Saturday, December 29, 2012

Save The Children: 2012

New Business: I have a special page for my new book, Trousering Your Weasel! You can order signed copies, or you can just amuse yourself by my ongoing attempts at web-wrangling without a clue. Hit the nifty Buy Here button in the sidebar to your left to find the page, or just click here. Also, if you've got anything to say about my book, please, go ahead and leave a comment. I can't slap you from here.

Now that twenty children in Connecticut have died for our freedom, a lot of folks have put their heads together for solutions. Certainly our sacred liberty requires us to have to live with the sacrifice of a certain number of innocents, but there is much we can do to keep the carnage within tolerable limits.

Everybody can play a part: kindergarten teachers by keeping a loaded gun in their desks, children by locating a matched set of parents, homosexuals by dying off quietly. We all need to work together on this. First, we need more guns. A simple adjustment to the teachers’ certification requirements to include sharpshooting skills is paramount. The cost of this extra training could be offset by eliminating the promotion of the homosexual agenda, which would have the added benefit of cutting down on hurricanes.

Next, we need to introduce good security equipment. Already manufacturers are providing armored inserts for children’s backpacks, so that they can be used as shields if the need arises. The line must be expanded to include Kevlar juice boxes, which children can be trained to place over their hearts, and tear-gas crayons, one per box.

And that safe, nurturing environment provided by the legions of smiling, female teachers? Gone. Theirs is a false security that does our children no favors. It is vital to masculinize the school system, which is currently far too passive and feminine. Male teachers must be attracted to the profession in order to provide a certain baleful muscularity. Sure, we’ll probably have to pay more for the really butch ones, but who is going to think to attack a fortified grade school with male teachers and no homosexual agenda? No one who isn’t suicidal. So far they all have been, but there’s a good chance some atheist sniper out there is just out for a good time and hasn’t been taught right from wrong.

Finally, if the kids themselves were armed, and properly trained—that cannot be emphasized enough—it would only make them safer. In fact, ideally, one child in every class can be rigged up with explosives, based on the results of standardized testing. It might improve scores, too.

Well, any one proposal might have minimal effect, but taken together, we’re on the right track here. I tend to worry that these measures might make children fearful, but that’s because when I was their age I was afraid of German Shepherds and the flying monkeys in The Wizard Of Oz. Today’s children are much more advanced, and have had the opportunity to be habituated to terror much sooner. We had only that blanket injunction against running with scissors and accepting candy from strangers, and that seemed to cover the available frights. We were backward that way.

Mrs. Erdman
So I reviewed my own grade school experience to evaluate the new paradigm. Mrs. Erdman, my third grade teacher, might have done all right. She was old and a little bent over, but she had a steady hand for sure, based on her ability to demonstrate the Palmer Method of handwriting on the blackboard. But it was Mrs. Rejuney in fourth grade who could see out the back of her head. “Young man,” she would have said, without turning away from the blackboard, “put that AR-15 rifle down this instant and go sit in the corner. I’ll deal with you in a moment.”

We did have one male teacher, Mr. Baker, who looked sort of stern a lot of the time and did, in fact, scare me a little. I was glad I wasn’t in his class. If anyone had thought about bringing assault weapons to his classroom, they might have been advised that they had another think coming, and no mistake. The only time I had any dealings with him was the day John Kennedy was shot. I was in sixth grade. All of a sudden we were all hustled out of our classrooms and into Mr. Baker’s classroom, where the only TV in the wing was being rolled in on a cart. We stood and listened to the news, and when Walter Cronkite took his glasses off and said our president was dead, I looked at Mr. Baker, and his lower jaw just dropped. Just left the rest of his face, as though everything that had ever held him together had come apart.

Not long after, I saw violence for the first time in my life: two boys swinging at each other at the school bus stop. It scared me woozy. If only I’d been exposed to more violence, I would have been less afraid.

Although, less violence would have had the same effect.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Open Bag Of Internet

If there's an open bag of potato chips in the house, I'm going to hoover them up, and I'm the same way with the internet. You open a bag of internet and I'm going in head-first, and I'll still be up at one in the morning dabbing at the little salty bits on the bottom. So if I want to air out my brainwaves, I try to go places it can't reach, like our backwards little cabin. Or I go for a walk without taking any of the fun-size internet snack devices. If I don't respond right away to your comments, it's probably because I'm deliberately off the grid.

But not always. Sometimes I'm just dealing with random computer obstrepery. The other day I'm flying along tacking up comments in this space when for no reason whatsoever I click on the "reply" button and nothing happens. I have a plan, because I wasn't just born yesterday. If I had been born yesterday, I'd probably have a better plan. I click harder. I really do. I center the cursor, I press down with due deliberation, I wait an extra beat, then I let up. I do this because every now and then the computer, which is having gastric distress, happens to relieve itself at the very moment I am pressing on the button. So I have convinced myself I fixed it. Because that's how cause-and-effect works. It works however you want it to. If it didn't, there wouldn't be so many people using the phrase "job-killing taxes."

But most of the time clicking harder doesn't work. And if I decide to ignore its little snit, and play somewhere else on the internet, I soon discover that the whole thing is acting up. It is acting like the sullen teenager you have given a simple task to, balking and scuffling its feet. Sometimes you can even see its impudent little eyes rolling. That's when you give it a time-out. That's what the techies usually tell me to do when I call them--pull the plug.

What a quaint expression! It harkens back to the days when things had A Plug, and you could Pull It. What I have in the nether regions of my desk looks like it should come with meatballs and a nice Chianti. I hover over the assemblage with the trepidation of the new guy on the bomb squad. I have a black cord, a white cord, a green cord, and a yellow cord, and several boxes they are servicing. One of them is a modem, I don't know which one, and one of them is, I believe, the Flux Capacitor, function unknown. I select the black cord and pull it out of the two boxes. The chip clip is now back on the bag and it's on a high shelf in the cupboard.

Now it's time to get something useful done.

Well, that's the trouble with kids. You'd think the moody little bastards would be real easy to ignore, once you've sent them to their room, but after a while you start thinking about how great they could be if only they applied themselves, and you let them back out.

The adolescent computer is better than my new printer, which is more like an alcoholic husband. When it's working, it's fast as hell. Spits out a page like it's throwing a beer can across the room. Other times you ask nicely and it starts to work and then shuts right down in the middle of it, and that's supposed to be your fault. Next day it's sweet as pie. Classic abusive behavior, designed to keep you off balance. But I'm no dewy-eyed bride. I am going to fix that thing, as soon as I locate a hatchet.

This stuff used to get to me more than it does now. Dealing with computer moodiness in the early days used to aggravate me no end, because it made me feel so stupid. My friend Walter used to talk me down, using an observation I never heard anyone else make. "These machines haven't been around very long," he said. "They're just not that good yet."

Pointing out another classic cause-and-effect fallacy, he told me: "just because you have trouble with them doesn't mean you're stupid." And that is true.

Of course, it doesn't rule it out.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Amputree

1958. I would have been wearing a dress, which wasn't ideal. Even if it wasn't scratchy, it limited what you could do, if you were brought up proper. Somersaults were out, and also dirt. Dresses enforced primness. So I would have been perched on the edge of a wingback chair. What Mommy and I were doing was "paying a visit." It probably wasn't longer than a half-hour, an eternity to an indulged little girl on a sunny day, but I was raised to be polite, which included practice in not having everything my way. Yes, I would have preferred being outside in my play clothes, but I understood my obligation to be on display. There would be a pot of weak coffee on and I would sit up straight and say yes ma'am and please and thank you, even for hard candies. This didn't take much effort, but it thrilled adults no end. Especially the really old ones, like this one.

The old lady would beam at me, her face pleating up every which way, and extract basic information from me about age and grade level, and then I would be released to explore the apartment. It was a one-room apartment and it smelled funny: a sour kitchen odor from some kind of food we never had at home, face powder, and underneath it all a suggestion of decay, veiled in rose water. Dark furniture prevailed, bone-fragile, watched over by antimacassars and tatted linens. Porcelain dolls in satin frills stared out from behind glass. I knew these were expected to delight. While I pretended to admire the dolls, Mommy absorbed compliments about me and assured the old lady that I could be quite a handful at times, and when their conversation finally drifted into other areas, I edged over to the tray of captive African violets yearning toward the window light and petted their furry leaves.

"I'm so happy you dropped in, Hazel. My niece and her family are coming by Christmas Eve. They keep asking me what I want, but this is all I want. I don't need a thing!"

"I know just what you mean. There comes a time you just don't want any more stuff," Mommy said. It was incomprehensible. I loved my mom, but her annual answer to "what do you want for Christmas" was useless.  "World peace?" she'd shrug after a moment, and where does that get you? It's not that Christmas was about the gifts, so much. If I got one good stuffed animal I was good to go. But the rest! Stringing the lights on the porch. Hanging paper snowflakes in the window and plugging in the electric candle. Frosting sugar cookies and shaking on the sprinkles. All of it filled me right up. Sometimes there was actual snow. Every year I'd lobby hard for more lights, but ours was not a house of excess. The tree would be paid for early on, but it had to wait propped-up against the outside of the house for a few days, learning how to be polite. Then just before Christmas we'd bring it in and Mommy would put on a record of carols and my sister and I worked on smoothing out the wrinkles from last year's tinsel and Daddy would mutter at the light strings with an abridged dad-gum vocabulary, trying to find the bad bulb.

The old lady had a tree up too. I measured out my tour of the room, lingering at the sights so that I wouldn't run out before the Visit we were paying was over, and I saved the tree for last. The base of it was at eye level, on a sideboard near the window. It was two feet tall. More of an amputree, really. And it was made out of tin foil or something, a sculpture of scarcity. Mommy was remarking about how nice it was, calling it a "table-top tree" as though that were a real thing, but it was the saddest thing I'd ever seen. Poor old lady. She couldn't move fast enough to disrupt an antimacassar. She could wear a dress all day long and not mess it up. She might really have wanted presents, but there wasn't any room for them under her little tree. "I like old people," Mommy told me later, but it didn't make sense. To be old was to have accepted a life of deprivation. It was sad. And the proof of it was, I was considered some kind of highlight just by showing up.

2012. The season has really merried up since we decided not to exchange presents anymore. We have way too much stuff already, and more would be an anchor on the heart. Dave's making pounds and pounds of almond roca and will spray it all over the neighborhood, and the world. I'll crank up the Messiah soon and see if I can score an invitation to go caroling. I'm sure we'll get a present for the little boy in our life. We're really looking forward to seeing him. All he has to do is show up and be himself and it will fill us right up. We might get a little tree. We might not.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Looky Here!

You want this
It's an exciting day here at Murrmurrs, Inc. Champagne corks are ricocheting off the blogroll. Confetti is piling into drifts on the comment section. A knitting blog has registered a complaint about the noise. We have a book!

Strange business, running a blog, keeping it lubed and fibered-up and regular in output. It's a strange business especially in that it's pretty much income-free and yet it cannot be deducted as a charitable contribution. Why does anyone blog, anyway? So many reasons. Maybe we have opinions that must be expressed before they become impacted and begin to fester. Maybe we have made some socks, and have pictures to prove it. We might have a cat that we're pretty sure the world wants to look at.

But for me, here at Murrmurrs, Inc., the blog is the place to pin down my thoughts as they pass through my brain before they shoot out again. And that's getting more and more important all the time as my brain becomes more ventilated.  Most days, it's downright drafty in there. No one's figured out a way to caulk up the leaks, so the best we can do is net those thoughts and spraddle them out on the blog like dead insects, where we can sit back and admire them. Otherwise they're lost forever. It works pretty good. I can dip back into the archives and read things I don't remember writing, but there they are.

It's a real fatty.
I'm not much of a businessman. I am supposed to be aggressive about sending my efforts to magazines and getting published, but I'm only good for about a one-week spurt of that a year. I've written one humor book and two novels since I retired from the post office in 2008, but the magic publishing fairy has not dropped in to have a look at those either. I did pop off a half-dozen queries to literary agents about my first novel, but then I got an idea for a second novel, and it's so much more fun to write a novel than a query letter that I did that instead. As a result, I have a lot of what is called "content," but not really so much of a business, in spite of the fact that I might have mentioned to the Internal Revenue Service that I did. And one of these years, they're going to want to see some evidence of income.

Murrmade Productions: Powered by Pootie.
So in response to the clamor (I believe two people constitute a clamor), I have assembled seventy of my most snortworthy essays in a book, Trousering Your Weasel. Why would anyone read a book containing material they can read for free? Several reasons. One, no one ever digs back into the archives. Two, it's a way of saying "thanks for all the free crap, Murr." Three, the book that most of you currently have on your toilet tank has gotten all speckly and damp and needs to be incinerated and replaced. Four, some people might be interested in keeping the author out of trouble with the IRS.

And they make great gifts for those friends and relatives who have ignored your recommendation to read this blog. "I don't do blogs," they say. These people fall into two categories:

(1) They don't know what a blog is or what you do with one, and the whole suggestion makes them feel stupid and insecure; and

(2) They do know what a blog is, and they have way better things to do.

Both of these kinds of people need this book.

But suppose you have been following Murrmurrs faithfully since 2008, have perfect recall, and don't really care if its author is strung up by the IRS? What's in this book for you?

It's illustrated. Yes, each snortworthy essay comes with its own drawing. And you have definitely not seen these before. From my childhood...

To my growed-up-hood...

Or simply out of my fevered imagination:

You might have noticed a new button up there on the left margin, and if you would like to buy this book, go ahead and have a whack at it. It's also available on amazon, which is your best bet if you need it by Christmas. There are 250 pages of concentrated Murr here, with over seventy illustrations. I hope you love it. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Middle C Is The Key

At the Van Cliburn competition, a blind pianist brought down the house. Nobuyuki Tsujii played Chopin and Liszt without flaw. The Liszt gave him more degree-of-difficulty points and he totally stuck the landing. Liszt is a nineteenth-century Hungarian composer renowned for jamming in more notes in his pieces than anybody really needs. Fully eighty percent of them are extraneous. He was a rock star and loved to write things no one else could play. I don't like much of his stuff, but it sure is notey.

So Mr. Tsujii earned his applause, based on notes banged out per second. Someone helped him off the bench and steered him to the wings, where a breathless woman was waiting to interview him for a documentary.  "How do you play all those notes?" she gushed. Well, like everyone else in the competition, he probably practiced for ten hours a day for a decade. He shrugged politely.

"I mean, because you're blind and all. What do you do? Can you sense the center of the piano by where the pedals are?"

Well, she's got him there. She nailed the secret, and now that she's blabbed about the pedal trick, probably just anyone can play the piano. People had a terrible time before pedals were invented. Early harpsichord players were frequently embarrassed in concert when they misjudged the center of the keyboard and played the whole program one or two notes south. They could tell right away that they had missed, but were helpless to correct it without the pedal.

Many of them developed coping methods by measuring the keyboard with outstretched arms and centering themselves accordingly. But if one arm was shorter than the other, which was a problem with your frequent masturbators, they were left in the lurch again. Many had to simply trust that the bench had been properly centered and then they could feel the correct position by the butt-cheek depression, which is why people prefer using their own benches. But any stage-hand with a prankster's disposition could throw everything off.

Our interviewer was astounded by the ability of a blind man to play the piano. In reality he is only slightly more inconvenienced than anyone else who reads music. Your average chamber musician flies through difficult pieces without once consulting the keyboard, because she is looking at the sheet music. She is able to judge the distances between the keys using the same method that makes it possible for people to pick their noses without poking their eyes out: muscle memory. Similarly, with a little practice, even our interviewer could probably learn to find her butt with both hands on the first try.

But that is not the only tool in the piano-player's shed, because he also has The Bumps. With the bumps, even without a method for finding the center of the piano, a player can feel his way across the keyboard. The raised, narrow black keys could have been designed to be the same size as the white keys and all lined up square, but that would have made the keyboard the length of a station-wagon and playing Liszt a more aerobic experience than it already is. So they squoze the keys together and made the bumps. Initially the regular notes were black and the bumps were white, but they changed that over when pianos replaced harpsichords. There was quite a transition period when sighted players were confronted with the exact opposite color keys--a period known as the heyday of blind musicians everywhere, who were at a distinct advantage because they had been using the bumps as Braille all along.

Our Van Cliburn competitor was enough baffled by his interviewer's grasp of the making of music that he replied with diffidence. He was probably worried she was going to ask him how he was able to hit the toilet. But whereas he might have been inconvenienced by his blindness in learning music, it might not have been as much as one would think. The interviewer drew her own conclusions. "It's just a gift from God, that's what it is," she swooned. Well okay then. He still had to open the gift and take out the tissue paper and get the instruction manual and devote a number of years to getting it to work properly.

Or maybe it's just that the people who only know "Chopsticks" got the heavenly lump of coal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Fungus Convention Meets Here

Not a fairy ring
[Don't forget! Thursday the 13th is International Margaret Day! Celebrate!]

The biggest living thing on earth is several thousand years old and covers over 2300 acres in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. It is a fungus. One fungus.

It's a little like calling Tokyo the largest person. But the point is well taken. There's way more to your average mushroom than you can see. Mushrooms are grabby. You might think you've plucked the whole thing but its tentacles are in the next county. This is one of the reasons people are thinking that tilling isn't the best idea. Not only do plants use their roots to suck up water and nutrients, but they hijack the huge network of fungi to their ends, too. The thinking goes, it takes a mycorrhyzal village to grow a tomato. Every time you stick the spade in the ground, you're disrupting a major nutrient highway.

Still not a fairy ring
That's how those circles of toadstools called fairy rings work. The beginning of the operation is in the center, and the fungus travels out in every direction before sproinging into fruiting bodies, like fireworks. As a short person who can't jump, I admire fungi and their ability to spread. Dave and I are earthbound. We bought the house next door, and that's about as far as we can go. Fungi could buy up all the red properties in Monopoly and still have enough poop to go for Marvin Gardens, on to Park Place, and over to the Parcheesi board.

Okay, I don't have a picture of a fairy ring
I admire fungi, but I also harbor them. Now, I'm fortunate in my health. My vital signs are hoppin'. I never have had the flu. You don't even want to know how much garbage I can eat and drink before my gut puts in a mild objection. Viruses pass through me like a ghost through a wall. Bacteria schedule their conferences in other locales. Even mosquitoes change their flight patterns to avoid me. I'm lucky.

Fungi, though, want a lot of room for their tentacles to blossom. They are grabby and tenacious and hard to get rid of because they spread so widely and thoroughly into any suitable substrate: rotting logs. The Blue Mountains. Poop. And me.

I've had a fungal infection called Tinea versicolor since I was a teenager. Mildly itchy white circles appear on my upper body and spread and coalesce into a Michael-Jackson-like patchy pallor. A good thirty years in, my gynecologist, who probably gets tired of looking in the same places, noticed it blooming on my shoulders and prescribed an ointment. I had to be really diligent with it for a couple months and then it was considered eradicated.

Then came the day when it occurred to me that maybe toenails weren't supposed to be yellow and tubular. "Do you think this is a fungus?" I asked my massage therapist Maria, wiggling my toe, and just before leaving the room to scrub her hands with a belt sander, she said yes. So I went home and looked up cures on the internet. I found the following from the reputable Mayo Clinic, and I quote:

"Toenail fungus is stubborn. You might try {emphasis mine} a combination of vinegar baths and antifungal ointment applied twice a day for a fucking year and see if that helps."

The Mayo Clinic has an attitude.

Maria told me I should file down my toenail. Filing gives me the heebie jeebies and I don't own an emery board. Dave sprang into action. Next thing I know he's in the basement and I can hear the whine of a power tool. I do not know what he is doing, but it seems appropriate to the obstinacy of a fungal infection. He was making himself a stick with a handle and he wrapped sandpaper around it and he filed the living crap out of my toenails. All of them. They have never looked better. They don't look good.

And I have one additional fungal infection. It doesn't have a name. My doctor didn't know what it was, but she said it "looked fungal," and she wrote me a prescription. Usually when you get a prescription, it has the decency to be called something like Flexoniurbum Biflatulate. Not this one. I'm not going to tell you anything more about my fungus, except that I'm treating it with a bottle labeled "special diaper cream." I don't even want to know where the tentacles are.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fixing Social Security

Just put a leash on 'er.
My parents' generation rolled out of the Great Depression and into Another Great War and all of this inspired them to spawn massively. There's an ocean of us Baby Boomers scraping scale against fin and we are just now heading back upstream to get our due.

Our parents got their own Social Security and most of us will too, but there are problems. Not as many people are out there working. There are too many of us and not enough of the younger ones to keep it all propped up. It isn't our parents' fault. As soon as they saw what they'd produced they did their responsible best to cull the herd. A lot of things are better in moderation, and Baby Boomers are no exception. So they took us for drives in their Oldsmobiles where we could rattle around without seat belts and they encouraged us to hang our heads out the window, where, if you stuck your tongue out, you could dry it until it felt like a loofah pickle, and then pull it in again, if you had not been taken out by shrubbery. And they took us to picnics and invented the three-legged race for us, so they could suck on their martinis and cigarettes for a good long time without having to check on the kids, who could not have gotten far. That thinned out the population a little more due to trampling, although I did okay, because I was small enough to just flap behind the big kid they hooked me up to, like the tail on a pheasant.

Shoot. What could happen?
They bolted wheels to our PF Flyers and sent us out in traffic. They put tiny marshmallows in our casseroles. They made us do sit-ups with our legs out straight. They smoked at us. They encouraged us to lie out in the sun slathered in baby oil and insecticide and leave them alone. They sent out big dogs in roaming packs to prey on the weak.

They gave us mercury to play with. So pretty! So shiny! We played with it for hours. Ha ha! What fun. We played with it for hours. Ha ha! What fun. Then we went inside for cookies and a cup of hemlock.

They did their level best, but a majority of us failed to get sliced out, and so they ginned up another huge war for us and made everyone sign up. That peeled off a bunch of kids and diverted some to Canada, so the Social Security picture was looking better all the time.

People are worried that there won't be enough money for today's kids to get Social Security, but they shouldn't. Another far-sighted president from the Greatest Generation took care of that already. Richard Nixon had likeability numbers in the minus territory and determined that as long as people  had cheap groceries, they wouldn't send him packing. So he subsidized corn and set about to create a whole new genre of products that resembled food in many ways, and we raised a whole new generation on them. Now, although the number of children has gone way down, their total mass has remained constant. Shoot, we've got enough money to see them to age 70, probably. And that should cover it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Beating The Spread

Dave bought peanut butter last March and has been complaining about it ever since. It was a Costco purchase, though, so at least we had a whole lot of it. He soldiered through it, sandwich after sandwich, griping all the while. Presumably we could have thrown it out or given it away or made bird food out of it but none of that occurred to us, because we both have Acquired Great Depression Syndrome. It's different from our parents' original GDS. For instance, I have no problem squandering a hundred bucks on a dinner, but I'll unfold dried used Kleenex and use it again. There was probably a generation brought up in the '80s that tosses stuff away willy-nilly, but now we have a whole new generation that is frugal out of necessity, many members of which economize on laundering.

Anyway, Dave finally got through the peanut butter sometime in September and no sooner was the jar rinsed and in the recycling bin than we got a little postcard in the mail. It was a recall notice for peanut butter purchased in March. Because of salmonella. "I knew I had a touch of being violently ill for the last six months," Dave said. Everything makes sense in retrospect, which is where most of us live.

It is an interesting thing about human beings that we grow up accumulating quirks and addictions and coping mechanisms, and then we spend much of the rest of our lives trying to solve ourselves. Maybe we're not nuts; maybe we just got into some bad peanut butter. Our storyline changes throughout the years depending on prevailing villains, of which there is a constant supply. That's it, we say. That's why I'm this way. It's because of my mother. Or wheat. Even if we can't fix anything, it feels better to have constructed a rationale. And it's easier to come up with reasons for being an asshole, say, than to just quit being an asshole.

By the time we're fully grown adults, we have assembled a whole instruction kit to go with ourselves, and we socialize by reciting it to each other. We read each other our own captions. "Middle child and a vitamin D deficiency," we'll say, shaking hands, and our friend will reply "dude! Undiagnosed Lyme Disease and attachment anxiety. Beer?" and the party is on. No matter how bad things are, we always feel better with a good explanation. It will evolve over time, as new discoveries present themselves and make the rounds in the talk shows and the internet. Chronic fatigue gives way to fibromyalgia, which gets pushed aside by food allergies. By age forty, most of us have a serviceable working narrative. We've pinpointed our positions on the autism spectrum and have located dietary culprits and genetic predispositions, and any unsettled foibles can be addressed at our next doctor's visit, because we've jotted down a number of pharmaceutical wonders that just might be right for us.

It makes sense to try to puzzle out the things that trouble us, especially if it leads to a plan to fix things. Every now and then we even achieve a breakthrough. But sometimes our habit of introspection does us in. We reanimate our own anxiety until it's permanently coiled up and ready to strike. It spins and it spins. A person can have all kinds of good reasons to be fearful but the fear itself rarely helps anything. We might as well let it go if we can, because it all spins out of the same place, and there's no fixing it. Sometimes things run smooth and sometimes crunchy, but we've all got only so much peanut butter, and then we're going in the recycling bin.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Last December

The Mayans are well known for their advanced civilization, their devotion to corn, and their scary-ass calendar. That last is getting a lot of press this year because it appears to be predicting the end of days, or at least the end of the calendar. Christmas isn't even on it.

It's an odd thing about ancient knowledge: many people assume it is more dependable than the modern. If the state of modern science reflects everything that has been learned before, it's somehow not as good as if we'd just stopped figuring things out when the goatherds were in charge. This isn't sensible, but the fact is, there are people who would read something dire into their printer running out of ink.

So let's look at the Mayan calendar. There were several. There was a short one that just ran about 52 years, or what would be considered a normal lifespan. That's about all anyone really needs, but then they discovered that it isn't long enough to really flesh out hope and regret, so they developed a long-count one to go with. This is the one currently twisting the panties of the gullible.

The long one is presumed to have begun at a mythical starting point of August 11, 3114 B.C., which is even longer ago than some other culture's goatherds thought there had been a world. Of course the August date is a modern extrapolation; they didn't even have an August that long ago. August was Caesar Augustus's personal month, and he made damn sure it was at least as long as Julius's month. Nobody minded if February was short, because the weather was bad. September through December were named after the numbers seven through ten, although they are the ninth through the twelfth months. Really, these people shouldn't have been entrusted with time measurement. Anyway, back to the Mayans, who, being more mysterious, are presumed to be more reliable, prognostication-wise. They got their calendar started in 3114 B.C. where it could coil down to zero and snap back again, gaining great momentum to slingshot it forward, but all that juice is running out now after a couple thousand years.

Which means that at the very least we could use a new calendar, and there is a movement afoot to do just that. We have a perfectly serviceable one going, the Gregorian (or "regular"). But the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar would reform it to make every year identical, with each given calendar date always falling on the same day of the week.

There's a certain kind of person that is attracted to orderly things like that, but they're the same kind of people who can't go to sleep until they've made sure their pictures are hanging straight. You can't live with them. They alphabetize their spice shelf. They make spreadsheets. They are not well people. They're engineers.

If you do want to make up your own calendar, and you like cake and attention, you could always make every eighth day your birthday. Only then you'll find yourself 300 years old in no time, you'll have a frosting layer at your midsection, you'll sweat sprinkles, and you'll find your house filling up with ceramic hippopotamuses because someone saw that first one early on and word got around that you collect them. Really, you're better off with the Gregorian.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How To Pouch A Pooch

In the late nineteenth century, there was a dog that achieved great fame nationwide for riding the rails on mail trains. Owney was a small terrier mutt that accompanied an Albany postal clerk to work and quickly found his bliss among the canvas mail sacks. So fond was the mutt of reclining on the sacks of mail that he began following them on their trips across the country. At every destination he acquired a new metal tag for his collar, until the postmaster, noting that he could barely lift his head for the weight, designed him a jacket to distribute the tags more evenly. He was greeted with great affection at every town he jingled into. By nineteenth-century standards, he'd gone viral.

It is not surprising that he found the mail sacks so comfortable. Everyone does. The standard canvas mail sack was designed for maximum durability and squishiness when filled with an optimum number of bundled-up letters--enough to be bunchy, but not turgid. Once filled to this level, the sack is employed in the back of the mail truck where the carrier can use it as a pillow while he sleeps off his morning whiskey. The canvas itself is thin enough to be flexible but thick enough to thwart paper cuts on the tushy. The mail sacks are later distributed to relay boxes all over town, where foot-carriers can rendezvous with them too. The relay boxes are large enough that your smaller carriers can fit entirely inside them, butt to bunion, and smoke cigarettes until the rain stops, which, here, is usually in mid-June. As an added feature, the canvas does not catch fire easily.

Owney looked a lot like our old terrier mutt, Boomer. Small terriers live long enough to become crotchety, and such was also the case with the famous postal dog. By 1897, he was encouraged to retire, and was sent home with the postal clerk, but he wasn't happy. This is often the case with postal workers, whose usual life trajectory finds them griping their way through their careers till retirement and then discovering that they have developed no interests at all outside of postal work, and within a half year, have signed on as security guards where they get to wear a uniform and make fun of postal employees again, which is what they have trained all their lives to do.

Owney was allowed to go back to the post office, and friendly postal workers snuck him back on the trains. He settled into the nearest bunch of mail sacks with great satisfaction, but during a stop in Toledo, a clerk came up to admire his tags; and, perhaps sensing that the employee was about to saddle him with one more weight, he bit him on the hand. Someone, probably a supervisor, deemed it wise to call in the local constabulary, a representative of which came to the post office, sized up the situation, and shot the tiny dog to death. One doesn't like to second-guess the motives of our men in blue, but this struck everybody as over the top.

Grieving postal employees refused to bury their dog and instead took up a collection to have him spruced up at the local taxidermist, and that is why today, over a hundred years later, we still have a dead-fur-and-sawdust sculpture of Owney the Postal Dog to admire in the Smithsonian's Postal Museum. He has weathered the century fairly well, which is amazing in itself. But not as amazing as the fact that someone once managed to hound a crew of postal workers for enough donations to do the deed. Generally speaking, if you're not running a football pool, it's a tight-ass bunch.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Next Up: Jesus Of Bazareth

The body of Jimmy Hoffa was very nearly found again with the help of a psychic. All the world's psychics together have, over the years, made great strides in narrowing down the possibilities as to his disposal. This latest effort, which involved tearing up a driveway in Michigan, began with a rumor. Local resident Mike Smith said his sister thought there was a body under the driveway, and that she had special powers. "She told me she was getting a name," he said, "and it was something like 'Jimmy Joffa.' I'm telling you, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end."

The phenomenon in question is called "horripilation," from the Latin pilus meaning hair and horrore meaning "to go POINK," or as it is commonly translated, to bristle. Thus "horripilation" is the go-poinkiness of hair. (The word "horror" to this day is applied to the appearance of chin whiskers in post-menopausal women.) The sensation of hair standing on end is a natural occurrence in humans and other mammals, and is a response to both fear and cold. Each hair follicle has a tiny adorable little muscle attached to it that contracts to erect the hair, and also causes the skin to bunch up at the site. If someone were repeatedly frightened enough to exercise the adorable little muscles, they might bulk up to the point of making the skin look like Velcro.

The erection of the hair serves two purposes. One is to trap more air as insulation. The other is to make the owner of the hairs look bigger. This is thought to be an effective deterrent against many predators. We were told that the best defense against cougars is to look as big as possible, and with that in mind, I suggested to Dave that, should we come across a cougar on the trail, I could climb onto his shoulders. He assured me the same effect could be managed more easily if he were to just hold me in place in front of him. At any rate, the sea otter is known to use this defense when in the presence of sharks, and I'm sure it works well for them. Nothing arouses more trepidation than a big fluffy otter.

So our friend's reaction to his sister's conjuring of the name "Jimmy Joffa" is, essentially, a fear reaction. Most people are fascinated by extra-sensory perception, but also a little frightened of it. It appears to be a power that has no explanation, and is thus creepy. Similarly, a huge swath of people today are creeped out by any knowledge that appears to be gained through mysterious means, such as studying in science class.

In this case, no body was found. Experts say that there has not been a single case of a missing person found as a result of a psychic's intervention. Which means that, collectively, they're due.

When it comes to ESP, I do not scoff. I myself have had a number of such unexplainable experiences. One time I suddenly went cold all over, and my skin got clammy, and I was overcome, from the very core of my being, by the feeling that something very bad was about to happen. And sure enough, I threw up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Apatheist's Prayer

A New York man sued his local Catholic church recently after Jesus fell on his leg and mashed it up beyond repair. It wasn't Jesus per se, but a graven image of him, and don't say we hadn't all been warned about that.

The man had been offering prayers at the marble crucifix for some time, hoping to persuade God to intervene on behalf of his cancer-stricken wife (the man's, not God's). And she recovered, and he was grateful, and offered to clean up the crucifix for the church. He tidied around it and then climbed up to wash Jesus' face, and while he was hanging on the cross (the man, not Jesus), the sculpture, which, unlike the man, was inadequately screwed, snapped off at the base and fell  on him. His leg was amputated above the knee, and he got a lawyer.

The story fascinates me because this man and I got the same basic deal--a wafer of time--and have completely different ways of looking at it. Even if I had retained a residual habit of prayer, I would never have presumed my prayers might have that kind of influence (nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt). I probably wouldn't even have sued the church. Not that the man wasn't justified; but I'm the sort of person that won't even send a burger back to the kitchen when I ordered spaghetti.

So the two of us are blundering through our lives with completely different manuals. His life is more orderly and comes with a pilot and operating instructions, and mine is random and chaotic and joyful. He navigates with a map and a destination and a suitcase full of credit and blame, and I bobble around at the mercy of the tides, with marvels at every crest and trough.

Because look. It turns out even space itself is full of crests and troughs, with starlight romping through it. And right here on my home planet, bright feathered dinosaurs nap in the mud and emerge 70 million years later with stories to tell.  Frozen frogs thaw out and hop away in the spring. Summertime bugs flit around with lanterns in their butts. All this is true.

And if that weren't enough, there also lives a toddler made out of--well you wouldn't even believe what he was made out of, it seems so inconsequential; but he started with the most modest materials, and those materials came with instructions to go forth and divide, and in not much time at all, there was an entire boy, and here he stands before me on sturdy legs and crinkles his face at me and calls me Aunt Muh. It's a small face with nothing scribbled on it yet, not judgment or guile, but it's powerful enough to erase my stained past and replace it with a supple, rolling present.

I crinkle back.

Even if I believed the universe had an office in charge of customer satisfaction, which I don't, I would not suppose that my life comes with any kind of warranty. And yet I assume (why not?) that I will live a long time, by human standards, and drift painlessly into oblivion at the end of it. That may not happen, and even if it does, I know I'm on the downward slope and the decades are picking up speed. But what a fortune is mine: I got a ticket on this ride. And so, for the tides of space, and the fireflies, and the little boy, and the astonishment at it all; for all of this, I pray (why not?) that when my last thought drops out of me like a petal into the sea, it will be: thank you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Losing Face: Layer Two

Second installment. For the first part, click here.

May 16, 1980. Does he need the cream, too?
The next day I call again, hoping to score a different nurse, and I succeed. This just doesn't sound right. And it turns out it isn't right. There had been a miscommunication. The doctor tacks on a third week of treatment. I start again.

Given enough time, the magic cream will happily remove your whole face, but, in theory, it seeks out the faster-growing cells that are improperly motivated and burns them off first.  So a person applying said cream can expect portions of her skin to light up like the Milky Way. In my case, a number of areas of my face that I thought could be trusted to play quietly by themselves were actually up to no good. The magic cream lit up a stealth army of skin cells that had apparently been scheming to take me down all along. I am the captain of this here ship, and now I see there has been talk of mutiny. I intend to see to some plank-walkin'. I continue to apply the cream.

May 17, 1980
My chin has turned a blotchy plummy purple. To be fair, I have seen baby's bottoms that looked similar. My chin is not my favorite body part. It's been sinking into my doughy neck like a bon-bon on a pillow for years. As we know, the skin is the largest organ in the body, and I don't like to brag, but my neck is hung like a racehorse. I don't approve of this, but I had always thought that at least my chin looked comfy. Now I can see  it was just settling in to plot my downfall. I do remember the inciting incident. It was 1980. I was climbing Mt. Hood. People didn't do much sunscreen then, but our guide talked us into some zinc oxide, which I applied in an attractive smear across my cheeks and button nose. Worked good. The sun, however, was zinging off the snow and onto my lower face for hours. The next day I had blisters the size of voles hanging off my face. I got future-cancer in one day.

Week three is not too bad at first. Friends say nothing, but speculate privately about my diet. A few days later, passersby remain friendly and give Dave a nod of appreciation, assuming he is an evolved man who is drawn to inner beauty. On Day 24, they give him the raised eyebrow of suspicion. By Day 25, people snug their children to their sides and cross the street as I approach. The grocery clerk sprays antiseptic on his conveyor belt after I pay. A driver rolls down her window and lobs me a quarter. My face looks like a baby baboon's bottom. I decide to stay indoors out of consideration for others.

In the shower, my face shears off like a calf from a glacier and sludges up the drain.

At the end of the third week I call the nurse again. I feel worse. But I'm really not as miserable as I'm supposed to be. Should I keep going?

"Do you have any oozing?"

Yes! Yes I do!

"Is it honey-colored?"

Yes! Yes it is!

"Okay, that's probably a staph infection. Maybe you should see the doctor." And miracle of miracles, although appointments with my doctor are always two months out, she makes a slot available to me. I meet him between the ninth hole and the clubhouse.

The doctor said I can quit now. I walked away, a festering pus-bag with a bottle of antibiotics and a date in five months "to see how we did." I stopped well short of suicide, but murder is still on the table.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Losing Face: Layer One.

The dermatologist has been breezily freezing off spots on my face for years. There's not a lot of chit-chat. He gives me a glance, blasts my spots, asks me if there's anything else I want him to look at. There's about half of me that I've never even seen, and I thought he might have volunteered to have a look, but the fact that he asks makes me feel like there's something sort of unseemly about it. So I say I guess not. Then he hands me a brochure about actinic keratoses and packs me off for another year. This summer he looked at my nose and said, breezily, "well, let's put some cream on that this year," and waved a photo of some violently pink people at me. "You might look a little sunburned for a while," he explained, "and then you'll have skin like a baby's bottom." Which can be good or bad, depending.

"I don't care how I look," I told him. "Is this spot precancerous or something?"

"Okay," he said, breezily. All righty then. Cream it is. Do I need to stay out of the sun?

"If you want," he said. "Whatever. My nurse can give you the details." And he's off.

One week
She said if I have a wedding to attend or something I could put this off until October, and I did, so I do. In the intervening months, my friend Vicki, who is doing the same basic treatment, clues me in, and I spend some time on the internet. Where I find out that the treatment, ideally, is supposed to turn your face into a flaming, pulpy, oozing mass of fried nerve endings and reduce you to hammering your fingers to distract yourself from the pain before it starts working. Various victims have posted progress photos on the web. Not much happens for the first few days and then spots light up here and there, mass together, and erupt. Helpless villagers flee. After a few weeks it is hard to distinguish between the eruptions and the marks left by attempts at self-strangulation. In the final photos the patients can be seen licking out the inside of the Oxycontin bottle. 40% can't bring themselves to continue to that therapeutic level. Sleeping is impossible, because of the screaming. The cream is called Efudex, or F.U. for short. Oh boy!

I put on my first application of cream. Twice a day for fourteen days, my doctor says. I know from my research that most people go three or even four weeks. I stare nervously at my face. We have started something here, and only great pain will resolve it. It is like finding yourself pregnant with a really ugly baby.

By day five, when most people begin to see spots and blotchiness, I look normal. I feel normal. Not until three days later do I begin to see the dawn of disfigurement. By day fourteen, when  I am supposed to quit, I don't look good, but nothing has erupted, nothing is oozing, nothing is crusting over, and--even according to my instructions--I have not reached the level of "therapeutic effect." I'm not even uncomfortable, just a little chapped. The doctor doesn't take calls. He's got a nurse for that. I call her.

"Yeah, you should probably keep going," she says, "but let me message the doctor. I'll get back to you."

Two weeks
She gets back to me. Nope: fourteen days it is. I should quit. He'll see me in six months.

"Are you sure?" I say. "I  mean, I've gone to all this trouble, and I'm willing to keep going. Am I supposed to lose all this time in? What if he tells me next time I have to start over? I'd have to murder him, and that wouldn't be good for either of us."

"I'm sure," she says. "It's right here in black and white." Well then. Can't argue with those colors.

So there it is. My dermatologist wants me to march right up to the edge of cancer with spears and cauldrons of boiling oil, and then stop short of the fortress and go booga booga booga. If my actinic keratoses are as easily startled as I am, it just might work.

To be continued.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Getting A Big Head

More than any other animal, humans expend a lot of effort on self-decoration. People paint themselves, drill themselves, hang hardware off themselves, and scar themselves up, and they've been doing it for thousands of years.

When I was a kid, we were familiar with the practice of inserting plates in the earlobes, because that was depicted in the second-most-interesting pictures in the National Geographic magazines that lived in our father's underwear drawers. We would never have believed it if you told us that young American men in 2012 would routinely platter their own ears. Sure! Right after they put a man on the moon!

So it's interesting to speculate on what our platter-headed friends'  own children will be doing to horrify their parents in fifteen years, and what their children will develop in forty. Fundamentally, nothing changes. I cheer myself up by imagining grumpy grownups in 2050 thumping and squeaking as they shake their small-mammal hair extensions, while their kids display the latest in ornamental groin herniation.

Sarah Viernum's spectacular arm salamander
I did have my earlobes drilled at the mall in 1967, but the holes have since slammed shut. Mostly I have too much appreciation for the vagaries of fashion to go for something permanent, like a tattoo. The danger is that the things you think are cool when you're sixteen and when you're thirty-six are rarely the same things. Oddly enough, I'd have fared all right with that. I would have had a salamander inked onto myself somewhere, and I'd still like it. But I have enough affection for salamanders and their comfort that I would have felt compelled to place my salamander somewhere near a damp crevice, and some people might find that off-putting.

The problem now is that people are having trouble coming up with something new. Or they were, before the advent of the Bagel Head. Some Japanese are now clamoring for the look, which approximates the look of a bagel implanted in the skin just above the eyes. Presumably the effect is subliminal. "I wonder what that woman is like first thing in the morning," the prospective suitor finds himself thinking, "with anchovies and a schmear."

One wonders how these cosmetic breakthroughs occur. In this case, I imagine a nurse tripped over something on his way to set someone up for hydration, and when he came to, he was appalled to discover his syringe buried in the patient's forehead, which was quickly filling up to Tyra Banks proportions. In his horror he tried to mash the swelling down with his thumb and inadvertently created the bagel, and everyone remarked on how yummy the patient looked.

The bagel head is not permanent. After about 24 hours, the saline injection is reabsorbed and the forehead snaps back, returning the recipient to default condition with a tendency to retain water. The practice is still in its infancy, however, and  it is unknown what the effects of repeat bageling might be. It seems reasonable to expect that the serial bageler might develop a little fleshy awning over the bridge of the nose, like a turkey snood, and that's not ideal. But when fashion shuts the front door, it opens a window. Bring on the tiny-nipple graft, and we're right back in business.