Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Verdict

Jury duty. My service has precisely coincided with the longest stretch of sunshine this winter. We can tell because someone reported a little patch of it in a high window.

It is in fact an awesome responsibility to have someone's fate in one's hands; certainly in a criminal case, but even in a case like this one, where someone's counting on fifteen million bucks to live on, and the other entity is merely a hospital that could pony that up in an afternoon if they bill enough aspirins. We are taking this seriously.

In a very disturbing element for your correspondent, I must report that for eight days now I have been leaning toward whichever side spoke last. The closing statements should be a dead heat.

This is upsetting, though. Perhaps it just speaks to the skills of the lawyers. Perhaps it just means I have an open mind. In fact I do have an open mind, but once it starts to fill up with testimony, there should be some precipitate in the brain pan. What if having an open mind just means there's a bunch of air going through there?

This condition does not apply to politics. I have firm opinions in the realm of national and world affairs. I stand ready to inflict them on you at a moment's notice. Not only do I have opinions, but I know they're right, even the ones that are uninformed, and I know which people are wrong wrong wrong. If it's late at night and I'm one beer over, I'll let them the hell know, too.

I think I remember a time in my life when I could throw out an opinion in public, and it could be volleyed about, and sometimes my opinion would be shown to be over the line and sometimes it would dink the net and drop fair. Everyone claps politely and we try to make some more points.

That never happens anymore.

Now I throw out an opinion in good faith, and discover that my debate opponent has been inseminated by fallout from passing chemtrails, resulting in an involuntary measles vaccination. And that this experience will inform every aspect of his world view.

Or that she is single-mindedly devoted to assuring that a series of perfectly dreadful events will occur in a precise order, leading up to the Rapture for herself and her identical friends.

Or that the person is just wrong. Even before I assemble my bullet points and trot out my data and proofs, I know the other person is wrong. Because he or she is unkind.

That's the tell.

Kindness is not the same as naiveté. It does not preclude disapproval. Kindness is a willingness to recognize the humanity of others. People are not kind who feel safe only when they have constructed barricades and identified enemies, even if they have to make them up. Kindness is a thin thing if it applies only to identifiable members of their own tribe. If a person falls easily into gross generalizations about any group, they are lazy, fearful, and unkind. And wrong.

If you're not sure what to think, you start by cultivating kindness. You can always hang 'em high later.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Justice League: Amateur Version

Let's review. Your correspondent is the eleventh of thirteen jurors selected for a civil case and is seated in a fossilized chair from the Inquisition. During quiet moments, the hip screws in the juror to her right can be heard to ease out. It's Day One. We assess our predicament.

The courtroom is presided over by a handsome judge. He is calm, clear, thorough, and altogether spiffy.

Also presiding, above him, on a ledge, is a plastic owl. A good one: no plastic rodents of any kind are observed.

The plaintiff is the only African-American man in the room. In a Portland jury composed primarily of white women in their thirties, this probably works in his favor. Unfortunately, he looks exactly like Clarence Thomas. So it might be a wash.

Right away, during opening arguments, I am experiencing a problem. Let's go back to an earlier moment. I am awakened by an alarm clock I fired ten years ago, it's completely dark outside, and I'm not going fishing. I make my way to the bus stop and am baffled and horrified by the number of citizens who are out and about without any assurance, other than force of solar habit, that daytime will arrive. It's cold. It's dark. It's sleepy as all get-out. Clearly, this is inhumane.

So now I am in the jury box for the next nine hours, and right away I am having trouble keeping my eyes open. It's early in the case, and I'm sure I can catch up, but it is important that I look like I'm paying attention. This causes stress. My eyelids are threatening to snap shut audibly. If I close them, adopting a look of concentration, there is no guarantee I will not drool, also audibly. I am told this is confusing and alarming to spectators. So we have a situation. If you have ever found yourself falling asleep at the wheel, you will recall that even the imminent likelihood of turning yourself into paste on a bridge abutment is not sufficient to keep you awake. This is similar.

The good news is, things are lively in the jury room, during breaks. My fellow jurors seem to be unusually intelligent, interesting, and funny. We wasted no time in starting a pool as to the exact minute we'd be called back into the courtroom. Nobody guessed 1:37, and so the pool grows. You want odds? What are the odds you get thrown in with twelve other citizens from a random pool and you're thinking you'd like to spend an evening playing Bananagrams with ALL of them? And might not even win?

You can't count on this. I've been on a number of juries, and there is usually at least one member who has made his decision fifteen years ago, when that asshole did that thing that he'll never forget or forgive. This case, and the conduct of his daily life, will all be run through that particular grinder of an incident and result in precisely the same hamburger every time. There will be another member who will skate right over Judge's instructions and insist "I just know it, okay? I can tell." A third will be sporting a fatal freight of aftershave.

Blue Day. You thought I was kidding?
This jury? Well. When the judge noted that two of us wore a lumberjack plaid one day (the odds of this, in Portland, are very high), we all decided to wear green the next. That had a diluted effect on account of the huge number of ways "green" can be interpreted, from "olive" to "forest" to "red check." The next day we all wore black.

Now that was impressive, and duly noted from the bench. The jury box looked, depending on your point of view, like either an execution squad or a choir loft. For those with the sunnier interpretation, be it noted that a skeleton hanging from a gibbet showed up in the courtroom on the same day. Don't mess with this jury, is what I'm saying.

We're doing charades next week, Bianca's bringing in donuts, and Martha brought enough gimp we should all be able to go home with a lanyard or key fob. Wednesday is Purple Day. Friday we deliberate.

I have no idea what we'll decide. I'm confident justice will be served. This is one sharp jury. Which is why I'm looking forward to Thursday. That's Skit Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Twelve Plus A Spare

Ah, jury duty. It's been a decade or so, but before that they called me up every other Wednesday, seemed like. The first few times I was called, the service was for two weeks. That was back when people had careers and maybe were represented by unions and in general the jury duty was an inconvenience or a slight financial hit. These days people's expectations of scraping together food and shelter are much reduced, a condition referred to on the right as "freedom." You ask half the prospective juror pool to sit for two weeks, you're going to run into some attrition in the form of starvation deaths and homicide.

So we are now asked to show up for two days. And that should do it, unless you get called to sit on a trial that lasts longer than that. Which, naturally, is what happened to me.

I'm a union girl and I'm getting my pension either way, so I'm not out any cash. Still, I thought a nice boutique trial of a day or so would be just the ticket, a possible blog post, and an opportunity to dish out a tidbit of justice. More than two days, I felt, was asking a lot of an old lady with a novel to write. Who likes to sleep in.

Our trial was going to go nearly two weeks, so they called up 40 jurors with the hope of sieving out 13. Would this trial present a hardship to anyone? 40 hands shot up and waved like a wheat field. I made an effort but it was clear I was not getting out of this.

An amazing percentage of people, as it turns out, could be described as living paycheck to paycheck, if only they got paychecks. As the hardship stories rolled toward the back of the room, we met folks who were liable to lose two or three of the minimum-wage jobs they were splicing together between food stamp allotments. Or who were going to be out forty big ones if they miss their next plasma donation. Or who were at risk of losing their favorite spot on a warm street grate. Ladies and gentlemen, it's getting medieval out there.

Then there were the medical hardships. Front row, a juror's hip screws were liable to pop out if she had to sit in a juror chair for too many hours in a row. Juror #21 couldn't guarantee he wouldn't bust out howling after three or four days. Juror #28 is the sole caregiver for her mother, who might start to wander if she isn't locked in her bedroom, and the fire department had words with her about that the last time. Third row back, grandpa eats wallpaper if left unsupervised. Fourth row: there's a basket of puppies attached to an explosive device that will detonate if the juror's ankle monitor doesn't register inside his house at least once every four hours.

The judge worked the room. Was Juror #32 aware that sperm donations pay better than plasma? Could Mother benefit from a support hamster? Might it be possible to paint over the wallpaper? What kind of puppies? Don't explosive devices have a less than even chance of going off, on average?

Eventually thirteen of us pulled the short straws and filed in to the jury box. We looked either sullen or sober, depending on your viewpoint. We were sworn in. We, by gum, were set to drop a load of justice on the county. A bigger load than we'd hoped to, but still.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The State Of Our Union Is Wrong

Like everybody else, except Native Americans who might otherwise like to vote, the State of the Union has an address. Which means you can get a pretty good fix on it. With a good enough address, you can find out if the fellow in charge is able to correctly identify actual problems and then not really do anything about them; or, conversely, he has no idea what's at stake, attacks fictitious problems, and doesn't really do anything about those either. The first gives you that tiny pop in your sails for a few minutes, and the second makes you want to go straight to bed with Cheez-its, a bottle of hooch, and a catheter.

This one was a doozy. Both teams were in uniform: white on the side of Faint Hope, blue suits and red ties on the side of the Co-Conspirators. The co-conspirators got the most exercise. If you were able to thread them properly and hook them up to a machine, you could have stitched a nice long seam. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down. With the white team, you'd end up with the same basket of unfinished mending you started with. That's what makes them relatable.

All those ovations took a toll on the co-conspirators, though. Next year they're hoping to power their pants with coal, if they can't farm out the standing applause to ragged children in Bangladesh for a nickel.

Ovations there must be, however, in order to keep the Dear Leader from sagging like an inflatable tube-man at a used car lot. He was thus encouraged to tout all his accomplishments, most of them, amazingly enough, having been achieved like never before. This is the kind of thing you say if your history book starts the moment you get your breakfast cheeseburger and concludes with The Sean Hannity Show. Highlights included the smooth segue from defending sacred fetal life to having the biggest, baddest-ass military ever, like the world has never, ever seen.

It was a little disappointing, though, from a reality standpoint. Our commander-in-chief, as well as the rest of us, is standing under a monster Death Star and his plan is to shade his eyes, send the Death Star supplementary fuel and supplies, and send in the Marines to deal with a little hatch of imaginary terrorist mice on the southern border. It does make one wonder if he and the co-conspirator team even know where the true threat lies, but not to worry--it turns out they do.

It's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Ordinarily someone this fresh to Congress would not be the subject of so many mocking memes and hysterical right-wing attacks, so you have to give the suckers credit for knowing who's about to eat their lunch. Even just since the State of the Union address, where she sat resplendent in white with all her congress-sisters, she has been attacked for being too wide-eyed and wild AND being too sullen. She needs to find that middle ground.

Specifically, the middle ground wherein she pushes inconsequential legislation, protects the interests of billionaires, comes out strong against childhood diseases and the plague, and paves in a few wetlands on weekends.

While being blonde.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Quiver Me Timbers

My dad studied mushrooms. People used to send him slides of mushrooms they had photographed so he could identify them. They sent the slides in the mail. That is how people used to share images before the Internet. Before Slides and The Mail, people just kind of wondered about their mushrooms, and maybe made mental notes of random data such as whether anyone was observed to drop dead directly after eating them. I like mushrooms because they're beautiful and/or interesting and I feel a family obligation to be an appreciator, but I don't know their names like my dad did. I do like Shaggy Manes, with butter. My least favorite kind of mushroom is the kind that likes to eat my house.

I am mushroom-like in many ways, from my button head to the fact that I like to live in dampish places. I would be horrified to have to live somewhere hot and dry. If it's no good for salamanders, I'm not going to like it either. Nevertheless there are drawbacks to living in a squishy climate.

Fungi have a whole kingdom to themselves ("Fungi") and yet nevertheless have no compunction about waltzing over to your castle and eating it. You might not even know they're doing it until your tower falls down. There were indications probably fifteen years ago in our own castle that there might be trouble in the struts, but thanks to my world-class ability to ignore difficult subjects, I was able to live a worry-free life just about up to the point a flower started growing out of my house. To my credit, I did consider that a "tell." But that was after fifteen years of relative serenity, and you can't put a price tag on that. Well, I couldn't, until now. It costs ten thousand dollars.

Fungi can do a pretty expeditious job of hollowing out structures you might have been counting on. We saw a nice example of that up close and personal when one of our Adirondack chairs sprouted mushrooms along one side. It got spongey pretty quick. Still, the patio looks better with four Adirondack chairs than with just three, so out it stayed. You know those games where there's a timer going and you're trying not to be the one holding the bag when the buzzer goes off? We love that game. I might even have professed innocent horror when our guest finally caved in the chair, except that, if I were being honest, I'd been avoiding that chair for months.

This is how denial goes. House addition goes up in 1996. By 2000 or so, on the inside, there seems to be a crack in the timbers between the bedroom and the tower floors. A couple years later, one floor below, the baseboard separates from the wall and the wallboard looks dimply. Here's what you do. You put it down to settling. Houses settle! You can't expect things to stay pristine when houses are known to settle. I can look at something suspicious and say to myself: that looks suspicious. Followed by: I wonder if there are any cookies left. Followed by a stretch of peace of mind until I see the suspicious thing again. And repeat.

A few years later it looks like the clapboards on the outside of the house are warping a bit. That's to be expected! They're long and thin. Those are known qualities of warpable things. Yes, they're warping mostly in a vertical plane corresponding to a long downspout, but that could just be happenstance, couldn't it?

Then your friend points at it and says "You've got a water problem." Right out loud and everything.

Then a plant grows out of the side of your house. Blooms, and everything.

The particular water problem being referenced is, in fact, that the water is inside the walls, rather than outside, where it was presumably engineered to be. In fact, during a good rainstorm, a person still struggling to maintain denial might be able to observe a particular patch of siding where water is gushing out. A spring, as it were, of life.

You really don't want life in your walls. All the way indoors, or outdoors, that's our motto. No intramural life.

The nice contractor man was not willing to predict a final tally. "We don't know how bad it is until we get in there," he murmured, thumbing through a BMW brochure.

This bad: top to bottom, rotten clear up to the tower and into it, not much holding up the house but force of habit and the spotless, untroubled mind of the eternal optimist. Breathe, have a cookie, and try not to be the one in the chair when it goes down. That's what I say.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Tacking Toward Virtue

There's a lot of stuff we can do better as individuals. We can drive less, or not at all. We can avoid plastic. We can quit eating meat. The only problem is, basically, as modern humans, every single thing we do is screwing up something. Massively, in all likelihood. The whole system's going to have to be done differently and some things not done at all, and it will take a mind-blowing catastrophe to get everyone on board with that, let alone the powerful.

The efforts of individuals are so inconsequential that it's easy to get overwhelmed. I've got some good habits and am working on picking up some others, but I'm still a net disaster for the planet.

But it seems important to try, even if a state of purity is unreachable, and so I have instituted my own personal cap-and-trade system. Cap-and-trade is that deal where a government--say, California--decides just how much pollution it's willing to tolerate, and assigns permits to polluters, who are expected to reach reductions in pollutants either by buying permits from some entity that realized efficiencies and wasn't using them, or by polluting less. It's a market system designed to lower overall dreadfulness. My own personal cap-and-trade system regulates virtue. Mine.

Here's how it works. I determine just how much I can stand to screw up the environment and give myself that many permits with an eye to eventual reduction. The unvirtuous me really, really wants to take long, hot showers. So it does, citing the fact that the virtuous me has quit using the clothes dryer altogether. The unvirtuous me still likes meat and cheese, so it continues to eat it, pointing out how often the virtuous me bikes or walks instead of driving.

The Virtue Index can change on a daily basis depending on the amount of beer consumed and the (related) number of shits given. It can change depending on how many young, earnest, attractive, aromatic hippie children show up at the door asking for my signature and a check for something virtuous. The first three every month score. The fourth, who might represent the most laudable outfit of all, has unfortunately exceeded my virtue dollar saturation point for the month. I have a house and a cabin that use different electric companies; for one of them, I pay more for the electricity to subsidize their green-energy output, so for the other one I don't. Never mind that I have a house and a cabin and could certainly afford to pay the premium electrical rate for both: these are cap-and-trade chips, baby.

But none of this is fair. I shouldn't buy bananas because of the fossil-fuel cost to transport them; but I don't even like bananas. It shouldn't count in the virtue index. And if we're being honest here, that business of getting rid of the clothes dryer turned out not to be such a big deal either. I know, it surprised me too.

Really, the only thing I can say for myself at this point is when I do pick up a new habit, it stays picked up. With that in mind, I announce my next new habit, much delayed. I'm buying bird-friendly coffee. If you are already peeved at the crows rawwking away at dawn when you're trying to sleep, rest assured this has nothing to do with caffeinating crows. But bird-friendly coffee is a really good way to put your money precisely where your mouth is. It's direct. It works. It matters.

When you buy coffee certified as Bird-Friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, you are patronizing a coffee farmer who has agreed to leave the canopy alone, or nearly so, and grow coffee in the shade of a diverse forest. Most coffee is grown in plantations of coffee trees created by razing indigenous forest, a monoculture that does not support migratory bird life or most any other life, and (as is typical of a monoculture) requires pesticides and fertilizers to maintain. They get more beans per acre that way. The Smithsonian certification also guarantees a good market rate for their farmers so they are not tempted to clear their land to gain more coffee beans. This is freakishly specific. This is not lobbing monthly donations toward a good outfit that you hope is doing the right thing and not wasting too much. This is your money on the line, riding a dart right to the heart of real virtue. We want good coffee that doesn't wreck the environment, and we also want the farmers to be fairly compensated for it: we pay a decent rate for it.

I haven't done that, even though I've known about it for years. I've bought Costco bags of beans, three pounds at a whack, sealed in plastic, for approximately no money at all (that's where they hook you), and mine says "Rainforest Blend" on the plastic wrapper, so that people like me who are running a personal cap-and-trade program on virtue can pretend it's okay. It's not okay. It's like buying Fiji bottled water because it says "Earth's finest water, bottled at the source, untouched by man."

I don't care what else you eat or drink. Bullshit is not good for you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Your Brain Is Playing Telephone

As a writer, I have observed that my output improves dramatically if I pause now and then to play Solitaire. It is so fruitful that I no longer even worry I'm wasting time, and I just go ahead and play whenever the mood hits.

A typical session might go as follows: black queen on red king, black six on red seven, turn, turn, OMG Camilla needs to be kidnapped and Hattie totally loses her shit in the next scene, three on ace.

It's reliable and cheaper than running a hot shower all day, which is the other way to produce ideas. But I've been at a loss to understand how it works.

In order to understand how creativity works, or any thought process at all, you must know a little about neurotransmission. Fortunately, that's exactly the amount I do know about neurotransmission.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that poot out of the pointy axon end of a neuron and get gobbled up by the fluffy dendrite end of the next neuron over. It's the way they communicate. Without neurotransmitters, all our cells would just be a jumbled collection jostling each other on the platform, wondering when the train would arrive. But with neurotransmitters, our cells are lined up and whispering to each other in sequence, such that "Take your hand off the burner" eventually arrives in the spinal cord as "Tag Old Stan in the bunghole."

The first named neurotransmitter was discovered in 1921 by a guy named Otto, who got to name it. He called it Vagusstoff, but he was wrong, it turned out to be acetylcholine. Anyway, ol' Otto suspended two beating frog hearts in saline solution and molested one of them, causing it to slow down, and then the other one slowed down too, even though it was not otherwise involved. Also, all the frogs within a ten-mile radius dug deeper down into the mud.

The neurotransmitters in the brain cross over a gap between neurons called a synapse (Greek for "hole in the head"). There are gobs of neurons in the brain, and if you have a very small head like I do, they're packed in really tight. In addition to the neurons, there are even more cells called glia. They are not well understood but appear to be the support crew. They're either tightening bolts or sending out for sandwiches. In addition, they keep the neurons from rubbing up against each other and chafing.

It's not really known if the adult brain continues to create neurons. For a while there it was thought to, because this was observed in rat brains. People were really pumped about that, because they were pretty sure the standard neuron allotment wasn't cutting the mustard. Recently, it's come to light that this might be a rodent thing, and primates more or less make do with what they started with. This would be depressing were it not for the fact that we're already not doing much with the ones we have.

Synaptic pruning in process.
Furthermore, the adult brain is a sleeker model than the child brain, because during adolescence the brain undergoes something called "synaptic pruning," in which some 50% of the neuron connections are tidied up and disposed of. Theoretically this makes the adult brain more streamlined and efficient, but it's possible this is more of a process of civilization for the good of the species as a whole; a process by which humans transition from a life of unbridled masturbation to overeating, TV, and quiet desperation.

Back in oldener times, the brain was thought to be a wired-up electrical model. This was a daunting analysis in the days when people could devote hours to unscrewing every light on the Christmas tree to find the bad bulb. Nowadays we have a more nuanced understanding of brain processes, secure in the notion that if things go wrong we can always unplug, wait a few minutes, and plug back in.

And that's where the Solitaire comes in.