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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Love Me Tender

A California chef has been tried for murder after accidentally killing and boiling his wife. The case had been simmering for a while. Jurors were not persuaded on numerous fronts. It was difficult to make the case that the man had accidentally boiled his wife, inasmuch as he confessed to sticking her in a fifty-five gallon drum head first, keeping her submerged with weights, and slow-cooking her for four days. This, the jury felt strongly, had intention written all over it, even though--as the defense pointed out--the accused was a professional chef and yet failed to add the celery and carrots at any point. By chance or no, once he discovered he had boiled his wife in a vat, he disposed of most of the remains, by now quite flavorful, in the grease pit at his restaurant. Only the skull was left, and that, he says, he stored in the attic at his mother's house. This had the ring of truth, because the attic is where you store everything you don't really want anymore but can't bring yourself to throw away. Police dispatched to the location were unable to find the skull, but no one ever finds anything they're actually looking for in an attic. If they had gone up there to look for the Christmas ornaments, they might easily have stumbled across the skull. However, to date, no portions of the body are in evidence or, to put it another way, there are no leftovers.

Boiling a corpse is not unprecedented. In 1796, fierce General "Mad Anthony" Wayne sat down and died in a chair of gout. (The local museum still has the Chair Of Gout.) He was buried under the blockhouse and remained there for 13 years before his son arrived to unearth his remains and take them to the family plot in Pennsylvania.  To everyone's surprise, most of him was still in nearly mint condition, preserved by the cold, when he was dug up. The son, who had been counting on a clean set of bones, had him stripped, dismembered, and boiled, and the meat was discarded. Nobody trusts gouty meat.

It is only natural for someone aiming to dispose of incriminating remains to fall back on the knowledge of his own experience--in the case of the California chef, cooking. Rare is the mailman, for instance, who has not given at least some thought to how to hide a body. Practices change over time. In my early days as a letter carrier, we would probably have gone with the old standby, misdelivering the corpse to a vacant house. Everybody does something like that sooner or later. Or, bodies can simply be stacked in the mailman's own garage with the rest of the mail. Modern carriers need only slap a garbled barcode on the remains and slip them in the mail stream, where they will loop endlessly around the country being stamped "undeliverable" until they fall apart.

The jury also had trouble believing that the murder itself was not deliberate, although here the defense was stronger. The accused admitted he had duct-taped his wife and then fallen asleep, and to his dismay she was dead by the time he woke up. Tellingly, he gave several different versions of why he duct-taped his wife, including to keep her from getting into her car while she was drunk and high on cocaine--a public service, if you will--and to get her to quit talking so he could get some sleep. The latter version is the more plausible. Anyone who drops dead when prevented from speaking is probably a pretty noisy individual.

He got away with his crime for two years, but panicked when it appeared that the police were closing in on him. He threw himself off an 80-foot cliff but succeeded only in tenderizing himself. But he was wise to try to avoid apprehension.

They were going to grill him.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We Should Count

All over the nation, citizens are getting ready to vote, have already voted, or are watching reality TV. The only thing that unites us is our disgust at the current Congress, but we are allowed to vote for only our own familiar wretched portion of it, and so the entire despised cast will be reinstalled more or less intact. Flyers paper the country featuring unflattering photos of politicians touched up in blood red and variously described as job- or baby-killers, or champions of vulture capitalism and the progeny of rapists.

Some citizens will be targeted by robo-phone calls informing them that we're voting alphabetically this year and if their names end in a "z" their votes will not be counted. Others will be told the election is in December, or that they will be turned away at the polls without an affidavit signed by both their mistresses and their wives. A Democratic congressman will be welded to his seat until dead by virtue of his newly-drawn district with tentacles wrapped around every reliable vote for fifty stringy miles. A Republican will too, and also buy a voting-machine company. The machines may or may not have a paper trail, but any mysterious vote-flipping or vote-cancelling glitch inserted into them will be undetectable. It is not a sure thing that the majority of Americans will make the best choice, but it is an even dicier proposition that the choice they actually make will be reflected in the results. Jimmy Carter is nowhere in sight. Something about this system smells pretty bad.

But here in Oregon, democracy smells like bacon.

Fourteen years ago, when it was first proposed that we conduct our elections entirely by mail ballot, I was appalled. I had always found it bracing to stride through the slanting rain to the church basement, sign my name for the smiling matron manning the "A through M" line, and snick the curtain shut in my booth. It was a sacrament. Vote-By-Mail would be like taking communion with a scratch 'n' sniff card. But the proposal passed handily, and in the next election, my ballot arrived in the mail with the Voter's Pamphlet.

And I was won over. I opened my ballot and spread it out on the kitchen counter. I knew who I was voting for in the major races. But there were problems. There was always a gaggle of judges to pass judgment on, people I'd never heard of. One boasts a commitment to fairness and integrity. His opponent is uniquely qualified by her intelligence, fair-mindedness and integrity.

Or, elsewhere, a "yes" vote on a ballot measure "reverses the existing law prohibiting the enforcement of the ban on mandatory coherence standards." Without a pencil, a protractor, and a piece of string, I can't tell if I'd be sending money to Darfur or clubbing baby seals.

Our ballots lounge on the kitchen counter as bacon fries in the pan, and bit by bit, as the details are clarified on public radio or by conversations with trusted friends, it gets filled in. We mail it off or drop it at the polls. If we do it early, political phone calls and mailings quit.

But, some worry, what about voter fraud? Doesn't this method of voting make that more likely? Just like everywhere else, dead people show up on the voter rolls, Dick Cheney inexplicably not among them, but they don't vote very hard. And voter impersonation in Oregon occurs between .0009% and .00004% of the time, just like everywhere else. In fact, it only works out to one dude every ten years out in Harney County, and they'd totally nail his ass if it wasn't always during bow-hunting season.

I am confident my vote will count in Oregon. Not for president, of course--that's up to Ohioans, and it's a whole different problem. And this year, in my state, bless its ferny little heart, I get to vote in favor of a ballot measure that amends the constitution by making "grammatical and spelling changes." Next year: jail time for apostrophe abuse.

For the rest of you, protect your vote. Demand hand-counting of ballots. It's important. Because depending on the results of Tuesday's election, we will have a planet uninhabitable in either fifty years, or a hundred.