Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resolution Solution

It's a new year, and people like to make resolutions, so I'll tell you about one of mine that totally worked. I'd been riding my bike to work sporadically for years but it was pretty easy to talk myself out of it on any given morning. Especially because my mornings started hours before dawn and a whole lot of the time it was as rainy as it was dark, and none of that mattered as long as I was still under the covers, so I'd stay there a little longer.

One new year, I rode my bike to work and decided I would draw a little automobile on my calendar every day I drove my car, just to see how lazy I really was. The first one was just a little tiny automobile picture, but I colored it red because that's the color cars should be, and you could see it from across the room. And that tiny little red car drawing began to rumble with implied oiled ducks, and ruined reefs, and the last breaths of slimed otters sinking beneath the sea, and tearful indigenous peoples in the tar sands sacrifice zone, and drowning island nations, and hurricanes and bear carcasses and parched soil and superbugs and methane-belching tundra and war and fire and famine and only the memory of pikas. It was horrible. The next morning, and just about every one after that, I put on my biking duds no matter what the weather because I could not bear to draw the little automobile. At the end of the year I had only four cars on my calendar.
save the pikas

So I thought that kind of thing could work for anybody. Let's take an example. A lot of us are in the bad habit of saying mean things about people on the internet. We make snarky remarks about our family or we go into great detail calling out complete strangers who we believe have wronged us in some way. Somebody gave us a look, or took a tone, and they need correction in the form of public shaming. That is naughty of us! How about if every time we thought about writing something mean about someone, we had to actually write down the mean thing where anybody could see it?

Oh wait. I see. That wouldn't work, because that's the whole problem. Evidently we do not feel bad about writing bad things. Especially where everyone can see it. Actually, we're pretty pumped about doing that very thing.

I always figure the people writing mean things are overly concerned about what other people think of them, unusually likely to assign bad motives to other people's behavior, and really on guard against someone thinking something about them that they basically think about themselves. And the fiercer they are about it, the more likely it is that they do feel bad about themselves. If you're reasonably comfortable with yourself, you're not as likely to think other people are thinking bad things about you, and you're not as likely to lash out. This is not a groundbreaking observation. In fact, it's so reliable that if you think I'm talking about you--I probably am.
please save the pikas

So here's my New Year's suggestion. Every time you write something mean on the internet, draw a little red car on your calendar. Believe me, you don't want to see that.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Mulligan

I like our little music soirees. A bunch of us get together and play whatever we've been working on--mostly classical. I do have a problem with performing in public, but it's getting better, and I hardly ever have to change my underwear anymore. I'm not unmusical: in fact, I have my moments. Unfortunately they're well-marbled with all those other moments. But I have contributed something significant to our get-togethers: I have introduced The Mulligan.

Usually you hear about a mulligan in golf. You take a mulligan when your tee shot goes awry. Maybe it goes into the bushes, or into the water, or you don't know where the hell it is. But you give yourself a second chance, for free. It doesn't count against you. It's your mulligan.

More likely your initial tee shot didn't go into the bushes or the water. It just didn't go where you sincerely wanted it to, and didn't look good doing it, either. It was sucky, a lot suckier than you deserved. You take a mulligan because you know, deep down, that you're a much better golfer than your tee shot would seem to indicate, and also the one before that and the one before that. You're MUCH better than all those. And you can prove it with your mulligan. Sometimes it takes two or three to really drive the point home.

Professional golfers do not employ the mulligan.

Anyway, I discovered that mulligans are very helpful when playing piano in front of people. Because there's this weird thing that happens. You can sit down at someone else's piano and prepare to play the very piece you've been working on every day for six months, but something's wrong. The piano doesn't look right. The keys are a little closer together, or further apart, or something. In fact you can't really even recognize it for the same basic instrument you've been using.

It's as though you've come ready to play Chinese checkers and the host pulls out a Monopoly board. You try to adjust, but your marble keeps rolling off Marvin Gardens and onto Baltic Avenue.

Or you're going golfing after all but when you get to the course it turns out to be a rodeo. And there you are right in the middle of it with your putter, and it just pisses the horses off. It's disconcerting.

In fact, the starting chord of your piece isn't even on the keyboard. You think it starts over here, on this note, like it has every day for the last six months, but you can't be sure. At some point you realize you're nuts and everybody's waiting and you go ahead and vault right into your piece. And sure enough it goes straight into the bushes.

You take a good whack at the opening chord and totally top it and miss the runs altogether. You hook the whole first measure into the bass clef. Shank the opening theme into a completely different key. Then you have to hack at it to get it back on the fairway and you slice an arpeggio, completely overshooting the top note. It's time for a mulligan.

Professional musicians do not employ the mulligan.

But if they came to our soirees and played, we'd all feel like shit. That's why we pay them. We pay them to go play someplace else.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

We, Like Sheep

Every year as Christmas begins to look more and more inevitable, I go out in search of a Sing-Your-Own-Messiah. It's not as daunting as it sounds; generally a whole lot of other people show up to help. A Lutheran church within walking distance has been pretty reliable about throwing this particular party for a while now. Folks converge on the place and there's an attempt to group us into the component voices as though we were a regular choir, but people want to sit next to their spouses and friends, and the balcony is a total catch-all for the latecomers, and what with this and that, we resemble less a force of standing armies than a rag-tag assortment of conscripts. This does dilute the sopranos somewhat, which is helpful, because otherwise they would totally kick everyone's asses.

Most of the people who show up are either in choirs now or they used to be, like me. And everyone who is now or ever was in a choir has sung Messiah. The choir director perched herself on a big box where we and the organist could keep an eye on her. This was meant to be an ecumenical outing, but just for fun, she started out by saying "the Lord be with you." Whereupon the 400 assembled bellowed "and also with you" while I antiquely hollered "and with thy spirit." She smiled. "I thought there were probably some Lutherans here," she said, to chuckles.

Well. And one fossil Lutheran.

Then it was down to business. Anyone interested in glory to God was in the right place. We thundered. We roared. If goodwill toward men was in short supply elsewhere, it was not our fault. We sounded awesome. Everyone was in spittle-flinging distance of at least one knot of sopranos, which meant there was no reason not to give it everything you've got, because no one is going to hear you anyway. The effect was electric. We were very pleased with ourselves. It could be said we were in need of a cleansing dose of humility, and that was not long coming: for He shall purify.

The challenge is a little greater if your voice, like mine, is no longer the one you learned Messiah with. This means you have to sight-read your part, and that works fine for a whole lot of it, but sometimes your sheep go astray, and you have to sideline yourself and figure out where to hop back in, like a kid doing double-Dutch jump rope. And the sad truth is, it's not as much fun being an alto. No one can hear you. Your glory is less glorious. So, once my vocal cords got as stretched out as they were likely to get, I occasionally jumped the curb over to the soprano line to see if I could hold on.

I might as well have had an amputation. There's only so far this valley will be exalted. I reared back and prepared to bellow but all I got was phantom notes: I could feel where they used to be, but they weren't there anymore.

It was a different phantom I experienced when I went to my first Sing-Your-Own-Messiah, some thirty years ago. I'd read about it in the paper and thought, what the hell. I'll just hold it down to two beers and go give it a whirl. Sounds like fun. I used to know this. And off I went. I slotted myself optimistically in with the sopranos and we let 'er rip. Before long I was weeping. I felt the phantom: it was what used to be my life. It was everything that was missing now.

I'd had unanticipated trouble in college. I was buffeted by panic attacks for which I had no name. By my junior year my self-confidence had sheared off in sections and tumbled away. I couldn't come up with a reason anyone would love me. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, but beer magically made it all better. Every night for fifteen years I drank enough to muffle both pain and joy, and then Handel went and tilted his wigged head at me and said, you know? Here. It's right here. Here's the joy you used to feel.

I didn't go home and take a hatchet to the keg. But I started to remember things. I remembered beauty. I remembered gladness. I started to do some of the things that used to thump my heart. I drew. I played piano. I read books. I couldn't do them very well if I was drinking, so gradually that fell away. The spontaneous ecstasies of my childhood came back. Not religion, but beauty and joy that sometimes share its path. There is more than one way to be born again.

I don't mind settling for the alto part. Handel, that other fossil Lutheran, is still winking at me from three hundred years away. He says I can still have beer.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Wiz There Was

We have great Christmases now that we don't do any gift exchanges, except for the wee ones, and that's not much of an exchange, just yet. Dave still strings up lights and we get some kind of a tree because Pootie insists. He's sitting on a mountain of truly garish ornaments and if we don't give him an outlet, he might disgrace us in front of the whole neighborhood. We get some kind of meal together that features butter so prominently it might as well be the carveable main course. We're jolly. Dave makes almond roca and distributes it to the masses. I make Christmas cards and send out about a hundred of them.

The only real crappy part left is the traditional holiday Mail Merge Moment, when I attempt to transfer my Christmas card address list to peel-and-stick labels. I warn Dave when I'm about to do it so he can find something to do miles away.

When I finally got a Mac, I panicked that everything I'd ever written would be lost because it was all in Microsoft Word. I thought maybe all my old Word documents would come up to my Mac and be all howdy, howdy and my Mac would sneer and say qu'est-ce que c'est? and go off in a snit and eat cheese.

The guy at the Mac store assured me it wouldn't happen, but he did say if I felt more comfortable with the Word program than whatever Mac has--we may never know--I could have Microsoft Word For Mac installed on my machine. So I did. I do have a technology phobia and would prefer to use what I've already learned even if it's crappier. Everything is working well enough, except for the label issue.

I did successfully get my addresses into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, so it's merely a matter of summoning up the Mail Merge Wizard. "Wizard" should make you feel all confident. Like there might be wands, and everything. This wizard was last seen floating off in a balloon and bellowing "I don't know how this works!"

There is, as it happens, no place on the toolbar into which you can type "I would like you to put these addresses on those labels please." Instead, you select Print Layout in View. Just do it: there's no need to know why, Little Missy. Then, some whole other place, click on Mail Merge Wizard and then click on Yes I Want A New Document You Asshole We Just Did This Last Year, and then you'll need to put in what kind of labels you have, where you bought them, how much you could have saved on line, and the serial number of your printer, which can be found on the box you recycled. Then you click on the pop-up List Frammulator and find an icon that asks you if you're getting your list from an Open Data Source or the CIA or the desk drawer on the left, and you can save yourself about a half hour here because you wrote down the correct answer several years ago and you still have the notes. Click on that, and a new menu pops up that asks you whether you want the name to appear on the label (click "yes jerkwad") and what your first pet's name was, the name of your oldest sibling, and the street where you grew up, and after about a half hour, the wizard has all your passwords and will decide to start working on your labels once he conducts a little personal business.

Now it is time to Edit Labels! Click on a field name under "Insert Merge Field." Yes, those are all verbs and also all nouns, but it is not necessary for you to know what it means, so don't trouble yourself. This will generate a pop-up window. Click inside it and then locate the book nearest you, turn to page 56, and find the sixth sentence. Once you've typed that into the space provided, it will trigger a new pop-up window. Click on "fill in items to complete document." The wizard will do that, only in secret. You
won't see anything on screen. It's time to print.

I need four pages of labels. This year I only went through twenty of them plus some bond paper before I got what I needed. I shaved fifteen minutes off my previous record, too.

I don't know how the Mac would do it, left to its own devices, but I think you just slap the printer and say here boy, here boy and it bounces over to the printer with your address list in its mouth, and then comes back and licks your screen clean.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

And Mercy Mild

In a way, I was cheered by the release of the Senate committee torture report, because I already figured we were guilty, but I didn't necessarily expect us to own up. And the fact that we did gave me some hope that we might be a worthy nation after all.

If there is anything that makes America exceptional, it should be our devotion to civil liberties, our founding principles, our respect for the rule of law, even international law--hell, this being one tiny marble we're on, especially international law--and our unwillingness to compromise our ethics to satisfy our bloodlust.

You don't have to hang out too long on the internet to find out that that is not a universal perspective. There are a lot of dark alleys on the internet and a lot of people with shivs crouched behind every dumpster. I don't know how anyone could contemplate torture with anything but revulsion, but people do. Some people get little patriotic woodies over it. I don't know what has happened to people who can imagine torturing other people without getting sick. Lots of things, probably. They've been broken somehow, hurt, probably early on. They've had to protect themselves from something or other--even something as ordinary as inconsistent love--since they were children, and they have racked up years maintaining enemy lists, sharpening their blades, figuring out which side of their shield everyone falls on.

They're pissed at the store clerk with a perceived attitude, the friend who all but called them fat, the women who don't think they're good enough, the nigger who got promoted to the job they should have had, the man who can't be bothered to pick up his own damn underwear, the asshole on the phone who can't even speak English. They're pissed and the only thing that makes sense of everything is to have a clear line drawn, and a clear shot at the ones on the wrong side of it.

They've got the patter and the script. They're energized by the Real New Jersey Housewife with her hands on her hips and a head-waggle who says she gon' cut that bitch. Fuck yeah, sister. Give 'er one for me.

Some of them have drawn their line clear up to Heaven. American Exceptionalism? We are God's chosen people. And since we are God's chosen people, everything we do must be what God had in mind. If they behead one of us, we'll slice up their whole family. I would prefer to think a true moral high ground might make us exceptional, but if it's just that God gave us the stamp of approval one inattentive day, so be it. There are echoes of that brand of confidence all over the world, in every dark alley.

People think if we're not strong, if we're not cruel, we'll be run over. That's what those who are devoted to vengeance believe: that the rest of us are pushovers, pansies, naifs who think we can prevail with purity of heart and a good drum circle. Peacemaking is hard work and takes a lot of patience and fortitude, and there's never a guarantee of success. The latter is what it has in common with war. What no one bothers to show is any reliable outcome from war and violence other than more war and violence. There's no good evidence that it's ever done us any lasting good. How can you bomb innocent people and win anything worth having? Does it really matter if our hearts were pure and we didn't mean to take out your wedding party, or your whole village?

One fellow I eavesdropped on in an internet thread said he "didn't feel sorry for those people"--the terrorists, or their innocent human stand-ins swept up in the dragnet, whom we tortured. No one is asking anyone to feel sorry for a terrorist. That's not to say it would not be a good exercise to try. To try to imagine that everyone is human and hurt and something like ourselves. In the case of those actual terrorists we torture, a lot like ourselves.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Pain In The Butt

Sometime in the middle of the night, part of me wanted to roll over, and the rest of me didn't, and an argument ensued. Bickering among the factions continued till morning, and by then there was no rolling out of bed. Best I could do was tack toward the edge of the mattress and hope for favorable winds.

This used to happen to me pretty often. I had what I considered a normal amount of aches and pains; a stiff lower back, a squawky knee, and a neck that ached and twanged pretty much all the time, since a childhood neck-pretzeling incident. I enriched a few chiropractors and bought into the notion that this is what you have to put up with if you live long enough. I was only in my forties when someone introduced me to what legions of friends ended up calling "," as in the phrase "I got your damn book, so leave me alone." It's the Egoscue Method, a ridiculously simple protocol that seems to permanently erase pain. Mine went away. All of it; twenty years of it.

So I knew just what to do when my lower back stiffened up. I got out The Book and did the menu of lower-back exercises and waited for relief that had, historically, been immediate. The next day I did it again, and the next. It didn't appear to be making more than a dent.

I concluded that perhaps this wasn't a lower-back issue at all. Perhaps it was an upper-buttular issue. I did the hip exercises. The results weren't spectacular. The right side of me still wasn't interested in getting out of a chair when the rest of me did. Worse, certain toilet hygiene standards were being compromisied. I threw in the neck exercises just for drill. Things were easing, but not quickly. This was a disaster. I had seriously annoyed way too many people evangelizing about this book for it to let me down now.

By the fourth day, I had begun to conclude that if The Book wasn't helping, it was probably cancer. The dreaded Upper Right Butt Cancer.

"Just go see the chiropractor," Dave said. That seemed like a betrayal of The Book. I waited a few more days so it would seem like my idea, and gave her a call.

Our chiropractor is a wiry woman who brandishes her own heroically good health like a reproach. She's been free with the advice over the years; diet, exercise, occupation. "You shouldn't be a mail carrier," she told me early on. Her advice is tailored to the individual. "You shouldn't be a hod carrier," she told Dave. Well then.

The problem with having a fabulously healthy chiropractor with stellar habits of mind and body is that she's only in her office periodically, and the rest of the time she's got her fanny parked on a mountaintop in Nepal or something. She wasn't in.

I'm going to Plan C. I am going to ignore it. If that works as well as it does with my cat, I expect my butt pain will be walking across the keyboard any time now.

Hurray, hurray, it's Margaret Day! Today! Start tossing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Precisely Bundled

Last year we were trying to find super-warm coats for our winter trip to Alaska. It's hard to put a coat on in a warm store and really know what it's going to do for you.  Mostly you're kind of guessing, judging the coat for bulbousness or fuzz factor or some such. So I was pleased to find a tag on the coat I ended up buying. It said it was good to minus four degrees Fahrenheit.

That is a freakishly specific tag. So many questions arise. Are you just dandy to minus four and then you lose a degree and it's Whoa Nelly, Boy Howdy, Katy Bar The Door? Do they figure in wind chill? Are we walking briskly or are we hunkered at a bus stop? Shouldn't it add "or minus fifteen during menopause?"

Oops! Missed this one.
I've never cared for the wind chill factor. I liked it better when the weather person said "minus four with a twenty-mph wind." I can do the emotional math. Assigning a wind chill factor seems like cheating; and it takes out all opportunity for bluster. As it were.

But the coat just said minus four. A temperature that Alaska gets a big kick out of and thinks is adorable, but should be unthinkable here. So I figured I wouldn't have to test their claim too closely in Portland.

It's like seeing a hat with a label that reads "87% endearing except on Tuesdays and Murr, where it will make her tiny head look like the nipple on a baby bottle."

Or a sweater scoring "7 to 9 on the schlumpy-to-fab spectrum depending on choice of brassiere."

There had to be research to produce a tag like my coat has. They had to have lined up a significant number of subjects and zipped them up and put them on the train platform while temperatures dropped, and made notations of precise temps when asses froze off and clunked onto the concrete. You throw out lows and highs from the Albanian fellow who is furred like an otter and the little skinny girl from Ecuador, and you average the rest. You've got the tag people in Indonesia on speed-dial, and your coats are on the market the next day.

Give me another few years, and all my clothes are going to be fleece, cut loose. The tags will say "net weight 130 pounds; contents may have settled during shipping."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Going Straight

Dave, in solidarity

Stuff happens when you're not paying attention. I put on an old comfortable dress the other day, the one with an Empire waistline. An Empire waistline is situated high, just below the bust line. Unfortunately, since the last time I wore the dress, the waistline and the bust line have changed sides, with the bust now playing in the shadowy end of the field.

Meanwhile, I woke up the other day to discover that a third of my face is now habitually resting on the pillow next to me, like a close friend. I can actually see some of it, without using a mirror.

Both of these happenstances might have seemed like a disaster a few decades ago, but I don't plan to do anything about either of them. My philosophy is to let all my components play as they see fit and just hope they're all rounded up in time for dinner.

So this business with my teeth is nothing I would ever change for cosmetic reasons alone. My chewing teeth are well-behaved, but the front ones are tripping all over each other like they're in a stampede in Pamplona. My left front incisor has knocked its neighbor clean out of the running. It's ahead by a neck. Behind those, it's all pushing and shoving and coarse language. There's nothing attractive about this, but what bothers me most is that the insides of my lips are getting shredded by the sharp edges. My dentist only takes pictures of the molars, so we don't have a record of the whole set, but I think this has to be a recent development. Maybe all those face-plants on the pavement have gotten everything on the skedaddle.  I didn't notice any loosening at the time, but my teeth might have gotten together and decided they'd be safer in someone else's face, and now they're gettin' the hell out of Dodge.

I don't want to get braces, even though they are a lot better than they used to be. The kids who had braces fifty years ago looked horribly  uncomfortable, and so did their parents. They cost, like, a couple thousand dollars, or about what you'd pay for a small house if you didn't need a rec room, and they were made out of cattle fencing and razor wire. Every so often the victims had to go to the orthodontist, who sent in a team of tiny rude inmates to yank it all tight. Then they were sent home wired with explosive rubber bands and dread. After a couple years the teeth were set free provisionally but still had to be locked up at night. It was a horror show.

Now braces are adorable little dots in decorator colors glued to the teeth and connected with gossamer and good intentions. They look like something the kids would do just for the jazz of it.  I'm not signing on just yet. It's still expensive, and if I wait long enough they'll have a satellite able to straighten them remotely using GPS and the magnetic field. It'll be cheaper, too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Be Preparednessful!

So we're next in line for the big earthquake, and I am led to understand that I should be acquiring preparedness, or having preparedness thrust upon me. I don't like it. It can't even be a real word. What was wrong with "readiness?" When I look at my monthly bills, am I supposed to aspire to paidness?

I can't bring myself to think about any of it until I check the Oxford English Dictionary--the one with every word and its earliest usage in it, and which comes with a magnifying glass--and see when this travesty of a word was visited upon us. And it turns out it was in 1590. Well, no offense to the OED people, but there's a lot of evidence that those early English speakers were drunk. Spelling like toddlers. Capitalizing random shit as though they have to wake themselves up every few Words just to make it to the End of the Sentence. And then by 1654 we have: "...he gave the Executioner the token of his preparedness, whereat the Headsman severed his head from his body." Maybe it's just me, but I do not consider this any endorsement of preparedness. Whatever: the OED can't be all that proud of the word, or they'd use bigger print.

Anyway, preparedness is one of those things you know you should get around to having, but that it could probably wait. Our neighbor Gayle thought it was so important she had a gathering at her house so some folks could come from the Red Cross and get us up to speed. Here, we don't worry much about floods, or hurricanes, or tornadoes, or wildfires. House fires are a concern, but my smoke alarms scare me worse than fire does. What we're really supposed to worry about is the big 9.0. The titanic earthquake that is already 14 years overdue.

So one of the things you need to do is prepare a portable emergency preparedness kit. You're going to want first aid supplies, a flashlight, cash, toothbrush, can opener, duct tape, blanket, tweezers, toilet paper, wrench, 50 feet of rope, garden hose, emergency speculum, medical team, a coach-and-six, and five hundred gallons of water. Handy.

And with all that, I don't know that you can truly be prepared for a 9.0 earthquake. Sure, you can have a cache of stuff. But no one is going to go through one of these events and think: hey, I was so ready for this. Because that's the whole point of huge earthquakes--that's what gives them so much jazz. You're never going to be ready just that second.  You're never going to admire your kit and say, "okay, now." The one we're due for isn't going to bobble you around. It's going to flip you right out of bed and plate you up with hashbrowns. I've looked it up on the soil map: the ground on our particular block will turn into pudding. I can't pretend I'll be calm. I was once sorting mail, and the wheeled dolly that was stationed to my left started to spontaneously roll away. I thought I was moving. I almost threw up on my postal black shoes.

There's more to the kit. You're supposed to have a bucket, trash bags, bleach, and two boards to construct a makeshift toilet. I don't know what the boards are for. I do know that after a 9.0 earthquake, I won't be needing a toilet for a while. You're also supposed to keep sturdy shoes, a flashlight, and an extra pair of eyeglasses in a bag attached to your headboard.

Here's how I prepare. I don't worry much, and I have the emotional flexibility to be able to take whatever comes. That's the kind of preparedness that has worked for my whole life, and will continue to work for me right up until that 9.0, at which point I will have plenty of time to ponder it all while I'm under the rubble wearing only my Skechers and a pair of unfashionable glasses. And I will think: Gayle's right next door. And she has one hell of a kit.