Wednesday, May 24, 2017

If It Walks Like A Duck

Young minds and old minds are not alike. Young people think about how to complete the most tasks in the least amount of time, effortlessly sifting through dozens of technological options, and old people think about taking a nap. Old people grew up in an era when a lot of things were out of their control. They might squawk open the door to the Rambler and head off to meet someone, but with no assurance that the car wouldn't strand them in the boonies under a plume of steam. Or they might make it but the person they were meeting doesn't, and they'll have no way of knowing why. Or they might run out of cash and that's that until the bank opens on Monday. This may sound like a worrisome existence, but in reality it was relaxing. A lot of life was just about saying "Oh well" over and over, or "Huh," or "Don't that beat all."

Which is one of the things I was thinking about when our friend Vivi, who moved to Pittsburgh, mentioned she thought platypuses were really cool. "Maybe the Oregon Zoo has a platypus," I ventured, thinking that would be another plus in the column for her moving back to Portland where she belongs. A local platypus is not usually enough to get someone to box up her dishes and go, but added to a lot of other things it could provide that last little nudge.

Now, how to find out if the Oregon Zoo has a platypus?

Young people have lots of ways. They have Devices and they know how to use them. They could shake that very information out of them without even taking them out of their pockets, probably, just by thinking at them in a hard and pinpointy way. In fact Vivi lives with a disembodied spirit named Alexa whom she is regularly hitting up for stuff. All she has to do is call her by name, because otherwise Alexa thinks you might be talking to the toaster. I don't know how any of this works, but I have no doubt that the answer to the question "Does Portland have a platypus" is readily available in the ether.

But we're old. We don't do "readily." We don't even want to. All we need to do to answer this question is ask ourselves a few others: Is it nice out? Do we have time? And are there neat things to look at outside?

(1) Yes; (2) We have time because we are retired, thanks to the American Labor Movement and the underappreciated sacrifices of thousands in the early part of the last century, and no thanks to the Republicans; and (3) Hell yes, there are neat things to look at outside, because every living thing is looking for sex this time of year. Stamens are waving, wings are flapping, slugs are swinging on slime ropes with their penises out. Woo is being pitched. It's all there for the noticing.

So off we went. We left the house at 10:30 a.m. and walked downtown and thence up the hill to Washington Park where we continued through the forest on a trail and ended up, nine miles later, in line at the ticket counter of the Oregon Zoo, where we planned to take a photo of a platypus if they had one. Dave got to the front of the line and poked his head in. "Do you guys have a platypus?" he asked. "No," the ticket lady answered. "Okay then," he said, and we turned around and walked home again, with a stop for a Reuben and a beer and a detour for ice cream at our friend's new ice cream shop.

That is Platypus Availability Determination, done old-school.



And this is the sort of thing you can get for it. Happy spring!




Saturday, May 20, 2017

And We're All Out Of Sequels

I don't write about the President much. They say this whole business is comedy gold, easy to mine, and it's not even necessary to dig deep. I could just pick nuggets up off the surface. But I can't bring myself to do it. It's not funny, in the same way insomnia and depression aren't funny. The conditions themselves strip away the humor.

My habit is to make fun of ridiculous situations and people using hyperbole. I point out absurdities by inventing scenarios and dialogue that are just that much more ridiculous than reality. But I can't make up anything stupider than what has already been said or done. In fact, I have never known anyone stupider than this president a minority of us has installed in office. There may not be a dimmer soul. He's got ten neurons in his whole head and even if he could get them all firing at once, they'd still never run into each other. Did the president just say Mussolini was a stand-up guy and if he'd just gotten together with Harriet Tubman, who people are starting to notice big time, they could have straightened out that Norman Conquest, who was a total disaster by the way? Not yet? Three a.m. is coming right up.

I don't expect any improvement, any learning-on-the-job. We're not going to light up Wrigley Field by opening up the refrigerator door in the locker room. I'll reserve my venom for the majority pirate party that, in near unanimity, has decided that the problem with America is that the billionaires don't have enough money. They're making us bend over to scramble for nickels, and while we fight each other over them they're picking our pockets. They'll sell out their own grandchildren for profits, and yours too, but hey, yours? They're your responsibility. You feel so strongly about their future, you go buy everyone solar panels and bicycles with the money you save on not having health insurance, you whining freeloaders.

Meanwhile here we all are in the back seat, belted in tight, and the wind is whipping in our hair, we're going faster and faster, and suddenly we look up and realize Thelma and Louise are at the wheel. But it's not Thelma and Louise, not really. They're a whole lot smarter. And they know what they're up to. They're even holding out the possibility of a sequel. Whoever has his foot on the gas now doesn't have a clue. When the ground drops away, he's going to repeal Gravity. It'll be easy. Believe him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

...Or Wherever Your Final Destination May Be Taking You

The downside of traveling, as I see it, is the traveling part, especially if it involves airports. We sampled three different airlines and all of them thanked us for flying with them, as well they might. First up was Frontier Airlines, which was remarkably cheap, unless you want a seat, which is extra. Snacks are extra, and juice is extra, and when you pay for a beer with a credit card, there's a screen in which you are encouraged to tip the flight attendants, who are otherwise complimentary. There's a little coin slot on the arm rest to recline the seat at a dollar an inch for a half hour. Vaseline for your kneecaps is available for purchase, and the safety demo explains which way to swipe your credit card when the oxygen masks come down. For an additional $7.99, they will agree not to hand you the teeny bag of crispy mini wheat pucks. We had a nice flight seated next to a nun in full regalia, who was delighted to discover she'd won a wager with the sisters when she said she'd be able to snag a cup of water for free. Which she did. Could be the crew was just hedging their bets.

Fiji Air was actually our favorite.
Next came Porter Airlines, our favorite, serving a free beer-like product, and depositing us promptly in Billy Bob Airport. This is located on a small island to keep us under surveillance, but someone has dug an escape tunnel, at the end of which you can take an elevator to Toronto. So that's how we encountered Toronto: from underneath, so you could see its underpants. We had been smoothly and expeditiously decanted through customs, preparing us in no way for the return trip.

For that leg, we did arrive 2-1/2 hours early and used every second of it in customs, involving a glacial trudge through a maze with no cheese at the end. The United States doesn't want us back. We keep asking for health care and diplomacy.

Fortunately, this time we were flying United, so the plane was late. It was late, and it was either at gate F66 or F60, depending on whether you believed the departures board or the boarding pass, although nobody at either gate was familiar with our flight. They suggested we check in at Customer Service, which is where you get serviced. Customer Service featured two ticket agents and forty or so customers being processed at the rate of twenty minutes per, so we made friends with our immediate neighbors in line and settled in for the long haul in the hopes one of the ticket agents knew where our plane was. Two hours later we were first in line and discovered we had been rebooked for Portland, arriving at a quarter past never, via Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, on a plane that was in a gate a half mile away and leaving in ten minutes, according to the comedian who updates the departures board. I kicked Dave into high gear and we streaked through the airport down ever-darker hallways knocking down old ladies until we slammed into a dead-end before our gate had shown up. There was a glass door. There was light behind it. I pushed at the door, it resisted, I pushed harder, and the door started shrieking whoop whoop whoop and I spun around and bellowed SHIT! to a polite assemblage of waiting passengers, some of whom might have been Canadian, so I apologize.

"Where's Gate 98?" I asked, in a much reduced voice. The crowd responded kindly. All the gates up to 95 had proceeded in order but the end of the hallway had a little sign--a chalkboard, perhaps--with "96 97 98" scribbled on it. Also, the plane was late. Another hour plodded by, neatly corresponding with the layover time we were supposed to have in D.C., and eventually we boarded the plane, arrived in the nation's capital, picked up our new boarding passes for the following morning, and shuttled off to a Best Western for a nice four hours' sleep five hundred miles farther away from our destination.

Three o'clock came early. Security was a breeze, and we were funneled onto an airplane and bumped along the tarmac in the dark for a bit while the pilot looked for a parking spot. Fifteen minutes later he came on the intercom. Bing. "Folks..." he began.

This is never good.

A butterfly had flapped its wings in the Amazon and grounded air traffic in the Midwest, so the FAA had given them a new flight plan, and it was taking them a while to enter it into the jet's brain, but they'd be on the move shortly.

Bing. Well, folks, the new flight plan added an hour to the flight--neatly corresponding with our layover time in San Francisco--and they didn't  have enough gas, so they were going back to the gate to fuel up.

But folks? The San Francisco flight was miraculously delayed while they retrieved a plastic bag from the engine. We're back! Home! The plane politely stayed in the air until the runway showed up, it's sunny and warm, and we'd stocked the beer fridge before we left. We anticipate Christmas cards from the people in line with us at Customer Service in Toronto. It's a wonderful world.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Friends Tour 2: Toronto

Turns out that even though they talk funny in Pittsburgh, you don't strictly need a passport to travel there. But we were also going to Toronto, which is technically considered a different country, even though it's walking distance. And as a different country, they like to keep track of people like us, who might have recently found ourselves in an amnesty situation. Toronto was phase two of our Friends Tour, in which we examine the surroundings of our friends and try to determine if they're up to snuff.

We were visiting Sara and Kelly, whom we originally met through a reliable internet dating site called Murrmurrs ("World's Finest Commenters"). The air was breezy and cool when we arrived, and a fine mist of health care settled over the city. We immediately felt taken care of, respected, and ready to break a hip with impunity.

Miss Sara loves food. I mean--and I hope I'm not telling tales out of school about the salmon we had Saturday night--sometimes she even rubs it, and God only knows what else she is willing to do with it, but she can do it all day long. She will assemble a committee of tiny crumbled plants and fruit squeezings and speckled powders and whatnot and pack it all onto pork chops like little jackets, so they stay comfortable in the fridge all day. And after all that effort, she'll cook them up and let you eat them. She will.

Basically, I knew I was screwed.

Because I had already spent several days dining out in Pittsburgh, where the cuisine can be considered quite varied as long as that's understood to mean it's all tucked between slices of bread and propped up with a stack of pierogis. And now this. By Day Eight my belly was lying beside me in bed like a new roommate that you basically like, but need to have a little talk with.

Toronto is also a city of discrete neighborhoods of brick houses separated by as many as four inches in places, which makes it seem extra collegial. Many different kinds of people live side by side without the standard rancor we encourage here in the States; everyone has a nice medium-sized fluffy dog and access to a hospital, and that probably has a calming effect.

I was unable to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sara and Kelly were unwilling to make that happen, even though I only wanted a chance to say Hi and shake his. Hand.

But they were willing to do anything else. They both conjured up fine birds seemingly at will, and not just your national geese, neither. Their own small back garden easily out-warblered all of Portland. And then one morning, like it was nothing, they popped us down the road a piece to Niagara Falls, because the Colossus at Rhodes was having its nails done. Niagara Falls! Damn! For a fair piece of money (Canadian, not real) you can purchase the Journey Behind The Falls, in which they stuff you in a garbage sack and send you down a shanghai tunnel, which is exciting.

The next day they promised us a blue whale. I hadn't even realized Niagara Falls was in their back pocket, so I was not about to scoff at a blue whale, even though they're only on a Great Lake. But this one was at the Royal Ontario Museum. Apparently you can't tell the male whales from the females except for the ten-foot penis and 100-pound balls, and this one was rumored to be mounted! Also they had a blue whale heart. That was a little disappointing because I had visualized it LUBB suspended in fluid in its entirety and possibly DUBB wired up, but it turned out to be a plastic model in steak form. The rest of the whale was something else. Even without any clothes on. Plus, there was a vial of whale poop. These people know how to put on an exhibition.

So does Kelly. How often do you get to follow up a nice dinner with a private, live performance of operatic quality from a small soprano in a spangly dress and Birkenstocks, accompanied by her cat Harry in a plaintive alto? I'll tell you. Not often enough. But we did. Get your own friends.

And I would love to share the video with you, but I promised I wouldn't, and I keep my promises mostly except when I don't. Also, I filmed it Portrait instead of Landscape because I keep forgetting you can't do that. But it was really swell. People who love you feed you and sometimes sing to you. Love them back.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Friends Tour 1: Pittsburgh

Well we packed our bags and grabbed our passports and set sail for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh doesn't make everyone's list for destination cities. One imagines it to be filled with smudgy turn-of-the-century steelworkers in helmets and sturdy pants who keep themselves from jumping into the three available rivers by drinking industrial-grade beer. Probably it's the "Pitts" part that colors the picture, but Pittsburgh was not meant as a descriptive name. It was named by a British general named Forbes who was sucking up to a British statesman named Pitt and he got the honors by doing well in the French and Indian War, so you're not going to get an American spin on it. Otherwise it would be Steel And Sandwiches, Pennsylvania.

The point of the trip was to check up on our beloveds and make sure they weren't living in catastrophic conditions. Pittsburgh is one of fifty or sixty cities that is currently being touted as "the next Portland, Oregon," which is a fine thing. Ideally, we would discover that our friends are thriving in an agreeable town, but not one so fine that they don't want to come back to Portland where they belong.

Pittsburgh native
"Friends" is accurate enough, but Dave (Big Dave, to distinguish him from Little Dave, Store Dave, Homeless Dave, Republican Dave, and my own Old Dave) is more like our son. He is the man we greatly flatter ourselves to imagine that we could have turned out all by ourselves, assuming of course that he got only our finest traits and none of our parenting skills, which remain unproven and unlikely. Lucky for him, he was born to and raised by others and delivered to our care only when he was nearly ripe and needed just a few more spins in the polisher. He then doubled down by marrying Vivi, a miracle match he was able to find only after scouring the intertubes all the way to Brazil. Now they are together and demonstrating the meaning of love and marriage to the rest of us. In Pittsburgh.

So, well, shit. Pittsburgh is pretty fine. It has an Aviary and a Conservatory and a huge bunch of forest and eight million bridges and a swell little ballpark temporarily hosting the World Champion Chicago Cubs (I like to say that just to see if I get hit by lightning), and spiffy houses in cozy self-contained neighborhoods, just like Portland, except in brick. Also, there's a Church of Beer.

They tailored the tour to our tastes. And that is how one day we found ourselves in the very room where Hannibal Lector murdered those police officers, on the very day the director of Silence Of The Lambs--Old Dave's favorite movie--died. And that is how on another day we walked through Frick Park where I promptly located two salamanders. This is a pretty good city, I thought unhappily, tucking the amphibians back under their logs. Perhaps it was my troubled look that led two Park Conservancy employees to ask me if I needed help. Do you have any red efts? I asked, naturally, and they weren't sure, but suggested perhaps I could take a look in Salamander Park.

What the sequin-studded chocolate-coated gold-plated pudding-filled Heck did you just say?

Salamander Park. They said Salamander Park. Pittsburgh has a Salamander Park.

I give up. Dave and Vivi are in Pittsburgh. They'll be fine in Pittsburgh. The beer isn't as good, but they don't even drink. They'll be fine.



Saturday, May 6, 2017

It's Not Easy Being Green

"Oh man, come here! You have to see this," Dave says, as he often does, because he's an enthusiastic guy. And I like enthusiasm, but right now he's in the toilet, and I'm wary. In fact, based on the previous forty years' experience, I'm confident I do not need to see this.

We're not shy people.  I guess there are people who never look at their own poop, but we are not those people. It's your own creation! Sometimes it's more Jackson Pollack than Michelangelo but either way it's something to behold. I'm significantly less interested in beholding someone else's opus, even if I like that person very much. I never feel the same fondness for the work. I'm perfectly happy to hear a lengthy description, or even a widthy one, but I don't need to actually lay eyes on it.

"No, really, you have to see this," he said, emerging from the bathroom and gripping my forearm in such a way that I acquiesce immediately, in order to save time. And he was right. I did need to see this.

The water in the toilet bowl was a deep, saturated viridian green, verging on charcoal.  I glanced at him in alarm but he seemed acceptably perky, and not in the last stages of a legacy disease such as Black Death. Holy shit, I thought, although this was more satanic. And to think some people might  have missed it.

"It's the ice cream," he said.

We get our ice cream around the corner. We've seen licorice ice cream that was a creamy white, so we know it's possible. But this stuff is inky. I'd already stained the kitchen sink when I rinsed the bowl. Obviously Dave was deep viridian green all the way through. If he were to have emergency surgery today, they'd slice him open and run away screaming. Dr. House would still be leaning over him with a curious look but the rest of the staff would be halfway across the parking lot.

There might be more food coloring than cream in this ice cream. Why in the world was it necessary to put so much food coloring in the ice cream? There's no need for black ice cream. We have a fancy ice cream shop down the way that specializes in odd flavors. And sometimes you can taste their ice cream and legitimately wonder which is the lemon verbena + hair conditioner, or the watermelon pickle + mushroom. But licorice isn't like that. One taste of licorice and you know what you've got. If you mistake licorice, you don't know Barney the Purple Dinosaur from Godzilla.

Well, there's talk the ancient Egyptians were coloring sweets ages ago, but food coloring didn't hit its stride  until the 1800s, when people were routinely poisoned by the additions of heavy metals such as lead and copper and arsenic, not to mention bituminous coal. In Germany there were some regulations put in place by 1882 when important people were found to be affected in the form of dropping dead, and in America, the Pure Food And Drug Act of 1906 reduced the number of acceptable food colorings from 700 to 7. Goodbye, Powdered Baboon Butt! So long, Pus Pocket Yellow! Hit the road, Hemlock #5!

Licorice ice cream is colored black in order to meet our expectations for it, just as oleomargarine is dyed yellow to meet consumers' expectations for proper butter hue, since there's no improving the flavor.  Now our food additives are strictly regulated for consumer safety, except for Orange B, which has been designated for use only in hot dog casings, where it's not the coloring that's going to get you. The remaining acceptable colorings produce only fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, empathy deficiency, and other ailments that the health establishment has determined are imaginary.

Dave's alarming output continued apace for four days before the toilet bowl contents subsided into a pleasant aqua, but I'm going to report the ice cream company to the FDA. I think they brought back bituminous coal.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Commons

Our alley
Our neighborhood has alleys. They're cool. In some areas they're paved, but most of them are not.  When we moved in forty years ago, the garbage trucks used to come down the alleys. Before that, antique people used them to deliver milk too. It was handy and orderly, a bit of The Commons. There wasn't a lot of room for error with those garbage trucks. Almost everyone had a crappy garage on the alley with nothing holding it up but force of habit, and they'd sag into the right-of-way in a stiff breeze. The neighbor kid burned ours down long ago, but the few still remaining have been claimed by moss and mold and an army of microorganisms and are trying to be one with the earth again. But the garbage man always made it through.

Somehow something happened on a city level in the way of improvement and the garbage route territories got parceled out and everyone got city recycling bins and yard-debris bins and the trucks got so large and fancy, to handle all the new stuff, they quit using the alleys and started coming down the streets.

The alleys started to change. It seemed to happen organically, but that's not really true. Individual homeowners made decisions, big and small, that changed the alleys, and they began to meander, like streams pushing into soft silt. Or like a toddler with no supervision. Or a drunk. Ours, for instance, is no longer straight. Some of the neighbors sensed an opportunity to enlarge their yards. Some didn't care. And alleys have feelings too: they shrink away from aggression and lean toward courtesy. Our alley sidles toward our yard, where Dave put up his masonry wall well within the property line just to be polite. But if you want to grab a few inches of the alley for yourself, you can just go ahead and do it. It's supposed to be a public right-of-way but nobody's really in charge.

Others are impassable altogether. One was altered at the end to accommodate an RV and people to the south can't get through. Some people decided to grow vegetables in the alley and other people decided it was a great place to stack up all their garbage. Sometimes neighbors consult each other, and sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they just do whatever they want. Some of the alleys have been taken over by roving gangs of blackberries.

This is what freedom looks like, people. Some folks get tomatoes, some folks get extra parking, and some folks just get screwed. But nobody's getting milk anymore. God bless America.