Science is abuzz over the discovery of enormous bubbles of gas on either side of the Milky Way galaxy, presumed to have been emitted from a black hole in its center. It is considered a wonder that such a huge phenomenon has escaped their notice before, but I suspect it just means the Milky Way is related to my mother's side of the family.
NASA's finest couldn't have detected gas emanating from my Norwegian forebears. They were, to a person, extremely nice and polite people, and polite people do not foist their emanations on others. It was not possible to smell anything about them that did not come in on their shoes, even during lutefisk season. My mother and her three siblings grew up on a frigid farm in northern North Dakota. The only approved location for activities of elimination was an outhouse in the narrow copse of woods near, but not too near, the house. Every farm had such a copse, referred to for more than one reason as a "windbreak." It was a long, cold march to the biffy in wintertime, and those growing up using it developed sphincter control so exquisite they could have thwarted a sadistic proctologist. By the time I knew my mother, she had either perfected the ability to withhold gas altogether, or it had been somehow sanitized on its passage through a modest, sensible calico.
At least she had children, and thus had learned to contend with, and if necessary communicate about, the business of elimination. Aunt Selma was even more comfortable with the subject, having raised her children in free-spirited California. Uncle Cliff was a bachelor farmer and the nicest man on the planet, and had no immunity to the humiliation of the subject at all.
I was sitting with him during a party at my Aunt Selma's house when she bustled in and asked if he'd seen another guest of hers. He shrugged as vaguely as possible, and she left the room. But she soon came back, demanding to know if the guest had been seen. The shrug failed to fend her off this second time, and it finally leaked out of him that the guest was "indisposed." Aunt Selma frowned. "Do you mean she's in the bathroom?" she asked, and Uncle Cliff surrendered a slight, miserable nod. Aunt Selma left the room, and Uncle Cliff looked abject. "I can't believe she made me say that," he said in a tiny voice.
In North Dakota, snow drifted up to the second floor of the house, some winters. Humans coped using raccoon coats; the Holsteins were on their own. As is their wont, they produced globes of frozen methane all winter long, which thunked softly into the snow. So they were in on the deal, too. When global warming finally begins to thaw the accumulation of antique cow farts, we'll all be sorry. It's no coincidence that frozen methane is a chief component of the atmosphere of Uranus.
Hazel Brewster made it through her whole life without offending a single soul. Lest anyone feel compelled to speculate about bubbles emanating from this corner of the blogosphere, please note: I got only half my genes from her.
Larry, my old tortoiseshell cat, my first cat, has an entire ventricle of my heart all to herself, and she's got it all set up with the comfy chair and fluffy quilt and gas heat and the whole nine yards. That cat got most of my love, and when people were being difficult she got all of it, and then she went and died on me after only seventeen years, in defiance of our previous agreement. After a couple years we picked up the Tater cat, and she has several fine qualities--four, if you include her affectionate teeth, which I don't. Tater's just a fine and sturdy cat, but she has never had the same effect on me as Larry does, even in memory, now that the details of her personal hygiene are fading.
I don't mind telling you this, because Tater doesn't read my blog. She's been featured in it, but she never reads it. Her tastes run more to mouse mysteries and adventure. She does like to apply asshole prints to my manuscripts, but I'm not so sensitive as to consider that an opinion. Larry, on the other hand, would totally have read my blog if I'd had one.
So Dave and I were out walking in the neighborhood the other day and suddenly, here comes this little tortoiseshell kitty from a house a half-block away at full gallop, straight at me like an arrow from a bow, and skids to a halt at my feet. We looked at each other. "Larry?" I said, tentatively, and she flops over to show me that freckledy belly I so adored. We hug. We kiss. One of us gets a belly-rub. Then I tell her we have to be going, and she sits down, and we walk away, and a block later (I looked) she was still sitting and looking at me.
A week later I found an excuse to swing by again, and the house she shot out of was vacant, a For Rent sign in the yard. Well, that's Larry all over: just cuts out on you, after only seventeen years.
Most of my friends believe in something. Some have met ghosts, some have lucky numbers, some hope for reincarnation, some herd coincidences until they corral them into significance, some believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. A large number aspire to eternity in the form of a vaporous spiritual miasma. Almost all would insist that my dearly departed Larry has reassured me that she lives still. I don't know. I'm not really constituted that way.
If you can use your own hair to floss for dingleberries, is it time for a haircut?
If your houseguests comment on how brave (they don't mean brave) you are to have carpet in the bathroom, and you don't have carpet in the bathroom, is it time for a haircut?
Lest anybody tell you otherwise, I have a lot of hair. It's just that half of it is no longer attached. It's all over the house. It gallops along the baseboards, it clumps up in the recliner, it lurks in the drainpipes. There's no denying it, either. When your guest begins pulling a strand from the casserole, and is still pulling it a minute and three feet later, it's mine. Lazy birds scope out my hairbrush for pre-fab housing.
Most of my life I've had either very long or very short hair. Mom used to stab a barrette in it that would stay all day. The clotted blood probably helped. As a teenager I grew it out. I parted it in the middle and sent it to my waist without detour. I dried it into a perfect curtain while pressed up against the back of the sofa, and if an unauthorized pleat showed up, I ironed it out. There wasn't a crinkle in it. It was perfect mid-1960s hair, and it was my adolescent ace in the hole. I may have had to shop at Lerner's, but I didn't have to sleep on soup cans to straighten my locks.
My favorite all-time haircut was a buzz job that stood straight up if I put enough product in it. If I got it cut in the evening, it would look fabulous until about four o'clock the next day, and then I needed a haircut again. I've never been able to part with the cash for makeup or frequent haircuts, so I had to let that one go. Various in-between efforts were stick-straight and limp, so sometime after age 50 I went for the long again. I braid it to keep it from jumping ship every minute of the day. But it's falling out, and here's the thing: now it's not coming back. I finally realized this one day when I had Section One in my hand to begin my braid and went for Sections Two and Three, and they weren't there.
This is another of those tricks that those comedians the Hormones play on you. After a certain age, your hormones inform you that you are no longer of any use to the gene pool, and so you will not be needing your looks, and that includes your hair. Where once you had hair with no body, now you have body with no hair. Without getting into too much detail, this can be okay in some areas, but in other areas you're going to miss it.
So now I have a braided tail that would disgrace a damp whippet and my face is getting wider and taller. Am I keeping it long because I have so little left? And if so, how much less pathetic is that than a comb-over? Something must be done. I have an idea what a lopped version might look like, but it is Ursula Le Guin's literary prowess, more than her haircut, that I aspire to.
So I hesitate. But I had the right hair when I was thirteen years old and it mattered the most, and you can't take that away from me. And when I'm sitting on the toilet, I still have a couple of options available to me: turn my head, and coif.
A struggle has been brewing between two warring factions of the Department of Agriculture, and no clear winner has emerged, except for the American consumer, who now averages one-quarter cheese by volume, and boy, is he happy.
The Department of Agriculture is interested in promoting good health, and its subsidiary, Dairy Management, is interested in promoting cheese. The dilemma arose when the agency promoting health stripped the fat out of the milk. Something needed to be done with the excess fat, and cheese ensued. The government bought it up and stockpiled it in cool caves in Missouri, to the tune of over four billion dollars' worth. Additional semi-liquid Brie deposits are thought to exist in the shale layers.
The problem was exacerbated by cow enhancement. Early cows were very different from the ones we have today, which have been engineered to be giant udders stabilized with hooves on each corner. These new bovoids are further stimulated by special lighting, in the same manner already proven effective in Las Vegas. They bounce into the barns and hit the slots, ultimately resulting in yet more cheese.
I thought I knew where milk came from when I was a child. God dropped it off cold in a bottle with a cardboard tab and left it on the back porch. Later in the fifties I made acquaintance with some of the early evolutionary forms of cow at my Uncle Cliff's farm in North Dakota. Uncle Cliff maintained a small herd of terrifying black and white cows. I was small and easily stepped on, and I regarded my Uncle Cliff as a giant among men, based on his willingness to wade into the herd and slap rumps to motivate them towards the barn, and also because he was taller than my dad, which, in retrospect, was no big feat. I was able to observe milk being extracted, before it was brought to the kitchen in a bucket for the grownups visiting from the city to ooh and aah over. It was revolting. It was warm and creamy and had little flecks of grass floating in it, instead of cold in a bottle on the back porch, per God's previous arrangements.
Anyway, to recap, the Department of Agriculture has now been forced to contend with the excess of fat brought on by the skimming of milk as recommended by the Department of Agriculture.
Domino's Pizza was one of the first to benefit, when Dairy Management made the recommendation to discard the old recipe, in which tomato sauce product was veneered directly on the cardboard container and dotted with cheese-like nurdles, and introduce the new, in which cheese replaces the bread/cardboard layer, the tomato layer, and the layer on top primarily responsible for strip-mining the roof of your mouth. It was a hit. As the Department maintains, "cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet," as long as it's wearing its fat pants.
Then a scientist who stockpiled pay from Dairy Management discovered that cheese could help you lose weight, and if a little cheese could do that, just think of what a lot of cheese could do. Advertising was rendered out, cheese sales soared, and when all subsequent efforts to replicate the original scientist's results failed, Dairy Management immediately withdrew its claims, after a few years and a bomb threat from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Current research is focusing on the ability of cheese to foster hair growth and erections.
Meanwhile, cheese consumption continues to expand. We must move to protect this vital national resource before the big corporations buy up Missouri and drill down our cheddar reserves.
We've all heard of a labor of love. This refers to any task so odious, so frustrating, so destructive of the temperament that no amount of money could ever induce you to do it. Only love could make you this miserable. Labors of love might include cutting a pattern out of silk. Or knitting (anything). Or, in my house, the annual production of the hazelnut-huckleberry pie. Pie-making in general needs a lot of love behind it, because some of it is going to be destroyed in the process, never to return, and you want there to be some affection left over. They're all a pain. A blackberry pie is preceded by a loss of blood and some scarring. Apple pie always ends up looking like fruit sludge with an attic over it.
The particular treatment of huckleberries in this household comes down from the amazing Mary Ann, who whomps up her own recipes out of sheer exuberance and disdain for standard ingredients. Huckleberries are particularly dear due to their scarcity, and a plain crust does them less honor than a crust made with hazelnuts, which, in spite of what you may have guessed, is the State Nut. Mary Ann makes up things on the fly and uses anything available as long as it's not sugar, in spite of which they taste just fine.
In many ways, she's an artifact, an escapee from the nineteenth century who could have spanked a Conestoga expedition into shape. Once when a group of us went to our mountain cabin for a winter retreat and discovered it minus electricity, we all groaned and repaired to the nearest tavern for beer and pizza whilst waiting for the linemen to hook us back up. Not Mary Ann. She couldn't have been tickleder at the prospect of Making Do. She resolutely stayed behind to see what she could spank up, and as we scritched the ice off the inside of the windows, we told her to have a cake ready when we came back.
We returned to a crackling fire, a respectable sixty-degree temperature, lit candles that were probably made on the spot out of boiled shrew hides, and the unmistakable smell of cake baking over the wood stove. There were no particular cake ingredients in the place, and the contents were a mystery, some without a doubt scraped up off the forest floor. But it was delicious. If she'd have found a bigger mammal, she'd probably have had a wheel of cheese started.
So one of the problems with huckleberries is the picking. It's a pleasant-enough process, but you're an hour into it before you've covered the bottom of the bucket. At minimum wage, a pie's-worth of huckleberries should run you about forty bucks. Every year we go up on the mountain to scavenge our berries and in a very good year we might get enough for five pies. This was not a good year. Mary Ann and I picked for an hour and together we didn't get much more than pancake spangles. I told Dave the sad news and he promptly donned the stricken look I last saw on him when we found out Roots Brewery was closing down.
The Entire 2010 Huckleberry Haul
When you really love someone, and he really loves hazelnut huckleberry pie, you'll do anything to remove that stricken look, and there's only one thing that will work. Pie crusts are crazy-making. They shouldn't even be attempted for all but about five days out of the month during a woman's reproductive years. A nut crust ups the ante. The crusts are rolled between sheets of wax paper to keep the tears of rage off the dough, and with great care and a hip-hop vocabulary, they can sometimes be transferred to a pie plate in one or two shreddy pieces. They will not be transferred to the state fair.
With a quick glance at our berry haul, during which I was able to get an accurate count of individual berries, I selected a two-inch ramekin from the cupboard and had at it. A single hazelnut huckleberry pie out of my kitchen would run you about a hundred forty bucks, including time in and the exasperation tariff. A two-inch pie? Priceless.
Although somebody's going to pay.
Mine. Go get your own.
Mary Ann does everything for love, but if you want to take a look at what she does for money, take a stroll around A Cast Of Characters. There is no better source on this planet for genuine bronze Otterhound door knockers, among many, many other things. And yes, I do have salamander cabinet pulls.
I don't like to mess with something that's working for me. If looking like a scruffy pound pup moves people to bring me inside and feed me, I'm not going to change just for the sake of dignity. If I've racked up 57 years of continuous air breathing, I don't want to take up scuba diving. Even more adamantly, I will not change anything related to my computer if I've figured out a way to make it work. I may have done the equivalent of taking a document, walking it into a room, getting out the step-stool, hauling the box off the top shelf, grabbing a sticky label and applying it to the document, running around the yard three times and plopping it in the tool shed, but that's where I'll find it again. Don't start telling me I can hit two buttons and shoot it into a safe deposit box a foot away. I don't want to know.
Visual Park Bench #1
So what does my nice host site Blogger do but start making all kinds of template choices available to me? I hate choice. Choice is why we never get out of the grocery store. Choice is why it's almost certain that the latest whiz-bang electronic device we bought was the wrong one. Choice is the enemy of happiness.
Until recently, when I wanted to post a new piece on Murrmurrs, I went to the front door of the site like everyone else and used my key and went straight to the study and cranked one out. Now, thanks to Blogger, I can still get to the study, but not without going through a giant foyer with pretty pictures down the sides. "You can have one of these!" the butler says. "Any one you want! Any color you want!" I'd smack the butler and push on to the study. Finally, one day, I stopped to glance at the pictures.
There are about five new templates with lots of opportunity to re-jigger. Things get bigger, wider, pinker, brighter, right in front of your eyes. I like my old template. And I really hate messing with something that already works. Last time I tried to take a screwdriver to my template, my whole site blew up. You probably heard it from there. Why would I change?
Because it's fatter, and I've put a lot of mental capital in the notion that fatter is better.
Visual Park Bench #2
When I picked out this template, there were about a dozen choices. Mine jumped out at me. It was conservative, stately, a little rumpled, didn't put on airs. It had a name that I do not recall, but it might as well be called "Old Fart With Writerly Aspirations." If you do a casual cruise on the blogosphere and loop into a groove with a lot of author types, you'll see this template a lot. We're drawn to its old-parchment body. Spinster-lady wallpaper drapes down its sides. The blinds are always drawn, and the air is redolent of old books, African violets, medicine, and a little pee. No one with this template is planning to wow anyone with graphics. We are serious wordsmiths, and we don't want anything distracting people from our literary pearls.
Most do not even hang up pictures on their writerly sites. I do, because I worry that if I creep past 600 words a post, my audience will panic and click off. The photographs are little visual park benches. Folks can rest up and then find the stamina to push on to my last, perfect word. I think it's working for me. So why would I change?
Visual Park Bench #3
It's the damn wallpaper. I like it, but I have to squeeze every last thing in a narrow curtain down the center of the page. If a bigger photograph crowds my paragraphs, the words dangle down the edge like they're Chinese. My sidebar is smashed thinner than a passenger on the window seat. It looks like I don't even care about my blogroll. We don't want to put too much pressure on those Poop Posts.
So I've been tinkering with the new templates. I've tried to jigger most of the color and flash out of them. I haven't succeeded in getting them dull enough yet; we may be stuck with the wallpaper and parchment. If anyone has an opinion, hang it off the hem here, but try not to blow anything up.
Dave and I are now Junior Tracking Specialists thanks to a three-hour course we took with Ranger Dan. Ranger Dan is earnest, energetic and so thin he needs to bounce around inside his ranger suit to touch cloth. And he has powers. Otherwise I doubt that we would have found ourselves, on any given day, crouched in the sand with our noses a centimeter away from a pile of rabbit doots and worrying them with a stick. Ranger Dan left little doubt that he might have ingested said doots if that were what it took to make positive identification. Ranger Dan was also young and trifocal-free and saw things that (A) we couldn't see, or (B) weren't actually there, and that's powerful.
Our class was divided into three teams, each assigned a set of tracks in the sand to evaluate. Team One pored over a tableau of obvious deer hoofery in hard sand. Team Two had a collection of prints to peruse along with a pile of furry poop, all of it instantly recognizable as belonging to the dog family. They surmised coyote. Our team, consisting of us and a sullen eighth-grader who nonetheless failed to bring our average age down to within shouting distance of the other teams, was inexplicably assigned a patch of soft sand with something that may or may not have been tracks and looked like so much punctuation. We also found rabbit doots, and that's what we went with, even though we were never certain we were looking at any prints at all. "That might be a print right there," we said, pointing at a faint depression in the sand, while our teammate put on a thoughtful look that implied "I wonder if I'm missing any text messages."
Ranger Dan concurred. "Rabbit, most likely," he said, "do you see any claw marks?" We nodded ambivalently, unwilling to confess we couldn't really see any tracks at all. Ranger Dan was now a centimeter away from our tracks with his bony rear in the air and pointing at them with a stylus. "See that right there," he said, indicating a single displaced grain of sand in the correct rabbit-claw position. He stood up, getting the bigger picture. We were soon edified that one or possibly two rabbits had come over this way, paused, hopped around, and shot off that way, in something of a hurry. "Why might the rabbit be in a hurry?" Dan asked us, in the Socratic manner. "Something scared him," I postulated. "Thus the doots."
Ranger Dan also introduced us to the concept of our Zone Of Disturbance. This is the radius within which our presence affects wildlife, and if you're exceptionally loud, it can be a pretty big zone. Dave and I never knew what to call it before, but we have an enormous Zone Of Disturbance. We irritate birds miles away. Wolves stay in Idaho because of us. We never shut up. We were hiking a while back and just finished commenting on how we'd never ever seen a bear, even though Mt. Hood harbored them, and our friend Tony, who is British, and was five minutes ahead of us on the trail, waited up for us and said, "See the beah? Lovely, that. Pip pip," so there you go. Brits have had tiny zones of disturbance ever since the end of the Raj.
So when Dave and I took off on another hike on Mt. Hood the other day, and saw tracks, we strapped on our imaginary ranger hats and had at it. Cat prints, by the looks of them, accompanied by cat shit, furry and tapered, and in every respect like our own cat's, only far, far larger. We ruled out Domestic Cat from the range map. The shit was still damp and shiny, and there was lots of it, so whatever had left it was probably nearby and had a spring in its step. What could it be? Like a cat, only far, far larger? We decided to try shrinking our Zone Of Disturbance for the first time in our lives and crept onward, silent.
Then we came upon a new set of tracks. These were abundant. They looked just like deer prints, only huge. We followed them for miles. They were different sizes: either some hoofed animal that traveled in packs, or one large jumpy one with four different size feet. We searched for more sign, and found one nailed to a tree. It was another hint. What could it mean?
At some point we had reached the Timberline Trail and faced crossing Newton Creek, and we realized we might be lost, alone on the trail, with only three hours of daylight left. Cairns led us to the crossing, but the trail had vanished on the other side of the river. But we were Junior Trackers, not to be denied. Could that odd pile of rocks perched one atop another be significant? How about that pink ribbon tied to a branch? What ho, is that a rope hanging off the edge of the ravine? We followed all these clues to another clear trail, and when Dave, with unwarranted confidence, went bounding off in one direction, the final clue snapped into place: it had to be the other direction. Soon we were back in business, vowing the next time to use the old tracker's trick of dropping M&Ms along our path so we could, if necessary, follow the chipmunk doots back.
Yet more of the mysterious too-large deer tracks. We scanned the woods to no avail, until finally, a half-mile from our destination, there was a great crashing and thunderous pounding and three enormous brown animals burst across the trail and were gone, faster than a digital camera can wake up and decide to operate. So there are no photographs to aid us in our identification, only the observation that if one of the critters had broadsided us, as seemed possible, we would have been seriously dead or flat.
To better protect the homeland, the Transportation Security Administration has announced an enhancement of its pat-down procedures for airport passenger screening. The hand-pats of old are giving way to something described as "more of a sliding motion." The improved method is said to be more likely to reveal something on the person that might explode, or at least swell up a little. I know I feel safer, and also a little funny in the tummy.
The technique is employed when a traveler refuses to use the backscatter X-ray screen, which produces an image of the person naked for as long as it takes the screeners to scan for suspicious packages. As a third option, there will be a small stage and pole set up for the do-it-yourself crowd.
Airport screeners are divided in how they feel about the new procedures. A number of those who were highly enthusiastic have been taken into custody for one thing or another, while many who are not in favor have complained about their workloads. "My job keeps getting harder and harder," said one frazzled agent. She reports that she responded to the pressure of long lines by improving the efficiency and speed of her sliding motions, only to find that her line became by far the longest.
The fight against threats to the homeland has even hit the ballot box. Yesterday, Oklahoma voters weighed in on prohibiting sharia, the Islamic system of law under which, for instance, a thief might have his hand cut off. The "Save Our State" amendment was proposed by Republican state representative Rex Duncan to protect against real threats such as higher taxes for the wealthy, health care for all and various efforts to mitigate global warming. Sharia, of course, like any system of religious law, is already prohibited by the U.S. constitution under the separation of church and state provision currently refudiated by leading Republicans. But that doesn't mean it's not a grave threat to our justice system. Under sharia, being stoned is the penalty for adultery, not the cause of it. Animals used for meat must be humanely slaughtered, which would destroy our pork and chicken industries. And every Muslim living above subsistence level must pay an annual poor tax, calculated by the wealth, not income, of the individual. Rep. Duncan is right to be alarmed.
This is a serious issue, reminiscent of the great leprechaun panic at the turn of the 20th century, during which tiny little signs were posted at Ellis Island stating "you must be this tall to enter here." Already reports have surfaced of bundles of sharia being smuggled inside checked luggage, with the address tags cleverly altered to read "Oklahoma State Courthouse." The entire Muslim population of Oklahoma, Qusay and Rahib, protested that they had only planned to impose sharia in the little skinny portion of the state hanging out on the left side, but they appear to have been thwarted. In an interview, Rahib, disappointed that he will not enjoy the four wives he might have been allowed under sharia, says he plans to spend a lot of time in line at the airport.
The push to redundantly outlaw sharia law in constitutions across the country is becoming widespread. Americans had been relatively calm about their own Muslim population until agitated by the likes of Rep. Duncan and Newt Gingrich. This has led to counter-efforts on the part of liberals to repeal Newton's First Law of Motion, which states that "every body remains in a state of rest unless it is acted on by an external, unbalanced force."
I think it is a shame. There are some aspects of sharia law that might come in handy. I believe that if some politician is able to come in and stir up the rankest emotions of our populace to no purpose other than personal advancement, we should be able to cut off his money.