Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mom On The Mantel

At the old cemetery in the Taos Pueblo, I couldn't help noticing a jumbled heap of crosses and headstones piled up against the wall. The tour guide explained that once a cross slumps over, they set it aside but don't replace it, and eventually they slide someone else in on top of the unmarked grave. So there's sort of an expiration date beyond expiration. This is sensible; this helps to relieve density in the thicket of hovering souls.

Beyond that, though, it also speaks to my own suspicion that the value of any dead person changes over time. In general, the deader you get, the less anyone cares about you, until you get really, really incredibly dead, and then you're interesting again. Which is why the prospect of digging up someone like (for instance) my own mother isn't as exciting as digging up a certifiably ancient soul, one rigged out with antique tools and funky 6,000-year-old shoes, say.

I bring up my mother because of something I heard on the radio the other day. In some areas of Rumania, people bury their dead and then dig them back up again after enough time has passed to scour the expressions off their faces. And then they clean up Grandma's skull and put it on the mantel. Something about this appeals to me.

It would be sort of a good-luck charm. I doubt that it would creep me out. For one thing, I would never recognize my mother in skull form. She was too fluffy. Daddy was a little more solemn, but it would still be a stretch. And in either case, there are no skulls to be dug. Our family tradition is to render our dead into a snortable condition and tuck them into a small box.

Me and Great-Aunt Gertrude (life-size)
On the other hand, I would totally recognize either of my great-aunts. Hell's bells, they were old. There would be plenty of room on the mantel for their entire skeletons, sitting up. Great-Aunt Gertrude and Great-Aunt Caroline were miniatures. As far as I have been able to determine, they were never not old. Even in the cave paintings, they look a little grisly. Family lore holds that Caroline wanted to marry a Jewish fellow early on, which was unthinkable, so she remained a spinster attending to the needs of her even more spinsterial sister Gertrude until she died at age 104. Sure, they had their fine points, both having been professors at Smith College, but the whole story seems tawdry and nothing for me to be proud of. Although I will hold that the older you are, the more you should be venerated; in fact I feel more strongly about that with every passing year.

Great-Aunt Caroline
But the veneration thing is always a problem when someone trips over a really old skeleton. These days they can learn so much from one. They can determine what he ate, what he used to clonk what he ate over the head, where he came from, and whether he liked to take long walks along the beach. But no sooner does someone fling him into the air with a bulldozer than some tribe or other starts squawking about sticking him right back in the ground. The land where the skeleton was found either is sacred already or was sanctified by the newly discovered dead-ancester vapors, and the ancestor himself absolutely must not be disturbed. And you can't work up a good counter-argument because of that whole Christopher-Columbus-and-the-smallpox-blanket thing, the disgrace and shame of which is now installed on the same chromosome as whiteness. It's vexing.

Because the science of mitochondria has also determined that every one of us can trace our ancestry back to a single miniature woman in Africa, and that means we're all related to each other, and we all came from somewhere else. What if we were meant to venerate everyone? What if all our land is sacred?

How the hell is that supposed to work?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

D'Oh! A Deer

Much obliged to Murrmurrs friend Jono for alerting me to an incident in Wisconsin, wherein a certain Bryan James Hathaway was brought up on charges of attempting to have sex with a dead deer. Objections did not come from the ungulate, but from offended passersby. Many questions arise. Exactly how public was this display? Was the act performed right there on the shoulder, or somewhere towards the rear? Was Mr. Hathaway merely trying to be helpful on behalf of an overworked ten-pointer with too large a harem? Neighbors of the accused have asserted he would do anything for a buck.

Ultimately Mr. Hathaway, referred to for reasons known only to Wisconsinites as a "Superior man," was given probation for a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. Felony charges were dismissed when it was discovered that Wisconsin had no laws on the books specifically prohibiting intercourse with roadkill. (Screwing the unions is okay with the state, too.) Some years ago Mr. Hathaway was, in fact, incarcerated for the felony mistreatment of an animal after he murdered a horse in order to have sex with it. In fact, he had just gotten out of prison on that charge when he was discovered sampling the venison, but he denies that the incident was a call for help, insisting he was managing just fine on his own. The determination of whether or not sex with a dead animal constitutes mistreatment was argued by city attorney Frog Press, who sounds like something of an expert.

The worst thing about the whole story is that giving it any thought whatsoever inevitably leads to thinking about Rick Santorum.

Mr. Santorum thinks about sex a lot. Sex is a major filter of his world view. He's not fond of contraception, for one thing. He believes it is "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is [sic] counter to how things are supposed to be." And he knows just how things are supposed to be. He got his marching instructions, "be fruitful and multiply," straight from God. ("Be lootful and divide" came from the Republican Party.) He even disagrees with the Supreme Court decision striking down a ban on contraception, but insists that doesn't mean he plans to actually confiscate anyone's prophylactic accoutrements anytime soon, and you should feel free to vote for him anyway.

Speaking of straight from God, that's the other way things are supposed to be. Gay marriage? He's agin it, and not just for himself, although one always wonders if folks who want to keep it illegal are just trying to remove temptation. He does not believe the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy that would protect two men having consensual sex in their own house. God knows (and mentioned to Mr. Santorum), state approval of such goings-on would be like going down a slippery slope. It would be the same, says he, as "man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." Mr. Santorum is quick to explain that he does not "have a problem with homosexuals, but a problem with homosexual acts," although it is not known whether he tried a lubricant.

This is one of the most salient distinctions between me and the senator, and why, other than that I'm not nuts, I am not voting for Mr. Santorum. I have a problem with festering pea-hearted bigotry, true, but I also have a problem with festering pea-hearted bigots. I'm narrow that way. At any rate, it seems likely that the presidential candidate will be throwing in the towel soon enough.

And when he does, you're not going to want to touch it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Foggy With A Chance Of Inspiration

It's January, it's gray, it's somewhere just above freezing and there's enough moisture in the air to annoy moss. The sun has already indicated a lack of interest in this part of the world. It is not pouting so much as it has decided that its talents are better appreciated elsewhere. Oregonian rods and cones have shut down so tightly that the oven light makes us squint. In short, it's the dead of winter. I like to call it that because it made my sister Margaret splutter and hoot so comically. She was from Maine where the sun shines and the snow sparkles and the air is filled with the gentle bloop bloop, plip plip of tits and balls freezing off.

This is my season, the damp dead of western Oregon winter. Many scamper off to Mexico this time of year, and others install a portable sun-in-a-box in their houses from which they hope to reabsorb their will to live, but I am among the group that thrives under cloud cover, even if the cover reaches the ground. If I do dream of a vacation, my thoughts drift north. I've got friends in Alaska now and the sun barely sniffs the horizon there before snapping back into its shell, and it sounds lovely to me.

It makes me wonder if my temperament is congenital, a sturdy Scandinavian legacy. My neighbor John is half Cuban, and he's got his house painted in eye-slapping yellow and spank-me red and seizure-purple and so on, inside and out. It's a neighborhood attraction and I admire it a lot, but I couldn't live there. It would feel like my house was shouting at me. John's tropical blood was kindled with parrots and flowers and other stimulants. He tried to show us proper Cuban motion in the hips when we were taking salsa lessons, and it was so easy for him, but my hips were suspicious of the whole venture, and I could only eke out a sad little chaotic waggle like a drunk walking a line. It just isn't in me. The further from the equator you get, the more the color drains out of the birds and flowers and animals and people. Even my own blood is not quite red but more of a light terra-cotta, due to the butter bits. My people spent a thousand years bumping along the edge of an ice sheet in frozen underwear and anything resembling Cuban motion dropped off the genome. I guess the horned helmets were enough of a compensation, because nobody thought to turn south.

Here, we confine the tropics to hummingbird-sized pieces. Anna's hummingbirds are here all winter, brilliant bits of punctuation. But we all have some light from within and mine, at least, burns brighter against the gray. Bare branches finger and rearrange the sky, and sometimes stars drill it and mountains sharpen themselves against it. Summer is nice enough and all, an attentive butler with a platter of pleasures, and heat for free right on the very air, but it's in winter I make my own pleasures and bundle up my own warmth and thrum with compressed energy, like a daffodil bulb yearning for the light.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I can't, in good conscience, call myself a good Catholic, for the same reason I can't call myself a star-nosed mole. It would be disingenuous. So there's a case to be made that I shouldn't have anything to say about the new Catholic liturgy.

But I do have a small, yappy dog in this fight, because I am a language lover. And I believe that whenever possible words should stroke the ears on the way to the brain. I'm even okay with their not making it to the brain as long as they stroke the ears. There have been endless attempts to improve on God's word over the years, but once King James got his stamp on it, they should have quit. "Consider the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin" is fine just the way it is. No reason to change it to "look at those lazy fucks."

The liturgy encompasses many things, including the call-and-response part of the mass wherein the congregants can demonstrate to God that they are still awake. It isn't necessary for them to be paying attention. That's why it was serving its purpose even when it was in Latin. Anything repeated over the course of a lifetime is going to register as aural wallpaper anyway. We're not thinking about it. We're reciting it while thinking about a lot of other things we'll probably have to confess later. If we had all been taught in school to recite "one nation, underpants, Indianapolis, with slippery anchovies for all," we'd be fine with it. But if someone decided to change it, suddenly everyone would get all het up. We need these civic and sacred buoys to anchor our minds to, and we don't want them coming loose and bobbing around.

Still, the liturgy undergoes periodic changes for various reasons. Or no reason. It's like when a new supervisor comes aboard in the post office and announces we all have to start sorting letters with our left hands. He just has to think he makes a difference, just has to shake things up so people can tell he was there. It's the same reason infants splat their strained peas all over the floor--to demonstrate their thereness. So every now and then a pope comes along and stirs the pot just to keep the church from becoming liturgid.

In the old post-Latin liturgy, that used to be the new liturgy, the priest intones "the Lord be with you," and the congregants fire back with "and also with you." I mean, why stop there? Why not say "same back atcha?" The proper way--which is to say the way I learned it in the Lutheran church--is "the Lord be with thee...and with thy spirit." So now the Catholics have come back around. Now they're going to say "and with your spirit," which is good, although for my money, "thee" and "thou" have more stained glass and reverence in them.

There are other changes. Instead of saying Jesus is "one in Being with the Father," he is now "consubstantial with the Father," which improves nothing. Worse, instead of positing that Christ died "for all," now he only died "for many." I know what that means. That means I'm out. Anyone can tell I'm out because of all the shit I write. But I'm only following in the proud tradition of Martin Luther, when he nailed his ninety-five feces to the door of the church.

Martin Luther had a lot of good ideas, notably that one should not be able to buy one's way out of one's sinful behavior. He raised such a stink about that that the church made him go over to a Diet of Worms. That must not have sat well, because lo, he descended into dickishness, even advocating the wholesale destruction of Jews. You could call that being ahead of his time, but I think it just supports my contention that people who are absolutely sure they're right are not to be trusted.

Which brings us back to the Catholic Church. In the late 1800s, a young woman named Marie-Julie Jahenny suddenly presented with classic stigmata: wounds to her hands, feet, side, and bruises on her shoulders where one might have carried a cross, along with rope burns and head punctures. And instead of taking her to a hospital and notifying the police, the Catholic Church put her on their first string and offered her a deferred compensation package in the form of sainthood after her death. No offense, but this is not a trustworthy organization.

Many Catholics are pretty steamed about the changes in the liturgy. They see it as an attempt to tinker with God's word. Of course, God originally spoke Aramaic, but he picked up some other languages later on. Most folks couldn't do that at his age, but he's God. Anyway, some think that changing God's word is the work of the Devil. Marie-Julie Jahenny predicted that some day someone would try to mess with the liturgy, and sure enough, in the '60s someone did, translating the Latin mass into the vernacular and bringing about the collapse of the church, with the number of priests and nuns plummeting and hordes of the faithful embracing birth control. And many people think the change in liturgy is what done it.

I think it was the good birth control.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dream A Pathetic Little Dream

I would like to lodge a complaint to the authorities, should there be any, about the kit that comes with my soul, if I have one. I do not intend to nitpick. Most things work as well as could be expected. This is not about my neck, which I have come to terms with. Various items are showing signs of wear and tear and this is all in the normal course of events, and not what a mature individual should natter on about. No. My complaint concerns something that has never really operated correctly from the get-go, and I would like to see about an upgrade.

I refer to my basic dream apparatus. From what I understand, most people are allowed to take fantastic voyages while asleep. They fly, they visit worlds of wonder, they have passionate affairs. I don't do a damn thing when I'm asleep that I wouldn't do awake. That's a third of my life, squandered, and I want a refund.

I once dreamed I was steelheading on the Zigzag River. I had my waders on and I was casting, and downstream I saw a large man doing the same thing. I was annoyed; he was in my territory. We got closer and my annoyance turned to excitement. It was Buck Williams! Buck Williams it was, incredibly handsome former Trailblazer, all rubbered up in waders and a flannel shirt that did little to conceal his massive shoulders. We got closer. Close enough to see his dimple lint. We nodded, then flirted a little, and then he suggested maybe we could go somewhere and get to know each other a little better. "I'd love to," I breathed, and with the next dream-breath I said, "but we're both married. Hey! Do you play cribbage? Maybe you and your wife could come over sometime and play cribbage with me and Dave." I woke up. I slapped myself for a long time.

Would you like to be able to fly? Sure. Unfortunately my waking self is a little afraid of heights, so there will be none of that in my dreams. I can only manage a sort of moon-lope, one toe always dragging the ground, gravity dialed down one notch. It's the best I can do. It's pathetic.

Even my anxiety dreams are annoying. In the current version, I am racing through a strange airport in search of a gate to make a connection I absolutely must make. My race takes me through jammed escalators; no one will step aside; I dash outside and pinball through busy parking lots. One night I actually recognized the dream while I was dreaming it, and I woke up, relieved that I didn't need to make that connection after all, and drifted back to sleep. Whereupon the first thing I did was go to a ticket counter and explain I'd missed my flight and was there another one? There was; it was leaving in ten minutes; it was on the opposite concourse, but if I hurried...

Here's what I do. I take the most repetitive thing in my waking life and do that all night long. When I started working for the post office, I sorted letters in my dreams. When I took piano lessons, I did not dream of playing flawless Chopin; I repeated finger exercises. Now I spend the entire night clicking on blogs to find one I like well enough to leave a comment. I may be doing it at my high school reunion which is being held in a tent city in Zanzibar with Pat Boone dishing up the meatballs, but that's what I'm doing: I'm sitting in a corner commenting on blogs.

It is a well-known fact that humans can solve problems with their unconscious minds through dreaming. Friedrich Kekule dreamed of a snake biting its own tail and woke up understanding the structure of the benzene ring. James Watson dreamed of intertwined snakes and plumbed the secret of the structure of DNA. Last night I invented a toilet for bicyclists. It had a ramp and a long stall and a couple holes in the ground and there was some way you could pee without getting off your bike.

There is no Nobel Prize for inventing a bike potty. There's no call for it at all.

So I object to the whole kit. It's defective. The only thing going for it is that I do know exactly what happens after I die. I'll be racing all over hell and back during finals week looking for St. Peter's podium but I can't find it because I didn't ever go to the class and never cracked the book.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Senator Inhofe: Public Servicer

The Tulsa Metro Chamber couldn't be sorrier that it implied that Senator Jim Inhofe (Rasty Old Fart--OK) was wrong to speak of homosexuality and bestiality in the same sentence, as though he thought the two were equivalent. The Chamber is abject. It won't happen again. Officials of the Chamber are looking into the source of the gaffe and have it narrowed down to a couple of pansies in the Diversity Committee. Sen. Inhofe is considering their apology.

The Senator is an earmark champion of the first order and a rabid opponent of federal spending, and you don't find that combination every day. The Tulsa Metro Chamber would like to stay on his good side. Inhofe steered massive amounts of highway funds to Oklahoma so that her citizens could still drive out to Walmart where they can still afford to buy the things they used to be able to afford before Walmart drove down wages and sent all their jobs to China. And in so driving, they are supporting the fossil fuel economy. It's a beautiful thing.

The remark that upset the pansy contingent was the Senator's contention that the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was not, as some might assume, an endorsement by the military of the practice of bestiality. Just because the queers are now allowed to prance around in their army boots with their weapons dangling from their wrists does not mean that anything goes in cross-species romance. Also, just because everyone has to wear pink camo and call each other Mary doesn't mean, necessarily, that it's now okay to beat the crap out of a known fruit even if you catch him ruining your marriage. The Senator would have you know he has been married to the same woman for 51 years now, and the Man-Burro Love Association can kiss his seventy-seven-year-old ass if it has a mind to, he says. In fact, he'd like to see them try. Senator Inhofe himself is righteous. According to his website, the Inhofe clan is free of divorce and sodomy "in recorded history," although to be sure a lot of that stuff doesn't get written down.

The pansies in Diversity were of the mistaken impression that even bringing up the possibility of bestiality being legalized in the context of gay rights could be seen as a slander of gay Americans.

But the only reason Senator Inhofe brought up the subject of bestiality, he says, is that it is something his constituents were anxious about. Sen. Inhofe, they clamored, if the rump-wranglers can serve openly in the military, doesn't it mean it's okay to tap farm animals? It came up over and over again. And that is the concern the Senator was seeking to address. It is not known whether his answer, that it is still not okay to tap farm animals just because the fudge-packers have taken over the military, was a relief or a disappointment to his constituents. This is not to say that he approves of allowing queers in the armed forces. From a purely military standpoint, he points out, they're icky. Maybe a squadron of Lesbos would be okay. They're big and scary and nobody wants them anyway.

But Senator, even if sheep are off the table, how about a small rodent and a roll of duct tape? How would that be? These are the questions pressed upon the good Senator, and this is why in all good conscience he must address the issue. And so he explains. Drilling the last ounce of cheap energy out of the earth is one thing; drilling guinea pigs another. It's not the same with guinea pigs. There's not that much profit in it. There is a tremendous profit in drilling fossil fuels, and that is why there is no such thing as global warming.

Senator Inhofe is the world's foremost proponent of the idea that all of the climate scientists are collectively pulling our legs. Those that profit mightily from the extraction industries are at best neutral on the question of whether we are engineering our own destruction with our wanton ways. But scientists--those smartypants that Sen. Inhofe knows for a fact made fun of him in high school--they've got everything to gain and nothing to lose from pulling off the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the population. We've got another four or so decades of cheap energy left and these clowns are determined to pull the plug fifteen years sooner than we'd have to anyway, because they like to think they're so smart. And they're not fooling Sen. Inhofe. Nossuh. He is a man of principle who won't even employ an educated person on his staff long enough to clean the misspellings off his website. They can just go to hell.

The whole idea that he is equating bestiality and homosexuality is ridiculous. It's ironic that the diversity crowd would even bring up such a thing. The fact that the Senator would question the legal status of sheep-fuckers in the context of gay rights only proves that he honors diversity--in particular, the rights of straw-Americans. If he chooses to bring up the two items in the same sentence, he's just being economical. He's a busy man. The two have nothing to do with each other.

It would be like if I said if you vote for Republicans, it means you endorse the screwing-over of the entire younger generation. The two have nothing to do with each other. I just put them in the same sentence because some folks were concerned.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Does This Knowledge Make My Rear Hippocampus Look Big?

Research has demonstrated that London cabbies have bigger rear hippocampuses than the rest of us, and it isn't because they sit all day.

The cabbies in London are a special group in that they are trained to master "the Knowledge," a mental map of 25,000 streets. The hippocampus, from the Latin for where large mammals go to get an education, is an otherwise small portion of the brain tucked just above the brain stem, which is the stalk that keeps the brain from snapping off the spine during heavy thinking. Cabbies that memorized all 25,000 streets also achieved a notable swelling in a small brain part, and no wonder--it's something to be proud of.

So I'm wondering if the same thing happened to me. As a letter carrier, I learned thousands and thousands of addresses over a wide territory. I spent my first years as a substitute carrier covering three zip codes, and picked up address numbers and streets and associated names and engraved them on my hippocampus such that they are still faintly legible there today. It's not an unusual feat. Most letter carriers can do it. We especially enjoy scaring people at parties with it, by learning their names and reciting highly personal information about them. "Oh! Wally Fitzknob! As I live and breathe, it's the rubber underwear guy, in the flesh. Did that 'special friend' of yours ever get out of jail?"

"You must be some kind of genius," they say, once they come to. Well, the word they are going for is actually "savant," and that sometimes comes with a prefix I won't quibble with, either.

I might have even been a little better at this than the average mailman because I am an excellent speller. Excellent spellinghood is a natural genetic gift that is unrelated to intelligence and yet still allows the owner to feel superior. The excellent speller has every word she has ever seen in print in her brain at all times, and it's simply a matter of riffling through the Rolodex and reading it off. So an excellent speller exposed to fifty different mail routes over a few years is able to acquire a buttload of useless information she is helpless to offload later. To this day, I can peruse the obituaries of people I had delivered mail to for two weeks in 1978 and think, "pity. Not sure which tower she lived in, but I know it was apartment #1325."

But, they say, the brain is capable of much more than we usually ask of  it. Does all this stray information really have the effect of clogging things up so that the postal-savant cannot learn anything new? Absolutely. I reached capacity in 1987 and haven't been able to figure anything out since. And now I know why. I must have overdeveloped my rear hippocampus. And once it gained weight, it tipped the rest of my brain up such that the front portions are rubbing their wrinkles smooth against the top of my skull.

I may not remember why I'm standing in the basement with a cube of butter and a lug nut wrench, but I have the entire map of SW Portland committed to memory. You can't take that away from me; I know, because I've tried. It's too late for me, but the London cabbies' experience does have a sobering corollary for the modern man. Reliance on GPS and other satellite-borne knowledge will have the effect of shrinking the brain until it rattles like a dry pea. Don't tell me that the upside is you can always google "brain-rattle" if you're curious about it; you're not going to like it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year, Resolved

Ten seconds before midnight January 1, 2004, my friend stubbed out his cigarette. "That's it--that's my last one," he said.

"Oh, did you resolve to quit smoking in 2004?" I said.

"I resolved to quit smoking in 2003," he said.

Let that be an inspiration to you. If you're bound and determined to skin a cat, which I don't endorse even though I could suggest some candidates, recognize that there is more than one way to do it. Too many people take a fundamentalist approach to setting personal goals. They're operating on a pass/fail system under which they are invariably going to do damage to their self-esteem. Keep an open mind. The surest route to cultivating your self-worth is to lower your standards.

I've always had a sensible approach to New Year's resolutions. I keep them reasonable and reachable so as not to disappoint myself. For instance, in my thirties, when evidence was stacking up that I could stand to drink a little less, I didn't try to quit drinking. I decided to drink more slowly. And I did, for a while. But it wasn't manageable. It was taking way too long to drink the amount I had in mind, and I kept falling asleep before I had the job done, so I had to abandon the effort. Similarly, I took up running in the Eighties, achieving greater and greater distances in spite of considerable suffering, but then I noticed that no matter how far I ran I always ended up back where I started, so I introduced efficiency by staying home and sitting quietly. This is not a failure: a supple mind is always willing to reassess. Before you commit yourself to painful self-improvement, ask yourself: can your problem be solved with bigger pants? You're not going to stop gossiping, but can you train yourself to check the room behind you first? Or say you want to organize your closets. Can the same goal be achieved with accelerant and a match? Simplify.

People are motivated by the idea that they can improve themselves. But a lot of us are as good as we're ever going to get. There is no need to be a better person and astonish your friends, when you can just swap out all your friends for a new, less sensitive set. Or restrict your social life to the blogosphere, where you can interact while sitting around the house in your underwear eating cookie dough with a spoon. Or find somebody who loves you just the way you are, and pay him.

Keep in mind that some things resolve on their own. I've lost ten pounds in the last two years.  The food that I used to spoon off my chest now makes it all the way to the floor, and I don't like to bend over.

Keep it achievable, and throw in something fun. This year I'd like to learn to nap more thoroughly, practice saying nice things to people who are exercising, and find the Higgs boson. A lot of times you find things when you quit looking for them, and it's been years since I first started not looking for the Higgs boson, so I have reason for optimism. If it doesn't pan out right away, I'll look into buying a brand new Higgs boson, which is bound to make the old one turn up. I'm going to give all these resolutions a go until about May or so and then ease up. The world is coming to an end on December 21, according to the Mayans, and I'd like a little time to wind down. Maybe take up smoking.