Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ants Are Back

It's spring! You can tell. The cable company has popped up with their springtime for-no-particular-reason five-dollar rate hike. It seemed to come so soon after the Ides of March why-the-hell-not five-dollar rate hike, and the Presidents' Day because-we-can five-dollar rate hike, but that's spring for you: bam, suddenly there it is. Also, the ants are back. The ants come back every spring.

For most of the year we don't pay ants any mind, but that doesn't mean we're not important to them. For the ants, the inside of our house is Capistrano. One day, right around the same time every year, they just show up, all of them. You never see all of them at once, but they're there. What you see is just some little movement out of the periphery of your vision, like some random little astigmatism, and then it resolves itself into a batch of ants. This year they were all over the kitchen sink and cutting board. I'm pretty low-tech about ants. I mash-and-wipe with a hot sponge, repeating as necessary. I try to get to them before Dave does, because he loses his mind around insects. It's a good thing we live in Oregon, where we fling open our windows all summer without putting in screens. If he lived in Africa, or Florida, or really anywhere on the east coast, he'd flat perish from the willies.

If Dave sees the ants first, he will apply some sort of spray insecticide to the thickness of a paste all over. The ants will drown long before they have an opportunity to succumb to malathion poisoning. I hate this, but I've learned to accept that he cannot help himself. Since, every spring, he also gets a notion to clean all the windows in the house inside and out, I'm willing to overlook some of his other issues.

The thing is, I may be onto the ants before he is, but I never seem to get the big picture right away. I'll be mashing and wiping ants in about the same location for two, three days, and then on the fourth day I'll notice that they seem to be coming in from a little distance away, and I'll follow them backwards with the sponge, and eventually I'll look up and there will be a major vertical column of ants going up the wall, enough to make the walls look slimmer. The ant stripe is visible from the next room if you happen to be looking at the right spot, so it's hard to imagine how I had missed them before. It's as though you see something shiny, and you think, hmm: that almost looks like a claw, only way larger, and then you look up and discover you're crouching at the foot of a tyrannosaur. The ants have obviously been there all along, and you can trace them to a little bloop of raspberry jam on the second shelf of the cabinet. You can tidy that up and wipe down the ants and in any case they'd have been gone in another week, but it's still a heck of an operation they're running. No doubt one scout ant located the stash and alerted the whole platoon.

It's impressive. You can't even get ten humans in a sushi bar to figure out how to split the check.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Loved Ones, With A Side Of Lefse

There is a perennial ad in the obituary section of the newspaper for "funeral alternatives." I'm always drawn to that, since I consider every day to be a funeral alternative of a sort, and I'd like to keep that up. Turns out there are a number of different ways to dispose of a corpse, beyond the traditional methods of embalming and burial, cremation, and concrete boots.

You have that option of being shot out into space, which is nice if you want your legacy to be "I could have rid the world of malaria, but I thought it would be more fun to be shot out into space." Or, in another option available to those with wealth afflictions, you could be frozen cryogenically and thawed out when a cure for your terminal illness is discovered. I always imagine that departed soul floating around quite peacefully, maybe shivering a bit, but happy enough, and then being yanked back into a world of chemo and woe.

There are other possibilities. I am informed that the state of Oregon is considering regulation of a number of new "death care consultants." Among the alternatives out there is the practice of freeze-drying a corpse and turning it into a fine powder, drying it, and putting it into a potato muffin. That would be just the ticket if you want to take your loved one camping. Oh wait, that's potato coffin. Still.

And there are a number of companies in the business of dissolving bodies into a sort of soapy goo. They're calling this "resomation," but you can't fool me--I'm half Norwegian. That's lutefisk.

If I absolutely did have to choose for myself, I guess I'd want to be tossed into a peat bog. A body buried in a peat bog barely deteriorates at all. Thousand-year-old corpses have been unbogged and found to look like they're just a little tired, maybe just a little squashed up. That's how I look first thing in the morning already.

But for the record, if I go before you all do, please note that I do not care what you do with me. As long as I'm still topside I would like to be fed and watered regularly but after that it's going to be entirely up to you. I do think it's a nice touch to be an organ donor. Even skin is harvestable, and there are parts of me that could cover a lot of territory. My eyes probably wouldn't be worth much, except as a novelty to the far-sighted. I've got two perfectly serviceable kidneys. My liver is heroic. Three people could get new chins.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Mighty Zin

A wine-tasting tour, the way we do it, is sort of like a mastodon hunt. If you really want to be successful, you enlist the whole village. There were ten of us who headed out recently to take down the mighty Yakima Valley Zinfandel, and we were so successful we may never walk right again.

This was a three-day foray, so it was important to select a group carefully according to a strict set of compatibility criteria. Not really. You just have to score high on the giggle index. Our group included two engineers and a lawyer, so we were unlikely to encounter any circumstance which we could not make more complicated.

Our home base was the Sunnyside Inn B&B, which might suit you if you like enormous rooms with jet tubs you can do laps in, beds so wide you could mislay your partner, as it were, and home cooking and tender care that cause you to reassess your own mother.

Sunnyside itself is the Home of Hacked-Off Trees. Most yards have them. They let their trees get only so high and then they whack them into knobs. Maybe someone originally got the idea from the heavily pruned orchards in the area, and then other people thought it must be the thing to do, too, even though it was unattractive, and before you knew it a style was born. This also explains mullets.

First-day fresh, we had the Snoqualmie Winery surrounded by ten a.m. and bagged a whole herd of Sangiovese. From there we stalked the Syrahs at Desert Wind and picked off some stragglers. "Swirl, swirl!" the pourer commanded as I began to decant a merlot into my face. Apparently you're supposed to sneak up on these puppies. By the middle of the afternoon, I was swirling pretty good.

My favorite wines are the first fourteen or fifteen of the day. After that, they tend to get a little sleepy. We were looking forward to the preserve at Chandler Reach, a particularly lovely setting overlooking the Rattlesnake Ridge and valley, but it was closed. A pair of irascible dogs was on patrol. They may have been Terroirists. Tired from the hunt, we whined and scuffed our feet out front until the proprietor, Len Parris, came out to investigate. After a bit of conversation, it was determined that we still had money and he still had wine, so he opened the joint up and let us have at it. It was a good haul. Mr. Parris pointed to the circling squadrons of sandhill cranes riding the thermals overhead as evidence of a warmer microclimate conducive to his wine grapes. He did have a fine product. Could have been the crane poop, though.

By the last day our party was best described as amusing, but lacking structure. The sun came out and the breeze picked up and the scent of spring was suddenly everywhere. We were breathing deep in appreciation, even after discovering that we were directly downwind of the urinal cakes in the port-o-potties at Two Mountains vineyard (fruit-forward, notes of cherry and raspberry). We strapped the mighty Zin to the hood of the pickup and headed south again.

Home, we hauled in case after case of wine and stacked them high on the floor. That's when it hit us: we're beer drinkers. We won't go through that much wine in two years. Somewhere around 12,000 years ago, someone stood observing a mastodon carcass crammed into her cave from basalt to bats, and felt the same way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Time Is It In Your Pants?

Our amazing friend Scott lives in the country. When one of his out-buildings was burglarized a while back, he suspected the Mexican farm workers down the road. I was startled; I hadn't thought of him as racist. But he had his reasons. Nothing but food was taken. Scott makes his own sausage, his own cheese, his own wine, his own dang near everything, and his thought was that anyone familiar with the language would not want to tuck into a stinky block of cheese goo that had a big sign on it saying "EXPERIMENT: DO NOT EAT."

It's got to be tough to get around in a country whose language is not your own. When I was in school, I learned French pretty well. Somewhere I heard that if you learn five languages fluently, it induces a state of enlightenment, because you would perceive reality directly without language intervening, or something. This seemed like a lot less trouble than becoming a monk, so I went for it. We were big on achieving enlightenment back then; of course, that was before they started making good beer in this country. Anyway, I started in on German as my third language, and what should happen but every German word I learned pushed a French word out of my vocabulary. Eventually I couldn't speak either one. Merde-Kuchen!

So all I can rely on is English, with just enough French left over to help Dave with the crossword puzzle. But I too am able to finger foreign influences when it comes to my Spam quarantine. For a buck a month, my internet service provider picks up suspected Spam and drops it off into my own personal Guantanamo. I like to go there and peer through the bars. And what I have discovered is that the authors of my Spam are not native English speakers. They are fun English speakers; not native. Otherwise they would not be trying to entice me with a Noontime In My Pants.

Every now and then I have to bail out an innocent, though. My good new friend Julie Zickefoose, a genuine writer who has been pimping my platform big time and seems to be as interested in getting my book published as I am, sent me a letter with the subject line "The poop on your manuscript," and my program promptly subjected it to extraordinary rendition. There it was, quivering between "Your watch will obey you like a good child" and "get yourself an absolute death to any herpes."

"Poop on" appears to be the suspect phrase here. I have no doubt that there is a subset of the human race that is attracted to the practice of being pooped on. I'm not naive; I've heard of Golden Showers, so there are probably Brown Hail aficionados out there too. My ISP looks askance at this sort of thing, but I'm not here to judge. In fact, if I didn't think I might get a virus out of it, I might be inclined to see about that noontime in my pants.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Attack Of The Bean Tree

You think you know a lot about life, and then something zings by your ear and smacks you right in the Toyota.

I bought a house in 1978 and have been rattling around in it ever since. One of the things that I thought was really cool about it was that it had a big wisteria clambering all over the front porch. Nothing could have been more romantic. It was all leafed out when I bought it but I looked forward, the next spring, to having Louis Tiffany-worthy pendulous blooms bursting across what would surely, then, be termed a veranda. Mind Juleps would be poured; I would call everybody "dahling." My sister Bobbie celebrated my new house by making me a lovely needlepoint of the house in the original colors of sandalwood and red; she included, gratis, a profusion of wisteria blossoms.

The next spring the vine leafed out solidly and there, somewhere in the foliage, hung one straggly clump of purple flowers. Our porch remained a porch and we had beers on it. The next year the plucky purple clump returned. It perished of loneliness. A decade went by without another flower. We repainted the house. Bobbie soldiered forth with another needlepoint, in grey and charcoal and red, with a bushy yet barren wisteria vine in the front.

What the vine lacked in beauty it made up for in sheer malicious vigor. My little prunings were insufficient. Turn your back on the sucker and it's up under the roof shingles, twining around the neighbor's cat and sizing up the meter reader. Dave declared me unworthy of the task and tackled it himself. He called it a good pruning but it was closer to murder.

The next spring we had dozens of blooms. The next, dozens more yet. Before long, we had a perfectly creditable spring display--not really prizeworthy, it not being a stellar variety of wisteria, but uplifting nonetheless. We sat on the porch with beers and called each other "dahling." We added onto the house, repainted, and were informed that there would be no more needlepoints coming.

When the wisteria finishes blooming, it produces long fuzzy beans that are decorative in themselves, and they remain until the next spring. These are the "bean trees" of Barbara Kingsolver's imagination. One afternoon in March a few years back, I sat out on the front steps to enjoy an unusually warm day. Zzzing: BAM. It sounded like a gunshot, which wasn't without precedent in this neighborhood. I couldn't tell where it was coming from but it shot my car. Zzing: WHACK. What the hell? I took cover behind the garbage can. War veterans reflexively hit the ground. The bean tree was exploding. The next few seeds made it all the way across the street and hammered on the neighbor's SUV. Then one took out a passing Pomeranian at thirty paces. An empty half-helix is all that remained of every bean on the vine. And we'd never noticed it before because they all went off at once. If you aren't there that day, you miss the whole show. It's a lot safer that way.

Next unusually warm day in March, bring your hard hat and come one over. I recommend parking around the corner.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just Bury Me In A Shoebox

When I walked out with a shovel the other day and told Dave I was going to dig a big hole, he got a little nervous. "How big?" he wanted to know. "Six-five?"

Dave's counted on my reluctance to dig holes over the years, correctly suspecting that I'd tire long before I'd gotten his grave dug. But I just found out that it isn't really necessary to dig that big a hole. You've probably read about James Hines, the fellow in South Carolina who, at 6'7", was too big for his casket, so the undertaker undertook to chop his feet off and wedge them in alongside his body. People are pretty upset about that undertaker, and for good reason. What kind of person would do such a thing, when he could have cut the head off and placed it on his chest between his hands, where the lily usually goes? That would have had so much more dramatic impact when they exhumed the body.

The story does vindicate what Dave's been saying all these years, that they just don't make the world for tall people. That's why he has so many divots in his head, and doesn't like to fly. But there are many instances in which his height comes in handy. Not always; Dave has taken to stashing the toilet paper on top of the cabinet in the laundry room, a decision that's going to come back and bite him in the butt one of these days, when I run through a roll and can't replace it. But in general, when I need something off the top shelf, I stand under it pointing like a two-year-old, saying "ehh, ehh, ehh," until he comes along to fetch things down for me. We call it using the "Extend-a-Dave." I wouldn't want anyone to think I think of him as just a tool, though, because I don't. No, the Extend-a-Dave is my favorite tool--that, and the little orange-peeler dealie.

Dave is a tall man, and I am neither, and for some reason it's a lot more entertaining to poke fun at the little person than it is to do the opposite. So I've been the recipient of quite a lot of friendly abuse for quite a while now. Mostly I take it in stride, however short a stride. Once or twice, no doubt due to a random hormone attack, I haven't been in the mood. I told him during one of those episodes that I would appreciate it if he could lay off the short jokes for just a little while. He apologized with what seemed like genuine remorse, and then quietly said, after a few moments, "I thought most of those jokes were over your head anyway."

If you'll excuse me, I have a bit more digging to do.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Girl's Got Spunk

I was thinking about that woman I read about in the paper, Gisela Marrero. She petitioned a judge for permission to harvest her dead boyfriend's sperm. She was interested in having a nice fatherless baby to remember him by, and who could blame her? A lot of women would have made do with a flannel shirt as a memento, but not Miss Marrero. "May it please the court," she said, "I would like to do a little nut-mining." I may be old-school, but this strikes me as creepy. I wouldn't deign to interfere, though.

I hadn't given it much thought before, but I'm sure that it's possible a man's sperm can be viable longer than he is. Just because you can't pull the trigger doesn't mean you're out of bullets. I know that, because I just spent the morning trying to pull weeds before they went to seed. If you do a really good job of pulling a dandelion up by the roots, and there are a couple yellow flowers on it, you can toss it on the compost heap and the lion will promptly wither and die. But this just annoys the flower, which senses doom and goes into seed-making overdrive. It's a little like those ghoulish French nobles who kept blinking after their severed heads had fallen into the basket. Next thing you know, you've got a good working compost pile with dandelion fluff scattered all over it. Rah rah, the Circle of Life, and all that.

This morning, however, I got to the lower forty (feet), which is covered with tall grass, and pulled it all out before it had even begun to flower. I was pretty tickled with myself. The only downside was that I found a bunch of these odd little life-forms just under the soil. Several. Thousand. I have no idea what they are, but I have a feeling they're up to no good. They may not see it that way at all, of course. They're fixing to transform into something, and whatever that should turn out to be, they're down with it. In general I'm willing to let Nature take care of things. I don't interfere all that much. So I'm not going to stomp the buggers, and I'm certainly not going to lay down any pesticide. But I am not above lining them up topside for a little jay buffet. It's almost natural; it's Nature with an assist. Miss Marrero probably saw her own case the same way, and the judge agreed.

The girl's got spunk.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wade Bogs, Continued

March 21, 2009. The forecast was rain, hail and thunderstorms. Obviously it was time yet again for my niece Elizabeth and me to go out and fulfill our sacred trust as Official Amphibian Egg Mass Monitors for the regional government. Earlier forays had had middling results, but now we were shiny with authority, proudly sporting our solid bronze Official Amphibian Egg Mass Monitor badges, thanks to Mary Ann.

We set out under a suspiciously sunny sky. Team Brewster was newly energized after a pep talk from the big Frog Egg Boss, Jean Lea. Four egg masses, found previously, were not to be pooh-poohed, she told us, and when we had time to think about it, in the two weeks since our last outing, they had been particularly lovely frog eggs. Plumper and more life-affirming than your average egg masses, and if you leaned in real close, you could almost hear little tails trying to sprout out in their little jelly sacs. This time that bog was going to be crazy with eggs. It had been drizzling more or less constantly for days and days, and a bit warmer, and sure enough, when we arrived at our assigned patch, it was wider and wetter and rollicky with frog song. I planted a boot in the mud on the edge, planted my hands on my hips to admire the scene, and slowly fell on my ass without further ceremony. We were ready to roll.

We set up a wading pattern and trudged carefully into the chilly swamp, eyes sweeping back and forth like pendulums, and encountered the usual issues with floating vegetation we couldn't see through and muck and weeds that grabbed our feet and threatened our verticality. But it wasn't until we'd been in an hour and were up to our waists that half of Team Brewster went under. It wasn't the half I was in, so I found it rather comical and may not have reacted properly. Why are you sitting down? I thought. Why are you making those squeaking noises? I thought. the masks of comedy and tragedy are closely entwined. The younger half of Team Brewster surrendered the clipboard and spoon and wailed tragically towards the shoreline to mop up, strip to underwear and decant the bog from her waders, which, to my surprise, she was able to do even without the instructions being printed on the bottom of the boot. After a short interlude she discovered, to the surprise of both of us, that she wasn't going to die after all, and gamely came back in the water. Shortly after, we were rewarded with an egg mass. We were so excited and overcome that we completely forgot the four items we needed to check off on our clipboard, even though the directions were written down thereon, and flapped and hoo-hooed and generally proved completely useless for five minutes or so. Team Brewster had a fatal flaw. It's the same flaw that is rumored to crop up in tiny isolated hamlets in the Ozarks. Briefly, it had too many Brewsters in it, and not enough moderating personalities.

Many people have found Brewster girls entertaining over the years. They watch in amusement as we tip over for no apparent reason, and make pronouncements that suggest our beads have come unstrung. But we were not designed to operate on our own. We require an anchoring influence. We need people who love us and care for us and set us back upright. We make great pets.

We're probably just average Amphibian Egg Mass Monitors.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Just Breathe Normally

Some people just like to get upset. I still recall a letter to the editor I read a few years back, written by a woman who was much affronted by a local call to the citizenry to conserve water during a drought. Why should she be expected to let her pansies dry out, the good woman wanted to know, when examples of waste were to be seen all over? At the airport, for instance--she went on--where she had recently visited the women's restroom, equipped with an automatic flush mechanism. "My movements inside the stall triggered multiple flushes," she huffed. Well, honey. If you have enough movements, you're going to want those extra flushes.

I suspect even people who are not normally given to upset do get tested at the airport. Tempers flare, babies squall, service is not what we think we deserve. I believe much of the anger is simply a result of unrealistic expectations. If we readjust our outlook to reflect reality, we'd be much the better for it. I have assembled a short guide to familiar airline terms in hopes that the public will benefit:

"Departure." This refers to the time the jet rolls a few dozen yards out onto the tarmac and parks.

"Full Upright Position." Same as reclined position.

"Pre-boarding." This is not the time before people board. This is the time when people board who are not you.

"Place the mask over your mouth and nose and breathe normally." Don't worry about it. No one will be expecting you to breathe normally.

"Gate B-2." Gate C-28. Hope you've got your sneakers on.

"Welcome to Phoenix." She means Welcome to Portland, although, given your personal history of spectacular travel errors, you are to be excused if you tumble into a panic.

"We would like to make your trip as pleasant as possible." As pleasant as possible is Totally Schnockered In First Class. Back in 27-C, look for peanuts and a blankie.

"Pillow." This is actually a large sanitary napkin.

"A pleasant stay in Cincinnati, or wherever your final destination is taking you." I have no idea what this means.

I hope this guide is helpful to the flying public, and would furthermore like to offer a little travel advice to some of my fellow passengers. If you get in the habit of blowing your nose instead of snorking it all back into your face, you won't have to repeatedly contend with that pile-up in your throat later on. Thank you.