Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Mortal Coil Shuffle

According to researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, patients who relied on religious faith were three times as likely as others to ask for and receive life-prolonging care, such as mechanical ventilation or CPR, in the final week of life. A friend of mine was surprised. He thought these people should have had the most to look forward to. I suppose they wouldn't have come up with something to look forward to if they weren't so terrified of being extinguished.

It's natural enough. Most of us, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, believe we are very important, and as such deserve to go on pretty much forever. So throughout history, a lot of effort and imagination have gone into this enterprise of opting out of death. People ride comets, wear special underwear, get buried with treasure. Bribes, essentially--in case Heaven is something like Chicago.

Eternity doesn't always last as long as you'd think. The River Styx is undoubtedly a dry creekbed by now. The famous deal with the 72 virgins is fine as far as it goes, but it would only be good for about a month or so--you know, depending. There's one religion you might consider signing up for where you get your own planet. That's the one where you live with your family for ever and ever, so you're going to want to read the fine print. When it comes to Eternity, there are as many destinations as there are ways to go. In most cases, they're Members-Only clubs.

Most people just go with whatever mythology they grew up right next door to, and tend to look down their snoots at the others. My neighborhood religion fancied a harp for every soul. That's about as close to hell as this piano player cares to imagine, so I may have strayed from the orthodoxy early on.

I'm not any more interested in dying than anyone else is, but it makes more sense than the alternative, if you think about it. There is something appropriate about death. It makes life just a little more attractive when it has an artful frame around it. Otherwise eternity seems a little crowded and unkempt, and the script of life might as well be written on toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Forever.

So I have spent very little of my adult life beagling around for an out. The way I see it, if I can't even get my socks to match up out of the dryer, I don't know why I should presume to have any insight into the hereafter. And I thoroughly expect to slide out of this gig without a bus in sight or a ticket to ride. But I think about this splendid universe most every day, smiling hard, and think: "Huh. Don't that beat all."

That other stuff is for people who can't take "huh" for an answer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Hell Of A Potter

When I met my friend Peg Johnson thirty years ago, people were calling her Peggy Pooh-Potter. Before that, she went by Morningstar. So Peg is her grown-up name. In another ten years or so, she'll have evolved to Mistress Margaret, Princess of Pots.

Peg has made her living at various times as a potter, including now. Now she's into Raku. It's a solitary art, but there are a few odd steps in the making of Raku that go a lot easier if there's a helper. I volunteered to help, inasmuch as I'm five minutes away and interruptible. I was assured that she just needed more hands on deck, that the whole helping operation would take about five or ten minutes and would not be a big deal; just a matter of putting garbage can lids on garbage cans and tossing a few wet towels around, and I've done both of those things before. In fact, I like to think I'm right at the head of the pack for wet-towel-tossing. The main point was to be there at the moment one is needed. I arrived full of confidence in my abilities, because if there's one thing I can do well, it's show up.

So I get there, and it turns out there's an outfit. There's a bright silver asbestos apron, there are welder's gloves, there's a freakin' gas mask, and it occurs to me, as Peg points out the nearby garden hose "in case things get out of hand," that there's more to this operation than just showing up. But time was of the essence, and there was no time for chit-chat. Peg and I lifted the top off the kiln and set it aside, and Peg grabbed some enormous tongs and pulled out her ceramic pieces, placing them one by one into an array of garbage cans filled with shredded paper, and that's when all Hell broke loose.

Literally. Fire, brimstone, smoke, acrid odor and the screams of the wretched. The screams were coming from me, I'm told, and I can't discount that as a possibility. I get jumpy. This is why I don't believe in Heaven and Hell. It's just one more scenario in which I've got a feeling I won't come out well, so I'd rather abstain. On the other hand, if I've missed my guess about this, helping Peg with the Raku is probably going to be good conditioning for me, ultimately.

Still, I'm not that into fire. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and I've sought out cool temperatures ever since. As a kid, I didn't give much thought to my future livelihood, but I knew I didn't want to do anything where I was likely to be shot at, or set aflame. Postal work really came pretty close to meeting all my requirements. Oh, sure, there was that time Herbie's Jeep blew up and he ran around in circles screaming "CALL NINE-ELEVEN! CALL NINE-ELEVEN!" and everything went to ashes while people looked for the "eleven" button on their phones. But that's just Herbie, and really, you take enough letter carriers and turn them loose for enough years, one of them is going to set himself on fire. That's just the way it is. As for the business of not getting shot at, the trick is to be a little scarier than the person who might want to shoot you, and with the postal uniform and a slightly unhinged demeanor, you're halfway there.

So here I was, tasked with the job of putting the lids on the garbage cans, which were roaring fire up to the skies, and tossing the wet towels over them, and whereas I do not pretend I did such a good job, I'm pretty sure I'll be better next time. I'll show a little more confidence, and maybe, per Peg's excellent suggestion, I won't fling the lids towards the cans like Frisbees and hope for a good seal. "This is why not many people do Raku," Peg kindly explained in a nasal bleat through the gas mask.

But here's why people do. You get this gorgeous stuff, the more wonderful because there's no particular predicting what is going to come out of those cans. [You can see Peg Johnson's splendid work at the Portland Saturday Market.] Postal work is more placid, but the best you can do is finish up on a given day and then have it all to do over again the next morning. So it's like doing the dishes.

And by the time I've done this Raku business a few more times, I'll have gotten a little more accustomed to the weather in Hell. When the time comes, I'll be better able to cope. As long as it's not humid.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

We The People

I've got my Portland-Liberal cred polished up good and shiny now, after bicycling in the rain to jury duty. I think this is my fifth time. I've always enjoyed it and tended to look askance at those fellow citizens who find it a burden, but then again I've always been paid straight mailman wage to sit around and pass judgment on people. Mailmen do that anyway--we have plenty of information to work with and some of us can get a little cranky. This time, as a retired mailman, I got the state's ten dollars, and could hardly claim to be too busy.

I remember a trial of a woman who tripped over a lawn sprinkler at the Street Of Dreams home expo. She got bruised up pretty good and wanted quite a bit of cash from the developers for putting a sprinkler head right where she could trip over it (that would be in the lawn). Her attorney made the point that there wasn't a flag on it, which was true. There was a big wide sidewalk next to it, which many of us over the years have interpreted as a suggestion as to where to walk. We the jury didn't find in her favor, but we felt bad about it. It did seem as though if you're a wide-bodied middle-aged woman with swollen ankles who could not reasonably be expected to stay on the sidewalk when there was a perfectly good shortcut to be had through a minefield of lawn sprinklers, you shouldn't have to come up empty.

Similarly, we the jury did not find in favor of the fellow who lost some fingers in an unfortunate lawnmower malfunction. He claimed the mower blades did not disengage as advertised when he reached through the hole to clean out a clog of grass. We had some issues with this. The mower was still operating at 120 decibels instead of the fifty you would expect if the blades weren't turning. That, and the ambulance crew that found his fingers several yards away had first checked the hole and found it still clogged with grass and unmolested by human hand, fully-fingered or otherwise. When we first sat down in the jury box and looked over at our plaintiff, we thought he might possibly have gotten in a terrible accident that had dished his head in. The poor fellow was slack-jawed and cross-eyed and his head was more or less concave; he looked as though his DNA had assembled him up to the neck and then knocked off for lunch. It was pretty clear that he had tried to unclog his mower while it was running by picking it up under the mowing deck. There wasn't much his attorney could point to by way of demonstrating the degree of his disability: he was not a concert violinist, and he could still operate the remote. The only thing he came up with was that he could no longer climb a ladder to the attic to get the box of Christmas ornaments for his kids. This was sad news, indeed. In that he'd already had kids.

The last time I went to jury duty, they had reduced the service time from two weeks to one day, although people still complain. I waited in the jury room all day and was never called up. This time, I was in the first group; that group of eighteen was culled to a tidy six, and I made that cut too. We heard our case, we found for the defendant, we went home.

It's hard to get any six, let alone twelve, people to see the same thing the same way. Eleven people, for example, can observe a raging drunk in a speeding car flatten a little old lady in the crosswalk, and the twelfth will wonder darkly who would let an old woman out on the street like that and speculate on whether the gentleman couldn't somehow be compensated for getting shredded crone in his radiator.

Nevertheless, in this case, we, the people of Multnomah County, Oregon, found unanimously that the Portland Police should not scream at a man attending his bleeding friend on the sidewalk, spray him with pepper spray a few seconds later, and then arrest him for resisting arrest when his hands went to clutch his burning face instead of folding up meekly behind himself for the handcuffs. We did have one hold-out, a woman who had previously expressed a fondness for the TV show "Cops," and who believed strongly that everyone near a crime scene should volunteer for arrest just to make things easier on the police, who have a tough row to hoe. To her credit, she quickly overcame her strong desire to score one for the men in blue, and our man walked free.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stop And Smell The Putrescine

It's June, and outside in the south garden is the unmistakable reek of a whompingly dead animal. Something large. It always makes me want to go out there and cut one.

There's no trouble locating the offending object, even if you didn't have all those flies to follow. It's in the same place every year. Dracunculus vulgaris is a plant magnificent in leaf and flower, and it's just the sort of thing you'd want front and center on your dining room table, if only it didn't smell like extract of dead possum. It's a gigantic flower, the sort referred to by garden-desigin types as "architectural." Unfortunately, the building it most calls to mind is the slaughterhouse. I did cut one once, early in the morning before it had really expressed itself, and I put it in a vase and then I went off to work. I think I had forgotten its hidden talents, and I just thought it made quite a statement. Dave had some friends over later and they all heard the statement loud and clear. I got in trouble.

This particular plant was here when we moved in thirty years ago, and it took quite a while to discover its properties. The bloom lasts but a few days and the stink just one. It took a few years just to realize that we didn't have a vat of dead possums out there. And we'd gotten used to the vultures. About twenty-five years into our relationship with this plant, it started putting out little seedlings, and I've taken to repotting them and giving them to my friends. At least once a year, I know they'll be thinking of me.

I suppose it's species-ist of me, but I do tend to look down on flies for being attracted to poop and dead things. I understand how the system works, but it just seems wrong. I guess everything is just a matter of taste, but it seems like you really have to draw the line somewhere. I actually draw it just in front of oysters.

There's already a minor enterprise afoot in sending out a bouquet of dead roses to people with whom you're quarreling, and I think someone is missing a bet with this flower. You could have one potted up and sent to someone just as it's beginning to unfurl. Someone like, oh, your congressman. "Thanks for all your good efforts on behalf of the private insurance industry," the note might say. Or, "Just a little appreciation for your work in keeping the country safe for heterosexuals." Your congressman will put the magnificent flower in the front office and smile. Until tomorrow.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Defining Bodacious

The kitchen is sparkling. The laundry is folded. The beds are made. There's a new supply of caribou in the freezer. Anyone can tell we've just had a house full of Eskimos, and now that it's up to us again, things will probably start to slide a bit.

We come by our Eskimo friends by marriage, specifically, our nephew Michael's bride Andrea. Her family lives so high up on the globe that it's just a short trot before they're going back downhill on the other side. This makes them among the few people on the planet who come to Oregon to warm up.

The occasion this time was Andrea's graduation from law school. That makes two freshly-hatched lawyers in our family, although we aspire to getting through life without needing even one. What we really need is a plumber, but what we got is a pair of bright young people who plan to save the environment and/or strike a blow for Native American rights. I like to point out that good plumbing is essential to a good environment, and Native Americans have to flush too. But lawyers it is, and we're plenty proud of them.

The weather has been superb. We spent lots of time shooting the breeze with our guests, Obbie, Linda, Brandi and Auntie Boda in the back yard. A 22-degree change in latitude is interesting all by itself. Even our staid and modest bug population struck our guests as being alarmingly tropical. And of course we discussed the relative merits of caribou, moose, and bear meat, none of which, we are informed, can compare with a good side of musk ox. Dave was very enthusiastic about his one meatly encounter with moose, so now he's having musk ox dreams.

Auntie Boda stayed the longest. We'd have had to answer to Andrea if Auntie Boda got damaged while in our custody, but she's plenty sturdy. Auntie Boda is pushing seventy, but not very hard. Her two gray hairs haven't met each other yet. She still rocks her blue jeans. What can be said about Auntie Boda that has not already been said about Superman? She's pleasant, self-effacing, and mild-mannered, but turn your back on her for thirty seconds and she has folded your king fitted sheet into a tight slab that could slip right back into the original plastic packet. That's just to get your attention. Then she makes you an atikluk. I know what you're thinking, but you can't just say, Poof, you're an atikluk--it's not that easy. An atikluk is a summer parky, a cotton tunic adorned with equal parts ribbon and joy, and sewn with a devotion to detail that would drop a monk. The whole extended family is thus clad and decorated, extending even to Dave and me, who are not nearly as genetically decorative as the rest.

It would not be possible for Auntie Boda to be any trouble, but she wants to make sure. More coffee, Auntie Boda? "I'm okay!" Need any help cleaning up after all of us? "I'm okay!" I see you've tumbled face-down on the trail. Would you like a hand up?" "I'm okay!" Attention, world: Auntie Boda is O-Kay.

Andrea's entourage came to the graduation from Anchorage, Kotzebue, Montana, Seattle, and Salem. It was a huge contingent and most of us were wearing atikluks, so we were already the most colorful audience segment, and were bound and determined to be the loudest, too. She was easy enough to pick out, being the only graduate with the presence of mind to wear her grandmother's bearded-seal and beaver mukluks. Since she was in the middle of the alphabet, we had lots of opportunity to gauge the cheering competition, and by the time she got up to the platform for her degree, we owned the title for uproar. Half of us screamed in Eskimo. I've had the chance to learn a number of Eskimo words but the only one I can ever remember is the word for poop. Don't act all surprised.

A week later, Andrea is already out there doing good lawyery things for Native Americans. We do have a little leak under the sink, but we're happy for her.

By the way, here's an interesting link to the name question

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Speaking Phlegmish

Regular readers may have surmised that I recently spent some time in a jet seated next to someone with marginal control over his own phlegm. Those readers would be right on the money. Over four hours of time I spent, in fact, strapped into a narrow seat fifteen inches away from a snot-snorking, loogie-rattling middle-aged dude with a cache of post-nasal drip that he was augmenting with regularity. I'm sorry--were you eating? Neither was I.

And instead of being random about it, he had also adopted the Chinese water torture aspect in which the event occurs at predictable intervals--in this case, every forty seconds. You become so attuned to this nasal rhythm that you tense up in anticipation at around thirty-two seconds; at thirty-nine you have become rigid with dread. Relief at forty-two is oh so temporary. After the first couple hours the only recourse I had was to attempt to hypnotize myself by watching Two And A Half Men. Tough times call for tough measures.

So I nearly jumped out of the window when the dude, out of nowhere, abruptly turned to me and said, "In 1964 I braided horses' tails for $25."

Silence. "The eagle flies at midnight," I said cautiously. Satisfied, he returned to his mucus-herding project for another half hour. Then:

"Do you do yours yourself?" I was at sea. Then he pointed at my braid.

I have long hair that I customarily fold into a French braid because otherwise I would spend my waking hours splitting the ends. This is a dreadful compulsion that I had when I first grew my hair out at age twelve. I spent much of my adult life with very short hair and then was relieved to discover that I'd gotten over the hair-splitting thing when I grew it out again in my fifties. But I hadn't. It's just that, what with the presbyopia and all, I could no longer focus on the ends at shoulder-length; but a few inches later I was right back at it.

I told the dude I did my hair myself. "How do you keep it so centered?"

Huh? I use the hands on the ends of my arms, which are the same length.

Phlegm-ball production resumed and I excused myself. How long are you allowed to spend in the lavatory on a plane? Shortly before landing, he leaned towards me and said "You should do horses." No one has ever told me that before.

It is really saying something that the least objectionable part of this flight was the fact that my hair reminded someone of a horse's ass. However, I got a different perspective on that when I saw a picture in the paper of a fellow manning a plow behind a pair of beautiful draft horses. He was Mr. Duane Van Dyke, and he is the president of the Oregon Draft Horse Breeders' Association. He maintained, and I quote, "When you plow with these horses, you can't get much closer to God."

Well, he was sure close to something. I guess if God speaks through a whirlwind and a burning bush, his voice could come out of anywhere.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dispatch From The Belfry

Night before last, I felt something crawling on my back and discovered a largish ant in bed with me. He seemed to be working solo, but I couldn't imagine what an ant was doing there, and even after I took care of the offender, I felt kind of itchy all night. What next? I thought. Rhetorically, I assumed.

Then last night, as I was trundling off to bed, Dave mentioned that it sounded like our cat Tater was having one of her standard epizootics in our bedroom. If this had occurred during the reign of our previous cat Larry, we would have concluded she was on High Moth Alert. But with Tater, it was more likely to be a random firing of her rambunction gene. I headed upstairs, walked into the bedroom and flipped on the light.

BAT. Bat bat bat. Giant bat doing laps in the airspace. Now, I like bats. In context. The context being outdoors. I love to watch them swing through the air like a celebration of twilight. I once saw one in the zoo hanging upside down and entertaining himself in a most enthusiastic manner. It was something.

With the bat in my bedroom, however, I lost all decorum. I went all 1950s-sitcom-wife over the thing. I hit the carpet like (as I later discovered) guano, and yelled the same thing over and over again (a major religious figure plus a salty adjective). Bats have very acute hearing and possibly demure sensibilities as well, and this couldn't have been pleasant for it. I'm not proud of my reaction, and it's hard to justify it when you see the photograph I took of our wayward mammal. She's all folded up just like a little wallet, but airborne, I am here to tell you, she has the wingspan and demeanor of a pterodactyl. Dave came to the rescue and tried to encourage her out the window, but she was not persuaded. Instead she flew into the closet and hung herself up somewhere on his clothing (gabardine, rayon, cotton, bat, flannel), making extraordinary little scolding noises, rattling like a string of beads. Among the things Dave did that I was incapable of doing at that point was to lean into his shirts and blow on them ("I didn't want to hurt the bat").

Ultimately, Dave managed to coax the bat into flapping around the room again and he nabbed her with a short-handled fishing net, stepping nimbly around my prostrate form. He mused later that it would have made more sense to open all the windows, turn out all the lights and shut the door, and the bat would have found her own way out. And she probably would have, too, but if I hadn't seen her exit, I would never have gone to bed or changed my clothes again.

It's entertaining, being in a room with a bat and a black cat, but it's not restful. I had to eat a whole bowl of eyeballs just to settle down.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Eager Greeter

Tell me this hasn't happened to you before. You're up to your chest in swamp water next to your niece Elizabeth, who is gazing meditatively into the murk looking for blobs of frog eggs, and just before the sustained shrieking starts, a giant rodent swims right in front of her. It's a nutria, in all likelihood, according to your niece's exceptionally noisy and high-pitched description of a beaver-headed rat the size of a cocker spaniel, although identification is not certain without a sighting of the bright orange incisors. Really, any time you see something you aren't expecting, it can give you a bit of a start.

That's what happened to one unfortunate and excitable woman when she encountered a nutria padding down the aisles of her local Wal-Mart. For some reason, she wasn't expecting such a thing. Low prices, always; giant orange-toothed rat-tailed beaver-headed rodents in the soda pop aisle, less often. I'm not all that surprised, myself. You can probably get a nutria to work for next to nothing. But our victim was so startled, she felt a lawsuit coming on. She was so overcome, in fact, that she ran over her own person with her own shopping cart, breaking several of her own bones. She had a decent case that the Wal-Mart management was aware they were harboring a nutria, inasmuch as all the employees referred to it as "Norman," as in the phrase "oh, that's just Norman." Norman didn't upset them, but then again they were expecting to run into him. It's all about the expectation.

Here in Portland, we have a beautiful Japanese bell set up near the Convention Center in its own little pavilion. It's a big handsome bell, and it would be even more attractive if it were not eclipsed by a pair of large signs warning passers-by that it could ring without warning. Well! That's helpful! One might just as well put up signs all over town, saying "Any Second Now, Something Or Other Could Scare You Half To Death." You don't know which second, so unless you wanted to commit to a more-or-less perpetual state of anxiety, there's not much you can do. Really, all the sign next to the beautiful bell is saying is "Good Luck Trying To Sue Us Now."

A startled woman in Wal-Mart could run over her own feet, pull down a display of frying pans on her own head, and stab herself repeatedly with a fork in agitation, and she would have no legal recourse if only the store had posted a "Big Honking Rodent On Aisle Five" sign.