Wednesday, February 27, 2013

There's No Place Like Rome

It's good to be pope. You're one in a series that began with Saint Peter himself, part of God's entourage, all lined up at the Gate with a good chance of being invited backstage. It's a big deal. They kind of expect you to keep on poping until you keel over, I guess, because the current one decided to retire, and everyone's all worked up about it. He's an old man and one would think he had the right, if he wanted to, not that I understand what is so very taxing about being the pope. It doesn't seem like there's all that much to do, plus you get ruby slippers. That's another thing: nobody even knows if he gets to keep the ruby slippers, or will have to give up the whole cool fluffy outfit and get former-pope pajamas or a sacred jogging suit or something. The last dude to give up the gig did it six hundred years ago and no one remembers the drill.

So now we get to have another Conclave in the Enclave wherein a crush of cardinals is jammed in together until smoke comes out their spires and they figure out who the new pope is. That routine got instituted ages ago when a group of cardinals failed to come up with a solid lead on the pope issue, and they dinked around with it for almost two years, just ordering take-out and holding votes and rolling dice or whatever it was they did, and five thousand pizzas later the public got peeved and sealed them up in the conclave until they put out. Which, at that point, they probably did by rendering Caesar's likeness into the air and seeing if he came up heads or butts. How likely they were to be able to pinpoint the very holiest candidate this way I do not know. Even now, you hear people speculating about who the next pope will be, with special attention given to cardinals from underrepresented or undersanctified areas, like Canada, which makes the whole process sound a lot more like picking a presidential running mate than anything else.

The business of coming up with a new Dalai Lama is a lot more promising, if you ask me. People shnuffle around in the boonies looking for unusual toddlers that might be housing an immortal soul. Without a tracking number, it's hard to see that they got the right soul, but it does seem likely that the chosen one would at least be interesting, like one of those kids you knew in grade school who wasn't quite right.

Anyway, the main thing that's troubling theologians now is the whole infallibility thing. If Benedict, being pope, is infallible, does he quit being infallible if he steps down? Does he get a gold watch and permission to be mistaken once in a while? Or what? People get excited about infallibility, because the idea is that God is speaking directly to us by flapping the pope's lips. But they only decided he was infallible in 1870. And if no one was infallible before then, I don't see how they can be so sure about that little pronouncement. I mean, consider the source.

But hey. Let's assume Benedict, in his current condition, is infallible, and he decides to retire. That means, ipso fatso, God has decided to retire. And why not? He's old, if there's any meaning to the word. He's had way too much work to do, what with all those touchdowns to monitor, and keeping track of which sick kids have an ace prayer team, and stuff, and he's had it. He's had to sit there and engineer all those wars and mayhem being done in his name, and condemn underbaptized babies, and elevate the desires of sperms over those of women, and he just said you know what? Fine. You guys figure it out. I'm going fishing.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Great Maple Heist

Being an old hippie on a pension allows me to float above the trivial mercenary concerns of my fellow man. Money? A trap for the soul, and nothing to aspire to (please buy my book). Gold? Oil? Coal? The extraction of these and other minerals is an assault on our future (please charge my batteries). No, I have an appreciation for the true riches of life: clean water, shelter, music, and love (please like me on Facebook). I am not afraid to annoy anyone with my airy rejection of false riches. I am not a grasping, greedy soul.

Until now.  Until I found out that there is a giant honking reserve of maple syrup in Quebec. 80% of the world's supply of real maple syrup is there. Holy crap! Step aside! Get out of my frackin' way! I'm drilling a sidewell in from upstate New York. Try and stop me.

My adoration of maple syrup dates back to age four. My favorite breakfast was Bisquick waffles with Log Cabin syrup. I didn't think it could get any better until we traveled to Maine to visit my aunt, and my cousin Jim brought us breakfast in bed: French toast with real maple syrup. The earth experienced a momentary hitch in its rotation that still confounds geologists decades later ("The Butterworth Event of 1957"). O epiphany! O peerless bliss! I instantly developed a fervor of the same intensity that leads pubescent boys to volunteer to do their own laundry. Jim doubled down with the further revelations of maple sugar and maple cream. It's a fact that a honey badger eating maple cream will roll over for a belly rub; and pure maple sugar, in a phenomenon science cannot fully account for, actually crystallizes in the form of tiny little maple leaves. My life had changed forever. To this day I can feign ambivalence about chocolate if there's a maple hit to be had, and my favorite direction is North.

And no sooner do I learn that there exists a golden, gleaming aquifer of maple syrup than I find out that someone has stolen a whole bunch of it. Dastardliness and scoundrelation! I studied their methods, purely out of curiosity. A sidewell was not only not involved, but the International Strategic Reserve is actually a warehouse filled with barrels of syrup. The heist was an inside job and not, as you might expect, a stick-up. There were 10,000 barrels of syrup involved, or six million "pounds," which is a Quebecky measure of weight corresponding to our "pounds."

And all of it is under the control of the Regie Des Marches Ou Est La Bibliotheque Atricoles et Alimentaires Je Te Plumerai La Bec Du Quebec, which never gets much done at its annual meetings because the quorum has started to file out before the flag gets unfurled all the way. The Regie is described by disgruntled maple wranglers as a legal cartel with invasive powers, and is even known, using techniques honed by airport security agents, to visit maple farmers unannounced to check on their holes. The number of holes in one's maples is expected to match up to the reported output of exudant, much as it is in humans.

Maple syrup is produced when starch inside the maple tree is turned into sugar and rises in the sap, as opposed to in humans, where it just sort of fluffs out the thighs. There is an annual springtime event to celebrate the happy occurrence called "the running of the sap," and thousands of revelers participate, even though a few each year stumble and are overcome by goo. That's how I want to go. In a few million years, I want to be discovered preserved and smiling broadly for eternity in a blog of maple amber.

Meanwhile, some of the purloined syrup has been recovered and a perpetrator identified. The suspect was wired to a lie-detector machine and given a series of simple "ayuh" and "no" questions. Preliminary results suggest he was waffling.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Please Return Your Ears To Their Full Upright Position

...from Trousering Your Weasel.
Most of us are familiar with the routine of air travel. Once the paying customers are strapped down tight, and the massive vehicle improbably chugs into the air, there is a moment when, with an audible squlllcch, the flight crew turns off everyone’s ears. This is a courtesy warning, like the bong on an intercom system before the voice comes on, and it alerts passengers to the fact that the airline is a socialist state in complete control of their bodies. Everyone will be expected to contribute viruses according to his ability, and the airline will redistribute them according to need. Once both the cabin pressure and pathogen allotment have been equalized, the ears are returned to their original condition.

"If you see fire out the window, do not do your laundry."
That is the expectation, but things can go wrong, and after a recent flight, I came home to find my ears still turned off, and they have remained that way for three weeks and counting. Earholes are my primary means of allowing things to go in one ear and out the other, and I am finding things uncomfortably jammed up now that all ingress and egress has been prevented. It’s a problem. Because, on any given day, I have way more thoughts than I can really use, and only so many ways of getting rid of them. One way is to get them “on paper,” which is an old-timey expression meaning arranged digitally on a screen in such a way as they could be printed off on a less obstreperous printer than I happen to own. But very few of my thoughts can be disposed of in this way.

The bulk of them are on the order of

 “ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump WHY do you build me up [build me up] Buttercup baby, just to huh. Do not, do not, do not forget to put that thing on the calendar about the bird! bird! bird! manamana doo-doo, doo-doo-doo…manamana doo-doo-doo Oooo! Ice cream? Don't mind if I…shit. Was that thing today?”

and these kinds of thoughts must be allowed to flow freely, or they will congeal and turn green and drain out my nose. Which is what they are doing. Endlessly. There is no explanation for this phenomenon other than thought-sludge because my head is far too tiny a vessel to contain this much material. I don’t have a lot of room up top for this kind of thing. Even my sinus cavities are negligible, which is one of the reasons I am not a prominent Italian tenor.

The stopped-up ear is very annoying at first, but after a couple weeks it is even annoyinger, and I am crabby about it. And no wonder, because the problem is that my crustacean tubes are blocked. The crustacean tubes are charged with regulating air pressure so as to protect the delicate inner ear bones (ossicles). The stirrup, the advil, and the speculum are very tiny bones that evolved from antique reptilian jawbones (fossicles) when it was found that they weren’t really doing anything important with them. And they must be protected because they’re not going to grow back no matter how many stem cells you throw at them. However, the fact remains that there is nothing wrong with the air pressure around here and my crustacean tubes’ attempt to regulate it makes as much sense as trying to rub the kinks out of a cat. There’s no call for it.

One likes to get straight to the heart of the problem, and I blame the airlines. It could be just human error, sort of like when my neighbor goes off to work and forgets to turn off his dog, and it’s going off all day long. So what with modern technology and all, maybe a call to the airline could clear this whole thing up. They might be able to do it remotely, if the ear reset button is in The Cloud or something and I can get an access code. Either that, or I have a cold. But that seems so far-fetched.

At least I can’t hear the neighbor’s dog.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

I Vant To Lick Your Stamen

Back in the olden days, people used to up and die of things, one right after the other, plagues and boils and consumption and what-have-you, wiping out whole families and numerous community members. The victims were all connected in some way, people felt certain, and the only plausible explanation for any of this was, of course, your vampires. Rumors got started. Hysteria ensued. One poor soul rises from his coffin and starts perforating people to death, and pretty soon people think they’re everywhere. Many parts of the world boasted vampires, but there was always a good clot of them in Serbia, and so it is not a real surprise that we’ve got another one on the loose now in the town of Zarozje.

Not a new one, but that’s the thing about vampires: they hang in there. Sava Savanovic in fact had the distinction of being Serbia’s first vampire back in the 1700s. He was a man of means, the owner of a nice grist mill on the hill, and in his glory days, he reputedly picked off one citizen after another who brought their grain up to him for processing. It’s not a bad business plan if your business isn’t so much milling flour as drinking blood. This is the first indication we have that the good people of Zarozje might have been a little on the dull side. Mrdjvk goes up to the mill and comes back dead and drained, Jckjvckstc pops up to see what’s up, Drgnvlsc goes and gives it a whirl, no one comes back, and no one stops to consider that maybe whole grains are better for you after all. Before long a swath of the community has been disenvoweled, with repercussions to this day.

What sort of society, we moderns wonder, would tolerate the existence of one prosperous fellow on the hill who fattens himself up by gradually sucking out the very life-blood of the working people while they’re still alive? It’s preposterous. It’s what happens when people no longer have a stake in their own future. Or in something.

At some point a group put it all together and marched up to the mill with a stake, which as we all know is bad for the heart, and poor Sava finally met his end, or so they thought. Unfortunately it made him pissy and his spirit lived on, residents said, in a butterfly. We scoff at these things today, but we weren’t there. The chrysalis was tremendous.

Boogah boogah.
Humans are always trying to keep people alive, but they should worry more about keeping them dead. On many occasions someone suspected of being a vampire has been exhumed for examination and found to be plump and juicy, and in need of remurdering. This happened as late as 1890 in this country when a whole clan seemed to be succumbing one by one to tuberculosis. As the last little boy lay ill and his family grew desperate, his sister was disinterred, found to be a vampire, and run through with a wooden stake, whereupon portions of her were blenderized and fed to her brother as a tonic. He turned the corner almost immediately, although it was the wrong corner. The science was inexact.

So now, back in Zarozje, land of the malevolent butterfly, the old grist mill finally fell down this year. And five people subsequently died. Citizens are pretty sure it’s the vampire again and are taking no chances. Of course, this is the same crew descended from the original dummies who kept marching up the hill with their bags of grain. They’re worried about a butterfly and they’ve got garlic stuffed in their pants. You might not want to take them seriously, but they have a point. Poor old Sava is now homeless and irritable, sitting at the freeway off-ramp, and if you can read his sign, you’re standing way too close.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

No Whey Out

The Norwegian Public Roads Administration is still struggling weeks after the Great Cheese Tunnel Fire of 2013. A trucker escaped with his life after abandoning his load of twenty-seven tons of flaming cheese in the tunnel. No injuries were reported. The PRA administrator, Kjell Bjoern Vinje, commented that in his fifteen years at the helm, this was the first time cheese had caught fire on Norwegian roads. They’re still all bound up.

The United Nations took note of the tremendous energy output concealed inside the tunnel and, initially, demanded that inspectors be allowed in to determine if Norway’s intentions were peaceful, but backed off when the Mr. Vinje weighed in. Mr. Vinje, who had his hands full, communicated “bite me” in such an adorable accent that the Security Council was mollified and withdrew its request. In much the same way India became a nuclear state.

After a week of intense heat, the cheese seems to have burned itself out, leaving only a molten lake on either end of the tunnel. Traffic in the region is expected to be snarled for months, but the cleanup operation itself is coming along nicely, after platoons of volunteers showed up armed with flatbread and cardamom crackers.

Genuine Norwegians I am related to.
Brunost is a goat cheese and is considered a delicacy in Norway. The phrase “is considered a delicacy” is universally applied to things ordinary people find revolting—things with lots of little legs, for instance, or things made from testicles, or things cured for months in fermented camel spit. Brunost is brown, it smells like a biohazard, and my mother loved it, but then again she was Norwegian. She didn’t have to share it with anybody in the family. The Brunost occupied a position of honor in the refrigerator with a moat of air all around it to prevent cross-contamination. Mom cut herself a slice whenever she wanted a little time by herself. I never tried it, but I remember hating it. At that age I found mayonnaise a little spicy. The way I figured it, there was no really good reason to make goat cheese if cows had not gone extinct, which they hadn’t.

Not too many other animals contribute to the cheese world. Mozzarella is made of water buffalo milk, and there’s certain commerce with yaks, sheep, and even pigs, but the rest of the mammal order is largely untapped. Probably the accessibility and size of the udder is the main determining factor in using cow and goat milk, but theoretically any mammal can be used to produce cheese. It is not true that every mammal produces milk. Almost all the males are terrible at it, although some are fine with the milking process.

But you can run upwards of twelve dugs on a dog, and that should count for something. Dog cheese remains a rarity, however. Early experiments with milking barn cats were risky and unproductive, but did lead directly to the development of Laughing Cow cheese. Wolverine milk looked promising at first, but there was no good way of removing the tranquilizer from it. Enterprising Australians once proposed that marsupials’ pouches might be induced to stand in for the udder, and milk be harvested with a baster and spatula, but they found the kangaroo too combative, and the product from smaller marsupials was unacceptably high in contaminants like wombat fuzz and tiny pink bandicoots. Mostly, we’re stuck with cows and goats.

Kjell Vinje will be charged with assessing the damage to the tunnel after the cracker crew has completed its task. He is hopeful that the toll will be light, and anticipates the bulk of the damage will be at either end, where the roof of the mouth of the tunnel was badly burned.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Knowledge Now! Now! Now!

There used to be a time when it wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable to have to wait a few minutes to find out, say, how many people died in the battle of Gettysburg. There would probably be a reference book in the bookcase, or you could call the librarian, or you could actually go to the library. It would have seemed petulant to bang on your desk because a page was taking a couple seconds to load. And it would have been. But patience isn’t a virtue we’ve lost. It’s a virtue we used to have only because we had no choice.

We’re going way back here. I was still a fresh-faced forty-three, with eyebrows and periods and the whole works. And when I turned on my first computer, I could hear it cogitating away, and then I’d dial up the internet—it was like setting sail for the new world in a creaky old boat. Wheeeee whirrrrr bong bong clickety clickety… you don’t stay there and wait. Lawsy! You’ve got time to go out and hitch up old Dobbin to the buckboard and birth a baby or two, and when you come back, why, you’re on line, and ready to roar. You fetch up your mail, dash into a favorite website—we used to visit for the fart of the day—all the important stuff. You keep a stack of dollar bills at your side and peel one off to feed the internet every few minutes, and then you jump off again.

It was years before I realized there was never any reason to wonder about anything ever again. That the answer to all of your questions was right there inside the screen. No need go to the trouble of trying to knit up a string of neurons in your brain in the right sequence to pull out a memory—no need even to spell anything right. You can just type in “getysb” and right underneath will pop up “did you mean gettysburg battle of how the hell many people died there anyway” and bingo, you can click on that.

I grew up being conditioned to the instant response, though. Daddy was a regular search engine, and as long as he remained alive I really didn’t have to hone my research skills, or, frankly, remember anything. He was reliable, too. Can you explain the theory of relativity, Daddy? Yes he could. How do yellow jackets find a picnic? Why is electricity? What is this bug and, ew, what is it doing with that long hangy thing? He knew it all.

Well, son, back when I was coming up...
I came to recognize that he had some weak spots in his knowledge. For instance, he drew bizarre connections between homosexuality and the decline of the Roman Empire. Otherwise, he was solid.

But even he was no Google.

Anyway, Daddy’s gone and I’ve moved on. And like most adults, I’ve come to realize my father was not the perfect fount of knowledge anyway. He had gaps. That lady who used to play the lady married to the curmudgeon on that old TV show, the one with the horse, you know the one that’s married in real life to the dude who used to sit in the top left square of Hollywood Squares? Her mother. Is she still alive? Google can totally handle that. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Paradise No Moa

Reminder! I'm reading from Trousering Your Weasel this Friday, 2/8, at 7PM at St. Johns Booksellers in North Portland. I'll read other stuff too. It'll be fun. I'd love to meet you.

New Zealand is not in its original condition. The flora and fauna have been reengineered in the typical clodhopper human fashion. Our species loves to tinker with things as though we were polishing the good china with a backhoe. These islands (two full-size, with a set of smaller seed-islands for backup) sailed out of Gondwanaland fully forested, which offended the early settlers’ mercantile sensibilities, and they scraped them almost bald. The land was home to a companionable group of flightless birds that pecked about in peace. The birds strolled past each other in grand profusion, with nothing to worry about but thigh-feather abrasion.

A depressingly thick tome
The first humans that arrived found them delicious and a lot of fun to kill, and promptly wiped out the biggest ones. Then they looked around and thought the place was a paradise that could only be improved by the addition of a few bunnies. And while it is possible that a few bunnies might have been an asset, no one will ever know. Not to be undone by the great rabbit eruption, our heroes hauled in some stoats and things to polish off the bunnies, and now there are stoats, bunnies, and possums up the national ass, none of which was conducive to a good paradise, from the point of view of the ground birds. Even the iconic kiwi is down to about twenty peevish examples that have elected to come out only at night, not that I blame them, and I never saw a one. The species-introduction experiments unfortunately stopped short of grizzlies and pythons, which might have done a good job curtailing the original source of blight.

Because we’re still here.

But not, by recent planetary standards, that many of us—not here. This is a comfortably unpopulated land, with the vast majority of residents corralled in cities, as people should be, and the remainder strung out in the countryside with a thousand sheep each available as spacers. The principal occupations are being nice to people in airports, sheep arrangement, and trail maintenance. Anywhere a person might rightly want to tramp is all laid out with boardwalks and graveled pathways and a lavish architecture of steps and bridges over the damp spots. The whole system is tidied on the hour by reasonably-compensated pebbleherds who keep the gravel spanked into its proper borders. To my eyes, the weed-whacking on the sides of the trail was overdone, until I realized that all the border plants would clap their hands over your head by noon and consume stragglers by nightfall, if not subject to regular discipline. 

So what we have here is a beautiful set of islands that is completely walkable, which is my definition of a civilized state. We are encouraged to travel the whole thing on foot by the splendid trail system and the fact that automobile fuel is five million dollars a gram, which is exactly the price God would have put on it if he were as powerful as the oil moguls.

I kid. Most people know a lot more about God than I do, and many of them believe he is even more powerful than the oil moguls. They’ve only got that on hearsay, but I suspect they’re right. And if he is, it will all become much clearer over time. Not that much time, either. Hope we get to wave at our fellow space travelers before we go.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Life Under And Above The Cross

Stuff is expensive in New Zealand. Books are expensive, clothes are expensive, and food is expensive. But no one expects a tip, and everyone is paid a livable wage, with the minimum set on high. I do not know all the economic implications of the high price of food, but suspect that one culprit is that, unlike in America, ¾ of the menu is not made entirely out of federally subsidized corn syrup, and the lamb and beef originated as actual self-propelled animals, rather than hybridized meat-units bred square to economize on space. Plus, anyone who wants to can pluck her own fruit salad from right outside her window. I saw no evidence of extreme poverty or extreme wealth. Those might be related observations.

Other observations: there are stars. Just as you’d expect, over time a whole lot of our stars have slid down to the southern hemisphere, and bunched up at the bottom. So it’s a good place to look at stars, unless you’re hoping to spot ones you know personally. I made a point of finding the Southern Cross as my friend Dale suggested, even though I was leery that it might be a huge scary constellation sponsored by the Klan. It wasn’t. It was an unassuming little number more appropriately called the Cute Little Southern Kite. And I did catch a glimpse of good old Orion loping over from the north, although his dangling—let’s go ahead and call it his hunting knife—was pointing straight up.

Lake Tekapo
Anyway, the whole star thing is such a big deal that they put up a nice set of telescopes on a prominent hill called Mt. John, just to keep track of them all. If you stand on top of Mt. John you can see in every direction, and watch gangs of weather jousting for supremacy. We didn’t stay for the star show. The sun in New Zealand goes down reluctantly and briefly, like it’s just stepping out for a cigarette. But daytime visitors can comfort themselves with massive slabs of carrot cake at the hilltop cafĂ©. Any lighter desserts would get blown into Lake Tekapo ("Taah-wow-wow"). The astronomers here are especially interested in flagging down stray planets that might resemble our own. They’d be dim, of course, but can be detected if alignment is just right when they wobble the starlight behind them. The ideal would be to wave at another group of life-forms like us and in the same phase of evolution, just after developing telescopes and before engineering their own apocalypse. Which gives us probably another hundred years or so, but it’s not like we have anything better to do. It’s a long shot for sure, but there are a LOT of stars.

In the southerly regions, much of the bush (snort!) looks like Oregon, if Oregon had parrots and the ferns grew into trees instead of just on them and everything smelled like Juicy Fruit. A lot of the plant life is familiar as specimens that have showed up in Portland nurseries angling to make a buck off climate change. These are the plants available in two-inch pots with instructions to tuck them into a protected corner, feed them with an eyedropper, and read to them on the chillier nights, and if instructions are followed, the odds were good they’d double in size in ten years. Here, those same plants had gone Godzilla. One in particular, with great towering stands of spiky leaves, was especially familiar. I gaped at acres of them and struggled for the name. “They’re New Zealand flax,” Linda said. Oh yeah! We save up for those and nurture them through two or three seasons until they’re big enough to be considered viable, at which point we gingerly begin to announce them to our Facebook friends and sock away for their college educations, and then on a single winter day they all turn into snot. Which is why they’re not called Portland flax.

Far from being tucked away in a protected corner, they romp over the mountains and smirk at the winds. It is very windy in New Zealand. People plant giant walls of greenery around themselves just so they don’t have to tack across the yard to get the mail. We stood on a mountain and watched a rain squall roll in over the ocean, giving us enough time to put on our raincoats and Ziploc our cameras, and then a single raindrop an acre wide smacked into the side of the mountain and on into the next territory by the time we’d zipped up. Couldn’t say how hard the wind blew, because they have pretend measurements over there. Four thousand kilometers per fortnight, or something. But it makes peeing an extreme sport. I anchored myself well, and in thirty seconds my stream never hit the ground, I was air-dried, and had the beginnings of a Brazilian.

Hey! I'll be reading from Trousering Your Weasel on Friday, Feb. 8 at 7PM at St. Johns Booksellers in North Portland. I'll probably read other stuff too. There might be cookies. See you there.