Saturday, July 31, 2010

Credulous Critters

A terrific windstorm came up suddenly last summer, turning a calm blue day into a raging dark in a matter of seconds. We love storms like that, and hurried up to the tower to get a little closer to the action. "This is great," I told Dave, "and what makes it even better is I'm no longer a mail carrier. I used to hate having to walk up there at Main Street and King in a wind like this; I always thought I'd get flattened by an elm tree." Fifteen seconds later the phone rang.

It was Carl. He was calling from my old route. "You should see it, Murr," he said excitedly. "One of the big elms on Main and King just came down." We laughed and chatted and he continued to give me a blow-down by blow-down description. Now, was this an extraordinary and meaningful coincidence? Evidence of my powers of prophecy? Hardly. Those elms were destined to come down in a big wind. We were having a big wind. Down they came.

People are wired to maneuver through a sea of happenstance, trolling for connections, snagging events almost at random and examining them for significance. We draw lines in the stars and yank them towards us, until the universe becomes more cozy, more hospitable--anything but indifferent.

Some famous person dies and a few days later another one dies, because that's what we all do, and invariably someone will point out that "they always come in threes." Eventually someone else dies, the ghostly trio is wrapped up all tidy, and everyone quits counting until the next one, when it starts over.

A woman of our acquaintance with way more than the usual smarts surprised us one day by relating her visit to a roadside attraction. "It's called the Oregon Vortex," she said. "It's this weird place on the earth where the rules of gravity don't apply, water runs uphill, and you actually grow or shrink depending on where you're standing. Brooms stand on end. Pendulums hang crooked. It's amazing." We grinned in unison, and then, after a few beats, we realized she was serious.

"Jeez, honey, that's not real. They use optical illusions."

Our friend was undeterred. "No, really, it's a spherical force field of magnetic disturbances. The Native Americans won't go near it. Birds won't even nest there." Well, poo. Our nearest Native Americans, who live only a block away, have never dropped by, and birds won't nest in our yard, but you don't see me charging eight bucks a pop to get in. I kept going. "I saw the same thing back when I was growing up back east--Mystery Hole," I said. "I remember making Daddy pull over."

"Well, it is real," she insisted. "There may be more than one place like that on earth. They might have some sort of connection," she went on.

Dave piped up. "Yeah--Route 66," he said. (It has already been pointed out that Dave and I are no fun.)

The fact is, humans are naturally credulous critters. That's why so many people see the Virgin Mary in a bowl of oatmeal. If you're looking for the Virgin Mary, you could probably find her in one out of every ten bowls of oatmeal, given the right light source. There she'll be, but it doesn't seem like much to build a shrine around.

Dave and I run up to the roof whenever there is a thunderstorm. We love a good thunderstorm, and we go to the highest point in the neighborhood, just under our metal pig weathervane, to love it more thoroughly. It's not recommended. So if we get sliced out of the gene pool, don't read anything into it. It don't mean a thing. It's just natch'l.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Window Biology 101

Somewhere in this house there's proof that I have a biology degree, and although it is now entirely vestigial, I maintain it qualifies me to blather on about chickadees. If Glenn Beck believes having a microphone entitles him to have opinions, I think I'm on solid ground here. I've got biology all over my yard, ants and bees and pollen and slugs, and I could get all facty about any one of those, but I have a chickadee house four feet away from my writing chair and decided to train my biologist skills on that. Here is what I observed.

First thing a prospective pair of chickadees does is poke at each other a little, same as humans. They do this because they look exactly alike. If you're a chickadee and you poke at another chickadee and make it go "dee-dee-dee," you know you have another chickadee there, and not yourself. Otherwise you couldn't tell.

Mating pairs of chickadees are loyal. They stick together because if there were three of them they'd never be able to sort themselves out. We've had the same pair for two years now, and the only reason I know is that our pair have different voices; one of them is much higher pitched, "Oh, Ricky-ee-ee-ee." That's Lucy. Some boy birds court their ladies by puffing themselves up, same as humans. Ricky courts his by bringing her delicious items from the Lepidoptera order. I like Ricky.

After Lucy has consumed every proffered larva in the yard, she and Ricky start hauling in the furniture. They come up with a nice soft green mattress and set up shop in new-chickadee manufacture. After a bit the box begins peeping, and Lucy and Ricky start bringing in grubs at a rate of one a minute all day long. If they collaborated on bringing in one single grub the same mass as their daily accumulation, it would be the size of a sleeping bag. Fledging day is the day the children fly off, and I was very excited to witness this event, not knowing if the birds would appear as little balls of lint and drift to the ground, or show some athletic chops and zig off to a branch. After consulting the literature, I learned that chickadees hatch in two weeks and fledge when your sister comes to town and you have to be somewhere else.

After a certain period of inactivity around the bird box, we tossed out the mattress and scrubbed the floors and put an ad for the place on Craigslist. Before we had any applicants, some chickadees came back and went in and out of the house. I did not observe any new furniture going in. Sometimes one would go in and stay for quite a while. Sometimes one would hang out on a branch and get all fluffy and flappy and another one would pop a grub in its mouth. I was confused, and consulted my guide. Oh joy! Brand-new baby chickadees are, helpfully enough, identical to every other chickadee in every respect. I have checked this fact very thoroughly.

My friend Julie Zickefoose is so absorbent that she readily recognizes individual birds and can reel off the names of their grandchildren. They pop in every year to say howdy and thanks for the seeds, and she inquires after their health and puts a little something away for their tiny college funds. If Julie were here, she would probably point out any number of imaginary ways these chickadees do not resemble each other, and you can believe her and her fancy degree and years and years of close observation or no. I'm telling you there isn't a dime's worth of difference between them. They've got Cute nailed down and haven't seen fit to tamper with the template. It is only my rigorous scientific training, four years of it undertaken while simultaneously studying alcohol, sex and hallucinogens, that allows me to draw any conclusions about these clones.

To wit: it isn't Mom and Dad coming in to egg up. It's the kids. They've come back, they're hanging out, they've drug in a beanbag chair and a game of Twister and they're checking to see if there's anything in the fridge. They have no plans and no inkling they've worn Mom and Dad down to a nubbin and they're still asking for sandwiches. They're getting them, too. If Lucy and Ricky don't put their adorable feet down, those kids will never get a job.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cool Beans

One wonders how some foods were discovered. Who was the first to defy the conventional wisdom that tomatoes were poisonous and say, "Death be damned, it just isn't pizza without it?" What lovesick sailor slapped a tongue on the first oyster? Whoever had the gumption to saw into the first chicken-fried steak? Well, two out of three ain't bad.

We have a pretty good idea how the first batch of Kopi luwak, or Civet Coffee, came about, however. Civet coffee is made from coffee beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a small mammal called the Asian Palm Civet. All the way through. The civet naturally prefers the very finest, sweetest beans at the very pinnacle of ripeness. Coffee bean farmers, who maintain a dicey profit margin as it is, naturally detest the civet. After attempts to interest the public in Fried-Civet-On-A-Stick fell flat, someone noticed that the coffee beans survived the trip through the mammals virtually intact, and thought: hmm. Let's brew some of this up and serve it to some obnoxious rich guy down at the hotel.

It was a hit. The coffee was proclaimed the richest and most flavorful in the world, "almost syrupy, thick, with a hint of chocolate." Some elements of the civets' digestive systems removed the bitterness from the beans and kicked in that certain something extra, which was not chocolate. "How are we going to sell this crap?" wondered the plantation owners, trailing a stick through clumps of civet poop, but that, of course, is the time-honored job of Marketing. And people were inclined to pay through the nose for the coffee. Good thing, too, because the gathering of fecally enhanced beans is very labor-intensive, as is the preparation of the beans (described as including a very, very, very thorough washing). Civet coffee sells for upwards of $99 a cup in London. Before you can say "Chock Full O' Doots," a new market was born.

Initially, only a few of the smaller coffee farmers collected the clumps of fecal matter, considering it their civet doody. Retrieval of the poop is a time-consuming process in the wild, where, according to Wikipedia, "a civet would defecate as a means to mark its territory." [Scientific aside: this is not the primary reason the civet defecates. And if the civet is fastidious enough to poop outside his living room, he is not necessarily "marking his territory," although I suppose it comes down to the same thing.] Eventually, farmers took to keeping civets on a short leash, and doot collection was simplified.

I do not know whether the coffee is as delightful as it is made out to be. I do know that there is a certain set of humans who are willing to pay $500 for something they wouldn't drop five bucks on. Somewhere in Asia today some man is forking over suitcases of cash for a vial of powdered tiger penis to get the same effect he could have gotten with a two-dollar porn video.

Fast on the heels of the genuine civet poop coffee market's success comes the effort to produce imitation civet poop coffee. "True civet-poop taste without the civet," says Marketing, and indeed there has been some success in replicating the civet's digestive enzyme complement and treating beans with it. The demand is expected to grow due to the dwindling of the civet population, brought about because most of the larger coffee producers would still rather kill civets than scoop poop. A lab in Vietnam got the jump on its competitors in producing simulated civet coffee during the Great Civet Constipation Epidemic of '98. Their efforts were the primary engine behind the proliferation of Grunt 'N' Grind franchises all over southeast Asia. Real or imitation, however, civet coffee is good to the last dropping.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Snowcone Boy

"No, I'm just--I'm just trying to explain to my son, here--I'm trying to explain to him that he can't always--"

The woman at the pool shook her head as if it were full of bugs. "I mean, no, we're not in line for the bathroom."

That was the question I'd asked her. She was so wrapped up in explaining something to her son that she didn't realize she didn't need to explain it to everybody. And it shouldn't have taken much explanation for her son. One smack upside the head should have cleared it all up.

The son really, really, really wanted a snow cone. There were snow cones available right outside. All mommy needed to do was fetch him one, and, as far as he could see, problem solved.

"You're not getting a snow cone."

But he really, really, really wanted one.

"Are you hungry?"

He really wanted a snow cone.

"Because if you're hungry, we can all go home right now. We can all of us, your sisters and you, we can just turn right around and go home. We can have some lunch and then we can all get in the car and come back here and then we can go swimming in the afternoon swim period."

This is the modern parenting paradigm. You negotiate by offering the child choices, and that way the child never has to feel the sting of utter refusal. First time I saw it in action, a young mother was begging her child to walk south down the street with her. The child had north in mind, and hard. Mommy took a few steps south, making wheedly noises, but her kid wasn't worried about being left behind. Sure enough, mommy doubled back and caught up with the northbound train. "We're going this way," she sang out, pointing south. "Would you like to walk, or would you like to skip?" Skipping really hit the spot. The little girl skipped north. Man, what a skipper! Mommy had lots of time to come up with a new choice before she caught up.

It's quite a time-consuming routine. It takes a bucket of patience. The woman at the pool was hanging onto hers by a very thin thread, and the son was sawing on it with a razor-blade whine. He was this close to a snow cone, he felt certain.

Three other children stood by anxiously watching negotiations. They had their swim suits on and were wrapped in towels. The pool was a few yards away. Would he call her bluff?

"Okay, let's go home," he said. Yes, he would!

The mother was completely at a loss. Her other three children were staring at her, waiting to see if they had to go back home and change and have lunch and come back in a few hours.

Presumably, the deal with offering choices is that the child will always feel a measure of control. Because he can choose, he will not feel it necessary to schedule a tantrum. Sure enough, Junior here had a measure of control. Actually, he had all of it. Mom was down to one choice, herself. Cave in, or murder him, which is still frowned upon when mothers do it, even in the blue states.

My parents were also into choices. I can't remember specifically the kinds of choices I was offered, but one of them was always "or else." If further explanation was required, it was done with the flat of the hand, which had the advantage of being quick and easy to understand. My older sister, who was smarter and more sensitive, was able to get the gist of the choice with a significantly raised eyebrow. Neither of us wasted any time on a tantrum, or the whiny run-up, neither of which ever bore fruit. Ever. A couple times a year I sensed that Mommy could be talked into buying a Danish at the Safeway because she wanted one too. That was about the extent of it. I didn't even try it if I didn't catch the Danish-aisle linger on the way to Dairy.

The neighbor girl used to get beaten with a switch. She had to go find the switch herself. That always had a sickening Jesus-lugging-his-own-cross aspect to it. But this wasn't considered unusual at the time. It did have the advantage of introducing the child to the concept that life isn't fair and she can't always have what she wants. The whole idea that I should get my way, just because, never entered my head. There were people in charge in my house, and they weren't me. This seemed normal and right. My mother told me later that I was spanked at least once a day for the first two or three years of my life, until I outgrew it. I remember two of the spankings. I didn't think I had them coming. Evidently, all the rest of them were right on the money. I bear no scars. And mom and dad probably never even considered murder. All in all, a fine system.

Back at the pool, Snowcone Boy sized up the situation and discovered he was at an advantage in the ongoing negotiations. Mom had made a tell-tale hesitation, as her other three children looked up in concern, lower lips quivering. Would she really take them all home again when they were this close to getting in the pool? Homeland Security would have assessed the Constrained Exasperation Alert in the red zone. Snowcone Boy almost grinned. He saw a snowcone in his immediate future, in exchange for agreeing not to return home for lunch, plus a forfeited candy bar to be named later. Life was good.

It was Dave who had the perfect intervention idea. At 6'5" and two hundred pounds, he was just the fellow to carry it out, too. Just clap a meaty hand on the boy's shoulder, spin him around and march him off, saying "All right, champ. Let's go meet your new mother. You've broken this one."

If everyone sends us one dollar, we can probably make bail.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fifth-Grade Math

I was struck by a comment by Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, who was upset by a judge's recent ruling overturning a federal law banning gay marriage. She said: "We can't allow the lowest common denominator states, like Massachusetts, to set standards for the country." Well, how very hypotenuse of her.

I have no idea what she was getting at by that, but I don't think she was calling Massachusetts the smallest polynomial that is exactly divisible by each denominator of a set of fractions. I imagine she was just intellectually overcome because she personally is easily creeped out by, for instance, the thought of two people of the same or similar sex being able to cosine for a loan, which is important if you don't live in a commutative property state. Worse yet she suspects that such people, if encouraged, might be inclined to multiply. I've tried and tried to understand this point of view, and respond politely, but I can usually sum up my position with one digit.

Ms. Lafferty is indeed interested in education, as evidenced by this quote on the Traditional Values Coalition website: President Barack Obama [is] quietly rushing through legislation that would actually bring cross-dressing teachers into your child's classroom...your children will be trapped in classes taught by drag queens. God, I hope they're math teachers.

It's a little galling to take values lessons from someone who isn't as smart as a fifth-grader. People who can't count shouldn't be in charge of deciding which people don't count. So I'd like to offer a little arithmetic primer. Visualize a fraction as one number divided by another; we can use the Mason-Dixon line as a visual aid. The denominator is a big blobby state below the line, and the numerator is a little state more on top of things. So, say, if we are trying to determine the fraction of states that uphold liberty for all, we could say that it is one Vermont-Texasth of them. See, that's not workable. How can we have a situation we can't even pronounce?

When it comes to civil rights, if we're going to have one nation indivisible with freedom and justice for all, it's going to have to be 50/50. That's my angle, anyway, and I think it's the right angle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Vampires Among Us

The first mosquito was annoying. It wasn't until I slapped the second, a minute or two later, that I was flooded with panic. It hit me like that white flash of shock you get when you've only popped into the store for some cigarettes and maybe one game of video poker and suddenly a few hours later you remember you've left the kids in the car with the windows rolled up and a case of Ho-Hos and a little bottle of something to help you get some sleep. Pure dread.

I ran around the place looking for my strong, lean, brave man but when I found him it was too late. He was already slumped over, whimpering, drained, anemic, and a little pudgy. The pudge was due to a uniform layer of fused welts swelling his body a half inch in every direction. "I'm gonna die," he said.

He doesn't scare easily. This is the guy who maintained for years that "anybody can quit smoking. It takes a man to face lung cancer."

Mosquitoes adore Dave. They plan their holidays around him. When they're done with him they all go off and lie down, patting their bellies and burping and maybe watching a little football. For years we have employed him at barbecues to stand a little off to the side and draw mosquitoes. They'd be ecstatic. We'd hear them yelling "wheeeeeeee-oooooo" with the Doppler effect kicking in as they zoomed overhead. If we brought him enough hot dogs he'd stand over there all afternoon and smack himself like a masochist with Tourette's.

One time, in Maine, my sister and Dave and I walked through a mosquito-drenched forest to get to the beach (this is him on said beach with his socks stylishly pulled up as far as they will go to cut down on exposed skin). We expected the beach to be windy enough to repel mosquitoes and it was, except not these mosquitoes. Dave bailed out in fear when he got to the water and discovered they were still there. He ran a mile back to the car, shut himself and a few hundred mosquitoes inside and maniacally slapped the living crap out of every surface in it. Anyone happening upon the scene would have been concerned enough to call the authorities, after first pulling back a few miles.

We're not supposed to have mosquitoes in Portland. Screen porches are unknown. We only keep screens on a couple of windows to keep the cat in. Even Dave gets no more than a bite a night at worst, from the single mosquito in a mile radius. But suddenly this year we have mosquitoes, and their arrival coincided with the temperatures rising to near a thousand degrees, and at night we left a couple windows open a crack, leaving all the lights off. Dave woke up with a mosquito biting his lip, which swelled enormously. He looked like Angelina Jolie with a beard, which is surprisingly attractive. "What more can I do?" he wailed, and other than trying it again the next night with his pants off, I couldn't think of a thing.

The reason we have mosquitoes this year is the record-breaking rains we had in May and June, brought to us by the same folks that brought unseasonal snow, monster hurricanes and successive hundred-year floods. Mainly people like James "Global Warming Is A Hoax" Inhofe, who also doesn't think much of universal health care. If Dave ever gets out of the ICU, that's who I'm sending the bill to.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Whiz Kid

Citizens of Toronto are on the alert for a band of pickpockets who distract their victims by strafing them with fecal matter. The perpetrators work in concert, one flinging poo, one pointing out the flung poo, and one executing the robbery, and presumably all share the profits, although I should think that the one in charge of collecting ammunition might rate a bonus. Underpaid employees of Forensics have confirmed the fecal matter to be human. Which brings two observations to mind. One: Evolution is not all it's cracked up to be. Two: at least they're not using the fake stuff.

There is a disturbing trend towards the use of phony bodily humors and something really should be done before it gets out of hand. Faux poo, vomit and blood are still mainly used in the novelty industry, and the mock mucus market is still in its infancy, being mostly confined to a single storefront in Pittsburgh. (Its product, "I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Booger," has remained stuck on the shelves, and the proprietor blames slow sales on the economy. He rigorously denies that his product is illegal. "That blows," he told reporters recently. "It's not," he is believed to have added.)

The most egregious use of fake humors is the trade in false bile, truckloads of which are off-loaded to the Republican National Committee daily, which resolutely defends its use. "We have way too much legislation to thwart to be limited to authentic indignation," a spokesman said.

But the fake fluid most alarming in its implications, for my money, is the thriving market in false urine. Perhaps I take this a bit too personally, but Dave's and my entire lifestyle is built on a foundation of genuine American pee.

Dave recently retired from a career as a refractory hod carrier, a position that frequently required him to work long shifts in boilers so hot that the wheelbarrow tire would explode and the plank it was running on would catch fire. Workers were sealed up in these areas and given a gallon of water an hour and let out only after their juices ran clear when they were poked with a fork. It's not a job for everybody, but union wages did attract a small number of men to sign up. Then, in the eighties, drug screening tests became routine. Of the tiny subset of humans willing to do Dave's kind of work, an astonishing number at any given time were lacking their driver's licenses or their freedom, and although many could still pass urine, far fewer could pass a urine test. Dave might have been among these except for his foresight in developing a broad and diversified portfolio of vices, so it was a simple matter of re-balancing these and presto--full employment for Dave. "Crap," the foreman would say, "we'll be needing a dozen drug-free guys for the Hoffman job," and our phone would ring, and Dave would join a small group of other men who were probably sleeping it off when they got the call.

Ultimately, it was not his stellar work ethic, his stamina, his strength, or his willingness to endure pain that got him these jobs, although all of those became important in his marriage. It was his pee. Dave's pee was golden.

But now, it turns out, workers have been cheating the tests with false urine for years. Some have employed the urine of other animals, resulting in a workforce that tests negative for marijuana but positive for hoof-and-mouth. But most have purchased, legally, vials of synthetic urine. Sometimes these can be detected by underpaid lab employees by smell alone, but not always. It's scandalous. It's changed the whole game.

But for thirty years, Bromley Masonry, C.H. Murphy Refractory and I all had something in common. Dave was our number-one guy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Caution: Curmudgeon Crossing

"Sorry I'm late," my friend hollered out, trotting up to me on the street corner.

"NO," I said, leaving my mouth hanging open. My mouth was waiting for the rest of the phrase to emerge. My friend looked startled. She wasn't that late.

The problem was I was caught midway between trends and had stopped my phrase before saying "no problem" but hadn't quite accessed the new wording, "no worries." If you were able to peer into my brain at that moment, you would have seen it all pixelated and momentarily frozen, waiting to resolve. My VCR brain was still piddling around looking for a tape at the video store when the world had gone completely DVD. Or whatever it is they're using now. It's hard to keep up.

When I was in my teens, one way you could tell if someone was an old fart was if they used the word "groovy." No one I knew ever once said "groovy"--that was an urban myth. I do distinctly remember hearing the word "hang-up" for the first time, and my whole generation was flinging that little locution around with confidence inside of a week. So I consulted a young person a while back about "word up." What did it mean? He explained. "Okay," I said, feeling it out, "so if you said 'it sure is hot today,' I could say 'word up?'"

"Or just 'word,'" he offered. I tried it out.

"But really, no one says either of those anymore," he finished. Well crap. I was trying to hop a train that had already left the station.

We all learn our language in a big mass, all at once. When you meet someone new, and she has a cute way of saying something, your brain takes note of it and shoots it out of your own mouth soon after, without your even telling it to. Stuff gets into the community system. Back when Watergate was the only Gate around, the lawyer John Dean was on TV frequently, explaining what had happened "at this point in time." It sounded ever so exact. Before Mr. Dean, things happened "at this point" or "at this time" but no one ever had that stop-action precision that he was able to bring to the picture. Mr. Dean said it, and infected other people, who began to say it on TV, and now we can't get rid of it. It's not a deliberate choice. You'll just say "at this point" and the "in time" hitches right onto it. Unless you're curmudgeonly, like me, and make a point of not saying it.

Some of these phrases can be traced back to a particular day, or point in time, if you will. During the Clinton impeachment embarrathon, someone wrapped up his testimony by saying "at the end of the day," meaning "ultimately" or "when all is said and done." It sounded very poetic, and I took note. The very next day, an entirely different senator concluded his statement by saying "at the end of the day," and I thought: uh oh. Sure enough, the phrase went viral ("went viral:" c. 1994). Every time I hear it now it's like catching the edge of a buried splinter. My reaction is so profound that I recoiled when I read about the sun dipping below the horizon at the end of the day, and had to remind myself that that is, in fact, what it does at the end of the day. Oh. Well then. Okay.

It's not just phrases. Even voice patterns sweep across the population in an epidemic fashion. Like most old farts, I got irritable about the questioning intonation that young people, almost without exception, began to employ a few decades ago. I just found it so annoying? I never thought I'd miss it until it got replaced by the current mode wherein all speech peters out into a little gravel bar at the back of the throat, as though the speaker has suddenly become way too tired to prop up her own larynx. Everybody of a certain age speaks that way now, even professional radio announcers.

Some stuff just gets mentally embedded and lurches out willy-nilly. A friend told me proudly that her young son had gone out Christmas-shopping "on his own recognizance." I don't think she meant anything by that, but she'd already said "on his own" and the "recognizance" didn't come unhooked. It just trailed along like verbal toilet paper on the conversational shoe. In the same manner, people are always sweating "like a banshee" or driving "like a banshee" when all banshees ever did was wail.

People used to wait for other people and have conversations about things. Now they wait on people and have conversations around things. And then there was the first time I saw a poster that said "What part of NO don't you understand?" I thought it was very clever. So did everybody else. Now we keep running into stuff like "What part of you can have my gun when you pry it out of my cold dead hands don't you understand?" Not so clever. Kinda dumb, really.

Since I've set myself up as the expert in trend-spotting, I'll let you in on the latest one. You will now hear it twenty times a day on NPR interviews. Here it is: "That's a really great question."

It replaces "Um."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

It's Like Walking On Air

They found a 5,500-year-old shoe the other day in a cave in Armenia. Just the one--it was like the sale rack at Nordstrom's. The archaeologist who found it was very excited at first, because she had always dreamed of finding a shoe. Except she was hoping for something in a pump. This one was more of a Buster Brown--a sturdy leather number, musk ox maybe, in size 7 with eyelets and laces with the little mastodon-ivory jobbers at the ends to make the lacing easier. A fine shoe in every way, and just the sort of thing I might have picked out. It was perfectly preserved in mounds of sheep dung. This is a sensible place to look for a shoe. Even back then, if a guy loses his shoe in a deep enough pile of sheep poo, he's going to look at it and think, shoot. I can always get another musk ox.

I don't have a lot of shoes. Usually there's a cute-shoe gene strapped right on to the X chromosome, but in my case it's missing. I not only rarely refer to shoes as "cute," but I'm drawn to shoes that look more like men's, and buy women's styles only under duress. This is true even though I am aware that Dave is an aficionado of women's shoes. I wore a uniform at work and have never had to maintain a proper wardrobe. It was a chore to come up with a decent outfit on special occasions, because I didn't even have the basics, so every time I would have to buy hosiery and accessories and a suitable coat as well to pull it all together. Plus the shoes. At that point I'd usually give up and suggest we stay home instead.

When our friend Peg got married, a group of us decided to doll up big-time, so we trolled the thrift stores together until we got a theme (it was "pink"). I even found some pink three-dollar heels to match. Dave warned me, soberly, that I'd need to practice wearing the heels, and that he'd need to be nearby to spot me. "Walk towards me," he said, so I did, then "okay, turn and walk away from me--slowly, slowly," so I did, and this went on for a very long time. I was pretty sure I had it down, but Dave insisted, in a dreamy, far-away voice, that I couldn't be too careful.

I did buy a few pairs of shoes through the years that I really liked, and even when they went out of fashion, I couldn't give them up. This worked out a few years ago when my nearly-new Uggs from the eighties came roaring back, but it was a whole different story with the Cherokees. The Cherokees were ribbon sandals with a saucy ankle strap and a towering, narrow rubbery platform heel that nearly doubled my height. Sexy as hell, I thought, and because the heel was rubbery, they were easy to wear, even for someone like me who's been known to tip over just from changing my mind too fast. I bought them in the early seventies but they fell out of favor when a different kind of heel gained ascendance, and I stashed them in the closet. For 25 years.

Then we got invited to a fancy dinner and I bought a slinky dress and realized my beloved Cherokees would totally work again. Off we went. As I sashayed into the venue, I stumbled a bit on what looked like gravel. Inside, I stumbled a little more. Finally, I discovered to my horror that my rubbery heels were disintegrating into crumbs with every step. Just before the other guests were able to cop to the fact that I was shrinking visibly before their eyes, I sat at the table and refused to get up. "Jeez, look at that," the person next to me said, "someone dumped their rolls onto the carpet and the crumbs are getting all over. What a putz." At the end of the evening I strolled out of the restaurant barefoot, affecting a bohemian air.

Next time, I'm totally storing them in sheep dung.