Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Sainthood Express

There's controversy brewing over the impending beatification of John Paul II. It's too speedy, they say. He's only been gone six years, and you can't even get on a stamp until you're ten years cold. J.P. may have been adorable in his beanie and red shoes, but he's just not dead enough for sainthood.

I don't know how dead you have to be. In fact the entire business of generating saints is a mystery to me. It seems like the sort of thing that God should be in charge of, if anybody. Anything that's done by committee here on the sphere doesn't seem like it would be that valuable to the deceased. It's hard for me to visualize the holy candidate looking down with his fingers crossed--I assume down, and I assume crossed--like any other Hall Of Fame hopeful. He has to be beyond such concerns now, and after all, while alive, he got to be pope, and you'd have to be Donald Trump to think you're more important than that.

Some people have been critical on the grounds that numerous personnel who are expected to weigh in on his fitness for sainthood owe their jobs to him and can't be expected to be impartial. It's a scurrilous charge, implying they offered him the ultimate golden parachute to land a position. "Put me in as Bishop of Los Angeles, and I'll totally vote for you for saint," they'd say. I'm cynical, but even I doubt it.

There's only one pope at a time. Oh, there are fake furry ones with big hats, but everyone knows the real one is the one in Rome. I don't know why he gets called a pope and a pontiff as though there were a distinction. You don't hear anyone calling a moose a mastiff, or not more than once. Anyway, even if they're infallible, which I might be wrong about, they don't all make the grade for sainthood. You're supposed to perform a miracle, which by definition is something involving blood and suffering and visual disturbances that cannot be adequately explained. Menstruating girls with migraines would be a lock if these things were fair.

Other objections pertain to John Paul himself. Evidently he was way too involved in ecumenical affairs to go for the glory. He famously organized a peace prayer for people of all faiths and that is no way, sir, to promote Catholicism. No, the flock is supposed to be increased by keeping the club doors shut and the condoms off. But John Paul II wasn't that kind of guy. He had the big tent philosophy, threw his arms open to all, Poles and Italians, capitalists and communists, pedophiles and children, the whole family of man. With the little women doing the cooking and cleaning.

Somewhere in my Lutheran past I recall being informed that we were all saints, and that's what was meant by the Communion Of Saints--us. Even as a child I thought that devalued the brand. I didn't feel like a saint and I knew darn well Mr. Oldham wasn't, as he fumbled for communion under my choir robes. I don't think it's a good idea to dispense flattery like that. You spend enough time telling all the kids that they're smart or athletic or talented or saintly, you just lose your own credibility. Then the kids grow up to be bored, dissatisfied, aimless, unholy, and too cynical to vote, and that's why gay marriage isn't yet the law of the land. It's the Lutherans' fault, not the Catholics'.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Service Snails

Objects may be smaller than they should be.
A sewage incinerator in Russia has six enormous snails on the payroll to monitor air pollution conditions at their smokestack. The snails are eight inches long; they probably ambled over from Chernobyl. The idea is that even though smokestack emissions are already monitored by conventional means, the snails will give them a heads-up if things are starting to go south, because they are more sensitive, and if they get queasy, something's up. True, it might be a while before they made it over to the infirmary, so I assume they've got them rigged up with sensors that will light up in some way if they get sick. They'll put out a gastropodcast, or something.

This is a new wrinkle on the age-old coal mine canaries. Each miner had his own canary in a cage to take down to the depths with him, and if the canary keeled over down there, it was time to come up with a new plan, or at least come up. So the concept is time-tested, if not ideal from the point of view of the canaries or snails.

The coal miners took this pretty seriously because their lives depended on it, but most of  us no longer have any idea what our lives depend on. As Olga Rublevskaya, the director of wastewater disposal at the Russian plant, said, "live organisms won't deceive anyone about the danger of pollution." That is, they won't deceive anyone who doesn't want to be deceived. I've got my doubts that most of us would take a chocolate-covered hint. We've got organisms sounding alarms all over the place, but most people don't get too worked up about snail urp. Our fish stocks are down or depleted. Birds too. Don't even get me started about the amphibians. Acid rains down from the sky. Glaciers are in full retreat and islands are vanishing. Hundred-year storms are stacking up like a pile of unread New Yorker magazines. And everywhere you look, people are aggravated as hell if their pages load slowly or their mangoes aren't ripe.

The snails are being observed by personnel who are trained to recognize when they're starting to lose some of their zip. These might even be people who are authorized to do something to mitigate the conditions that trouble snails. I think that's terrific, but I've got no faith that the rest of us are so finely attuned. Already we're hip-deep in dead canaries on this planet.

The folks in charge think we've got a canary disposal problem and are looking for shovels. The rest of us are just wiggling our fannies in the soft, soft canaries.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Friends Are Questionable

It's probably spring by now. Birds are picking fights with each other, and some of them are--why, I believe they are wrestling. Dave built a chickadee house and situated it a foot away from my window where I do all my writing in order to facilitate the procrastination process. I was just up there today and no sooner had despaired of seeing our chickadee pair this year than they showed up. Same couple, too. One of them has that high, squeaky voice, and the other has that higher, squeakier voice. Each one took turns checking out the house, and then they sat on a nearby branch and got into a heated exchange, and I didn't see anyone hauling in any furniture. I think one of them thinks it's just fine and the other one is saying it's too ratty-tatty and couldn't they ever get anything nice for a change. The first one sharpened his or her beak on a branch and the seeds in the suet-cake trembled.

"I wonder if we should have cleaned out that nest box again," I said to Dave. Oh jeez, there's that look.

"I asked you if I should clean out the nest box three weeks ago and you said [higher, squeakier voice] 'oh no, not now, it's too close to nesting season, and maybe they'll be put off by your scent or something.'"

I would very much like to refute this, without doing damage to the truth, but I can't. I did just say that.

"And you always tell me I don't even have a scent."

Also true. The man can spend the day shoveling rocks in the sun and not emit a molecule of odor. It's peculiar. I think he's perfected flatulence just so people know he's been around.

"Besides, there's no reason you should ever have to wonder about such things. Don't you know, like, a million birders?"

I do. Literally scores of them. They're good people. I got to know their queen, Julie Zickefoose, through this here blog, and she alerted the whole flock. And then I also know Bill Thompson III, who is so accomplished he can spot invisible birds that don't even exist--I've seen him do it. And I know Susan Kailholz-Williams, who wears hawks and owls like wrist corsages. For a living. I know Jeff Gordon, the  president of the American Excuse-Me Birding Association, and can tell you his winter range and what his legs look like. All of them have blogs. The birder blogs differ from mine mainly in the density of facts.

But that doesn't mean I want to pester them every time I need to know something bird-related. No one wants to get the same questions over and over again. When I was a letter carrier, that happened all the time. "Hey, we can't really call you the mail-MAN, can we?" "Hey, Uncle Sam, working hard or hardly working?" "Hey, dipshit, where the hell is my check?"

It gets old.

Update: Furniture going in.
Teachers always like to say "there is no such thing as a stupid question," but they don't really mean it. And if I got started asking my friends questions, it would never stop. Chickadees can't really tell each other apart, can they? They only figure out which one is the boy and which one is the girl when the egg falls out, right? Is there any reason I can't put up about twelve birdhouses here outside my window a yard apart, or will the birds start writing nasty letters to the editor about infill? Why do scrub jays go SKREE SKREE SKREE SKREE all the ding-dang day long when everybody heard them just fine the first time? That is wrestling they're doing, isn't it? What wine goes good with scrub jay? What has yellow legs, purple wing bars, an orange eyebrow, an argyle vest, a slant-six and tailfins? What do you mean I must be mistaken?

What good are you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Funny Business

I don't want to let the subject of taxes go without expressing our appreciation for the fat credit we got for installing solar panels. That was a gift from all of you other taxpayers, and we're grateful. Now that you've finally got it right, I don't think I'd be out of line for mentioning that we like this a whole lot better than that war you've been getting us the last God knows how many years, which was the wrong size.

Something else. Once I got done with the preparation and sent it all off to meet its taker, my tax prep software wanted to know if I was interested in learning my chances of getting audited. I'm not particularly afraid of getting audited. If it happens, I will stride into the office with a clean conscience. "I've done the best I could," I'll say. "You figure it out, and then get back to me." Which is what I wish they'd do from the get-go, anyway.

Still, I clicked "yes" to the question, and my software then assured me my risk of audit was low. On the other hand, they saw some "areas of concern." Would I like to see the areas of concern?

Not really. I don't even like it when my friends tell me they're concerned about me. It's never anything good, and it interferes with my avoidance strategy.

But this is just a stupid bunch of software. A stupid, wickedly intuitive bunch of software. I could click "no thanks," and it would lean back, stroke its beard, arch one brow, and say well then. Okay. I just wanted to ask. Then I could banish its icon from my desktop and send it to its folder, where it would tell all my other documents about me. I hate when that happens.

Fine. Since you must know, Mr. Fancypants Tax Software, yes, I have a business that doesn't appear to be taking in any money. If you'd take the time to notice, Mr. Fancypants Tax Software, I said that right up front, when you asked the nature of my business, and I typed in "writing." Do you know what that means? That means that I am employed in the business of distilling my entire life experience and language heritage into little jewels of verbiage to charm the hearts or loosen the bowels of dozens of unnamed souls in the blogosphere, for no remuneration whatsoever. Similarly, I am compelled to concoct gems of humor for the likes of Smithsonian Magazine or The New Yorker, one of which wants humor as long as it isn't all that funny, and the other of which doesn't care if it's funny at all as long as it's gimmicky enough. And to do this I need to take my natural wit and cook it down till all the funny is rendered out of it, leaving only a thin gruel of light chuckling. Then I must send it out and wait several months for a rejection notice, or--because people in my situation are a dime a peck--an extended silence that I can feel free to interpret as a rejection after an abject half-year or so. I will have you know, Mr. Fancypants Tax Software, that I have been rejected by the best of them, and also by the North Dakota Living Magazine.

And why is this a business? It is a business because it is all in the service of developing an audience for more of my productions, which will also go unremunerated. It is a business because I am writing a novel that I would like people to read, and I have been solemnly informed that I require a platform in order to get anyone to read it. I need to network without appearing to stalk, work the social media without appearing to wheedle, and urge my readers to tell all their friends about me without appearing to snivel, all so that some day people will want to part with a dab of cash for this book I'm writing. And why should they, when they can get so much for free? I have no idea, Mr. Fancypants Tax Software. To be absolutely honest, I don't even care that much if they do pay, as long as they read it. But you asked if I had a business, not if I had an intelligent business plan.

So thank you for your concern, but if I were you, I'd just grow up and get used to the fact that I'm going to be writing off the cost of my printer cartridges for years to come. Suck on that, Mack.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Owe, The Humanity

I hate working on my taxes. I'm fine with paying them. Here's how I think it should go down: I tell the IRS how much money I have and they tell me how much of a slice they want out of it, and we're done. We make the deal, and you won't hear me whining about it on some reactionary blog where people clutch their pennies to their chests as though it was their very freedom. I also hate paying someone to do something I could theoretically do myself. Theoretically, for instance, I could clean my own house. I totally theoretically could. Anyway, I don't have an accountant.

So I signed on with the fancy tax software that I picked up for practically free from the dude down the alley a few years back. The next year I thought I might try it one more time, even though it cost a little more, not that I needed it or anything, and by now they've got me but good. I'd pay anything for it, and they seem to be aware of that.

They sort of lull you into the whole process by asking some nice easy questions at the beginning, just to get you to relax. They want your name, your spouse's name, a brief description of yourselves, real chummy-like, and then once you've dropped your guard, they lower the boom.

"Do any of the following utterly incomprehensible situations apply to you?" A list follows.

Well, I'm not sure. Yes? Maybe? Is "maybe" an option? No? All right, I'll drop a "yes" into the little form. Pandora's box flies open. When did you acquire this asset? What was your cost basis? Did you ever settle with Guido or are you still hiding in your house with the lights out? Eventually I end up skulking back through the labyrinth of forms till I can get to the screen where I can check the "no" box and that makes everything go away. Solved.

Working in this manner, I end up whacking my way through the brush to the end of the questions with relief but no real self-assurance, and then the software chirps "you're almost finished! Now let's check for errors."

They locate some.

"In 2009, you reported interest income from the First Amalgamated Opaque Securities, Wealth Transferal And Small Arms Sales Corporation. We don't see anything about that this year. Would you like to delete the First Amalgamated Opaque Securities, Wealth Transferal And Small Arms Sales Corporation?"

Yeah, I sorta would. I don't rightly remember that outfit. I don't see any 1099s here. Could I just delete it? Will something blow up? Something's going to blow up, isn't it? At this point I need to walk away and consult the beer refrigerator, and after giving it about twelve ounces of thought, I decide to click the "yes" button. I do so while wincing, with my shoulders crunched up to my ears. Nothing happens.

Now I have the "all clear" signal from my fancy tax software, which wants to know if I want to shoot this whole business through the tubes to the IRS. Here comes the most crucial part of the tax preparation process: dithering.

I do not, as yet, have that sheen of confidence that I have really and truly answered all the questions right. Some of my answers may have been a little evasive, like the little shrug I used to give Mom when she wanted to know if anyone could explain the presence of glue and toothpicks on the good table. It is only prudent to wait a few days before sending this turkey flapping into the air. Something may occur to me, after all.

Nothing ever does, because I quit thinking about it. After the night terrors have subsided for a good three or four days, I go back to the software and click that last "yes" button. And off she goes.

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Giving A Shit For Science

I'm always looking for a way to advance science, and three recent articles pointed out some possibilities. Unfortunately, I'm too afraid of the water to become a dolphin snot collector, and although I would be only too happy to harvest semen from a snot otter, that involves travel. So that leaves poop donation.

It has only been recently that dolphin snot has hit the news. The promise for research breakthroughs seemed endless. Could we one day cure the heartbreak of plankton-induced asthma? Develop a new marine adhesive from porpoise boogers? Sadly, none of this is on the horizon. Dolphin scientists are excited about snot collection only because it is a good source of dolphin DNA, which has proved invaluable in the study of, uh, dolphins. Previous attempts to scavenge DNA from a dolphin involved remote techniques using a crossbow or a long pole. This worked well, as far as  it went, but only allowed researchers to study irritable dolphins, with no controls for amiability. With the new snot collection discovery, they now need only use a bucket and a boat and locate a pod of dolphins with kelp allergies, and it's DNA city.

Snot otter semen is, to my mind, even more valuable. "Snot otter" is the perfectly adorable term of endearment for the hellbender, a species of salamander that used to be common in streams in the eastern United States. The hellbender is to a regular salamander as Rush Limbaugh is to Johnny Depp, but we love them anyway. There is no higher use for snot otter ejaculate than the creation of more snot otters, and that is precisely what is being proposed. I'm certain I'm qualified. I love salamanders very much, even the rare massively ugly ones, and I think that would come across. And there are aspects of snot otter fondling that are very similar to activities I might have already perfected over the years, if I do say so myself. Snot otters are currently in steep decline, and it isn't because they finally got a good look at each other. It's no doubt due to something stupid we did, so I'd love to help. Maybe next time I'm back east I'll check on craigslist for people who want their snot otters stroked. I'll probably find some, too.

But my contribution to science is most likely to be in the field of fecal transplants. There is a need out there for good healthy shit, and I am really full of it. I've already updated my driver's license to reflect my donor status, and in the event of a serious accident, collection should be a snap: I probably will have donated before impact. The transplant recipients are people with difficult infections, colitis, and other intractable intestinal woes. Evidently someone has discovered that if their intestines are scrubbed clean and re-injected with healthy crap, everything clears right up. I'd be tickled to give some of mine away. I can always make more. And TurboTax already has a calculator for charitable contributions to tell you what your shit is worth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Cawcus

It's spring, according to the birds, although otherwise it's hard to tell it from the previous four months of damp and drear. And that means we're getting ready for nest-building, and drowned peonies, and the annual ant infestation; and people will tell each other earnestly that they really didn't mind the cold all winter but this is just ridiculous, and some people will be moved to open a vein just to see some color. And soon our dominant crow population will undergo its seasonal Tourette's. I'm a fan of crows. They're sleek and smart and they don't skitter at all when you walk by, just adjust their swagger to throw you the stink-eye over their shoulder. They even use tools, such as our friend Bob Smith, who will crack their walnuts if they bring him one, and they're particularly impressive when attending a platter of possum in the middle of the road. They'll eye that Buick coming up the pike and they'll calculate the angle of compaction and they'll hop two inches to one side and let the Buick tenderize the possum, and then they're right back on it. Crows have a long association with humans and many have picked up odd jobs as spirit companions. I talk too much to attract a spirit companion, but would be happy to audition a crow as a sidekick. Except for the seasonal Tourette's, which gets on my nerves.

It's just like when a new family moves in down the way and you can't figure out where they're from, but they're not from around here; and all you know is that they're diverse and need embracing, but the best you can do is smile, because they just say "ock ock" and smile back, and all is well for a while. But they're always cooking something that smells sour and weird and drifts through the air, and then they start accumulating car parts in the back yard and sofas on the porch and before you know it there are thirty of them in there, and they keep the windows open and the weird smell comes out and all thirty of them are yelling "ock ock" all day and all night, and you're a big liberal and can't figure out any way of communicating nicely that we don't "ock" in the middle of the night in this country, and your face hurts from smiling in an inauthentic but embracing manner while you are actually thinking that your fellow shotgun-wielding countrymen might have more economy in their reasoning than you'd given them credit for. It's like that with the crows, when they're having their seasonal Tourette's.

Crows vocalize in a number of ways, most of them raucous, but I don't mind. It suits them. They are even able to mimic human speech if they've got the notion. Sometimes they all yammer away when they're gathering in a tree or taking off again, and then they settle down. But once a year they all go off at once and all day long for weeks on end, and it's just like listening to O'Reilly when he's got some poor academic on the show who thought he might be able to slide a point in edgewise--you know they aren't listening to each other. If they were mimicking people it would be all hey hey hey hey dude dude hey hey hey hey hey. Might as well teach trees to bark. I swear.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fangs A Lot

They found a new fossil critter, size of a dog, they say, a saber-toothed vegetarian dinosaur. They know it's a vegetarian because it has good vegetable-grinding teeth in the upper jaw, and although they did not find the lower jaw, they expect it matched up. Otherwise, evolutionarily speaking, it wouldn't make any sense at all. It would be like having the top teeth trying to prevent abortions while the bottom teeth cut off funding for the biggest provider of birth control. Totally nutty. The saber teeth are unusual in a plant-eater but not unknown; there are saber-toothed musk deer out there to this day, although they just look confused, like a stringy, wan kid with a death tattoo. This new fossil has really big saber teeth, so the theory is that they used them to fend off rival saber-toothed vegetarians. Or they grew them to impress the ladies. To my mind, this ignores the facts. The facts being that vegetables are wily and treacherous and any animal that can go in for the quick kill is money ahead.

Vegetables are sneaky. Many of them lurk underground. Some are openly cruciferous. Asparagus spears stand erect like a field of punji sticks. We're always on our guard here. I try to stay away from the vegetables as much as possible until they are well and truly subdued, and that's why I married a big strong man, so he can not only bring home the goods but dispatch them before they can do any harm. He stabs the potatoes before they go in the oven. He cuts little crosses in the bottoms of the Brussels sprouts, which not only softens them up but protects us from their vampire ways. Squashes are disemboweled and their guts strewn on the compost pile as a warning to others. Corn is sheared off, like everything else that grows on ears.

It's a dangerous world out there, a world where you can, with all diligence, tie a tiny tomato plant to a stake in the spring; and then you turn your back on it and suddenly it's a rampaging gang of a vine, sending out platoons right and left and threatening the landscape. They're a menace, tomatoes. Last year we did not let our guard down and kept things under control, harvesting our first tomato in mid-October and our second just before Thanksgiving. It wasn't easy. First we had to gin up the whole industrial revolution, suck out all the coal and oil and burn it all up, and rassle our entire climate to its knees. It took everything we had in the way of resources, ingenuity, short-sightedness and greed. We might have been better off going with the saber teeth.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Curses! Soiled Again

Recently, in a post, I mused about the old manual typewriters I grew up with, and, as I'm sure it did for many of you, it put me in mind of my sex education. Not the segment of it I got from the gutter as God, and certainly, Mom intended, which was fascinating, far-fetched and turned out to be true, but the part I got from Mom. I was nine years old and she was typing out my application for summer camp. She could navigate those forms like nobody's business, barely pausing to readjust the paper so that the typing fit precisely in the little boxes. Her fingers were a blur, and then suddenly she stopped dead, turned to me and said, Mary, do you know what menstruation is?

Well, no. But I could tell by her expression that I probably should, and that I wasn't going to like it.

She then gave me an entirely inadequate explanation that was no explanation at all--just a description, really, and no making sense of the thing. It sounded like a perfectly horrible prospect with no real purpose (and that is, indeed, what it turned out to be), and when she finished with do you understand? I lied and said "yes," hoping it would end the lesson, and it did. She whipped back around to the typewriter, typed three letters in the box, and then rolled down to the next box.

Sisters, post- and pre-puberty: note levels of joy.
There you have it: Part One of my sex education. Let's review. I cannot remember exactly how she transmitted the key information about the bleeding into the underwear region. It had to have been some delicate phrasing; we went years (nine years, at that point) without referring to anything between anyone's legs. Or anything that ever happened or might sometime happen in that neighborhood. Even the phrases "number one" and "number two" were strictly street terminology. We used "piddle," when necessary, and that's as far as it went.

So however she put it, my memory went into the self-cleaning cycle right away, and the words are lost to history. I got the gist. Some day soon some dreadful new hygiene issue would develop in my underwear, and it was completely natural and expected, and when  it happened I should come to her for Part Two, additional information and supplies. Why this revolting development should occur, as well as where babies came from and even came out of, were details I was expected to scrounge elsewhere.

So the day it happened, I went and told Mom, and she smiled and promised to "fix me up" and went to her closet, where she had a sanitary napkin all rigged up on a brand new belt for me, and--aiming for levity--she told me to come to her with any questions because she was an expert. It was excruciating. I took the item into the bathroom with me and never asked her another thing. This was just one more horrible aspect of getting older, among many that were surfacing at the time.

The next day at school I did have a momentary lift and the sense of having joined the maturity club when I asked to be marked down for a "sponge bath" in gym, but that was it for high points. Everything else about the situation sucked. The napkin felt like a mattress before it got compressed into an inadequate narrow log, and the act of walking tended to make it migrate to the rear where it wasn't really needed, and away from where it was. I developed the tactic of nonchalantly backing into the corner of a desk, as if resting, to reposition the thing, a solution that needed repeating every thirty steps or so. Various innovations improved the situation over the years, but there was really no shining it up.

In the seventies it became fashionable to celebrate anything related to being female. Restrictive underwear was discarded, sometimes publicly, pronouns were redeployed, vibrator sales were humming, and, in some quarters, it was considered liberating to celebrate one's menses as the source of some kind of mythic goddess power. Drape yourself in purple, doll up your shrine, maybe do a taste test.

I was no prude. There's photos to prove it. I tried, but you can't polish a turd into a pearl. My friend Linda, who is a mother and in whose life there was at least some point to this disgusting event, once hiked with me on beautiful Mt. Hood. Not that it wasn't a splendid day with much to be excited about, but I was startled to see her chatting away on the trail with her hand down her pants. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm checking to see if I started my period," she said.

"With your finger?"

Linda pulled it out and examined it. "What," she said, "you haven't gone digital yet?"

The entire revolting process lurched and skidded to a halt a few years ago for me. It was forty years of pointlessness and laundry. Nothing changed my initial impression of it when I was nine. I guess Mom did a good job communicating after all.