Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Don't ever tell him I said so, but I suspect Dave and I are a good team in the garden. I come up with all these cool ideas for projects, and Dave explains why they can't be done. I'll put my hands on my hips, gaze out into the middle distance and begin, "I was thinking..." and Dave instantly begins to groan. Thinking, we both realize, is not my strongest suit.

I have a spot in the garden that I would like to put a pebble mosaic in, all mortared up and everything, and Dave indicated he was willing to help me out with that. So one day I laboriously dug out all the weeds and leveled out the dirt and proclaimed it ready for the concrete base, and he came home and said it looked fine--just fine!--but I'd need to dig the whole thing down about another half foot for the gravel base. Let's see: that's a twelve-foot diameter circle, times pi, multiplied by six, carry the shovel...hummm. That's one hell of a lot of digging. Thanks a lot, Reality-Boy.

At least he's still on board. Usually the whole idea gets smacked down right off the bat. There's the expense factor, the degree of difficulty, and always, always, those precious laws of physics. As if he never broke a law.

I still recall when a casual thought--that it would be really cool to be able to weed without bending over--led me to a glorious vision of a path dug down so deep into the garden that the ground level ended up being waist high. Can you see it? By the time the idea had grown in me for a day, I was already descending into my own personal Grand Canyon on mules of fancy. Excited, I sketched out the vision to Dave. I got The Look. It's a rigid look with no humor in it, and by the time he begins to reply, he is already exhausted with the effort of keeping his eyes from rolling back into his head. Then he proceeds to load down my mules of fancy with packs o' facts. No place for the water to go. Backhoes. Gravel. Ten feet deep. Drainage tiles. Blah, blah, blah.

By the time he wound down, my little Grand Canyon had eroded away, and also the Canals of Venice that had briefly replaced it.

But he did build us some creditable waist-high masonry vegetable beds, and they look to be here for the ages. One thing about this place: our walls do not tip over, our walkways do not crack and our patio does not buckle. I sometimes think Dave just likes to stomp all over my muse. But he just wants my muse to have a decent tool belt.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Have You Seen The Big Purple Eye?

Back in 1970 I was sitting around minding my own business when my brain blew up. There was no warning at all. Little shards of sanity went all over the place. No one ever said anything about panic attacks, and I didn't have the slightest idea what was wrong with me or whether it had ever happened to anyone else. It's not like now when there are articles about all that stuff everywhere you look. If someone could just have said, "yeah, I know what you have, and it's called this, and you're not the only one," I would have felt much better about it. I would still have been screwed, but I would have felt better. As it was, I had to apply alcohol to my brain for about fifteen years until the condition sort of cleared up on its own.

In the same general time frame, I saw a girl my age in church who had become gray and sticklike and I asked my mom what was the matter with Susan, because it looked like she was going to die. "She just doesn't eat," my mom explained, shrugging. This made no sense to me at all. It's not like they'd quit selling peanut butter cups. Nowadays we're all familiar with what was wrong with Susan, but not then.

We have so much more information available to us now. When I was growing up, there were always a few kids who were definitely not right, but you didn't know just what was wrong with them. Now every one of those kids would be assigned a syndrome or condition of some kind, and they'd have support groups and pills and websites dedicated to their welfare. Oprah would do a show about them. Just about every oddity is covered.

But there are still just a couple things about me that remain mysterious, and in the interest of locating someone--anyone--else who has similar issues, I thought I'd take this opportunity to put them out there.

One. Sometimes, for no reason at all, I forget how to swallow. And I'm talking plain, tepid water. I toss back my little bloop of water and it suddenly hangs up in my throat, not budging, and I have to bend over and wait it out until it sort of dissolves and continues down the hatch. There's no predicting it, and it only happens a few times a year. One time it finally happened with beer. I took a sip, and it drove just beyond my tonsils and threw itself into park. I immediately realized that the bubbles were going to be a problem, so I ran outside rather quickly and bent over. Concerned, Dave followed me out, but I'm not able to vocalize in that condition, so I was flapping my arms about, trying unsuccessfully to communicate that I was fine and everything would be all right in a few seconds. Then, suddenly, while I was still flapping, foam began coming out of my mouth and dripping on the porch. I think it freaked him out a little. He's had plenty of CPR training but didn't have a clue what to do about sudden-onset rabies.

Two. Then there's the thing with my vision. At night, when I look into the darkness, I can often see a big purple eye floating out there. It's like the CBS logo without the pupil. First time I saw it I was about six. It was a little scary then, that first time, and I said something about it to Daddy. I don't remember what he said, but I suspect he didn't think I was really seeing a big purple eye.

I was. I do.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I'm on about a three-month schedule for cleaning the toilet bowl, but Dave cleans it more like weekly, so it never needs it when I think to check. In general, I would say he is much tidier. Or I would say he's more obsessive-compulsive, depending on how crabby I am. Whichever, it has been pointed out that I'm not always holding up my end with the housecleaning. And since that is undoubtedly true, I have decided to do my part by leaning on the cat a little more. She's really slacking.

I will allow that Tater is practically a genius at getting most of the important stuff into the litter box, even without it having been explained to her, and that was pretty exciting for a while, because the previous cat was very unclear on the concept. Still, this doesn't get it to the curb. And she leaves little fuzzy clumps of DNA all over the place, just as though they couldn't easily be traced to her.

She does have a spot on the inside of her left thigh that she's kept sparkling. And she does periodically clean portions of our faces and kneecaps, although she tends to use her teeth to clean with, and no one really needs to be that clean. We point that out to her, loudly and suddenly, so perhaps we're guilty of sending mixed messages.

I have requested on numerous occasions that she start to pick up after herself a little, at least, but it's like talking to a teenager: you see the earnest, upturned face, but you can't tell if the earbuds are in. Tater gazes at us with a certain reverence, but the only thing registering in her cerebral cortex is: "eyebrows. Mmmmm. Chewy." And her reptilian brain is chanting: throw the mouse. Throw the mouse. Throw the mouse.

However, entirely on her own initiative and with dedication, she has taken to dusting off the computer keyboard with her belly fur. Results are mixed. The keyboard looks, if anything, worse, but she was able to clear quite a bit of data off the screen. Apropos of nothing, cats are really very hard to kill, and this one is all gristle and verve.

I think both of us had more or less resigned ourselves to a cat that was a net minus, in the cleaning department, until the evening we dozed off in our chairs in front of the TV. Gradually we became aware of a ten-pound black mammal creeping around the ceiling, which, if it hasn't happened to you, is startling in the extreme. The mammal dropped to the floor festooned in cobwebs and strolled out to dispose of them. As a cleanliness bonus, now we get to wash out our shorts, too.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Cure For Cancer

When I was much younger, I could get really good and sick and not read a thing into it. That's all changed. For instance, a couple months ago I developed a little strain in my front ribcage. On the one to ten pain scale it rated about a .005. Merely by spending my waking hours thinking about it, I got the little strain to show up on the back of the ribcage too, and got the pain level all the way up to .006. I could only feel it when I inhaled deeply. Naturally, I concluded it was cancer. Let other people ignore symptoms until it's too late; I'm going to be proactive.

I got a chest x-ray (normal, but what do they know?) and made an appointment with a doctor, and in the meantime I went to my massage therapist, Maria McLaughlin. She's scary strong, but she uses her powers for good. Still, I almost didn't mention the whole ribcage thing, because I was pretty sure it was cancer, and not part of her terrain. She listened, and peered at my midsection for a moment, and then rolled up her sleeves and told me she'd fix it. She wasn't even wearing sleeves. That's how strong she is.

I've been to a number of massage therapists over the years, and there are as many styles and methods as there are practitioners. It always feels good, but some of them aren't really giving themselves what I'd call a workout. Some of them just tap on you as though their fingertips were petals, or blessings. Some of them just massage your aura. Some of them even leave the room, probably for a cigarette, after laying warm rocks on you, which is perfectly pleasant if you don't think of it as the beginning of being buried alive.

But Maria is determined to set you straight, or make you swear up and down that she did. First she oils up. (It smells great, but I'm pretty sure it's bear grease; I believe I saw the unfortunate grease donors stacked up outside in the alley after she strangles them. Could be cardboard boxes, but I think it's bears.) Then she starts moving parts of you around to see how far they'll go before they snap off. Basically it's the same thing you do to the chicken to see if it's done. She waggles your leg around counterclockwise: first to nine o'clock, then to six, and by the time she's gotten to three o'clock, you've briefly glimpsed parts of yourself you'd only heard described by others.

As far as I can tell, Maria's plan is to remove your muscle fibers, one by one, from their moorings, straighten out your skeleton, and then re-attach the muscles when everything is all plumb and square. She pulls your musculature away from the bones and hangs it up somewhere nearby so it doesn't wrinkle. I would have thought the little muscles along the ribcage would be tough to spring loose, but she didn't have a problem with it; just got a grip on the spleen, wedged her knee on the liver and pulled upward on the sternum. Then she tucked the unattached muscle fibers under the gallbladder and did a half-hitch with an intestine loop to get them out of the way until she was ready to stick them back on again.

From there, straightening out the skeleton was a breeze. She only needed to whack at about a third of it, and threaten the rest, which fell into line out of sheer terror.

It's been a week. My cancer is gone. I swear it, up and down.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Do Care. Just Not About, You Know, That.

We seem to be getting near the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in our military. Already over ten thousand soldiers have been let go for admitting they're homosexual, and every one of them was fluent in Farsi. It's gotten to the point that when someone even looks like he's about to say he's gay, the military jams its epaulets in its ears and goes "La, la, la, la." So everyone is on board with unloading this policy. Unfortunately, it was put in place with no sunset clause, and the bureaucracy is loathe to get rid of something it might need somewhere else. So I propose a transfer. Let's just move "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the arena of political discourse. We can change it to "Don't Know, Don't Care."

Politicians are frequently accused of being sanctimonious, but they're just representing their sanctimonious constituency. Talk to anyone of voting age for long enough and you're liable to hear something along the lines of "I really don't care if he was caught in a three-way in the church parking lot with Mel Gibson and an underage burro; what matters is he lied about it." Let me stipulate right here that everyone involved in Burrogate is going to lie about it. There are certain things everyone lies about. We should just assume that if someone is asked about his sex life, he's going to lie. I'm going to lie. You're going to lie. If there's nothing much to talk about, we're going to lie about that. So unless our politician is running for director of the petting zoo, let's call such questions off limits. Let's not ask. It's fine to hold politicians to high standards, but let's keep the questions germane.

And perhaps, as much as we all enjoy taking a dip in the sea of piety, we might settle for allowing Barack Obama to be a role model by striding on the world stage like a grown-up and not insist that he also quit sneaking cigarettes. I've never had that particular monkey on my back, but it's easy enough to observe that it's a monkey with a lot of cling to it. People spend years trying to buck it off, but most of them have not had to report "I went five days without a cigarette, and then North Korea fired a long-range missile at Hawaii." Cut the man a break. Likewise, anything that has ever gone on under the desk in the Oval Office is nothing I need to know about. This is strictly a matter between the current occupant and the cleaning staff.

Let's just ask the questions that matter. "We're all behind you on this swell war you've got in mind, Mr. President. Where are you getting the cash?" Or, "Senator, could you elaborate on your personal financial stake in the tropical fish hatchery being proposed for northern Greenland?" Stuff like that.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Poot

I should probably explain about Pootie. Pootie, who is currently in charge of our house, arrived here stowed away in a ribboned box on Christmas day, 1988. Although he is frequently mistaken for a bear, which doesn't bother him, or a bunny, which does, he is a dog. Technically, a stuffed dog. But if his head is packed with lint, it only means he's gotten the jump on the rest of us.

Pootie is a dog given to firm opinions and well-defined preferences, and from the early days it was clear that many of them aligned closely with Dave's. For instance, he enjoys making a public spectacle of himself, he loves chocolate, and he adores basketball. Dave would consult with Pootie, listen carefully, and say, "Pootie wants to know"--the Poot would nod vigorously--"Pootie wants to know if there are any chocolate chip cookies left." Or, "Pootie wants to know if there's any reason we couldn't turn on the Lakers game." That was actually the only deviation, however slight, that Pootie took from the Dave canon. Although both man and dog were fervent basketball fans, Dave rooted for the Portland Trailblazers and Pootie was a die-hard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He had even begun to bald a bit on top, revealing a neat row of stitching, just like his hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We snuck the Pootster into the Blazer games whenever we attended, always eluding the security at the gate, to the Poot's immense satisfaction. He always wore his own Lakers sweats, just to be provocative, and someone would always cheerfully offer to rip his head off.

Pootie gets to go everywhere with us, including seven consecutive trips on the Cycle Oregon bicycle tour, when he rode up front on the handlebars on his own personal Barkalounger sporting helmet and official t-shirt, courting fame and admiration. ("Oh, look at the cute bear! Oh, look at the little t-shirt! Oh, look at that helmet!" some admiring female would say; then, to me, "you don't have any kids, do you?")

Still, although Pootie is our constant companion, I was actually moved when Dave took him to watch the All-Star game. We were at our cabin, a space sanctified by the absence of television, on a snowy February weekend, when Dave asked if I wanted to pop into the nearest tavern to watch the basketball game. I didn't. I had a book. So Dave took off for a few hours, tucking Pootie into his jacket, and inviting him to recline against the napkin dispenser to observe the goings-on. While he was gone I thought of what a special fellow Dave is. Many, if not all, men would be loathe to bring a (technically) stuffed dog into a tavern for the purposes of watching a sports game on TV, but it hadn't even occurred to Dave to leave Pootie behind. More I thought of it, the more I was filled with love for Dave and his compassion for the little fuzzy people in life. I told him so when they came back. "You know, most guys wouldn't have taken someone like Pootie to a bar," I said, with a catch in my throat. Dave shrugged it off. It was nothing.

"Pootie," he said significantly, "is a babe magnet."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Look Out! It's A Cycle Path!

Well, you have to go back to physics class to truly understand bike lanes. Not the comprehensible kind of Newtonian physics from your childhood, either, but the newer bits, the kind that if you claim to understand it, it proves you don't. When I was a child, science was a snap. We just had those neat little atoms all over the place. The Russians had launched a crappy little satellite, by today's standards, and suddenly everything was all about the atom. You saw pictures of them everywhere. Nuclei with electrons whizzing predictably about them. They were so tidy. Tennis ball in the center, ping pong balls on wire hoops.

Then it turned out that you couldn't really represent the atom with a tennis ball and wire hoops after all. The electrons didn't really travel on wire hoops. All that the purported path of the electron could represent was the probability that the electron would be right about there, or maybe in the next block, or halfway through the world, or sometime next week. But only if you weren't looking at it. I believe that sums up the new physics. It's not tidy at all.

But it does help to understand bike lanes.

A painted bike lane represents the probability that a bike will be encountered somewhere in its vicinity, or possibly two lanes over, or parked in the garage, or on your windshield. It just narrows things down a little.

Count me in favor of bike lanes. As a biker, I find them at least symbolic of some sort of bicycle legitimacy on the road. They're as effective at keeping me in one piece as my marching sign ("Whoa, cowboy!") was in keeping us out of the war in Iraq, but at least they're something. My preference would be for bike paths that looked more like the broad top of the Great Wall of
China, with the automobile traffic dashing about below. As it is, it's still too easy to imagine ending up as a damp smear in the bike lane, surrounded by medics with spatulas and baggies.

For instance, in one high-traffic area on the approach to the Lloyd Center Mall here in Portland, the bike lane ambles peaceably on the far right and then vanishes abruptly, only to reappear one lane over, a transition marked by a faint line of hyphens. "Look, Harold, hyphens," a passenger might say to a driver, and Harold would query "hyphens?" just before hearing a thwack and turning his windshield wipers on high. We bikers negotiate these transitions, cringing and praying: be nice. Be sober. Be looking. And then we pedal on, cars whizzing by to our left and our right, secure in our bike lanes and thinking: You can't hurt me. I'm enclosed by road stripes.

The road to the Lloyd Center might be paved with good intentions, but it's still hell.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cape Horn

My niece Elizabeth hauled me out to the Columbia River Gorge the other day for a nice seven-mile loop hike at Cape Horn, just to see if the old lady's still got it, knows where she left it, and can still get it moving. Here's a geology lesson: hikes in the Gorge are always uphill. Otherwise, the water in the river would go all over the place.

That bit about being uphill both ways, though, that's not just something old people say. It's also something old people do, by the simple expedient of going backwards on the trail enough times. This is a relatively new trail, without as much signage as one might want, so it comes with a very detailed set of directions. Whoever wrote them, however, was stoned. So you might be directed to hang a roscoe past the third tiger lily on the left, and continue under the branch with the Swainson's thrush in it; but come up on an intersection bristling with trails radiating out every which way, and the directions have no opinion about it. As a consequence we wandered in circles for a while, hoping for some kind of sign , and just then: pah-dah-BUM. CRASH!


Cymbals they were, and an entire drum kit, guitars, the works. A small band was set up, three miles into the trail, on a tiny knob overlooking the gorge, all operated by a group of young fellows whose parents had apparently asked them if they knew how to play "Far, far away." They were a sign, all right; they were on a complete dead-end, and we were lost.

We regrouped and located the trail, and didn't backtrack again until a bit later when I realized we had overshot a little spur to a waterfall. It wasn't much of a waterfall by Gorge standards, but it did allow Dave to do something he manages to do on at least half our hikes. He bounds nimbly onto an outcrop the size of a bath mat, tilts way out over the sheer vertical drop-off, and announces you can see the whole waterfall from there, and I must come out and look. Bless his heart, the man hates to have me miss out on something wonderful. (For thirty years he has never known me to eat an oyster, mussel, or clam, which I refer to collectively as "sea loogies," but still he will hold out that blob of snot on the half-shell and wheedle, "Just try it.") Meanwhile, because I am perfectly capable of tipping over on flat ground, I am standing several yards in from the edge and leaning inland hard. "Come on out--I'll hold onto your pants," he always says. Honey, you're not going to want to hold onto my pants after I get done with them out there.

The final waterfall, at about six miles, is the sort you can walk behind, and it showed up just when we really needed it. Actually, it came about two hours after we really needed it, but we still needed it. It was cool and refreshing and had a nice stubby rainbow at the bottom. I looked for the proverbial pot of salamanders at its end, but it's never there.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blood, Simple

Since we've retired, we've looked for excuses to take walks. For instance, if I suddenly need a little plastic mountain goat, and never mind why, then off we go six miles into downtown and come back with one. So when I made an appointment to give blood at Red Cross (2.6 miles), I invited Dave along. He hesitated. "You're supposed to drink extra fluids afterwards," I wheedled. "There's a brewpub a few blocks from the Red Cross that pours $2.50 pints on Tuesdays." Sold!

I've been giving blood for almost forty years, so I have an impressive tally of pints shed. The people at the blood donor center invariably express their gratitude and make it seem as though I've done a really stellar thing. I haven't. If someone, right now, told you she'd do something to you that stung for a nanosecond in exchange for a nap on a lounge chair and a faceful of donuts, would you go for it? Me too.

But Dave has always refused to go. Needles give him the willies. "If they can take it with a knife, I'm game," he always says. He doesn't have many vulnerabilities, but if you Tivo the scene in that movie when Nick Nolte is getting a huge needle in the knee, you can get a whole lot of mileage out of it.

Dave says he did try to give blood once as a teenager but it was a dreadful experience, right up to the point where everything went black. He has a long way to fall, and witnesses reported the moaning sound triggered the Doppler effect. For a few days they just swept around him. Empires rose and fell.

But the man do love to walk. We took off for the Red Cross. I reassured him that they never miss my vein, even though it's small and invisible, whereas his veins jut and jump like cobras. Still, I looked around for one of the exceptional blood-drawers for him. You want a phlebotomist who shows a lot of confidence. Unfortunately, that doesn't weed out the sadists. Dave drew the fellow with the wild grey mullet and the Jack Nicholson leer, and that fellow had at him for several minutes, reducing his left arm to pulp, until the trainer stepped up and offered to take a stab at it.

The trainer, opting for the next arm over, went for a quick and graceful poke, then another, then another ten or twelve, and finally, through sheer force of will, he drilled in and mined some sort of deep aquifer and the well sprang forth. Dave's expression was rigid and staring. A young man nearby fainted dead away.

Nevertheless, eight weeks later, Dave again accompanied me to the Red Cross, theorizing it couldn't be worse, and it wasn't. It was exactly the same. Bruises in both arms bloomed like oil slicks on the sea, and days later folks were still edging away from him in the grocery line. I wouldn't have blamed him for calling it quits. But last week he accompanied me yet again. This time he had gone for the Needlephobe's Perfecta. He had spent that very morning at Kaiser getting a cortisone shot in his frozen shoulder. Was it a huge needle? I queried, as we walked to the blood donor center. Dave shuddered. "The guy who pushed the plunger in was in the next room," he said. At the center, we got ourselves settled into the lounge chairs. Dave was approached by a pony-tailed young woman who might have passed for thirteen. She sized him up, flicked her needle and slid it home, and Dave's blood leapt up and shot out into the bag in four and a half minutes.

Meanwhile, my blood was drooling out, spiraling down the tube with all the gusto of a seven-year-old on his way to bed. A team of phlebotomists stood around with frowns and thumped my arm and jiggled my needle and made fretting noises. Fifteen minutes later, my life force was still dribbling into the bag in a manner usually described as "ebbing away."

Both Dave and I have fine blood--A+, in fact, although Dave points out, that according to the DMV, I got an F in sex--and I hope our respective pints will have some salutary effect on somebody, somewhere. Although whoever gets mine might have to be patient.