Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Boiling Frogs For Fun And Profit

I keep bringing up this global warming thing only because I keep noticing that facts are becoming less and less important. I'm a fan of facts, especially the true kind--call me old-fashioned--but I certainly do not want to give the impression that having facts makes me a better person. It doesn't. Righter, maybe. Here's the thing: if a grizzly is bearing down on you, he's not going to freeze and twitch his nose at you just because you call him a bunny.

And it matters how many people can tell a grizzly from a bunny, because the sorts of things that might mitigate the worst effects of global warming require a lot of political will. People have to get behind the effort. There was starting to be some movement in the right direction, conventions convened and proposals proposed, and then it got all snowy and icky in Washington and they called the whole thing off.

One of the factors affecting people's perceptions of the threat is that although climate scientists overwhelmingly believe the planet is warming due to human actions, a significant percentage of meteorologists ain't so dang sure. And that's who the people are listening to. People love their local weather people, most of whom are totally adorable. Oddly, when the same people need gall bladder surgery, they still tend to go to a surgeon rather than a meatpacker, who also knows a thing or two about anatomy. Climate scientists, however, are dismissed. They are suspected of being snooty and no fun at parties.

As for why meteorologists are not signing on to the warming threat, well, there's a certain amount of professional jealousy involved. Climate scientists get big funding to go drill holes in the Greenland ice sheet, and weather forecasters get sent out in hurricanes to be lashed to lightposts and bawl into their mikes. When you're soaked to the skin, you're not inclined to think warmly about a bunch of overpaid blowhards. Or their iceholes.

Furthermore, professionals who can't predict weather seven days out are inclined to be resentful of other professionals who are flinging out predictions for the rest of the century. They would have a point if climate scientists were suggesting it will be 89 degrees in Philadelphia on March 31st, 2050, with evening thundershowers, but they're not.

The fact is, climatologists are nearly always affiliated with universities and hold doctoral degrees, whereas weather people can get by with a bachelor's in meteorology, or even just big teeth and the ability to point out a cloud icon on a map.

Unfortunately, the random snarky Al Gore comments uttered by the NewsWatch weatherman during a snowstorm are taken more to heart by the general population than sober warnings by the Smartypants Institute. A lot of people are just more comfortable with Vanna White than Marie Curie. Partisans on both sides of the issue have taken note of this and are making attempts to corral the legions of weather forecasters into their respective camps. The Union Of Concerned Scientists, Yale, and the National Environmental Education Foundation all have held forums to educate meteorological-Americans, but their efforts are being undermined by the Heartland Institute. This conservative free-market policy think tank is also reaching out to weather forecasters at their annual conference. It could well be that the fate of the planet will rest on the outcome of dueling cheese dips and gift bags.

[In other news on the fact front, the Texas Board of Education has released a new study proving that the rock strata in Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota can conclusively be dated from 1776 to 1919.]

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New River Birding Virgin

Today I am winging my way to a birding festival in West Virginia. "But Murr," you are saying, "you don't know poop about birds." Not true. I know more about birds than the average person. It is only in the company of genuine birders that I come off lint-headed. Sadly for my reputation, there are birders everywhere. Look at the person to your right, then to your left: one of you has a life list of 350 birds, one of you is a Republican, and one of you will die soon. I'm throwing my lot in with the bird people.

And I know a little already. I even have a vestigial biology degree. But I couldn't tell a greater spindly-legs from a lesser spindly-legs unless they were standing right next to each other, and even then I couldn't rule out that one of them is just a freak.

The fact is, I'm not a very good birder. Well, I'm not actually a birder at all, but not for lack of trying. Well, okay, it is for lack of trying, but it isn't because I don't aspire to birderdom. Well, I don't really aspire to birderdom. I'd just like to be able to know what a bird was when I saw it. Okay, I'd like to be able to see it.

I'd settle for that. I walk in the woods a lot, and if I had to rely strictly on the evidence from my own eyes, I'd have to conclude that Trees Make Tweety Noises.

Here in town, I'm pretty reliable spotting any of the five birds that frequent my yard. We have chickadees, scrub jays, juncos, little brown jobs and a finchy number. I do know their names. The finchy number is Boo Boo, and the big blue-headed fellow bashing in a mouse's head on the rain gutter is Guido. A little further afield, it's not uncommon to spot a flock of yellow-headed snatchflashers down on 82nd Avenue.

Anywhere else, I have to use my binoculars and a field guide. This never works out for me. Once I locate the bird, I document it exhaustively: white eyestripe, grey breast, spot on the wingtips and a light patch on the tail. Then I get the guide. Which says that nothing is conclusive unless I can verify the yellow undertail coverts. How am I supposed to verify anything that is under tail and covert? Without being rude?

Or I'll memorize eight features on a three-inch bird and find that it is still not in the book anywhere, which sends me whining to a real birder with my description. "Hmm," real birder says thoughtfully. "Might be a juvenile, or a variant." See, that's just not fair.

Many people see no reason to know all the birds and their little bird parts. But I am not among them. I know that in life the more you know, the more you can see, and the funnier it all is. If you see a giant slug on the trail in front of you, you might be inclined to step over it in distaste like it was God's Loogie, unless you also knew that it has an enormous, diaphanous blue penis coming out of his head. I don't care who you are: that is interesting.

So how did I go from Boo Boo and Guido to the New River Birding And Nature Festival? It started innocently enough. I had this teeny little blog no one read, and then one day, through Internetular magic, a woman named Julie Zickefoose tripped over it and liked what she saw. I liked her back. She sent her whole tribe my way. They were birders, she turned out to be their Queen, and now I have a Facebook page infested with nature lovers I've never met in person. They keep me up-to-date on such things as the first phoebe sighting of spring, or the first peent of the woodcock, or the fact that there is such a thing as a woodcock, or that he goes peent. I'm getting all knowledged up, and look forward to getting even educateder.

But if Julie had been an astronaut, just think of where I'd be flying off to now.

I'll be off the grid and undercover with the birders for a week, but I've got Murrmurrs loaded up and ready to poop out posts on schedule while I'm gone. Meanwhile, if you want genuine Julie Zickefoose Woodcock Underpants, and I know you do, click here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Light Of Friendship

You might want to jot this down: if you give a man unfettered access to your lemon cucumber vine, you could get a dead frog sconce out of it.

Dave and I like to visit our local artists hereabouts, and it was on an auspicious day several years ago, visiting Lam Quang at his HiiH studio around the corner where he sculpts light into wax shades, that Dave happened onto the original dead frog sconce. He was thunderstruck, positively rooted to the floor, and pointing. "Must...have..." he droned, fumbling for cash. The item in question was glowing from the walls of the studio, the bulb inside backlighting a sheet of wax with a flattened frog in it. It was a frog rampant: a jubilant amphibian, cut down at the moment of purest joy, one arm outstretched and legs marching. It looked as though it had only just put down its bugle and pennant. Once one was able to get over the obvious fact of its death and recognize that it had been a quick one, at that, it was possible to embrace the sconce. Dave did,with all his heart. Lam was not going to part with it. He was not in the habit of retrieving dead amphibians and this one had been serendipitous. He plain liked it, himself. We left the studio.

Months later, Dave came down the alley bearing a hot pizza and Lam's head swung towards it as though it were true north. He had been shooting hoops. "I'll play you a game for that pizza," he offered. "Play you for your frog sconce," Dave countered. "Deal," said the apparently starving artist, but Dave withdrew the challenge. He did not suck at basketball, and he was well over a foot taller. He was not about to unfairly wax his friend just to score his beloved artwork. I smiled to myself. I haven't seen Lam play, but any time a man my height challenges someone like Dave to a game of basketball, I figure he's got some serious skills. I sensed a hustle. But we shall never know.

This is how a lot of things get done around this neighborhood, and a lot of things get done around this neighborhood. You won't necessarily see much money change hands. There may not be much of that to go around. Gayle, across the alley, benefits from Dave's abilities on a regular basis. Shrubs get whacked back, trees felled, stuff gets taken to the dump, rides to the doctor are provided. At least as often, something comes back across the alley. A large platter of deviled eggs and radishes made it over here one day, unexpectedly, and Dave seemed lit from within. His worship of deviled eggs and radishes knows no bounds, and had only intensified when I informed him that his radish burps smelled like farts. "How did you know?" I asked Gayle, who wiped her hands on her apron and drawled, "I know how to please a man." Man Exhibit A had already drifted away with the platter like a cartoon dog undulating through the air on a sine-wave of pie fumes.

So we have more vegetables and fruit than we are inclined to harvest, and when Lam showed a particular fondness for the lemon cucumbers, we told him to help himself anytime. He came by to graze raspberries and chomp away at the cucumbers. A few seasons may have gone by in this way before he showed up at the back door with a newly created dead frog sconce for Dave. I will not say no frog was harmed, but it was certainly not harmed in the making of the sconce. It had already been thoroughly Buicked and peeled off the pavement. And someone had seen it, and his first thought was: Dave.

I don't know if people do these sorts of things for each other in the gated communities. The houses seem so self-contained and far away from each other, excreting their occupants in metal pellets out the driveway and away. Maybe people aren't so willing to part with stuff. That's what makes them rich.

This is what makes us rich.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Numbers Racket

So this nice hippie lady was cooing over my garden from the sidewalk, and, as I always do, I invited her in. She was delighted. She liked every little thing and she particularly swooned over the raspberries, which were going like gangbusters. "Oh, would you like to pick some?" I asked. "I probably won't keep up. Let me get you a bucket." I got us each a bucket. We picked, we chatted.

Comes to pass that she considers herself very intuitive by nature, and has amplified her abilities by studying numerology. "What is numerology?" I asked, fairly certain, however, that it wasn't going to be anything I'd sign up for. My new friend was enthusiastic. Numerology was only the key to understanding one's role in the universe. She was all ready to demonstrate and asked me what my birthdate was, which I am always happy to divulge. [September 24, 1953, size ten, teal greens and turquoise.] She totted the numbers up.

"Oh! You're a three! Withdrawn, shy, distrustful, and a little on the stingy side," she said, decanting the bucket of raspberries into a paper sack and starting in on the re-fill. "That's unbelievable," I admitted.

"I know!" she exulted. "It's truly amazing. I'm naturally a skeptical person, but the more I read about it, the more I realized how real this is. Pythagoras believed in it, and he, like, invented math!" He was very mathy, that's true. He is credited with discovering the right triangle, which is huge. Before Pythagoras, everybody's tables fell over.

Dave popped into the back yard to meet our new friend. I explained what we were talking about and suggested he toss his own birthday into the hopper. The raspberry lady performed her calculations. "Two. You're like an economics guy, right? Like a financial wizard, maybe a banker?" Dave is not allowed to pay the bills. It's only been recently we allowed him to have his own checking account.

"That's unbelievable," he admitted.

"I know!" she said. We'd picked most of the berries by then, and I told her to come back in a couple days if she wanted more.

"Thanks for all the information," I told her. "The really amazing thing to me is that Pythagoras was able to get his own numbers right. How did he even know he was B.C.?"

"I know!" she said. "Spooky, isn't it?"

I had to look into this numerology business. It was even spookier than I thought. Pythagoras is reported to have been born between 580 and 572 B.C. I think this says more about his mother's abilities than it does his, but true to form, she gets barely a mention. Some oracle or other had predicted, when she was pregnant, that she would give birth to a wise and beautiful man. (Or at least an eight-year-old.) I took a look at a stone bust of him, and he did indeed have chiseled features.

So Pythagoras believed that everything in the universe worth knowing could be expressed mathematically, and that one's own numbers revealed much about oneself, including one's past lives. The best website I was able to find, based on the saturation of rainbow colors in the wallpaper, also made mention of Edgar Cayce, the "Sleeping Prophet Of Virginia Beach." As the Napping Diva of NE 29th Avenue, I had to investigate further.

Cayce was a psychic who reportedly had the "ability to put himself into some kind of self-induced sleep state by lying down on a couch, closing his eyes, and folding his hands over his stomach." This was stunning. I just so happen to have very similar abilities, except that I tend to list to the side and drool a little. Cayce was also reported to have been able to read the Akashic Records. I had to look that up. Turns out the Akashic Records are like a library of everything that has ever happened; like, as Wikipedia has it, a "universal filing system which records every occurring thought, word and action." It's the Internet! Which is just what I was using! Unbelievable. Well. I was sold.

I plugged some of my numbers into the online numerology form and read the results avidly. It cautioned me to avoid depression, jealousy and worry. You can't hang a price tag on that kind of advice. Then: "You aren't the type to retire because you need to keep expanding and enlarging." I felt really let down. I am not only retired, but totally the type, and if I'm still expanding and enlarging, I don't see how it's any business of the Numerology website.

I'm not going to give them my credit card numbers.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Caesar's Cut

I hate doing my taxes. It's not the actual tax. I'm a big gooey liberal, and I can't wait for elections so I can vote for more places to send my money. Yours, too! I'll pass a parks levy and a library levy and a school levy and I'll drive my Chevy to the levy and pitch in a trunkful of cash. Send an agent over here with my bill and I'll fire off a check. Just don't make me do them.

When TurboTax first came out, I bought a copy for about twelve dollars and cranked it up. That took a while; my old PC got all belchy over that sort of thing and gassed on all morning, installing drivers and putters and I don't know what-all. There'd be a visual for the installation progress that looked like someone pushing a crayon through a capillary. It was intolerable to watch. I'd have to go away and start drinking and hope that when I came back I would find no error window or hear an orchestral chord of doom. It was always dicey. But then when everything settled down, I started feeding it data, and TurboTax methodically sent everything where it was supposed to go. It was just like what your body does automatically when you put a sandwich in it: without your even thinking about it, it sends a bit to the organs and a bit to the muscles and slabs a big old Schedule D on your rear end on its way out, and calls it a day. It was brilliant.

Then the program asked me if I wanted to print out my return. Sure! And all the worksheets for my records? Why not? I hit the button. When I saw Worksheet CXL.VI, Rendering Unto Caesar, I was alarmed, but did not know how to stop the printer, and it pooped out paper by the ream for twenty minutes, while I flapped frantically around it like Lucy Ricardo.

The next year I bought the TurboTax for twenty-five dollars and it only took about eight tries, two hours and four beers to get it installed, and it even found all my previous year's data and sucked that in. Brilliant. There were a few hitches here and there, but I was a happy customer. Good thing, too, because now I had become dependent on this software that knew where all my stuff was.

The third year TurboTax ($55) detected that I was not the simple soul I had made myself out to be, and started asking probing questions. Do you have any passive activity loss carryovers from a prior year? Well, I don't rightly know, Turb, but let me ask you this: in Flaubert's classic novel Mme. Bovary, is Emma a sophisticated aristocrat born by mistake into a bourgeois prison, or is she simply a middle-class girl obsessed with a richer life?

Turb doesn't have a sense of humor.

This year, I bought the TurboTax ($1,436) and introduced it to my new iMac ($5,333,000), which slurped the disc into the screen somewhere. I have no idea where it went, or how it was planning to find last year's data from there. Last I saw my data, they'd been incinerated inside the smoking hulk of a haunted Dell, with Windows Vista used as an accelerant. I let 'er rip and got up to hunt down some beer but only got halfway to the refrigerator when an encouraging beep sounded, with overtones of a celestial choir, and there was my software installed and my data located and everything ready to roar. Sadly, I have become even less simple. New questions arose. Did the decedent of the IRA of which you are a beneficiary turn 70-1/2 in 2008? Turb, honey? Do you know what "decedent" means? It means "no longer turning."

There was more. I decided I had a business--writing is a business, albeit not the kind in which you make money--so it had lots of questions. Do I have a home office? I thought I did, but in order to take tax advantage of that, I needed to know the square footage of my house and how much I'd spent to keep it warm, lit and relatively free of garbage. Then it was a simple matter of determining what 36/2750ths of the total of my utility bills, property tax and insurance is. And just like that, my home office turned back into a guest bedroom.

I still don't know what a cost basis is, but I do know I don't want the worksheets, I know how to say "stop that" to the printer, and I can't wait for the spring primary. I'm going to buy us a new park.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bad Day At The Zoo

Everyone associated with the Rio Grande Zoo in New Mexico was horrified to discover their beloved giraffe Kashka had been dismembered and stuffed in a dumpster, but how else are you going to get a giraffe in a dumpster?

Kashka had recently been euthanized when she suffered a devastating leg injury after falling. It is not surprising that a simple fall might be more consequential to such a highly vertical animal, and Kashka was said to have had six calves, so that compounds the injury. There is a protocol involved, of course, with disposal of zoo animals. They are never tossed in the lion's cage: visitors do not appreciate that much Nature. And apparently there is no cemetery. This is certainly a relief to the grounds crew, inasmuch as a simple grave would not suffice for the likes of a giraffe, which would require a trench no matter how you fold it up. The standard procedure is to remove the dead animal to the local landfill. The zoo employee responsible for disposing of Kashka had, in fact, previously ushered a sea lion to the landfill, so he was no doubt familiar with the plan. But time gets tight, there's always an immense amount of clean-up to accomplish at any zoo, there's one's Facebook page to update, and let's face it: the contents of the dumpster do end up in the landfill. Nevertheless the employee was not commended for his efficiency.

It is hard to imagine how he was able to chop up the giraffe and get it in the dumpster without anyone knowing about it. But that is the story, and the zoo is sticking to it. The grisly discovery was made by the local garbage driver, who is said to have spotted the giraffe in the dumpster--at least the parts that weren't already spotted. He was taken aback.

It put me in mind of a similar caper in this area in the nineties. A woman was discovered to have murdered her boyfriend, cut him up into little pieces and, over time, flushed him down the toilet. According to her roommate, the woman had previously threatened to "blow him up," and spent a lot of time in her extremely foul-smelling bedroom, emerging occasionally with items in plastic bags. Furthermore, she carried a toilet plunger in her car, and there was a large "pool of organic matter" in the attic. All of this struck the authorities as suspicious. But what finally did her in was the discovery of boyfriend nuggets in the septic tank in the back yard. She might have gotten away clean if she'd just been on the sewer system.

I do feel for the garbage man at the zoo. It must have given him quite a start. Back when we had an adorable terrier dog, I clipped her fur every summer out in the back yard. On one of these occasions, I arranged her clippings into a terrier sculpture and left it out on the lawn. When Dave came home, he thought the dog had died. After we laughed about that, I woke up the next day and glanced out at the lawn and had the same reaction, and I'd put it there. We agreed to put the fur in the garbage can, where it horrified us both one more time each. That's four dead dog scares in two days. I'm sure it would have been even worse with a giraffe.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Woo Woo

I've seen a number of perfectly good amphibians in these parts, although not near as many as I'd like, but I've never seen a Northwestern salamander or a Northern Red-Legged frog. They're famously reclusive, and rarely bother to get out at all except on cool, rainy nights, which is when I'm watching reruns of House. My dad and I used to tromp the swamps in precisely those conditions looking for spotted salamanders in the spring, but that was an east-coast glory and I've gotten out of the habit here. Nevertheless I am confident of their existence because I am an official Amphibian Egg Mass Monitor with a badge and everything, and I have seen their bodacious egg blobs. (Using much the same logic, we can infer the existence of letter carriers by the appearance of Netflix.)

Both species leave large egg masses, distinguishable by their size (orange, grapefruit) on the Universal Citrus Scale, the same one used to describe fibroid tumors. The frog, in fact, puts out a mass easily three times its own size. It is a feat comparable to someone like me giving birth to a fully-formed Rush Limbaugh, covered in gelatinous goo and held under water for several weeks. Give me a moment...ah. All right, I'm back.

Amphibian sexual behavior differs from human in many ways, notably in the lack of penises and penis-related activity and advertising, and the males have to rely on attitude, romance and some really big thumb-pads. Cuddling and spooning play a big role. Amplexus refers to an ardent hug that can last for hours or days but does not require medical intervention. The Northwestern salamander (Ambystoma gracile) is the more gentlemanly of our two target species. He is the strong, silent type, and during courtship he rubs his chin along the female's head. He then deposits a sperm packet on the bottom of the pond, and his emission, should she choose to accept it, is picked up by the female to fertilize her eggs, which she attaches to suitable vegetation. A decorator is called in to festoon the egg mass with algae, and the young are hatched within weeks and ready to apply for college.

On the other hand, the male Red-Legged frog (Rana aurora aurora*), for a fellow without a penis, can still be sort of a dick. He will put an amplexus move on anything in sight, including fruit, Northwestern salamanders and other male frogs, so in that respect, he does resemble a human. When a male is clasped by another male, he emits a "release" call, unless of course he doesn't, not that Pat Robertson needs to know about this. Once engaged in amplexus with a receptive female, he sings a low-intensity note every second into the female's ear, audible only to her. Sweet nothings and the hug are his entire repertoire, and it seems to work most of the time. However, if a female is not receptive, she will sound release calls, stick her legs out straight and roll over repeatedly--again, startlingly similar to human behavior.

With both species, eggs are laid in shallow, still waters, such as a wetland pond, and it is important that the pond retain enough water to see the tadpoles through to maturity. Since many of these wet patches dry up by June, the animals have evolved to breed during a quite short season, which means most of them are Pisces or Aries. In contrast, humans are able to breed all year long, since their young in many cases remain in their parents' care for up to 35 years.

*Rana aurora aurora would be an excellent name for a girl. It sounds lovely, and if she comes home late and can no longer pronounce her own name, you can ground her.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Devil Toilet

It was three in the morning, right on schedule for these sorts of things, when Dave noticed a cascade of water coming out of the light fixture in the ceiling. He is a sharp fellow and deduced almost at once that something was amiss. Naturally, it was coming from the Devil Toilet. He turned off the water supply and tried to get back to sleep while contemplating a day spent plumbing. You'd have to pluck your nostril hairs at a leaf-blower concert to achieve a similar sedative effect.

It is a testament to Dave that he will always tackle a plumbing emergency even though nothing in this world makes him more wretched. And he's perfectly generous about spreading his wretchedness around to anyone within swearing distance. Every incident provokes a dozen trips to the hardware store and one to the whiskey store. I used to tie notes to the dog whenever I needed to tell Dave something was leaking.

The Devil Toilet has been a pain under the ass ever since it was installed. It's in the guest bathroom, and we never asked much of it. It just needed to be white and inexpensive, and when a super low-flow model was presented to us, we said fine. When you push the flush handle, it pins your ears back and blasts you right out of the room. It sounds like the space shuttle taking off. There isn't even any water in the tank. The tank just has a large rubber mystery bulb in it filled, apparently, with jet fuel. You most certainly do not want to be seated on the thing while you flush. The vacuum will suck in your entire fanny, making the toilet seat look herniated from underneath, and you'll have to belch repeatedly just to break the seal. If you are a guest attempting to sneak a midnight potty break, rest assured that everyone on the whole block knows what you've done. And that's if it actually works. The first two or three times you try it, it just makes hairball noises. Any one of these dreadful traits could be gotten used to, for a permanent resident. But it is the worst possible plumbing fixture for a guest bathroom.

So I was thrilled when Dave assessed the situation and declared that the toilet itself needed to be replaced. "Are you going to go buy a new one today?" I asked. "Nope," he said. "I think I'll just use the one in the basement."

This is an amazing thing. We can't ever find a pencil or a pen or a roll of tape in this house, but here we had an extra toilet just handy by. Not plumbed, mind you. It's just a toilet in the basement, stashed away where a passing drunk won't mistake it for a working item. We picked it up from an office on my mail route, where it was being replaced by a super low-flow one. (Heh.) Just in case we ever needed one.

The Devil Toilet and everything else that went in our house addition was professionally installed by Rob the Plumber. We love Rob. He's an enormous man, in every direction. He's about five thousand pounds, and he's not even fat. All right, he is, but not as fat as you might expect. When we first met him we were much relieved to find him wearing overalls. I'd pop in on him from time to time, checking on progress, until one day he was crouched next to the bathtub wearing sweatpants with the elastic in a state of complete surrender. There's a record of that moment on my retinas to this day. The Colorado River never carved out anything bigger. In retrospect, I believe it was a deliberate customer repulsion tactic. Nobody really likes supervision.

Dave got the basement toilet installed in the guest bath with a minimum of agitation. In a hopeful portent of plumbing to come, it fit against the wall without a micron to spare. I did ask--as delicately as if I were chucking a grizzly under the chin--if I could help in any way, and whereas in a normal household one might be asked to fetch a wrench, or mop up a mess, my specific instructions were to hold off pooping so I could "have one ready in the chamber to inaugurate the new toilet."

So I held off. The urge went away and hasn't come back yet. I'm full of anticipation. I think it's anticipation.