There was nobody in line at the post office. Not one soul. I stifled a gasp, scanned for snipers, and willed my heart rate back down. The clerk smiled at me, but I kept calm.
"Anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or scary in here?" she said, putting my mailing tube on the scale.
"It's my family tree. I'm sending it to my cousin."
"Cool! How far back does it go?"
We had time for that. We had time to stroll all the way back to 1620, when my ancestor boarded the Mayflower. We had all the time in the world. It was dreamlike, magical; we were leaning on either side of the counter in an empty post office lobby. Couldn't anything be possible on such a day? A small dragon entered briefly, but just to drop off a plate of cookies.
"Can you imagine doing that? Getting on a wooden boat and sailing to the new world? Do you think any of us would do anything that audacious today?" the clerk asked. Sasquatch poked his head in the door and asked for directions to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Or Ernest Shackleton!" she continued. She was a non-fiction buff. "Can you imagine trying to cross Antarctica and your ship's been crushed by ice and it's just you and the dogs and the scurvy and you're stranded on a floe for, like, over a year, and have to try to sail out in a tiny dinghy with a little bag of sandwiches? Honestly. I wonder if anyone alive today would dare to do such a thing."
"Sure we would. I mean, I'm not cut out for the South Pole, but I could see myself getting on a wagon and heading out west to parts unknown," I said, nibbling a cookie. "It's one thing to face guaranteed danger, and a whole other thing to get started on something that turns out to be dangerous once you're on the road." Take the Oregon Trail. You're already starving, and you think things could only be better somewhere else. You're going to give it a whirl. It's not like anyone is sending postcards back from Donner Pass. Miss you! Wish you were here. You little fatty.
I considered her original question. Sure, I could get on the Mayflower. All your friends are getting on the Mayflower. You can't wait to get away from your home town, and there might be cute boys in the new world. It's not like someone is offering you three months of nausea and rats followed by winter and a protracted death, and you're thinking sign me up.
"I guess," she said, stretching her back against the postage meter machine, as a trio of fairies flew over the stamps display and vanished in a swirl of sparkle dust. "But think about it. We're getting to the point now where Shackleton could probably waltz over to the South Pole in his bunny slippers, but most of us aren't even willing to make a single sacrifice to combat climate change. It just doesn't seem like anyone does anything truly brave anymore. We're all set in our ways, too used to our own comfort." She scratched her back with the mailing tube. "Bra strap," she explained, grimacing.
"Horrible. And those little tags in the back of your shirt? The worst."
"I know, right?"
"Anyway, I t hink you're selling people short. Those pioneers were no braver than we are," I said. I can't sing in public without breaking into the trembles. I jump a foot whenever my cell phone goes off in my pocket; it might as well be a moisture alarm. "We've still got what it takes. It's just that there aren't as many unknowns anymore."
"I guess. Do you think it takes more courage to face the unknown, or a known danger?"
"Known danger. Definitely. That's the only difference. Maybe we wouldn't jump out of a balloon at the edge of space, but we'd totally follow a wagon train across the mountains if that was the thing to do." Fifteen minutes earlier, while I was walking to the post office, a nesting songbird dive-bombed my head for two blocks. As soon as I get home, I'll have to change my shorts.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe sometimes all courage is about is just deciding to start something, and then the rest takes care of itself."
"You know it. Shoot, yeah, I'd get in that Mayflower. Heck," I said, pointing at the mailing tube, "it's in my blood!"
Apparently, there's an underground network of ferrets in New York City. Which seems odd. Prairie dogs, I could understand.
The ferrets are illegals, and hide out in untold numbers in apartments all over the city, awaiting amnesty. The mayor has proposed lifting the citywide ban on ferrets, which delights ferret fanciers but has some residents worried about a mass weaseling. Ferret owners bristle at the notion that their pets are weasels, even though they are. Their fancy name is Mustela putorius, meaning stinky weasel. They're definitely not rodents. They have some things in common with rodents, just as we do, but they're way more tubular. In fact a good ferret can be stretched out to nearly five feet and only an inch in diameter, but only if you aren't going to use it for anything afterwards.
You can't always take everything a ferret fancier says to the bank and cash it. Some of them like to claim that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate the ferret, but that's because the Egyptians had a lot of cachet, and ferret people like to imagine their furry friends posing sidewise against a backdrop of pyramids and gold; and the fact that there are no ferrets, drawings of ferrets, or remains of ferrets in the whole geographical region just makes them all the more mysterious. Nevertheless, ferrets are domesticated and have been for thousands of years. In most places, they were used for--sshhh!--hunting wabbits. I'm not sure how it worked without a retractable leash. Way back in 1390, in England, there was even a law prohibiting people from wabbiting with a ferret unless they owned a substantial amount of land. If you owned a lot of land, of course, you could do anything you wanted.
Mustela putorius is indeed a little stinky in the anal region, although not to the extent its cousin the skunk is, and they're crepuscular and obligate carnivores. This means they sleep all day and then come to life right around beer thirty, and they eat nothing but meat. Well, people are frequently drawn to pets that resemble themselves.
New York City prohibits the owning of a number of different kinds of animals, including rhinoceroses because of the stomping issue, and ferrets because of the biting--same reason dogs and cats are illegal in every state. But there's hope. A group of ferrets is called a "business." Perhaps with the new Republican wave, ferret fanciers can anticipate a nationwide deregulation.
So, as I mentioned, I just found out that my friend Julie Zickefoose is afraid of having a clam clamp down on her foot. I thought that was sort of random, as phobias go. Until she supplied the missing element, which is that the clam clamps down on her foot and pulls her under the water, which truly is terrifying. I, too, am afraid of drowning. I can't stand movies that depict, in any scene, someone being pulled underwater by a rope looped on a foot, or a chain and the combined weight of fellow slaves, and drowned. Approximately 40% of movies produced in the last decade contain such a scene. I don't go to the movies anymore unless Gene Wilder is certified to be in them.
And this is in spite of something I take to be true--that drowning is actually an almost pleasant way to die. We know this because many people have drowned and been yanked back to life, and they report back. Regardless, it's a fear of mine. I've never hauled clams into the scenario, though. It would have to be one big-ass clam.
I'm not entirely certain I have any specific working phobias anymore. I'm not afraid of spiders. One day I was in our cabin, which is practically a spider B&B, with a friend who does have a spider phobia (a very loud one, in fact), and I went to put on a sweatshirt I'd draped across the furniture the day before, and my friend screamed bloody murder. "Don't put that on! It probably has a spider in it!" she emoted, and then instructed me to turn it inside out first to check. So I did. And a big-ass spider fell out of it. I really never considered the possibility. I'll have to ask her how she got the notion, if she ever comes back.
I'm not afraid of snakes, if someone hands me one nicely, although the unexpected ones can startle me something fierce; and I think the whole idea of snakes that climb trees or swim is a bad one, but we don't have swimming or tree-climbing snakes here. Basically, I'm not interested in dying, although I don't have any real objections to being dead. Later.
But back when I had some of your standard phobias, they all had something to do with dying. I was
afraid of heights. Not heights precisely, but falling off them. And I was afraid of water. Water is drowny, and I swim like a pebble. And--here's the only interesting one--I was afraid of railway trains. It's called siderodromophobia. Just that diesel smell and the brake screech could do me in. I know where I got it. I got it when Mom took me by train to North Dakota to visit Grandma. I was about three. The train cars were fine, but for some reason we kept having to go from one to another, you know, to eat or something, and the in-between bits were hellish. There was some kind of terrifying and totally inadequate platform with a pleated accordion curtain around it, and the whole contraption had all the integrity of a voting booth going sixty miles per hour during an earthquake. You get a terror when you're three, and it adheres to you.
And all that made the incident at Harper's Ferry especially interesting. I was there hiking with friends, in high school. We'd done a few miles, and it was getting dark, or we were getting hungry, or tired, or some such calamity, and we realized that we could slice off several miles of the return trek if we took the railroad bridge across the river. No one was allowed on the bridge, but this is not an important detail when you're a teenager. Trains didn't come by that often. Everyone agreed on the new plan, and we all started across.
The bridge was very high. And very over the water. And not designed for pedestrians. We had to nimbly traverse the railroad ties, and between each tie was the roaring river, far below. Getting across was the work of a minute, for most of us. For those of us paralyzed by fear, somewhat longer. I was bringing up the rear, by a lot, when the train whistle sounded behind us. It was coming out of the tunnel and headed our way. The bridge forked partway across and some of us chose the left branch and some chose the right. I don't remember which I chose. All I remember is wondering if it was possible to die three ways at once.
I haven't been afraid of railway trains since. You can only get so scared, and then you're either dead or you've moved on. I do turn my sweatshirts inside out at the cabin.
People on my Facebook page like to post pictures of birdies. I thought I could trust them to play nicely for a few days while I went off the grid. But when I came back, I discovered that my friends had veered into Giant Clam Territory. Specifically, Julie's fear of stepping in one and not being able to get her foot back. And Tim Ryan's declaration that he had once stroked the velvety lips of a giant clam. From there, the thread veered into the indelicate. Obviously, I needed to look into giant clams. Preferably from a distance.
Clams are weird. They're mollusks, and so are related to octopi and snails and even the snails' homeless cousins, the slugs. Most of them find a spot to live and glue themselves down, like plants. Some of them putt around in the water like goofy little bellows. They have a foot and they have teeth but they don't have a head. Basically, they're just a loogie in a jewel-box.
So, as you might expect of a headless loogie, they have no brain. They do have a nerve network of sorts that allows them to react appropriately to things, but without having to get all philosophical about it. There's really not a lot to a clam, so some of their bits do double duty. For instance, their hearts and kidneys also figure in the reproductive system, and their digestive tract is responsible for writing commemorative poetry for special occasions.
Your giant clam is planning to bulk up to five hundred pounds. He is able to snag a snack here and there as it drifts by, but mostly he's operating a feudal system, luring in algae under the pretense of providing protection, and then letting them do all the farming and paying a massive tribute.
Some clams are more motile, and use their feet to quickly dig themselves into the sand to a depth just a little greater than the length of your arm. But the cockle, which is already sort of cute, for a clam, can actually hop on his foot. He contracts it and then poings right up in the air. Hop hop hop. This is an image I am filing away in my archive of cheer, right alongside Webbed Feet and Vladimir Horowitz playing The Stars And Stripes Forever.
There is a clam that allows a bit of itself to protrude from its shell and take the
shape of a tiny fish, and when real fish come to investigate, it hoses them with a blast of eggs, which settle down inside the fish
and form cysts. Then the baby clams eat up everything inside their cysts until they're big enough to bust out and leave, and the fish is apparently none the worse for it all, although one would think it might feel itchy, or nervous.
None of this applies to the giant clam, however, which is well anchored, living off the profits of its tenant algae's labors, and dreaming of Lloyd Bridges. Lloyd Bridges is famous for a television show called Sea Hunt in which, week after week, he was required to go underwater with just enough air for one fewer person than he encounters. On a good week he gets snapped into a giant clam. You can't blame the clam. Lloyd Bridges was a lot more delectable early in his career than he was when he picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
Scientists claim that no deaths by giant clam have every been substantiated, although there is a huge roster of people who have been "lost at sea," so I'm not sure how they can be so certain. Their notion is that a giant clam cannot actually snap shut. Some of them can't shut all the way and none of them close up very fast, so one would have to be very preoccupied indeed not to notice an encroachment.
But "preoccupied" is the least you can say about people who are engaged in stroking the velvety lips of a giant clam.
I have a lot of personal pride in the ability of my legs to take me wherever I want to go, when I'm not tipping over. So I'm disinclined to mention that my knees are starting to complain just a wee bit when I'm getting up from a crouch. I'm not even mentioning it now. If you heard anything about it, you didn't hear it from me.
But I did mention such a thing as a merely hypothetical development when I was getting worked over by my freakishly strong massage therapist, Maria. "You--your friend--might try some glucosamine," she said. I don't like to argue with someone who has just swung my own hipbone past my ear. "It may or may not work, but it won't hurt you--your friend--to try it." I am not sure Maria is a reliable judge of what may or may not hurt me. Now she has stacked two or three unrelated joints of mine in a criss-cross pattern; my feet are visible, but they're on the wrong sides. She is either trying to work out a perceived slipknot in my intestines, or she's trying to get better radio reception.
"Give it a couple weeks and see if you---feel any different," she concludes. There is a whump and a fwop and suddenly I can do my own visual mole check on portions of my body I've never seen before without a mirror.
I sort of resist the glucosamine idea. Everybody my age takes glucosamine for, you know, whatever, along with fish oil and Vitamin E and something that unsludges your blood and scrapes out your arteries, and even the women take medicine to support their prostates, because what's one more pill? I would prefer to take something young people take, like Ecstasy. But we happen to have two vat-sized bottles of the stuff in the medicine cabinet already. The label says to take two pills. I shake them out and they clank onto the counter. I've seen smaller cell phones.
I don't even know what the stuff is. The ingredients label says: contains lobster, crab, shrimp, scallop, and shellfish ingredients. Do they mean they're made of ground-up shellfish? Or actual shellfish ingredients? Because I know what goes into a crab. Stuff you don't want. You go crabbing, you're attracting those suckers into the pot with chicken that's way gone by. With antique cat food. With fish heads, as long as they've been languishing in the sun for a while. Basically, stuff a Labrador Retriever might roll in, but not eat. Those are your shellfish ingredients.
And if this stuff is made just from the crabs themselves, I'm still dubious. A crab will lose an entire leg and not even give a shit. What's he gonna do, walk even more sideways? I'm not sure they can be trusted with my knees. I want to use whatever it is that makes salamanders grow new tails.
As long as no one has to mash a salamander to get it.
We are indebted to Mr. Michael L. Smith for advancing science in the field of bee sting excruciation, building on the previous work of Justin Ole "Holy" Schmidt. Mr. Smith had struggled for years to come up with suitable ground-breaking material for publishable research. The Schmidt Sting Pain Index had already been developed, allowing even laymen to reliably gauge exactly how much it sucked to be stung by any of 78 varieties of bee. What was not yet known, Mr. Smith realized in a flash of inspiration he likened to Watson's and Crick's discovery of the double-helix, was precisely how much more it sucked to be stung in different areas. Of the anatomy. (It had already been determined that bee stings in Saskatchewan are considerably easier to tolerate than bee stings in Panama.)
Peer reviewers noted that a flaw in Mr. Smith's research is that it involved only a single subject (himself). Mr. Smith explained he had been unable to round up any bee sting volunteers, when an improbable 100% of his calls to friends and colleagues went straight to voice mail; and an early effort involving stinging a shaved cat was abandoned due to acute blood loss in the researcher. Mr. Smith defends his efforts, noting that the widely-accepted Schmidt Sting Pain Index also was tested on only a single subject, according to a representative of the estate of Ole Schmidt.
Mr. Smith's methodology was precise. He used only guard bees from his own hives, identifying them by their stance. He picked them up with forceps, dropped them in a box, and used them immediately. Guard bees with a wide stance were assumed to be picking each other up.
Each bee was held by the wings and pressed against his body in one of 25 specific locations and held there for five seconds after sting penetration. Five stings per day were self-administered and rated on a 1-to-10 scale of pain until all 25 predetermined locations had been tested in a random order. The rotation was repeated twice more, for a total of three stings per location. Certain body parts required Mr. Smith to use a mirror and an erect posture during stinging. Mr. Smith's youth worked in his favor; ease of erection was not deemed to be a factor.
The three body parts that experienced the least pain were the middle toe tip, the upper arm, and, not surprisingly in Mr. Smith's case, the head. The most painful sting locations were the penis shaft, the upper lip, and the nostril. A sting in the nostril (8.3 out of 10 on the Smith index) produced sneezing, tears, copious flow of mucus, and the permanent departure of Mrs. Smith, who is reported to not be able to even handle any of this right now.
Conclusions are muted, as it has been pointed out that the new Smith Index of Bee Sting Pain Variability is reliably accurate in rating pain variability in Mr. Smith only, and may not apply generally, or to persons not in possession of a penis shaft. In an interview post-publication, Mr. Smith indicated he is in training to attempt a perfect 10 on the pain scale, a result he expects might be achieved if, under certain special circumstances, a single bee sting might be applied to the upper lip, nostril, and penis shaft at the same time.
We are indebted to faithful reader Kat Satnik for alerting us to this important scientific development.
We used to have two major newspapers in this town, but a long time ago one of them went away, and we were left with The Oregonian. I had a comfy enough relationship with it. The editorial staff didn't make me nuts--they more or less reflected blue-state values. Some of my friends complained that they didn't advocate strongly enough for dragging capitalists behind coal trains, or weren't completely on board with the free lunch program for migrant honeybees. But it was pretty good. They even employed a tame conservative columnist just for balance, although eventually he left out of sheer loneliness.
Sometime in the 2000s, though, it actually got pretty good. The newsroom employed some 315 reporters and many of them were permitted to do good work. Pulitzer prizes began to pile up. It was rated one of the top ten newspapers in the country, even being compared favorably with The New York Times, which edged out The Oregonian only in its more in-depth coverage of Portland, Oregon. Then something happened.
A new publisher rode in with some exciting new changes in his saddlebags. The previous editor left for a position at a fictional university. At first the only thing that looked different was a nice, modern, slim silhouette. You could read some of the sections through other sections, a real time-saver, and the world news section could double as a coffee filter. The bulk of the news staff was invited to explore exciting new opportunities elsewhere. An exciting new Online Presence was announced. A streamlined new look was achieved by trimming away news and substituting Content. The paper was to be not only fashionably thin, but also shorter and narrower through the hips. In a particularly exciting development, home delivery was to be reduced to four days a week. People were disappointed at first, until it was explained that this was to be Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, with a bonus paper on Saturday, when previously we only got a regular paper on Saturday.
A version of the paper was printed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays also, and readily available a few blocks away in a box next to Gimme A Quarter Guy.
We awaited the new version with much anticipation, and the first day it plinked onto the porch we ran out to fetch it before the wind kicked up. It was adorable. Parakeet owners were forced to get three subscriptions to maintain their former avian hygiene standards, but everyone else was pretty thrilled with the time they saved by being able to read the whole paper on the way to the recycling cart. We began to look forward to the wallet-size.
Further economies were achieved by reducing the 315 reporters to a nimble crew, Fred and Ethel, who distinguished themselves with a fearless focus on the proclivities of famous local penis owners. Meanwhile, content soared. A good half-page a day for the entire month of October was given over to a Candy Bowl bracket, in which concerned citizens were able to weigh in with their allegiance to Twix over Snickers. And we were soberly informed that fully half of pet owners were planning to dress up their pets for Halloween. Continuing topically into November, we were blessed with an entire page devoted to the advice that you should figure on one and a half pounds of turkey per Thanksgiving dinner guest. This was accomplished through a large graphic with human figures borrowed from bathroom doors on the left, and turkey outlines on the right. If you could get all your dinner guests to line up so you can count them properly, and you have a straight-edge, you've got a good chance of getting the math right.
Meanwhile, the editorials began to sour. First there was concern that local government kept trying to govern when there were still potholes to fix. Then came the concern that the government was going to fix potholes by levying a tax. Tax bad. Environmental concerns were considered precious but immature. Graphics were trotted out to illustrate the concerns of the publisher, using oil-well icons that resembled spurting penises to represent, of course, jobs. For balance, three-quarters of the front page was devoted to a photograph of a rainbow. Because we like rainbows. And the seven-day forecast on the weather page was replaced with a permanent seven-decade forecast in which each decade was represented by a sun and a temperature that does not change, with more little job icons at the bottom.
And then the paper decided that what the readership really craved was to have the comics printed in color every day.
That's where I draw the line. Pomegranates should be available only two months a year. Christmas lights should not go up until December. And comics should be in color only on Sundays. I don't want to live in a world where everything special is taken away.
I think it's fair to say that both Dave and I are worried about Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy started out small but rumor had it that if everything went right he'd push up a gigantic spike, with girth to rival its length, a veritable tower of pink. I've kept him in my bed since last spring, just waiting.
Mr. Happy isn't just any old Echium. But the truth is any Echium would find this place a challenge. I saw him in the neighborhood once so I know it's possible. I didn't know who he was at the time. There was a ten-foot, massive, rigid spike of flowers in somebody's parking strip, right next to all the skid marks. Might be the kind of thing that's just ho-hum in California but around here it's a statement. And the statement is oh baby, oh baby, oh baby.
So I recognized him when I saw his picture along with his Personal Ad on the little tag in the nursery. He was in just a three-inch pot and he was a four-dollar gamble. The problem was he wasn't going to put out until his second year, and he wasn't going to have a second year if he couldn't make it through the first winter. For four bucks he was worth a try. Sometimes we never get much below freezing here. Back in November we'd already had a cold snap in the mid-twenties and I thought Mr. Happy was a goner, but he just got a little ragged on the edges and still seemed quite enthusiastic in the central well-hello-there zone. Temperatures rose to the forties and stayed there for weeks on end, and then this happened: lows predicted around twenty, for days.
We got to work. Dave pounded in a couple stakes and got a few hundred dollars worth of Costco plastic wrap and bundled up Mr. Happy like Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes. He put a sleeping bag on top and a 100-watt bulb underneath. Late at night he trotted out with hot chocolate, a binky, and some Vicks Vapo-Rub and read to him aloud from The Wind In The Willows. I looked out the window with love in my heart and thought of my mommy. Specifically, how, in the days before plastic wrap, days which we were now revisiting, she was able to bundle up a sandwich in waxed paper with hospital corners.
Mr. Happy glowed in the cold and the dark like the Baby Jeebus in a nativity scene. We don't know how it's going to go for him. It's nothing I'm going to say in his presence, but just in case, I've already begun to work on his obituary. I'll have to send it to the L.A. Times. That's where all his friends are.
It's the start of a new year, and Republicans are patting their fingertips together and making nummy noises, eager as maggots on roadkill. Dozens of congressional committees await their new chairs. Gavels quiver, lobbyists prowl the hallways in a state of arousal, and resigned liberals reach for the lube. Things are going to be different now.
The new majority, sensitive to the charge that their positions are rigid--and some of them are very rigid indeed--have already softened their stance on promoting more women and minorities in their ranks, and are poised to install a cohort of mostly white men. Except for Rep. Devin Nunes (CA), who is also a mostly white man.
Jason Chaffetz, the incoming chair of House Oversight, the committee in charge of ignoring things, is expected to hold the line. The Appropriations committee hopes to continue the good work begun in the 1980s, when rule changes enabled a robust new financial sector that appropriated America's pension plans. The stubborn persistence of pockets of overtime pay and the threat of an uptick in the minimum wage signal the need for more appropriations.
Rob Bishop, the new chair of the Natural Resources committee, has warned that there are still some natural resources left and he will see to their extraction. Citizens living above shale fields can look forward to taking it right up the ass in exchange for a brief boom-town bump followed by years of desolation that can be blamed on future liberals.
Helming the Agriculture committee, Rep. Mike Conaway has promised to maintain Cheez Doodle price supports and has announced the implementation of a new program to increase yields through the application of a mulch of dead honeybees.
The new majority is in agreement on the need to end Obamacare, replacing it with the previous system, to which they intend to introduce economies via a nationwide network of trapdoors, roulette wheels, and tiger cages.
The new chair of the Science, Space, and Technology committee is particularly excited about his plans to remove Science altogether and replace it with Volleyball and Driver's Ed.
This suits incoming majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to reduce the scourge of science in favor of good old-fashioned alchemy, which he credits with turning coal into gold and his own state of Kentucky into a flayed wasteland. His colleague James Inhofe is eager to begin the dismantling of the environment in his new post as head of the Environment committee as soon as he gets done stroking himself.
Chuck Grassley, the new chair of the Judiciary committee, will be in charge of blocking more court nominees. Long renowned for his ability to dig up dirt in candidates' private lives, he vows ever more stringent fabrication.
And finally, John McCain, 112, prepares to take over the Armed Services committee. Famous for his departure from the party line on the subject of torture, he promises to eliminate the need for torture altogether by identifying large geographical areas that might contain terrorists and bombing the living fuck out of them, which is totally fair.