Saturday, April 18, 2015

Springtime With The Windowsons

The Windowsons

I always have a reality show going on right outside my writing-room window, and these days I'm watching my soaps. It's fun all year, but now it's spring, when the new season gets underway, and they're pulling out all the stops. Things are getting tense. The music swells. So do the testes. There's pathos, and there's romance, and there's aggression.

The Windowsons are back. Or possibly the Windowsons' grandchildren. I have no idea. The Windowsons and their kin have been nesting in the chickadee house one foot outside my window for six springs now. That gives me an exceptionally intimate view of them, and yet in all that time I have not been able to detect a jot of difference between them. As far as I'm concerned, if you've seen one Windowson, you've got a good idea what all the rest of them look like.

There are people who would know. My friend Julie Zickefoose would be able to rattle off their lineage down to the third-cousin level. She would be able to do this because she will have already noted a familial tendency to shrug the left shoulder upon perching, and further narrow it down to an individual because of a cowlicked nape feather or the quirk of an eyebrow. Even though chickadees do not have eyebrows, which is one reason I so relate to them.

But I am not Julie. I do not have her observational mojo. In fact, if you show up at my door and ask for donations for the soup kitchen, I will write you a check, and if you show up five minutes later with your hat turned backwards for the Sierra Club, I will write you another check, and never suspect a thing.

Nevertheless, even though I am a shitty birder, I have enjoyed many an hour doing nothing but observing birds. Whilst simultaneously not writing. That's right: I can do both at once. And this time of year is the absolute best time to watch birds. Everyone's strutting a shiny new suit and everyone  has an agenda. And they do not suffer from my brand of confusion. Finches are busy pairing off with finches, and pine siskins are pairing off with pine siskins, even the ones I think might be finches. Meanwhile, they're establishing boundaries. The Windowsons are particularly proprietary, because they claimed the birdhouse. They have lots to say beyond "chickadee-dee-dee." They have voices they use only with each other. One of them will be inside the house working on putting the mattress together. The other will perch just outside and emit enough noise to be heard only by his or her mate (who the hell knows which it is) and one procrastinating writer. He or she will be all "how's it coming in there?" and "if you wanted to fetch me a grub, I'd eat it" and generally just keeping the connection going.
Tits, hanging

But then someone else will show up. There's a suet feeder a couple yards away. The itty bitty bushtits like it. But no sooner does a tit show up on the suet than one of the chickadees, easily twice its size, bombs in scolding like mad and knocks it off. BOOM.  And another shows up, and BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.  Then a big-ass flicker lands on the suet, and the chickadee is right on it, BOOM.  And the flicker, completely taken by surprise, falls off the suet and perches on a nearby branch to think about things. The chickadee, meanwhile, even more surprised, snaps onto a distant branch and is suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. Holy shit, the chickadee is thinking. I totally didn't mean to do that. Holy shit. Dude is huge. And the flicker shakes it off and goes back on the suet, and the chickadee doesn't say a word. Not until the flicker falls bloated off the suet, and then the chickadee makes some parting shot about its mama and shoots into the birdhouse.

And I observe it all. So it cannot be said that I'm unobservant. It can be said that I don't know one species from another, beyond the basic backyard set. And even those I'm a little foggy on, especially if they do not arrange themselves in the same position as the birds in the field guide. Could you turn and face the right? It's like I'm running the line-up down at the police station.

In spite of my limitations, I am once again going to humble myself by getting in a van with a bunch of real birders and hold down the stupid end of the back seat. These are people who can reliably assign a dot in the sky to a species before I have ruled out "eyeball floater." They can pull one single thread out of a blanket of birdsong and drop it right into the correct slot on the check-off list.

I can't find the splinter in my underpants even though I know exactly where it must be.

Songs, hell. They also speak Chirp. "Hear that? Savannah sparrow," they say, pointing into the grass.

"You mean that chit, chit?" I say.

They frown. "More like tsip, tsip," they say, helpfully.

How can real birders do this? A number of reasons. They've put a lot of time in. They have made a study of it. And, most important, they're complete freaks.

Well, I'm not afraid of getting in a van with freaks. I used to do that in the old days all the time, when the van was guaranteed to break down and nobody had any money or a phone and all we'd brought was some pot and a bag of Oreos. It worked out.

So as you may have surmised (speaking of writing checks for random people at the door), it's the annual Birdathon fundraiser. The twelve of us are going to try to make a little money for Audubon. Audubon does many wonderful things like conservation and advocating for wildlife but my personal favorite is outreach and education for kids. Audubon Society is in the business of teaching kids to give a shit.  Eventually that produces voting adults who give a shit. Giving a shit is good. If you do, I'd be plenty honored if you wanted to sponsor me. It'll get you a Portland Audubon membership, too.

To chip in, click here to see my Birdathon 2015 page.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dagnabbit

Othniel.

Here's how old I am. We had brontosauruses when I was a kid.

Then they took them away and replaced them with apatosauruses. It never sat right with me. The deal was, some 19th-century guy named Othniel Marsh found bones and arranged them into something he then called an Apatosaurus. And soon after he found more bones and strung them together and called it a Brontosaurus. And somewhere down the road everyone decided that they were basically the same critter, so they stuck with the first name, and made it official in the '70s.

Well, fine. I didn't love it, but I went along with it, because the school kids were nonchalant about having an apatosaur and no brontosaur, and they were wieldy with the metric system, and were annoying in other ways as well, and I didn't want to be that dagnabbity person.

But it festered. I happen to be exquisitely sensitive to the music of language. And if you've got yourself a beast that wouldn't even fit in my yard without folding up--and I have a double lot--you don't name him "apatosaurus." Just listen to the name. It belongs to a little scampery thing. A little hopping noodle of a dinosaur flitting through the woods with its tiny feet going apato apato apato and making eeping noises. Not an enormous thundering megadude who could quiver a whole swamp just by strolling by. BRON-TO. BRON-TO.


Apatosaurus, my fleshy fanny. Both names come from the Greek, of course. The Greeks were ancient, and thus closer in time to the dinosaur era and more familiar with the subject matter. Bronto-saurus means Thunder Lizard, as well it should. (Dinosaurs weren't lizards, but that etymological ship has sailed from every port.) And apatosaur? Goodness gracious. It means "sneaky fake lizard." Ain't that a fine how-do-you-do.

There isn't really any good reason to resurrect Apate, the goddess of Deceit, at all. You know that rental house across the street that had been blessedly vacant? And then one day the U-Haul pulls up leading a convoy of rustbuckets and all manner of crap starts coming out of them and going into the house? That's Apate's family. Her mother was Night, her father was Darkness, and of course they had a shitload of kids: Suffering, Doom, Carnage, Blame, Old Age, Strife, Retribution, and Violent Death. And the whole crew is going to be out on the front porch making noise 24/7 and nobody with any taste and discretion is going to think: I should name a noble dinosaur after one of these.

Nevertheless thanks to Mr. Marsh we have a splendid edifice of muscle and appetite with a dinky name. It's like if Dick Cheney went by "Skippy."

But now the Brontosaurus is back. The new powers that be have decided that the critters had slightly different collar sizes and could rightfully be considered separate items. If I run into one, I'm not liable to throw a tape measure around its neck. I'm just going to assume it's a Bronto, baby.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Loaner Dog


My presidential aspirations were shot years ago because of some photographic evidence that doesn't play well in Iowa. Also, I've said a lot of things that shouldn't be said in polite company, because I'm never in polite company. Now I hear that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is in political trouble because he's allergic to dogs, which is widely considered a fatal character flaw in America. So I'm screwed on that account too. I'm not allergic to dogs, but I don't have one, and, worse, I don't want one.

It's nothing personal. We had a dog, back in the days where you let your dog out to poop in the neighbors' yards and they let theirs out to poop in yours, and maybe you picked it up with a shovel every couple of weeks when it turned hard and white, but you certainly didn't bag it up like mixed nuts and carry it around with you. I'm not saying the new protocol isn't an improvement in many ways, but it took the shine off of dog ownership for us.

Anyway, dogs are lovely. They're almost guaranteed to like you whether you deserve it or not, and like you all the time, even when it's not convenient. We do get to have a really swell dog from time to time as a loaner, when her people cut out for the hinterlands. Dana is a big old orangey dog with the finest smile on two continents, and we like her a whole bunch. Turns out Dana is a poop-on-the-fly sort of gal. She keeps walking and drops a bomb every few feet, as though that's how she's planning to find her way back home.

She isn't at all barky, I'll give her that. She might pop out a whuff if she sees a critter that needs investigating, but she doesn't go on and on. Still, there's a whole drum kit of noise that comes with the dog package, and it takes some getting used to. The cat, not so much. Worst you're going to get out of the cat is a sort of muffled galloping with auxiliary punctuation in the form of, say, a crashing Christmas tree, but that's seasonal. But even with the quiet, polite form of dog such as Miss Dana, there's a lot of clickety clickety clickety of the claws on the floor, and then more clickety clickety clickety, and yet more clickety, followed by someone saying go lie down, followed by the whump of the dog hitting the floor, followed by a prolonged, exquisite sigh of disappointment that there isn't more going on, followed by the shlurp shmack shloop of a sleepy dog getting her lips at ease for the nap.

Ordinarily you get a dog like Dana and you wouldn't expect a lot of ball-licking, though. She never used to have balls, but when she turned five hundred, she started up a ball collection of her own, and she's gone at it with all the fervor of a girl with a Bedazzler. They're all over. Back, belly, legs. When she trots it looks like dingle balls on a sombrero. The bigger ones apparently require regular lingual attention.

So add ball-licking to the list.

It took a few days for the last item in the sound repertoire to register. It was subtle, almost imperceptible at first--the soundtrack of foreboding, a sort of velvety, benign tinnitus. I couldn't place it until the day I caught a little movement out of the corner of my eyes. Something was roiling in the periphery: clouds of blondness tumbled along the baseboards, clumps gathered and holed up in the upholstery and thundered across the carpeted plains. Yes. The liberated undercoat of the dog was rounding up a posse and getting ready to do everything but clean up this town. Dana's a good-natured dog. She'd probably let me vacuum her. If she lets me use the crevice device, that would take care of that other thing.

As it is, though, I think I have enough material to make a swell new dog if I ever get the urge.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Deuteronomy As I Would Deuter Unto You


Everyone's talking about religious freedom, which doesn't mean what it used to mean. It means you have the right to refuse to sell someone a wedding cake if you think Satan gets to lick the bowl. We're talking about some seriously special rights, here. I mean, I have some very strongly held personal beliefs based on my own observations about justice, morality, and the human condition, but none of them--none of them--can be said to be religious in nature, by which I mean Flang Out Of The Sky On A Tablet. Or even Strongly Suggested By The Great God Thor, or in any other way handed down from some entity that nobody has personally met and vetted. No, my strongly held personal beliefs have no official provenance whatsoever. And yet state legislatures are now treating these matters as though my beliefs aren't worth anything, they're all veneer and refinishing, and everyone else's have the Antiques Road Show seal of approval. It's all about the provenance.

If you've got some belief system that originated with a bunch of wandering goatherds 3,000 years ago, you're going to get way more money for it, conservatively speaking, at auction, than I am going to get for a belief system that's only a hair over sixty years old and makes some kind of sense in the real world. Screw that--it's got no value unless it can reliably be shown to have been committed to papyrus. I'm still free to put a frame around my beliefs and enjoy them in my own home and pass them down to the kids, but nobody's going to give me any money for them.

Which brings me to Deuteronomy 23. The issue is whether any given soul should be allowed to be in the company of God (which is assumed to be desirable, no matter how mean God might have been in the previous four chapters), and it turns out there are rules. Lots of rules. First verse in Deuteronomy 23: "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." What does that mean? That means King James was one lyrical sumbitch. That's poetry, right there. Which means it needs to be improved on in the modern era, thus: "A man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off may never join the assembly of the Lord."

Them's the rules, Stumpy. It doesn't really matter if it was an accident involving loose underpants and the company table saw, or something featuring a machete and a girl named Lola and you totally had it coming. Nope. You're out. And while we're at it, you're also out if you're a dwarf, or have runny sores, or bad eyes, or a rash. You're pretty much doomed if you're out of plumb in any significant way, or are anything other than perfect, and we'll get to the sin of pride in another chapter and verse.

This is the kind of religion we're enshrining here in the U.S.A., or at least Indiana and some nineteen other states. By George Washington, you're free to make any old cake you want. But if you want to stay on the right side of the Lord, you'd best ask your customers to drop their drawers before you do any sellin'. I'm not going to Hell because I hate to travel, but you--you'd better not take any chances.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Getting A Second Shot


So, after writing about the Dalai Lama, and his seven centuries of intimate ancestry (it's very intimate when you are your own ancestors), I got to thinking about reincarnation. The notion has a lot of fans. It's an attractive scenario for those who really chafe at dying. And that's most of us. Most of us are not at all happy about being extinguished utterly. There's something embedded in our own consciousness that rebels against being snuffed out. It's probably built right into the motherboard.

If it's just your conscious mind trying to grab eternity by the tail, though, I think reincarnation is an unlikely bet. You're assuming your spirit, or soul, is timeless, and just periodically needs a new ride. And presumably this is true for everyone. But we have something like seven billion people now, and we can't all have been serially reincarnated, unless a lot of us are carpooling.

Some people claim to have found out who they were in a past life. I've never understood why they aren't looking into their future incarnations as well. We all seem to have some idea that time progresses linearly, so that our future selves haven't happened yet, but somehow I doubt it. I don't think we're traveling along a rail of time like a bowling ball on the return chute. Maybe we're more like a marble rolling around a rumply Möbius blanket. All the time is happening all the time, but we only perceive that little point where our marble is intersecting the blanket. It seems like a straight line to us as it rolls, but maybe we're going over, under, behind, and ahead of ourselves constantly. Of course this possibility makes our heads blow up. We are wired to have a lack of imagination about time.

Some of the traditions have more interesting reincarnation prospects. Some Buddhists hold that there are a number of realms into which you can be reincarnated, with the ultimate goal of having things figured out so that you can eventually step out of time altogether. You could be a human. Or an animal. You could be a supernatural being, and if you land in the top tier, where it's lilacs and lollipops all the time, you run the risk of being so happy you quit working on yourself, and then you backslide into a lesser realm. I think that's a neat option. It's realistic. Get me into a recliner and I can't even always summon the gumption to change the TV channel. Modern Family episode I've seen ten times already? Good enough, I say.

Or, if you're a certain kind of soul that is unlikely to be Buddhist, you can just freeze your own ass and hope someone comes up with a cure for what felled you. Cryogenics is the sort of technical whizbangery whose proponents think of themselves as forward-looking, but it could equally well be a very short-sighted move. If you choose this path, apparently it has never occurred to you that if you are in some kind of suspended state beyond death, you might discover it's okay after all, just the way it is. And you're nevertheless planning to have yourself yanked right back into a much less satisfactory existence just because of your own lack of imagination. If you come back you're probably going to start out old, for one thing. And if it's just your head that's being frozen for future redeployment, you're going to come back old and really, really short.

We all just want to remain alive. But it's really our consciousness that wants to keep itself going, against all odds. And if we're not consciously aware of the coherence of our serial lives, I can't see how reassuring that is. If, right now, I am the continued soul of a stout-hearted woman who perished in a terrible riveting accident during World War II, but I don't know it, and neither did she, how is that reassuring?

Maybe I do have a spirit that will outlive my earthly ride, but I'm okay if I don't. For now I'll just stick my head out the window and feel the breeze on my muzzle and call it good enough.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Version 14.0


It's always something with China and Tibet. China wants to control Tibet but Tibetans have historically preferred to be left alone. So the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet in absentia, is making trouble for China again. He's had about seven hundred years to think about all this, and he can be a bit of a scamp.

That's the story, anyway--that he's been knocking around since the 1300s, and is now in his fourteenth skin suit. It's a slick deal. He no sooner dies than he pops up again as a fresh baby, and as soon as he has been reliably identified, he's rigged up in the Dalai Lama clothes again. And then he gets to be more or less in charge of Tibet.

Which is what China wants to be.

Tibet has the highest-elevation population of yak-eaters on earth, and whereas it has traditionally been included in the general China orbit, it has a sturdy independent streak. In modern times it has resisted being swallowed up by the People's Republic of China, especially after China began instituting social and political reforms such as destroying monasteries and slaughtering Tibetans against their wishes. The current Dalai Lama fled the country in 1959 and has been living in exile ever since, which is somewhere inside India. He is now quite the vagabond. (His earlier incarnations didn't necessarily get out much at all. In fact, they alternated living in a Winter Palace and a Summer Palace that were only three kilometers apart.)

So the deal is the Dalai Lama is both the religious and political head of state and he reigns in perpetuity by being reincarnated. It's a bit of trouble locating the new version of the Dalai Lama but it can be done. There's a magic lake with visions in it, and signs, and what-have-you, and sometimes there are other clues as well, such as when the embalmed 13th Dalai Lama, who was presumably pickling in peace with his head facing southeast, was discovered to have moved his head toward the northeast. This would have sent me screaming over the border but the guys in charge of finding the holy baby are made of stronger stuff and they immediately headed off northeast and located their boy. Sometimes they find more than one likely candidate and then they test them by offering some trinkets, some of which belonged to the dead Lama and some which didn't, and the child who recognizes the stuff that had been his in his previous life gets the nod. It seems equally likely to me that one of the other kids is the real deal, and just wants some new shit.

To my mind there are a number of things, really, that cast doubt on this whole succession. There was a period during which four out of five successive Dalai Lamas were murdered before even reaching the age of maturity. Some put the blame on Tibetans who thought the Chosen Ones were suspiciously Chinese, and others blame the Chinese for selecting Dalai Lamas that didn't meet expectations. At any rate, eventually everyone figured out it did no good to knock these guys off because they just come right back again.

So now nothing much has changed. China still really, really wants Tibet to knuckle under and get with the Chinese program, even though Tibetans hold fast to principles that are decidedly un-Chinese, such as non-violence. And this is why China is very interested in finding the next Dalai Lama before anyone else does. They're pretty sure he's going to be a solid, unmistakable Chinese loyalist. So they plan to look for him in China.

That's where the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who is a proponent of an autonomous Tibet, comes in. He's started to say maybe he won't come back after all. Maybe he's done. The Chinese government, which is officially atheist and shouldn't really have an opinion, has said no you don't, you can't not come back, and Tenzin says, hey. They're my lives and you can't make me.

The Chinese countered that they're going to find a new one regardless. Naturally, this casts even more doubt on the legitimacy of the whole operation. Seems to me like someone is doing some steering on the old Ouija board.

But I do think it ought to be up to Tenzin. He's been coming back as a baby in diapers for seven hundred years now and maybe he's had it. And he has another trick up his red sleeve. He's said he might not come back--or, he might come back as a girl.

Be a shame if something awful were to befall that new Dalai Lama female fetus in China. Whoops!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Murder Mystery


Dave and I hadn't been on our hike five minutes before we came upon a murder scene. We're figuring the victim was a raven. We've got lots of ravens on this mountain and not a lot else, especially a lot else with real long black tail feathers. The carnage was spread over a good twenty feet. Basically all the soft outer portions of the raven were strewn from hell to breakfast, and nothing else was left. A lot of the smaller feathers were white, but that doesn't rule out a raven, I think. Just because a dude is done up splendid in a shiny black suit doesn't mean we know the color of his underwear.

We didn't know what would take down a raven. Ravens are formidable. If we ever let our cat Tater out and she met a raven, that raven would relieve her of both her curiosity and her eyesight in two pokes. Ravens are handsome and large, with massive beaks I would describe as both aristocratic and indigestible. But the beak was nowhere to be found.

When one watches enough TV, one assumes these puzzles are solvable. But we're more fans than students of nature. I do know a whole lot of individuals who could bring a vast store of knowledge and lore to the problem. Which, I figure, is just about as good as having the knowledge and lore myself. But Dave and I on our own aren't that good at sleuthing.

For instance, it was Dave's contention that nothing would take down a raven, because of its aforementioned formidability and all, and so what must have happened was the raven got hit by a semi on the nearby highway and kept flying through the woods before it noticed it was damaged, and then, like Wile E. Coyote going off a cliff and pedaling across the air and finally making the mistake of looking down, it dropped dead onto our trail. Whereupon some opportunistic varmint hoovered it up.

Of course, I find that ridiculous. Clearly this was a terrorist raven who suffered a premature detonation. All the signs indicated it.

We could ask our friend Ranger Dan, the tracking expert. Ranger Dan is able to infer a shrew's toenail from a single displaced grain of sand. Ranger Dan would have this all figured out, not only the perpetrator and the murder weapon but the motive, the previous three meals of the victim, and his foregone plans for the evening.

I have Facebook friends who could give us input. Real nature nerds. When I reported finding a headless starling on the sidewalk the other day, I got a whole thread of educated guesses as to how a starling would come to be missing his head. And I learned (and subsequently forgot) that one sort of bird predator pulls out the quills and another sort bites them off. I think owls eat the whole thing and urp up whatever they regret later. I believe we ended up with the most plausible scenario being a window-struck starling who later lost her entire head to a crow. Don't mess with the corvids.

Which brings us back to our raven. Someone sure got it. Someone bit the feathers off first. Someone even ate the head, or took it home and stuck it on a pike as a warning to the other ravens. All that was left was the feathers, and the Nevermore.