Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Push Pause

Don't waste this.

This: this experience we're sharing as a species is a rare opportunity. To pay attention. To notice. What do you feel? Let's start with something easier. What do you hear?

It's quiet where I am. I walk in the middle of the street to keep my distance from people and hardly ever have to get out of the way of a car. Traffic is mostly gone. I don't even hear many airplanes and we live near the airport. That quiet is the sound of fuel that doesn't have to be used, of trips that don't have to be made. How many of our trips really had to be made, before?

Are you able to work from home? More and more people can. If they can now, is there a good reason to commute later? Are all the conferences and meetings in person necessary, or even desirable? One person I know has been surprised to discover he's getting more work done from home.

Are you counting squares of toilet paper? Are you wasting less food? Are you thinking of putting in your first garden? What happened to all the toilet paper? Did everyone just suddenly shit themselves? How scared are we?

Are you frightened? Stressed? Don't waste this moment. Let it tell you who you are and what you're afraid of. Dying? What changed? You were always going to die. All that busyness you engaged in before--was it just to distract you? Pay attention to your fear. Notice it, and move on to something else.

What are you thinking about? What does it sound like in your head if nothing is distracting you? Do you imagine you should be getting a lot of stuff done now? What if there's nothing at all going through your head? Would that really be a bad thing?

What can you not do without? Why? Listen to yourself.

People are complaining about something they call social isolation...on the internet. They are discussing their loneliness with friends and strangers all over the world, all at once, all the time. They feel bereft. What happened? Not long ago, phone calls were too expensive to make often, or for long; we heard from each other at Christmas and once or twice a year by letter, if we were lucky. Friends, parents, children, everyone. It was fine. Not long before that, people would get in a wagon and go away from their friends and family basically forever. Now we are all rattled if we don't get our text messages returned right away. Are we better off for this? We're so tense. This super-connection: is it good for us? If you had to do without physical human contact, or do without the internet, which would you choose?

Do you feel compelled to read the latest about COVID-19? You want to keep up with the latest recommendations, sure. Then do you also need to hear and share everything you can about how dreadful Trump is? You already know how you're voting. Those people defending that sorry soul online are only going to keep you up at night. You can't spank them from your own device, and correcting their spelling doesn't have the sting you think it does. They don't care. Leave them alone. They're keeping you from paying attention. From noticing.

So do that. Go outside. Don't take any devices with you. Write a list for a scavenger hunt. Nothing is funner than a scavenger hunt! I'll start you off. Find an insect you've never seen. Find a bird. Find a bird carrying sticks and follow that bird until you know where it's going and what it's doing. Find something on the underside of a leaf. It could be on the ground, or still on the plant; turn leaves over until you find a spider, a gall, a fungus, a bug, a salamander, a larva, life. Find something natural that is sphere-shaped. Find a feather.

Find a drawing of anything, or even a doodle. Done by you. Earlier today.

Find the thing you're most afraid of. Stare it down until you're bored with it. Until it gives up on you and passes by. Live.

All these photos were taken in one twenty-minute outing in my yard, just after I finished typing this up. This is the first day I've seen crows with nesting material, and I've been looking. And then Studley showed up when I was trying to get a photo of a bumble bee. He wrecked that. All my bee photos were out of focus. If I had worries, I completely forgot about them.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

And That's The Way It Was

There used to be a thing called The News. It came out of your TV at six pm. There were three portals in your TV it could come out of. Every family had their favorite portal.

The three portals were NBC, CBS, and ABC. It was hard to compare them because once you chose your The News portal you stuck with it. You had your personal family anchorman and you didn't switch. This is because it would require hauling your dead ass out of your chair to change the channel.

We were a Huntley-Brinkley family. I don't know why. Daddy was a man of strong opinions, eloquently hollered, whether you asked about them or not. So I figure he had a reason. Because I had faith in that, I grew up thinking Walter Cronkite was not as good, and maybe bad. Similarly, I knew Eisenhower was not as good as Adlai Stevenson, even though I didn't know anything about either one. It's also possible we were Huntley-Brinkleyers because of the theme music, which was the second movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony. At the end of their final show, they played the whole movement. I was transported. I now suspect we had the album in our meager record collection and could have played it at any time, but I thought of the moment as a once-in-a-lifetime event. That's how TV events were. You didn't get a second shot.

Anyway, in much the same way as one could be either a Methodist or a Presbyterian, many people preferred Cronkite over on CBS. Nobody knows who did The News on ABC. Probably Ward Cleaver, with opinion by Uncle Bub for gravitas.

But whether you watched Huntley-Brinkley on the peacock channel, or Walter Cronkite on the eyeball channel, or Amos Real McCoy over on the channel with just the little letters inside a button, you got pretty much the same The News, at the same time of day.

They didn't necessarily get the news right, but one assumes they tried. Powerful people were still capable of manufacturing a story that would get us more enthusiastic about a war, and the portals would dutifully report that story, but good journalism eventually prevailed. All of us sat around our boxes and absorbed The News without much suspicion, and we formed our different opinions and voted based on the same basic product.

That turns out to be a big deal. Now we can simply default to our own ill-formed biases without any illumination whatsoever, if we want to. The News can be less a source of information than a vehicle to get and keep our dander up.

So on one portal you can learn that seasoned professional intelligence officers, diplomats, and presidential appointees have all agreed that the President has attempted to extort a strategic ally for a personal favor. Or, you can go to another portal and learn that House Democrats have conducted shady interrogations in the basement of the same D.C. pizza parlor Hillary "Lock Her Up" Clinton used to run a child sex ring out of, and that one of the inquisitors has been secretly recorded snickering at a photo of Trump in golf pants and a stiff breeze; and that the entire impeachment process is rigged, illegitimate, and illegal, and springs only out of a deep-seated irrational hatred of a successful and godly president on the part of people who simply can't get over having lost an election. And if Trump gets removed, Joe Biden and his son should be found guilty of entrapment. All of this would become clear if only we had access to HC's deleted emails, which are also thought to include correspondence with her sex-change surgeon, a scanned copy of Satan's compact with Obama, and a mysterious photo of a baby with one white head, one Kenyan head, and thick ankles.

You know what else? The three old portals used to blink off at midnight.

I miss that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Murderers In Our Midst

I had sworn off arguing with people about politics on the social media, just to give myself a break. But after a few days my pulse rate had gone logy and I was sleeping through the night. Who knows what I might be missing in those hours previously devoted to lying awake wishing people were smarter? Is it wise? Shit isn't going to worry about itself.

So just to get a life-affirming dose of venomous hatred, I wandered into a thread on the neighborhood vine about outdoor cats.

I'm gingerly about that sort of thing these days. Something I might have thought was a simple offer of information turns out to be a highly obnoxious invasion of other people's private business and a threat to their God-given freedoms. Offense is liable to be taken. Epithets are liable to be flung. I edge up to the subject like I'm putting my neck on a slab.

"Oh hi," I begin. "You know, that's exactly how I used to feel about letting a cat out myself! LOL! But then I did some reading, and I decided I would always keep my kitty indoors. I LOVE KITTIES! I just had no idea what a huge impact they had on our native wildlife. And I had no idea they are an invasive species. I just figured they'd always been around and they always ate birds and everything was in balance. Nope! In fact..."

Typical liberal, always so sure you should decide what's best for other people to do. You want to take my car away next? Fortunately this is still a free country.

But did you know that cats are responsible for decimating populations of birds and...

[Ed. note: Did you know your hair can be singed off by being too close to a cat thread on the internet?]

I like my cat better than your stupid birds. Mind your own business. People like you make me sick.

...Speaking of sick, there's a special problem with cat shit too, because it carries a parasite that can infect a...

You know so much more than the rest of us and we're all SO grateful for your input. BTW, birds poop all over your garden too, you know. Maybe we should all stay indoors?

I just thought that if...hey. Aren't you the same person who was just on this site last week all huffy about people who don't pick up their dog's poop?

Dog poop is disgusting. You have to pick it up. It's the law.

Aww, Petunia. Bless your heart. Maybe we do now. You know how it used to be? I'll tell you how it used to be.

We grew up rolling around on the lawn with the chiggers and the dog poop. Our mothers put the hose on us at the back door and made us strip down before we came in. Dog poop was everywhere. Desiccated white turds and giant smeary piles. People let their dogs out in the morning and they were expected to gang up and terrorize little kids until they were brought back inside for the night. They weren't precious little purse pups either, the kind ladies pluck out of their pocketbook to pop a poop like a Pez. They weren't going to dent you in the ankle socks. They were going to come at you pointy end first and bowl you into next week. They were named King and Duke and Bruno and they'd use your little four-year-old legs for dental floss. You didn't know how fast you could pedal a bicycle until the pack came around the corner and showed you a gear you didn't know you had.

Tater takes down a wooden chicken
Nobody wanted to pick up poop or walk a dog three times a day then either. They wanted their dogs and their kids happy and worn-out, and that's what they got. But things changed. Most of us think they changed for the better. Maybe not the kids.

One of these days people are going to feel differently about the toxoplasmosis land mines in their tomato patches and the songbird massacres and things are going to change again. In the meantime I have a jet spray setting on my hose and a great fondness for urban coyotes.

OK, Boomer, touch a hair on my cat and I'm coming after you.

Go ahead and try it, Junior. I can pedal a bike real fast. You've got allergies and asthma and you can't read a map.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Covered For Covid

Don't worry about us old people. Sure, we tip over a lot--you would too if you had one foot in the grave. But check this, Junior. We're going to sail right through your little virus dealie. Because we got Life Skills. We got Lore. We got Laudanum. We'll be fine.

Shoot, we been training for this forever. We're supposed to start looking at children as little disease vectors? Way ahead of you. And we know exactly how far apart six feet is. It's coffin depth. It's the gap you keep from the person in front of you at the ATM. It's the distance between Rob and Laura Petrie's beds. It's the length of a proper dog leash. You young people with the retractable beagles are the ones getting confused.

Six feet is weird anyway. Supposedly that recommendation comes from the idea that it is the distance an infectious droplet can travel when coughed out. Well ain't that precious. Doesn't anybody smoke anymore? We had an old man down the street from us growing up who could launch a loogie ten yards into a headwind. He'd get started hacking and you'd think someone had tied tin cans to his bumper. Speaking of bumpers he had a hell of a tailwind too. Mr. Frank was a deeply frightening man, to a little kid. We kept our germs well away from him. He had to get sick all by himself using nothing but Viceroys but that's the kind of can-do initiative people used to have, before we had to have fancy imported viruses.

What else? Wash our hands all day long? Oh fine, but there's a limit. Our tissues are thinner. You start soaping off too many layers and you're getting into a damaged-packaging situation. And then we're supposed to stop touching our faces? What's left to touch that we can still reach without bending over?

Old Person Amusing Himself
Besides I only touch my nose ten or twelve times an hour, just to get the crusty bits on the outside. I don't do any actual excavation unless there's no one else around, so that's safe. And I hardly ever have to go in past the first knuckle. What I really do a lot of is stick my finger on my eyeball. I do that because I wore hard contact lenses for forty years and completely lost the revulsion factor. Sticking your finger on your actual eyeball is the best way of getting those stray eyelashes out. Of course, you have to lick it first. Anyway, I haven't seen anything specific about not sticking your licked finger on your eyeball. I'm fine. Also, I've made extra sure I wipe my nose thoroughly on my sleeve and my hands thoroughly on my doorknobs. The doorknobs are metal and viruses slide right off.

You want contagious, you should try measles. One kid could easily measle up a whole class of fourth-graders. But we measled in rolling shifts for efficiency. That way we could still maintain dodge-ball teams all winter, which was an important lesson in survival skills, especially for your smaller and squishier children.

I'm in fine shape. I spent a good portion of my life learning how to amuse myself. I can hole up here in the house for months. And thanks to our lack of weatherstripping, we can get a pizza slid right under the front door without losing a mushroom.

But we've got another ace in the hole: nobody visits old people. We only have hard candies and our breath is bad.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Odds And Ends In The Junco Drawer

Oregon Junco female
Shitty birder Murr reporting in again, with birdy enthusiasm and Magic Slate brain. Birds are erased from my memory as fast as they slide in. It's a problem, if you want to have a Life List of birds that means anything.

I don't. Instead, I will get all excited about spotting a Life Bird and one of my friends will say, "No, you saw that one back in 2012, perched at three o'clock in a western cedar, just to the right of a varied thrush." And I will respond, "Who are you, again?"

So I was excited to find an honest-to-goodness new bird when I visited my sister in Colorado. I do know some birds pretty well, and this one acted a lot like a junco. For instance, it hopped around on the ground, both to and (as noted on the Audubon site) fro. And it had those white junco tail feathers. But this one was sort of bluish and had a red sweater, not at all like our Oregon Junco, which is brown and white with an executioner's hood. I looked it up later and was pretty chuffed to discover it was indeed in the junco family. I had not only bagged a Life Bird but I'd gotten it down to a near relative.

Oregon Junco male
Only, no. Hold on there, little missy! As it happens, there are at least five distinct juncos out there and all of them are now called Dark-Eyed Juncos. You see one, you've officially bagged them all. It's totally not fair. If I'd seen them in 1972, I could have counted them as five different species, but since then, ornithologists, who are people unduly interested in bird sex, have decided they're all the same thing.

This because in those areas where the different types overlap, they interbreed freely, as opposed to reluctantly.

(And the areas where they overlap would be your cloacal areas.)

Now, otters have been known to mate freely with cocker spaniels, but they are not considered the same species, because they do not get a live Cock-Otter out of it, and in fact the cocker spaniel usually doesn't make it either. Otters are real cute, but they're assholes.

But an Oregon Junco can mate with a Gray-headed Junco and get real operational nestlings out of the situation. I don't know what they look like.

Juncos have been much studied because they're easy to catch and relatively tolerant of manhandling, which is to say they don't spazz out or drop dead. This is probably an unfortunate trait for the junco. Being studied by ornithologist rarely works out for the bird. Some early ornithologists messed with a bunch of juncos by exposing them to cold winter conditions while simultaneously adjusting their light exposure artificially to make it seem like spring, all to see if they went ahead and mated or just pooped in their water dish. I don't know what they found out, but I'm sure it was grad students who had to clean it up.

Slate-colored Junco
The reason all the forms are now considered the same damn bird is they have only begun to diverge recently, since the retreat of the glaciers around 13,000 years ago. That gave them plenty of opportunity to branch out sartorially while maintaining a healthy ecumenical horniness.

I'm interested in this because I happen to have a Slate-Colored Junco in my yard. Yes I do: he's supposed to be east of the Great Plains, but he isn't, he's right here. Not only that, but he's been coming here for at least two years. Yes, I'm going out on a limb and saying it's the same individual, which means they spend a season up in Canada somewhere and then come right back to the very same city lot every time. Mine. And if my Slatey mates with an Oregon Junco and produces something new, say, something in a dapper plaid, I'm calling it Murr's Junco. Junco murrus nanner-nanneri. Boo-yah.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Feeling Blue

So, it was snowing. There wasn't any way anyone could have predicted this, and maybe it was really fluffy rain, or possibly a Democrat hoax to make the weathermen look bad.

At any rate, whatever it was doing, it didn't look like anything I wanted to walk around in. The Hoax People say I shouldn't be walking around anyway. We've got enough food for a while if we're not too precious about the quality of it. We're probably going to find out what those mystery packages in the freezer are. Two of them are sort of yellow and we can't offhand remember any yellow meals we had that we liked.

It's been a weird few days. Not long ago I thought we'd finally gotten Joe Biden off our shoes but he has bounced back in a big way. I had thought Elizabeth Warren would have appealed to a lot of people who were torn between Biden and Bernie but evidently her voice is too high and she is too forthcoming about her plans. Bernie is much better about having the same ideas but not getting into the weeds with answering questions, and Biden is much better about saying things like Now is the time and We must move forward ahead together by cracky. I was terribly disappointed about Warren and slumped for a few days like a hypochondriac in a pandemic, but I've recovered.

And that is because I finally realized it isn't all that important who our figurehead is. We have had a real fine group running for office and many more already elected who are doing good and brave things. Anyone who thinks the parties are all alike at this point would have trouble deciding between a pillow-top mattress and a hill of fire ants.

Oh boy
So what we have now is a team. With a lot of all-stars on it. Biden himself, I recall, impressed me a good deal in one of the debates in 2008. And he is by most accounts a decent guy. It is not the worst thing in the world that he is too moderate for me. And that is because of the other thing I realized: if I had gotten my dream candidate in there, she wouldn't have been able to get the things done she wants to do. She could move things in the right direction, but she would face virulent and massively-funded opposition. Same thing with Bernie. There is no Democratic Socialist fairy. But there is the power of our numbers and our fervor, if we quit sulking and use it.

Those are our marching orders now. If Biden is our candidate, we get in there and let all our representatives know we support them when they fight the plutocracy and their hired vermin in Congress. Let them know we have their backs. The platform of the Democratic Party has not yet been assembled. Pick a plank and grab a hammer.

And if you are one of those idealists who is crowing about how you'll leave your ballot blank if you don't get your man? I'm going to guess you're a child. A white child, with no personal skin in the game, who is in a position to ride out someone else's storm.

I know how dismissive this is, and I happen to agree that Boomers have made a hash of things and deserve your derision (although you'd have been the same way)--but there is something that old people have earned just by staying alive, and that is perspective. We've seen this show before. We were idealistic too. We haven't given up our ideals, either, but we understand it takes longer and more sustained work than one just election. We'd like to keep all the fossil fuels in the ground starting yesterday too, but it's not going to happen merely by winning the vote. If there's any hope for it at all, it's going to happen by some cataclysm out of our control that will--much later--be seen as a blessing. A virus that shuts down commerce and transportation. A mass famine. A small asteroid.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter what we do. Try to imagine where we'd be if Gore had won in 2000. We wouldn't have started a war in the Middle East. We would have started to turn the climate ship around. The billionaires would have done their damnedest to prevent us, and we wouldn't have gotten enough done, but we'd be a lot further ahead. This is no time for petulance. Hold your nose if you must but vote for the Democratic candidate for President. Don't think of it as voting for some old fart. Think of it as voting for Biden Bernie Warren Harris Buttigieg Yang Abrams Inslee and Klobuchar. It's a damn fine group.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Love In The Time Of COVID-19

Well look at that--big fat flakes are coming down and things could hardly look festiver. It's mid-March and this is certainly not unprecedented, but it's still a surprise, and I can't remember if we had any snow this winter. In fact the winter has seemed unusually mild. Our normal winter days are rainy and top out in the mid-forties, but it's been a good ten degrees warmer than that, enough to make me wake up in the middle of the night and kick off my beloved slab of blankets and fret about what summer will be like on our new, remodeled planet.

What else? Oh. There's a new virus in town, perhaps you heard. If you drew a Venn diagram of People Who Should Be Real Worried and Me, you'd have one big dark circle. Nevertheless I find myself not real worried. This is mainly a matter of principle. Worry has always been the least helpful tool in my kit and often as not I can't even find it in among the store receipts, pennies, and itty bitty screws.

I am not yet a complete dunce, however, and have adopted all the protocols recommended by scientists in the Deep State, a.k.a. the remaining still-functional bureaucrats whose salaries I am happy to pay with my tax money. Even though I am well over sixty I believe I would survive an infection. I worry more about Dave, who, despite being apparently bionic in fundamental ways, was a smoker of long standing, and the creative things he can do with a simple respiratory ailment are legendary around here. We're hunkering down.

The thing that's weirder about my state of mind is that I find all of this actually exciting, in almost the same way I find our imminent mega-earthquake exciting. I'm always impressed by massive real events beyond our control. Things that shake us up. In this case we have a tiny item, a virus, which, like all other living things, is doing its level best to reproduce itself, which it must do inside a "host"--in this case bats, or us. "Host" is a mighty accommodating word and suggests a degree of hospitality we might not actually feel. "Mark" might be a better term. The virus catches a ride on a suitable cell and shlorps itself inside, where it cajoles the cell into helping it replicate, slips on a new jacket, and busts out of Dodge, which is real bad for Dodge, and then it hops the next available mark, eventually existing in, conceivably, half the world's human population, plus a number of bats.

Meanwhile, we continue to hurtle toward environmental doom, even though we know full well what we need to do about it--because we knew we needed to do it fifty years ago. No politician on the planet could overcome the stubborn short-sightedness of our rapacious consumption. The disruption to our economic system would be so severe that people will not consider the far heavier price of doing nothing. The entire system needs to be overhauled, and there's little support or political will for that. Certainly not among the plutocrats, and not among the powerless serfs so easily gulled by them. I always vote as hard as I can, but it's clear to me that only some crazy outside catastrophe could turn this ship around.

But looky here: commerce is grinding to a halt. The transportation sector is nosediving. Unearned treasure is losing its value. The systems are crumbling. A crafty 120-nanometer sphere of protein and DNA has done this. It's a little viral miracle.

Scientists don't agree on whether viruses are living or not. They can't generate their own energy or live for long outside their hosts. But they're hardly inert. They're as successful as an internet rumor. Or xenophobia, which spreads rapidly but can't exist for long outside Fox News.

So that's what's filling my sails. There is something right now that has managed to bind all us individual hosts together, all over the globe. We are in a state of heightened awareness of each other's basic humanity, of what we have in common, what we each need, what we need from each other, and what we can live without. And we finally understand that what we do affects everyone else. This virus dissolves false boundaries.

We might as well call it Empathy.