Saturday, February 28, 2009


A big thank you to Linder, who alerted me to the terrible news about Daniel Bennett and his missing lizard feces. Mr. Bennett had saved over five years' worth of the feces of Philippine Butaan lizards and then Leeds university went and lost it. I know just how he feels. I lose shit all the time. Things are constantly going missing. Dave takes a much darker and more accusatory view of this phenomenon than I do; I tend to start sentences with "have you seen the..." while Dave says "what did you do with the..." but neither one of us ever figures out who did the losing, because we never find anything.

Poor Daniel Bennett was nearly through with his doctoral dissertation on the lizard, variously described (in the article) as "shy" and "extinct," which is just an extreme form of shy. He was studying the shit in lieu of disturbing the actual lizards, theoretical or otherwise, which is delicate of him. This leads me to conclude that he is not only a considerate man but a very serious scientist, probably avant-garde as zoologists go, because what he's doing is a lot like research into particle physics. Particle physics is the study of things that might not even exist, so if particle physicists are wrong about anything, no one will ever know. That's part of what gives particle physicists their reputation for smarts. What they like to do is send their particles whizzing through colliders at insane speeds, and sometimes something goes "poink" and that, there, is your--well, no, not your quark per se, but evidence that your quark has been in the area. In other words, the most brilliant scientists in the world spend their time poking through quark shit. It's a living.

The university was profoundly sorry it had lost Mr. Bennett's sack of academic material, all seventy-seven pounds of it, but in its defense it noted that the sack was not labeled. It had been there for upwards of five years, and someone finally took the initiative to dispose of it, greatly upsetting Mr. Bennett. It's sort of like the time I put Dave's old golf clubs in a yard sale after he hadn't touched them in ten years and then all of a sudden they turned out to have been the key to happiness. I'm sure if the 77-pound sack had been properly labeled ("shit"), no one would have dreamed of throwing it away.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Drug Trials

Says here in the newspaper they've discovered that a drug for stroke victims seems to be helpful for increasing the brain power of rats. I always thought rats were plenty smart to begin with. It could be I just assumed that they were smart, because they are so unattractive, and on both ends. A lot of times it was the homeliest kids in class that turned out to be the brains, and even the kids who beat them up were careful not to mash them on the head. Rats are homely, so it stands to reason they're writing code in their nests.

They injected middle-aged rats with this stroke drug and were amazed at how smart they became. Rats without the stroke drug became senile at a more rapid pace. I don't know what constitutes a senile rat. I would consider it a mark of senility if the rats repeatedly went into one quadrant of their cages and then turned around and went back where they started, in an effort to remember what they went into the other quadrant for to begin with. Then they'd go back to the quadrant and forget what they'd remembered and start nosing around in some new scratch. So that's: forth, back, forth, back, nose around. I've had more opportunity than most to observe lab rats and that's pretty much what they do. My colleagues in the laboratory did not mark this as a sign of rat senility, however, and they were unanimous in their opinion that rats are way smarter than mice. I haven't ruled out the possibility that this is academic myth-making based on bias against mice, who are kind of cute; cuter, in fact, than my colleagues ever were in grade school, back when they were getting beat up.

I wasn't able to glean from the article why it is we need smarter rats, but in an article on the same page, I learned that another particularly valuable pharmaceutical is being manufactured from the milk of genetically altered goats. They look okay, but no one really knows what will happen if they were to get out and mix with the general unaltered goat population. So there's been a call to cease production of the drug. I'm sympathetic to this idea, although it would be a right bummer to have to tell people who want to know how you're doing that you'll be fine just as long as the goat fencing holds. On the other hand, it's not much more tenuous a hold on life than we all have.

You wonder about some of these drug trials. In the same newspaper, it is reported that a whaling ship and an anti-whaling ship got in a standoff down in Antarctica, and the whalers pelted the greenies with chunks of blubber. The whaling ship was only collecting its legal limit of 985 whales for scientific purposes, basically minding its own business. Their scientific inquiry appears to be limited to selling whale at the highest price possible to Japanese consumers, so I guess it's a study in economics, which is considered sort of a science. And if they sell all their whale, they'll have to do it again the next year, and the next, because the study results are more reliable over time. Anyway, my point is the whaler-scientists chunked blubber at the interlopers because that's what they had to chunk with. I suspect sometimes the pharmaceutical scientists just use what they've got, too. They already had a stroke drug, all made up; so they lobbed it at the rats to see what would happen. They happened to smarten up the rats, but think what a bonanza it would have been if the rats had grown thicker, more lustrous fur.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Round Feet

I don't know what it means to have flat feet. I'm probably missing something. It seems to me that flat is just exactly what your fee should be, especially on the bottom. If that keeps you out of the army, it's just a bonus.

I don't have problems with my feet, except first thing in the morning. Evidently they round up overnight. They're like little spheres, and walking on them flattens them out again, but that first morning trip to the bathroom is a bear. It's a rocking, rolling, reeling event, and I carom off the walls until they finally funnel me towards the toilet. After that, things flatten out nicely and I'm able to navigate just fine for the rest of the day.

I've spent a lot of time working on exercises designed to straighten out my foot-strike and they've been largely successful. I can tell because I hardly ever keel over anymore when I'm putting on my socks. I never sit down to put them on, for some reason, and it was always about a fifty-fifty proposition that I'd remain upright, especially when I was putting on the left one. I'd just tip right over. People said it was like watching a dinosaur die. Now that I've worked on my foot-strike, I realize that I used to procrastinate or spelunk or whatever it's called when your ankle rolls in. Dave always asked me, as he was giving me a hand back up again, why I didn't just let go of my sock, and I really don't have a good answer for that, except that it simply never crossed my mind. My mission was to get my sock on, and I stayed focused on that mission all the way to the floor. Then I'd finish putting my sock on, get back up and get on with my day. It's just like figuring out how to do something on the computer. There may be a quicker, easier way, but you tend to stick with what works for you.

My friend Linder has many extraordinary qualities, but her feet are particularly dramatic. They are far from flat, but they're not round, either. The arches are so pronounced she could tuck a gerbil under each one and not hear a peep of complaint out of them all day. Also, her big toes are normal size, and instead of the rest of them tapering down like proper little piggies, they're all the same length, about half the length of the big ones. I'm sure it made bedtime rituals a lot easier on her parents when she was a baby. After the big one went to market, it was nothing but "wee wee wee" all the way home. They're unusual enough that at one point, when she was completely undressed in the doctor's office, he suddenly yelled "Oh, my God, look at that! I've never seen anything like that before! Hey, Harry! Tom! Get in here, you've got to see this!" The fact that this doctor may still be alive to tell the tale, and in his original baritone, is evidence of several of Linder's extraordinary qualities.

I miss Linder. I wish she lived here so she could have joined us for a sumptuous champagne brunch we had here recently. There was no particular occasion for it, except that we had several large bottles of cheap champagne left over from a party a few weeks ago, so six of us got together and put a nice dent in the stash. A real nice dent. Found out that champagne makes my feet round, too.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Feast of Hearts

On Valentine's Day this year, Dave parked himself in a recliner and watched basketball on TV all day while I fetched beers with fluttering hands and little mincing steps, pretty much turning the relationship as it exists the other 364 days of the year upside-down. Hey, it's my pleasure. Then on Sunday it was back to Dave cooking, and, in a nod to romance, he made the whole family a lovely meal of caribou heart and tongue. There are several recipes for caribou heart on the Internet, and many of them seem fairly authentic, calling for such staples as dried vegetables and diced tundra. In most of them, the heart is stuffed. You assemble the stuffing and cram it in the pockets of the organ. Stuffed Ventricles does sound like a medical condition, and we won't even get into what the other entree, Tongue Tacos, sounds like, although it is romantic.

My niece Elizabeth moved here from D.C. only a few years ago, and on the occasion of the first birthday she celebrated here, Dave asked her what she wanted for her special dinner. To which she replied: "Oh, anything, I don't care," thinking that this was polite. She found out just how far polite gets you in this branch of the family. Dave will cook for anyone on any day, but he dearly wants people to tell him what they want, and not to intimate that it doesn't matter. Elizabeth's birthday dinner that year was cow tongue and Brussels sprouts. Every year since she has given a very meticulous itemized response to the birthday dinner question. Still, Dave cooks odd things because he likes them himself, and the nieces and nephews can never be sure what's going to show up on the table at our near-weekly Sunday dinners. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to quiver a bit and glance around nervously when she shows up, prepared to fill up on crackers, and is visibly relieved whenever a meatloaf makes an appearance.

We come by a caribou heart in the freezer in the normal way--by marriage. Some families are introduced to piroggis or pickled herring or the like when someone marries in; when our nephew Michael found and snapped up Andrea, we were treated to a variety of delicacies personally slain by her father or brother and sent down south, and it just doesn't get any more special than that. Early on we were introduced to seal and whale, beautifully presented in salad form. The whale was fine. Wouldn't you think seal would be delicious, all that fat floating around in the sea, like a bobbing bundle o' bacon? Seal is one of those acquired tastes, though, and it really needs to be acquired before you're out of diapers, or it's too late. Sources I Googled (oh yes, I checked afterwards) claim it is in fact "inedible," even though we edded it. Still, I felt very honored to have had the chance to push it around my plate.

Several members of our Sunday dinner conclave will eat absolutely anything, and have had ample opportunity to demonstrate that over the years. But we will always have cheese available for Elizabeth, and beer works for me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Morning Eggs

I don't know what you all did Tuesday morning, but I got up and went outside in a 33-degree mixture of snow and rain to stand in a swamp up to my navel and sample salamander eggs with a spoon. The precipitation was vintage Portland: first it clumps on your hat, then slides down your neck. Yes indeedy, so far, retirement is everything I ever dreamed of. There were about a dozen of us at this party, and we were being trained to be Amphibian Egg Mass Monitors for the regional government entity. They didn't bring the spoons this time, and we didn't get Egg Mass Monitor badges, but they did provide chest waders. These were all flung willy-nilly onto a tarp for us to pick out; it looked like a massacre. There were the standard rubber jobs such as a first mate on a salmon boat might wear, and there were also slick new neoprene models. I tried those.

It takes about ten minutes to shovel yourself into neoprene chest waders, especially without lubrication. They are quite slimming, when worn by a slim person such as our trainer, Jean Lea. Otherwise, they make you look like the love child of the Michelin Man. It is no cakewalk to pull them all the way up. It's like stuffing melons into a garden hose. You really need a tool. I have a new item in mind: it would look something like a thin tractor seat on a handle. I'm calling it a Heinie Horn. But the neoprene is toasty and dry, and might just protect against sexually transmitted diseases as well.

The idea is to survey a section of wetland in a measured pattern to determine how many egg masses have been laid. We're just looking for red-legged frog eggs and northwestern salamander eggs, because they're huge and bulbous and easy to spot. A few other kinds of amphibians will have made some deposits as well, but their contributions look like something you might hawk up in the morning, and for our purposes we can ignore them.

Light conditions and turbidity affect our ability to peer through the murky depths, but on this day we also had a veneer of ice to contend with. However, it was no match for my trifocals and my zeal. I found one phlegm ball a foot deep, the output of a long-toed salamander. It didn't stand a chance--I've got skills. My daddy used to take me out to the swampy patches during spotted salamander mating season (this was even before Nintendo), and he'd take notes and photographs while I scavenged. Some people have been primed for a career in medicine from an early age; I was groomed for an unpaid position in hip-deep muck, like a lot of other people in this economy. Daddy would be a hundred by now, and he would have been so proud his youngest finally made something of herself.

The spoons supposedly make it easier to see and identify the egg masses, and we'll get our own spoon and stopwatch and a map to our own personal patch of swamp in a week or so. I'm still hoping for a badge, too.

Wearing waders reminded me of steelhead fishing. Steelhead are a mythical fish said to roam the cold waters hereabouts, but you never actually catch one, even wearing the good waders. Likewise, we found none of our target egg masses this morning. We're just a little early; the amphibians in question are holding off on a night of romance in the kind of temperatures we humans were willing to go out to look for them in. This just goes to show that evolution isn't always all it's cracked up to be. It's something to think about the next time you hear someone explain that we need to care about the health of the amphibian populations because they are indicator species, and their fate portends our own. No.

We care about the amphibian populations because they are worthy and handsome and noble of eye and spirit, and a credit to the planet. Really, the hell with us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Requiem for a Biology Degree

I saw a flat dead squirrel today on the road. I can't bear to look at them when they're still gooey, but this one was as flat as a cartoon coyote. It occurred to me that it had really been quite a while since I'd seen a dead squirrel. Used to be, the city was chock-full of suicidal squirrels. As soon as I saw a squirrel dash ahead of me when I was driving, I would slow down or even stop, because it was guaranteed to double back to see if it could get under my wheels. I'd wait until it got all the way to the nearest tree before I'd drive on.

I have a theory about this. The reason squirrels are so whacked-out around cars is that they evolved to evade eagles, not Expeditions. If they run to and fro, and try to mix up the "to" and the "fro" a bit, they might escape death from the sky. I'm thinking that in a matter of forty or fifty years, the city squirrel population has finally evolved to reward the individual that just goes full-tilt in one direction. Because even though I still tend to slow down around racing squirrels, they don't seem to double back the way they used to.

It's either very urban of me, or very lazy, to make a study of dead fauna. I should be able to do better. I do have a dusty old Biology degree, by now vestigial. But you study what you can, and the dead stuff doesn't take as much stealth. So I noticed that another thing has changed. Years ago, we were awash in squashed opossums. Of late, they've been almost entirely displaced by dead raccoons. Did the raccoons eat the possums? It seems unlikely, possums being so stringy and greasy-looking and all, but raccoons eat a lot of things, so maybe they eat possums; after all, in some parts of the country, people do too. And they're huge (the raccoons, I mean, although some of the possum-eating humans can run a little large). I remember when they used to be medium-sized and cute. Now they stand there, leaning towards you, not backing away, looking at you eye to eye behind their villainous masks and rubbing their hands together like assassins. My night vision isn't that great, but the last one I saw was the size of a Volkswagen, had tusks and was swinging a tire iron. I don't remember them being so big before. That's one reason I think they've eaten the possums. Oh, sure, you hear about the natural shifting of fortunes of different species occupying the same ecological niche, with one population gaining temporary ascendancy due to variations in food availability and vulnerability to parasites. But one thing I learned in science was that the simplest and most elegant solution is often the best. So I'm sticking with the giant possum-eating raccoon hypothesis.

There's an impressive pile of poop under our grape trellis, all in one spot, and since I'm not out there at night checking, I don't know what has produced it. I do, however, have a field guide to poop, and I consulted it. My bookcase is a little light on literature, but I feel sort of proud of keeping a poop guide handy, and so I mentioned it to my sister, who was not especially impressed. She has a poop guide too. I think this says something about our family. For both of you still reading, possum poop is reported ("unfortunately," adds the guide) to lack distinctive qualities. Raccoon poop, it goes on, is not tapered at the ends, but is more or less broken-off. I see that as careless and lazy on the part of the raccoons. The guide says raccoon and possum poop are easily mistaken for each other, and in both cases they vary according to what is being eaten. I do not know if the poop of possum-eating raccoons is distinctive.

I do know they're up to no good. Poop should be tapered.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Dead of Winter

Just got back from The Oregon Garden. They've got a number of ways to lure you out there, and the bait this time was a nice quilt show. They also have a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright house on the premises that was preserved and moved at great expense. I have taken the tour of the house, a minimalist box in pink cinderblock which was built during Mr. Wright's Jersey Turnpike Rest Area period. I don't know. I'm all for preservation, but even some Steinways make better kindling than music. There were no waterfalls cascading under the house or anything, but I think there might have been something special about the toilets.

There needs to be some kind of draw, if not outright subterfuge, to get people to come to this garden, because it's really remote. It's right next to Narnia on the map. There's no trouble finding the exit from the freeway, which is clearly marked for The Oregon Garden, but then all hell breaks loose for fifteen miles. There is one turn after another, far beyond one's navigational capability, culminating in ever-more-frequent right-hand turns, until by the time the parking lot comes into view, one has the impression of having been screwed into the landscape. Reinforcing this notion, there is no finding your way back home again when you leave.

Even though I made the trip for the quilts, I did want to see the garden in mid-winter. We've been having more winter than we're known for here and we gardeners are presiding over some major winterkill. I have a personal stash of Agapanthus plants that have grown and multiplied for about four years now, becoming something of a feature in my garden, and in December they turned into clumps of snot. Everyone in town has been installing plants from the next zone over and getting away with it until now. So the only thing that would cheer me up, as I survey my freeze-dried New Zealand flax and my paralyzed Abutilon and the snot clump collection, is to see some horticultural devastation on a massive scale. A real big-league die-off, acres of regret and poor choices. I'd perk right up.

Seems the folks at the Oregon Garden make a point of buying local and showcasing the legitimate wonders of our zone. It looked pretty good out there. It was still winter, but the beds were raked clear of debris, unlike at my house, and the dead perennial foliage was trimmed back, unlike at my house, and the marginally hardy items were lovingly wrapped in burlap and crowned with compost, unlike at my house. This place was desolate, but still tidy. By force of habit, I examined the labels in the soil, so determining that this bunch of nubbly bits would become a helenium, and that stand of sheared sticks aspired to being a threadleaf coreopsis. It's a little like surveying a youth hostel to see the Leaders of Tomorrow: it takes some faith and imagination. Gardeners, of course, have both. I am assured that the beauty of admiring a garden in winter is that you can appreciate its structure. Hell, if that's all I was after, I could have stayed home and admired mine. If it had a structure.

Finally I came upon a nice stand of ruined New Zealand flax, and also a large dead plant with a "for sale" sign on it. Mollified, I was ready to go home. Wherever that was.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Proper Dress

Phone rings. It's my neighbor Beth, who always gets right to the point. "What should I wear to a prostitution-alternatives fundraiser?" she queried without preamble. Well. There are so many ways one could go with that. Will there be authentic prostitutes there, with whom one could show some kind of sartorial solidarity? Or will the emphasis be on "alternatives," so that one should model something appropriate to other lines of work? Maybe a waitress outfit, for instance, although many of these blur the line.

I've never bought into the notion that you are what you wear, believing only, at a maximum, that you are underneath what you wear. Most of the time these days it would take a lot of digging to locate me underneath my clothing. I'm somewhat thick, and my clothing is even thicker. Once the layers get thick enough, most people lose interest in even trying to figure out what's underneath. Pop a post-menopausal face on top of it all, and the chances of being molested, even in a friendly way, drop quite a bit. When I was a teenager, though, I had a tendency to go in the other direction, clothes-wise. I was horrified whenever I discovered that men who came right up to me on the street, total strangers, had come to a different conclusion about my wardrobe than I had intended. Like every other sluttily-dressed teenager in the late Sixties, I believed I was expressing freedom and a healthy lack of inhibition and joy in life. I was misinterpreted on a daily basis and it never failed to make me mad. How dare those men infer I had something to sell! (It was free.)

Beth is actually in the prostitution-alternatives biz, having recently gotten a grant from the city to handle transition and mental-health services for prostitutes looking for a way out. Knowing this came in handy when I decided to dig her car out of the snow the other day as a favor. I found no fewer than five similar maroon sedans on the street and partially excavated four of them, looking for clues, before I scraped her window clean, peered into the passenger seat, and spied a sheaf of papers with PROSTITUTION emblazoned across the top. Bingo! That's our girl! Start shoveling.

The fundraiser was interested in cash contributions, of course, but also on the lookout for feminine hygiene products and warm coats. I no longer need either of those two things, and for the same reason. And any prostitute who wore any of my discarded clothing would find her clientele dwindling, as it were, before her eyes. As for Beth, I think we decided that black velvet pants and a sensible T-shirt struck the right chord. A discreet thong for solidarity would be fine, but no need to go all Lewinsky about it.