Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Forced To Curl

I don't remember many dark moments in my childhood. Mom was a pleasant, smiling, patient woman in a calico dress and apron who smelled like bread baking, and at least once a day she would give me a big hug and call me her sweetie-pie sugar-plum honey-dumplin' puddin'-head, all in a row like that so she wouldn't forget any of it, and she sang You Are My Sunshine to me, and let me lick the beaters, and once I'd been lulled into a position of complete trust for seven years, she pinned me down in the kitchen and gave me a Toni. It burned and smelled like curls and cancer and nothing in my life had prepared me for my mother trying to fry off my head. My straight hair was unceremoniously abbreviated every couple months, and Mom evicted it from my forehead every morning by raking an all-day Barrette Of Death across my scalp, but I'd gotten used to that. The problem, as she saw it, was that I wasn't enough like Shirley Temple. There was never a chance I'd be able to tap-dance, either. Even when I tried to skip, it just looked like my knees had the hiccups.

The Toni was horrible. It didn't last long, but I was mortified. I wasn't interested in anything girly. I died a little inside whenever Old Man Balderson next door called me "young lady," which he always did, thinking himself nice. I briefly owned a single neglected doll, a gift from a distant aunt who didn't know me well, but that was it; I played with stuffed animals and real frogs and salamanders. That awful Halloween when the girl in the pink princess outfit got a prize for Prettiest, it struck me as an outrage of cosmic proportions. Just the idea that "prettiest" should be a category was wrong. What kind of mixed-up world was this?

Clothing was strictly utilitarian. In fourth grade, I picked out a drab blue school dress that I liked well enough, and my parents did too, so they bought the exact same dress in brown also, and that plus the Bluebird outfit was it for the year. It would still be several years before I recognized that the two dresses, and I, were totally inadequate. Kids today are much more advanced, and pick up on humiliation at a much earlier age. A stroll through any girls' department these days will reveal aisles of unrelieved pink froth and Spandex, and your only choice is spangles or not so many spangles. And apparently they like it. I would have died.

So I guess my aversions made me a tomboy, except that I couldn't run, climb, throw, fish, or do anything else in the tomboy canon except fall down, scrape skin off myself, and feel squirmy in my Sunday best. I was a happy little girl, Mommy's sugar plum, and I was fine just the way I was. Until I got to junior high school, and learned that I was not fine just the way I was. In fact, I wouldn't do at all. There would have to be some big changes made. When cheese goes through the grater, it all comes out the same way, and if I didn't want to be a little autistic cheese molding on the back shelf, I would have to press into that metal, even if it hurt.

I hesitated at the door to adulthood, as though it held a gibbet. I was only eleven, but I could see my future clear as a teardrop: to step forward was to step away from my authentic self. It was going to take guile, and trickery, and concealment, and a little more money than I had. One day I blurted out to the prettiest and nicest girl in school that I didn't want to grow up, and she said she didn't either. But I didn't want to have to do it. I just had to do it.

I wasn't very good at it. Fortunately a few years later the flower-child era was ushered in to match my budget, and I got by on jeans and work shirts and too much eye-makeup, which my parents did not approve of. They thought it made me seem like a whore, but it didn't. It was the sex that did that. The makeup did look dreadful. I only have eight eyelashes and it takes a herd of mascara to get them to show up. Plus, my eyes are tiny and set too close together, which is not what you really want to draw attention to. There was always the option of painting the outside corners to show where my eyes should be, but the effect is much like what the City gets when it spray-paints around the little potholes it doesn't have enough money to fill in yet.

I carved out a tiny social niche and had just enough self-assurance by my senior year to recognize the opportunity to quit wearing makeup when I went off to college. Women think they look like hell without makeup, and they do, if you're used to seeing them in it and they show up without it one day, but if they never wear it they look just fine. So I went to college scrubbed up clean and haven't used any cosmetics since. I have to date saved $132,000 in spurned makeup, enough to have bought every child in Bolivia a heifer, but I spent it on beer instead.

The best thing is, I can see my authentic self again from here. It's a little scuffed up, but it's coming into view.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Big Dick--that's what he likes to be called--ushered the New Guy into the Situation Creation Room.

"Welcome to Operation Peg-Leg, the home of the R's. Everybody, this is the New Guy."

"Arrrr," everybody said, raising a hooked finger. The New Guy smiled. "So this is where the magic happens," he said, tentatively hooking his finger in response.

Big Dick swept his hand over the room. "As you can see, we're grouped into our constituencies--you've got your gun groups over there, your religious, etc., etc.," he said. A pair of Log Cabin Republicans waved from the most remote corner, behind a sneeze guard. "You're just in time to have a look at the latest material." Everyone turned to the big screen.

President Obama was speaking into a nest of microphones with an inner-city elementary school in the background. "We must make sure all our children, wherever they live, are given the attention they need to succeed, rich or poor, rural, or urban."

The New Guy frowned. "I don't know. That doesn't give us much to work with. It's hard to argue with. And he looks presidential."

The gang chuckled. "Show us some of that magic, Charlie," one said. Charlie poked away at a computer while the gang brought the New Guy up to date. "Ta-da," Charlie said, after a few minutes. The news clip was replayed.

Obama frowned into the microphones. "We must make...all our children...where...att-urban," he said. The New Guy's mouth dropped open.

"Whoa. Really? That's incredible. But it's all choppy. He looks like he's jerking around. Who's going to buy that?"

"'Jerking around,' or 'looking shifty?'" Big Dick said, slapping the New Guy on the back. "And hear this: there is nothing that can't be sold. Right, boys?"

"Arrrr," the boys agreed.

"Still," the New Guy said. "That doesn't seem fair."

Everyone in the room burst out laughing. "Oh my god, he's adorable," came a voice behind the sneeze guard, earning quelling stares all around.

"Don't be a child," Big Dick said. "Life is not fair. Look. We knocked down wages everywhere by shifting jobs out of the country, and we put the savings into our own pockets, and got the people to think it's the fault of the last two union workers left. And once we finish off the unions, there will be nothing to keep wages from hitting bottom. We invented credit derivatives and other things even we don't understand and sucked all the money out of the housing market, and got the people to think we need to get regulators off our back. We're sitting on the biggest pile of money since God hit the lottery and we got the people to think we shouldn't pay taxes, in case we start creating jobs, even though we've done just the opposite. And you want fair?"

"It's not that. But this--" the New Guy pointed at the screen--"it's not really true, is it? I mean, can we say that?"

"You want truth or you want the money? Can't have both. But don't worry. No one needs to tell a lie here. All we do is air the controversy on Fox. 'Some say Obama wants to make our children wear a turban. Sources in the White House are silent on the issue. If Obama truly does not have plans to compel our children to wear a turban, why has he not issued a forceful denial?' Like that. We can get three days out of that, easy. Then we send it over to our viral e-mail department."

"And that will do the trick?" the New Guy said, watching the new tape in a loop. As it became more familiar, the President was indeed starting to look more shifty than spastic. His eyes snapped back and forth. He didn't look trustworthy at all.

"Count on it. Between the erosion of critical thinking we've achieved by weakening our public schools and the deadening influence of reality TV, we've got over half the population unable to put together a coherent sentence. But they can click on 'forward' like nobody's business."

"That's the part I was wondering about, actually. I can see how we're driving the pro-life people to vote for us, and the anti-gay--sorry, guys--"

Sheepish grins and shrugs could be made out from behind the sneeze guard.

"--but how are we supposed to pick up the folks who are so dumb they can't even be bothered to go to the polls?"

"Everybody's got something that'll light a fire under them. And it's our job here to figure out what it is. Oh look--new grist for the milll," Big Dick said, turning back to the screen. Obama was speaking into a nest of microphones, the seal of the President majestic behind him.

"Make no mistake: we will swiftly institute a strong response to attacks by those intent on jihad on any of our friends and allies, including Turkey."

Charlie grinned and went to work. Members of the viral e-mail department looked over his shoulder, and then burst out laughing.

To: all

Its not enough for the Obamacrats to confiscate our guns and make us drive tiny underpowered cars and force us to wait ten months for heart surgery under little squiggly light bulbs. Hes really gone to far this time, take a look at the video if you can stand it, its right there in front of us, but the lamestream media dont want you to see it:


Forward this to everyone you know!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Hey, I never told you all about last Thanksgiving. It was something. I can reveal that it was Dave, in the kitchen, with the candlestick holder, but I don't have a clue how exactly it went down. I will say this: you just never know what you're capable of until some big man encourages you to try something new. Encourages, yells at the top of his lungs, whatever.

The candlestick holder was a beaut. It was a little metal sculpture of some kind of shorebird with long leggedy legs and a big beakity beak. I picked it up when we were cleaning out my sister's house and claimed it for my own. "I love this," I told Dave.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "You loved it when you bought it for her in the first place, twenty years ago." Oh.

Anyway, I thought I'd put it on the table when I was setting it last Thanksgiving so my sister could join us, in a way. We had a good dozen people coming, and Dave was in charge of the turkey, the stuffing, the smashed potatoes, the carrots, the prawns in tarragon-mustard cream sauce, the pear-pecan-bleu-cheese salad, the root vegetable medley, and the cranberry sauce, while I had to set the table. I get distracted. Once I decided to put the candlestick holder on the table, I was having trouble getting the candle to stay in it. Sensing that Dave had a spare twenty seconds before his sauce burned and his potatoes boiled away and his prawns needed flipping, I handed it to him. A minute later, he made a noise of disgruntlement--not a loud noise, but the kind of noise he makes when I've forgotten to put any forks on the table. He can be fussy. I went in the kitchen to find out where I'd fallen down this time.

There he was with the candlestick holder hanging out of his hand. He'd been good and beaked. Blood was fountaining out in every direction. The bird was still in mid-stab and dangling from the back of his hand. I jumped into action. Don't praise me; anyone coming in on that scene would have planted her foot in Dave's torso and grabbed hold of the wayward heron and yanked. That's when the yelling started. This particular shorebird had suffered a fall and a nose-blunting earlier in its career, and the sharp pointy ends of its beak had curled into a fishhook shape, and required a more careful extraction from Dave's hand meat, which he accomplished himself once I'd been shooed away. Now we were left with a soiled bird and an enthusiastically bleeding wound. "Sew me up," Dave said.

The wound had exposed eighteen layers of tissue and a gaping ravine of muscle with a row of little alien teeth winking away at the bottom, which you could just make out between blood gobbets. "No! I've got butterfly bandaids. Hang on a minute." The butterfly bandaids got no purchase. It was like damming Niagara with Kleenex. The butterflies flapped wings with every arterial spurt. Dave pinched the chasm together with his fingers. "Just sew me up," he enunciated.

"No! I will not just sew you up! I do not know how to sew you up! I will take you to the emergency room."

"I can't go to the emergency room. My potatoes are boiling. You've got a needle. You've got thread. You know how to sew. Just sew me the flick up," he said, or something a lot like it. I hate that tone of voice. But I went for my needle and thread. I can't help myself. I'm a softie. I've just never been able to say no to a large irritated man with a bunch of kitchen knives.

I walked back to the kitchen with an other-worldly, Marie-Antoinette-at-the-Bastille sort of inevitability, distracting myself with details. I do know how to sew. I've never had any stitches in me and didn't have much of a plan, but I thought maybe I'd try a nice French seam, with the overlapped layers and double row of stitches such as I might use on the inseam of a sturdy pair of jeans. That should hold it. I threaded my needle, put a nice knot in my thread, gobbed it up with Neosporin and gave it a go. The needle refused to penetrate the skin. "Hang on, I'm going to need a thimble," I said out loud, or pilot holes, to myself, and went to fetch it. I came back with a thimble and a smaller needle, and managed a neat puncture on one side of the gash, but it was too close to the edge, and my seam shredded as I pulled the thread through. Shit, I'm going to need a serger to bind these edges, I thought, but decided to make a less tidy job of it and put the needle further back from the gash the second time. It was a delicate operation. Punching through required the thimble and a lot of pressure, and I had to let up as soon as it punched through so I didn't go clear through his hand. Then up through the other side from underneath, then back down, and so on, a ragged running stitch, and I cinched the gap shut by pulling on the thread, but not enough to produce gathers. Another knot to finish, and a rinse and a bandage, and we were good to go, Dave to take care of getting dinner on and me to throw up as quietly as possible. I don't know who got the forks on the table. The cream sauce seemed extra zesty.

I spend a sleepless night listening for the tiny munching of flesh-eating bacteria or the distant cellular rumble of gangrene, but by morning the wound looked pretty good, and in a few days we managed to pluck the thread out. "Of course, real surgeons do one stitch at a time and tie it off," Dave said. Oh yeah. "And they have a curved needle so you don't go all the way through the hand." That I didn't know. That would have helped. It occurs to me that duct tape would have helped, too. Dave and I both have ugly hands to begin with, and that also helped.

There are lots of lessons here. Foremost: if you want Thanksgiving dinner to go smoothly, and you think you're likely to outlive your sister, linens are always a good gift choice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Murr, Murr, Quite Contrurr

To those who say America has been asleep, lulled by television and cheap electronic toys from China, unaware of what has been taken from us and not moved to protest, I give you Portland, Oregon. Here, sir, we have had a sustained demonstration of outrage and indignation for over five weeks now. We will not be ignored; we will stand up for what is right, we will demand redress. We have just had another change in our garbage service inflicted upon us and we aren't going to take this sitting down.

Yes, we are maintaining a proud tradition of civic whinging that goes back centuries, from when the Romans put together the entire aqueduct system for water delivery. Oh fine, the collective populace said. And here I am with a slave, eight daughters and a fortune in buckets--what do you expect me to do with them?

We citizens were not consulted, unless you count that extended public input process and the publicized three-month trial study. Because if we had been properly consulted, we would have made clear our desire to have the mounds of debris from our daily lives suctioned out at the curb on a weekly basis, just like always. Only cheaper, because we'd strip the fat from the bloated bureaucracy. If the government absolutely must tinker with our garbage service, it could pave a turn-around up at the edge of the national forest where we dump our mattresses and old refrigerators.

Because left alone, dammit, we are a productive people. We produce unfathomable volumes of crap every day, and if the government would just take it away and quit spending money on pamphlets about it, we could produce even more. The pamphlets purport to educate us about the changes in our garbage service.

Do you know where your garbage goes?

Yes. Away. It goes away.

We used to jam everything, rocks and concrete and stinky fish and dead possums and everything, in one big can and the trucks rumbled up the alley and made it all go away. But that isn't good enough for the nanny state. No, some bureaucrat with absolutely nothing better to do decided to make the trucks come up street side, and we got ugly yellow crates to put our cans (flattened, labels removed), glass (separated), and newspaper (bagged up) in. They would never have gotten away with it had they not anticipated the uproar and brainwashed our children about recycling via socialized education, and the little scolds did their dirty work for them. That's right: they made us do more work, and charged us more for the privilege. You know, a person who works all day long might want to have a moment to relax and have a couple dozen Buds and toss the cans in the garbage, but no. What's next? Will we have separate containers for white Styrofoam peanuts and colored Styrofoam peanuts?

No. Actually, now we're going to give you a big blue bin and you can start tossing all your recycling into it without sorting it. Oh, and we're also going to give you a big green bin for your yard debris, and we'll pick it up and compost it every other week.

Fabulous. Now we have two big ugly bins and one smaller one plus our original garbage can. We don't even have any yard debris. We've got Mexicans for that. They cart it away and, I don't know, put it in tacos or something. Can we put our Christmas tree into the yard debris bin?

Not unless you chop it up first, and the trunk is under four inches in diameter.

I see the government's War On Christmas is in full swing. All right. We'll ignore the yard debris can as long as you keep hauling off our garbage once a week.

About that. We're going to give you a free countertop compost container and you can now fill up your yard debris bin every week with all your kitchen scraps, including bones and meat and napkins and pizza boxes and crab carcasses, but we'll only pick up your other garbage every other week.

How's that supposed to work? Stuff smells.

Well, the stuff that smells is what you can now put in your yard debris can. Which will get picked up every week, just like your regular can used to be.

We don't want to put our stinky food in a different can. We want to put it in the old can. We don't want government busybodies telling us what to do.

We told you what to do before, when we came down the alley and picked up all your crap in the giant can on a particular day for a particular price.

Yeah, but that was the arrangement our forefathers got set up for us when they told us to cast off the potato peels of oppression. That was okay.


Call me contrary, but I like all the changes. To me they indicate that the government workers I hired to figure things out have, in fact, figured things out. They have studied the problem of diminishing landfill space with a mind to what is environmentally sound, and they have come up with solutions that will benefit us as a society. That, to me, is what a government of the people should do. It's worth celebrating.

And once we winnow out all our food crap and our paper crap and our recyclable crap and our tin foil and our glass and see what is left to put in our garbage cans, we will discover that it is mostly huge piles of plastic crap that we can barely avoid acquiring, because that is how all our goods are packaged now. And we might then be moved to do something about all that packaging, at the source. A few years back, some of our representatives tried to introduce legislation to do just that. But the packaging producers got wind of the plan and poured enough money into the legislators that the problem went away.

That is the other way a government can be run. Kinda stinky.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I missed that whole 11/11/11/11:11 thing, and the test of the Emergency Alert System, and the last four raptures, and it was all due to inattention. Many people feel that things like the eleventh second of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month in the eleventh year of the century are very special and should be observed. It won't ever come back again, they say, which does little to distinguish it from all the other seconds piling up out there. I admit I often lack reverence. For instance, I have trouble manufacturing a big personal whoop about New Year's, now that I'm no longer on the make and don't drink myself blind. But I had planned to pay attention on 11/11. I had it on good authority (Facebook) that it is a date of transformation from third density into Higher Consciousness. The sacred date of 11/11/11 is a portal into Higher Dimensions, giving us unprecedented Love/Light supportive energy for our transformation.

And if that were so, there should be some sort of chime of singularity that could actually be felt during that second, like maybe the Higgs Boson coming up and giving you a tiny tap ding! on your forehead. Something you could feel if you were paying attention, which I wasn't. I was eating oatmeal.

Same thing with all the raptures. I had them all on my calendar, but when they arrived I had gotten busy with something else and missed the whole thing. I don't know if they happened or not. All the people who should be missing are people I wouldn't miss if they were gone anyway, so I have no way of knowing.

The one that really bums me out is the Emergency Alert System, which was scheduled for a grand nationwide test last Thursday. I wanted to tune in just to see if they'd come up with a new alert sound, because I'm tired of the old one. It sounds sort of accidental, as though they didn't pay someone a lot of money to come up with it, like they did with the sound of your letter getting sent on an iMac, or the howdy-do bells of your Windows machine coming on. It sounds like someone repeatedly stepping on a duck that has swallowed a toad, only digital, so that the sound comes out in little cubical bleats. As good as your TV screen looks when it's trying to resolve itself digitally and is busted up into squares, that's how good the EAS sounds. I couldn't believe it when they rolled it out for the first time in the nineties. Pathetic.

It did replace an even worse sound, a prolonged two-note warble wherein the two notes involved shouldn't even have been in the same room. That one went on for like a whole minute, too. They started testing it when I was in sixth grade, right about the time the country was working on ways to scare the pants off its children so as to keep them in line, only a lot of them were twelve-year-old boys and nothing works on them. We drilled in diving under our school desks. The idea was that the cleanup from a mass instantaneous incineration would be easier if we were all crumpled up in rows and columns. We all learned to loathe Khrushchev and the Commies, which is what we used to call Muslims. And the Emergency Broadcast System would test itself on our radios with some frequency. The Brewster radio was a small bakelite number we kept in the kitchen, and Arthur Godfrey lived in it. I guess the first few times we heard the test we filled our shorts, as intended, but after a while, it was just an annoying interruption we learned to ignore.

Which is why, when someone did accidentally set off the national emergency tone for imminent nuclear annihilation, in 1971, the nation's shorts remained pristine.

That was one of the things that the new Emergency Alert System was meant to address. They kept the alerts much shorter. You only have to wait ten seconds to find out if you have time to finish wiping before jumping into a hole in the ground.

Anyway, it turns out that if I had tuned in to the latest nationwide test, I would have heard nothing at all, because it didn't work. At least here. And that would have been appropriately alarming. "Nothing at all" is the very same sound that cougars are said to make when they're stalking you just above the trail. "Nothing at all" is such an unusual sound these days that it would really stand out. Still, I think they can come up with a better, more alarming sound, one that will really get people's attention in a hurry.

I nominate the HORKinnaHORKinnaHORKinna sound that immediately precedes an incoming hairball deposit on the blanket you're sleeping under. Call me patriotic, but I can be awake and ready to launch fur in one second.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


The dickens of it is that if there were any social medium I was likely to cotton to, it would be Twitter. True, I do like to write in complete sentences, but 140 characters are about all I can manage before I lose track of my idea anyway. Quips and gags that will never accrete into a blog post trickle through my head all day long, and I can tell because they leave little stains on my brainstem. Twitter could be a good spot to unload some.

I don't even do blogging right, according to the experts. If you want to have a successful blog, meaning one that complete strangers will read without being threatened, you should put content in it once a day. Three times a week is an absolute minimum. Less than that and no one will bother to check in.

I realized right away that there were not going to be three posts a week. Two was my limit. If I put in three, two of them were likely to be half-assed, and I wanted fully-assed posts. My theory was that if I did my best job every time, people would come back and maybe tell their friends. They wouldn't say "there's nothing but crap in Murrmurrs, but at least there's a fresh load of it! Let's go take a look." At least, that wouldn't appeal to me.

I don't do Facebook right either. In order to network on Facebook, you should be friending promiscuously and herding the droves to your special page. There is a huge worldwide community of writers who are casting enormous nets to entice other writers, who are trying to sell their own books, to buy their books. "F. Scott Futzwad is friends with Marlene Snarpwit and 2,087 other people," it says on your home page. Shocked, you go to F. Scott's wall and find messages from all his new friends. "Thank you for being my friend. Please like my book," they say. It is not necessary, fortunately, to read their books in order to like them. Liking is just a matter of indicating a lack of hostility that can be accomplished in one keystroke. It's a nanobyte of good will, is all it is.

And on all of these sites, you're supposed to engage with your friends, followers, and commenters. There's supposed to be a lot of back-and-forth. And that makes sense to me. Trouble is, I've never been a very avid correspondent. I'm good for a nice solid typed letter once a year at Christmastime and my friends could go decades without hearing from me by phone. I don't have a cell phone at all and I won't get one until I've perfected the ability to vocally simulate losing a signal in a tunnel. Sometimes I get a plaintive note from a friend who hasn't heard from me in a while, and I'm genuinely surprised. Why, I smiled hard thinking of her just the other day--couldn't she feel that?

Right here in Murrmurrs, it would be easier to respond to each comment in turn if I had one of those fancy systems where you can insert yourself into the conversation at any point you want. I tried to jam one of those systems into my blog once, but my template  is old and has questionable digestion, and it ralphed the system right back up along with everything else it had eaten in the last year. The site looked barfy and it still smells a little. The alternative, as many have discovered, is to put in a comment whenever you get around to it and address the previous ten commenters by name, but who has that kind of time?

You do, dipshit. You're retired.

But that's not true. The people who can respond appropriately to all these people on the internet are those who are not yet retired. They're working for a living in front of a computer screen, and they have a legitimate company spreadsheet laid out right underneath their Facebook page which they can summon up with one click, at the squeak of a boss's shoe. I'm retired. There are entire mountains that need tromping on, and they don't have so much as cell phone coverage. That's what makes them extra beautiful.

Which means days can go by when I don't even have the ability to check on my wonderful commenters. I'm a limp networker at best, and I'm sorry for that. But, although it may not be strictly logical, I like to think I've satisfied my blogging karma by being willing to be photographed making my ass look as big as it possibly can. "No, no, bend over and really stick it out there," my neighbor Beth says, holding my camera, and I do it. I do it all for you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Says here in the paper they've got a boot camp for black-footed ferrets, and there isn't a day so fine that it can't be improved by news like that. I can see them now, all those ferrets lined up doing push-ups, like furry piano keys. The black-footed ferret is a carnivorous, tubular mammal of the American midwest, or at least it was. Now, after a brief period of extinction, it is a tubular mammal of a tiny den in Wyoming. After the discovery of that den, it was estimated that the total world population was 24, and concerned people immediately set about to improve the numbers. There was a sperm collection drive, which was probably good for their spirits, and the output was frozen for future use. Essentially, they collected iced ferret seeds to see if they would sprout. And they did. They're in the thousands now.

Murr, age nine, when there were still prairie dogs
The ferrets are sent to Black-footed Ferret Boot Camp to toughen up for reintroduction into the wild. Without training in obstacle courses, they are likely to sit and stare up at circling hawks while waiting for macerated prairie dog pellets to drop into their faces. The boot camp has been a successful operation, and hard to object to. But cattlemen do have a problem with it. Ecology and economy are intertwined. Ferrets eat, primarily, prairie dogs. In fact, 91% of the black-footed ferret's diet is prairie dog, rounded out with Prairie Dog Helper and parsley. And prairie dogs mess up pasture that cattlemen like to claim for their hamburger. So you'd think that the cattlemen would like to produce more ferrets, but you'd be wrong. See, they already mostly got rid of the prairie dogs--they poisoned them right up, which is why the ferrets that eat them got in so much trouble, and now that their status has improved from extinct to endangered, the ranchers are afraid some of their hamburger-growing land will get set aside for prairie dogs again, and they're right. That's just what will happen.

Leftovers. Why couldn't I sell the one in the middle?
What's out of balance is the cattle population, of course, but you're not likely to get someone to say that whose living depends on running cattle. I get that. Long ago, I made a meager living as a scrimshander. I engraved intricate art on elephant ivory and sold it in a local open-air market. I didn't feel too good about buying the elephant ivory, which was legal at the time, but in those days what was considered much worse was using whale ivory. This didn't stand up under scrutiny. Even then, although using whale teeth did make a dead whale infinitesimally more valuable than a live one, no whale was ever killed for its ivory. Whereas that's precisely what the elephants were being killed for. But whales were a big focus then, and folks wanted to save them. The proper thing to do was to use mastodon ivory, which was also more or less available, but harder to engrave. Mastodon  ivory would have been a more ethical choice, because they had already been extinkerated by people who were not, precisely, us.

There is a similarly dire number of Siberian tigers left in the world, their habitat reduced by human encroachment. I will here state without equivocation that a Siberian tiger is worth more than a human--I might even say a billion humans. Many will disagree, citing the sacredness of the  human soul, even though the human soul is not magnificent and stripey. I do not understand what in particular is so special about a human soul, which presumably outlasts its container, according to people up on that sort of thing, nor do I understand why the human soul is any less well off being sprung free by a pouncing tiger rather than a wasting disease. But I will not argue the point. To me, the worth of the tiger is only obvious, and those who disagree with me are not liable to agree with me on much else, either.

Murr, age 24, when there were still mailmen
There are those who would say it's all well and good for me to favor the Siberian tiger, since I'm not in any danger of being toothed by one, and that is true. Tigers don't go in for humans much anyway, but to state the same point more relevantly, I feel the same way about grizzly bears, and I haven't camped out in Glacier Park for the last time. And I do have a plan in mind should I be pounced upon by a grizzly bear. I plan to scream, wet my pants, make with a flurry of ineffective little fist-pummelings, and faint dead away just before I am julienned by a swipe of the bear's paw. I have no plans for my soul after that, but should it survive my personal extinction, I plan to haunt people with it who would go after the grizzly bear in my honor.

So I cheer the ferret sperm wranglers and hope someone has frozen some Siberian tiger jizz. Whoever is in charge of obtaining some of that is a hero. Also? Grossly underpaid.

As to my own earlier ethical dilemma, it was resolved when I quit making scrimshaw and signed on as a mailman. And now mailmen are nearly extinct, although I believe I can state it was not because of anything I've done.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

'Tain't Fair

I loved my former gynecologist, who was cute, smart, and laughed in all the right places. She once even agreed--eagerly, I might add--to take pictures during my exam in case I needed some for my blog, and you can't put a price tag on that, although they might have been worth something thirty years ago.

So just as soon as you get a doctor you really, really like, what happens? She treats you for twenty-five years and then up and quits on you. Was it something I said? Something I might have emitted under pressure? Either way, I needed a new doctor.

And it's not like choosing a plumber or a mechanic, most of whom don't charge for the breast exam. It's a special relationship. You don't generally shake hands with someone you're meeting for the first time and then wing out your knees and say "check this out." In the 70's, sure, but not these days.

They usually talk to you while they're spelunking away, but I'm not always paying attention to their actual words; I'm listening for an echo, and as long as I don't hear one, I figure everything's okay. Or close enough. I do have a sorority of fibroids that have been living rent-free in my abdomen for a number of years, and that was a concern. My new doctor hadn't met them personally, so I thought she might subject them to a scolding or something, and I'd have to rush to their defense. "Oh those," I'd say. "No, they're okay. We have an understanding. They don't sit on my bladder, and I don't have them cut out."

Fibroids are something that nobody tells you about until the day they're poking around and say, casually, stripping off a latex glove, "looks like you have some fibroid tumors in there," and by "in there" they mean "down there," and by fibroid tumors they mean--what, exactly? Do I have one foot in the stirrup and the other in the grave?

My gynecologist could have called them fibroids, as most people do, allowing me to imagine I had a belly full of breakfast cereal of some kind, but she--the one, come to think of it, that I liked so well--clearly said "tumors," and didn't act too concerned about them at all, which made sense inasmuch as they were in me and not in her. And, once she expounded on the topic a little, and revealed how common they were, and how cancerous they weren't, I did begin to relax. Still, anything growing inside my person that I have not made personally out of beer falls under the category of "unauthorized," and I don't approve of it.

The theory goes that you don't do anything about fibroids unless they're getting unruly or keeping the neighbors up, because by the time menopause comes barreling through and runs off with your estrogen, their infrastructure is likely to collapse and cause them to shrink, in much the way tax cuts cause bridges to fall down.

Anyway, my fibroids and I have come to a truce over the years, and I didn't want to upset them by introducing them to a brand new doctor, but there was nothing for it: she was going in, and that was that. I needn't have worried. She met the sorority; I believe she may even have shook hands, and all was well. I was informed, without echo, that I now have "pale tissues," which is a normal consequence of the eviction of estrogen, along with chin whiskers and an inability to give a shiny shit what other people think of you. I argued that the paleness could be put down to my Norwegian heritage, but she said no. Apparently, the bloom of youth is not solely on one's cheeks.

Things were going so well that I went ahead and told the new doctor all about concerns I have about gynecologically irrelevant areas of my body, chiefly my head, and mentioned my fainting incident. "I guess it was a loss of blood pressure due to a combination of giving blood, having a beer, and standing under hot shower water," I explained. My new doctor frowned and shook her head.

"I don't think the beer had anything to do with it," she said.

I love my new doctor.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tracking The Fall Dot Migration

There are two kinds of people in the world: regular, and birders. Usually, identification is easy. Birders are the ones wearing binoculars. But there's also an intermediate phase--the pictures in the guide book are of Dave and me--the swell-hearted clueless aspiring birder. This form also wears binoculars, so you have to look for the random ass-scratching and perplexity around the eyebrows.

Dave and I would like to complete the transition into full birder, but we have problems. It doesn't just happen on its own. I once got a very clear look at an enormous bird with distinct markings, every one of which I memorized, and when I checked it in a field guide, it exactly matched a bird whose entire range is the southern slope of a single mountain in a country I can't get a visa to, and you'd think birders would get excited about a thing like that, but they don't.

So when Dave read about Bonney Butte, a prominence on Mt. Hood at which the fall migration of raptors is particularly splendid, we went to see. Here the selection of birds was likely to be contained in three pages of the guide books, and we thought we'd have a good chance of being able to identify them. Just to get in the mood, we attempted to reach the place using directions off the internet. They were very specific, advising us to "make a sharp left at 6.8 miles on a rutted road you're too liberal to have a vehicle with high enough clearance for." They called it "unsigned Road 4890," and it looked pretty much like every other unsigned road--no identifying marks, indistinct plumage, and no particular correlation to the mileage indicated. I've been following hiking guides for a long time now, and I am not fooled by this sort of precision. 6.8 miles can mean 7.2 miles or 4.6 miles, or, in some cases, it can mean--ha ha!--that there is no road at all. Sometimes this is a result of deliberate sabotage, and sometimes it means the writer of the hiking guide had a very nice hike and tried to estimate, back home after the fifth beer, about how far down the road that particular turn-off was.

Anyway, we finally gave up and parked on the shoulder somewhere near sea level with Bonney Butte jutting in the distance, and started walking up. By the time we arrived, we joined a dozen people who had no difficulty with the directions and were parked nearby. We were the ones with 1800 vertical feet of righteousness, and they were the ones with unfogged binoculars.

Half of these were pros, employed by HawkWatch International, and they were counting raptors on their migration. There was also a banding operation going on. A "raptor" is defined as a "bird of prey." If you don't mind my saying so, this is a little dismissive of your robins or woodpeckers, which do one heck of a job locating prey that isn't even visible, let alone flapping or squeaking. The people who make these distinctions are way more impressed by birds that eat other birds or mice or something. So be it. You may be the world's champion finder of invisible insect larvae, but you don't get to be called a raptor, no sir.

So we settled in, anticipating a casual afternoon sitting on a warm rock watching soaring birds drift upwards in such a way that we could finally--finally--learn their names. Specifically I anticipated that I would see a tableau that matched the introductory raptor page of the field guides, in which birds hung stationary in the sky, wings out, with all conceivable characteristics displayed, in such a way that their minute differences were evident.

Not so much. Our birds were dots on the horizon, up to fifteen miles away. Nevertheless the pros were confidently marking them down as one bird or another. "Red-tailed," one would say, squinting into his binos. "Male. Immature," he'd conclude, as the dots popped wheelies in the sky. I don't know how they did it. As one confided, "you can definitely tell a female Sharp-Shinned hawk from a male Cooper's, but there's a whole intermediate range where you're just going to have to give it your best shot." Let's check the field guide for the differences, shall we? Sharpie: Adults blue-gray above, pale reddish below; young brown above, striped below. And the Cooper's: Adults blue-gray above, pale reddish below; young brown above, striped below. Hmm. Sharpie: tip of tail usually looks squared-off, but can look rounded. Cooper's: tip of tail more rounded (can be hard to judge). All-righty-then!

What it comes down to is that there are significant variations depending on whether the individual is young, lost, evolutionarily creative, or just messing with you. Fortunately for us, we were able to observe one bird close up, when the banding operation scored a Sharp-Shinned hawk that had blundered into its net. [Note: you are not interested in knowing how hawks are lured into the net, any more than you would like to be a pigeon.] Our temporarily captive Sharpie struck us, primarily, as small. And it was a large one, being a female. Most female hawks are larger than their mates, and not just through the hips.

How they resolved the dots is still a mystery. For each species there's a regular phase, and a winter phase, and an immature phase marked by general dishevelment, plus random variations for vagrants, and assorted gang colors. The writers of the bird field guides are not as careless as the hiking-guide people, but their product still falls short. They are sorry about it, they really are. They know how to tell the birds apart, but they have to keep it simple so as to avert despair and burn-out in the novice birder, and refrain from details such as the particular wardrobe favored by female goshawks on Bunko night, or the freckled camouflage of juveniles sneaking out on a toot.

So I didn't really learn much. But I was happy to serve as a dot-spotter, hollering my find on the horizon and causing three real birders to wheel my way and squint my dot into a slot on the hawk count. Proud, even.