Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things That Go "Just Dump The Bowl In The Bag" In The Night

Hands down, the Halloween costume I loved best was the leopard outfit from fourth grade. And I would remember that costume even if I hadn't peed in it on the way home from the parade. It was a spotted beauty, an all-in-one triumph of plush that zipped up the back, with a separate slip-on head. There was no wire in the tail and no plastic on the face, so all the animation and glee emanated unfiltered from its occupant. I didn't wet myself again until after I was old enough to drink beer.

For the parade, we all marched around the blacktop at John Marshall Elementary, witches and ghosts and fuzzy leopards in Buster Brown shoes. There were prizes, and I was confident I'd be a contender. But, to my horror, the first place went to Cynthia, frothy in pink and white tulle, blond curls bobbing from her recent Toni, a fairy princess with a tiara and wand. Why would anyone, I whined, want to look all foofy like that, if they could have leopard fur instead? Why should that win the prize? It was a startlingly apt foreshadowing of adolescence, which I didn't understand either.

Sadly, I outgrew the leopard suit, and there followed several years of Hobo attire, a costume based on what we had (stick, bandanna, tin cups) and what we lacked (money). My sister Bobbie took me out trick-or-treating and we used pillowcases for the booty, which at least allowed us to outscore the princesses holding out their tiny plastic pumpkins.

As teenagers, we didn't dress up, but Halloween parties started up again in college. I took a page from the hobo handbook by using what I had (vats of eye makeup) and what I lacked (modesty and parental supervision). Gypsy, Mata Hari, Exotic, all were variations on an age-old theme. Eventually my need for this sort of attention waned and I was able to get more creative again.

As an earnest hippie mama in my first apartment, I prepared for trick-or-treat duty from the grownup side of the door. I filled a bowl with polished apples to distribute to a grateful public and waited for my first customer. She was a frothy white angel and she stood before me, three feet tall, feathery wings spread wide, holding out her bag and smiling like a pageant queen. I made suitable admiring comments and dropped a shiny apple into her bag, whereupon she peered inside, looked up and said--batting her eyelashes beneath her halo--"You broke my fucking cookies!" Apples have never been a good idea.

My first Halloween in this house, I was much better equipped to greet trick-or-treaters, and with a large bowl of candy bars in hand, I answered the bell to behold a truly frightening sight. A single child in a cheap plastic mask slouched at the door, backed up by his entire family from older siblings to aunts and uncles and grandparents, none over the age of thirty and all holding out king-size pillowcases like threats. I fed the gaping maws like a finch provisioning a nest of condors, and then the last one gave the pillowcase one more shake, curtly requesting "some for the baby at home." A vision came of the baby, left behind to hold down the fort with the TV, a carton of cigarettes and a sippy-flask. I looked down the street and saw similar hordes on the horizon. Within a half hour I was in a state of panic and searching the pantry for more goods to feed the bag man. I called the neighbors for reinforcements, found them in the same boat and sent emissaries to the grocery store, which was down to crackers and Jujubes.

The next year we laid in an enormous cache of candy bars, distributed them to the fourteen adorable children who came up to the porch, and had several hundred pieces left over. So that worked out.

On those occasions we were invited to parties as adults, we did our best to dress up. My Black Widow Spider was spooky enough. But nothing sent people screaming in terror down the highway like my greatest inspiration: Postal Worker. Behold, and try not to wet yourself.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alchemy and Ferret Snot

Alarming news from this part of the world: the first case of human-to-animal transmission of the swine flu has been recorded. Right here in Portland a man was found to have passed along the H1N1 virus to his pet ferret. Officials at OSU were able to confirm the presence of the virus in their nasal secretions. It's a pretty stunning development. That's right: the state of Oregon employs a ferret snot collector.

God Bless America! I'm proud to live in a country that employs a ferret snot collector. I've just about had it with people dumping on gummint employees. I admit I was the closest thing to a gummint employee myself, as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. We aren't really government workers. We don't get any tax money or anything. But people still think of us a representing the government. We're relatively popular, like national pets; we're like any other scruffular sort that bounds up on the porch, scratches itself, and gives you things you don't really want. We're kind of cute. But I did get weary of walking into a business and hearing the office wag bellow, "Hey, Uncle Sam! Workin' hard, or hardly working?" This, after he has only just clicked onto the spreadsheet he uses as a camouflage for his Facebook page.

There are a lot of people who are somehow able to hate potholes and taxes at the same time--I know!--and these people are inclined to disparage government workers. They think of them as paper-shuffling, tax-sucking Faceless Bureaucrats. When in fact your average government worker is monitoring salmon runs, inspecting meat for cooties, making sure your poop has somewhere to go, and teaching children--not only your adorable children, but also the soiled ones with nits and nasal secretions from down the street. It's a lot of good work, really.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, Americans are also working very hard. The lucky ones are holding down more than one job, in fact. They aren't necessarily manufacturing anything, which we prefer to leave to Chinese workers, who are cheaper. Or building anything, which we prefer to leave to Mexican workers, who are cheaper. No, it's that old innovative spirit of ours that's really coming through for us. Cool thing: where once we had people who were so clever they could make something out of nothing, now we have people who are making nothing out of something. They might start with, say, a little batch of loans; it's just paper, but it represents real property. Then they take that and turn it into more paper, and electrons, and they add in some vapor and fairy shavings and give it a good spin, and now they have a truly large wad of paper and electrons. It's pure alchemy: it's magnificent. No one knows what the hell it is, but it's shiny, and they sell it off to the greedy and gullible, who in turn sell it off to the gullible and trusting, who will now work till they die.

So, okay, it's nothing so useful as a widget, or an analysis of flu statistics. In fact they have made nothing at all of value, except money, but holy moley, what a pile of it. And they have made it with a wink and a nod and the pensions and final fifteen years of thousands and thousands of lives. The beauty part is they don't even have to fork over much in the way of taxes, because they've invested a little of their boodle in politicians and radio mouths to convince voters that it's their taxes that have impoverished them.

I'm not against private enterprise, but I'll take a ferret snot collector any day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lady. Just Take The Corn

"Ask me anything about the Code of Hammurabi," our friend Dave said. Dave, at age 33, has just gone back to college. He doesn't make normal conversation anymore.

As it happens, I did have a question about the Code of Hammurabi ("What is the Code of Hammurabi?"). But I decided to study up first, out of a life-long desire to not look stupid. Turns out it's a code of law out of ancient Babylon; it's nearly 4,000 years old, Hammurabi was its author, and he got his authority straight from the sun god. Actually from the sun god via Marduk, who was great among the Igigi, so close enough. There are 282 laws in the code, almost. He skipped number thirteen because it was bad luck. That, of course, makes Number Fourteen number thirteen, but as we all know, you can fool nearly everyone with the right labeling (see "Clear Skies Initiative"). Hammy had his laws inscribed in stone and set up in the town square, written in plain everyday Akkadian, so everyone could understand them. Only two or three people at the time knew how to read, but he still gets points for transparency.

The laws 66 through 99 are missing. It is thought that a fragment of the basalt upon which the laws were recorded was accidentally sheared off when the scribe reached over with his foot to keep a potter's wheel going.

But even with what we have remaining, the law seems exhaustive. The same offense will trigger different consequences depending upon the stature of its victim. Thus there are separate laws for transgressions against a man, or his wife, or his slave, or his ox. Hammurabi even covered his ass. That said, there are many similarities. For instance, they tend to begin "if a man should..." and end with "...he shall be put to death." Some variations apply.

There are penalties for looting (death), robbery (death), theft (death), fibbing about a theft (death), smacking your father (hands cut off), and accidental over-irrigation (somebody owes someone some corn). If a man accuses his wife of infidelity, she can swear an oath and be right back in the game (#131). If someone else accuses the man's wife of infidelity, she must go jump in the river (#132). Similarly, if a female tavern keeper dispenses drinks on a cash-only basis and refuses to accept corn in payment, even if it's more corn than the drink was worth, she has to go jump in the river (#108). This is so even if the customer had been running a tab for months and she already has corn out the wazoo. Evidently the mighty Euphrates kicked some serious fanny, and in ambiguous cases Hammurabi was willing to let the gods sort it out.

Hammurabi even introduced the first tort reform (#2): if a man accuses another man of something, the accused has to jump in the river. But if he is proven innocent (by failing to die), the accuser is put to death, and the accused gets his house. This would have the effect, of course, of discouraging frivolous accusation. As a bonus, in ancient Babylon, if you were a disreputable sort with superb swimming skills, you could make a killing in real estate.

Hammurabi was a man of vision and power. He alone decreed who would live, who would die, and who would go blind, like a one-man Blue Cross of Mesopotamia. On the other hand, if he had wanted a single-payer health plan, Babylon would have had a single-player health plan.

I asked Dave if he'd ever heard of Hammurabi. To my surprise, he had. "It's an award given every year in the masonry field," he said. "The Hammurabi Award." I thought he had to be making it up. Couldn't be the same Hammurabi; had to be a different Hammurabi.

"No, really," he insisted. "It's given for Excellence in Execution."

Same guy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Dog's Lunch

Dave has an affinity for terriers, and they look good on him. So when Mary Ann got her new dog Cooper, a pound mutt, we took lots of pictures. This is her first terrier.

Cooper will actually let Mary Ann get some work done. Her previous two dogs borrowed heavily from the border-collie genome, and tended to last about three minutes on a "stay" before they reminded her that it had been about three minutes since she taught them anything. Consequently they both knew several thousand different things to do, fetch, slide down, point at, look for, etc., and it was a miracle she was ever able to get anything done at all. Ultimately in order to have ten minutes to herself she resorted to telling them to open the front door, close it behind them, pop down to the grocery store, pick up some evaporated milk--not the condensed, and the 5-ounce, not the 12-ounce--bag up some arugula, count out the exact change, drop a quarter in the Jerry's Kids box, see who was on the cover of People and report back. And if she was lucky, she was finished wiping by then. Cooper is a little more relaxed.

Our old dog Boomer, also a terrier mutt, was a good fit for us. She was so cute it wobbled your heart. She was so cute as a puppy that when she'd roll over and piddle on herself, that was cute, too. We snapped her up and stocked up on Lysol and called it a bargain. She was affectionate and loyal, but she also had an independent spirit that we appreciated, because we are not the sort of folk who want a dog's undivided attention. It was months before we were able to observe how she got out of the back yard, because it hadn't occurred to us that a fourteen-pound dog could climb a six-foot hedge, hand-over-hand. Then off she'd go on her daily route. Visits included the neighbor man, a set of pre-toppled garbage cans at the end of the alley, and the local tavern, where she'd enjoy a nice bowl of Heidelberg while the proprietor dialed us up for retrieval.

The neighbor man thought she was so cute that he routinely gave her as much food as she would take in. She could maintain that for the amount of time it took to get back home, where she would knock urgently at the front door, run inside and hurl on the floor, presenting us with the neighbor's dinner in virtually original condition. "That's bigger than her whole head," we would marvel in disbelief, and then she'd take two paces and do it again. Fortunately, she never ate the baking powder biscuits. Those were strictly for burying in the back yard. She didn't know how to climb back over the hedge, and so she would knock at the front door, run to the back door, shoot outside and stuff the biscuits in the garden somewhere. Boomer's Biscuit Mulch kept the weeds down for years.

For a dog this resourceful, dry kibble was definitely the food of last resort; she'd take one at a time and crunch it down, lips peeled back in distaste. We went through almost two bags of it in her entire lifetime. Who knows how much longer than seventeen years she would have lived with a proper diet?

I guess it's just as well we never had children, because we probably overvalue the ability of animals to fend for themselves. Consequently, in the post-Boomer years, we have become cat people. We are still the recipients of intense affection, expressed somewhat differently in the form of head-bonking, eyebrow-chewing, and kneecap-gnawing, but now we can go away for up to three days, leaving behind a critter with world-class napping skills and a rich interior life. When we come home, it will be to a very well-rested cat with three days of love stored up and a kneecap jones. Ain't nobody going to sleep tonight.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Evolution, Explained

There still seems to be some misunderstanding about evolution and creation, and I'm just the gal to clear things up once and for all. You're welcome!

The evolutionary biologists are constrained by the scientific method, wherein hypotheses must be tested rigorously and either found to be supported or abandoned. The creationists are constrained by the premise that the Bible was dictated word for word by God Almighty and does not need any editing. It is not true that this is a conflict between non-believers and believers, as there are plenty of theists among the ranks of evolutionary biologists. It would be more accurate to say that this is an argument between those who believe in God, and those who believe in God but do not believe he has any imagination.

There are a number of objections the creationists raise to the theory of evolution:

One. Evolution has never been observed. Whereas this does appear to be the case, at least among humankind since the Scopes Trial, 84 years is not considered by scientists to be enough time to really get the evolution ball rolling.

Two. No transitional fossils ("missing links") between man and the apes have been found. This is patently untrue, and very unfair to Liza Minnelli's ex-husband David Gest, who has only begun to fossilize.

Three. The doctrine of irreducible complexity holds that some entities, such as the eyeball, are so complex that they had to have been created in one fell swoop, and not a sequence of lesser swoops. This illustrates a misunderstanding of the biological mechanism in question. Evolutionary biologists would note that an adaptation is adopted if it confers some sort of advantage to its owner, but this does not have to relate to its ultimate function. There are many examples of this in everyday life. For instance, the very complex device currently being used worldwide to hold up windows that are missing their sash weights was originally developed to allow humans to watch Kevin Bacon on the small screen anytime they wanted to. A similarly complex example is the United States Congress, consisting of 535 individual moving parts, if we include Robert Byrd. Every one of these parts came into being to fulfill a purpose of its own, from the metabolism of lobbyist money into defense contracts to the metabolism of lobbyist money into personal wealth, and yet in aggregate they are able to hold up health care reform.

Four. The creationists reject out of hand the notion that life can arise out of a primordial soup situation involving a few key molecules, water, and a source of energy. However, this can and has been demonstrated in a number of areas, including the laboratory setting, deep-ocean vents, and my shower, where just the other day, using only water, heat and whatever inanimate matter had sloughed off my own body, I was able to remove the drain cover and pull up an entire mammal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Neighborliness (We're Getting A Cannon)

I love this neighborhood. We're a tool-sharing, egg-borrowing, friendly, considerate, shining example of how to successfully jam a lot of people into a city and still get along. It's worked well for years, but the new renters across the street are starting to raise hackles up and down the block. We'd all be happy to mind our own business and let them mind theirs, in this case 24-hour cash-and-carry drug sales and some small-scale prostitution, if only they'd use their indoor voices. Sadly, they have no indoor voices. My calmest neighbor finally discovered the location of the end of her rope the other day and stormed over there demanding that the car radio, which was rattling pavement, be turned down. It wasn't. "It's not a radio, it's a CD," the gentleman sneered. Things looked tense. I'm as big a liberal as anyone else on the block, but 'long about the third time I was awakened in the middle of the night by elements of our neighbors' customer base, I discovered I was capable of violent thoughts. I much prefer an attitude of forbearance.

That's why I was particularly struck by the reaction of the fellow in Pennsylvania whose neighbor, William Maser, 54, fired a cannonball into his house, where it pierced a wall and rolled into a closet. "I'm sure he didn't mean to," he said. "Apparently, it ricocheted."

Mr. Maser, described as something of a history buff, was interested in recreating ancient weaponry and was working on his Gettysburg reenactment when the mishap occurred. "Oh, that sort of thing happens," the victim insisted. "I'm sure it was an accident, especially after that last episode with the catapult. And that time, honestly, he had no way of knowing a boulder that size would travel that far. I don't know how you can know, until you try it out. So he promised he would aim somewhere else, and I'm sure he did. Unfortunately, the cannonball bounced off my garage and headed right for the house."


"Did I say catapult? My mistake. It was really more of a trebuchet. The catapult incident was earlier. I'm not even sure what kind of disease that animal that came through my roof had; I didn't want to get too close. But you can't blame a guy for wanting to get something that putrid away from himself in a hurry, and after all he did have that catapult all set up and ready to go."

You're remarkably tolerant.

"Well, we like to get along around here. I like to putter in the garden. My neighbor likes to build medieval weaponry. Everyone needs something to do."

Your tomatoes do look fine. What is that they're staked on? Are those feathers?

"Oh, well, those arrows all came down at once when he had some friends over. I was a little miffed at first, until I realized I could use them in the garden. Watch your step--that's oil over there. I haven't had a chance to clean it up."


"It's not hot anymore, but it's still a little slippery."

Your neighbor poured boiling oil into your kitchen? However is that an accident?

The fellow paused a moment, considering. His lip trembled a bit. "Yeah, that's just mean," he mumbled into his shirt, cutting a glance across the street.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

This Bud's For You

We were walking the other day through a tucked-away little alley and approaching a small knot of teenagers when the sweet smell of pot drifted our way. Smells have a way of transporting you back to very specific times in your life, and this one did, too. Unfortunately, it reminded me of a time in my life I don't remember very well, so nostalgia never really got a foothold. Still, I was favorably disposed, until we drew closer and I saw that the teenagers had become very quiet and one of them was trying on a look of dignified defiance, and I realized we were the Encroaching Old Farts. "Want me to freak them out?" Dave asked, and I said "no," but as we passed them by Dave let out: "we used to pay fifteen bucks an ounce for that." I think he's still chuckling.

It's not entirely true, of course. What we paid fifteen bucks an ounce for was similar to compost in appearance and effect, and once you'd carded out all the seeds on your LP jacket, it still took a good bit of puffing to get anywhere. The first time I tried it I was fourteen and camping out on Old Rag Mountain, far from my parental units. That's what you get when your club chaperone is a college freshman. There was no effect that time, or the time after that, but the third time, a bunch of us were driving somewhere and the light a block up ahead turned red and it seemed to take us half hour to get up to it. "Whoa," the driver said upon reaching the intersection, and that struck all of us as high comedy. We giggled for a couple hours, or possibly a couple minutes, I'm not sure, and then we had to go get brownie hot fudge sundaes just to settle down.

Every time I noticed I was stoned, what I really noticed was that I had been stoned for the last five minutes. Time seemed to have developed a degree of elasticity. At some point, after a few years of this, my brain began to be alarmed by its own elasticity and it began to play around with the idea of going completely nuts and just getting it all over with. This wasn't pleasant. I had my sanity by a thread, and I tethered it to any friend I could draft to stay put and not leave me. He or she would hang onto the thread while my brain kited around in Looneyville. After an hour or so (or possibly five minutes, I'm not sure) the threat would subside. Then, a few days later, someone would be passing around another joint, and I'd do it all over again. This continued on and off for about ten years. Why?

Well, because there were a lot of truths my generation held to be self-evident, and among these truths was that war was evil, materialism was evil, doing laundry was over-rated and pot was harmless. Everyone knew these things. I regarded every single pot-induced panic attack as an anomaly. "Maybe this time it will be fun again," I would think. Nope. We didn't notice that we smelled, either.

Then the war folded up, immediately followed by our idealism, and we discovered how much fun money is, and we bought a lot of new toys and some really big-ass automobiles, destroyed the climate and the economy and loused everything up in general for our children. I don't know how they're able to afford the new pot, but they're welcome to it. We owe them that, at least.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Precipitation Of Swifts

On a warm September evening, I joined several hundred of my fellow humans for a picnic on the lawn in a rosy twilight under a gentle drizzle of Vaux's Swift poop. An individual Vaux's Swift poop, like an individual Vaux's Swift, is a fairly insubstantial item, but there were thirty thousand of the tiny birds swirling above us for over an hour, and that can add up.

The Chapman Elementary School in NW Portland is the site of the largest gathering of Vaux's Swifts in the country. They come from miles around to congregate for a few hours in the vicinity of their dormitory, the large chimney stack of the school. At some point they will begin to drop into the chimney in a large, whirling vortex, and there they will cling all night, side by each, all thirty thousand of them, until it's time to fly out again in the morning. For much of the month of September, Chapman can lay claim to having the softest chimney in America.

That's pretty much it for the swifts; they fly, they eat bugs, and they cling. They don't have the right kind of feet for perching in trees, so they have to be good at flying, and they are, reaching speeds of up to a hundred miles per hour, which is why they aren't called Vaux's Pokeys. When you lie on your back and gaze up at a swirl of swifts, they shoot into the distance and vanish utterly, only to reappear elsewhere in the sky. You can go ahead and claim to be attending one of the wonders of nature, but it's like looking at your own eyeball floaters. Their numbers accumulate with the dusk, swooping in drifts towards the chimney and back up again, until some sort of signal prompts the first one to drop inside--probably the one closest when the music stops--and the feathered cyclone begins. Until then, they're all arranging themselves into their proper cliques, like schoolchildren milling about outside the cafeteria, loathe to be stuck at the dork table when the doors open up. Also, if they're an ordered society, which it appears they are, they are all getting their last poops out before bedtime. It's only polite.

There is a third species involved in the festivities, the Cooper's Hawks, and they can perch just fine. They dot the tall trees down the way, shooting the breeze and scratching themselves, until one of them gets the idea, hey--what say we pop down to Chapman and get a little take-out? And so, one at a time, they do, setting up on the rim of the chimney and craning their heads around, waiting, timing, and then they pop straight up and nab a swift and go home to watch the game with the boys. The humans down below put their fried chicken down long enough to boo lustily, but I'm more tolerant. I like what I hear about Cooper's Hawks. Male Coopers pitch woo to their conspicuously larger womenfolk for up to a month before scoring, and they do it by bringing them food. That works on me, too. So I can live with the idea that when the swifts, all thirty thousand of them, do roll call later in the evening, they're going to come up three short.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Case For Undersharing

Mackenzie Phillips is in the news again, which is always cause for alarm. Miss Phillips, by the late Papa John out of Mama Michelle via pharmaceutical insemination, was recently quoted as saying: "I can't be the only one out there. I want to be the face of consensual incest." No, no, no, honey, aim higher. Take up clarinet, how about?

I miss taboo. If "taboo" is no longer operational, why is it still taking up all that space in the dictionary, right after "tabloid?" When I think of consensual incest and try to apply it in any meaningful way to my own family, my brain screen freezes and the cursor shoots out my ear. It's enough to give anyone an ambulance-worthy case of the willies.

We never used to talk about any of this. In my family we were expected to steer clear of a number of conversational potholes; they were well-flagged by the furrowed brow and the sudden uncomfortable silence, and they included anything disrespectful, anything crotchular, and anything involving fluids we produced ourselves. And whether or not I understood any of this, I learned to be a nimble navigator of the terrain at an early age. It worked for us. In fact, I have no recollection at all of ever having passed gas until I was at least sixteen. It wasn't done. Maybe in some other family, but not mine.

The facts of life were no doubt something my parents hoped I would scavenge out of the gutter on my own, but one day, Mom was clicking away on her typewriter, filling out my application for summer camp, tappety tappety tappety. And then she stopped abruptly. "Mary, do you know what menstruation is?" I did not. But something in her voice put me on alert. With a preternatural calm, she sketched out a clinically precise description of the imminent event, linked it implausibly to the ability to have children some day, and indicated this would go on for about forty years. This was disturbing not only in itself, but also because it so clearly seemed to fall into the category of things I'd thought we'd agreed, as a family, never to talk about. "Do you understand?" she finished up. I nodded quickly. The box on the form got filled in, tap tap tap. But I did not understand. The entire business sounded revolting and weird. I wondered what I needed to sign to opt out.

This apple thunked straight down from the tree. It took me years to begin to roll as far away as I have, but I still remember how nice it was in the shade.

When I first got to college, a bunch of us got together in someone's room and spun ourselves into a state of high hilarity by recalling all the dumb things we'd believed or done as kids. And then, surfing a wave of giddy nostalgia, Cindy blurted out, "remember when you were real little, and were in the bath, and you'd take a dump, and float it around the tub like a little sailboat?" The conversation skidded to a halt. You could hear the brakes squealing. Or maybe that was my roommate. There are things that, even if true, must never be said out loud.

So, no, Mackenzie. Your services as a poster child will not be required. And if we should need a face for anything, anything at all, it should be Lauren Bacall's.