Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cats Just Want To Have Fun

When I was a kid, I found a baby robin on the ground. I got the standard rescue equipment: a shoebox, some Kleenex, and a worm to be named later. Then I went to look for the worm in our compost pile. We had a compost pile because Dad was a liberal.

But I was squeamish about worms. I gripped it best I could and dangled it over the gaping chick, but the worm veered away at the last moment and I freaked out and dropped it and it went squirming around the little bird's feathers and I ran off with the willies. I don't remember if anyone intervened but I suspect the rehab effort resulted in a backyard burial.

What did I know? I know I thought one big worm would be quite enough for a little bird, but that's not actually true. I know this because of our chickadees Marge and Studley Windowson, and because of my friend Julie Zickefoose, who keeps getting wheedled into taking care of baby birds because she knows how. If you're going to make an entire bird out of the little goober that emerges from the shell, and fast, you need to really shovel in the groceries. Julie reports that your basic baby bird needs to be fed every half hour all day long for weeks, which is quite the imposition on an adult human with other stuff to do. Marge and Studley, who are likely to have four babies going at once, are bombing into the nest box every other minute with bugs, all of which they had to find themselves. It's exhausting. The year the weather went all wonky and the bugs were scarce, both of the Windowsons looked like shit. They ran themselves skinny.

The skinny year
It's a really big production. Months. Even before you get the eggs going, there's this elaborate nest to make out of grasses and stuff all woven together perfectly without using any fingers. That takes weeks. There's a little cup in the middle of it that has fluffy material like fur worked in special, so as to be cozy. Then come the eggs and the incubation period, during which Studley has to find double the usual amount of food to feed himself and Marge, and then the truly heroic business of cramming bugs into the chilluns all day long. Every year, I am immensely proud of them.

Marge and Studley are Dave's particular favorite little buddies. Well, and everyone who looks like Marge and Studley, which is basically all of the chickadees. He it was who built the nest box for them. We have had our pets--three, including two happy cats who have been advised they are invasive species, and are not allowed to stalk birds. The chickadees are the closest wild items that might qualify as Dave's pets. He loves them.

This year everything was right on schedule. The nest was started in early April, incubation a few weeks after that, and then, in mid-May, both Marge and Studley were flying in and out of the box. I opened my window in case I could hear peeping, but I couldn't. It takes a few days for it to become audible from my window. And then, that soon, activity ceased. I never saw both Marge and Studley at the same time. Finally Marge, or possibly Studley, flew to the nest box with a caterpillar, looked inside, hopped in, and hopped out again a minute later, still with the caterpillar. And flew away, and never came back.

When the flies showed up, I had Dave take the box down and we looked inside. The nest was perfect. You could still see the cup with the fuzz around it, almost in pristine condition, because nobody got big enough to stomp it down. There were four tiny desiccated bodies.

My birder friend Max said this is what happens when one of the parents dies.

I have two neighbors whose cats roam my yard. The cats' names are Anjali and Sid. Like Marge and Studley, they get to have names because someone cares about them. Personally. Both neighbors know how I feel about outdoor cats. They're both apologetic. I'd even gotten an email from one of them when she decided to start letting her cat out. "I can't keep Anjali in anymore," she said. "She wants to be outside so badly. But let me know if there's anything I can do to keep her from hurting your birds. Anything."

"You could put a CatBib on her," I said. I'd even bought a dozen to give away. "It's highly effective. It doesn't keep them from moving or climbing, or shitting in my tomato patch, but it interferes with that last pounce when they're hunting."

"Oh, that thing looks weird. I would never hang that on her collar," she said.

"Or you could give her one of these wide, bright collars to wear. It's not quite as effective, but it makes it a lot easier for the birds to spot them," I said.

"Oh, no, I couldn't make her wear that. It's so undignified."

Not long after, I found the tag and collar of the other woman's cat. Sid. It was directly underneath my bird feeder. The chickadees in particular like to take their seeds to the low branches of the nearby azalea. I returned the collar to the owner. She looked remorseful, and yet, somehow, helpless.

I don't have four new chickadees. Sid doesn't have his collar. But he and Anjali have their entertainment. And their dignity. And maybe they have Marge, too.

This is personal, now.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Real Estate Gets Real

"This place is great!"

"Right? Except I think the chickens are depressed."


Our neighbors Hannah and Kate just bought their first house and we were taking a tour. We'd seen the pictures of a swell chicken coop in the back. They'd liked that too. They were thinking of having chickens some day. When they got the keys and started to move in, damned if they didn't already have chickens. Did they know the place was going to come with chickens? Had that been discussed?

Well, no. But there they were, three chickens, plus a note with their names on it.

Hannah consulted it. "The black and white one is Henrietta, the orange one is Ophelia, and Suzie is that funky one over there."

"What makes you think they're depressed?"

"Well, they haven't laid any eggs in a couple days. I mean, think about it. Their people just abandoned them..."--she blinked back a tear--"...and now they have two mommies."

Henrietta did look a little down in the beak.

The real estate game is not what it used to be. When I bought my first house, I didn't have to pounce on it. I moseyed, more. The first one I'd looked at was on a double lot with an ornamental cherry tree. The flow of the house was odd, but it had a huge kitchen I could imagine cooking in if I learned how to cook, and I loved the garden space.

It was 1978. Nobody was moving. Americans were being held hostage somewhere, you couldn't gas up your car on the even days, and everyone was hunkered down in their houses with Malaise. It wouldn't be Morning In America for another few years, when money would start to flow out of everyone's pensions and into the financial sector where it became pretend money and perked people up for a while before it got siphoned uphill and vanished from the middle class altogether. Meanwhile, a half dozen homes were going begging in Portland for about a buck-fifty each and I had all the time in the world to think about it.

The place with the double lot and the cherry tree was okay but the listing agent had moated it with bark dust, sprayed the whole inside of the house Navajo White, and put down a shag wall-to-wall carpet in deep rust. "That's the first to go," I said, right in front of him, and he shrugged bleakly. He was sitting at a card table in the dining room with a little stack of business cards and expected to be there for months.

But after a few weeks I said "What the hell, we can change the carpet," and I bought it, and Dave and I moved in and spilled champagne on the rust carpet first thing, and didn't replace it for a long time, because it would cut into the beer budget. I picked up a $20 sofa at a garage sale but it was too scratchy to lie down on. Mostly we sat on the floor and tried to not get burglarized. The neighbor kid burned our cherry tree down. The listing agent got murdered in California. I wondered if it was really possible to pay out $368 a month for like thirty YEARS, which was three times more than I'd ever paid for rent, for longer than I'd even been alive.

These days, if your real estate agent is sharp, you can hear about a likely house the day it's listed, but if it takes you more than twenty minutes to get there, you've already lost it to some dude who's still on the golf course. The phone in his pocket has had a three-way with his agent and lending institution, and automatically fired off a heartfelt essay to the seller along with an order of fresh cookies delivered by drone. Oh, plus he also has an extra hundred thou to chip in. He probably got it from your pension in the '80s.

This makes regular buyers jumpy: you know, the kind that tended to their credit ratings and saved up a 20% down payment. Chumps! After they lose the first two houses, they're bidding on certified ratholes and upping their offers to include an extra year's salary, season tickets to the opera, and a bank to be knocked over later.

Somehow Hannah and Kate, who are on a string of good luck including getting married (GO FILLMANS!), stayed calm, found a nice place, and didn't go over their budget. I think the seller agreed to leave the appliances. The chickens were a surprise. They're fine with it, but I think it's rude. I've never heard of anyone doing something like that without talking about it first. Well, except for our friends Scott and Kevin, who sold their place and left behind two pigs, three alpacas, some significant goatage, and a waddle of ducks for the new owners. But I think they talked about it first.

Pretty sure they talked about it first.

Anyway there was a fresh egg in the coop later that morning. Probably better than what the alpacas dropped off.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nobody Likes Big And Gassy

Looks like they found another planet with a good potential for life, and this one's relatively close, too, although astronomers have such a different idea of closeness it's a miracle they ever procreate. This one's about 39 light years away from us and that's a good long trip without even a Dairy Queen. They're pretty pumped about it too. It's named LHS 1140b and it appears to be rocky, habitable, and case-sensitive.

It's bigger and rockier than Earth, too. In fact, it is said that if you weigh 167 pounds here, you'd feel like you weighed 500 pounds there. My guess is there's not a lot of sprinting going on. It will be Thud City all the time. I'd rather be on a planet a little less dense than ours. Just enough to get a nice lift, so I can finally feel like those runners who poink around in their skivvy shorts like they've got rubber pistons in their calves and even pogo in place when they're held up by a stoplight--like why the hell? In my twenties, I got so that I could run for eight miles but it never felt remotely springy. I was smacking that planet with everything I had, the whole way.

There's a limit to how big a rocky planet can get, because after a certain point it has so much mass and gravity that it has to go for stardom instead. But rockiness in general is a good quality in a planet we could imagine living on. It's so hard to land properly on a gaseous giant. Sucker looks so promising from a distance but then you get there and you just keep going through for miles and miles and miles and it smells like farts all the way down and then you finally slam hard into the rocky interior, by which time you're already dead nine ways to Sunday. Like maybe there could be life on Jupiter, but not the relatable kind.

To get a rocky planet, you start with just a bunch of rocks and pebbles and dust flying around all haywire and everything is hitting everything else until some of it starts to stick together, and after a while the biggest piece is all hey now, hey now and gathers its arms around most of the rest of the available material, and things start to settle down. By the time we get a nice round planet we can stand on, it's already gone through that committee stage and has come up with something everyone can agree on. Your minor eruptions are just part of the cost of doing business. It's ready to rent.

But things that count as legitimate life aren't necessarily much like us, even on this planet. You won't necessarily get legs and antennae and internet capability and such. Sometimes it's just a little squirmy bit of material like a bacterium that shows some intention, and that's admirable enough, considering that a lot of us have no plan at all. Some of us are just a big waste of carbon, if you want to know the truth.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Welcome To William And Ole's Crapasbord

If you, like me, are hanging off the left side of the political spectrum, you already know that cultural appropriation is bad. (If you're not, you've never heard of it.) Here's the deal: if you're in the dominant tribe, you're not supposed to swipe some other tribe's stuff as though it's just yours for the taking. It's disrespectful, and if you're capitalizing on it, it's unfair, because you have more resources at your disposal. Bo Derek shouldn't cornrow her hair and act like she invented it. White hippies at the Eugene Country Fair have no business erecting a totem pole. Whatever Miley Cyrus is doing with her fanny, she should stop right now. A lot of this comes down to who has the money and power and who does not. There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and we've been instructed to pay attention to where that line is, so mostly I do.

I'm willing to listen and learn and I do know that it's never up to me to decide what other people shouldn't be offended by.  But I'm not persuaded that a lot of harm has come to anyone because white people are opening fancy restaurants that don't serve White Food, whatever horror that is. I'm not saying I'm right; I'm saying I've yet to be persuaded.

It gets fraught in a hurry. The immigrant Dagnabbian population is concerned about some white guy opening a Dagnabbian Fusion restaurant and appropriating the cuisine that had been passed down to the Dagnabbits through the ages, without even any respectful attribution. Except for it being referred to as Dagnabbian Fusion cuisine in all the fancy magazines. And meanwhile people are catching on and the Dagnabbian food carts are pulling in cash hand over fist without even having to pay for a brick-and-mortar establishment. And some are aggrieved by the place even being referred to as Dagnabbian because it is not authentic: their grandmothers would never have failed to include the seasoned fish eyeballs in the broth, and you mustn't use linen placemats on Wednesdays. On the one hand, you must acknowledge your Dagnabbian appropriation. On the other hand, you'd better not.

People, meanwhile, are following their tastebuds.

Disclaimer: I am fish-belly white. It wasn't anything I planned--it was more of a collusion between my parents--but when I came out the chute, that's how I turned out. Not saying I wouldn't have planned it this way if I could have. It's totally awesome being white, most places. You have to live with blotchy, unattractive skin, but you can also live your whole life assuming no one is looking askance at you, not police, not your neighbors, employers, shopkeepers. If there's anything standing in your way, you may rest assured it's probably you.

So I'm not complaining.

But if I were a creative chef and had to dance with the ones what brung me, what would I have to work with? Norwegians are swell, and the invention of the little cheese slicer cannot be praised highly enough, but these are people who eat canned corn during corn season. The English wrote some fine sonnets and some sturdy laws too, but they boil hamburgers. Heritage will take you only so far. "William and Ole's Crapasbord" is not going to fly. Nobody's going to be breaking down the doors for the lutefisk and kidney pie. Investors will be sorely disappointed and the proprietor will probably be legally compelled to publish an apology to the community in the business section.

Successful white-owned Thai establishment
So if a creative white person can't appropriate someone else's superior culture in her kitchen, and the only way for her to not rub people the wrong way is to open a Swedish massage, what are we forcing her into? What historical line of work is left for the heirs of this dour, pale culture? Basically, knocking people over the head. Empire-buildin' and slave-holdin'. We got enough of that going on right in the financial sector. It don't make it right.

Besides, what's the point of overrunning all those countries for all those years if you can't steal their stuff?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

No Caws For Complaint

I don't like to complain, but sometimes I do anyway.

More than one person has sent me a video of a sweet little girl who feeds crows and the crows respond by leaving her little trinkets as a thank-you. She's got hundreds of baubles and treasures by now. The whole thing is adorable.

All our crows ever leave us is alone. And we've been sucking up to them for years.

I know at least a half dozen people right here in town that have personal crows. We like crows too. We know how smart they are. We figured they're so smart they'll know how much we like them and appreciate all the little ways we try to make their lives more pleasant. We think they'll start to approach us on their own and ask if we maybe have an extra walnut, and tip their heads to the side and flare their rictal bristles at us as a sort of howdy-do. The relationship will progress, we'll give them fancy British names like Nelson and Chauncey and Percy, and ultimately they will converse with us in a form of English that is imperfect and yet still easier to understand than Matthew McConaughey. We will all sit around of an evening enjoying walnuts and beer as the sun goes down. We're grownups and have no need of a bunch of baubles; one or two would be fine.

But none of that has happened. We line up walnuts on the wall and they observe us and take them away just as soon as they're sure we're not looking, because they know that would give us too much satisfaction. It makes us feel like pimply seventh-graders who are trying too hard and still don't get to sit at the popular lunch table.

I don't know where we went wrong. I remember at one point I found their cawing sort of obnoxious and I went out to the yard and cranked my head up to the treetops and yelled HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! just so they could get an idea how annoying it was, but that was years ago, and I'm really sorry. But they may have pegged me for an asshole then and there, and passed the information down through the generations. I don't know. I've been real nice since then.

It's nesting season now and some of our crows have young'uns hopping around on the ground. That is what they have evolved to do: hop around on the ground for a few days before they're old enough to fly. I'm not sure how they get to the ground without getting all dented up but maybe they get just enough wind resistance from flapping their nubbins to cushion their landing. Their folks keep an eye on them and do their best to rout predators and scalawags, but it's not a perfect system as long as there are domestic cats around. The crows have been working on their strategy since the Cretaceous but domestic cats have been around here for a few hundred years tops, and this is true even if you've had a cat all your life and so did your Grandma--that's still not forever, sugar pie. Over a third of American households host a cat, and that's quite the uptick from zero.

So now we've got upwards of, let's say, fifteen cats per city block and fourteen of those are well-fed, subsidized, vaccinated, healthy, glossy little killing machines that are let out of the house so they don't get all mopey and also so they can shit in the neighbor's tomato bed instead of in the icky-poo litter box. Most people who let their cats out to terrorize wildlife are real softies, but their concern extends to only the one species. House cats are obscenely effective at killing wildlife. So I try to make my own garden a sanctuary by discouraging them. It's effective only inasmuch as all my neighbors' cats now blast out of the yard whenever they hear me turn the doorknob, but you know? I can't be turning my doorknob all day long.

Anyway, because it is that time of year, we have noticed that our crows occasionally make a particularly pointed racket, and when that happens, I go out and spot the crows and see exactly what direction they're racketing at, and then I go running and hollering in that direction and flush out the inevitable cat, and I have been hoping the crows are noticing which side I'm on and will henceforth reward me with their companionship and approval, but they haven't. So be it. I still wish them the best.

But when they're in full molt in August and have to slink out of the lunchroom all ratty-tatty, I plan to point and snicker.

Because I am an optimist at heart, I prefer to think of the following twenty seconds as a concert just for us, by our own personal, if recalcitrant, crow:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Forecast Calls For Fog

Many of us have started to suspect our minds have done some economizing. Downsized on neurons. We just don't seem to have that same snap we used to, and it's harder to learn things, remember things, or even pay attention. It's particularly obvious when we hang out with younger people and discover we're not really tracking what they say at all.

Younger brains need to work faster because no matter what they're thinking about, they're also thinking about sex, whereas once we've made a note of where the nearest toilet is, we're all set, thought-wise. It's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact many spiritual seekers in the world struggle for years to achieve the same kind of blankness that we maintain effortlessly. Still, it can be concerning to discover that your mental acuity took the same bus out of town your hormones did.

Fortunately, you can exercise your brain in the comfort of your own home. Let's take a common scenario. Just to up the ante, let's assume you are in conversation with a young person; one of those annoying polite ones who is looking at you in anticipation while waiting for you to finish your sentence, even though maybe you weren't planning to finish it just then, thank you very much. You have both glanced out the window as a bird flies by. "What kind of bird is that?" your young friend says, which is just typical--they know everything about the Internets but they don't know birds! Unfortunately, you don't either, so you give it a good squint and then get up to look in the field guide, which is in the next room, twenty steps away. Now you have arrived at your bookcase and are facing it, but you don't know why. It's a puzzler! So let's solve it. Let's make a brain game out of it.

First, let's assume your feet had a perfectly sound reason for bringing you to this spot, and let's further assume that what was on your mind thirty seconds ago is in fact related to something in this room, possibly something right in front of you. What could it be? Let's look for clues. There's the dictionary. This is a promising start: odds are always really high you were about to look up "hegemony" again. You pull out the dictionary and it opens right up to "hegemony" and your missing tweezers fall out. Awesome! You tap your face to see if your main chin hair is long enough to pluck, and it isn't, but there is a bump you don't recognize. You go to the bathroom to have a look in case it's cancer, but it looks more like dried oatmeal, so you wash your face, and take the hand towel to the laundry room to toss it in the washing machine, and darned if the machine isn't full of damp clothes already. Which obviously is what you meant to do: hang out the laundry. The rack is already full so you fold the dry clothes and take them to the bedroom and on your way back to take care of the wet clothes you pause by the bookcase again. Hmm. There was something about the bookcase. You stare at it for a while and then go back to the original room, where your young friend is holding up her phone and saying "Wilson's Warbler?"

For some reason.

You peer at the phone and sure enough there's a picture of a bird of some kind on it and you shrug, but it's irksome, trying to make sense of these non sequiturs all the time. And does she ever get her nose out of that thing? Kids. You, on the other hand, have folded laundry and put it away, plus there was that other thing you were going to do, which will come to you eventually. What the hell is she smiling about? She probably needs spell-check to spell "hegemony," which you really should look up sometime. Little shit thinks she's so smart but she wouldn't recognize a road map if it came up and bit her on the bloomers. Honestly, the whole generation: show them a card catalog, they'll be looking for the cup-holder. And ain't none of them knows how to drive a stick, do they? Huh! That's what I'm talkin' about.

Pretty sure that's what I was talkin' about.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Wind In Their Sails

I'm not afraid to say I'm a coward. That's the only thing I'm not afraid of. Everything else is on the table. The fastest I've ever moved was the time I launched myself down two flights of stairs (I admit the gravity assist) to get away from a man who was beginning to have a grand mal seizure. I didn't realize that was what was happening to him, and my instincts drove me down at something approaching 120 mph, taking wind resistance into account, and ultimately behind a locked door and a refrigerator.

I'm not afraid of death, in principle; probably less afraid of it than many people I know who have a punched ticket to an afterlife. Nevertheless, my body and brain invariably catapult me away from danger faster than I can assess it. I even distance myself from a loud argument, like it's a snarl in tiger territory.

I don't take light rail often. The MAX train I'm most likely to be on would drop me off at the 42nd Street Station, which is where a fresh Nazi with a large knife just murdered two men and butchered a third. Had I been on that train at the time, I would have demonstrated my strength and courage by pushing out a window of the car and blasting across the tracks until my empty lungs left me gaping in the gravel.

The Nazi in question is in custody and has a lengthy history of vitriol and violence. Recently, at a rally, he dressed himself in a flag and tights like Superman. Like some kid wearing his skivvy-shorts over his pajamas, draped in a terry-cloth cape. His emotional range did not rise over the first-grade level either. This guy is incoherently pissed off. Life stranded him, somehow, left him lying on a beach with a dangerous sense of powerlessness. Seems as if there are more and more like him all the time. And all of them are starting to feel some wind in their sails.

He had gotten on the train intent on terrifying a couple of teenage girls, one black and the other wearing a hijab. This is what makes him feel alive. The man had slipped his hinges many stops ago and had more hatred than he could hold in.

And then three men intervened. One was a poet; one was a recent college grad; one was an Army veteran. Three men stood up and put themselves between an enraged, self-righteous wretch and his innocent targets. Two of these men lost their lives and the third is just hanging on.

Their mothers, right now, are wishing more than anything that they had raised more cowardly men.

We are urged to send them our thoughts and prayers.

I don't pray. It would feel like talking into a toy telephone. But I do have thoughts, and more.

Today, my thoughts are with the families of these three brave men, with my gratitude to their mothers that they did not raise cowards. Because of their sacrifice, the Portland community and the community of humankind can hold onto hope. Because of them, we can pull ourselves out of despair and complacency. I have thoughts, and I have a vote.

And my vote will never go to anyone who schemes to shred the fabric of our tribe into rags, who plays us against each other for profit. My vote will never benefit one bent toward war or its relative, greed. I would love to say that my vote might go to a Republican, and maybe some day that will happen, but today is not that day.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tick Talk

"How about this hike?" I showed my niece Elizabeth a photo of rolling, flowered hills.

"Never done it," she said. Huh! She's done every hike there is.

"How come?"

"Ticks," she said briefly.

Lots of ticks?

Lots of ticks. Last time she ventured out that direction, her dogs came home looking like armadillos. They had to take a Dremel tool to their ears.

Lifer Lewis's Woodpecker
"But it's supposed to be beautiful. I wouldn't mind trying it. We just have to make sure to stay on the trail."

"I'm out," Dave put in. Dave is a Portland native and has never had a tick on him. He's only ever seen one, and that was one he pulled out of me on a camping trip somewhere else. But he has an abiding and well-earned horror of insects. Mosquitoes plan their conventions around him. On a bad day he can fetch up a pint low. It doesn't calm him down to point out that ticks are more in the spider family. He is certain that if he goes into tick territory he will instantly succumb to any of the diseases they carry, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, or The Willies.

Elizabeth and I both grew up on the East Coast. My father used to do a tick check on me after every trip to the woods. It can't be that big a deal to do a tick check on children. If you've ever seen them skinned and laid out you can tell there's not a lot of acreage there, even on the tubby ones, and I was small. We figured we could be careful and check ourselves afterwards.

Because ticks are thoroughly disgusting. They look like a picked scab with hooks for legs, and they will trespass at will on your body, undetected and without permission, their revolting legs moving slowly and deliberately like the chin hairs on a hag that's gumming a baby. They are scouting for soft, damp spots. I have some of those.

Elizabeth had threatened to show up in Hefty bags but she didn't. I tucked light-colored pants into my socks, a t-shirt into my pants, a long-sleeved shirt over all, and slung on my binoculars. I was one Tilley Hat away from full-on birder-nerd fashion.

The hike was beautiful. The weather was grand. The paths were clear. Anytime Elizabeth wanted to examine a flower, she toed the line at the edge of the path and folded over at the waist like a crane. We were careful. And we didn't see a tick. We saw birds and lizards and flowers.

So we pronounced the hike a roaring success, stopped for ice cream, and toodled home. My tucked pants had done the trick, and although we were in open country and never passed under any tree limbs, I scoured my head with my fingernails several times just in case. All clear.

Then I took a shower. Shampooed up. And there, right on top of my head like an oil man scoping out a national park for the best place to drill, was a tick. It had not dug in and was easily, if queasily, introduced to Mr. Toilet. But all night long, nerve clusters in my skin went off randomly, doing tick imitations.

I'm not telling Dave. The Willies are super contagious.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

If It Walks Like A Duck

Young minds and old minds are not alike. Young people think about how to complete the most tasks in the least amount of time, effortlessly sifting through dozens of technological options, and old people think about taking a nap. Old people grew up in an era when a lot of things were out of their control. They might squawk open the door to the Rambler and head off to meet someone, but with no assurance that the car wouldn't strand them in the boonies under a plume of steam. Or they might make it but the person they were meeting doesn't, and they'll have no way of knowing why. Or they might run out of cash and that's that until the bank opens on Monday. This may sound like a worrisome existence, but in reality it was relaxing. A lot of life was just about saying "Oh well" over and over, or "Huh," or "Don't that beat all."

Which is one of the things I was thinking about when our friend Vivi, who moved to Pittsburgh, mentioned she thought platypuses were really cool. "Maybe the Oregon Zoo has a platypus," I ventured, thinking that would be another plus in the column for her moving back to Portland where she belongs. A local platypus is not usually enough to get someone to box up her dishes and go, but added to a lot of other things it could provide that last little nudge.

Now, how to find out if the Oregon Zoo has a platypus?

Young people have lots of ways. They have Devices and they know how to use them. They could shake that very information out of them without even taking them out of their pockets, probably, just by thinking at them in a hard and pinpointy way. In fact Vivi lives with a disembodied spirit named Alexa whom she is regularly hitting up for stuff. All she has to do is call her by name, because otherwise Alexa thinks you might be talking to the toaster. I don't know how any of this works, but I have no doubt that the answer to the question "Does Portland have a platypus" is readily available in the ether.

But we're old. We don't do "readily." We don't even want to. All we need to do to answer this question is ask ourselves a few others: Is it nice out? Do we have time? And are there neat things to look at outside?

(1) Yes; (2) We have time because we are retired, thanks to the American Labor Movement and the underappreciated sacrifices of thousands in the early part of the last century, and no thanks to the Republicans; and (3) Hell yes, there are neat things to look at outside, because every living thing is looking for sex this time of year. Stamens are waving, wings are flapping, slugs are swinging on slime ropes with their penises out. Woo is being pitched. It's all there for the noticing.

So off we went. We left the house at 10:30 a.m. and walked downtown and thence up the hill to Washington Park where we continued through the forest on a trail and ended up, nine miles later, in line at the ticket counter of the Oregon Zoo, where we planned to take a photo of a platypus if they had one. Dave got to the front of the line and poked his head in. "Do you guys have a platypus?" he asked. "No," the ticket lady answered. "Okay then," he said, and we turned around and walked home again, with a stop for a Reuben and a beer and a detour for ice cream at our friend's new ice cream shop.

That is Platypus Availability Determination, done old-school.

And this is the sort of thing you can get for it. Happy spring!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

And We're All Out Of Sequels

I don't write about the President much. They say this whole business is comedy gold, easy to mine, and it's not even necessary to dig deep. I could just pick nuggets up off the surface. But I can't bring myself to do it. It's not funny, in the same way insomnia and depression aren't funny. The conditions themselves strip away the humor.

My habit is to make fun of ridiculous situations and people using hyperbole. I point out absurdities by inventing scenarios and dialogue that are just that much more ridiculous than reality. But I can't make up anything stupider than what has already been said or done. In fact, I have never known anyone stupider than this president a minority of us has installed in office. There may not be a dimmer soul. He's got ten neurons in his whole head and even if he could get them all firing at once, they'd still never run into each other. Did the president just say Mussolini was a stand-up guy and if he'd just gotten together with Harriet Tubman, who people are starting to notice big time, they could have straightened out that Norman Conquest, who was a total disaster by the way? Not yet? Three a.m. is coming right up.

I don't expect any improvement, any learning-on-the-job. We're not going to light up Wrigley Field by opening up the refrigerator door in the locker room. I'll reserve my venom for the majority pirate party that, in near unanimity, has decided that the problem with America is that the billionaires don't have enough money. They're making us bend over to scramble for nickels, and while we fight each other over them they're picking our pockets. They'll sell out their own grandchildren for profits, and yours too, but hey, yours? They're your responsibility. You feel so strongly about their future, you go buy everyone solar panels and bicycles with the money you save on not having health insurance, you whining freeloaders.

Meanwhile here we all are in the back seat, belted in tight, and the wind is whipping in our hair, we're going faster and faster, and suddenly we look up and realize Thelma and Louise are at the wheel. But it's not Thelma and Louise, not really. They're a whole lot smarter. And they know what they're up to. They're even holding out the possibility of a sequel. Whoever has his foot on the gas now doesn't have a clue. When the ground drops away, he's going to repeal Gravity. It'll be easy. Believe him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

...Or Wherever Your Final Destination May Be Taking You

The downside of traveling, as I see it, is the traveling part, especially if it involves airports. We sampled three different airlines and all of them thanked us for flying with them, as well they might. First up was Frontier Airlines, which was remarkably cheap, unless you want a seat, which is extra. Snacks are extra, and juice is extra, and when you pay for a beer with a credit card, there's a screen in which you are encouraged to tip the flight attendants, who are otherwise complimentary. There's a little coin slot on the arm rest to recline the seat at a dollar an inch for a half hour. Vaseline for your kneecaps is available for purchase, and the safety demo explains which way to swipe your credit card when the oxygen masks come down. For an additional $7.99, they will agree not to hand you the teeny bag of crispy mini wheat pucks. We had a nice flight seated next to a nun in full regalia, who was delighted to discover she'd won a wager with the sisters when she said she'd be able to snag a cup of water for free. Which she did. Could be the crew was just hedging their bets.

Fiji Air was actually our favorite.
Next came Porter Airlines, our favorite, serving a free beer-like product, and depositing us promptly in Billy Bob Airport. This is located on a small island to keep us under surveillance, but someone has dug an escape tunnel, at the end of which you can take an elevator to Toronto. So that's how we encountered Toronto: from underneath, so you could see its underpants. We had been smoothly and expeditiously decanted through customs, preparing us in no way for the return trip.

For that leg, we did arrive 2-1/2 hours early and used every second of it in customs, involving a glacial trudge through a maze with no cheese at the end. The United States doesn't want us back. We keep asking for health care and diplomacy.

Fortunately, this time we were flying United, so the plane was late. It was late, and it was either at gate F66 or F60, depending on whether you believed the departures board or the boarding pass, although nobody at either gate was familiar with our flight. They suggested we check in at Customer Service, which is where you get serviced. Customer Service featured two ticket agents and forty or so customers being processed at the rate of twenty minutes per, so we made friends with our immediate neighbors in line and settled in for the long haul in the hopes one of the ticket agents knew where our plane was. Two hours later we were first in line and discovered we had been rebooked for Portland, arriving at a quarter past never, via Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, on a plane that was in a gate a half mile away and leaving in ten minutes, according to the comedian who updates the departures board. I kicked Dave into high gear and we streaked through the airport down ever-darker hallways knocking down old ladies until we slammed into a dead-end before our gate had shown up. There was a glass door. There was light behind it. I pushed at the door, it resisted, I pushed harder, and the door started shrieking whoop whoop whoop and I spun around and bellowed SHIT! to a polite assemblage of waiting passengers, some of whom might have been Canadian, so I apologize.

"Where's Gate 98?" I asked, in a much reduced voice. The crowd responded kindly. All the gates up to 95 had proceeded in order but the end of the hallway had a little sign--a chalkboard, perhaps--with "96 97 98" scribbled on it. Also, the plane was late. Another hour plodded by, neatly corresponding with the layover time we were supposed to have in D.C., and eventually we boarded the plane, arrived in the nation's capital, picked up our new boarding passes for the following morning, and shuttled off to a Best Western for a nice four hours' sleep five hundred miles farther away from our destination.

Three o'clock came early. Security was a breeze, and we were funneled onto an airplane and bumped along the tarmac in the dark for a bit while the pilot looked for a parking spot. Fifteen minutes later he came on the intercom. Bing. "Folks..." he began.

This is never good.

A butterfly had flapped its wings in the Amazon and grounded air traffic in the Midwest, so the FAA had given them a new flight plan, and it was taking them a while to enter it into the jet's brain, but they'd be on the move shortly.

Bing. Well, folks, the new flight plan added an hour to the flight--neatly corresponding with our layover time in San Francisco--and they didn't  have enough gas, so they were going back to the gate to fuel up.

But folks? The San Francisco flight was miraculously delayed while they retrieved a plastic bag from the engine. We're back! Home! The plane politely stayed in the air until the runway showed up, it's sunny and warm, and we'd stocked the beer fridge before we left. We anticipate Christmas cards from the people in line with us at Customer Service in Toronto. It's a wonderful world.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Friends Tour 2: Toronto

Turns out that even though they talk funny in Pittsburgh, you don't strictly need a passport to travel there. But we were also going to Toronto, which is technically considered a different country, even though it's walking distance. And as a different country, they like to keep track of people like us, who might have recently found ourselves in an amnesty situation. Toronto was phase two of our Friends Tour, in which we examine the surroundings of our friends and try to determine if they're up to snuff.

We were visiting Sara and Kelly, whom we originally met through a reliable internet dating site called Murrmurrs ("World's Finest Commenters"). The air was breezy and cool when we arrived, and a fine mist of health care settled over the city. We immediately felt taken care of, respected, and ready to break a hip with impunity.

Miss Sara loves food. I mean--and I hope I'm not telling tales out of school about the salmon we had Saturday night--sometimes she even rubs it, and God only knows what else she is willing to do with it, but she can do it all day long. She will assemble a committee of tiny crumbled plants and fruit squeezings and speckled powders and whatnot and pack it all onto pork chops like little jackets, so they stay comfortable in the fridge all day. And after all that effort, she'll cook them up and let you eat them. She will.

Basically, I knew I was screwed.

Because I had already spent several days dining out in Pittsburgh, where the cuisine can be considered quite varied as long as that's understood to mean it's all tucked between slices of bread and propped up with a stack of pierogis. And now this. By Day Eight my belly was lying beside me in bed like a new roommate that you basically like, but need to have a little talk with.

Toronto is also a city of discrete neighborhoods of brick houses separated by as many as four inches in places, which makes it seem extra collegial. Many different kinds of people live side by side without the standard rancor we encourage here in the States; everyone has a nice medium-sized fluffy dog and access to a hospital, and that probably has a calming effect.

I was unable to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sara and Kelly were unwilling to make that happen, even though I only wanted a chance to say Hi and shake his. Hand.

But they were willing to do anything else. They both conjured up fine birds seemingly at will, and not just your national geese, neither. Their own small back garden easily out-warblered all of Portland. And then one morning, like it was nothing, they popped us down the road a piece to Niagara Falls, because the Colossus at Rhodes was having its nails done. Niagara Falls! Damn! For a fair piece of money (Canadian, not real) you can purchase the Journey Behind The Falls, in which they stuff you in a garbage sack and send you down a shanghai tunnel, which is exciting.

The next day they promised us a blue whale. I hadn't even realized Niagara Falls was in their back pocket, so I was not about to scoff at a blue whale, even though they're only on a Great Lake. But this one was at the Royal Ontario Museum. Apparently you can't tell the male whales from the females except for the ten-foot penis and 100-pound balls, and this one was rumored to be mounted! Also they had a blue whale heart. That was a little disappointing because I had visualized it LUBB suspended in fluid in its entirety and possibly DUBB wired up, but it turned out to be a plastic model in steak form. The rest of the whale was something else. Even without any clothes on. Plus, there was a vial of whale poop. These people know how to put on an exhibition.

So does Kelly. How often do you get to follow up a nice dinner with a private, live performance of operatic quality from a small soprano in a spangly dress and Birkenstocks, accompanied by her cat Harry in a plaintive alto? I'll tell you. Not often enough. But we did. Get your own friends.

And I would love to share the video with you, but I promised I wouldn't, and I keep my promises mostly except when I don't. Also, I filmed it Portrait instead of Landscape because I keep forgetting you can't do that. But it was really swell. People who love you feed you and sometimes sing to you. Love them back.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Friends Tour 1: Pittsburgh

Well we packed our bags and grabbed our passports and set sail for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh doesn't make everyone's list for destination cities. One imagines it to be filled with smudgy turn-of-the-century steelworkers in helmets and sturdy pants who keep themselves from jumping into the three available rivers by drinking industrial-grade beer. Probably it's the "Pitts" part that colors the picture, but Pittsburgh was not meant as a descriptive name. It was named by a British general named Forbes who was sucking up to a British statesman named Pitt and he got the honors by doing well in the French and Indian War, so you're not going to get an American spin on it. Otherwise it would be Steel And Sandwiches, Pennsylvania.

The point of the trip was to check up on our beloveds and make sure they weren't living in catastrophic conditions. Pittsburgh is one of fifty or sixty cities that is currently being touted as "the next Portland, Oregon," which is a fine thing. Ideally, we would discover that our friends are thriving in an agreeable town, but not one so fine that they don't want to come back to Portland where they belong.

Pittsburgh native
"Friends" is accurate enough, but Dave (Big Dave, to distinguish him from Little Dave, Store Dave, Homeless Dave, Republican Dave, and my own Old Dave) is more like our son. He is the man we greatly flatter ourselves to imagine that we could have turned out all by ourselves, assuming of course that he got only our finest traits and none of our parenting skills, which remain unproven and unlikely. Lucky for him, he was born to and raised by others and delivered to our care only when he was nearly ripe and needed just a few more spins in the polisher. He then doubled down by marrying Vivi, a miracle match he was able to find only after scouring the intertubes all the way to Brazil. Now they are together and demonstrating the meaning of love and marriage to the rest of us. In Pittsburgh.

So, well, shit. Pittsburgh is pretty fine. It has an Aviary and a Conservatory and a huge bunch of forest and eight million bridges and a swell little ballpark temporarily hosting the World Champion Chicago Cubs (I like to say that just to see if I get hit by lightning), and spiffy houses in cozy self-contained neighborhoods, just like Portland, except in brick. Also, there's a Church of Beer.

They tailored the tour to our tastes. And that is how one day we found ourselves in the very room where Hannibal Lector murdered those police officers, on the very day the director of Silence Of The Lambs--Old Dave's favorite movie--died. And that is how on another day we walked through Frick Park where I promptly located two salamanders. This is a pretty good city, I thought unhappily, tucking the amphibians back under their logs. Perhaps it was my troubled look that led two Park Conservancy employees to ask me if I needed help. Do you have any red efts? I asked, naturally, and they weren't sure, but suggested perhaps I could take a look in Salamander Park.

What the sequin-studded chocolate-coated gold-plated pudding-filled Heck did you just say?

Salamander Park. They said Salamander Park. Pittsburgh has a Salamander Park.

I give up. Dave and Vivi are in Pittsburgh. They'll be fine in Pittsburgh. The beer isn't as good, but they don't even drink. They'll be fine.