Saturday, November 30, 2013

What's My Line?

One of the cool things about the olden days was that if someone told you what he did for a living, you knew what it was. You had your butcher, your baker, your candlestick-maker. Occupations started to get more obscure when I was a kid and now it's all out of control. I have no idea what anyone's doing.

When I was growing up in the humid shadow of the nation's capital, if anyone asked me what my daddy did, I said "he works for the government." Everyone else in my class did, too. There would be a few whose dads were in the military and their kids knew their ranks and stuff. The rest of us really didn't have a clue, nor did we much care. Daddy went off in the bus at seven and as long as he came home in time to carve the meatloaf and dish up the green bean bake, that was all we needed to know. There's evidence that I didn't even know everything my mom did, even though she did it right there at home. At least, by the time I'd gone to college, it would appear I believed in laundry fairies.

When I got into my teenage years I knew enough to say "my father is a statistician for the Veterans' Administration." Sometimes I'd say "mathematician" because it sounded smarter. But still, to this day, I do not know exactly what he did every day when the bus dumped him off in D.C. There's something about people being dead and gone that makes you suddenly way more curious about them than you were when they were around to answer questions.

I did not contribute to the general obfuscation about jobs. I was a mailman. Everyone knows just what that is. Most people think it's sort of cute.

Spanky Grommet Flapper
But now someone can tell me what she does for a living and I'm right back to being clueless. You ask a young person today what she does and she gives you her job title, sometimes a job description, and then she might follow up with a snappy, self-deprecating bon mot. My friend Munny, for example, is an Associate Consultant at Pivot Leadership. "I'm the associate consultant responsible for program implementation from project pitch through program delivery," she'll explain.

All I know from that is that candlesticks are not involved. "I support operations for the grommet synchrony module," she might as well have said, adding, with a chuckle, "basically, I'm a spanky grommet flapper." And everyone in the room smiles and nods and someone remarks that you can't swing a dead cat around here without smacking a spanky grommet flapper. Merriment ensues. Someone eventually notices my blank look and wonders if I need to have the explanation drawn on my forehead with a crayon.

I used to stick letters through holes in people's houses. That's right. Ask me what a letter is all you want, kids--I'm not telling.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Heat By Soup And Sweater

We started with a reasonable-sized house (American-moderate, Third-World-ridiculous), and then we let our desires get the upper hand and it metastasized into a 2700-square-foot house even though it was still just the two of us, and in all that time I have never really been willing to heat the sucker. When we bought it in 1978, an octopus furnace squatted in the basement, eating oil. It was not forced-air. My grandma had a house with a big vent in the floor on the main level and all the heat emanated out of that without blessing the second floor in any way. Somewhere in the nether regions was a furnace that hoovered coal, which was as plentiful as bunnies in North Dakota. Our house in Portland was similar, in that if you turned the thermostat up, a big rumbling could be heard from the basement, and a tepid breath of warmth would seep out of the various vents and take the edge off, after an hour or so.

Second floor? Forget it. Whatever vapors deigned to coax the first floor into the low sixties were sucked straight out the walls and windows before encountering the second floor. That's where our bedroom was. Our breath froze on the windows to the point of being chippable. I bought flannel sheets. I had insulation blown in. I think it was more a suggestion of insulation. We don't really know where that insulation ended up. You're supposed to trust the blower guy.

Early on I bought a Vermont Castings wood stove and Dave installed it in the kitchen after he put in brick walls and a hearth. I spent most of the winter four feet away from the stove. Dave put in ducting and a fan to pull some of the wood heat into our bedroom on the second floor. The ice disappeared from inside the windows but it was still hard to get out of bed in the morning.

We bought a cord of wood that first year but then Dave kept coming upon discarded pallet material and whatnot and before long he had developed a habit of scrounging waste wood from construction sites, a habit that continues to this day. "What does your husband do now that he's retired?" people ask, and the first thing I think of is his butt in the air bent over a dumpster scouting for dimensional lumber. All our wood is free, if you put no value on his labor and willingness to dumpster-dive and saw shit up for our stove.

We each had our bailiwicks. I'd pay for utilities, for instance, and he'd pay for food. It just sort of settled out that way, and after about five or ten years of shivering in the dark, Dave announced that  he was going to (dammit) pay for fuel, and he (by cracky) planned to pay for some right then and there. He'd buy us a tankful of oil, and stride right up to the thermostat and flip the lever Like A Man. The problem was--and he knew it--something else was responsible for my heat tightwaddery. There have always been things I'm totally cheap about and other things I can't throw enough money at. My budget for good beer would buy a lifetime of BTUs. I'll go out and spend enough money on one dinner + tip to pay for a hundred mosquito nets for African kids. I buy Art. But I'll reuse the same Kleenex until it's saturated and if it has enough integrity to hold up when it dries I'll pull it out flat and start over. And I can hardly bear to heat my house.

When I was a kid our house was always cold. I remember crawling behind my mom's Electrolux vacuum cleaner because the exhaust coming out of the back end was warm. Sensing the oil heat flying out of the house makes me squirm. Maybe early on it was about the money, but now it just seems wasteful in a way that drinking good beer just doesn't. We have natural gas heat now, but that isn't much better. I hate to pull all this fossil fuel out of the ground and squander it just because it's hard to move with ten sweaters on. I'm not out of sweaters yet.

It's the curse of the liberal. I'm totally cool with having a wonderful meal and supporting my local farmer and brewer and restaurateur and wait staff. One of my favorite local joints was in an old drafty concrete electrical substation building that was impossible to heat. The waiters tucked Pendleton blankets around our laps and then brought us Pad Thai. I felt right at home.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

All The Pretty Little Pixels

Dave was the one who thought I should get a digital camera. He said it would be really useful for my artwork. I didn't want it, because I'd have to learn something new, and I hate that. He bought it for me anyway. A week later--I'm sure this has happened to all of us--I wanted to draw a picture of a Tyrannosaurus rex peering through gingko leaves, but I didn't have any reference material for a gingko tree. (The tyrannosaur was hard to come by too.) So I took my new camera a couple blocks away and fired off some shots of a gingko tree. My computer hoovered them right up and displayed them for me. Damn. That was slick.

The thing took better pictures than my fancy camera and cost nothing to process. Now I can point it outside my window and fire off fifty pictures in a row of my resident alpha hummingbird, whom Dave named Hannibal Nectar, just in case he turns his head just right and I get the bright fuchsia flash. Three or four of them will be terrific, but all fifty of them will be in my computer. I've now taken four billion photographs, give or take, and they're all in there somewhere. If I need to find one, I have to remember about when I took it, and that is not my strong suit.

In fact, if you asked me to name three things that happened to me in the Eighties, I wouldn't be able to slide a stake into any one thing for certain. One of the things would have really taken place in some other decade, and one of them will have happened to somebody else altogether that I have confused myself with. Remember when I fell off the back of the boat trying to give a toast? and someone will say that was Harold. And you weren't there. Oh.

Or if I'm trying to find a picture of a particular person, in theory I should be able to use the face-recognition feature on the computer. But I've boycotted that little sucker ever since the day I got an odd angle on a 4-H exhibit at the state fair and my computer asked if it was me.

There has to be a way of organizing these things. I hadn't had the digital camera that long--long enough to have a couple thousand photos though--and Dave said, you know? You should pick out the best ones and print them out and put them in a real album, like the old days. But the sheer volume of photos is overwhelming, and has a way of stripping you of your last round tuit.
There it is!

Somewhere I have a good photo of an automobile that is completely covered in moss. It would be a great illustration for a blog post about our local climate.  I needed it once and by the time I'd flipped through all four billion photos on the machine I realized I could take a new photo of a different mossy car faster than I could find the original, and I was right. I don't know where anything is. I have no idea what to do about this problem. It's like riffling through my entire vocabulary in alphabetical order to find the end of my sentence. Sadly, in fact, I happen to know it's exactly like that, dammit.

Supposedly there's some kind of cloud out there where I can put all my photos, but that sounds awfully ephemeral for someone already contending with brain fog. Once I sent them up there, how could I rain them back down?

It doesn't matter what you have a picture of now--if you ask people if they want to see your candid photo of Donald Trump in an updraft, they'll say sure! and wait for you to finger through everything on your phone, or they'll slouch behind you at your computer waiting for you to find the shot, but they don't really want to see it. Everyone is sick to death of looking at a screen. They're just being polite. People do still like pawing through the old albums. Time passes more reasonably in the albums; flip a couple pages, you gain a few years. They look at pictures of you thirty years younger, and then back at you like you're a cautionary tale. They're alarmed, but they love it.

No, I'm not scanning THOSE photos for you.
Some day my computer will blow up and smithereen my photos, and that will be that. It's just as well. They'd just be a burden for my nieces and nephews some day when I'm dead and gone, and besides the naked pictures they might be interested in are all in the old film-photo albums anyway. I've put on a few pixels since then.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What The Frock?

A Methodist minister, Rev. Frank Schaefer, is facing a church trial in Pennsylvania for officiating at the marriage of his son to another man.

The General Conference, the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church, has affirmed that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The Subcommittee On Deciding What Parts Of Leviticus To Ignore, presided over by the Rev. Baconlips, ruled on this and other issues in 2012.

The Subcommittee was originally convened in order to address concerns about Leviticus in light of modern practices. Leviticus has been a flash point for many who point out that the book famously responsible for setting out rules of behavior is about 2500 years old and no longer speaks to a society not composed primarily of goatherds. Decisions were arrived at delicately, though, just in case the third book of the Bible was dictated by God, and was not just something Moses dashed off.

Questions were first brought up by an avowedly feminist contingent that took particular issue with the requirement that a woman needed to atone for having her period, every damn time, as though it were a freaking day at the fair, at the cost of two sacrificial turtledoves. Especially with the ongoing turtledove shortage. Many found the entire area under discussion to be a sticking point. Conservatives warned that ignoring the problem of feminine discharges could lead to a very slippery slope. Moderates prevailed, however, after agreeing that all references to "unclean" might be replaced with "icky."

No one was inclined to quibble with the long list of people one is not allowed to have sex with--although a statement was drafted recommending leniency for those born into particularly large families.

Though there was general agreement on that issue, too many found the easing of restrictions against a man lying with a man to be too much to swallow. There aren't enough turtledoves in the world to clean up that crap, Rev. Baconlips was heard to mutter, before reminding committee members that the penalty for such an act is Death. "Thou shalt not kill," chanted the progressive corner, while traditionalists loudly countered with "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass." Discourse was heated but civil, with what all described as a fluid exchange, as members of the body rose one after the other to introduce their positions; but conservatives mounted stiff opposition to change, insisting that the church must take a hard line, in the end, against homosexuality.

Rev. Schaefer, having been forced to choose between his son and God, chose his son, noting that although the other choice worked out all right for Abraham, it wasn't something he felt he could count on.

Church officials say his recalcitrance is likely to result in a reprimand or suspension at the least, with the possibility that he may be defrocked. In the worst case, Rev. Schaefer could also be subjected to a holy wedgie.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

We're The Job Producers

Man, there's a ton of young people in this town. Squadrons of them, moving in with no visible means of support. They're all interested in making a life in a beautiful place full of other people who foreswear piracy and ill will, and I think they're swell. Of course, I was a total old fart about them at first. They don't have jobs! I thought. They'll founder and die! I thought. They were just like we were. When you haven't tethered your happiness to your financial prospects, you've got a much better shot at happiness. But it only works for a while, I thought. Eventually something like the 1980s comes around and it's raining money from who knows where and before you know it we've all forgotten how to be happy without it. And it isn't real money--it's gambling money--but you get it while you can, and pretend your $20,000 bungalow really is worth closer to a million bucks, and you find yourself looking at the stock market page as if it weren't the racing form, and when something tanks for a few nanoseconds you lose some of your pretend joy.

But these kids aren't even going to get the pretend joy, because there's no money anymore, I think. Look at them. They're going to die. They're all drinking coffee, and serving coffee. They're either drinking or serving coffee. That's all there is.

But somehow you can still navigate around here without tripping over a dead twenty-five-year-old. In fact, they look pretty hale. They're stacked on sofas and tanked on lattes and they wheel happily down the street with their laptops tucked in their bike bags and good will tucked into their smiles. Is it possible they can make it on selling coffee and buying coffee?

I'm starting to think it's possible. I'm not acquiring much anymore. But I do love to go out to a good restaurant now and then. Or walk a dozen miles and stop somewhere for an IPA and something off the happy hour menu. Sometimes it seems like an indulgence when we already have a good cook at home who is not me. But here's what happens. Every dollar we spend out there goes in someone's pocket. It's a waitron's or a cook's or a farmer's or a vintner's or a mushroom gatherer's pocket. And then they all go out and buy a latte or a bike light or groceries or a haircut. And then the people they give the dollar to--the very same dollar--go out and do the same thing. Our dollars are making the rounds, and everyone's making out all right.

Any economy based on making out like a bandit is doomed to have victims, but if we all provide a reasonable product or service we can hold each other up. That's why I've started paying close attention to the latest movement to raise the minimum wage. Not by the usual four cents, but to something a person might be able to live on: $15 an hour. But that can't last, they say. Eventually all the prices go up and then no one can afford anything and you have wage inflation and pretty soon everyone's poor again. Really? Apparently you can offer $15 an hour to everyone working at Burger Barn and it will inflate the price of a standard meal by seventeen cents or so. Sure, prices might rise a little, but if we can't afford to buy things unless someone is forced to work all day long and not make enough to live on, then we're profiting off slavery, or something close enough to it. Is it any better if our slaves are an ocean away, and eight years old? Is it okay if we just don't bother to think about it?

I think there's plenty of work to go around and plenty of honest wages to be made. What is unconscionable is that some people--not many--have all our money. It is our money, or it used to be. It was our pension funds, it was our wages before they were depressed, it was our health benefits. Arrr, ye scallywags! Here's the deal. Four hundred people in the United States have more money than the combined net worth of 50% of us. They have it: they have not earned it, because it is impossible, in any moral sense, to have earned that much loot. Apparently we can't tax these people, because they've bought the get out of taxes free card. And no, I am not envious, because, like most sensible people, I would be mortified to be in their condition.

So fuck them. Let's raise the federal minimum wage to $15. We'll agree to pay a tiny bit more for what we need or enjoy, and we'll pass all our dollars around the community until they come back to us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saving Spree Day

The country's being run by pirates and nincompoops, we're cooking the planet, I haven't seen the third season of Downton Abbey but I already know who dies, and now I find out that Spree Day is in trouble.

Not many people would miss Spree Day itself, but it's a troubling trend. Spree Day is celebrated at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, my alma mater (Latin for "nourishing mother," which is  apt, assuming your mother provides you with pot and Quaaludes). It's a spring day on which all classes are cancelled, and no one is supposed to know about it until it happens. You can call up the administration office on any given likely morning and ask if it's Spree Day, and if it is, you say (as I recall) "far fucking out" and hang up, and then you spend the rest of the day lounging on the lawn in front of the quad and throwing Frisbees and somebody sticks his speakers out the window and cranks up early Beatles, which makes everyone nostalgic for their youth, which was six years ago, and there's plenty of cheap pot and sex, so basically it's like every other day except for there being no classes. Which is a really big deal. It's like Saturday. Or Sunday! And how often do those happen? Let me get my slide rule.

But now, according to my alumni newsletter, the kids have gone and wrecked Spree Day, and they're thinking of doing away with it. There's drunkenness. And vandalism. And sexual aggression. The administration thinks maybe if they encouraged the clubs to hold fun events like Midnight Bagel Breakfast on Spree Day, it might cut down on the raping. Back in the day, we didn't even have clubs.

Genuine hippies c. 1971. Photo by Linda Freedman
I'm trying to break it down, how kids could have changed so much in forty years. Sexual aggression was unknown. When the entire student body says "yes" all the time there isn't much call for it. Sure, there were downsides, but as long as everyone had herpes it wasn't such a big deal. Girls would have sex if the guy had a car and was willing to drive them somewhere in the morning, and guys would have sex if, well, if they didn't have anything better to do for the next five minutes.

I read an article in the paper that helped explain it. Apparently no one gets care packages in college anymore. Oh, they do, in a sense, but it will not be homemade brownies in a brown paper package tied up with string. It will be a Gift Pak from an outfit such as with an assortment of store cookies and laundry soap and snack crackers and maybe some condoms. The kids are rootless.
Mac, Clark U's entire police force 1974

We were warm and comfortable in our original fur, neither in debt nor in Vietnam, and our shoebox of brownies smelled like Mom and her apron and the oven-warm kitchen and love. Now the students are waxed and shorn and perpetually irritated by stubble, and they open their care package to find satisfaction that lasts only as long as a baggie of Cheezits and the slim warmth of a vision of Mom clicking "ship" at the stoplight. The pot is too expensive and too strong for anyone's good, so they get drunk instead. The only thing being cooked is the planet, and the country is being run by pirates and nincompoops.

I don't know what to do about any of this, but the first step has got to be more affordable pot. And way more brownies.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sewage Treatment Gets A Little Behind

The top half of a woman's body has turned up in a sewage treatment plant and workers there have begun to suggest it might be related to the bottom half of a woman's body that showed up two days earlier in a different sewage treatment plant thirty miles away.

Questions linger about how the two items were found in different sewage treatment plants, and the public, already deeply suspicious of the newer Number One and Number Two options on toilet flush handles, demanded an explanation. Sewage authorities surmise that the division of the body probably occurred post-mortem due to an entanglement with machinery that grinds up sewer contents before sending them to one or the other treatment plant. Officials pointed out in their defense that the original whole woman was no doubt past caring at that point, and that dismemberment was a normal but crucial part of an efficient decomposition process.

Many were struck by the fact that this is the first the public had heard of the discovery. One might have assumed that, two days prior, we might have gotten word that a woman's lower half was found in a sewage treatment plant; and that subsequently a suspicious corresponding portion was found. Reporters commenting on the oddness of the chronology interviewed the sewage workers to determine why the first discovery was not reported immediately, and were informed that oddities showed up in the sewage on a regular basis. The lower body half was assumed by most, at first, to be another mutant fish of some sort. Those individuals who pointed out at the time that the discovery looked something like a woman were found to be the same individuals who tend to think almost everything looks like a woman, and the rest of the crew had poked fun of them in the swing room while they were out smoking.  Moreover, a considerable number of sewage workers failed to recognize the first discovery as a segment of a woman because they had never personally made it past second base. Only when the top half floated in were they able to piece it together, a project that the night shift attacked with some fervor.

Reattachment proved to be a failure, and efforts were redirected toward reanimating the top half, but it was a bust.

Positive identification was eventually achieved when a missing woman's child was able to recognize the top half, while her mailman was able to finger the bottom.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Do You Know Where Your Weasel Is?

Here's something you don't know about my book Trousering Your Weasel. It's a great gift book. I know this because people no sooner get their hands on a copy than they're trying to give it away. What I'm thinking is that it's something you want to keep a nice stack of on hand, to use as hostess gifts. Sure, wine is more customary, if you want to go the humdrum route. But it's been done. Picture instead arriving at the nice dinner party and exchanging air kisses and then pulling out Trousering with a flourish and saying "I thought you'd like to have this. It's for the toilet tank." And your hostess will be numb with gratitude. She might not even be able to express it.

You'll have to explain right away that if she is expecting to learn how to trouser a weasel, she will be disappointed. Nowhere in the book is that explained, but the information is out there for anyone inclined to hit a search bar for "ferret-legging." This is an endurance sport that originated among Yorkshire coal miners whose prospects for a fulfilling life were already bleak. According to the world's champion ferret-legger, clocking in at five-plus ferreted pants-hours, the trick is to wear baggy trousers and cinch them off at the ankles. At that point all that is required is to hoist up the ferret and pour it into the top end of the trousers, and then belt up. There's no way out for the ferret, but the ferret does not know that, and will begin to search up one side and down the other, and if there's anything to swing on, he's liable to swing. Many parts of the ferret are sharp, and all of it is skittery. The experience can be transformative, because it forces the ferret-legger to live in the present. It's sort of a shortcut to enlightenment.

Actual installation in happy consumer's home
Trousering Your Weasel is not enlightening at all, unless you didn't already know that wombats' poop is square, but it looks really good on a toilet tank, and whatever is currently on your toilet tank has probably gotten dimpled and speckly. The practice of reading whilst on the toilet is one that seems to cleave down gender lines. Most women do not read on the toilet, and most men will risk their underpants looking around for something to read before they go in. Dave has never understood why I don't bring the newspaper into the bathroom with me, and the answer is simple: I go in to the toilet shortly before I am going to take a dump and leave directly afterward. I am goal-oriented and in tune with my colon. Men, however, go into the bathroom when they think it is reasonably likely they will take a dump sometime over the next few hours, so that they are not caught by surprise. They are inattentive creatures by nature, but boy-scout prepared. If something should emerge in that time, they might yet remain on the toilet until they're done reading. I wonder that they don't find themselves crusting over more. Anyway, the gracious hostess will have provided reading material handy-by. If I were to go into someone's house and find a copy of Trousering Your Weasel in the toilet, I would consider it a classy joint. A book of matches is a nice touch, too.

The title refers to an incident in the very first essay, about a man caught trying to smuggle a ferret out of a pet store in his pants. This is a true story, of course; every time you turn around, there will be a new story about someone who has attempted to smuggle some sort of beast--snakes, monkeys--over the border or onto an airplane or what-have-you. And that's just the ones who get caught. It's probably just scratching the surface, as it were, of the total population of trousered fauna. The rest get away with it by taking advantage of the public's natural disposition to look away from a man with especially lively pants. And you can just about guarantee that, like the toilet reading thing, it's going to be a man. Women will bury strings inside their own butt cracks to avoid visible lines. Even a small rodent would be simply out of the question.

Anyway, I thought I'd bring up the gift-book idea purely out of selfless concern for others. If I can solve that vexing hostess-gift conundrum* for a few people, I will have considered my time on earth well spent. And I do want to point out that if you wanted to go to my book page and order a slab of books directly from me, and not is the kinder way, from the author's standpoint--you can not only get them signed, but shipping is free for orders of three or more books. You're welcome.

*It probably works for Christmas, too.