Saturday, December 28, 2013


Jorge Odon, an Argentine auto mechanic, has come up with an invention to aid labor during a difficult childbirth. You'd think he'd be a natural, being already familiar with adjusting the timing and cleaning the plugs and lubing, plus he has the little rolly-thing to slide under the chassis. But this idea he got from a party trick he'd seen for getting a loose cork out of an empty wine bottle. The only method I know of for getting stranded corks out of a wine bottle would not be of much use in childbirth unless you were hoping for a nonfunctional baby, and that's a whole different kind of zzzzt zzzt whoa.

Women whine about childbirth but it's totally natural. If it was meant to hurt we wouldn't have been equipped with rubber hipbones and pleasant temperaments. Why, all you have to do is sneeze and the baby shoots right out of there. And it's on its own little string like a paddle-ball set so it's easy to retrieve. It's a snap.

I have never personally given birth, but that's what I hear.

It was a snap for my mom, that's for sure. She showed up at the doctor's office at the time on her appointment card and took a long nap during which I was somehow extracted, and when she woke up I was all wiped off and bundled up and handed to her, easy as pie. According to the social norms of the time, everyone agreed to agree that I was her baby, even though the doctor had plenty of time to shop me around or make substitutions. I was small, about the size of a large Virginia peanut, and probably not real marketable. Although there are no witnesses extant, the odds are good I was mined out with the aid of forceps to the skull. To this day there is a spot at my temple that, if pressed on, makes "Vaya Con Dios" go in a loop in my brain, and there's no other explanation for it.

My mom never supplied me with any information about where babies came out of. It's possible she didn't know for sure, inasmuch as she was conked out at the time, and it involved an area of the body that we didn't officially have any of in our family.

Anyway it's the extraction part of this that our auto mechanic has addressed. Apparently, you can get a
stranded cork out of a wine bottle by introducing a plastic bag into the neck and blowing it open. It somehow surrounds the cork, which can then be pulled right out. Mr. Odon got to thinking something like that would be easier on a recalcitrant wedged baby than big tweezers. He tested out the proposition and ended up with a plastic bag that goes only so far in as the baby's head, surrounds it, and from that point it's a relatively easy tug. The hard part is over for mom, and all that's left is the minute-to-minute monitoring for the first few years, maintenance, sheltering, feeding for the next thirty, and worry for the rest of her shortened life.

You'd think that putting a plastic bag around a baby's head would be detrimental, but the baby isn't breathing until it's out and someone smacks it. Plus it's super efficient. You can pop the bag to get the baby going, or wake up mom, if applicable. Or, if things don't work out right, you have your disposal system right therzzzzt zzzzztkrak

That lightning bolt gets closer all the time.

Anyway, I think it's a great idea. I'm going to try it. The cork trick.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


I've said it before. I go to the Tuba Christmas to visit my childhood.

It doesn't matter that horns were not a part of my growing-up. "What instrument would you like to learn to play?" my father said, and I told him trumpet, and there was a little pause before he asked me if I meant cello.

We were a few minutes late for the Tuba Christmas concert on the square downtown. They were already into a deep, majestic rendition of Hark The Herald Angels Sing when we walked up, accompanied by a passing fire truck that cut loose with a baritone blat that only enhanced the performance. Here's the thing about tubas. You hear them through your ears, and you hear them through your feet, and they set up a seismic rumble in your viscera, in the most vital and fundamental part of you, and that's important. Because that's where the small person you once were lives. The small person has never gone away, but she is buried in layers of flesh and time, and she's harder to hear, until the tubas tremble her up again.

The audience is beginning to sing this time, most of us tentative, but the cover of brass makes us braver. A Christmas carol funneled low and slow through a tuba bell is accommodating to a person who no longer sings. I sang in all of Miss Nina's choirs. Miss Nina assembled them all herself, even sewed all the robes, and I started in her baby blue choir. My tryout was family legend. Evidently I got hold of a corner of Jesus Loves Me and let 'er rip. "You broke the sound barrier," the grownups said. That was a new thing at the time. They were just then making aircraft that would break the sound barrier, so people were taking liberties with the phrase. It's doubtful that I had hit speeds of 800 mph, but I was clearly not lacking for enthusiasm.

But the tubas allow even a person who used to be a reliable soprano to push out a few notes in her remaining lower register. My rusty new tenor soared with the herald angels. But with angelic hosts proclaim was one note higher than I now have. My vocal range had compressed and settled into a thin felt, like years of dust on a trunk. My note broke in two, one part bleat and one part sob. It wasn't just the challenge of the note. It was that the note was tied to a string and the small person deep inside was tugging on the other end.

Look! the small person said. Mommy had one hand and Daddy had the other. She was in her little boots and stamping in the snow. Downtown, somewhere, where all the windows had displays. It was snowing inside the windows too, and frost sparkled the corners. Mechanical Santas turned this way and that. Reindeer arced up high. A train chugged by, right at eye level. There was a horse, with jingle bells. A real horse? Maybe. Peace on earth, and mercy mild. Was it possible to be happier? Happier than this? She tugged on the string again. Look!

It wasn't. It isn't. I've had years to make sure.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tater's Big Day

Big day in the Tater Brewster household. That's what her name is at the vet, but nowhere else--she just goes by the one name, like Cher, or Madonna. Or God. Tater has just accomplished the thing she's been training for her whole life. We don't know just how old she is; she was nearly full-size when we picked her up, but we don't know how many previous owners she'd run through, for being too much cat. We almost took her back to the Humane Society that first week too. "We wanted a little less cat," we planned to explain apologetically. "Something with a little less cat and a little more more ottoman in it."

That first time we saw her at the Humane Society, she was pinballing a toy mouse around in a room full of snoozing cats. She smacked the mouse under the door into the hall where she couldn't retrieve it, and we sent it back under for her, but kept looking. Personally, I was looking for something more speckly. But none of the speckly numbers had much joie de vivre. This one was jammed right up to here with joie de vivre. We took her home. Her joie only multiplied. Everything in the house was battable. The only time she wasn't  knocking things off shelves, she was climbing on our heads or gnawing on our hair or spindling our eyebrows out of pure, uncontrollable affection. Her favorite thing was smacking toy mice under the refrigerator, or under a closed door.

But she never saw a real one until last week. And by gum if she didn't nab it and carry it around in her mouth. This is where the previous cat, (Saint) Larry, used to fall down on the job. She would strut around with the mouse and then set it down and look around the room in case there was any praise or admiration in it. She'd sweep her head around as though she was getting a lifetime achievement award, and when she looked down again, the mouse would be gone. Every time.

Tater had a feeling about this mouse long before she nabbed it. She was acting all fidgety and spending way too much time nosing around the baseboards. It was either a mouse, we thought, or an impending earthquake. And the thing about things that impend is you can never rule them out. But this time, we're going with mouse. Inasmuch as she finally came up with one. Dave was the witness. She nabbed it, stuck it in her mouth, and trotted into another room with it, and set it down. And lost it. There was really no place for a mouse to go in that room, except somewhere in the folds of the quilts that we sit under to watch TV.

There's never much on TV anyway.

But later, there she was with it. She'd gotten it back, and this time she had done something instinctual to it, and it was a much reduced rodent. Battable. And she batted it under the door. Went to the other side and batted it back. We let her keep this up for a couple minutes before Dave intervened to dispatch the poor critter.

Tater always knew this day would come. With every twitch of her dreaming paw, she knew. She was like Homo erectus gazing out over the savannah and visualizing being a billionaire venture capitalist. Finally she had fulfilled her genetic promise. Her legacy as a carnivore was now enshrined, frozen solid in a plastic bag at the bottom of the garbage can.

We don't approve of letting domestic cats murder native wildlife, no matter how much it entertains them. That's why we don't send her outside to help the thick population of subsidized neighborhood cats with their songbird eradication project. But we're willing to make an exception for wildlife found pooping in our dishwasher.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Probably, Rain

The weathermen around here like to comment periodically on what an interesting area we are in, meteorologically. By that they mean they really wish they worked in L.A. or somewhere they could phone in a forecast for the month and go on vacation. Here in Portland we have a lovely confluence of topographical features that result in great natural beauty, massive gastropods, and meteorologists with substance abuse issues. We take it in stride. If I need a weather report, I check the NOAA website and three different locations in the newspaper and pick the one I like the best. They won't be the same.

The TV guys look uncomfortable when they're pointing at the map. "We've got moisture coming in off the ocean," they'll say, beginning to shrug, "and an arctic blast surging in from the north"--their shoulders are now just below their ears--"and it's all going to turn on what the low pressure sweeping down the gorge decides to do." The weatherman is now noticeably shorter as measured against the latitude line on the map behind him, and he has punted as usual, phrasing his forecast in such a way that it will all be the fault of some anthropomorphized cold front with an agenda and a poker face.

It's not that there aren't things you can sort of count on. Like, it's probably not going to snow. I was excited when I moved here when, that first winter, it began to rain, and rain some more, and then a cold front was supposed to come in. Snow! I thought. I like snow. I did like snow. It was pretty and fluffy and it got you out of school for a day. I was many years past that being a factor, but it still informed my emotions. And I was not yet a mailman, for whom there are famously no snow days. Not only are there no snow days, but they're going to make you climb into an antique Jeep with slick tires and no heater and skeeter out like a greased hockey puck. The idle is set to five million RPMs in order to keep the engine from crapping out altogether and as soon as you let your foot off the brake it is just between God and gravity which ditch you end up in. This is one reason mailmen drink on the job. The other is they're alcoholics.

Nevertheless, we got no snow that year. We'd had precipitation for two months running and as soon as it got below freezing, the sun came out. The problem was we get our moisture from the south and west, which is warmer, and our cold from the north and east, which is drier.

What we don't get much of is very cold or very hot. This suits me. I do remember a particularly cold night I spent waiting for the train in Boston. It was -15F and there was a fifty-mph wind, and I thought: how interesting! I have literally never been this cold in my life. My nipples snapped off and rattled around with the coins in my pocket. Chunks of my ass calved away and clanked onto the platform. It didn't grow back for weeks.

But last week it got really cold. Oh, maybe not cold like it gets some places, but fifteen degrees, and less. We're not cut out for it. We put on our good raincoats, and then we layer on our okay raincoats and our muck raincoats, and then we're out of options. We haven't prepared. Suddenly we're Googling how to keep hummingbird feeders thawed out ("heat them"). Yes, we have winter hummingbirds. Nobody's told them about global weirding and we worry we'll find them hanging upside-down from branches like tiny popsicles.

So we have rain coming in off the ocean, cold coming in from Canada, and a large mountain in the way
of all of it. The Columbia River Gorge picks up any screwy weather it finds out east and fire-hoses it into the metropolitan area. There are so many microclimates the precipitation map looks gerrymandered.  One day we noticed it was pouring rain in the front yard and sunny in the back. So many things happen at once that the most common weather feature in downtown Portland is rainbows, which is what most of us would have voted for anyway.

Any batch of moisture drifting into this little valley doesn't know whether to pellet up, take a gut punch right down the gorge, or smack into a mountain. It's all confused. So mostly it just piddles itself out of sheer lack of imagination. The weathermen cross their fingers and count on that. The phrase here is a little different from most places. If you don't like the weather, wait six months.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Midnight Minuet

From Trousering Your Weasel.

It's not the evidence of gang activity per se. It's the noise and the disruption, especially in the middle of the night, in the city. It's just rude.

Raccoons don't care. Procyonid is their proper name, meaning "before the dog." It's short for "y'all best broom thet thing off the porch before the dog see it." Only in Latin.

They seem kind of cute from a distance, but like a lot of other things, they swell up at the sight of a man with unzipped pants. Or so I was informed by Dave, right about the time he lost the habit of peeing out behind the shed. They were large. Lined up a few feet away, none of them qualified for carry-on, and some were getting into duffel territory. He was not able to determine, especially through their masks, if they were curious or malevolent. Or peckish.

And now they're back. This is the worst time of year, when the cold snap has turned all the grapes into little Jell-O shots and the raccoons finish off what the starlings didn't grab. The south side of the house is littered with birds sleeping it off in the shrubbery and the raccoons have convened on the roof to dance. It would be one thing if they had any rhythm. It would be one thing if they weren't two sheets to the wind. It would be one thing if they executed a minuet at high noon. But no. They dance and thump and skeeter and giggle at two in the morning, directly over our bed.

We have a tower on the house from which we can actually look out a window and down on our roof. The first hoedown Dave went up there to put the fear of Dave in them. He flicked on the light and charged the window making boogah boogah noises. Eight pairs of eyes edged up close. Hey, it's Zipper Man, they said, and giggled, and settled in to watch the window like it was America's Got Talent. My husband is a good-sized man but, as I have had to report to him on other occasions, there is no such thing as a Fear Of Dave. Not really.

There isn't a huge danger in having raccoons. They can carry rabies, but at least they wash it first. One problem is they can settle into your attic or crawl space. If you do have raccoons in your attic, word is you can repel them by tossing in tennis balls soaked in ammonia. Or you can put in a radio dialed to a talk station. I know just the talk radio host that would be particularly repellent, but resorting to that would be like clearing ants out of your house with time-release napalm.

They were pretty matter-of-fact about this sort of thing in the old days; I have a photo of my Uncle Cliff in a fine raccoon coat, which implied a certain amount of violence. And the original Joy Of Cooking featured a recipe for raccoon. Today, I'm at a loss. The other night they were going to town up there on the roof, and giggling, and I thundered up to the tower to see what could be done. Eight pairs of eyes turned my way. I didn't end up doing anything. I think the big one with the accordion threw me off, and I sure didn't want to do anything to get the group with the cowbells going. The mature thing to do, when you can't change something else, is to change your attitude. To look on the bright side.

Eight trillion bits of information on the internet and you can't find one search engine to tell you what the insulation R-value of raccoon poop is.

Happy birthday, Zipper Man.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Still Between Dust And Dust

At some point, the mature person who has already bushwhacked her way through all of life's other milestones begins to think about death in a non-fictional way.  That's all that's left, and it is moreover closer than it used to be. Some people have grand plans for themselves, but I don't. I figure on being a brief damp spot, followed, in a geologically insignificant amount of time, by a small heap of dust and flakes with no opinion. Don't be sad for me. I'm not. For those of us without even the staying power to be an all-purpose spirit drifting in stardust, thinking about death gets pretty specific. I just hope for the best during the endgame.

The way I prefer to imagine it, the act of dying will be a gentle thing, somehow devoid of panic. There will have been some sort of shift so that the mind is no longer afraid of being quenched. Ideally, things will just wear out and I will slip from this life without stress or embarrassing emissions. I gave the concept a practice run the other night when I got sick.

Not sick sick. Just one of my peculiar colds in which the symptoms occur all out of order or maybe some of them don't manifest at all. In this case, I developed a blatting baritone that was only minimally sexy and began to want to cough recreationally most of the time. No sore throat. No congestion. It was merely annoying until the third night, when a little fever crept in.  At that point I holed up in a comfy chair with a blankie over me and churned out heat for the lap cat. Dave poured me a beer and I soldiered through it.

Uh-oh. I don't soldier through beer. Probably, I thought, this is a sign that I am dying. And I don't care. It's okay. As long as I don't have to get up out of the chair, I'm fine with whatever comes. It's peaceful, really. This is what is supposed to happen. You begin to separate from the joys and cares of life. Like, right now, as long as the quilt is still up under my chin, and the cat doesn't have an epizootic and patch out, and nobody is expecting anything of me, it's all good.

Dave made me a steak and hash browns with a bright salad on the side, and asked if I'd like a glass of red to go with. No, I don't think I want any wine. I caught his raised eyebrow of concern, and realized: yes, I am dying. I can see that now. It's not so bad. It doesn't hurt. Do not worry about me. I will just sit here and fade away. I will be a pile of dust soon. I don't need to tell anyone what folder the book I'm writing is in, or where the sheet with all my passwords is. They'll either figure it out, or they won't, but either way it doesn't matter. Nothing really matters, as long as I don't have to get up.

With a sense of heightened self-awareness, I focused on a small, dark presence deep within me. It was the Seed of Death. It began to grow. I acknowledged it with a pitiful rattly cough, and it dislodged. It was a snot nugget after all, but it was right next to the Seed of Death.

I ate half the steak and half the potatoes and couldn't manage the salad at all. Yes, I am surely dying. I will cruise in and out of consciousness, and at some point I will no longer cruise back in. She didn't want that second beer, Dave will tell people afterwards, and I knew she didn't have much time left. I just kept her comfortable.
What a nice man. I hope he doesn't miss me too much. I don't want him to be sad. With great effort, I unbundled myself from the blankie and staggered up to bed. At 8:30, four hours earlier than usual. Yes, clearly, death approaches.

Twelve hours later I managed to make it downstairs in my jammies and haystack hair and announced myself with a loogie-rattling honk. I'd stayed in bed just to make sure, but I was not technically dead at all. Someone had tied a clatter of tin cans to my lung bumpers. Jesus Christ, are you ever going to stop coughing? Dave said, with a little edge. He won't miss me too much. That's good, I think.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Let's Hang On To What We Got

They've found over a thousand planets outside our solar system by now. It's hard to spot an extra-solar planet all by itself. You not only need a good telescope, you need a giant hand to hold in front of its star to block out the glare. So mostly this is not how they're found. One of the ways you can find planets in other solar systems is to measure just how fast the star is trying to get away from us; and if it's dragging planets with it, you'll see a wobble in its progress. It's impossible to get up to speed towing the kids. Another way to discover new planets is to examine the brightness of the stars they're revolving around. If the planet travels in front of the star in relation to us, the star should dim a little. In order to do this, you have to be looking at the star just when its planet is traveling across its face, or you won't notice it. Space being the roomy place it is, the odds of a planet lining up between us and its star are pretty low, but it happens, and there are people--night shift workers, mostly--who spend all their time looking for it. As long as it doesn't happen when they're in the bathroom, they'll catch it.

So we do know that there are planets out there in other solar systems, and sometimes we even know what they're made of. They've recently located one made of rock and iron, just like Earth. Earth is mostly molten but crusts up nicely on the chilly outer edges. This new planet is whipping around its star in eight and a half hours and is not considered a likely spot for life. It would be hard for a critter to hang onto a planet flying around that fast, but inasmuch as the planet is entirely molten, holding on is the least of the challenges.

They've even found planets orbiting around pulsars. A pulsar is what's left over when a star blows up, and all that's left is the throbbing. I wouldn't have imagined that any planets would survive their star going supernova, but they do. This should be a great comfort to the kind of people who are so insufficiently frantic about their own mortality that they need to worry about the sun blowing up. I've met them. They tend not to get worked up about climate change, for some reason.

Scientists like to find planets they think might support life. Unfortunately, with the state of scientific literacy being what it is, this encourages people to imagine we might hop onto those planets once we're done trashing this one. If you point out how many light-years away they are, they just think it sounds sunnier.

Of course, we needed to properly define what a planet is before we could assert we had found any, and recently we've come to a consensus. A planet must be big enough that its own gravity has spanked it into a round shape. But it must not be so massive that it begins its own thermonuclear reactions. If that happens (it would have to be thirteen times bigger than Jupiter), it is essentially a star, if not a major one. It would be called a brown dwarf, or, as they prefer to be known, a Little Star Person Of Color. But there's a third requirement for achieving planet status, and this is the one that doomed Pluto: it needs to have mopped up most of the stuff around it. It turns out that Pluto is a member of a whole roaming pack. Not only that, but some of the other members of the pack are nearly as big and vicious. Pluto's in the Kuiper Belt, a revolving swath of space crap including a few other spheres that could qualify as planets themselves if we weren't enforcing that clean-up clause, but we must have standards.

My favorite of the planets discovered so far is the one they're calling the Fluffy Planet, with a density like that of cork. Even if it doesn't have enough mass and gravitational pull to hold onto anything, we could always pin stuff to it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fudging It

Dave likes to tell people I'm a great dessert-maker. Not because it's true, but because he really likes desserts and doesn't want to make them himself, and I will. I make them with love. Also butter, chocolate, cream, sugar, and nuts, which are more important. You could take all those things and put them in a bag and swing them around your head a few times and you'll get something out of it that people like. I actually have no idea what I'm doing when I make dessert. All kinds of shit can go wrong. There's hard ball this, and soft ball that, and you can't make things reliably fluffy unless you know what spells to cast. Or, you know, some chemistry.

Take my annual Thanksgiving dessert. My sister-in-law was in charge of dinner years ago and so I ran it by her. "I was thinking of making something different this year--I cut it out of a magazine," I said. She was skeptical. "Does it have chocolate?" she wanted to know. I consulted my clipped recipe. "It's called "Fudge-Slathered Fudge Cake," I said. "Bring it," she said. A tradition was born.

Fifty shades of turkey
We change traditions in this family like we change our shorts. A couple years ago Elizabeth showed up lugging a forty-pound side dish of Corn Pudd'n. We all had a spoonful. "New tradition!" we sang out in unison. "It's a Paula Deen recipe," she said carefully. "You do not want to know what's in it."

I still don't know everything that's in it, but part of it is made from pureed fat person.

The Fudge-Slathered Fudge Cake was a hit too. It looked weird, but it tasted great. The cake part gets all its lift from egg whites, momentarily, and then when it cools it shrinks and craters into something with all the heft of a communion wafer. I was horrified that first year, but it comes out that way every time. The cake is only there to hold the frosting up, and the frosting is terrific. But the second year the frosting didn't set up. I started slathering it on, and it kept puddling up around the bottom like saggy pants. I was horrified, but the family gathered around it and monitored the lava flow with spoons and fingers, and everyone was happy. Some years later I stumbled onto a way to make it work right and that part has been fine ever since.

But it's a dessert. It's not going to behave just because you want it to. Every year I find a new way to
screw up the fudge cake. The egg whites got particularly exuberant in one corner this year so the whole cake was on a slant. The frosting requires bittersweet chocolate cut up so that it melts into the hot butter/cream mixture. I probably bought fancy chocolate the first few years but then I thought good ol' chocolate chips would save time and work just as well, and they have. This year I had some leftover Mini Morsels. I figured teeny chocolate chips would melt even faster, which would have been true, if it hadn't been completely false. I kept stirring and stirring and those chips weren't going anywhere. What sort of chocolate chip does not melt when plunged into cream and butter that has been boiling for twelve minutes? Why, little plastic chocolate chips, evidently. I mashed them against the sides of the bowl until most of them had succumbed, but not all. It looked like frosting with little fairy doots.

The cake tasted fine. I think everyone was thankful for it. And,  thankful that I'm not in charge of the rest of the dinner. That's another tradition.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What's My Line?

One of the cool things about the olden days was that if someone told you what he did for a living, you knew what it was. You had your butcher, your baker, your candlestick-maker. Occupations started to get more obscure when I was a kid and now it's all out of control. I have no idea what anyone's doing.

When I was growing up in the humid shadow of the nation's capital, if anyone asked me what my daddy did, I said "he works for the government." Everyone else in my class did, too. There would be a few whose dads were in the military and their kids knew their ranks and stuff. The rest of us really didn't have a clue, nor did we much care. Daddy went off in the bus at seven and as long as he came home in time to carve the meatloaf and dish up the green bean bake, that was all we needed to know. There's evidence that I didn't even know everything my mom did, even though she did it right there at home. At least, by the time I'd gone to college, it would appear I believed in laundry fairies.

When I got into my teenage years I knew enough to say "my father is a statistician for the Veterans' Administration." Sometimes I'd say "mathematician" because it sounded smarter. But still, to this day, I do not know exactly what he did every day when the bus dumped him off in D.C. There's something about people being dead and gone that makes you suddenly way more curious about them than you were when they were around to answer questions.

I did not contribute to the general obfuscation about jobs. I was a mailman. Everyone knows just what that is. Most people think it's sort of cute.

Spanky Grommet Flapper
But now someone can tell me what she does for a living and I'm right back to being clueless. You ask a young person today what she does and she gives you her job title, sometimes a job description, and then she might follow up with a snappy, self-deprecating bon mot. My friend Munny, for example, is an Associate Consultant at Pivot Leadership. "I'm the associate consultant responsible for program implementation from project pitch through program delivery," she'll explain.

All I know from that is that candlesticks are not involved. "I support operations for the grommet synchrony module," she might as well have said, adding, with a chuckle, "basically, I'm a spanky grommet flapper." And everyone in the room smiles and nods and someone remarks that you can't swing a dead cat around here without smacking a spanky grommet flapper. Merriment ensues. Someone eventually notices my blank look and wonders if I need to have the explanation drawn on my forehead with a crayon.

I used to stick letters through holes in people's houses. That's right. Ask me what a letter is all you want, kids--I'm not telling.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Heat By Soup And Sweater

We started with a reasonable-sized house (American-moderate, Third-World-ridiculous), and then we let our desires get the upper hand and it metastasized into a 2700-square-foot house even though it was still just the two of us, and in all that time I have never really been willing to heat the sucker. When we bought it in 1978, an octopus furnace squatted in the basement, eating oil. It was not forced-air. My grandma had a house with a big vent in the floor on the main level and all the heat emanated out of that without blessing the second floor in any way. Somewhere in the nether regions was a furnace that hoovered coal, which was as plentiful as bunnies in North Dakota. Our house in Portland was similar, in that if you turned the thermostat up, a big rumbling could be heard from the basement, and a tepid breath of warmth would seep out of the various vents and take the edge off, after an hour or so.

Second floor? Forget it. Whatever vapors deigned to coax the first floor into the low sixties were sucked straight out the walls and windows before encountering the second floor. That's where our bedroom was. Our breath froze on the windows to the point of being chippable. I bought flannel sheets. I had insulation blown in. I think it was more a suggestion of insulation. We don't really know where that insulation ended up. You're supposed to trust the blower guy.

Early on I bought a Vermont Castings wood stove and Dave installed it in the kitchen after he put in brick walls and a hearth. I spent most of the winter four feet away from the stove. Dave put in ducting and a fan to pull some of the wood heat into our bedroom on the second floor. The ice disappeared from inside the windows but it was still hard to get out of bed in the morning.

We bought a cord of wood that first year but then Dave kept coming upon discarded pallet material and whatnot and before long he had developed a habit of scrounging waste wood from construction sites, a habit that continues to this day. "What does your husband do now that he's retired?" people ask, and the first thing I think of is his butt in the air bent over a dumpster scouting for dimensional lumber. All our wood is free, if you put no value on his labor and willingness to dumpster-dive and saw shit up for our stove.

We each had our bailiwicks. I'd pay for utilities, for instance, and he'd pay for food. It just sort of settled out that way, and after about five or ten years of shivering in the dark, Dave announced that  he was going to (dammit) pay for fuel, and he (by cracky) planned to pay for some right then and there. He'd buy us a tankful of oil, and stride right up to the thermostat and flip the lever Like A Man. The problem was--and he knew it--something else was responsible for my heat tightwaddery. There have always been things I'm totally cheap about and other things I can't throw enough money at. My budget for good beer would buy a lifetime of BTUs. I'll go out and spend enough money on one dinner + tip to pay for a hundred mosquito nets for African kids. I buy Art. But I'll reuse the same Kleenex until it's saturated and if it has enough integrity to hold up when it dries I'll pull it out flat and start over. And I can hardly bear to heat my house.

When I was a kid our house was always cold. I remember crawling behind my mom's Electrolux vacuum cleaner because the exhaust coming out of the back end was warm. Sensing the oil heat flying out of the house makes me squirm. Maybe early on it was about the money, but now it just seems wasteful in a way that drinking good beer just doesn't. We have natural gas heat now, but that isn't much better. I hate to pull all this fossil fuel out of the ground and squander it just because it's hard to move with ten sweaters on. I'm not out of sweaters yet.

It's the curse of the liberal. I'm totally cool with having a wonderful meal and supporting my local farmer and brewer and restaurateur and wait staff. One of my favorite local joints was in an old drafty concrete electrical substation building that was impossible to heat. The waiters tucked Pendleton blankets around our laps and then brought us Pad Thai. I felt right at home.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

All The Pretty Little Pixels

Dave was the one who thought I should get a digital camera. He said it would be really useful for my artwork. I didn't want it, because I'd have to learn something new, and I hate that. He bought it for me anyway. A week later--I'm sure this has happened to all of us--I wanted to draw a picture of a Tyrannosaurus rex peering through gingko leaves, but I didn't have any reference material for a gingko tree. (The tyrannosaur was hard to come by too.) So I took my new camera a couple blocks away and fired off some shots of a gingko tree. My computer hoovered them right up and displayed them for me. Damn. That was slick.

The thing took better pictures than my fancy camera and cost nothing to process. Now I can point it outside my window and fire off fifty pictures in a row of my resident alpha hummingbird, whom Dave named Hannibal Nectar, just in case he turns his head just right and I get the bright fuchsia flash. Three or four of them will be terrific, but all fifty of them will be in my computer. I've now taken four billion photographs, give or take, and they're all in there somewhere. If I need to find one, I have to remember about when I took it, and that is not my strong suit.

In fact, if you asked me to name three things that happened to me in the Eighties, I wouldn't be able to slide a stake into any one thing for certain. One of the things would have really taken place in some other decade, and one of them will have happened to somebody else altogether that I have confused myself with. Remember when I fell off the back of the boat trying to give a toast? and someone will say that was Harold. And you weren't there. Oh.

Or if I'm trying to find a picture of a particular person, in theory I should be able to use the face-recognition feature on the computer. But I've boycotted that little sucker ever since the day I got an odd angle on a 4-H exhibit at the state fair and my computer asked if it was me.

There has to be a way of organizing these things. I hadn't had the digital camera that long--long enough to have a couple thousand photos though--and Dave said, you know? You should pick out the best ones and print them out and put them in a real album, like the old days. But the sheer volume of photos is overwhelming, and has a way of stripping you of your last round tuit.
There it is!

Somewhere I have a good photo of an automobile that is completely covered in moss. It would be a great illustration for a blog post about our local climate.  I needed it once and by the time I'd flipped through all four billion photos on the machine I realized I could take a new photo of a different mossy car faster than I could find the original, and I was right. I don't know where anything is. I have no idea what to do about this problem. It's like riffling through my entire vocabulary in alphabetical order to find the end of my sentence. Sadly, in fact, I happen to know it's exactly like that, dammit.

Supposedly there's some kind of cloud out there where I can put all my photos, but that sounds awfully ephemeral for someone already contending with brain fog. Once I sent them up there, how could I rain them back down?

It doesn't matter what you have a picture of now--if you ask people if they want to see your candid photo of Donald Trump in an updraft, they'll say sure! and wait for you to finger through everything on your phone, or they'll slouch behind you at your computer waiting for you to find the shot, but they don't really want to see it. Everyone is sick to death of looking at a screen. They're just being polite. People do still like pawing through the old albums. Time passes more reasonably in the albums; flip a couple pages, you gain a few years. They look at pictures of you thirty years younger, and then back at you like you're a cautionary tale. They're alarmed, but they love it.

No, I'm not scanning THOSE photos for you.
Some day my computer will blow up and smithereen my photos, and that will be that. It's just as well. They'd just be a burden for my nieces and nephews some day when I'm dead and gone, and besides the naked pictures they might be interested in are all in the old film-photo albums anyway. I've put on a few pixels since then.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What The Frock?

A Methodist minister, Rev. Frank Schaefer, is facing a church trial in Pennsylvania for officiating at the marriage of his son to another man.

The General Conference, the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church, has affirmed that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The Subcommittee On Deciding What Parts Of Leviticus To Ignore, presided over by the Rev. Baconlips, ruled on this and other issues in 2012.

The Subcommittee was originally convened in order to address concerns about Leviticus in light of modern practices. Leviticus has been a flash point for many who point out that the book famously responsible for setting out rules of behavior is about 2500 years old and no longer speaks to a society not composed primarily of goatherds. Decisions were arrived at delicately, though, just in case the third book of the Bible was dictated by God, and was not just something Moses dashed off.

Questions were first brought up by an avowedly feminist contingent that took particular issue with the requirement that a woman needed to atone for having her period, every damn time, as though it were a freaking day at the fair, at the cost of two sacrificial turtledoves. Especially with the ongoing turtledove shortage. Many found the entire area under discussion to be a sticking point. Conservatives warned that ignoring the problem of feminine discharges could lead to a very slippery slope. Moderates prevailed, however, after agreeing that all references to "unclean" might be replaced with "icky."

No one was inclined to quibble with the long list of people one is not allowed to have sex with--although a statement was drafted recommending leniency for those born into particularly large families.

Though there was general agreement on that issue, too many found the easing of restrictions against a man lying with a man to be too much to swallow. There aren't enough turtledoves in the world to clean up that crap, Rev. Baconlips was heard to mutter, before reminding committee members that the penalty for such an act is Death. "Thou shalt not kill," chanted the progressive corner, while traditionalists loudly countered with "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass." Discourse was heated but civil, with what all described as a fluid exchange, as members of the body rose one after the other to introduce their positions; but conservatives mounted stiff opposition to change, insisting that the church must take a hard line, in the end, against homosexuality.

Rev. Schaefer, having been forced to choose between his son and God, chose his son, noting that although the other choice worked out all right for Abraham, it wasn't something he felt he could count on.

Church officials say his recalcitrance is likely to result in a reprimand or suspension at the least, with the possibility that he may be defrocked. In the worst case, Rev. Schaefer could also be subjected to a holy wedgie.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

We're The Job Producers

Man, there's a ton of young people in this town. Squadrons of them, moving in with no visible means of support. They're all interested in making a life in a beautiful place full of other people who foreswear piracy and ill will, and I think they're swell. Of course, I was a total old fart about them at first. They don't have jobs! I thought. They'll founder and die! I thought. They were just like we were. When you haven't tethered your happiness to your financial prospects, you've got a much better shot at happiness. But it only works for a while, I thought. Eventually something like the 1980s comes around and it's raining money from who knows where and before you know it we've all forgotten how to be happy without it. And it isn't real money--it's gambling money--but you get it while you can, and pretend your $20,000 bungalow really is worth closer to a million bucks, and you find yourself looking at the stock market page as if it weren't the racing form, and when something tanks for a few nanoseconds you lose some of your pretend joy.

But these kids aren't even going to get the pretend joy, because there's no money anymore, I think. Look at them. They're going to die. They're all drinking coffee, and serving coffee. They're either drinking or serving coffee. That's all there is.

But somehow you can still navigate around here without tripping over a dead twenty-five-year-old. In fact, they look pretty hale. They're stacked on sofas and tanked on lattes and they wheel happily down the street with their laptops tucked in their bike bags and good will tucked into their smiles. Is it possible they can make it on selling coffee and buying coffee?

I'm starting to think it's possible. I'm not acquiring much anymore. But I do love to go out to a good restaurant now and then. Or walk a dozen miles and stop somewhere for an IPA and something off the happy hour menu. Sometimes it seems like an indulgence when we already have a good cook at home who is not me. But here's what happens. Every dollar we spend out there goes in someone's pocket. It's a waitron's or a cook's or a farmer's or a vintner's or a mushroom gatherer's pocket. And then they all go out and buy a latte or a bike light or groceries or a haircut. And then the people they give the dollar to--the very same dollar--go out and do the same thing. Our dollars are making the rounds, and everyone's making out all right.

Any economy based on making out like a bandit is doomed to have victims, but if we all provide a reasonable product or service we can hold each other up. That's why I've started paying close attention to the latest movement to raise the minimum wage. Not by the usual four cents, but to something a person might be able to live on: $15 an hour. But that can't last, they say. Eventually all the prices go up and then no one can afford anything and you have wage inflation and pretty soon everyone's poor again. Really? Apparently you can offer $15 an hour to everyone working at Burger Barn and it will inflate the price of a standard meal by seventeen cents or so. Sure, prices might rise a little, but if we can't afford to buy things unless someone is forced to work all day long and not make enough to live on, then we're profiting off slavery, or something close enough to it. Is it any better if our slaves are an ocean away, and eight years old? Is it okay if we just don't bother to think about it?

I think there's plenty of work to go around and plenty of honest wages to be made. What is unconscionable is that some people--not many--have all our money. It is our money, or it used to be. It was our pension funds, it was our wages before they were depressed, it was our health benefits. Arrr, ye scallywags! Here's the deal. Four hundred people in the United States have more money than the combined net worth of 50% of us. They have it: they have not earned it, because it is impossible, in any moral sense, to have earned that much loot. Apparently we can't tax these people, because they've bought the get out of taxes free card. And no, I am not envious, because, like most sensible people, I would be mortified to be in their condition.

So fuck them. Let's raise the federal minimum wage to $15. We'll agree to pay a tiny bit more for what we need or enjoy, and we'll pass all our dollars around the community until they come back to us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saving Spree Day

The country's being run by pirates and nincompoops, we're cooking the planet, I haven't seen the third season of Downton Abbey but I already know who dies, and now I find out that Spree Day is in trouble.

Not many people would miss Spree Day itself, but it's a troubling trend. Spree Day is celebrated at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, my alma mater (Latin for "nourishing mother," which is  apt, assuming your mother provides you with pot and Quaaludes). It's a spring day on which all classes are cancelled, and no one is supposed to know about it until it happens. You can call up the administration office on any given likely morning and ask if it's Spree Day, and if it is, you say (as I recall) "far fucking out" and hang up, and then you spend the rest of the day lounging on the lawn in front of the quad and throwing Frisbees and somebody sticks his speakers out the window and cranks up early Beatles, which makes everyone nostalgic for their youth, which was six years ago, and there's plenty of cheap pot and sex, so basically it's like every other day except for there being no classes. Which is a really big deal. It's like Saturday. Or Sunday! And how often do those happen? Let me get my slide rule.

But now, according to my alumni newsletter, the kids have gone and wrecked Spree Day, and they're thinking of doing away with it. There's drunkenness. And vandalism. And sexual aggression. The administration thinks maybe if they encouraged the clubs to hold fun events like Midnight Bagel Breakfast on Spree Day, it might cut down on the raping. Back in the day, we didn't even have clubs.

Genuine hippies c. 1971. Photo by Linda Freedman
I'm trying to break it down, how kids could have changed so much in forty years. Sexual aggression was unknown. When the entire student body says "yes" all the time there isn't much call for it. Sure, there were downsides, but as long as everyone had herpes it wasn't such a big deal. Girls would have sex if the guy had a car and was willing to drive them somewhere in the morning, and guys would have sex if, well, if they didn't have anything better to do for the next five minutes.

I read an article in the paper that helped explain it. Apparently no one gets care packages in college anymore. Oh, they do, in a sense, but it will not be homemade brownies in a brown paper package tied up with string. It will be a Gift Pak from an outfit such as with an assortment of store cookies and laundry soap and snack crackers and maybe some condoms. The kids are rootless.
Mac, Clark U's entire police force 1974

We were warm and comfortable in our original fur, neither in debt nor in Vietnam, and our shoebox of brownies smelled like Mom and her apron and the oven-warm kitchen and love. Now the students are waxed and shorn and perpetually irritated by stubble, and they open their care package to find satisfaction that lasts only as long as a baggie of Cheezits and the slim warmth of a vision of Mom clicking "ship" at the stoplight. The pot is too expensive and too strong for anyone's good, so they get drunk instead. The only thing being cooked is the planet, and the country is being run by pirates and nincompoops.

I don't know what to do about any of this, but the first step has got to be more affordable pot. And way more brownies.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sewage Treatment Gets A Little Behind

The top half of a woman's body has turned up in a sewage treatment plant and workers there have begun to suggest it might be related to the bottom half of a woman's body that showed up two days earlier in a different sewage treatment plant thirty miles away.

Questions linger about how the two items were found in different sewage treatment plants, and the public, already deeply suspicious of the newer Number One and Number Two options on toilet flush handles, demanded an explanation. Sewage authorities surmise that the division of the body probably occurred post-mortem due to an entanglement with machinery that grinds up sewer contents before sending them to one or the other treatment plant. Officials pointed out in their defense that the original whole woman was no doubt past caring at that point, and that dismemberment was a normal but crucial part of an efficient decomposition process.

Many were struck by the fact that this is the first the public had heard of the discovery. One might have assumed that, two days prior, we might have gotten word that a woman's lower half was found in a sewage treatment plant; and that subsequently a suspicious corresponding portion was found. Reporters commenting on the oddness of the chronology interviewed the sewage workers to determine why the first discovery was not reported immediately, and were informed that oddities showed up in the sewage on a regular basis. The lower body half was assumed by most, at first, to be another mutant fish of some sort. Those individuals who pointed out at the time that the discovery looked something like a woman were found to be the same individuals who tend to think almost everything looks like a woman, and the rest of the crew had poked fun of them in the swing room while they were out smoking.  Moreover, a considerable number of sewage workers failed to recognize the first discovery as a segment of a woman because they had never personally made it past second base. Only when the top half floated in were they able to piece it together, a project that the night shift attacked with some fervor.

Reattachment proved to be a failure, and efforts were redirected toward reanimating the top half, but it was a bust.

Positive identification was eventually achieved when a missing woman's child was able to recognize the top half, while her mailman was able to finger the bottom.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Do You Know Where Your Weasel Is?

Here's something you don't know about my book Trousering Your Weasel. It's a great gift book. I know this because people no sooner get their hands on a copy than they're trying to give it away. What I'm thinking is that it's something you want to keep a nice stack of on hand, to use as hostess gifts. Sure, wine is more customary, if you want to go the humdrum route. But it's been done. Picture instead arriving at the nice dinner party and exchanging air kisses and then pulling out Trousering with a flourish and saying "I thought you'd like to have this. It's for the toilet tank." And your hostess will be numb with gratitude. She might not even be able to express it.

You'll have to explain right away that if she is expecting to learn how to trouser a weasel, she will be disappointed. Nowhere in the book is that explained, but the information is out there for anyone inclined to hit a search bar for "ferret-legging." This is an endurance sport that originated among Yorkshire coal miners whose prospects for a fulfilling life were already bleak. According to the world's champion ferret-legger, clocking in at five-plus ferreted pants-hours, the trick is to wear baggy trousers and cinch them off at the ankles. At that point all that is required is to hoist up the ferret and pour it into the top end of the trousers, and then belt up. There's no way out for the ferret, but the ferret does not know that, and will begin to search up one side and down the other, and if there's anything to swing on, he's liable to swing. Many parts of the ferret are sharp, and all of it is skittery. The experience can be transformative, because it forces the ferret-legger to live in the present. It's sort of a shortcut to enlightenment.

Actual installation in happy consumer's home
Trousering Your Weasel is not enlightening at all, unless you didn't already know that wombats' poop is square, but it looks really good on a toilet tank, and whatever is currently on your toilet tank has probably gotten dimpled and speckly. The practice of reading whilst on the toilet is one that seems to cleave down gender lines. Most women do not read on the toilet, and most men will risk their underpants looking around for something to read before they go in. Dave has never understood why I don't bring the newspaper into the bathroom with me, and the answer is simple: I go in to the toilet shortly before I am going to take a dump and leave directly afterward. I am goal-oriented and in tune with my colon. Men, however, go into the bathroom when they think it is reasonably likely they will take a dump sometime over the next few hours, so that they are not caught by surprise. They are inattentive creatures by nature, but boy-scout prepared. If something should emerge in that time, they might yet remain on the toilet until they're done reading. I wonder that they don't find themselves crusting over more. Anyway, the gracious hostess will have provided reading material handy-by. If I were to go into someone's house and find a copy of Trousering Your Weasel in the toilet, I would consider it a classy joint. A book of matches is a nice touch, too.

The title refers to an incident in the very first essay, about a man caught trying to smuggle a ferret out of a pet store in his pants. This is a true story, of course; every time you turn around, there will be a new story about someone who has attempted to smuggle some sort of beast--snakes, monkeys--over the border or onto an airplane or what-have-you. And that's just the ones who get caught. It's probably just scratching the surface, as it were, of the total population of trousered fauna. The rest get away with it by taking advantage of the public's natural disposition to look away from a man with especially lively pants. And you can just about guarantee that, like the toilet reading thing, it's going to be a man. Women will bury strings inside their own butt cracks to avoid visible lines. Even a small rodent would be simply out of the question.

Anyway, I thought I'd bring up the gift-book idea purely out of selfless concern for others. If I can solve that vexing hostess-gift conundrum* for a few people, I will have considered my time on earth well spent. And I do want to point out that if you wanted to go to my book page and order a slab of books directly from me, and not is the kinder way, from the author's standpoint--you can not only get them signed, but shipping is free for orders of three or more books. You're welcome.

*It probably works for Christmas, too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Planet Murr

My dentist talked me out of my last wisdom tooth the other day, and I mourned aloud that this would cause the rest of my teeth to stampede for the exit. That's what I concluded was the reason they were all crowded up at the front of my mouth even though they ostensibly had more room without the wisdom teeth: they're trying to get away from the carnage. They're already almost out the door and the only reason I still have them is they tripped all over each other in their panic. She wasn't impressed with my analysis. "Oh, no," she explained. "You've just got 'mesial drift.' It's very common in older people. Your teeth naturally drift toward the front of your mouth."

Mesial drift. It's all clear now. I'm just entering another epoch in Planet Murr. Planet Murr has been on the move since its inception. Oh sure, it's hard to imagine any movement at all, especially when Planet Murr is watching TV, and harder yet to imagine that at any point its fingers could touch its toes, but in fact it started out with all the major visible portions bunched up together. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, they all began to drift apart. In the early Murrassic period, changes were relatively rapid. There was notable volcanic activity during which a pair of cones were built up out of virtually nothing. This epoch, the Holobscene, coincided with an age of thrusting and upheaval;
uplift was the order of the day. Volcanic activity also led to swarms of smaller extrusions for a time, particularly in the nose and chin regions; remarkably, there has been no observation of dikes entering along cracks, except that one time. And then followed a relatively quiet period of sedimentation.

The mechanism for the drifting tendency of Planet Murr's crust had been a mystery until the discovery of the central rift in its bottom from which new material is more or less constantly being pumped out. Seafloor spreading has been noted in the same vicinity. Most of the more catastrophic shifting movements, such as the most recent detachment of the underarm skin from the underlying muscular structure, had seemed random and unpredictable until the full extent of Planet Murr's many faults were detected, pointed out, discussed in the social media, and mapped.

Throughout this modern era, the volcanoes have eroded gradually, culminating in a major landslide during a time when Planet Murr's molten core reasserted
itself. Since then a quiet period has reemerged, replacing all the other periods. At present most of the visible changes have been brought about by the folding of previously laid strata and weathering, although pressures from the gaseous core continue to be exerted upon the material. Clues to the metamorphic nature of the current crust material include its general nubbly texture and the observation that most of the components of the outer layers of Planet Murr are lined up and pointing in the same direction (down).

Ain't that the schist.