Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Bad Feather Day

One thing that brings us together in a time we're all supposed to stay apart is we have something in common. We all look like shit. I had finally figured out exactly what length hair I should have, after all these years, and now it's galloping away again and I'm on track for being one of those old stringy-haired hippie ladies. That's okay. I've had decades of practice looking like shit and this sort of thing doesn't ruffle my feathers much anymore. And nothing is going to be done about Dave's hair until we fix the string in the weed-whacker. Also, we need to wait until we're sure nobody's nesting in there.

For a number of people who are not accustomed to looking unkempt (or, gasp, gray) it's an eye-opener. But we're not alone in this. You should see the birds.

Lots of folks are seeing the birds now, and wondering where they all came from. They've been here all along, of course, but only now got your attention. So take a good look: because a whole lot of them are in a state of major disrepair. Which makes them even easier to relate to. The scrub jays aren't used to humility and seem to have lost a little of their verve. Their screeches of menace have gotten a sour lilt to them, more bad attitude than triumph. It used to be Tremble before me! Prepare for thy doom! and now it's more Oh yeah? Something-something your mother, you'll be hearing from my lawyer. The chickadees are too busy to get worked up about how they look. But let me break it to you gently. They look bad.

Really bad.

Feathers are super important for a bird. Most of what they're good at would never happen if they were naked. Flying, staying warm, looking hot for the ladies, it's all about the feathers. Your feathers go to shit, you will soon follow. And feathers wear out. So once a year, or twice for some species, they have to swap out the whole outfit for fresh.

Ducks make a clean sweep of it. Waterfowl in general just drop everything at once and head into quarantine in the middle of the pond until they resprout. Ornithologists like to say they do this to stay safe since they're not able to fly for, like, a whole month. But shame and humiliation could explain it just as well.

The rest of the birds re-up their feather complement more methodically, a few at a time, so they can stay in the air. From the hummingbirds to the crows, everyone's a mess. They're rumpled and linty. If the same thing happened to my sweater, it would skip right past the Goodwill pile and go under the sink with the Lemon Pledge.

I thought I was prepared for Studley's molt. Last year he had a bald spot and patchy cheeks. But this year I was shocked. That vulnerability of baby birds in their pink-goobery stage has always frightened me, until they grow up and develop spark and substance. But it turns out that the right bird outfits, just like ours, can hide plenty. And Studley, poking his head up and around, has revealed that there's not a lot of bird there. He's still a goober with fluff, until the fluff falls out. Please, please, Studdles, feather out! I need the illusion of solidity. I need to imagine you can't be clotheslined by a strand of spider silk. Lordy, dude.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Cowardly, Lyin'

It is considered wrong, I am told, to tell someone else the right way to protest.

And there are a lot of ways.

People are pissed off. There are a lot of people who are so pissed off they wouldn't recognize progress if it offered them a sandwich. They'll string up a decent politician for something he said fifty years ago. They'll howl for his hide if he offers them 60% of what they demand plus a soup kitchen to be named later. There are people getting off on such a perpetual state of blinding rage that their positions are frozen.

There are plenty of enraged people on the right, of course, the original home of black-and-white thinking, but they're mirrored on the left by pious progressives who still, in 2020, claim we should vote for a unicorn because there isn't any real difference between Democrats and Republicans. And also that anchovies and ham would be good on ice cream.

They come in all ages. A lot of the younger ones can keep a righteous boner going all night as long as they light something on fire. Around the corner here we have a graffiti gang busily scribbling over the landscape with the self-importance that comes with their rage and age. Some are particularly impressed with themselves. "Why refuse the mask? You've been wearing one your whole life," scrawls one, with all the insight of a precocious ten-year-old. The Black United Fund building is routinely decorated with screeds against cops and landlords and capitalism and although the building has needed a paint job for decades, it's also possible they could have squeezed out a few more scholarships for Black students if they didn't have to pay for cleanup.

One must never tell someone else how to protest. So I am told. But you know what? Ham and anchovies would be really shitty on ice cream, and there are some really shitty ways to protest.

A really good way to protest is peacefully, persistently, and in huge numbers. Over and over. And that's what's been happening in Portland. That is the story here, or would be, if the sanctimonious late shift could be persuaded to confine their fireworks to Mommy's trash can. And so, by the light of another pointless dumpster fire, an idea reared up in the darkest heart in the nation, and an anonymous paramilitary force was parachuted in to bang some heads and disappear some citizens, while much of the country was fed a fiction of friction in service of the great leader's favorite narrative: his unique ability to solve problems he made up himself.

So, hell. We had been winding down, but of course we had to send in the Wall of Moms. And the Wall of Moms, like all great theater, got noticed: too much, maybe, deflecting attention away from the original message that Black Lives Matter. BLM protestors have rightly wondered where their white allies were in every march since before Ferguson, but now that white peple have shown up in droves, we're in danger of taking over. It's a fine line, and one we'll never get just right. But here's the thing. It had to happen. The wall of Dads with leaf blowers had to happen. The wall of veterans had to happen. Because we've got goons to deal with now, dominating a dab of downtown real estate at the corner of Tiananmen Square and Argentina. And they must be confronted, and so must the sad little coward who sent them. Because the truth is if he fucks this country any harder, he'll have to send it hush money.

I haven't joined the Wall of Moms, although the urge is strong. I'm still safeguarding my health. And after all, I can't claim to be a Mom.

But maybe I can, after all. Maybe that's a spark I still carry inside. Because I swear to God, the first thing I thought of when I saw the video of those cosplaying soldier-boys gassing and shooting and whacking my fellow Portlanders was this:

Don't make me come down there.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Old Friends Make Good

One of the cool things about being old is one is less likely to be unduly impressed by famous people, because we remember them when their daddies were taking the switch to them in the back yard, just at the bed-wetting and squirrel-torturing stage, before they made a bunch of money to fill up their depleted souls and were able to bomb entire countries into gravel as though they were their own ex-wives or the kids that laughed at them in gym class.

Still, it's startling to stumble across a familiar name from one's own youth, and seek out a current photograph of someone you clearly visualize suspended at an eternal age twelve, suddenly catapulted into a doughy dotage like the rest of us.

I saw just such a familiar name the other day. It appeared in a George Will column. As a twelve-year-old the boy was smart, erudite, and damned impressed with himself. Sure enough this fellow is still an intellectual. He's written this whole thing about Deep Literacy, defined as engagement with "an extended piece of writing" in a way that draws the reader into "a dialectical process with the text." And how much we've lost in the way of critical thinking through our addiction to digital content. Or something like that. Too long, didn't read.

Well, I could certainly look into it to see if it's the same fellow. That's the cool thing about digital content: sometimes you can find out what happened to all those people you've lost touch with. At least if they had unusual names.

It's weird. We were all stoned, ambition-free hippies in college, I thought, and then after a few years when I signed on as a mail carrier, I discovered everyone else had gone to law school and was now pulling down a half-mil a year and speaking in complete sentences. Some of them owned slaves.

So while I was thinking of that, I typed in another unusual name from my sixth-grade class. And by gum there was a whole thing about her. It turns out she is a senior marketing research professional available for comprehensive management of primary and secondary research projects and integraton of information across multiple data sources. Dude!

I pressed on. Methodologies include: qualitative, quantitative, trend tracking/secondary search, private online community panel management, competitive intelligence.

Um. Positioning, segmentation, brand equity, consumer relationship marketing, new product development (concept, product, volumetric forecasting), marketing mix, multi-country studies...

All right. If all that means "adept at being your very best friend for an entire year and then suddenly one day turning her back and siding with your other friend against you and never telling you what you did wrong and sending you into your adolescence in an emotional tailspin that lasted several years," by gum, I think I found my girl.

Then I clicked on a photo of George Will's boy. Yup. Totally the guy who smacked me in the side of the face with a slushball.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Starts With Devo

Shh! You know what? There's been this project in the works for a long time. It was ambitious as hell. The idea was to take everything we as a society had hammered out that made us prosperous as a people, and chip away at it until it was gone, until everything we held in common for the common good was hoovered into the private treasuries of a small number of people. Obviously that's not the kind of thing you're going to talk people into. They're much better off with their Social Security, their Medicare, their free educational system, their relatively petite police forces, their clean water and safe food, their pensions and benefits. Lord knows all of those things could be made even better, certainly starting with our crazy-expensive system of health care through private insurance, but still your average American wasn't interested in losing what we already had just to feed the insatiable greed of a few.

So the project didn't really get off the ground for the first few decades, but finally got rolling under Ronald Reagan. There'd been a worldwide energy crisis that provided him and his backers an opportunity. A good crisis should never go to waste. He recast the labor unions that supported the middle class as thieves and heavies, and suggested that we could do much better as individuals if we weren't carrying all that dead weight. And he helped create a new financial sector we could gamble in, using some of the money that used to go to our pensions. We could all hit the big-time, because we're so smart. And he read us new bedtime stories: how the government stood in the way of prosperity, and couldn't do anything efficiently. And how the new financial sector and corporations that sucked up all our old pension money would grow ever stronger and create ever more jobs once they were free of oversight and regulation. The Engine of Growth would lift all boats.

That was such a compelling con job that people didn't even notice that the corporations in all their efficiency bought each other out and killed or sold off solid industries and went overseas where slave labor was more abundant and environmental restrictions less onerous, leaving entire American towns in the dust. Or that mergers created billionaires at the expense of our living wages. We didn't notice we were losing ground every day. The idea that we individuals were so smart we could get rich on our own--an idea repackaged as "freedom"--was too seductive to abandon, even as we slid down the economic ladder, even as many of us tumbled into homelessness and poverty.

They took our public wealth from us. They privatized our public prisons and rigged the justice system to ensure there would be plenty of incarcerated bodies to profit off of--even to the extent of extracting unpaid labor from them; even to the extent of harvesting migrant children to detain at the cost of $750 per day, per child--our money, streaming straight into the pockets of private prison contractors.

They take our vital water utilities for profit. They run our wars for profit. They create our wars for profit.

It's been a hell of a successful fire sale of the commons, but there is nervousness now amongst the moneyed elites: their peculiar, stammering cartoon character of a figurehead is losing his shine, especially during a crisis that shows exactly what government of the people and for the people should be doing. But their project isn't done yet. They still haven't bought up all our public schools. Time's a-wastin'.

And that is how we must frame the latest edict from our Secretary of Education, a filthy-rich woman who has never been in a public school, never been an educator, whose family profits from privatization, and who was given the Cabinet job vowing to dismantle the system of free education in this country. She wants all the kids back in the classroom. (Who doesn't?) She declares it safe, or safe enough. And she says if schools decide on their own not to reopen, they should not receive federal funds. And those funds should instead be given to the parents as vouchers. So they can send their children to private schools, preferably Christian.

Betsy Devos. She's just one more poisoned arrow in their quiver, aimed at the heart of us.

It's the libertarian edict. Never let a good crisis go to waste. You can always make money off it. Always.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Break On Through To The Other Side

When I was younger, I admired old women. Their faces and bodies had gone to pot, but they didn't care. Or didn't act like they cared. That was what I admired. There was no attempt to disguise the age. No spackle, no paint, just jowls swinging like a hammock in the wind, a general corrugation, a cover crop on the upper lip, you name it. And they didn't care.

I knew that was something to aspire to. My first ten years of life, I had no awareness of my physical or sartorial shortcomings. Then, in my adolescence, my peers laid it out in excruciating detail and I was revealed in all my inadequacy. After that, I did care.

It might not have looked like it. I never did get locked into that trap of makeup and hair dye that women can't extricate themselves from. But of course I cared. I had one or two things (two anyway) that worked out for me that I could play up, and some idea what my best angles were, and wanted to look nice in my clothes, although that project never really got off the ground either. If my belly stuck out, I tried to suck it back in.

But look at those old women! Smiling and laughing with their yellow teeth, not a care in the world! I wanted that sense of self-possession. They call it "letting yourself go." Doesn't that sound wonderful? Better than keeping yourself locked up. I wanted to feel what it was like on the other side of their faces.

Well, welcome to the other side of that face. It happens in a hurry. You think you're on the morning commute and something distracts you while you're running for the train and all of a sudden boom you're on the way to Hogwarts. Now you're inside of that old face, looking out.

First of all, it's nice in here. Roomy. All those shits you used to give had a way of tightening things up. Now you can laugh yourself jiggly. You get to care about a lot more things once you don't care what people think of you.

On this side of that face, things that used to be important aren't anymore. They're trivial. All that time you spent thinking you were too fat or too skinny is gone, replaced by "too close to dead."

It never made much sense to mourn the loss of some version of beauty you never lived up to in the first place. Any discomfort in the transition goes away with the realization that there isn't anything you can, or should, do about it. It gets filed away with the other things (not beer) that are a waste of time. Time, like collagen, is what there's not so much of.

And here's your old-lady ace-in-the-hole. That short-term memory thing? It finally kicks in on your behalf. From this side of my face, I forget what I look like. It totally slips my mind. Every now and then I get a sudden glimpse in a store window or I'm ambushed by a stealth mirror and I'm all Holy shit what happened there but then--right away, I forget about it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Aha, Aji!

The key ingredient, apparently, in the recipe that looked so nice in the picture was a ready-made sauce I'd never heard of. There were no suggestions for substitutions. This is a foodie kind of town so I thoroughly expected to find the sauce. But two good groceries didn't have it, and I finally Googled the ingredient and found one place in town that carried it. When I showed up at the address it was boarded up and two homeless men were curled up in their sleeping bags at the front door, like larvae.

It's a foodie and homeless-man kind of town.

Somehow I tripped over an international market on my way back home and there, miraculously, was a jar of my ingredient on the shelf with the yak butter and ground beetle bits. I brought it home and eagerly started my recipe. The sauce was a component of a chicken marinade that ultimately, as it turned out, gets scraped off the chicken. I felt a little cheated. I'm never sure about marinades. Are they the ghosts of food? (Answer: No. You're thinking of farts.)

So I looked for more recipes that use my Key Ingredient, and I found one. No problem!

Problem. The first ingredient on the recipe list: eight quail eggs.

Mind you, this wouldn't have been a problem in the old days, when we lived across the street from Kevin and Scott and they kept quail chicks in their basement. When the quails got excited they made the most impressive gargly bugle like they were shaking a bag of marbleized loogies and that always got Dave excited too, and then he'd be out on the front porch gargling right back at them, at the top or possibly bottom of his lungs, and we outlasted all the neighbors who witnessed that so who cares what they thought?

The point being we had quail eggs right across the street. First time we went over there after they got the quail, Scott, who is a master chef, offered Dave a dozen eggs for breakfast and asked him how he wanted them cooked, and Dave said "over easy," because for a big guy he can be a real little shit, and Scott calmly plated up twelve quail eggs over easy, because he has skills.

But we don't have ready quail egg access now and I don't know where you're supposed to find them. Furthermore they are supposed to be hardboiled and presented alongside of the main course, peeled. Peeled. I can't reliably peel a chicken egg without having it go lunar on me.

Fortunately, the recipe says the quail eggs are optional.

Unfortunately, one commenter complained that the whole recipe should be thrown out because the authentic version definitely calls for hummingbird eggs.

I've got limits. I only just learned how to skin a butternut squash and I ain't peeling no dang hummingbird eggs. If I did manage to do it, I'd devil the suckers. They would be adorable. I'd serve them with spider drumsticks and a dandelion-sepal salad.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Somewhere Over The Transom

Gosh, this is the fun part, huh? I've written another novel and have to find someone on the Inside who can jam it into a publisher's heart. In the old days, apparently, it was easier to find an advocate for your work. I wouldn't say just anyone could land an agent, but your odds were at least better than being killed by a meteorite.

Hell, in the old old days, you could just type up your entire book and sail it over the transom at a major publishing house. The transom is the magic portal above the door and if you dropped it from there it got some nice momentum. Then it was just a matter of some overworked editor (gruff, haggard, yet somehow endearing) noticing your manuscript splayed out on the floor and seeing the genius fumes wafting up out of it, and pretty soon you're summoned to the office (in a rainstorm, with a taxi not only ignoring you but splattering you with mud while peeling away from the curb) and then there's a whole scene and you unbundle your hair bun and take off your glasses and the music swells and you're a published author.

Now there are only five publishing houses and they've sealed up their transoms but good. You need someone on the Inside. You need an agent. And you need your query letter to sparkle just a little more than the other nine hundred letters she gets that week.

Well, I've done this before, and I'm serene about rejection, so it isn't as hard as it could be. I did land an agent once. I can't remember how many I tried before she took me on. Thirty, maybe.

Holy shit. I just actually went back and counted them up. Eighty-four. Anyway. Here goes. I'm ready!

Sort of. I forgot one thing. You work up your list of possible agents, and then whack it down to a short list, and then hatchet that down to a top five, and write up your best letters and shoot them off into the void. Right? Not so good if you get rejected and start to realize how you could have made your letter better--but now you've already lost your favorites.

So you work that much harder and research the living crap out of the agent list and try again. By the time you've ironed all the kinks out of your letter, you've lined through a fair number of gold-star targets. The quality of your query is going up while the quality of the agents goes down. The rejections begin to filter in. The no-response-at-alls hover coyly in a vapor just outside your laptop. You wonder: should you take a chance at the big-ass guy at the big-ass agency because he seems like the best fit, even though he's a wildly successful agent of forty years' standing who holds reunions at the Pulitzer Prize ceremonies? Or do you query his equally good fit at the agency who just got bumped up from the mailroom? You've only got one shot at this agency.

Do you confine yourself to agents based in New York City, or does it matter anymore? It used to.

The vapor of non-responses develops heft and pressure and hovers harder outside your laptop, smirking.

Months in, dilemmas like Top Guy vs. Mailroom Guy begin to seem quaint. I still have my unearned self-confidence. I know I've got a great book here. I can continue to believe with all my heart that I've got what it takes, because nobody has actually asked for a manuscript yet and told me it's crap. So there's that.

But I'm not far away from querying the agent who's set up a pop-up office in the parking lot of a food cart pod. As long as it's in New York.