Saturday, December 28, 2013


Jorge Odon, an Argentine auto mechanic, has come up with an invention to aid labor during a difficult childbirth. You'd think he'd be a natural, being already familiar with adjusting the timing and cleaning the plugs and lubing, plus he has the little rolly-thing to slide under the chassis. But this idea he got from a party trick he'd seen for getting a loose cork out of an empty wine bottle. The only method I know of for getting stranded corks out of a wine bottle would not be of much use in childbirth unless you were hoping for a nonfunctional baby, and that's a whole different kind of zzzzt zzzt whoa.

Women whine about childbirth but it's totally natural. If it was meant to hurt we wouldn't have been equipped with rubber hipbones and pleasant temperaments. Why, all you have to do is sneeze and the baby shoots right out of there. And it's on its own little string like a paddle-ball set so it's easy to retrieve. It's a snap.

I have never personally given birth, but that's what I hear.

It was a snap for my mom, that's for sure. She showed up at the doctor's office at the time on her appointment card and took a long nap during which I was somehow extracted, and when she woke up I was all wiped off and bundled up and handed to her, easy as pie. According to the social norms of the time, everyone agreed to agree that I was her baby, even though the doctor had plenty of time to shop me around or make substitutions. I was small, about the size of a large Virginia peanut, and probably not real marketable. Although there are no witnesses extant, the odds are good I was mined out with the aid of forceps to the skull. To this day there is a spot at my temple that, if pressed on, makes "Vaya Con Dios" go in a loop in my brain, and there's no other explanation for it.

My mom never supplied me with any information about where babies came out of. It's possible she didn't know for sure, inasmuch as she was conked out at the time, and it involved an area of the body that we didn't officially have any of in our family.

Anyway it's the extraction part of this that our auto mechanic has addressed. Apparently, you can get a
stranded cork out of a wine bottle by introducing a plastic bag into the neck and blowing it open. It somehow surrounds the cork, which can then be pulled right out. Mr. Odon got to thinking something like that would be easier on a recalcitrant wedged baby than big tweezers. He tested out the proposition and ended up with a plastic bag that goes only so far in as the baby's head, surrounds it, and from that point it's a relatively easy tug. The hard part is over for mom, and all that's left is the minute-to-minute monitoring for the first few years, maintenance, sheltering, feeding for the next thirty, and worry for the rest of her shortened life.

You'd think that putting a plastic bag around a baby's head would be detrimental, but the baby isn't breathing until it's out and someone smacks it. Plus it's super efficient. You can pop the bag to get the baby going, or wake up mom, if applicable. Or, if things don't work out right, you have your disposal system right therzzzzt zzzzztkrak

That lightning bolt gets closer all the time.

Anyway, I think it's a great idea. I'm going to try it. The cork trick.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


I've said it before. I go to the Tuba Christmas to visit my childhood.

It doesn't matter that horns were not a part of my growing-up. "What instrument would you like to learn to play?" my father said, and I told him trumpet, and there was a little pause before he asked me if I meant cello.

We were a few minutes late for the Tuba Christmas concert on the square downtown. They were already into a deep, majestic rendition of Hark The Herald Angels Sing when we walked up, accompanied by a passing fire truck that cut loose with a baritone blat that only enhanced the performance. Here's the thing about tubas. You hear them through your ears, and you hear them through your feet, and they set up a seismic rumble in your viscera, in the most vital and fundamental part of you, and that's important. Because that's where the small person you once were lives. The small person has never gone away, but she is buried in layers of flesh and time, and she's harder to hear, until the tubas tremble her up again.

The audience is beginning to sing this time, most of us tentative, but the cover of brass makes us braver. A Christmas carol funneled low and slow through a tuba bell is accommodating to a person who no longer sings. I sang in all of Miss Nina's choirs. Miss Nina assembled them all herself, even sewed all the robes, and I started in her baby blue choir. My tryout was family legend. Evidently I got hold of a corner of Jesus Loves Me and let 'er rip. "You broke the sound barrier," the grownups said. That was a new thing at the time. They were just then making aircraft that would break the sound barrier, so people were taking liberties with the phrase. It's doubtful that I had hit speeds of 800 mph, but I was clearly not lacking for enthusiasm.

But the tubas allow even a person who used to be a reliable soprano to push out a few notes in her remaining lower register. My rusty new tenor soared with the herald angels. But with angelic hosts proclaim was one note higher than I now have. My vocal range had compressed and settled into a thin felt, like years of dust on a trunk. My note broke in two, one part bleat and one part sob. It wasn't just the challenge of the note. It was that the note was tied to a string and the small person deep inside was tugging on the other end.

Look! the small person said. Mommy had one hand and Daddy had the other. She was in her little boots and stamping in the snow. Downtown, somewhere, where all the windows had displays. It was snowing inside the windows too, and frost sparkled the corners. Mechanical Santas turned this way and that. Reindeer arced up high. A train chugged by, right at eye level. There was a horse, with jingle bells. A real horse? Maybe. Peace on earth, and mercy mild. Was it possible to be happier? Happier than this? She tugged on the string again. Look!

It wasn't. It isn't. I've had years to make sure.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tater's Big Day

Big day in the Tater Brewster household. That's what her name is at the vet, but nowhere else--she just goes by the one name, like Cher, or Madonna. Or God. Tater has just accomplished the thing she's been training for her whole life. We don't know just how old she is; she was nearly full-size when we picked her up, but we don't know how many previous owners she'd run through, for being too much cat. We almost took her back to the Humane Society that first week too. "We wanted a little less cat," we planned to explain apologetically. "Something with a little less cat and a little more more ottoman in it."

That first time we saw her at the Humane Society, she was pinballing a toy mouse around in a room full of snoozing cats. She smacked the mouse under the door into the hall where she couldn't retrieve it, and we sent it back under for her, but kept looking. Personally, I was looking for something more speckly. But none of the speckly numbers had much joie de vivre. This one was jammed right up to here with joie de vivre. We took her home. Her joie only multiplied. Everything in the house was battable. The only time she wasn't  knocking things off shelves, she was climbing on our heads or gnawing on our hair or spindling our eyebrows out of pure, uncontrollable affection. Her favorite thing was smacking toy mice under the refrigerator, or under a closed door.

But she never saw a real one until last week. And by gum if she didn't nab it and carry it around in her mouth. This is where the previous cat, (Saint) Larry, used to fall down on the job. She would strut around with the mouse and then set it down and look around the room in case there was any praise or admiration in it. She'd sweep her head around as though she was getting a lifetime achievement award, and when she looked down again, the mouse would be gone. Every time.

Tater had a feeling about this mouse long before she nabbed it. She was acting all fidgety and spending way too much time nosing around the baseboards. It was either a mouse, we thought, or an impending earthquake. And the thing about things that impend is you can never rule them out. But this time, we're going with mouse. Inasmuch as she finally came up with one. Dave was the witness. She nabbed it, stuck it in her mouth, and trotted into another room with it, and set it down. And lost it. There was really no place for a mouse to go in that room, except somewhere in the folds of the quilts that we sit under to watch TV.

There's never much on TV anyway.

But later, there she was with it. She'd gotten it back, and this time she had done something instinctual to it, and it was a much reduced rodent. Battable. And she batted it under the door. Went to the other side and batted it back. We let her keep this up for a couple minutes before Dave intervened to dispatch the poor critter.

Tater always knew this day would come. With every twitch of her dreaming paw, she knew. She was like Homo erectus gazing out over the savannah and visualizing being a billionaire venture capitalist. Finally she had fulfilled her genetic promise. Her legacy as a carnivore was now enshrined, frozen solid in a plastic bag at the bottom of the garbage can.

We don't approve of letting domestic cats murder native wildlife, no matter how much it entertains them. That's why we don't send her outside to help the thick population of subsidized neighborhood cats with their songbird eradication project. But we're willing to make an exception for wildlife found pooping in our dishwasher.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Probably, Rain

The weathermen around here like to comment periodically on what an interesting area we are in, meteorologically. By that they mean they really wish they worked in L.A. or somewhere they could phone in a forecast for the month and go on vacation. Here in Portland we have a lovely confluence of topographical features that result in great natural beauty, massive gastropods, and meteorologists with substance abuse issues. We take it in stride. If I need a weather report, I check the NOAA website and three different locations in the newspaper and pick the one I like the best. They won't be the same.

The TV guys look uncomfortable when they're pointing at the map. "We've got moisture coming in off the ocean," they'll say, beginning to shrug, "and an arctic blast surging in from the north"--their shoulders are now just below their ears--"and it's all going to turn on what the low pressure sweeping down the gorge decides to do." The weatherman is now noticeably shorter as measured against the latitude line on the map behind him, and he has punted as usual, phrasing his forecast in such a way that it will all be the fault of some anthropomorphized cold front with an agenda and a poker face.

It's not that there aren't things you can sort of count on. Like, it's probably not going to snow. I was excited when I moved here when, that first winter, it began to rain, and rain some more, and then a cold front was supposed to come in. Snow! I thought. I like snow. I did like snow. It was pretty and fluffy and it got you out of school for a day. I was many years past that being a factor, but it still informed my emotions. And I was not yet a mailman, for whom there are famously no snow days. Not only are there no snow days, but they're going to make you climb into an antique Jeep with slick tires and no heater and skeeter out like a greased hockey puck. The idle is set to five million RPMs in order to keep the engine from crapping out altogether and as soon as you let your foot off the brake it is just between God and gravity which ditch you end up in. This is one reason mailmen drink on the job. The other is they're alcoholics.

Nevertheless, we got no snow that year. We'd had precipitation for two months running and as soon as it got below freezing, the sun came out. The problem was we get our moisture from the south and west, which is warmer, and our cold from the north and east, which is drier.

What we don't get much of is very cold or very hot. This suits me. I do remember a particularly cold night I spent waiting for the train in Boston. It was -15F and there was a fifty-mph wind, and I thought: how interesting! I have literally never been this cold in my life. My nipples snapped off and rattled around with the coins in my pocket. Chunks of my ass calved away and clanked onto the platform. It didn't grow back for weeks.

But last week it got really cold. Oh, maybe not cold like it gets some places, but fifteen degrees, and less. We're not cut out for it. We put on our good raincoats, and then we layer on our okay raincoats and our muck raincoats, and then we're out of options. We haven't prepared. Suddenly we're Googling how to keep hummingbird feeders thawed out ("heat them"). Yes, we have winter hummingbirds. Nobody's told them about global weirding and we worry we'll find them hanging upside-down from branches like tiny popsicles.

So we have rain coming in off the ocean, cold coming in from Canada, and a large mountain in the way
of all of it. The Columbia River Gorge picks up any screwy weather it finds out east and fire-hoses it into the metropolitan area. There are so many microclimates the precipitation map looks gerrymandered.  One day we noticed it was pouring rain in the front yard and sunny in the back. So many things happen at once that the most common weather feature in downtown Portland is rainbows, which is what most of us would have voted for anyway.

Any batch of moisture drifting into this little valley doesn't know whether to pellet up, take a gut punch right down the gorge, or smack into a mountain. It's all confused. So mostly it just piddles itself out of sheer lack of imagination. The weathermen cross their fingers and count on that. The phrase here is a little different from most places. If you don't like the weather, wait six months.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Midnight Minuet

From Trousering Your Weasel.

It's not the evidence of gang activity per se. It's the noise and the disruption, especially in the middle of the night, in the city. It's just rude.

Raccoons don't care. Procyonid is their proper name, meaning "before the dog." It's short for "y'all best broom thet thing off the porch before the dog see it." Only in Latin.

They seem kind of cute from a distance, but like a lot of other things, they swell up at the sight of a man with unzipped pants. Or so I was informed by Dave, right about the time he lost the habit of peeing out behind the shed. They were large. Lined up a few feet away, none of them qualified for carry-on, and some were getting into duffel territory. He was not able to determine, especially through their masks, if they were curious or malevolent. Or peckish.

And now they're back. This is the worst time of year, when the cold snap has turned all the grapes into little Jell-O shots and the raccoons finish off what the starlings didn't grab. The south side of the house is littered with birds sleeping it off in the shrubbery and the raccoons have convened on the roof to dance. It would be one thing if they had any rhythm. It would be one thing if they weren't two sheets to the wind. It would be one thing if they executed a minuet at high noon. But no. They dance and thump and skeeter and giggle at two in the morning, directly over our bed.

We have a tower on the house from which we can actually look out a window and down on our roof. The first hoedown Dave went up there to put the fear of Dave in them. He flicked on the light and charged the window making boogah boogah noises. Eight pairs of eyes edged up close. Hey, it's Zipper Man, they said, and giggled, and settled in to watch the window like it was America's Got Talent. My husband is a good-sized man but, as I have had to report to him on other occasions, there is no such thing as a Fear Of Dave. Not really.

There isn't a huge danger in having raccoons. They can carry rabies, but at least they wash it first. One problem is they can settle into your attic or crawl space. If you do have raccoons in your attic, word is you can repel them by tossing in tennis balls soaked in ammonia. Or you can put in a radio dialed to a talk station. I know just the talk radio host that would be particularly repellent, but resorting to that would be like clearing ants out of your house with time-release napalm.

They were pretty matter-of-fact about this sort of thing in the old days; I have a photo of my Uncle Cliff in a fine raccoon coat, which implied a certain amount of violence. And the original Joy Of Cooking featured a recipe for raccoon. Today, I'm at a loss. The other night they were going to town up there on the roof, and giggling, and I thundered up to the tower to see what could be done. Eight pairs of eyes turned my way. I didn't end up doing anything. I think the big one with the accordion threw me off, and I sure didn't want to do anything to get the group with the cowbells going. The mature thing to do, when you can't change something else, is to change your attitude. To look on the bright side.

Eight trillion bits of information on the internet and you can't find one search engine to tell you what the insulation R-value of raccoon poop is.

Happy birthday, Zipper Man.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Still Between Dust And Dust

At some point, the mature person who has already bushwhacked her way through all of life's other milestones begins to think about death in a non-fictional way.  That's all that's left, and it is moreover closer than it used to be. Some people have grand plans for themselves, but I don't. I figure on being a brief damp spot, followed, in a geologically insignificant amount of time, by a small heap of dust and flakes with no opinion. Don't be sad for me. I'm not. For those of us without even the staying power to be an all-purpose spirit drifting in stardust, thinking about death gets pretty specific. I just hope for the best during the endgame.

The way I prefer to imagine it, the act of dying will be a gentle thing, somehow devoid of panic. There will have been some sort of shift so that the mind is no longer afraid of being quenched. Ideally, things will just wear out and I will slip from this life without stress or embarrassing emissions. I gave the concept a practice run the other night when I got sick.

Not sick sick. Just one of my peculiar colds in which the symptoms occur all out of order or maybe some of them don't manifest at all. In this case, I developed a blatting baritone that was only minimally sexy and began to want to cough recreationally most of the time. No sore throat. No congestion. It was merely annoying until the third night, when a little fever crept in.  At that point I holed up in a comfy chair with a blankie over me and churned out heat for the lap cat. Dave poured me a beer and I soldiered through it.

Uh-oh. I don't soldier through beer. Probably, I thought, this is a sign that I am dying. And I don't care. It's okay. As long as I don't have to get up out of the chair, I'm fine with whatever comes. It's peaceful, really. This is what is supposed to happen. You begin to separate from the joys and cares of life. Like, right now, as long as the quilt is still up under my chin, and the cat doesn't have an epizootic and patch out, and nobody is expecting anything of me, it's all good.

Dave made me a steak and hash browns with a bright salad on the side, and asked if I'd like a glass of red to go with. No, I don't think I want any wine. I caught his raised eyebrow of concern, and realized: yes, I am dying. I can see that now. It's not so bad. It doesn't hurt. Do not worry about me. I will just sit here and fade away. I will be a pile of dust soon. I don't need to tell anyone what folder the book I'm writing is in, or where the sheet with all my passwords is. They'll either figure it out, or they won't, but either way it doesn't matter. Nothing really matters, as long as I don't have to get up.

With a sense of heightened self-awareness, I focused on a small, dark presence deep within me. It was the Seed of Death. It began to grow. I acknowledged it with a pitiful rattly cough, and it dislodged. It was a snot nugget after all, but it was right next to the Seed of Death.

I ate half the steak and half the potatoes and couldn't manage the salad at all. Yes, I am surely dying. I will cruise in and out of consciousness, and at some point I will no longer cruise back in. She didn't want that second beer, Dave will tell people afterwards, and I knew she didn't have much time left. I just kept her comfortable.
What a nice man. I hope he doesn't miss me too much. I don't want him to be sad. With great effort, I unbundled myself from the blankie and staggered up to bed. At 8:30, four hours earlier than usual. Yes, clearly, death approaches.

Twelve hours later I managed to make it downstairs in my jammies and haystack hair and announced myself with a loogie-rattling honk. I'd stayed in bed just to make sure, but I was not technically dead at all. Someone had tied a clatter of tin cans to my lung bumpers. Jesus Christ, are you ever going to stop coughing? Dave said, with a little edge. He won't miss me too much. That's good, I think.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Let's Hang On To What We Got

They've found over a thousand planets outside our solar system by now. It's hard to spot an extra-solar planet all by itself. You not only need a good telescope, you need a giant hand to hold in front of its star to block out the glare. So mostly this is not how they're found. One of the ways you can find planets in other solar systems is to measure just how fast the star is trying to get away from us; and if it's dragging planets with it, you'll see a wobble in its progress. It's impossible to get up to speed towing the kids. Another way to discover new planets is to examine the brightness of the stars they're revolving around. If the planet travels in front of the star in relation to us, the star should dim a little. In order to do this, you have to be looking at the star just when its planet is traveling across its face, or you won't notice it. Space being the roomy place it is, the odds of a planet lining up between us and its star are pretty low, but it happens, and there are people--night shift workers, mostly--who spend all their time looking for it. As long as it doesn't happen when they're in the bathroom, they'll catch it.

So we do know that there are planets out there in other solar systems, and sometimes we even know what they're made of. They've recently located one made of rock and iron, just like Earth. Earth is mostly molten but crusts up nicely on the chilly outer edges. This new planet is whipping around its star in eight and a half hours and is not considered a likely spot for life. It would be hard for a critter to hang onto a planet flying around that fast, but inasmuch as the planet is entirely molten, holding on is the least of the challenges.

They've even found planets orbiting around pulsars. A pulsar is what's left over when a star blows up, and all that's left is the throbbing. I wouldn't have imagined that any planets would survive their star going supernova, but they do. This should be a great comfort to the kind of people who are so insufficiently frantic about their own mortality that they need to worry about the sun blowing up. I've met them. They tend not to get worked up about climate change, for some reason.

Scientists like to find planets they think might support life. Unfortunately, with the state of scientific literacy being what it is, this encourages people to imagine we might hop onto those planets once we're done trashing this one. If you point out how many light-years away they are, they just think it sounds sunnier.

Of course, we needed to properly define what a planet is before we could assert we had found any, and recently we've come to a consensus. A planet must be big enough that its own gravity has spanked it into a round shape. But it must not be so massive that it begins its own thermonuclear reactions. If that happens (it would have to be thirteen times bigger than Jupiter), it is essentially a star, if not a major one. It would be called a brown dwarf, or, as they prefer to be known, a Little Star Person Of Color. But there's a third requirement for achieving planet status, and this is the one that doomed Pluto: it needs to have mopped up most of the stuff around it. It turns out that Pluto is a member of a whole roaming pack. Not only that, but some of the other members of the pack are nearly as big and vicious. Pluto's in the Kuiper Belt, a revolving swath of space crap including a few other spheres that could qualify as planets themselves if we weren't enforcing that clean-up clause, but we must have standards.

My favorite of the planets discovered so far is the one they're calling the Fluffy Planet, with a density like that of cork. Even if it doesn't have enough mass and gravitational pull to hold onto anything, we could always pin stuff to it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fudging It

Dave likes to tell people I'm a great dessert-maker. Not because it's true, but because he really likes desserts and doesn't want to make them himself, and I will. I make them with love. Also butter, chocolate, cream, sugar, and nuts, which are more important. You could take all those things and put them in a bag and swing them around your head a few times and you'll get something out of it that people like. I actually have no idea what I'm doing when I make dessert. All kinds of shit can go wrong. There's hard ball this, and soft ball that, and you can't make things reliably fluffy unless you know what spells to cast. Or, you know, some chemistry.

Take my annual Thanksgiving dessert. My sister-in-law was in charge of dinner years ago and so I ran it by her. "I was thinking of making something different this year--I cut it out of a magazine," I said. She was skeptical. "Does it have chocolate?" she wanted to know. I consulted my clipped recipe. "It's called "Fudge-Slathered Fudge Cake," I said. "Bring it," she said. A tradition was born.

Fifty shades of turkey
We change traditions in this family like we change our shorts. A couple years ago Elizabeth showed up lugging a forty-pound side dish of Corn Pudd'n. We all had a spoonful. "New tradition!" we sang out in unison. "It's a Paula Deen recipe," she said carefully. "You do not want to know what's in it."

I still don't know everything that's in it, but part of it is made from pureed fat person.

The Fudge-Slathered Fudge Cake was a hit too. It looked weird, but it tasted great. The cake part gets all its lift from egg whites, momentarily, and then when it cools it shrinks and craters into something with all the heft of a communion wafer. I was horrified that first year, but it comes out that way every time. The cake is only there to hold the frosting up, and the frosting is terrific. But the second year the frosting didn't set up. I started slathering it on, and it kept puddling up around the bottom like saggy pants. I was horrified, but the family gathered around it and monitored the lava flow with spoons and fingers, and everyone was happy. Some years later I stumbled onto a way to make it work right and that part has been fine ever since.

But it's a dessert. It's not going to behave just because you want it to. Every year I find a new way to
screw up the fudge cake. The egg whites got particularly exuberant in one corner this year so the whole cake was on a slant. The frosting requires bittersweet chocolate cut up so that it melts into the hot butter/cream mixture. I probably bought fancy chocolate the first few years but then I thought good ol' chocolate chips would save time and work just as well, and they have. This year I had some leftover Mini Morsels. I figured teeny chocolate chips would melt even faster, which would have been true, if it hadn't been completely false. I kept stirring and stirring and those chips weren't going anywhere. What sort of chocolate chip does not melt when plunged into cream and butter that has been boiling for twelve minutes? Why, little plastic chocolate chips, evidently. I mashed them against the sides of the bowl until most of them had succumbed, but not all. It looked like frosting with little fairy doots.

The cake tasted fine. I think everyone was thankful for it. And,  thankful that I'm not in charge of the rest of the dinner. That's another tradition.