Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Bird On The Side

A lot of you have discovered birds since you've been holed up at home, locked down with your mandatory family people. It's a natural step. "I'm going to look at birds," you say, on your way out the door, having run out of other pretexts, and nobody minds seeing you go. And then you're out there. Might as well look at birds.

I was already looking at birds. What I'm doing for fun now, a half-year in, is looking at really ratty-ass birds. Jeez, they look sorry. Some of them, like the crows, seem to be properly embarrassed by the state of their wardrobe. We have a house finch with two unshed old feathers sticking up on her head like horns. What a crew. Patchy-bald and tufted as a sprouted potato: a lot of them look like an old weedy parking lot. You won't catch me looking like that. As long as I stay indoors.

All right, I'm no prize either. I'm told I can get a haircut now without worrying about being dead in a month, but I haven't done it yet. As a result I can now put all my hair in a ponytail again. Not the sort you might see on a pony--we're more in toilet-brush territory. I could scour out a roasting pan with it, maybe.

Studley Windowson, my chickadee, though not vain, is not coming around like he used to. He's good for a couple mealworms a day and thank you very much, but he isn't stalking us at the window or leaving long whiny voicemails. His kids are on their own.

I must here report that Marge and Studley got a second brood going, in July! I'm not kidding. I looked it up and they're totally not supposed to do that, but Marge must have been impressed with his prowess as a mealworm provider--our little secret--and sure enough that nest box was peeping again. And little diaper sacks were coming out of it. But fully realized birds? I never saw a one, and can't report that this batch was a success. And yet. The Studmeister! What a neat bird.

And I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt his feelings, but here's the deal. The Crow Project of at least ten years remains a bust. Dave has done his best to entice a personal crow and gotten absolutely nowhere. Our crows do not give one goopy shit about us. Everyone on the planet of any spiritual worth has their own crow but not us. However. Their cousins the scrub jays are looking like contenders. They like peanuts, and we have peanuts. We're tossing them ever closer to us with some success. They're still cautious, unlike their relatives, the gray jays. If you go into the high woods emitting so much as a cookie molecule, you will shortly be encrusted with gray jays. We think our city jays are coming around, though, and it's fun to watch them dart in and blast off like little jet-powered tyrannosaurs. They are superb at hopping, and watching a good hoppity bird hop is a sure cure for the COVID blues. 

Problem is, I don't want Studley to see me doing it.

Studley hates jays. I hate jays on Studley's behalf. I wouldn't even look at a jay after the Nuthatch Fiasco of Ought-Sixteen. Scrub jays act like they have no enemies (or peers). But the other day a bunch of them detonated out of the neighbor's plum tree followed very closely by a hawk. That probably cheered Studley up no end. Take that, screech-heads!

But, you know? The screech-heads are fun to watch. And I know my chickadee. I can pick out his tiny little chip-note anywhere on the block. It sticks out like an errant apostrophe. I listen, I wait, and when the punctuation is right, down goes the peanut. Don't tell.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dispatch From Oregon

Not much. You?

It's actually kind of nice this morning. The wind has died down to nothing and so the smoke from the fires seven miles away is just sort of meandering over here and loitering rather than galloping in. It's keeping us fully twenty degrees cooler than predicted, too. The humidity has gone back up, which is also good, and we're anticipating not having to check our hankies for blood and crud any day now.

All in all, it's a fine orange day in the neighborhood. We have a number of friends who have had to leave their homes, and even those who have been wanting nothing more than to do that for the last six months are unhappy about the circumstances. So far our friends have found shelter that is not too odious and haven't had to camp out in a school gymnasium somewhere whilst keeping distance from fellow possible disease vectors, which is truly unfair. But that's the kind of year it's been, right? The kind of year when there's no room in the hospital for you even though you've broken all your bones slipping in locust poop.

We check the news several times a day to make sure our anxiety levels are topped up. Our next-door neighbor Anna reports she has a go-bag all ready, which is annoying of her, because it means we should have a go-bag ready but we don't, and that leads to a lot of inner conflict between the sensible and lazy portions of our psyches. As a sort of compromise, we have begun to imagine what we might put in a go-bag if we ever got off our dead asses.

Peanut butter. That would be a good thing to put in, and we don't seem to have any. We do have a mess of broccoli in the freezer and if we added popsicle sticks we might have a plan, but we don't have popsicle sticks either. You're supposed to put in all your important papers. I do not know what those might be. I truly don't. Also your safety deposit box key, which is just silly. Can't sleep in a safety deposit box.

Photos, mementos, all the things you'd really miss if you didn't have them? There are fewer of those things all the time. I've wondered what I should do with my photo albums. I have scads of them. My heirs might be able to spend a fun evening looking through them once, especially the nude years, but after that there'd be this awful weight on them as they recognize they don't want the albums but feel they must store them as some kind of mandatory monument. Honeys. Just throw them out. It's okay. I should get around to doing it for you. Somehow I haven't. I should get rid of my parents' old albums also, but, know. Somehow I haven't.


So what would crush my soul if it didn't make it out of a fire? That's easy. Tater cat. And Pootie. Maybe not even in that order. And, I am not kidding, Pootie's best friend Hajerle. Hajerle used to live with my sister Margaret and he came to live with us after she died. I don't think I could bear to look into Pootie's eye buttons if we managed to escape without Hajerle. I know this sounds emphatically dumb, especially to people who have lost family members and pets and have a good grip on what's important in life, but this is a fact: the threads of love and grief are anchored in peculiar, personal ways. And even giving them an imaginary tug will reveal which ones are attached to the heart.

This morning it appears that Portland proper will escape the current inferno. But there is much to mourn. One of these things is the news that a whole lot of people in this country think the Black Lives Matter people are setting these fires. And that if you tell them they're getting that BLM confused with the Bureau of Land Management, they will think: We knew it. We knew BLM had Management all along, and a headquarters, and shady overlords that hate America and want white people to die so they can steal their property.

I mourn this.

But Dave and Tater and Pootie and Hajerle and I are not on fire. We should probably work on that go-bag anyway. At this rate, there's no way our predicted big-ass state-leveling earthquake won't show up before the year is out.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Blowin' Smoke


Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, 1pm.

We're scheduled to have a Wind Event in a few hours, and I'm very excited. It was in the TV forecast (or, as they persist in calling it, the "futurecast," because "fore" just wasn't getting us there fast enough). They also trotted out a helpful Garbage Can Wind Scale, with Level One being a garbage can at rest, and Four being a garbage can gone forever. This event is going to be a Three (look for your can down the block). Level Five is a garbage can twenty feet up a tree, but we don't have those here.

Somebody is paid to think up these things.

We do know a lot about how weather works, because of Science, a lot of which is up in the sky. From the vantage of our satellites, we can see wavy lines called isobars hovering over the map. There are also big H's and L's. The wavy lines are responsible for the wind. If you get a bunch of them bearing down on you drawn in a Sharpie, you're in for a good blow.

It's been a breezy summer already, although much of our wind these days comes from helicopters looking for the BLM march of the day. But I know wind events can get out of hand. We could lose power. I have a freezer packed to the rafters with broccoli and blueberries. There's probably fancier stuff underneath but the broccoberry stratum is mighty thick, and maybe protective. We could have a big jump in wildfires. None are real close to us now but you never know. At least one major fire in California was caused by fireworks from a Gender Reveal Party. (The fetus in question was revealed to be a likely idiot.) Portland is not nearly as fully involved in flames as you might have been led to believe, but stuff happens, and we've been advised to be as nervous as possible.


Trees could come down. They've all still got leaves on them, which gives the wavy lines a little more purchase. Dave still remembers the famous local Columbus Day Storm of 1962, a huge sustained wind event, a total Sharpie monster all the way. It wasn't as devastating as it could have been, because electricity hadn't been invented yet, but milk trucks got knocked over and several Fuller Brush men took to the air.

I do know I would not care for an extended Wind Event. The Santa Ana winds are famous for driving people insane, and we don't need any more of that this year. Presumably the winds carry an excess of positive ions and pelt people with them. I remember a wind storm back east that had sustained 80mph winds for four days. I specifically recall that I had to drive my boyfriend's car over a high skinny bridge from Sea Isle City to mainland New Jersey on my way to Virginia. It was a runty little car with the heft of a potato chip. In the middle of the night when I'm reviewing all the ways things can and probably will go wrong, being blown off a bridge into deep water has always been right up there in the rankings.

4:45pm. A few minutes ahead of schedule, the Wind Event has arrived! Doors are slamming everywhere as the house ghosts evacuate. The sun is a cigarette burn in a cardboard sky, and a tall tree is kowtowing toward it. Smoke fingers its way inside and scrapes the throat. It's from a distant wildfire--or a wildfire that was distant a few hours ago.

California is ablaze. The Midwest is underwater. Parts of Africa are blowing away. Methane is soaring out of the thawing tundra. Is there anything that can save us from a fate equal to death? No? All righty then. Buckle up, Thelmas. We're all in this together.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Oh DeJoy: A Postal-Mortem

Just got my quarterly copy of the Postal Service Retiree Newsletter, introducing our new Postmaster, Louis DeJoy! What a go-getter! He was appointed by Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, the chair of the Board of Governors. Mikey was appointed by Donald J. Trump. Gosh, turns out he was Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2007 to 2009! Clearly this duo will know how to make the Postal Service soar.

DeJoy is quoted here saying the Postal Service is an integral part of the government, but needs to change their expensive, inflexible business model.


So, a mere month in, the talented DeJoy has already pinpointed the main problem: the dang workforce. And the unions won't let him get rid of it. What a bunch of slackers, sucking up so much overtime. There would be no more overtime paid, by golly. If you can't get all the mail out on time in a given day, you leave it behind.

But here's the thing about postal work. People still have to work it. People have to stick their gummy hands on all those individual pieces of mail and jam them and their cooties into your mail slot. If we had enough drones to replace this force, the honeybees would perish of bafflement.

I will admit right here that I don't know what a lot of people do. I do not know what a Market Research Consultant does, or an OJD Information Technology Specialist, or a Senior Technical Account Manager. I can't tell if such a person is doing the thing or not. How do you slack in technology specializing? You could be sitting there doing the thing, or you could be just sitting there. 

And I don't know what the folks working from home actually do, either, although--it's my nature--I do trust they are actually doing something. But postal employees who take their work home are sent to the slammer.


It's a different kind of job. Old-fashioned. Here's how it was in my day: every morning, before dawn, we show up at our sorting cases. There are hundreds of one-inch-wide slots representing one or two houses each, and we need to pick trays of letters up off the floor and find little one-inch homes for each letter. Typically, there are three thousand pieces of mail to find homes for. Then we walk out of the station to find their actual homes and stick them in there. It's basic.

It's dishwashing. Every day there is a big stack of dirty dishes and we have to clean them all up. The next day there's a new stack. I didn't mind. Sisyphus didn't have a pension, but I do. And it's satisfying to have a real, honest task to accomplish every day and go home knowing you've done it.

But every morning is not the same. Mondays are harder: nothing went out the previous day, and the trays of mail are stacked that much higher. The day after a holiday is a complete mess. If you're little, like me, you might have to squeeze into your sorting case and sort eight hundred letters before anyone sees the top of your head. The day after Columbus day is the worst of all. Nobody else has the day off but you and bank employees, so everyone else was busy generating mail. Plus, it's the kickoff to the Christmas catalog season, and election mail has started.

I remember Gerald Ford died right before the New Year's holiday. We all wondered when his funeral would be, because we'd get that day off too. No way, I thought, they'd make it a Tuesday after we had Sunday and Monday off. That would mean an unprecedented three days of nondelivery, and we might never see our loved ones again. But they did. We were still shoveling our way out over a week later.

The point is this is real work. In that you can't just wait out the clock. Real mail shows up and real mail needs to get where it's going.

In 2006, a ridiculous burden was put on our Service, when the W. Bush administration required us to pre-fund health benefits for retirees 75 years into the future. That is extremely expensive, and unnecessary, unless, golly, you're trying to undermine the Postal Service. Immediately changes were made that affected us. Mail routes come up for bid whenever they become vacant because the carrier bids on another route, or retires. Suddenly a portion of those vacant routes quit coming up for bid. Those routes, through no fault of the poor souls who lived on them, became "auxiliaries." No one was assigned to them and they were sorted and delivered by committee. Often after dark, all of it.

    “Honey, I’m bushed. I’m going to hit the hay. Coming with me?”
    “No, you go ahead—I think I’ll wait up for the mail.” 

People were pissed. And we carriers who were delivering sections of the route on our overtime had no good answers for the aggrieved customers squinting at their mail by porch light. This is seriously shitty service.

The letter carriers union worked hard for a simple concept: one carrier per mail route. But we did not prevail. It was simply too expensive to hire enough humans--and humans are what is required--since they had to pay retirement benefits so far into the future. It was cheaper to keep a minimal crew and make them work time-and-a-half to deliver poor service. Demoralizing, to say the least.

So when our fine new Postmaster General says no more overtime, in a deliberately understaffed workforce, he means the mail won't go out. And this ain't no holiday. Starting now, there's no catching up. That shit is going to be stacked on the loading dock or warehoused somewhere else and there will be no digging out from under. There aren't enough people, and in this business, we need people. We already thinned the workforce by automating the mail sorting, but now the sorting machines are being laid off too.

At the end of that little quarterly newsletter, DeJoy says: "We stand on the shoulders of the men and women who built this institution." Okay then.

It's not kneeling on our necks, but it's close.



Wednesday, September 2, 2020

And A Half Hour Later He Was Hungry Again

There are lots of interesting facets to the recent discovery of a small water beetle that, when ingested by a frog, motors its way all the way through the frog and out its back door, soiled but unscathed.

One is that it was discovered at all. In order to discover this, one would have to spend a fair amount of time watching a frog's butt to see if anything that came out of it walked away on its own, which, since it would be an unanticipated event, seems unlikely as a way to pass the time, even during a pandemic. But that's because you don't know Dr. Shinji Sugiura. Dr. Sugiura is a curious beetle guy. So he put a frog and the beetle into a tank and started filming. And that is how he got that prize footage of the beetle shooting out the frog's butt and swimming away. And to think that his mother had always told him he wouldn't amount to anything!

Nearly every other creature on the brink of death might be cautioned against running toward the light, but inside a dark frog, it turns out to be just the ticket. The whole trip took the beetle six minutes, which isn't enough time to be digested. Dr. Sugiura naturally wondered how the beetle accomplished the feat--swam, ran as fast as his six little legs could carry him, hitched a ride on an Express Turd--so he gummed up its legs and sent it back in, and sure enough the unfortunate insect reemerged six days later as butt juice and beetle bits. He concluded the unhampered beetle in fact ran through the acidic digestive tract making little ow noises like a barefoot kid on hot asphalt. Remarkable.

"That was smoking gun evidence that they are using their legs," agreed Nora Moskowitz, who studies frog digestion at Stanford University but wasn't involved in the study.

    [What do you do? Oh, I study frog digestion at Stanford University.
    Pleased to meet you. I’m in beetle pooping.]

This is considered a tremendous achievement on the part of the beetle, although it should be pointed out that corn kernels do pretty much the same thing all the time, and they're just vegetables.

There are other beetles that induce frogs to vomit, a.k.a. the Jonah method. Jonah was, of course, the prophet who was swallowed by a whale. He spent three days in the belly of the creature before God made it hork him up onto dry land. Many scoff at this tale and consider it an allegory of some kind, but we are assured by the good people at that this was a true event and they can prove it because the Bible tells us so. In a nod to skeptics and heretics, they also suggest it's possible that there is always some air in the whale's stomach, and, as long as the animal it has swallowed is still alive, digestive activity will not begin.

I did not know this about digestive activity, and had suspected stomach acids weren't that precious about the liveliness of their projects. I would consider it much more likely that God didn't create digestive juices until the millionth day. So I don't think much of this theory, and, really, neither do the good people at They say the most likely explanation is that it was a Miracle. I quite agree.

But should I ever be threatened by a peckish whale, I'm going to lace up my Keds and try to go full water-beetle on the thing. That's a lot of territory to cover in a short period of time, and there are lots of hairpin turns to negotiate, but I'd do it just for the chance to be violently whooshed out in a flocculent plume, which is the form whale poop takes.

In fact, "violently whooshed out in a flocculent plume" is going to be my new euphemism for dying.

The best part of Dr. Sugiura's experiment is his working assumption that at the point the beetle skids to a halt just inside the frog's sphincter, it starts tickling it. Or maybe knocking. You got to get that thing open somehow.

And then you're off to do great things with your beetly life. In Jonah's case, he finally took up the mantle of prophet, which is what God was trying to get him to do in the first place, even though he didn't want to. It was a good decision, being a prophet. He could never say he didn't see that coming again.

h/t Uncle Walt