Saturday, June 28, 2014

How To Make A Big-Ass Horse

We went to the Rose Festival parade this year, which is weird. Parade-watching doesn't work out that well for Dave and me. We start out curbside, but Dave suffers from being as considerate as he is tall, and as people worm their way in front of him to see, he keeps stepping back and stepping back until eventually we discover we're all the way back home again. But this time we found a spare spot right downtown and parked our butts in the front row.

Turns out it really matters to be up close. That's how you find out how truly large those Budweiser Clydesdales are. I mean, we've all seen them on TV, but it's an entirely different thing to have one clop by and put the other side of the street in total eclipse. Holy shit. You could put the whole family on one of those: the kids on their bellies in the middle with a Monopoly board between them, and Mom and Dad reclined on a blanket with a bottle of wine and the Sunday paper.  They could get up and stroll over to the withers and back for exercise. A couple of those skinny houses could go up alongside the hocks and no one would even notice right away.

They are big-ass horses. Regular horses are big enough, but they're little green houses on Baltic Avenue compared to the Clydesdale's hotel on Park Place. They have feet like kettledrums with a big fur bustle. Plus, they prance. No one laughs at you if you prance while large.

They're named after Clydesdale, a place in Scotland, which is named after the River Clyde, which is probably named after some guy named Clyde, which just goes to show you never know where your name is going to end up, even without the internet.

It took almost no time at all to make a horse this
Note Clydesdale Snot on butt.
big. Three hundred years ago someone drug in some stout Flemish stallions from Flemland and got the ball rolling. They started out strong, but they weren't all that tall, as those things go. They were exported all over the place to do work such as hauling coal and building Australia, and it wasn't until the 1940s that someone decided they could be taller. That way they would look cooler in advertisements in case the Super Bowl ever got invented. So essentially we're talking just a few generations to polish up a modern Clydesdale.

It's something to think about if you're dubious about evolution. Take eyes: we find the first fossil eyes in 540-million-year-old strata and it's estimated it might take only 400,000 years to go from a dab of light-sensitive cells to a complex eyeball. The dab of light-sensitive cells couldn't do much but let you know when it's bedtime. Once the cells had organized themselves into a cup shape, they were able to tell how strong light was and where it was coming from. After that it was just a matter of refinement, and all kinds of critters did it. Octupi made eyeballs by sinking pits into their heads and, independently, vertebrates made them out of a part of their brains they weren't using for anything else, but both operate much the same way.

We're all basically organized dust, which is pretty terrific, if you ask me; but if you ask some people, they're rather offended by the idea. They're not buying the eyeball thing. They might not even believe the modern horse emerged out of a skittering critter the size of a fox in only fifty million years, even though entire Clydesdales were assembled right in front of our complex eyeballs in no time at all. And that's nothing:

We went from Grey Wolves to Barking Purse Hamsters in a few thousand years.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Schrodinger's Chickadee

I don't know what's in our chickadee box. Whatever's in there has been packed with bugs and caterpillars, and, lately, as parental exhaustion set in, fat chunks of suet from our feeder.

My friend Julie Zickefoose showed me a working chickadee nest this year; she's like a realtor with the lockbox key. Her eighty acres are maintained with the welfare of birds in mind, so the whole habitat is conducive to baby-bird manufacturing--location, location, location!--but she's also leasing a bunch of nesting boxes for bluebirds and chickadees and the like, and those subsidized birds on her property do not have as much privacy as mine. Dave screwed my chickadee box together solid. Julie's have doors, and she opens them to check on things, after knocking politely first. There was a grass mattress with a hole in the middle and four speckled eggs the size of my little fingernail, and I keep my nails short. The idea is that an entire prospective bird is supposed to come out of each of those little beans. It's pretty implausible. I guess they're all folded up, and by the time they bust out, they look marginally like birds, or at least you could tell them from mice and such, but they also look a lot like loogies. What they don't look like is a going concern.

Poopy diaper
I have seen brand new baby birds before, of course. They're not real impressive, from a survival perspective. They're not go-getters. They're barely differentiated goo in a thin sac that  has all the integrity of a spit bubble. You can make out big goobery eyeballs so you know which end is up. And the parents definitely know which end is up, because the one thing they do have going for them is their giant yellow feed-me holes. This is where the bugs and caterpillars go.

They can just about hold their heads up to get the protein shoveled in, but they're feeble. Then feather bits start piercing their skin from the inside out, and within days they're all itch and bristle and desire. Before a week is out they are actually beginning to preen their new feathers, with good reason. They've opened their eyes and they can see they need sprucing up, because they still look like shit. Fortunately, it's dark in the box, and there is no permanent psychological damage.

The thing is, the little suckers are supposed to be out of the nest in about sixteen days after hatching,
depending on this or that, but for sure they're not supposed to be in there forever, and it's been nineteen days now since we heard the first pitiful peepings of loogie-birds. Mom and Dad have hauled in about a hundred pounds of bugs and nothing's come out but diapers. I don't know if they're the sort of bird that flies okay right off the bat. If they were in a natural tree-cavity they'd have options; could poke their heads out and hop around a little, hang onto a branch or something. But this box is right out in mid-air. Do we need to string up a net?

Worse, I have no idea what's in there. Six baby chickadees? One big scary one? Paula Deen? All I know is if Mom and Dad keep bringing them their dinner every minute, they're not going anywhere. They'll be down there in the rec room with the X-Box and scratching themselves and not even working on their resumes.

Update: one evening the parents began withholding bugs and coaxing them out. I didn't see them emerge, but the next morning we saw a confusion of unkempt chickadees flying around upside down and in loops like Woodstock's friends in Peanuts, and they managed to land okay on everything they blundered into. We are all very proud.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, Creeps

I'm a writer. I guess that's so. I really hate to say it out loud, though. It comes up in conversation and then I have to just blurt it out, all squirmy, my hands twisted together, my shoulders tucked up under my ears. I look like a little girl who has to tinkle.

Problem is, it sounds so insubstantial and precious. "I'm a writer." What's that supposed to mean, in the real world? It's like saying "I'm a picker." It doesn't give anyone much of a purchase on what you do. Do you pick melons, mandolins, boogers? So people ask. They say, "Oh! What is it you write?" They almost have to. You tell folks you're a writer and that's the first thing they say, out of sheer politeness. And I squirm some more, because really there are a whole lot of things I write besides this here blog, and those things don't necessarily have much in common, and one wants to be informative, but I usually say "oh, mostly humor." Here's the thing. There  is no way to say you're a humor writer that is funny. In fact there is nothing duller than the phrase "I'm a humor writer." People smile uncertainly and then they're off to see if someone's opened the merlot.

Besides, only a tiny number of people who describe themselves as humor writers are actually funny. So I squirm. Because the only truly appropriate response to the statement "I'm a writer" is: well, lah-dee-dah.

There's also the thing where it feels like it doesn't really count unless someone's paying you for it. And my writing is pretty much an income-free occupation. I do have my own room for it, a special place with all the necessary tools at hand where I can get in the mood, but that could work for masturbation, too. So what is it you do, now that you're retired? I whack off. I'm just waiting for someone in the  industry to notice that I am a truly gifted wanker and offer to give me more exposure.

So there used to be a saying that if you had an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters, they would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. This is not true. People like to believe it, because nothing cheers them up like imagining an infinite number of monkeys.  But there is no empirical evidence for it. Shakespeare, no. The internet, maybe.

The thing about those infinite monkeys is that it's entirely possible they could hammer on those infinite typewriters and never once get anywhere with Shakespeare, or that it could take an infinite amount of time, which is virtually useless, especially if you've still got to get one more load of laundry done before calling it a day. If you're a good writer, which Shakespeare is reputed to be, you don't need that many monkeys. A few dozen, tops, and some of them should be trained. You need some to round up verbs, and others to throw poop at pretension, and the rest of them can just fly willy-nilly around the room, while the writer squints at them until they resolve into metaphor.  Good writing is all a matter of recognizing patterns in seemingly random monkey mayhem.

So there. I'm a monkeyherd. Is there any more merlot?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wolf Testicles On The Loose

We've had a lone wolf wandering around Oregon for several years now, purportedly trying to find himself a date. And all this time I've felt kind of sorry for him. I mean, I know that's what they do--they are allowed to hang around the pack for a few years as juveniles and then at some point they get punted out or they decide to leave on their own, and try to make a life for themselves. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, not that they're necessarily consulting that manual. You want to shake up the gene pool and have a lot more variability going for you as a species. That way, if anyone gets a particularly good genetic idea and there are stresses in play, they've got more of a shot.

Still, this one seemed kind of sad. We've got, like, 24 wolves in Oregon. They got brung in on purpose, and ranchers have been pissed off about it ever since. Ranchers are an introduced species, and like many other such, they and their charges have kind of taken over. The wolves were nearly eradicated in the 1940s. They get a lot of bad press. Some of the wolves do eat livestock. A couple dozen cattle have been killed by wolves in the last decade, in fact. And those were cattle we were planning to eat, ourselves, so. Wolves have also dented up the coyote population, which should come out as a plus to the cattle population, but whereas field biologists might be able to tease out the ecological strands here, reg'lar folk find it easier to stick with whatever idea they started with.

All our wolves are up in the northeast little corner of the state, and here this one wolf--OR-7, he's
called, because the gene for creative naming is associated with people who work with quarks and not with people who work with radio transmitters--off he goes, all over the place, right through the whole state and into northern California, and mind you, we don't have one of your piddly eastern seaboard states here. He's traveled a long, long way. Looking for a mate. That's what the biologists are assuming he's doing, but maybe he's just oversensitive to howling. Anyway, it's a long shot. It's like looking for a heart in Dick Cheney.

The farther he got away from northeast Oregon, the worse I felt for him. How does a wolf find another wolf in a state this big? If you crank your big wet nose in the air and find a female wolf scent molecule, and swivel it till you find two female wolf scent molecules, you're in business. You have a plan and a direction. You've got to believe that the female wolf scent molecule distribution is pretty diluted here, though. It's got to be hit or miss, and mostly miss.

And yet. Do not underestimate the power of underutilized testicles riding on a four-paw operating system. Looks like OR-7 has found his match. He's come back into Oregon and he's found himself a girl. Scientists suspect denning has taken place. Somewhere, maybe, is a snoozing rumple of fuzzy pups, dreaming of our hamburger.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Satellites Are Laughing

Big Dave, Old Dave, and Vivi
I don't even know where you'd get a nice fold-out road map anymore. I've given up. When I needed to steer my rental car from the Pittsburgh airport to Big Dave and Vivi's house, I went ahead and printed out the Mapquest directions, plus the map. I need the map.

I need to get a sense  of what topographical squiggle I'm skirting. I need to get my personal magnets aligned with the poles. I want a decent directional clue so that when I get off-track I have an idea where to veer.

Our pioneer forebears didn't always have a map. They had to make educated guesses and reconcile obstinate hooves and mountain passes. Their sense of topography was more immediate. They could see what needed to be overcome, could suspicion their way to water. Then they passed along the information or left wagon tracks for the next group. Sometimes someone would whomp up a map, but it was likely to be partly fictional. They had skills we have lost; on the other hand, a bunch of them ended up being vulture food, too.

Big Dave told me to forget about the map. He considered it unlikely I would be able to machete my way through Pittsburgh. Couldn't be done. "Get a navigation app," he said. Well. I only have the vaguest notion about getting apps. I have about two on my iPad, which is why, I think, I have been so disappointed in my iPad. Right now, it's not much of an improvement over one of those old-timey magic drawing boards that erased when you peeled up the plastic. But ever since I surrendered to modern technology, forsaking the good old reliable road map, I've been unsure of myself. Maybe he's right. Maybe I would find myself in an eternal gyre of vehicles in the middle of the city and have to be rescued. I looked for an app.

Navigator it is! First one that popped up, with a four an a half star rating, and free, so I bought it. I put in Big Dave's address and fired it up at the airport, and off we went. It went well at first, and got me to the freeway. I was a little perturbed that a British woman was in charge. She seemed to have the potential to be judgmental. I made a note to see if they had a Southern version. "Oh, now, sugar--you done overshot. Okay, hon, sit tight, don't you fret none. We'll see you right. Would you like some pie?"

Once we got on the freeway--I'm including my British friend--she clammed up altogether. Didn't even deign to hum. After a few miles I found myself grabbing the phone and shaking it a little in case she was napping on the job. We entered a tunnel. "GPS signal lost," she barked. Hurray! I thought. You're still here! And, after a moment, shit.

But she piped right back up when we came out of the tunnel and had all sorts of new suggestions for me. I was to take the Slip Road. Soon. Real soon. Now! I lurched onto the exit ramp and looked for a sign for Slip Road. Okay, I realized after a while, this is British jargon for exit ramp. I can adjust.

What I can't adjust to is the raucous accordion bleat that violently erupts out of my phone, like a bugling car horn that precedes an imminent collision--the kind of noise that makes your hair fall out first and think about it later. What the fuck, I inquire politely of my Navigator. I slalom over the lane for the next quarter mile while peering into my phone to find out what I'm being alerted to. There is nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Not the next random time, either. Or the entirely unpredictable time after that. I ignore it and put it down to episodic digital flatulence, but I make a note to have a stern word with the Help button once I'm safely delivered to a sofa.

On the next trip, I load up my Navigator with a destination and take a Mapquest printout with me just for protection, and all is well. I have studied the printed directions. Basically I get on I-79 for eighty miles. The British lady finds me the freeway. I begin to relax. Fifteen miles later she wants me to take the Slip Road again. I'm so startled that I do. If I'd bothered to install the Southern voice, I might have objected. Y'all real sure about that?

Now I'm toodling through some unnamed neighborhood, past strip malls, past lube shops, past a guy on the sidewalk wearing a foam pizza suit and waving a sign, and I begin to become morose. Just as I decide to hit up a gas station for directions, she finds me the freeway and sends me back up. The same damn freeway I was already on, one exit later.

What the fuck, I query.

Ten miles later she's doing it again. Go fuck yourself, I suggest. You're fired.

It does sort of work. But I don't like it. I feel like I've been digitally blindfolded and spun, and I'm wandering around holding a donkey tail in front of me like a moron. I'm a prairie dog rooting around underground with no native prairie-dog sensibilities, popping up in the right place most of the time but with no idea how I got there.

Used to be, I got lost every now and then. Now I never know where I am.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Big One

Every time I put a Q-Tip in my ear, I think of The Big One. It would make more sense to think about Q-Tips themselves; how they were invented in the 1920s and originally were called "Q-Tip Baby Gays," although the "Q" stood for Quality and not that other thing. But I don't think about this when I put a Q-Tip in my ear. I think: this would be a very bad time to have a 9.0 earthquake.

We're supposed to have one of those. It could happen at any time. Of course that could be said about anywhere about anything, but we really have a good shot at it. The entire west coast is trying to shear off and scootch its way toward Alaska and it can't do that without bouncing things around. We're overdue for another gigantic earthquake and I more or less expect to experience it in my lifetime, even though that's not that much time, anymore.

Whenever you put a Q-Tip in your ear, you can't help but recall years and years of advice never to put a Q-Tip in your ear, or, for that matter, anything smaller than your elbow--that's the standard recommendation--which is very silly, because nobody is that limber. I look forward to my Q-Tip and only wish I produced more ear wax for it. Still, I do understand that you're not supposed to put it in too far in case you puncture your eardrum. I put it in kind of far anyway, and everything's been fine so far, but if we get our earthquake while I'm cleaning my ears, I can't guarantee the safety of that eardrum.

Accidental tectonically induced Q-Tip insertions are not high on most people's fret lists. Sensible people are anchoring their water heaters to the foundation and laying in stocks of bottled water and canned goods and updating their contact lists. And cleaning their ears with their elbows.

The truth is I think about that earthquake pretty often. I think of it with excitement and anticipation, and that is because I haven't been in any strong earthquakes before. If I had, it's just possible I would contemplate more dire consequences than a cotton-stick intrusion. The other time I always think about earthquakes is when I get in bed on the second floor. I imagine the huge side-to-side movement and the crumbling of the house beneath me and I think: maybe I should start wearing pajamas.

I quit wearing pajamas in high school. I remember the first time I did it. I had the sheet pulled way up to my neck in case anyone looked in on me, because I understood that ours was not the kind of family that slept naked. Even in seismically calm areas of the country, it was not the Lutheran thing to do. But I hated getting all twisted up in a nightie. The experiment was great. It was delightful.

It still is delightful. But I can visualize myself in a heap of rubble, the second floor having crashed down with me on it, bits of ceiling and shingles and astonished roof raccoons all around me, and there I am, naked. I would think: the naked bit isn't optimal, but at least I don't have a Q-Tip in my ear. I don't really want to start wearing pajamas again and I keep trying to tell myself that my fellow citizens will have more on their plates at that moment than to worry about a sixty-year-old lady wearing nothing but dust. They probably won't even look at me. Not twice, anyway.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sprague's Still Got Hold Of His Pipit

One cool thing about Oregon: it's got geology all over it, which means it's habitat soup. Ocean, mountain, rain shadow, high desert: there's something for everybody. So this year our intrepid Birdathon team, The Murre The Merrier, headed east for a change, away from the ocean, into sunny and dry climes, where we might hope to find entirely different sorts of birds. Hot, dry birds. There is a drawback, from a bird-counting perspective. If you glance at the list of possible species, you'll notice that the shorebirds and ocean-going types take up a lot of room. There are places on the coast where you can stand in one spot and watch the birds paddle by in alphabetical order. You can polish off the whole category with one long mark through the check-column. It's like counting bubbles in a bathtub. But we were heading to Sparrowville.

There is a certain serenity to being the crappiest birder in the van. I can only improve. Ten minutes into the big day, I already had a life bird: the yellow-headed blackbird. I was thrilled, but it doesn't really bode well for the team that I'd never seen a bird that lives in fat flocks fifteen minutes away from my house. After about an hour, we had knocked off the great blue heron, the osprey, the raven, the bald eagle, and all the rest of the large items I had any confidence about, and it looked like we were going to be eking out flycatchers for the rest of the afternoon. Unfortunately for the team, I was still anxious to contribute, and my own eyeball floaters all look like birds. After the first dozen times I sang out the ID of my hallucination and the van skidded to a halt--hollering cerulean warbler! in a birding van in Oregon is like having your own brake pedal--it was clear something needed to be done about me.

"Murr, did you raise money?" Yes, I did. "Murr, did you bring cookies?" Yes, I did. "Murr, maybe you've already contributed enough. Maybe you could sit back and let someone else do the identifying!" I sat back and confined myself to locating a chuckler, a hoot, and a flock of lesser quips.

We did fine, even without the bathtub birds. On one gravel road we really larked out (meadow-,
horned-, and -sparrow). That was also the scene of our greatest near-triumph, as intrepid leader Sarah Swanson commenced freaking out about a ball of feathers in the distant dust.  "It's a pipit," she squeaked, leaning out of the window and directing the van forward three inches, then back, then forward again. "Omigod, it's a Sprague's pipit! No one is going to believe that!"

A Sprague's pipit, it transpired, is a stranger in these parts. In no time at all, nine reliable pairs of eyes, and also mine, were scanning the prairie like astronomers looking for a new comet. The elusive quarry seemed to be hanging out with our horned lark. Much speculation ensued. The horned lark and the Sprague's pipit were, after all, next to each other in the field guide, so naturally--we reasoned--they'd socialize in the wild.  Eventually we looked at it so hard that it turned into a juvenile horned lark, which might arguably be even more inclined to hang out with a horned lark. And anyone would believe that.

But that's birding. Around the next corner might be great glory. Or just a horned lark and her baby. Either way you win.

As the sun began to set, I was presented with a prize for fundraising--a prize chosen by someone who obviously reads this blog. It was an IPA, with a bird on it! Thank you to all who sponsored me (below). I salute you, and will happily share this beer with you. But you'd better get on over here quick.

Janyce O'Keefe
Kim Beard
Barb Padgett
Carolyn Barkow
Linder Freedman
Mary Ann Dabritz
Merran Phillips
Margaret Herrington
Sara Montag
Dallas DiLeo
Jon Steuerwalt
Melissa Bartlett
Bruce and Jeannine Hubbard
Scott Terrall
Hetty Friedman
Beth Glisczinski
Margo Reifenrath
Gerry O'Scannlain
Scott Teitsworth
Sally Bays
Dave Price

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Justice, NOM NOM

Everyone expected U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane to come down on the side of marriage equality, and he did, carefully citing legal precedents in his opinion, but he also got personal. Which was either touching or appalling, depending on whether you're camped on the shiny side of Justice or the old, dingy side. Even before his ruling, there had already been calls for McShane to recuse himself from the case on account of presumed bias. The problem, as some saw it, was that McShane was gay. And not merely gay, or suspiciously unmarried, or neatly-turned-out, or evangelist-in-the-bathroom-stall gay, but right out there in the open gay, with no mitigating sense of shame. And as such, he was considered to be likely to come down on what the complainers say is the wrong side of the issue. Whereas if someone presumed to be heterosexual were to rule on the case, there'd at least be a chance he or she would be a total idiot.

McShane didn't even try to keep his personal views out of his opinion. This is thought to be proof that, as many had feared, he had taken into account his own life experience and his intimate knowledge of the consequences of being a minority in the dominant community, and he made a ruling with all that in mind, rather than issuing the correct ruling based on having no such knowledge or empathy at all. In cases like these, it's far safer to go with a guy who doesn't have any understanding of the issue. Ignorance leads to purer results. Do I have that right?

No? Oh, I see. The real problem is that Judge McShane might be in a position to take advantage of his own ruling, in the same way a judge might stand to gain financially on a decision involving a company he had stock in. In this case, he might be able to marry his longtime partner  if he determines marriage inequality is unconstitutional. He says he's not planning to do that, but talk is cheap. Of course, there wasn't anything stopping him from getting legally married before, as long as he found the right woman. So what's at stake here is merely the ability to marry the person you'd actually pick out for yourself, and that's certainly not the kind of freedom we celebrate in this country. Right?


Well, maybe I don't understand this at all. After all, even if you got someone on the bench who swore up and down, in spite of living in a blue state, that he was in fact straight, and he'd be damned if he cared what the electorate thought of that, he could still stand to benefit personally from his own ruling. Not if he decided gays couldn't marry; that wouldn't do him, or society, any good at all. But if he ruled in favor of gay marriage, that would open things up for him a whole lot. He'd have a ton more choices. He wouldn't have to settle for a broad if he didn't want to. Maybe he wouldn't take advantage of the possibilities, but he could.

None of this is persuasive to the National Organization for Marriage, which is doing everything it can to reverse the ruling. Nothing is more important to NOM than this issue, since they have determined that world peace is at hand, nobody is going hungry or contracting disease, every puppy has a loving home, and their heads can indeed fit all the way up their asses.

I guess what it comes down to is some people think the deck got stacked, and that an effort should have been made to find a judge that might have the same stupid ideas they do. Well. I think everyone has a right to his or her own stupid opinion. I just think it should be expressed in the privacy of one's own home, and not out there in public where I have to see it.