I was in a Catholic church the other day, helping nudge a good woman towards heaven. It's only the second time I've been to a mass. I got to see stuff I'd only heard about--spraying holy water, swinging incense, throwing gang signs, etc. There's a lot of magic going on there, and I thought it prudent to hang back in the corner of the last pew in case someone got tipped off and flang me a thunderbolt. I'm the farthest thing from a magical thinker you can be and still talk to stuffed animals.
There were altar boys and some altar girls. They had a lot to do, toting around this and that. And there were two priests, and there was a fifth person, a young woman, all done up in white and just sitting in the center with no discernible function. I began to worry she might be the human sacrifice. I might not be up-to-date.
I think the Catholic Church owns the most magic of all the human institutions, and that includes voodoo. One way to tell is by the hats. The Pope has the biggest hat of anybody, a regular funnel from on high. It's very impressive--his entire outfit is, right down to the red shoes. Remember the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh? His followers were silly people, but I can see how they'd be drawn to his cool clothes and hat. It's hard not to be moved by it, even for an apatheist like me. I know when I'm in psychic doubt, I ask myself, "what would Carmen Miranda do?"
There was no good reason for me to feel spooked by being in a Catholic church, but I was a little intimidated. This was a place you could get into mortal trouble just by thinking about stuff. Most of the stuff I think about at my age shouldn't get me into hell, but someplace seedy for sure. I grew up a Lutheran and we had a lot of trappings too. We sang a lot of hymns, and we all knew the liturgy. So I'm used to ceremony. But we didn't get into a lot of guilt. Our crosses were scrubbed clean of gore. We sang, and responded, and listened to sermons about loving our neighbors, and then we went down to the basement and had coffee.
Towards the end of this mass we were supposed to share the peace. I'm familiar with that practice from the last days of my Lutheran upbringing, and it was a crummy idea even then. That's the part where you're supposed to turn to the people around you and shake their hands and make nice. Right there in church. God had always been fine with us just doing that in the basement over coffee, but you can't stop progress. That was also the era when we started playing guitars in church to be relevant, even though we had a massive pipe organ and plenty of lightly-used Bach. Oh no, now we teenagers are sitting on the steps to the altar twanging away and singing "Suzanne" even though it talks about "touching her perfect body with your mind," which is embarrassing. We have no idea what the song means--we picked it because it mentions Jesus in the second verse.
Anyway I liked it better when we stuck with the old liturgy. And that's using the King James English, which is what God speaks. So the other day when the priest guy said "The Lord be with you," I went ahead and hollered "and with thy spirit," while everyone else was going "you too, dude." That's when I knew there was no real magic in the Catholic Church. That, and also I didn't burst into flame.
I apologize if my teaser about the whale shit last Saturday left you on the edge of your seat. You should really be centered on the seat. Moving on:
So the first thing I visualized with regard to whale effluent was floaters. Really big floaters, massive seagoing turds. That image led me directly into a rewriting of the story of the Titanic, replacing the sickening, grinding thud of the iceberg with a gentle splurrrggghh, a minor slowdown through a cloven wad, and a gentle greasy slide into the harbor, where people are waiting on the dock with handkerchiefs pressed delicately to their noses.
The second and more likely image comes from childhood memories of the long string trailing out of the family guppy. It's a powerful image, blown up to whale size, but it's a possibility. I've dragged some of my shit around for forty years before getting rid of it. And it might explain why whales sometimes leap all the way out of the water. Everyone has trouble snapping one off from time to time.
It turns out I was right about the floaters. Whales feed in the depths of the ocean, but their shit floats, and phytoplankton at the surface are able to scavenge nutrition from it, making it an important marker for the health of the ecosystem. From an ecologist's point of view, whales are just a large, rubbery device for transporting nitrogen, in the form of whale shit, from the ocean depths to the surface. It's an odd way of looking at things, but that's perspective for you. It's like saying Norwegian diners are a vehicle for transporting whales to the Trondheim sewer system, which is not, ecologically speaking, as useful.
But it's even better than that. Whales do not produce massive seagoing turds, but something altogether more wonderful, from the perspective of a word lover. They produce a flocculent plume. That comes from the Latin for a feathery mass with the consistency of a tuft of wool. I thought I was happy before, but knowing that there are flocculent plumes of whale poop floating on the ocean has enriched my life. So has learning that the word "flocculus" also refers to either of two small round lobes on the lower posterior border of the cerebellum. This is also where we get the concept "asshat."
We word lovers can take great trips without ever leaving the dictionary, and we come back with crushes and flirtations of our own. I have been trying to work the word "snarge" into a blog post for a year, without offending the sensibilities of my birding friends. Now I have finally done it, and I owe it all to the flocculent plumes that will float forever on the surface of my cerebellum.
And the fearless Titanic ship captain of my imagination can now spy a pod of whales grunting in the distance and get the word out via the musicians in the band. "Hang onto the rails," he might advise, "we're going to be running into a little flocculence ahead." I'm betting this will get that crazy dame off the bow, too.
It's a great moment in anyone's life when he finds out he's made his mark on the world. Consider poor Columbus, who could only be described as at sea on his best day--he blunders onto a coastline and what happens but they give him his own day. His own day! Any time all the mailmen get the day off because of you, you know you've had an impact. Not just all the mailmen in Portland, either, like that day back in the seventies after Al Ainsworth's party. ALL of them.
We can't all get our own day, but everyone likes to be well thought of. And just recently, I realized I am, well, thought of. In one week I received a photograph of a butterfly on a moist turd and three different people sent me a link to the same story about whale poop, and all of them said they were thinking of me. And it's not the first time. People are always sending me shit.
I am reminded of the wonder of poop every day, and if you're lucky, so are you. Any number of things fascinate me about it; there are themes I find myself coming back to with regularity. One of them is perspective. From our perspective, poop is something we're done with. We've gotten everything out of our food that we can use, not counting the stuff we're stacking up in case we need it later, and then we get rid of the rest. If we don't get rid of it, that makes us hoarders, and we get to be on television (see Buried Alive; Glenn Beck).
But that is just our perspective. Flies, on the other hand, will gather with their families around a man squatting in the forest and say: "See that, kids? That's the dispenser right there. You put your pizza and weenies up there in the top end, and you wait a few days, give it a little churn, and then out comes the good stuff. There it is! Let's go, kids!" And off they go with their little fly napkins and bibs. It's a happy day.
What really floored me about the whale poop story is that what with all the hustle and bustle of daily life, I've never given whale shit the slightest thought. As embarrassing as it is to admit for a poop fan like myself, when it comes to marine poop I'm just an aficionado out of water. All I know is there are lots of living things in the sea, dozens really, and what is euphemistically called "mud" on the sea floor must be the accumulation of everything from plankton poo to seahorseshit. And crabs and halibut scoot around in the stuff like it's Egyptian Cotton, right before we eat them.
So for both of you still reading, tune in next Wednesday and find out what I've learned about whale poop. It's a really big story, and you're going to want to see how it comes out.
By now most of you have heard that you are not the Zodiac sign you always thought you were, and have made appropriate adjustments. Unbeknownst to anybody but the ancient Babylonians, there is a thirteenth constellation in the solar ecliptic, and it's jammed right in there between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Moreover, those thirteen constellations have been changing around over the years since the Zodiac was first thunk up, due to the wobble in the earth's axis, which it could totally get under control if it cut down on snacks.
The Babylonians left out the thirteenth constellation probably because twelve seemed so much tidier. Thirteen is a terrible number, representing the death of your childhood and your entry into a lifelong state of pimples and anxiety. Sadly for Sagittarians, it is now the thirteenth star sign, with the new old boy Ophiuchus horning in there in twelfth place. I was the one who had to break it to Dave that he is now Ophiuchus, and he didn't take it well, although he admitted he had been feeling a little gassy lately. The constellation Ophiuchus is represented as a man holding a snake between his legs, so maybe "gassy" isn't really the attribute we're looking for.
In the new celestial order, I am no longer a Libra. As a Libra, I am fine with the news. We are the Scales: we weigh things. We see one side, and then, on the other hand, we see the other side. We're good with anything. We do not have the courage of our convictions. We don't even have convictions. So if I'm now a Virgo, I can take it in stride.
Except, as a Virgo, I'm offended. There's a place for everything, and everything in its place. If something as large as a constellation can't even stay put for a few thousand years, what hope do we have that anyone will hang up their coat where it belongs? Honestly.
One aspect of the whole Zodiac thing that always troubled me, from my former position on the cusp where I could have toppled either way, is that a whole set of traits and fates depended on where the stars were when I busted out into the light, rather than when sperm met egg. (The sperm-and-egg thing troubles me too, because of what it implies about my mom and dad.) I was, in fact, born two weeks prematurely, because my aged parents, in a moment of prescience and clarity, were interested in getting me out of the house at the very earliest opportunity, and my due date would have held me out of first grade an extra year. I was pharmaceutically induced. My birthday is printed on a medical-appointment card I still possess. If mom had gone in one day earlier, maybe I would have been moved to keep my room clean.
Anyway, there have apparently been thirteen constellations all along. Which means the gods have been up there all this time snickering over us and our horoscopes. "Watch this," they are saying, "Murr thinks this is an auspicious time to buy real estate. Cue the floods!" Which kind of casts doubt, for the first time, on the whole serious business of astrology. The gods are laughing their gigantic fannies off.
There's only so much oil. Experts put the supply as lasting at most a few more decades. Given this diminishing time-frame, there is great concern in certain quarters that production might be shut down before all the money is drilled out. In light of this danger, entities are working day and night to prevent a catastrophe.
The world of obscene profit mining suffered a crushing, but not fatal, blow when the Deepwater Horizon blew up, in spite of the application of wishful thinking, falsified data and cabinet-level support, for which no expense had been spared.
The disaster was initially feared to be a threat to the money-extraction environment, but just as engineers had predicted, the passage of time and the proliferation of attention-eating bacterial microbes like American Idol and the gay-marriage debate has scrubbed the public memory nearly clean of soiled pelicans and shoreline fudge.
Industry analysts also credit the side well that was drilled into Fox News to relieve the overwhelming pressure from the accumulation of facts elsewhere. Containment booms strategically placed around the E.P.A. have also been effective at stemming the flow of reliable information.
More threats loom, however, and work must be done on a number of fronts to assure maximum cash removal. In particular an explosion of climate scientists threatens to overwhelm the afflusphere and officials have initiated mitigation efforts, which have already begun to bear fruit. A number of random people with science degrees have been purchased, fortified with a squadron of astrologers and phrenologists and people whose first name is "Doctor," and together these have made many important discoveries. Atolls in the Pacific that are disappearing beneath the rising ocean have been demonstrated instead to be sinking due to obesity among their citizens. Reports on glaciers have been patched up by simply replacing the phrase "shrinking dramatically" with "might possibly have put on a few pounds." In a startling development, prominent climatologists have been videotaped picking and, in some cases, flicking.
The improved information has been disseminated successfully using the internet and chain e-mail as a dispersant and is now thought to be so effective at maintaining the health of the afflusphere that Rep. John Boehner has, by himself, been able to counter the combined efforts of 1.3 billion climate scientists by saying "nuh-uh."
Asked if he had encountered any moral issues vis-a-vis the untrammeled drilling of cash in the face of catastrophic environmental damage, an oil industry spokesman explained, "no, it never comes up. Morals and money do not occur in the same strata."
The small remainder of privately-held money that has not washed up on foreign shores has now been shown to be protected from taxation even in a political environment previously thought hostile, via an as-yet unidentified mechanism. "Some things even we can't explain," said a delighted congressman, speaking off the record. "We just thank God."
Contacted for this story, God said only "Jeez. Are you all still here?"
I just read about a group of kids with typewriters getting together in the coffeehouse. They're all going to type a letter, and put a stamp on the envelope, and send it to someone. They are thrilled to death. Typewriters speak to a certain segment of the younger generation, and I'm sure it's a positive sign. The kids report feeling a greater sense of accomplishment while creating a physical document by hammering on keys and slinging the return-carriage thingy.
It's a little odd to feel nostalgic for something you never experienced, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. I've often wished that I could look at an orange in my Christmas stocking and feel as excited as my great-foremothers did. I can't do it. Oranges are too available and the wonder of them has waned.
But the typewriter is a decidedly cool invention. There is a tactile reward: the keys have raised, round rims, in which your resting fingertips feel as special as pie filling. There's the acoustical award from the ding when you're close to the end of a line. There's a pungent taste to the onion-skin paper. Not really, I made that part up.
I learned to type very well in eighth grade, and it's the one thing I've learned that stayed learned. At my peak I was good for 125 words per minute with three mistakes per page, and that kept me employed between worthier employments. My mother, on the other hand, typed 135 words per minute with three mistakes per year. You could hear them if you were nearby. There'd be her usual cicada-buzz of typing, and then abruptly it would stop, and you'd hear this little "tsk." Mom was one of those women who was very valuable to her employers, although not in a way they showed monetarily, times being what they were and her with ovaries and all, but she not only did not make typos but she spelled everything correctly and straightened out the grammar and syntax as she blasted out a letter. She also had an hourglass figure, not that she could help it, which must have gone in the plus column for her employers. A woman with a brain and mad typing skills who made her bosses look good would have to be a very valuable commodity, but of course she had to quit in order to cook up my sister and cook for my father and, later, contend with me, who was not in the original plan.
Typing really well involves getting a good even rhythm. You don't want to syncopate if you can help it because then you could accidentally hammer on two keys at once and then they have to duke it out in front of you, and you have to get right in there and peel them apart. And it takes a stout bit of power to get the keys all the way up to the page and printing properly. If you're thrifty like my folks were, you re-use your ribbons, and have to type harder and harder to get the letters to show up. The other thing you had to look out for was your typewriter was liable to walk across the table with every swing of the carriage return and if you don't happen to notice it's getting further away from the page you're copying, it could fall right off the table. These, I suspect, are the kinds of things that appeal to the young people doing type-ins at the coffeehouses now. Real problems, real molecules of ink hitting real molecules of paper, everything in front of you and accountable to you, and not this spookiness where your content turns to vapor and flies across the planet in some way you cannot fathom.
In a lot of areas, I've avoided the trouble of going retro by not going forwardo in the first place, but I don't miss the typewriter. I used to be really good at writing term papers, so good that I always aced them even when I had no idea what I was talking about, because I had good grammar and spelling, and even then that was a novelty for my teachers. They were always willing to reward well-constructed blather and as a result I got terrific grades without having to learn much. I'd write my papers on a legal pad in a dreadful chicken-scratch that even I couldn't read a week later, and the page would be filled with circled paragraphs and arrows and numbers showing me where they should really go, and new stuff in the margins to chink in somewhere else, and then it was just a matter of staying on my toes when I transcribed it to the typewriter. All of this works a lot better on a computer.
There were a number of conventions associated with typewriters that had to be unlearned when word processors glided onto the scene. No longer did one have to make an exclamation point by hitting the period, back-spacing, and topping it with an apostrophe. Exclamation-point abuse was born with personal computers. Other than that, everything got better.
Still, I cheer the coffeehouse crowd with their Underwoods under their arms and their Olivettis at the ready. I might even have some old onion-skin to unload. I think I'll walk in, scowl on principle, hawk a loogie and say "what in Tarnation is going on in here?"
Dave stood rigid in the back yard. "The birds," he said. "They're after me."
His tone was flat, as though he had just divulged that the FBI had planted a chip in his brain.
I'm used to this kind of thing. It doesn't even disturb me anymore. Some of our newer neighbors, however, may not have had time to adjust. Many of them are still scarred by the afternoon we spent on the back porch when Dave was trying to teach me how to lip-fart. There was a lot of spraying, and correcting. I wasn't very good at it. It probably sounded like an argument between Sylvester the Cat and Joe Lieberman.
"Okay, honey," I said. "Let's just keep that to ourselves, okay?"
Then a bird dropped out of the sky and crashed beak-first into his forehead. I jumped back. "Holy shit!" I said. "What was that?"
Dave looked bleak and resigned. A second bird swooped down and strafed the front of his shirt. He trudged towards the laundry.
Many people believe that being pooped on by a bird is a sign of good luck. This is just how people are. You could be standing on the sidewalk and get your torso flattened by a runaway truck and as long as you've still got one lung going up and down, people will refer to you as lucky. If you then got coated with bird poop, well, might as well buy a lottery ticket: your good fortune knows no bounds.
There have been a number of stories in the news of birds dive-bombing people. One blackbird in San Francisco was so famous and reliable, people sat in lawn chairs across the street just to watch the blitzkrieg. Brought nachos, and everything. And a red-tailed hawk made news in Stonington, Connecticut, whacking people upside the head, even the ones that did not look like pigeons.
Then there was the mail carrier in Tulsa who was repeatedly harassed by a mockingbird. As a former mail carrier, I am surprised this even became an issue. Anyone who has been tailed all day by a chubby postal supervisor in polyester pants and a white belt carrying a clipboard should be able to take a mockingbird in stride. However the station manager reportedly did take the customary action and distributed the standard bad-dog form letter to all the patrons on the carrier's route, crossing out "dog" and inserting "mockingbird." (Dog letters are the official postal response to a threat by a vicious dog. The supervisor prints one out, puts it in an envelope and hands it to the carrier to deliver to the house with the vicious dog. To which the carrier says, "no, you.")
Among the useful tidbits I learned in my career was the observation that when you come upon a truly heroic pile of bird poop, no matter how curious it makes you, you're better off not looking up to see where it came from. You'd think this would be obvious, but it isn't. I once told that story to a group of friends one evening, and the very next day we were touring an ancient church and came upon a line of encrusted bird poop on the floor that stretched the width of the church like the net on a ping-pong table. Every single person looked straight up at the cable strung between the walls. Fortunately, nothing adverse happened, because Dave had lagged behind and drawn all the birds.
Last year, birds in Florida were affected by the harsh winter, which caused the palm berries to rot and ferment, adding a zing to the birds' diet. Birds were crashing into things, pooping inappropriately, staying up too late and singing "Danny Boy" into the wee hours. And bombing people.
Dave's tormentors are stone cold sober. Presumably he looks particularly threatening to nesting birds who are trying to protect their young, or who are trying to impress potential mates. I know I find it impressive. I could watch for hours. But for those who object to this kind of attention, there are several ways to deflect it. You can carry an open umbrella at all times. Or you could print out a large set of eyes and tape them to the back of your head. Neither of these solutions is likely to shine up Dave's reputation around here.
It isn't just birds. All flying things are attracted to Dave. We've used that to our advantage while picnicking, setting him off to the side a ways where he glumly ingests his hot dog while enveloped in a nimbus of mosquitoes. Perhaps he would be useful on a birding expedition as well. We can set him out in the field, throw away the spotting scopes and anticipate a close encounter. He's tall and has a big head. Maybe if he stands real still near the water, he might even accumulate an osprey nest.
But now that birds are falling out of the sky in rafts, in Arkansas, and Louisiana, and Sweden, I think it's best we just keep him inside. I'm as concerned about the birds as anybody. No one knows what's going on, and it can't be good. But if this kind of thing keeps up, my baby is going to be in for a serious denting.
It's not surprising that it was our own Representative Earl Blumenauer who was originally responsible for introducing the idea of Death Panels into the national conversation about health care. Oregon, after all, has long been known as the home of grey skies, rain, abject melancholy, and death. This is what makes us great. This is why we have thriving independent book stores, terrific beer and top-notch palliative care.
To be fair, he did not actually propose Death Panels per se. Or even per at all. Mr. Blumenauer merely observed that our modern way of death often reduces us to a carton of skin and pain, with a detectable electrical quiver. This is a condition that might be maintained for some time, at the expense of some other portion of the healthcare-consuming population. Medical and legal establishments have colluded to make this scenario mandatory if one has not had the foresight or opportunity to express one's wishes. He proposed allowing Medicare to reimburse doctors for their time discussing end-of-life care for anyone interested.
Opinions vary as to how much and what sort of care one might wish to sign up for. One member of my family made us swear we'd put a bullet in her head the day she needed her butt wiped for her. I, on the other hand, might opt for a host of medical interventions as long as I am still cheered by hearing Vladimir Horowitz play Stars and Stripes Forever, or thinking about ducks. For the record, I'm fine with any one of you wiping my butt.
If you don't understand and express your preferences, you run the risk of being escorted into the beyond mangled, miserable and late. Mr. Blumenauer wanted to make it easier for us to have that opportunity to make informed choices by talking to our doctors about our outlooks and options. It's a reasonable position that nevertheless seems ghoulish to that segment of society that would rather hurtle towards the abyss with their fingers plugged into their ears and everything else plugged into machinery.
Often as not, it's the very people who have their tickets to Heaven all punched who are most likely to want to postpone the trip for an extra couple weeks while they run their children's inheritance through some tubes to generate blips on a screen. It's not my choice, necessarily, but that's what all of this is about: choices.
So, what with the "death panel" thing and all, the idea never went anywhere at first. We haven't heard much hue and cry about the death panels lately. The hueys and criers got distracted when the Humane Society came out with a commitment to save all the dogs and inoculate them against disease, and they had to put out the word that there was an institution that puts puppies behind bars and shoots them.
But it turns out Mr. Blumenauer's regulation is alive and well after all. Some Democrats waited until the height of eggnog season and slipped the sucker back in the health bill, slick as a suppository. Everything was fine until a memo from Mr. Blumenauer's office surfaced that stated "the longer this goes unnoticed, the better our chances of keeping it."
Well, that always looks bad. It looks like there's something the Elites are trying to sneak past the American people, high-stepping past the American people's door with their elite Snidely Whiplash mustaches, and that's not true at all. They only want to sneak it past the Wacko-Americans.
I'm being unfair. The Wacko-Americans in question are well-meaning folks who truly do not want a situation in which we as a society decide who lives and who gets the axe. Because that's the job of the health insurance industry.
Personally, I hope Mr. Blumenauer's idea makes it this time, which it might if we're all very very quiet, but it's not something Dave and I are likely to need. We're realistic about death: we bought and used over 35 pounds of butter in December alone. We figure we might get to the end of our days sooner, but we're going to slide right out.
It's the first day of a new year, a time when many people are inclined to take stock of their lives and resolve to do everything differently. I'm not one of them. To those of us with short-term memory deficits, every day is a fresh start. But according to recent studies, there's some good news for anyone carrying around a little more weight than they'd like. It turns out that you can lose 50% of your fat simply by running an ultramarathon of 2800 miles. If you're four hundred pounds, that might be a hundred and fifty pounds right there. Researchers studying 500 runners of such an event, lasting 64 days, discovered that the runners lose 40% of their fat at the halfway point. Which is great for them, but a hell of a cleanup job for the grounds crew on Day 32, I would think.
At any rate, I'm unlikely to achieve the same results. 2800 miles is 2799-3/4 miles farther than I can motivate. Different people have different superpowers, and one of mine is an exceptional relationship with gravity. There's a way you can determine how high you can jump, by making a mark on the wall as you do it, and subtracting the difference from your standing reach. The difference in my marks is the width of a caterpillar. Basically, even when I give it all I've got, I don't even leave the carpet, if it's a shag. When I try to run, I can actually feel the earth sucking me back down at every step. I doubt I could even be raptured.
I did run for a while, back in the eighties. Farthest I ever went was 9.2 miles, and that took a lot of working up to. And I did lose fat while I was in my running phase. If I ran for an hour, that was an hour I didn't spend eating chips.
The researchers discovered that visceral fat fell away faster than any other kind. But I have no quarrel with visceral fat, which is, after all, protecting my viscera, which are constantly under assault from hitting the pavement when I tip over. I'm not interested in losing visceral fat.
What I'd like to get rid of is back fat. Back fat is fat that you weren't even counting on in life, and the first time you discover it, it's quite a shock. What you think you're doing is cranking your head around to look at your own butt, which needs checking up on, but what you see instead is back fat torquing away. You can feel it, too. It's creepy at first. What is that pressing on my back? Why, it's another part of my back. Backs should not have cleavage. In general, I can do without any fat that I can't keep clean without floss.
Those who claim to enjoy running report that they achieve a runner's high after a certain amount of exertion. This corresponds to a release of endorphins, which are tiny mythical germs made out of unicorn breath. They aren't real. But the description of them sounds like what I already have in my head almost all of the time. They allow me to feel great joy from the confines of my recliner. When I run, they get jostled and leak out. In order to feel good again, I need to quit running. I can achieve this miracle in about a block and a half.
Which means my back fat will once again be joining me in wishing all of you a happy new year.