Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Flap Of Skin

My daddy knew everything. You could ask him why the sky was blue or why the leaves turned colors or what the name of that mushroom was and he would tell you, right down to the wavelengths and the refraction and the chromatophores and so on. So when I asked how you could tell a boy baby from a girl baby, and the whole room tensed up, I didn't really notice. I was pretty sure he had the answer. Just that right then wasn't a good time.

It was easy enough to tell boys from girls at my age because of the clothes and haircuts, but little babies all looked alike. I waited a day or two and then, since I still wanted to know, I asked again. Mom cut Daddy a glance and discovered something urgent to do in another room, and Daddy pulled the drawing paper out of the secretary and got a pencil. He started to draw and explain, but with none of his usual vitality. The salient feature in his illustration--in profile, as I recall--was what he called "a little flap of skin." I looked at the drawing and suddenly remembered how you could tell a boy from a girl, and also that I probably shouldn't have brought it up.

In my defense, at that point I didn't have a lot to go on. My only brother was seventeen years older than me and out of the house. Dad was the sort who buttoned the top button of his pajamas. I didn't have a lot to go on, but I did have Danny Hall.

Danny Hall was the inordinately proud owner of the first little flap of skin I ever saw. He had made a point of showing it to me not that much earlier. It was a curiosity, for sure, but I had no idea what it was for, and hadn't made a connection with that whole boy/girl thing. As far as I knew, it was just something that Danny Hall had. He was always coming up with stuff. I do remember he was interested in what was in my pants, but that struck me as odd. I didn't have anything in my pants, not that you could point to, or with.

Besides, as gullible as I tended to be, I was getting to the point that I didn't trust Danny Hall that much. Even if you couldn't figure out what he was up to, you could be pretty sure it was no good. That same summer he had found a plain white rock and he held it out to me and told me to lick it. Even though I hadn't figured out it was a petrified dog turd at that point, I didn't lick it. Because why would I lick a stone? Especially one of Danny's stones.

The Halls lived on the end of the block, and they had a giant mimosa tree that was gorgeously climbable even to abbreviated sorts like myself. We used to play over there a lot; we had to make up our own games, because plastic and electricity hadn't been invented yet. It was a wholesome time. So mostly, we played World War Three. This involved a lot of hiding behind bushes and spying and such. That's what we were playing when Danny lobbed a brick way up into the air and it came down on my head, and don't think I can't still show you exactly where it landed. I wasn't much of a crybaby but I screamed bloody murder. The closest grownup, unfortunately, was weird Mr. Balderson, who snatched me into his kitchen, clipped out a bunch of my hair and began boiling washcloths and applying them to my head. By the time my mom intervened, I was still bleeding, newly scalded and hadn't stopped bawling. Danny Hall was apprehended and brought in to defend himself, squirming in his closely-gripped shirt. He had a defense, all right. "I yelled BOMBS OVER TOKYO!" he protested, all innocence.

So back to Danny's penis. Danny's penis reminded me of nothing so much as one of those little valves you blow up a vinyl inner tube with. I didn't say that out loud, which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea, because Danny was the sort who might have sensed an opportunity. Anyway, it was his flap of skin that popped into my head when Daddy drew his somber little picture. I got it right away. I wished I'd asked him about the phases of the moon instead.

I didn't keep track of Danny. I did hear, later, he had become a hoodlum. Much later, I heard he had become a lawyer.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Love Is In The Water

It's the middle of February, which can only mean one thing around here: it's time to jump into a cold swamp up to our nipples and look for evidence of amphibian romance. Yes, Team Brewster is once again gearing up to monitor egg masses of frogs and salamanders for the regional government entity in charge of wetlands. They won't know how good a job they're doing until we come back with some hard data. It's not always comfortable out there, but one neat thing about being immersed in a cold swamp is you barely notice the stiff winter winds.

Sadly, Team Brewster has lost half its members. Elizabeth, who keeps an overcoat on when she visits us, even if we have the heat jacked up to ninety for her, bailed out this year. Even after I offered helpful suggestions. "Quit falling in," I told her, but she was unmoved. I'll miss her, but there's a lot to be said for diversifying the gene pool a little bit. Brewsters have their good qualities, but none of them are all that useful. We're great at showing up, and tipping over, but don't look to us for direction. There have been Brewsters in this country a long time; the starter set barreled over on the Mayflower full of righteous fire and not much else, watched everybody drop dead the first winter, and had barely enough gas left over to procreate. Now, nine or ten generations later, we're still a sparse population of, shall we say, unusual intellects.

Fortunately, Dave has stepped up. Among his other fine traits, Dave does not confine his activities to the sensible. Plus, he has much higher nipples. He proved to be a natural right off the bat. I told him to look for egg masses that look like oranges (Northwestern salamander) or grapefruit-sized tapioca (red-legged frog), and, attuned to all things edible, he homed in on some right away. Everything stops at this point while we write down our data and flag the eggs. Elizabeth and I had trouble with this, juggling a clipboard, several markers, a spoon (don't ask), tape, a stopwatch, and a large bundle of bamboo sticks. It was always an ordeal. Dave starts right out by laying the bundle of bamboo sticks on the water.

"Bamboo sticks float?" I said. Well, don't that beat all.

Minutes later, he was working his problem-solving skills again, when he tried to determine if his waders leaked by farting in them and looking for bubbles. The man complains that his cognitive powers are slipping, but he has a long way to slide before he gets to the Brewster mental terrain.

Last year, our assigned patch of wetland was barely manageable for two monitors. It was a lot of territory. This year, same location, Walden Pond had been replaced by Lake Michigan. We're going to be at this a while, I thought. Meanwhile, Dave was hard at work.

"Whoa," he said, bending over.

"You got eggs?"

Dave nearly had his nose in the water. "Pretty soon," he said.

Whereupon he reached in and scooped out a pair of rough-skinned newts, locked in embrace. "Dude," you could almost hear them saying, but nobody was letting go of anything. The female was smaller and had the standard grainy skin texture, and the male was so engorged--all over,
mind you--he'd gone smooth. They can remain clasped together for hours or days, and sometimes a whole group of them are tangled together. It's called a mating ball--which isn't what we used to call it back in college, but we might as well have. We started to see them everywhere. We haven't logged too many egg masses yet, but there's romance in the air. It doesn't look like these guys are giving anything up for Lent.

It's still Muddy Gras in the old town tonight.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We're A Coffee Town

Something wonderful happened last week, and I couldn't be prouder of Portland than if we all parked our Priuses and packed them with potting soil and petunias.

The occasion was a community meeting on the subject of Last Thursday celebrations on Alberta Street. Last Thursday was originally conceived as an artwalk, a monthly romp down the avenue that gives Alberta Arts District its name. The galleries hatched the idea twelve years ago and it has grown into a robust carnival. Folks lay claim to a patch of sidewalk and hawk their wares--everything from fine art to whatever they've managed to string together using beads, dumpster finds and paper clips while watching "Lost" from the sofa they're surfing on. It's not, shall we say, a juried affair.

Dave and I are at ground zero, four houses off Alberta at the end point of the parade, and we've enjoyed the atmosphere over the years--the clowns on stilts, the music, the tall bikes and the general revelry. We stroll past the card tables, dispensing brief grins. As Dave muttered after three blocks of displayed art, "This is the result of an entire generation growing up being told, 'Heather, that is so wonderful! You're so talented!'" Our pocket change is not in much danger. But folks are trying, folks are engaged, and we wish everyone the best.

Early on, during the time referred to as "the good old days" or "the rise of Gomorrah," depending on whether you were talking to Dave or somebody else, there was even a good chance of random nudity. It's a nostalgic sight for an old hippie mama, especially one who now recognizes that pride in the pert bloom of youth has always had more to do with this sort of thing than any spiritual freedom. Dave tends to be less analytical, but is similarly amused to discover that young white women still think dancing means twirling about like a fairy princess. As a form of expression, it's not much more advanced than that old standby for four-year-old girls, spinning in place and pulling their dresses over their heads.

There have been complaints from the neighbors, though, with many objecting to the rise in public drunkenness, defecation, altercation, noise, litter, yard-piddling, and worst of all, the likelihood that someone will have parked right in front of their houses. This collection of outrages happens fully five days out of the year, once the cold and rainy months have been subtracted. The announced community meeting looked to be contentious, with the very future of Last Thursday at stake.

A team of volunteers fanned out with flyers announcing the meeting. Dave, who reports a renewed respect for letter carriers, distributed 350 himself. And when the meeting opened up, the room was packed to the rafters, with all seats filled and people standing five deep against the walls and in the aisles. Young, heavily pierced people bristled in packs; old, well-dressed folks who looked as though they would reliably refer to themselves as taxpayers dotted the crowd. Each regarded the other with suspicion.

Mayor Sam Adams, presiding, laid down the ground rules. To keep any citizen from feeling intimidated by the crowd, he instructed us to refrain from clapping, hooting, or making any noise at all. If we liked what someone was saying, we were to give them "jazz hands," waving our fingers in the air. There was no suggestion for negative responses. The meeting got underway.

And then it happened. One after the other, citizens got up and spoke their piece. "Jazz hands" flapped all over the room. Occasional low booing produced a gentle reminder from the mayor, and eventually subsided altogether. The pierced contingent to my right, consisting of people slightly too young to appreciate the wonder of courtesy that was unfolding, could not contain occasional eruptions of dismay, but even they kept their threats of targeted yard-piddling at a low volume, and eventually relaxed. None of these had signed up to testify, but several were invited to the mike anyway, having worked up a head of earnest indignation in advance, and were indulged by all when they sailed well past their time allotment. For two hours and forty-five minutes, the neighbors of Alberta Street spoke in turn, listened to each other and waved their hands in the air like they were at Kermit the Frog's family reunion. It was the greatest celebration of sustained civility I have witnessed in my entire life.

What is the sound of 3,000 fingers wiggling? Portland, baby. It's no Tea Party.

This article, in an edited and probably tighter and better version, was published in The Oregonian, 2/14/2010, where it unearthed a very angry segment of the population in the comments section.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Putty Good Idea

A local homeowner burnt up his house during the recent cold snap, and all he was trying to do was warm up his chickens. That's what you get when you try to raise chickens in the city, some are clucking. But the whole disaster could have been averted had he gone all in on the urban farming. What he needed was a cow.

There is a growing appreciation for working with nature rather than at odds with it, not only because it's the right thing to do but because it's the most effective thing to do.

So in this case, when the heat lamp overheated in the chicken coop and the house was threatened, our city farmer would have been in much better shape had he thought to keep a cow handy. A man in Rogersville, Tennessee recently got all upset at his neighbor for allowing his cow to lick his house, doing $100 worth of damage, he claims. I don't know what constitutes $100 worth of damage. Maybe the cow got some pieces of the man's siding going the wrong way. But for sure a well-licked house would be much better protected against fire than an unlicked one, and besides, it would be natural.

I've tried to apply the principle to my own life. We had no sooner put up an addition on our house than a flicker elected to drill a giant hole in it. It was way up on our tower, which made it hard to get at. After a few weeks the flicker abandoned his project to go perforate someone else's house, and we were left with a sizable hole that would likely collect moisture and begin to rot, forty feet up in the air. How can we apply a natural solution to the problem? I pondered the question for a while. What we needed was something that would fill the hole and prevent moisture damage, and the answer was hanging right there in front of my nose: sperm plugs.

Sperm plugs are left inside females by various copulating males in the animal kingdom, either to prevent insemination by a rival male or to prevent leakage of semen. Many species employ the sperm plug, not including humans, who have instead evolved the ability to do laundry. All that I would need to do is render the hole in question sexually appealing to one or the other of these species and nature would take care of it herself. In other words, I would need to create the conditions that might induce an animal to do to our house what those heating subcontractors did to it in 1996. Possible sperm-plugging candidates would include the boa constrictor, the banana slug, the masked palm civet, or the
monkey. ("Why not something in the crab family," I hear you saying, and true, the spermatophores, or sperm packets, used by crabs might be a suitable patch, but one would want to go with a shore crab, with its simple ellipsoidal capsules of uniform thickness, and not your hermit crabs, whose spermatophores are complex, pedunculated structures; because who needs that drama? Also, most crabs do not care for heights.)

Boas seemed problematic. If there is a boa constrictor capable of scaling a vertical wall forty feet, I don't care to know about it. Slugs are prevalent and famously peckish; perhaps if we planted a hosta in the window, we could attract a raft of them, at least for a snack; but I tend to founder on the question of what passes for sex appeal in a slug, and am disinclined to do the research. Which brings us to the monkeys. They're clearly capable of getting up there, as we all know from that documentary about the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, we're very shy of monkeys in Oregon, although with climate change we might hope for an expansion of their range. This might take a while, though. And if we're going for those champion sperm-pluggers, the ring-tailed lemurs, which are native to Madagascar, we'd have to wait for plate tectonics to deliver us one, and that would take even longer, by which time they might not even be in the mood.

The more I think about eco-engineering the deposition of a coagulated post-coital gelatinous protein mass, the more I think: you know? Wood putty might work.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We're Toast

May 1, 2010. 2.2 billion of the world's top climate scientists today concluded their convention by signing a statement that global warming is a largely man-made phenomenon and a dire threat to the viability of the planet, and urged immediate action on the part of the nations of the world to combat it.

May 10, 2010. President Barack Obama held a press conference announcing a major new initiative to reduce atmospheric carbon. He outlined goals and targets and directed the houses of Congress to work together to achieve them.

May 11, 2010. House minority leader John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) held a press conference backed by an American flag, a Don't Tread On Me flag, three disgruntled archaeologists and an oil executive with a backyard weather station. He stated his opposition to all efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and put forth a new plan calling for increased investment in air-conditioning for the next twenty years to tide us over until the oil runs out.

June 18, 2010. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was revealed to have written, in a private email to a friend, that Rep. Boehner "is a total doodoo-head."

June 19, 2010. Rep. John Boehner, speaking to commentator Sean Hannity (Republican-Fox), retorted that Rahm Emanuel was a doodoo-head. "No, YOU," he explained.

June 20, 2010. Sarah Palin, posting on her Facebook page, demanded that Emanuel be fired and then waterboarded for "insulting the crappo-cranially challenged community."

June 22, 2010. Katie Couric, in an interview with Sarah Palin, asked for a clarification. "So are you saying it is offensive to call a Republican a doodoo-head, but not offensive to call a Democrat a doodoo-head?" Ms. Palin, chuckling, explained that Democrats actually are doodoo-heads, which makes it funny. "But--" Couric began, at which point Palin struck a pose and said "Talk to the hand," immediately regretting it.

August 3, 2010. House Democrats easily passed a bill requiring carbon levels to be reduced to pre-1918 levels by 2015.

December 22, 2010. The bipartisan Senate Committee On Global Warming Posturing, after months of negotiation behind closed doors, produced a draft suggesting that new vehicles be required to come equipped with cloth grocery bags and a pre-programmed set of GPS directions to the nearest recycling center. Progress on the bill was halted when Senator Ben Nelson (Democrat-Nebraska) withheld his approval until the Senate agreed to include funding for the Ben Nelson Recreational Center For The Crappo-Cranially Challenged outside Wahoo.

January 4, 2011. Progress on Obama's Cool Beans Initiative was stalled today when Senator Robert Casey (Democrat-Pennsylvania) proposed an amendment specifically prohibiting any federal funding of weatherization projects at abortion clinics.

January 5, 2011. Senator Diana DeGette (Democrat-Colorado), rising to speak on the subject of the Casey Amendment, exploded on the floor of the Senate, shutting down all activity until the seats could be wiped down.

January 23, 2011. Senator Joe Lieberman (Nincompoop-Connecticut) refused to vote for the draft bill in its current form. "Weh, weh, weh," he reasoned in an interview on CBS Sunday Morning. "Bluh, bluh," he later clarified.

February 12, 2011. Without enough votes to counter an expected Republican snitfest, the Senate tabled a vote on the proposed climate legislation and moved to reconcile bills with the House version. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) noted areas of overlap that could lead to a compromise, suggesting that, for instance, in place of "increase vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 98 mpg," they might require that new vehicles, starting in 2025, be painted an attractive shade of green. Clutching talking-points memos, House Republicans fanned out across the nation, thundering identically that this would be a blow to Americans' freedom.

February 15, 2011. Tea Party activists stormed town halls across the Midwest shaking Matchbox cars in rainbow colors. Speaking from a personal flotation device north of the Bering Strait where
he had gone for a week of fishing, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Republican-Virginia) called for a do-over. "Realistically, the only thing we can do now is start from scratch," he intoned, smoothly reeling in a trophy marlin.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Get Me To A Nunnery

I watched The Sound Of Music the other day, with its familiar themes of courage, beauty, and optimism. It has been forty-five years since I'd seen it last, and time has given me a new perspective on the movie. Namely: I could totally rock that wimple on the Mother Superior.

I've been aware since I was a teenager that I was destined, in my dotage, to have an unlovely neck. While other girls' heads sailed above their shoulders like fine stemware, I have always had what was referred to as a "weak chin." For the most part, no one noticed, because I had a pretty good hooter installation going on.

I predicted, for my older self, a certain sagginess, a little crepe. My neck would become loose and dangly. I had no freakin' idea it would actually inflate. But a half-hour past menopause, it began to rise like bread dough and burgeon into its own subdivision. Faster than I could ever have imagined, my muscle tone fled the tattered Downtown of my face, followed by my eyebrows, while sproingy hairs began to sprout in the gutters. But the suburbs are booming.

I find myself staring at my new neck in wonderment. It's huge. There's room for a terrorist in there. My head is now floating on top of it like a poached egg on a stack of muffins, and in my sunnier moods, I congratulate myself for my foresight in choosing a life partner who mostly sees me from above.

There's surgery for this condition. They can open you up, scoop out some muscle tissue and remove most of the fat, button you back up in the front and tack the rest behind your ears. In an equally sensible move, it seems to me, they could just graft a nipple onto the whole thing and call it a day. Fortunately, the cosmetic catastrophes of age occur at the same time that cancers and aneurysms and the like crop up among our peers, reminding us that unattractive beats the crap out of dead. So we devise a simple strategy for our jacket-flap author photo, and we carry on, idly wondering if wimples are available retail.

I have just a few questions: when I'm gazing directly ahead, should I be able to see my neck in my peripheral vision? Should my earlobes have the sensation of...resting on something? If this thing were to continue growing all the way around the back, will I finally be able to sleep on airplanes?

Will the passengers in A and C be able to as well?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

And It Makes Its Own Gravy

This just in from Las Vegas: Mr. Joey Chestnut is the winner of the Martorano's Masters Meatball Eating Championship. Mr. Chestnut is turning the world of competitive gluttony on its head, or at least reversing its peristalsis. It was a stirring moment in meatball consumption, but perhaps the most compelling story of the day is that of Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, who came in second, one meatball shy of glory. To him I would offer the same condolences I always do: don't beat yourself up. True, there's not much glory in being the Number Two meatball guy, but, outside of Las Vegas, there's not that much glory in being number one, either. Same observation applies to anybody who accumulates stuff of any kind.

I'm notoriously squeamish about watching or listening to people eat, if they're not reasonable about it, and competitive eaters (yes, it's a sport) tend towards hyena sensibilities. However, I'd be in the front row at the Meatball Invitational if it was a choice between watching that or the the Alka-Seltzer US Open of Competitive Eating, which is described as a three-hour elimination tournament. Check, please!

And, in truth, Mr. Bertoletti has gained something that Mr. Chestnut has not. There is a certain magic number of meatballs beyond which you cannot suffer one more, and he now knows what that number is (49). Unfortunately for the rest of us, this is not a universal number. No, everyone has his own Personal Meatball Standard, but at least Mr. Bertoletti will have his PMS for the rest of his days.

A tiny woman has dominated these events for some time. Sonya Thomas holds records in oysters, lobster, tater tots, deep-fried asparagus, and much more, while maintaining a fighting weight of around a hundred pounds, making women everywhere proud and a little pissed off. Over the last few years, she had been mopping the floor with her competition, until Joey Chestnut kept coming up and coming up.

In spite of myself, I'm drawn to these stories. Early on in my friendship with the man who is now my husband, we found ourselves with friends in a local pizza parlor, and the waiter plopped down an extra-large pie on a nearby table. Our friend made some sort of comment about how enormous it was, and Dave instantly announced that I could eat one of them by myself. "No way!" came the response. "If she can eat that whole pie, I'll buy it, and I'll buy all the beer, too."

"You're on!" Dave roared, without consulting me in any way, and the pizza was duly ordered and fetched out. I do like pizza. Dave continued to rave. "My baby can really pack it away. There's no limit to what she can put down. Damn, she can eat." A girl doesn't forget that kind of support. Although the beer helps.

Dave is not a gambling man. There was never any question but that I could dispatch that pizza. It disappeared in due order, and Dave, in a show of solidarity, swelled with pride. There may be some circles in which the ability to hoover a pizza the size of a manhole cover would not be considered an attractive quality, but those circles do not include Dave, who married me a few years later. Maybe it was my demonstrated ability to win free beer, but I'd like to think that there are some men secure enough to admire a woman who can look at life and all its challenges right in the eye and say, "Is there any more pepperoni?"

And every woman cherishes a man who will always stand behind her, even if that puts him in total eclipse.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Fine, Fat Fellow

We were ushered into a spacious room for the press conference. A row of people stood in the back, holding hands and humming quietly. They were barely visible behind Corporation, who was even wider than anyone had imagined. He was wall-to-wall. A trim man in a suit and sunglasses was wedged in on one side of him, expressionless.

Corporation unfurled a pudgy hand and acknowledged our presence. "Please. Call me Corpo," he said. "Thank you all for coming."

He clasped his hands together and took a deep breath. "You can't imagine the pain I've endured all these years, with people denying my very humanity. But I'm just like you," he began, reaching behind himself and executing a delicate, common-man tug at his underwear. "I put my pants on one leg at a time."


"Pants, airs, the electorate, the point is I'm putting something on. The point is I have feelings. I'm not a machine. I have dreams, I have assets, I have liabilities, I have workers all over the world. Some of those youngsters in Sri Lanka, my God--" Corpo paused briefly to gain control over his emotions--"bless their tiny little bones. They're worth a hundred of my workers in America. I mean it."

The man in the suit and sunglasses leaned over and whispered something in Corpo's ear.

"I'm just speaking literally, of course. All of my workers--hell, all of us--are utterly equal in my eyes. From the coal worker in West Virginia, to the shareholder, to my little buddies Credit Default Swap and Sammy Alito, we're all human, we all have a voice."

His own had begun to tremble. "They're like members of my own family. I swear, I couldn't love them any better. What would I do without them? I'll never know, fortunately; there are always more. And after the coal is gone, and the timber is cut down, and the shale
oil is extracted, and the surviving workers are taking their well-earned leisure with their black lung settlements or what-have-you, I'll still be here. Not for them, necessarily, but for their children." Overcome, Corpo reached into his pocket and mopped his nose with a damp Haitian.

But what will their children do? Say, in West Virginia. After the coal is gone and the mountaintops have been blasted into memory.

"Oh, the opportunities I have provided! Just think what the little scamps can do on a nice flat surface that they couldn't do before. Marbles. Lawn bowling. It's all good. Where the Lord closes a mine shaft he opens a trapdoor."

The row of people behind began to hum louder and sway back and forth. The music swelled. Corpo's pants swelled.

"And now, thanks to the highest court in the land, my rights have been protected. My God-given rights as an American."

Free speech?

"How quaint of you! That's been done. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has that. Even the ladies, the dear little chatterboxes! Where's the value? No, my friends, free speech is yesterday's news, now that Expensive Speech is the law of the land."

The man in the sunglasses turned and applied a little water with a turkey baster on the side of Corpo's face. The chorus behind burst into song. Corpo dabbed moisture from the corner of his eye and began to sway with the group.

"We shall overrun....some....daaaaay!"