. Presumably such a person will be relieved to discover they've most likely had actual spiders crawling over them.

The sensation of imaginary bugs and spiders crawling on or under the skin is called formication, but it's not as much fun as it sounds. Formica is from the Latin for cheap countertops, and among the many possible explanations for the feeling of formication is, it says here, menopause. Fuck of course, menopause. Why not? It's just God's way of distracting you from feeling fat, dried-up, and periodically on fire.

So it's something like Morgellon's disease, in which patients suffer from the conviction there are itchy fibers growing in their skin, even though there aren't. But suffer they do; it resembles the civic psychosis derived from consuming too many conspiracy theories. The stuff you're afraid of isn't real, but by God you're gonna strap on an AR-15 and go out and menace somebody anyway.

Back to our spider friends. Spiders may spin small webs early in the season but by fall they are really hitting their stride. The autumn spider has a remarkable way of getting a web started. She will shoot silk out her butt vicinity and let it spin out and ripple in the breeze until it catches onto something. Then she pulls it taut and anchors it and strengthens it and before long she's in the web business. Those of us feeling paralyzed over the daily horrors in the news should take heart and adopt the simple faith of the autumn spider. When you don't know where to turn, or what to do, shoot something out your butt and keep hope alive. It will land somewhere, and then you just strap in and hold on. Build your web. All your friends will be doing it too. And bit by bit we'll have the whole place covered.

Then we can really start scaring some people.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

My Mouth Is An Anarchist Jurisdiction


 

I've got crooked teeth. There's not enough room in my face for them all, even though my face isn't all that large on the inside. It's a regular game of musical chairs in there and has been for years. My second molar got the last seat. My lower canines have barked my incisors sideways. There's been a stampede for the exits. The bicuspids are overtaking the skinny ones in the front.

My molars mostly match up if I ask them to, but I could slide a small woodland creature through the front with my teeth clenched and not even rumple its fur. We've got a situation.

So it occurred to me the other day that as long as I was going to have to have this unsightliness I might as well find something to blame it on, and I decided to accuse my British heritage. According to the DNA wizards I'm about half British. And everybody knows British people have crooked teeth. And obviously the 4% of me that runs Neanderthal didn't come to the fore in the tooth department, and while we're at it, it didn't do much for my eyebrows either.

But the internet said the British thing wasn't so. In fact--and there were several scientific articles that agreed on this--the crooked teeth can be blamed on modernity. Specifically, it's been a while since we humans did a lot of chewing.

So most modern people have crooked teeth. I don't know what percentage get braces. Those used to be a lot worse. When I was growing up the braces looked like something you'd surround a penitentiary with. It doesn't make a lot of sense, species-wise. I mean, why even have an extra molar in the back that they just have to rip out later? You suppose God flang it in there so dentists could buy a boat? The answer is, of course, that it isn't extra. It's supposed to be there. There's supposed to be plenty of room in the jaw. But in most cultures we haven't worked our jaws properly for a thousand years, and if it keeps up we'll just end up with a cat-butt pucker-hole of a mouth and have to suck strained peas through a straw.

People used to really reef on things with their teeth. You've seen the dioramas. Everyone's sitting on their haunches ripping mastodon meat with their faces and crunching on the bones for marrow. Then just for fun they chew on some animal hide until it's pliable enough to make a canoe out of, or at least a nice lanyard. And because they are working those jaws, the bone is strengthened and lengthened. But without that exercise during the growth years, the jawbone never gets to be the proper size. Who knows? If I hadn't grown up on overcooked vegetables and gummable meatloaf, I might have had a real jawline, and my chin wouldn't be embedded in my neck like the button in an overstuffed chair.

So cooking is one of the big culprits. And my mom, a 1950s housewife with a Norwegian heritage to boot, never served us anything that was a challenge to chew. Tuna hot dish. Jell-O salad with tiny marshmallows. The only thing that gave me a chance was Bonomo Turkish Taffy. You get hold of one of those bad boys with your teeth, and you had to pull down and sideways on it with both of your little hands to torque off a piece. Then chew and chew. Hours later you were still sucking on it where it mortared your teeth together. I should've had the jaw of a Neanderthal.

The eyebrows still would have been a problem, but nobody would notice, if I added the wax lips.