Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nearly Beloved

Even when I was little, I read the obituaries. The Washington Post used to print some that started out with a one-word sentence: "Suddenly." Those were the ones I was looking for. They pushed every mortal button I had. A child does not even want to think about "suddenly." But I couldn't look away. I never saw one that started out "Gradually," although that probably applied at least as often.

When I first began reading the obituary column in The Oregonian, most of the information was contributed by family and edited for clarity. Among the things I noticed right away is that people in North Dakota come here to die. Nearly one in ten people who show up in our obituary column were born in North Dakota. Inasmuch as there are only three or four hundred people living in North Dakota, this is a striking statistic. In North Dakota, where the phrase "he bought the farm" means he bought an actual farm, the phrase "he moved to Oregon" must have a sinister connotation. "Shame about Ole," they'd say at the coffee shop, "he was doing poorly all winter, and then he finally moved to Oregon."

The format of our local paper's obituaries has changed from time to time over the years, and recently, in a very wise marketing move, they have been stripped down to the very basics: name, birth, death, occupation, survivors, and details of disposition. It wouldn't matter if you'd lived to be a hundred or died in your first week; your obituary is the same length. There's your slid-out date, your keeled-over date, and the points in between put as tersely as possible. Alexander Graham Bell. March 3, 1847 - August 22, 1922. Al was in communications. There you have it.

If you're a recently deceased person, there are only two ways to get any ink in the Oregonian. One is to have signed up for one of your fussier religions. A recent example starts out normal and then hits its stride in the third line: "Colleen is survived by her daughters Eileen, Patricia, Mary Claire, Mary Celeste, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Margaret, Mary Mary, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, and her sons, Francis X., Patrick, Dominic, Ryan and Thomas." Picking up speed by line four, we are informed that "Visitation will be from 10am to 5pm Friday, Oct. 30th, in Boswell's Funeral Parlor, and again from noon to six on the following Saturday, followed by the recitation of the rosary, a funeral mass in the chapel, bingo in the basement, a reception in the Valley View Memorial Park and committal in the adjoining mausoleum." This is an obituary with legs. The entire thing shoved some poor Methodist all the way down to the bottom of the page up against a cremation ad.

The other way, and here's where the marketing comes in, is to have your survivors write a proper obituary and pay for it at the rate of $48.50 an inch. I've taken the liberty of jotting down a few thoughts for my own obituary out of consideration for my survivors, and also out of dread that someone will memorialize me using a misplaced apostrophe.

Suddenly. Murr "Tinkles" Brewster succumbed on the eve of her 100th submission attempt to "New Yorker" magazine after a long and cowardly battle with hypochondria.

Right up until the day of the unfortunate paper-shredder incident, Murr was notable for frequent declarations of groundless optimism. Her sunny affirmations in the face of adversity inspired many a person to want to rip her lips off, and indeed, nothing really rotten ever seemed to happen to her. She is universally credited by her many annoyed friends and acquaintances with skewing the curve of fortune, to the detriment of everyone else.

Per Ms. Brewster's request, her julienned remains will be dipped in cheese, boxed up and sent to all the major publishing houses in New York City. The bonier bits will be added to the soil in the tomato patch in a last-ditch attempt to thwart blossom-end rot, and the entire bed mulched with the manuscripts of her two unpublished books, The Gronk Chronicles and Miss Delivery: A Postal-Mortem. This will either produce a perfect tomato or it won't, and either way, she doesn't need to hear about it.

Murr is survived by nearly six cases of beer after a recent trip to Costco, so in addition to the spontaneous celebrations that have already sprung up all over town, the official event will be at her house. We expect to have the door pried open by three; reminiscences and toasts should be wrapping up by 3:10, and looting can begin any time after that.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


There are many woes in the world. There is war and violence, sickness, starvation, love lost or mislaid. Here is what passes for woe in my world: I lack the discipline to park my fanny on a piano bench long enough to learn the music I love. "I wish I could get into some kind of routine, like I had when I was still taking lessons," I pouted to Dave, who nodded, while he flipped the contents of a saute pan. He is a saute-pan artiste.

Dave gave it some thought. "I have an idea," he said. "Why don't you sit down at the piano every night while I'm making your dinner?" Two things sprang to mind. One, this would totally work. Two, I may be the luckiest person in the whole world.

Over the next week, a kinship began to develop between Schumann and garlic frying in butter. It is the smell and soundtrack of rapture. It's no great thing that I feel gratitude a dozen times a day. It would disgrace me if I didn't. Fortune has billowed over me my whole life, none of it earned. It's not that I don't deserve it. It's that no one ever does.

I should, with good health, be able to devote myself to learning the entire Schumann canon, in the time given to me by a respectable pension from the Postal Service. There are those who would say that I earned that time with my thirty-two years of work, and in a small, unimportant way, I have. But the world is full of people who have worked harder and done greater things who will never have the particular freedom I've been afforded.

Garlic in butter. They say the sense of smell hangs right next to our memories in a closet in the brain. There is someone who was dear to my heart who never caught a decent break in her life. She lived the whole of it with pain and struggled to remain hopeful, and scavenged all her luck from an abundance of both hardship and friendship, never failing to find the flecks of gold in her pan of black sand. She did not deserve her luck any more than I do mine.

When I paint a landscape, sometimes I pull out a thin line of violet behind my backlit tree or glowing rock formation. It grates against the warmth of the subject and vibrates life into it. My violet line is as thin and sharp as grief, and grief is what shines behind something wonderful that was given and is now gone. I feel that edge of violet shimmering behind me sometimes and am thankful for
how much I've had and lost. I have done nothing to earn the abundance in my life, and the only thing I can say in my defense is that I am grateful, all the time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Assault And Badgery

In news from Florida, a homeless man was arrested after he stuffed a ferret in his pants and ran from a pet store.

Although ferret abduction is still relatively rare, store personnel had been on the alert after a Sarasota Petco lost its entire hamster supply inside a pair of cargo pants, although in that case the thief was arrested in short order after police were able to follow a trail of hamster doots all the way to his home. The ferret felon was apprehended in the parking lot of the pet store by an alert teenager, who suffered facial injuries when the thief whipped the ferret out of his pants and brandished it at the young man. The ability to quick-draw a ferret is quite a specialized one, law enforcement officials say, and they theorize that the perpetrator had probably practiced the move (called "weaseling out" in ferret-smuggling circles) before. The assault resulted in an additional charge of ferret-wielding on top of the original theft.

In modern times we have become complacent about this sort of threat. The old stoat-totin' days of the wild, wild West are, after all, long gone. Nevertheless there has been a rise in bat-wielding gangs, and a Montana woman recently suffered a severe nibbling at the hands of a miscreant carrying a concealed pika.

Sociologists contacted for this story agree that a predisposition towards pants-ferreting is observed early in life, with ants as the gateway animal, progressing over time to a series of small rodents and ultimately to your larger vertebrates.

It is difficult to say with certainty what the abductor had in mind. The stolen ferret was valued at $129, but authorities do not believe that a fenced hot ferret would fetch enough
on the street to justify the considerable risk involved with trousering a weasel. Moreover, it does not seem to be the sort of crime that would go unnoticed. It is this last observation that may hold the key to the matter. A man with a ferret in his trousers may indeed be noticed, but he is rarely approached and questioned. In fact, studies show that test subjects with small mammals in their britches have a distinctly repellent effect on bystanders. The working conjecture in law enforcement is that a homeless man thus equipped would, nine times out of ten, be able to board a bus without paying fare, as well as getting an entire bench seat to himself.

In related news, the Obama administration today denied allegations by the group "Gophers, Guts And Glory" that it plans to confiscate weasels used for personal defense. "Jeez Louise," Mr. Obama was heard to say off-mike, whereupon a spokesman for the President assured correspondents for Fox News that he was not angry, nor taking a tone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Do You Like Them Apples? Part Two

You will recall from a previous post that my Dell computer with Windows Vista has been hit by a comet and all my data are either cowering inside or have become glassified. Only a professional will be able to tell. Meanwhile, I have some decisions to make.

I posed the Mac vs. PC dilemma on my Facebook page and was soon mobbed by Mac evangelists. They were so effusive and seductive that I felt I could fling myself onto them and crowd-surf all the way to the Apple store. Then a few of my most trusted friends dared to challenge the dogma. "It's your antivirus software that causes most of the problems," one said. "I haven't used it on my PC for years." This may be true, but this is from a man who can see trouble coming and whack it off at the knees. Some of the sites we've been known to visit could give us a virus, never mind the computer. Glory hole? Sounds uplifting. Camel toes? Cute! Must see!

This friend loves to tinker about with this and that on a computer, and I'm happy for him. But everything I try to do in the way of maintenance or trouble-shooting feels like a battery of IQ tests, each one presenting new evidence of personal dunderheadedness. I don't need this aggravation. I held onto my SAT scores for decades to defend myself against those who would cast nasturtiums on my intelligence, until I finally realized that anyone looking at those scores today would invariably blurt out, "Good lord, woman, what happened to you?" And I would reply, as I often must: I have no idea.

Same man enjoys manually updating his PC, but I emphatically do not. My PC is a total bitch about updates. I slap the reminders off the screen ("Poo," I say) until they begin forming a posse on my taskbar, and then, resigned, I go to the site for my update. That's when the trouble begins. There is no "update." There is an entire menu of updates, and service packs, and patches, and it wants me to choose which ones to download. And that is what I'll do, just as soon as I get off the phone with NASA about their Hubble parameters.

It's worse than Jiffy Lube. You pull in there, and there's just a whirlwind of activity, with scrubbed mechanics barking efficiently at each other from all around and underneath your car. Ultimately someone comes forth with a list of things he thinks you should do. "Your drabnitz lining is getting a little worn [here he's holding out a damp carcass of some kind for my examination], and we can replace that for $19.95. We've tightened up your splagnuts but you could use a new furtle filter, $24.95. It's about time to top up your humours and rotate your radio buttons, and we're showing you're overdue for your ten-point farkling system inspection." This goes on for a while.

I always bend over the list, furrow my brow and tilt my head in an imitation of intelligence, and then pick out two or three of the suggestions completely at random. Just on principle, I'm not going for the full boat. If my furtle filter strands me on a dark country road, so be it. I do not have a clue.

Same scenario at the Microsoft site. Confronted with a plague of packs, patches and updates, I hurl mental darts at the screen and elect to download this or that. But we're not done. It wants to know where I want my download to go. I know where I'd like it to go--wherethesundontshine.exe--but that's never an option. So I click on their default setting, and that's the last I'll see of that download. If I ever stumble upon its location, it will be sitting back with its feet up smoking cigars with Dick Cheney.

I admire people like my friends who navigate serenely about the innards of their computers. And some day, assuming there is such a thing as reincarnation, I will be that person. For now, though, I am cleaning off my desk for the arrival of a new iMac. It's sleek, it's slim, it's fully automatic, it doesn't need the protective undercoating, and it comes with everything but heated seats. And Windows.


It's here. It's got a screen the size of a pillowcase, and the Mac boys dug into my old PC with a forceps and vise grips and pried out all my files. It's fast, it's quiet, it's limber, it took a picture of me and my cat Tater just for fun, and I'm thinking about letting it do my laundry. Also, my seat is heating up.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How Do You Like Them Apples? Part One

My computer is not demure. It rumbles and farts and belches and sometimes it revs up like an airplane. You get used to it. Recently, though, it began to snicker. "I know something you don't know," it rattled, which seemed likely enough. I didn't press the issue.

The computer was not original to me, but was only a few months old and lightly used when it passed to me after a death in the family. At first I thought it might be haunted, but eventually I realized it was probably just the Windows Vista. Periodically it would get the vapors. It would be mincing right along and then suddenly it would collapse on the divan and fan itself. "My, my," it would sigh, urping just a little, then "Lordy, lordy," one leg dangling languid off the side, a pale hand fluttering at its bosom. You could tell it to fetch you a tray of juleps all you wanted to, but there was no hurrying it off the couch. And then several times a day it would freeze solid just for the pure hell of it. I responded to this by clicking on everything in sight until the cursor itself seized up, and then there was nothing to do but sit back and give it the stink-eye until it came to again, presenting me with a visibly thick stack of windows representing everything I'd clicked on. I'd have to hack through these until I uncovered my original thought.

For many years I was drawn to and repelled by my computers. "Do this, and go find that," I'd tell them, and they'd roll their eyes at me and say, "God, you're stupid." Which I found irritating and irrefutable. My neighbor Beth was one of the first to help me get over this. I had her over to figure out something I was doing wrong, and she sat down, relaxed, wielding my mouse with self-assurance. It promptly served up the same error message I had gotten, which she dispatched with a dismissive "poo" and tried the same thing over again. Again with the error message, once more with the "poo," and repeat, four, maybe five times, until finally the machine rolled over and did as it was told. Ah! So it's like riding a horse, and you just have to let it know who's in charge? I can try that. Of course, I can't ride a horse.

Al Einstein said that was the definition of insanity--doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But he didn't have a PC.

After Beth showed me how to flick an error message away, I was more relaxed, but I still found the thing annoying. I'd send it off to find a simple file, and it would rattle and gurgle and cogitate away, but it never found anything. Instead of being irritated that the machine was smarter than me, I realized it was worse than that. It was just as dumb as me.

So the other day when it began snickering and acting up, I ignored it. The screen had come up dark as twilight and swallowed my cursor. I dealt with this in the usual way, which could be replicated with one forearm on the keyboard, and then I shut it down. You've got all night to think about what you've done, I said. The next day a screen came up with a scolding tone to it, and I ignored that too. Later the twilight fell again. I shut it down. I yanked it back to life. "Poo," I told it.

Soon comes a night when I'm very busy at a mindless but addictive game that ruins my posture, strains my neck and is so bad for my eyes that little mah-jongg images have been seared into my retinas. I'm leaning into the screen and POOM! The whole thing blows up and goes black, sudden as the Voice of God, who sounded a lot like my optometrist. My game was gone. So were my photos and address book and a number of other things I haven't thought of yet. It was very, very dead, and there was nothing left to do but look up "doornail" in the dictionary.

To be continued.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Staying Up For The Game

The World Series got me in front of a TV again, which is good, because I'd been falling behind in my pharmaceutical ad consumption. I can't always tell what the pharmaceuticals do, but that doesn't mean I don't need them. I loved the one a few years back about the little blue pill you can take that sharpens up your athletic ability. Before the pill, the fellow couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a football, but afterwards, man, he was just poking that baby right through the center of a swinging tire, just drilling it, wham wham wham. Hell of a pill.

So they have to mention all the side effects, too, which is how we've all learned that four hours is about the limit for having an erection, after which you should see your doctor. I don't think they mean eighteen-year-olds, who should see somebody else. The first hour of the erection is the one you're interested in, the second and third hours are for display purposes only, and then you're just sort of counting down the last hour with your doctor on speed dial. Of course, you're not going to be able to just pop in on your doctor, so you'll have to go to the emergency room. I'm thinking there is probably a way to make a grand entrance into the ER that will get you right at the head of the line and into a private room in front of the gunshot wounds and heart attacks.

They don't say what the doctor is going to do about it. The problem, as I see it, is that there is too much blood in one place, and it needs to be encouraged to go somewhere it's in short supply, such as the brain. The four-hour erection happens when the brain feels neglected and goes into a complete pout. "Don't bother sending any of that blood back up here," the brain sniffs. "I still have no idea what you were talking about with that betting system that's guaranteed to beat the casino. As far as I'm concerned, you're on your own, Big Boy, and God forbid you should read me a little Jane Austen once in a while."

I personally do not have much of a grip on the concept of the four-hour erection. I got my windshield wipers stuck in the "up" position once, and it just turned out to be a matter of loosening the nuts. But I do remember a particularly obstreperous Jeep from my early days as a letter carrier that might shed some light on this condition. It was hell getting that Jeep to start. You had to pump it for a half hour. Once it finally got going, it had an idle set to about 8,000 RPMs, and you drove it standing on the brake. Darn thing wouldn't shut off, either. You could turn it off, take the key out, walk away, and it would still be going when you came back five minutes later. What we figured out how to do was to cut the engine when it was still in drive, stomp on the gas, and then it would backfire like mad and shudder to a halt. It's worth a shot for the four-hour erection, too. So that's cut it, stomp on it and plug up your ears. I'm pretty confident about this suggestion because it's not my penis.

There's a lot of good free advice on those ads about when you should see your doctor. I generally keep my own counsel. I had some little totally unauthorized thing growing inside of me at one point that was supposed to be harmless, but which had begun to slouch against my bladder to the point that--under certain conditions--it sort of clamped down on my urine flow. I was on the horn about that to my doctor right away, and mentioned the problem, right after asking if Crestor, Spiriva, Prevacid, Levitra, Rituxan, Aredium, Actonel or Evista was right for me. She told me that it was probably all right as long as urine was still coming out, but if it shut off completely, I should get in to the hospital right away. No, really? Let me jot that down.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pity The Potted Potoroo

Crop circles crop up all over the world. They're universal. What's different about the crop circles in Tasmania is that they are generally acknowledged to be caused by stoned wallabies. Everywhere else, aliens get the nod.

They just practice good science in Tasmania, which is what you might expect from an island with actual devils. They don't need to make stuff up. We got muskrats, they got Musky Rat Kangaroos. They also got Wombats, they got Chocolate Wattled Bats, the got Pademelons and they got Dorcopsises. We don't even have Michael Jackson anymore.

The circles in Tasmania occur in poppy fields. Wallabies eat poppies, hop around in circles and pass out. That's the working hypothesis, but there are problems. Many Tasmanian marsupials are nocturnal, which is after Science's bedtime. Fortunately for Science, it requires only that a reasonable hypothesis be postulated in the daytime, preferably after coffee, and evidence gathered which would tend to support or disprove it. For instance, it has long been observed that sheep run around in circles when they're high on opium (see "Hobson's Ewephoria: Harmful Habit or Herding Breakthrough?"). If it can be demonstrated that wallabies tend to tilt and topple in a similar fashion, the hypothesis is supported.

But Science also demands consideration of competing contentions. Could a different animal perhaps be responsible for poppy trompling? Other likely marsupial candidates in the territory include the Long-Nosed Potoroo and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot. For potoroo and bandicoot alike, the hypothetical model put forth would predict a poppy-proximal profusion of munchies, primarily--in the case of the bandicoots--grubs, bugs and cockchafers. Many maintain that the mention of munchies has bolstered the bandicoot bandwagon, their beliefs being borne out by reports, in the Ringarooma region, of strewn-about chewed-upon cockchafer chunks (or their wrappers), though research remains inconclusive.

A pity, says potoroo partisan Peter Parraweena, part-time professor of agrobiology at Perth. Proponents of the Potted Potoroo Postulate point to the possible presence of poppies in potoroo poop, but scat is scarce and proof elusive. Gilbert's Potoroo is even scarcer, and is seldom suggested as a source of circles due to its preference for truffles over poppies, and the possibility that it is still extinct.

It is further noted that debauchery rates among bandicoots--but for the oddball arboreal blowout--though largely unknown, haven't grown, and are thought in the main to be waning and way below wallabies'.

In conclusion, few options obtain in the crumpling of crops, and our culprit may well be the wallaby. The preponderance of evidence, including the odd observation of wobbly wallabies, tends to corroborate the hopping wallaby poppy crop-drop hypothesis. Conjecture continues, but the key to the consensus among Tasmanian scientists is the sighting, in each circle's center, of a single woozy wallaby. Science-wise, it's considered a slam dunk.

Elsewhere, though, adherents of the alien invasion theory remain, as always, unabashed, espousing an easy and elegant extra-terrestrial explanation to account for available evidence. An alien ship, they assert, might alight in the opium field, thus producing the circle as seen, and expelling one previously abducted woozy wallaby upon exiting.

With somewhat more vigor than rigor, the advocates of this argument advance a three-pronged analysis. Prong One: You can't trust anything the Government says. Prong Two: the circles are so precise and of such geometric perfection that they must be the product of beings in possession of sophisticated technology, proving the source is alien, and hardly mammalian, and that would exclude frat boys as well as marsupials. Which is unassailably true, assuming that by "sophisticated technology" they are not referring to a stick and a piece of string.

Prong Three will be announced to coincide with the release of the T-shirt.

Scientists scoff. "Whenever I come upon a pile of potoroo poop," says Tasmanian feces species specialist Albert Abawaggabagga, "I conclude it has come from a potoroo, and not a Crap Cloud."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Traveling Light

Nippon Airways has announced a new program of encouraging their passengers to use the toilet before boarding aircraft. This simple step was calculated to save enough weight and fuel to reduce the airline's carbon emissions. (An uptick in methane gas production was not factored in, so it may be a wash for the climate as a whole.) So far the program is voluntary, but I think they'll get a lot of cooperation. The Japanese have been jammed in together for so long that they have developed an admirable sense of community. We're way more lone-ranger here in America and I suspect such a request would cause considerable strain. Nobody tells us what to do.

The only viable approach an American airline could take would be to appeal to our competitive nature. They could set it up like a tournament, double-elimination of course; maybe offer t-shirts to the winners ("I lost weight--Ask me how!"). I know I'd never be in the running because I don't perform well under pressure. There I'd be, worrying not only that I packed too much shit, but that my shit was too packed.

My suspicions about the obstinacy of Americans were confirmed when I went on line to read about the airline's new policy, and found the article followed by a thread of startlingly angry comments. These were all courtesy of the global-warming denial set, who suffer from a condition that appears on the same chromosome as poor grammar and incivility. It's hard for me to imagine getting that worked up about such a simple, straightforward request, but this was a crew all ready to hit the town halls yelling "Hell, no, we won't go." I don't know what you can say about a group that regards constipation as a thoughtful response to the threat of Climate Change Scolding. Almost anything passes as a movement these days, I guess. Well, they're welcome to it. They may not be backed up by science, but at least they're backed up.

My only issue with all of this is that it legitimizes an activity around this house that I had been trying to ignore for some time. Dave has such an enthusiastic metabolism that he likes to monitor it. When he's feeling especially productive, he likes to weigh himself before and after taking a dump. I tend to be dismissive about this little hobby but that's because I, personally, unlike some people I know, have never bounded out of the bathroom (with a new spring in my step) and announced that I just lost seven pounds in three minutes. And if I had, I would have gained it all back by somehow coming into contact with a vapor of potato chip molecules. Those of us who are put together like an ancient stone-age fertility fetish have missed our glory time by several thousands of years, and we can be cranky about it.

The only way I can see this working out for me is at the doctor's office, where I am already in the habit of subtracting a certain number of pounds from what their scale says based on a universal standard (one pound per clothing item, including underwear, and two pounds per shoe). Now, inspired by Nippon Airways, I can also knock off several pounds for Digested Items In Progress. It doesn't really make sense that I'd prefer to think I was 138 pounds and full of shit, rather than 143, but I do. I'll be needing an aisle seat, please.