Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hooking Me Up

It's a sign of what I'm going to call maturity that I no longer like to accumulate things. I was never one to go into debt for crap, but I'll admit to buying crap whenever I thought my life could use a little sparkle. If I saw something I wanted, even for a nanosecond, I was usually able to work up a reason I needed it. That is why I own an egg separator in which the whites drip out of ceramic nostrils. It's taking up space in the cupboard and now I find myself wanting the space more than the item. I'm giving stuff away like a suicidal person. Used to be, the fact that I don't have a full set of matching plates would be enough to justify a new set. Now, as long as everyone at the table has something to dump the potatoes on, I'm good.

Big Dave, Old Dave, and Vivi. 
I do have two things I would love to replace. One is my coffeemaker and the other is my printer. The printer is squawky. Semicolons will scare the ink right out of it. Lately it's been pooping out test pages every time I turn it on. I have to fluff up every piece of paper before it will suck it in, and the last time I opened up the back to officiate over a paper jam, I busted it. This means when I print a document with numerous pages, I have to fluff each individual page, jump to the back to hold the piece of plastic on until it feeds, and then pop back to the front to fluff again. I really hate the idea of ditching yet another piece of plastic in a world with way too much of the stuff, especially since I am still able to print documents (plus the bonus test page). But on a wild hair, I did. I hate shopping, so I just picked out something on special online. It was Chinese-worker-wages cheap and shipping was free. Two days later a box thudded onto the front porch. I re-straightened our hanging pictures and had a look. My!

We lugged the huge box into the kitchen and peeled it open, assuming it would be mostly packaging, but it wasn't. It squatted in the middle of the room and said Boo-yah. I'm getting used to having appliances that are smarter than me, but I don't want one that could beat me up. I folded the cardboard back over it and slid it toward the wall. Not till the next day did I feel up to looking at the instructions. Number One was to check to see if it was there, and after that things fell apart. We needed whole different cords depending on whether we planned to scrapulate with it or just use it for making thermocules. Different directions applied if we wanted to operate it remotely from Jupiter or spring it into action by barking at it. I gently put the manual away and left the thing in its original plastic wrapper in case I needed to smother it in the middle of the night. Because I had an ace up my sleeve. We had young friends coming to visit in another two days.

And then they came, Big Dave and Vivi! Their skin was taut, not flapping, their brains were firm, not spongy, and both were full of the easy good nature that we have come to associate with young people, because we are not their parents. Big Dave had not been in the house five minutes before he prodded the box with a toe and said "new printer?" as though he did not know the meaning of fear, and a day later, he had the thing corralled on our desk with all the cords spanked together, and Vivi took over to make the introductions with our computer. "There you go," she said, "we have unfriended Hewlett Packard, and now we're in a relationship with Brother," and, if you don't think about it too hard, that is a wonderful thing.

Dave and Vivi need a coffeemaker, and I'm going to give them mine. That will give me an excellent reason to buy a new one. The old one works just fine, but it came in Almond, to match the refrigerator we once had. That means it is now the color of old men's teeth. It's pretty obvious by now, twenty years in, that I'm not going to keep the thing clean, so I want a new one. Black.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hitling Back At Hitler

Sometimes in the little small-town newspapers there is a section about local people and their goings-on. Mrs. G had lunch with Mrs. F; Lois was visited by her nephew and his family from Duluth. It's friendly. The closest we come here is that page buried in the back of the metro section. Where, on any given Sunday, we learn that several dozen people have gone to meet their Lord and Savior, many of them after courageous battles with cancer. Some in the column no doubt went to meet someone else, or had nowhere to go at all, but that is rarely mentioned.

In any case, their earthly containment vessels have for the most part been left right here, six feet under, minus the watery bits. This way they more or less stay put where people can venerate them, if they have a mind to, although nothing lasts forever. I don't know where the oldest known marked gravesite is, but it can't be that old, geologically speaking. Things happen. Progress occurs, backhoes come by, tectonic plates shift, and what with one thing and another you're going to lose track. My own parents had battles with cancer, which I'm not prepared to qualify; I don't know what a cowardly battle would look like. I do know that the other side had most of the bullets, and now they're both interred somewhere in some form. And I know more or less where they are, or can look it up, and I think there was a marker put down, although I'm not sure, and I admit I have not venerated them in an way, except in my thoughts with great gratitude on a daily basis. I'm glad other people keep up graveyards, though. I love to walk in them and examine the headstones. It's peaceful to be among all those people resting for eternity.

Alois Hitler
Or ten years, whichever comes first. That's the average in Spain, where gravesites are leased for just that long, and your survivors are expected to re-up. If they don't come through with the cash, you're scooped out of there for a more reliable tenant. You are banished from your usual haunts, and have to go live under a bridge. Or your skeletal remains will be propped up behind a sign at the freeway entrance ("homeless--anything helps").

It's a little less disruptive in Germany, where you may remain at rest for twenty years before the bill comes due. But if your relatives decline, your spot is up for grabs, although you will not be evicted. Someone else is going to get shoveled in, and whether you like it or not, you're not going to be on top.

Klara Hitler
This is the very fate that awaits the Hitlers. Someone paid the rent for a hundred years, but finally, the last elderly descendant balked. Alois and Klara Hitler are mainly famous for not letting their son go to art school like he wanted and thus causing the deaths of millions. Alois and Klara had six children and lost four of them, but quit before they could finish the job. After years of paying the ante, a descendant of Mr. and Mrs. Hitler finally decided, screw it. I'm not paying.

It was probably an easy call. There's the money, and all the upkeep, and then there's the persistent infestation of neo-Nazis come to do their version of veneration, and no amount of petunias can brighten that shit up. Adolf Hitler himself is not available to venerate. Showing the same lack of perseverance as his parents, he killed himself in 1944 after a most unfortunate thirty years of procrastinating. He was then doused with petrol and set afire but refused to stay lit, knowing, perhaps, that this was not where he was supposed to burn.

Various identifiable shards of him got moved around for years until 1970 when he was gathered up and refried and flushed into the sewer. Where modern Nazis are cordially invited to visit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Murre, The Merrier

Sarah. Looks mean, right?
Sarah Swanson is a very nice person who thinks my blog is hilarious. But I repeat myself.

She wrote me a letter asking if I'd like to join her Audubon Birdathon group. It's a fundraiser. People can sponsor you with a flat donation or give you a dime or so for every bird you turn up. She hoped she wasn't being presumptuous. What Sarah didn't understand is that if you tell me you think my blog is hilarious, I will bake you brownies. I will pick up trash on your section of highway. I will paint your house. Of course I agreed to go along. "But I might not be very helpful," I pointed out. "I love birds, but I'm not good at identifying them." My brain is like a colander. It's well-ventilated, but real knowledge runs right through it, leaving behind the noodles of unrelated factoids.

Sarah didn't mind. Her fearless group is named "The Murre The Merrier," and I could be their mascot if nothing else.

Still, I thought this time I might come in handy. I'd just come off of a week of birding in West Virginia, home to 14,000 species of migrating warblers, and I got to where I could pick out those little treetop nuggets like nobody's business. Sadly, in Oregon we only have two warblers, Steve and Larry, and Larry is peevish and shy.

Even the white-crowned sparrow counted.
Sarah gathered her platoon of bird warriors and gave us the battle plan. We were aiming for 100 species. She and her husband Max Smith had scouted the territory for key locations, and she intended to keep us on the march to cover them all. There would be no dawdling on this team. This was not a walk in the park: this was full contact birding. Sarah slipped a sharp stick into her pocket and off we went.

Our little score card lists 376 bird species we might encounter in Oregon. Of these, a hundred are bashful, a hundred more are just passing through, and some, like the Flammulated Owl, are entirely made up. We began on the grounds of the Hillsboro Library. In under an hour we had bagged 30 species, including a confabulation of acorn woodpeckers and a great horned owl. Excellent, I thought. In another two hours or so we'll have this baby wrapped up. We moved on to a wetland. "We're looking for bittern, marsh wren, Virginia rail, people. Go, go, go!" We went, went, went. We scored, scored, scored. Sarah mashed us all back in the van and we hurtled off for the coast. Birding is always an adventure, not least because birders drive with their heads out the window and cranked up toward the sky, and they brake for no apparent reason.

The magnificent Max Smith, co-leader
Haystack Rock is an iconic geological wonder in Cannon Beach formed from millions of years of accumulated bird poop. We met up with our totem birds, the short, stout, plain little items inexplicably named Murres. Pigeon guillemots. Brandt's cormorants, their turquoise throats flapping in the sun. Sarah retrieved a cattle prod from the glove box and away we went again.

It was a sharp group. I was completely outclassed. Halfway through the day my strategy was to look for very recognizable birds we hadn't seen yet, but when someone else spotted the Great Blue Heron (#64), I had nothing left in my quiver, and was reduced to wasting everyone's time by pointing out suggestive sticks in the water and little lichen-covered bumps in the trees.

We racked up shorebirds by the plattersful, whimbrels rocking up and down like sewing machines, red-necked phalaropes spinning in circles like gears, and turned back inland, inching towards the 100th bird, the trumpeter swan. We reached a consensus on the trumpeter, after failing to find the tiny yellow spot that would mark it as a tundra swan (although, according to the field guide, some of the tundra swans also lack the yellow spot, and yes, this is deeply unfair). And then we scored a back-up snipe. Which we needed when the trumpeter swan was revealed to be somebody's pet. Sadly, birders are much burdened by ethics.

And then off we raced to a couple more spots in the woods before collapsing exhausted, twelve hours in, with a total of 105 species. Sarah stood proud against the sky, triumphant and satisfied, resplendent in fishnets and leather and stroking a small whip. Let it never be said birding is a sissified venture.

I, for one, am completely flammulated.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dueling Jujus

I'm comforted by things that do not change: the phases of the moon, the pandering of politicians. Even the bi-monthly why-the-hell-not five-dollar bump in the cable bill is reassuring in its predictability. Good or bad, each is evidence that the stars are still in their marching cadence. And so I am pleased to report that my friend Linda and I have demonstrated our core qualities yet again during our recent trip to the New River Birding And Nature Festival. There's no need to recalibrate: everything is as it should be.

Linda summons miracles. I attract travel disasters.

Linda is the one who arranged a murmuration of starlings for us at Cape Cod. It is Linda who was told by a Florida park ranger that although they had panthers, he had never seen one in his sixteen years on the job--whereupon she produced one for him. Somewhere, a unicorn is testing his horn on the fabric of reality and when he finally punches through, Linda will be there on the other side with a lump of sugar.

I, on the other hand, am the one who missed a connection at the airport in spite of having a five-hour layover. I am the one who sat alone and clueless in the rear car of a train in Munich while it was being decoupled from the rest of the train to be left at the station. If I were an astronaut, I would somehow be overlooked on the last shuttle back from the Space Station.

So at the birding festival, our cabin-mate Nina went on a field trip hoping to see, among other things, a bear. Sure enough, they were excited to find bear evidence steaming away at the head of the trail. Meanwhile, back at the cabin, LInda and I were working on a nap when she heard crunching outside the window and looked out. And there, of course, was a bear, snuffle-nose up and eyes yearning in her direction. The field-trippers were skunked, of course. There was no point in looking for a bear miles away from Linda.

Nina reacts to missing our bear
I had been plagued by ticks all week. Linda had already pulled two out of my head but had found none on herself--not until our evening speaker mentioned that she was collecting ticks for research. That was the precise moment Linda's tick took a stroll across her arm. It meant her no harm; it was just checking in to wave a couple of its little legs at her and go home to tell its little tick friends who it saw.

Oh, it was a grand week. As we approached the airport to return home I remarked that my own travel curse must have been overcome by her superior juju. We were booked on the same flight for our first leg. Ten minutes later the existence of the plane was revealed to be a cruel hoax and we were sent back to Charleston to try again the next morning at 4:30. This time we were booked on different flights. Linda's was delayed. I sat in my gate as the minutes ticked past our departure time. There was no agent in sight and the assembly was getting more and more irritable. Fortunately an employee finally showed up and took me and the most irate passengers and stored us on the tarmac for a couple hours.

That was no doubt a relief for the people remaining in the terminal, but, sadly, our plane did not come with a pilot, and we had to be released back to the terminal for rebooking. The man sitting next to me was loaded for bear. Literally: he was headed for his dream vacation in Alaska that (as everyone in the airport was loudly informed) cost him $25,000. He hoped to murder a large brown bear, and his whole life (not the bear's) was now ruined, ruined. The future dead bear was to be stripped of meat that would be donated to "the natives" (grateful and picturesque Eskimos could be seen squatting in an igloo in his thought balloon). And the hide and head of the bear would be stuffed and join his collection at home, photos of which he shared with fellow passengers between outbursts of rage: a world-record elk with a rack that could cradle a propane tank. A Rocky Mountain ewe in a come-hither pose, head turned back. And his prize, the last known Frumious Bandersnatch, erect and waving goodbye. He snugged his passenger-pigeon down vest tighter and stormed off to sue the airline.

Fellow traveler Sharon, Day Two, Operation Go Home
About twenty of us returned to the ticket counter to rebook, and two hours later I was next up. The gentleman in front of me had been abandoned by the blonde agent, who walked out from behind the counter and headed away, saying she'd be right back. Forty minutes later she came back as a brunette. In just under three hours, I was rebooked for the next morning at 4:30.

Linda's flight, meanwhile, was so late that her connection was in doubt. Two concourses had to be traversed by jetpack and five people had to drop dead for her to board, but by then she was far enough away from my sphere of influence that she was able to get the last seat and make it home.

I went back to Charleston for the night. The next morning we had a plane, a flight crew, and a fog bank you could bounce a quarter off of. I expect to come home with a drawl. Linda is planning a trip to Australia. I expect her to come back with a dodo.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's A Cattleastrophe

It is my duty to report that there is a herd of frozen cows inside a little hut in Colorado and there's talk of blowing them up. It's an old abandoned miner's hut, and only recently someone made his way up there and noticed, to his surprise, that it was filled with frozen cows. It is assumed that they wandered into the cabin and then couldn't find their way out. They starved to death after running through the stale Cheez Doodles from the summer hikers and then they froze solid. Which presents a disposal problem. Someone has suggested that the cows might be removed using explosives. Well, the steaks couldn't be higher. The situation will only get less attractive as the weather warms up.

Lots of folks probably assume cows are really dumb to be unable to find their way out of a hut they found their way into, but this sort of thing is not unusual. We go wherever we're attracted, and it's difficult for us to take the long view and figure out what might be best for us. So the original cow probably wandered into the hut out of curiosity or to get out of the wind or check for Cheez Doodles, and the other cows followed soon behind, because cows find other cows comforting. Then they trudged around in circles for a while, but each time they passed the open door there was another cow right nearby and that was more attractive than going back out in the wind. The colder they got, the more they bunched up, and bunched-up cows have a tough time negotiating a narrow doorway. Eventually they trudged slower and slower until they iced over. Cows aren't real zippy to begin with and it probably took a while to notice their condition, especially if they were still standing up.

It's the same deal with moths. It's not in their best interest, but to a moth they will head towards the porch light like it's a little moon, and it doesn't matter how many of their peers have been burnt to lint. Theoretically they could quit at any time but they keep going for one more hit of juicy photons, and there's no reasoning with them.

Or take dogs. Any dog tied to a tree with a twenty-foot tether will wrap himself around that tree until he has nowhere to go. I have yet to see one figure out how to free himself. Even a border collie that defuses bombs and plays chess in his spare time will find himself snapped right to the trunk of a tree and do nothing about it but pull and whimper. He wants out. That's away from the tree. He's not going to point himself in an unwinding position.

And us. People are supposed to be smart, but all we know is that we've screwed up big time, and we have just about run out of planet to destroy, and we're in really big trouble, with our oceans wrecked, our fish depleted, our air poisoned, our systems falling apart. Our own muscles slide away, irrelevant, while we each wield the power of 500 horses as though it is our natural birthright. Right next to us is the warm cow of convenience, and we'll never find the way out of our predicament no matter how obvious it is.

Thanks to the fine crew at Gartner's Meats, who would know just what to do.
As for the cows, it seems to me that a posse of butchers with saws could take care of the problem in a way that benefits everyone, but since someone has suggested a detonation, that's probably what we'll get. I don't know if it will work. I do know that whoever came up with the idea has a death grip on a Y-chromosome.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

May As Well Try And Catch The Wind

Our Wedding Cake Topper, 1983
The good citizens of North Carolina have defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. A union between one single man and one single woman is still called fornication. The definition of marriage is now firmly spackled onto the state Constitution, which only makes sense. The North Carolina state Constitution is exactly where I go to look up words, and I've always been foggy about that one. I get it mixed up with that thing in the desert where you think you see something, but it turns out to be an illusion. A lot of marriages are like that.

I've only been to North Carolina once, when I was a teenager. Dad bundled us all into the Volvo and drove us down to the Outer Banks to see the total eclipse of the sun. It was fabulous, it was divine. The sun grew dimmer and darker and then it went black except for the little light ridgy bits on the outside, which astronomers call the "tiara." I'd just learned how to play guitar and that's what I was doing while we were waiting for the sun to act up. I was probably playing "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. It only had four chords. Leonard Cohen was thought to be a great songwriter due to his inability to sing. We all thought it was a dreamy and cool song, because she touched your perfect body with her mind. We didn't really know what that meant, but poets were always writing about their minds back then, when we still had them.

There were lots of warnings about looking directly into the sun. You were supposed to punch pinholes into a shoebox so you could see a projection of the progression of the moon across the sun. Of course, if that's what you drive 300 miles to see, you could just stay home and look up a diagram in a book. I stared right at the bugger, and I'm glad I did. I will always remember it. I will always remember it because I still see a ribbon of dots in my vision from where it was burned into my retinas.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a series of long barrier islands that were put up to keep the ocean out.  They scrabbled themselves up sometime after the last Ice Age, although nobody's really clear how. If they hadn't existed, the good citizens of North Carolina could always have written them into their Constitution. The ocean is big and powerful and scary and it is only proper of the citizenry to protect itself from it. The barrier islands work pretty well most of the time but they are prone to  destruction from hurricanes. There are more and stronger hurricanes all the time, and there will be until someone works up a good amendment about them.

North Carolina's new amendment was an important definition to put in the Constitution because the state of marriage is in disarray due to incursions from homosexual people who would just disappear if they weren't always being encouraged, and it needs to be protected, in the same way apple pie needs to be protected from nutmeg.

I have a constitution of my own, although it's just written down in what's left of my mind. And I've had to amend it to define North Carolina as a beautiful state I won't be visiting until the sun comes back. Which it will. You can't keep the sun from shining, and you can't stop a hurricane.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Things We Count On

It's spring, and the signs are everywhere. A single crow has taken up honking lessons and is sitting at the tippy top of a fir, where he practices from ten in the morning until dusk. Gaannngkh. Gaannngkh. Gaannngkh. It's one beep every ten seconds, give or take, and will go on for about a month. Dave is occupying himself outdoors on some sort of project for us or for a neighbor, and in another hour he will suddenly drop his tools and go stand under the fir and yell hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Or sooner, if the project is not going well. The entire local biosphere is responding predictably to the rhythm of the ages. Down on Alberta Street, Gimme A Quarter Guy will have set up between the Mexican restaurants for the afternoon. GQ is an immense man with a menacing expression who tends to unsettle newcomers. He stands on the sidewalk and whenever anyone passes by he growls gimme a quarter, going off like a proximity car alarm. You can usually count on him being right there but once when we were driving we saw him several blocks away outside a Walgreen's. We saw his mouth drop open when a small elderly gentleman walked by and the old man spooked like a horse in a thunderstorm and emptied all his pockets before hurrying on down the sidewalk. Even from inside the car we knew what GQ had said, and he never says thank you. Someone has tried to sweeten him up of late and now when he says gimme a quarter and we reply, sorry, I don't have a quarter, he says oh, sorry. He'll get a buck next time.

Birds are coming back, the ones that wintered somewhere else. Many critters move around, the same way people summer in the Hamptons and winter in Florida. That's the usual seasonal cadence, but here we have ants that are probably nearby all year, but spring in our kitchen. They just want to get out from under all the wet, and our kitchen is a favored resort. We see their little brochures on the countertops, and the tours of the sugar drawer are always booked up. Natives are known for finding tourists irritating, and we're no exception, but the ants are not put off. They keep coming and coming, thick as Germans on the Riviera.

Tax day has come and gone and that means that the newer gardeners are going to be coming home with big tomato plants any time now. We're officially past our last-freeze date, although some winters, like this one, it never really even got that low. So they'll be unloading plants out of their hatchbacks and fluffing up the soil and tucking them in, and for the next month and a half we'll see them going out and bending over them, fists on their hips, and walking back inside, increasingly morose. By Memorial Day, when we will be planting our own tomatoes, our neighbors' tomatoes will be exactly the same size they are now, only a little more dejected-looking. Ours will take right off with a bit of warmer weather, and we will have our annual bump of smugness for a week or so, but every one of us will tend those vines until October, when we'll be Googling green tomato recipes. It's a sweet exercise in optimism and speaks well of us here. We're like little horticultural Cubs fans.

We cherish these hallmarks of every season and anchor our lives to them. They help us to imagine that things will always be the same and our own time will never end. Very soon we will be getting into election season and someone will produce a sign with a red, white, and blue motif suggestive of a flag, and the sign will have someone's name on it and the words "THE TIME IS NOW." Which will be true, and may be the last thing we can agree on.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Embryonic Glory

Photo by Nina Harfman
My recent musings in which I implied that salamanders are the crown of Creation were not meant to state anything that wasn't already obvious. I mean, look at them. But it got me to thinking about a scientific maxim I learned in college: ontology recapitulates phylogeny. It's a dense phrase. It is, of course, designed to make people feel stupid, then defensive, then irritated at smartypants elites, then prone to making snide references to Obama and his "faculty lounge" as though educated people should be scorned, and before you know it they've voted in a bunch of scoundrels wholly devoted to getting themselves and their friends rich enough to buy out God. So probably the phrase should be retired.

Photo by Nina Harfman
But what it means is pretty cool. The idea is that in the course of developing from egg to embryo to fully-realized critter, we exhibit the stages of our own evolution. We start out sort of wormy, then begin to sprout the accoutrements of our species, reabsorbing our tails and fattening our heads and whatnot. Mom's a little uncomfortable in the second trimester when we go through the triceratops phase, but things smooth out. It's a very attractive notion. It was first proposed by Ernst Haeckel who drew a picture of the various embryonic stages, pointing out the early salamander. That's the hook, right there--who wouldn't want to claim a salamander in her heritage? I've noticed that most people who have looked into their own genealogy have been able to trace back to Charlemagne at some point. We like to think well of ourselves. This just ups the ante.

Trouble is, apparently it's not true. I am old enough to have learned it in school, but it's not true. I also remember looking at a world map in fifth grade and all of us kids pointed out what is perfectly obvious: it looks like the Americas had somehow split off from Europe and Africa. We got on our tiptoes and reached up to trace the map, our voices rising in excitement. The teacher smiled at us indulgently and shook her head and began talking about our delightful imaginations and segued right into something about Santa Claus that we also didn't want to know.

So she was wrong on two points, if you include Santa. But that's science for you. We don't always get things right, but eventually the weight of evidence is brought to bear, and minds are changed. Sometimes it takes a while, because scientists are human too, and they see what they want to see.

Photo by Nina Harfman
That's one of the differences between science and religion, at least the ones that purport to know something. It's hard to knock a good religious story off stride. Once we've got a good narrative going, we don't really want to examine it too closely. An Iroquois succumbing to deadly curiosity could march all the way around to the bottom of the world and back around to the top and approach the shaman and say, "you know? I checked, and the world really isn't balanced on the back of a turtle after all," and that will be the last sound you hear before the thunk of his severed head hitting the ground. For a lot of recorded history, curiosity killed a lot more than cats.

But I'm a curious soul, and I have to go where that leads me, rather than where I want it to. I'm really sorry I didn't get to spend a fetal week as a salamander, but that's life.

All the splendid portraits in this post were made by Nina Harfman over at Nature Remains. She's a great photographer with some sweet subject matter and she's pretty dang limber, too.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

We're Being Porked

In June 2011, an enormous hog farm blew sky-high, killing 1500 hogs outright and damaging the reputation of the industry. Interviewed at the site of the blast, the manager kicked through an ankle-deep deposit of cracklins and stared up at the sky with regret. "If the fins in the ventilation system had only held, our entire product might have rained down as chops," he said, but such was not the case; the barn was destroyed. A fine particulate cloud of Baco-Bits is believed to have traveled around the world twice, affecting sunsets for days. The precise cause of the explosion remains a mystery. Hog industry spokesmen are at a loss to explain what they describe as a "sudden highly localized reversal-of-gravity incident." A local band of parishioners calling themselves Holy Pisspots Of The Lord has determined that the explosion was evidence of God's wrath over something or other, and has set up a preliminary picket nearby with blank signs until they narrow down the list of society's transgressions. But local scientists are fingering the poop. Contacted several miles upwind, Dr. Sneedwit from the county extension service explained that a full test of the hog poop lagoon will have to wait until he gets a fresh undergraduate, or until the return of the lagoon maintenance crew, Darryl, who is still in the hospital awaiting an eyebrow transplant. Nonetheless, he was confident that the culprit was the notorious Gray Foam in the poop lagoon, the result of a massive buildup of bacteria farts, set off by a spark. "It's not the fault of the bacterium," he said. "If you or I fell into a giant vat of cheese fondue, we'd eat our way out, too."

Another ill-advised stunt on the farm
The danger of a concentrated poop pile is real. My grandma's farm in North Dakota had a repository confined by an old building foundation and Uncle Cliff regularly stocked it with fresh cow pies. This was the site of the first flowering of several of my personal hallmarks, including an attraction to poop and a tendency to tip over. I do recall trying to balance on the old foundation, and the next thing the adults know, there was a "ploop" sound followed by the sight of a small, dark, tragically encrusted figure staggering over the landscape, wailing like a tornado siren. I needed comfort, soap, and the loving arms of my mother, but instead I was hosed down in the front yard to the accompaniment of more laughter than is customary for Lutherans.

The situation can only be more dire in the case of the modern hog factory. The 2011 incident was not an isolated one. Gray foam explosions have been reported in several locations of great hog concentration, but the industry remains proud of its contribution to the American food supply. "Thanks to our modern methods, pork is incredibly cheap," a spokesman said. "In some regions, some very fine butt can be had for pennies." This happy circumstance is due to efficiencies of scale. Whereas pigs used to be raised on small family-run farms by picturesque workers in overalls and a feed store cap, swinging a slop bucket, these have been almost entirely replaced by the mega-piggery. The modern hog farm business model has thus been credited with relieving thousands of individuals from honest labor. And each factory is capable of producing a half-billion tons of ham a year from an average of two thousand proto-meat units after a brief interim still referred to colloquially as "life."

Great strides have been made in redefining humane treatment. The proto-meat units are wedged in together under one roof, where they are protected from sunburn; they are administered antibiotics without co-pay; the young meat units are thoughtfully confined to their own crate, which protects them from being crushed if the mother-unit attempts to roll over in hers. Industry analysts are looking into methods of further enhancing proto-meat unit density in the barns by the topical application of Spam jelly for lubrication, which, they point out, is fully recyclable.

"We stand behind our work," an industry spokesman said, standing in his office several hundred miles to the north. "The poop lagoon is, unfortunately, an unavoidable side effect from the 'life' phase of meat production, and while we continue to strive to reduce or eliminate that phase, it must be pointed out that the majority of our lagoons are still in a pre-exploded condition. We remain committed to maximum value to the consumer and profit to the shareholder, and we're especially proud of our role in encouraging thousands of small hog farmers to explore new opportunities." He directed further inquiries to the industry website. "There's a lot of good information in there," he said. Lagoons-full.