Saturday, August 29, 2015

No Doot About It

I don't always notice these milestones, but it came to my attention that this is my 700th post here at Murrmurrs. So it seemed like maybe I should take stock or something. There are a lot of people who were blogging before I came on the scene, but the scene in general has petered out. Fewer people blog, and even fewer pay any attention to those who do.

But I'm still here. I'm here with a reduced number of readers, but I'm pretty sure that those people still dropping by are sincere and pure at heart and have come here of their own free will, and also they're bored at work.

You're supposed to have a theme. You're a quilter, or you're a Mommy, or you're an irascible political junkie with grindable axes. Everyone knows what to expect of you. With me, you don't know exactly what I'm going to write about--you couldn't, because I don't--but I do wear some of the same paths smooth. I care a lot about the environment and extinction, and the wholesale destruction of the global systems that had been sustaining us and our fellow planetary passengers for quite a long time. I'm interested in poop. And I seem to be really hard on Republicans, which would be totally unfair and unbalanced, except that they have so got it coming. They are assholes nine ways to Sunday, the whole lot of them. They want their nests feathered with stuff they've plucked off of you, and then they want to tell you to get your own damn sweater and oh by the way how many eggs you should raise.

So here's an example. Found this the other day, at the 5000-foot elevation of one of our local volcanoes. I don't know if this is poop or not. It looks like poop, but it also looks like some other kind of non-digestive consequence of some little critter's shovelings or perambulations; or even something that water did to dirt in its spare time. I poke around in doots just to see if any clues pop out, and if they don't, I slap their picture on the internet like this so someone smarter than I am can tell me what they are. These look to be made of plain dirt.

I mean, I would totally support a Republican, on principle, if I agreed with him, but on every single dag-blasted issue I care deeply about, and all the second- and third-tier ones too, they've got everything totally fucking upside-down. The solution to the climate situation is to declare it doesn't exist until they're done drilling out all the money. The solution to the obscene concentration of wealth in a few individuals is to make damn sure they're not taxed. The solution to gun violence is more guns. The solution to unaffordable health care is really unaffordable health care. The solution to abortion is discouraging contraception. The solution to the problem of gay marriage is--wait, what problem? They're insane. They'll bang a pulpit one minute and a young boy the next, and gin up five reasons to go to war on the way to prayer breakfast. They've got the word of the Lord at one end and the tailpipe of the pirate class at the other, and in between is the vacant space where they allege there might be a tangible soul worthy of protecting. No matter how thoroughly they fuck something, they won't pull out. The only thing they'd like better than lining their pockets is if they could stash the cash in a wallet made from the scrotum of an endangered tiger.

The nicest thing you can say about them is they don't mean a damn thing they say. Take the Mexican immigrants. They love them. They love the cheap labor, and they don't plan to do a thing about it. But they'll sure as hell use them to pry up votes.

Ruined water, ruined air, ruined lives, squandered resources, hypocrisy, and sanctimony. Poke around this kind of shit long enough, you know exactly where it comes from.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Not A Berry Good Year

Last year.

Mary Ann and I were eager to get up to the mountain for our annual huckleberry harvest. Piecrusts get lonely. We were fully two weeks early according to historical records, but we had a premonition. Things haven't been right. Winter started on cue last November and then it petered out. The sun swaggered in with its arms folded over its chest and shoved winter aside, glowering. Then the sun had to repeat a grade, and came back even bigger and meaner. Things started to flower and set fruit in February out of sheer submissiveness, while later the birds, sticking to their old calendar, came back from their tropical vacations and wondered where the food had gone.

Last summer we had the most stupendous huckleberry season ever. When we thumbed berries into our buckets it sounded like the drum corps in a marching band. This year it sounded like the triangle player in a mouse orchestra: ting!


There was a berry here, and a berry there. Many of them were shriveled and disheartened. At best, they aspired to being maybe a pie in a mayonnaise jar lid. Three hours in, we could still see the bottom of our buckets. We'd have done almost as well looking for mangoes.

It's not a good sign when you reach for your phone in the middle of your favorite huckleberry patch just to Google recipes for salal berries. There were salal berries about, but I'd never heard of anyone eating them. The internet solemnly reported that salal berries were indeed edible, and that the native Salish tribes edded them. I briefly visualized a diet for the new century featuring salal berries pounded into animal fat, tied up with entrails, and seasoned in a hide pouch. A lot like a Larabar, I figure. The internet also volunteered that the berries were useful as an appetite suppressant.

Turd pie in phlegm sauce is also, I would say, an appetite suppressant.

Our huckleberry patch is in a little hidden hollow below the main highway on the mountain. Despite the inevitable shard of plastic or a beer can flashing in the sun, it's still a beautiful miniature. A small stream runs nearby, burbling companionably. The light is dappled and green as it sifts through the trees. Individual bushes wobble as a chipmunk races us to the last berries. A wren hops along the ground, poking for snacks in the log rot. There's not much that moves slower than a huckleberry picker in a bad year, and the wren walks right up to us, unconcerned. There are plenty of bugs in the disintegrating woods, and she'll be here through the winter. People are dangerous, as a group, but apparently she doesn't stereotype.

Above us, road equipment barks and bellows, and trucks blat by with their jake brakes on. Even higher, the mountain hunkers behind a smoke shroud from one of this year's six billion forest fires. It's wearing dusty shreds of its remaining glaciers like an old woman clutching rags to her chest for dignity.

Down in our green bowl, Mary Ann and I are little figurines in a shoebox diorama. Huckleberry Pickers Of The Pacific Northwest: "The ancients gathered foodstuffs according to the seasons."

We're nearly motionless, crouched on a beautiful stage, with a smoke curtain behind us, and a wounded sky behind that. We're a future museum exhibit. A tableau of what we'll lose next.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Feline Of Substance

It's possible our cat Tater is overweight. That, at least, is the unsolicited opinion of most of our visitors. One very polite friend admired our cat appropriately and so I asked him if he thought she was fat, and he snapped off the yes before I even got the "t" in "fat" all-the-way pronounced.

We don't see it that way. We prefer to use the terms "sturdy" or "substantial" to describe her, and in any case she seems to be the exact right size to contain her Taterness without risking anything blowing up. She's never eaten anything more than a level half cup of store kibble a day, and she's apparently devoted all of that fuel, after basic maintenance, to the Apron Project. As a result, there's enough exterior Tater for the interior Tater to be able to roll around inside and find the cool spots. When she rests with her paws tucked under, she looks like a sentient meatloaf. But calling her fat is like saying Vin Diesel is a little chunky. You just wouldn't.  It all seems essential.

But maybe we're blind to her condition. When a beloved companion packs it on, every day, a few cat molecules at a time, the mind does not register the change. This is the same reason a man might develop a truly mockable combover. He starts young, arranging a spare fluff of working hair over a spot that's starting to slack off, and starching it with Product, and he checks the result in the mirror and proclaims that all is well. Day by day he presses his remaining follicles into service for the cause, receives optimistic reports from the front, and believes the enemy is in retreat. Ultimately he is cultivating strands from further and further south and demanding more and more of them, trusting always in his sycophantic mirror.

It's also how you lose half of your wildlife in forty years, frog by bird by tiger. You can still hear the roar of traffic and the drone of the air conditioner and the comforting clamor of motor and machinery, and you start to forget what you used to be able to hear. You see your own life reflected back at you, busy with vitally important things that didn't even used to exist and enough
paraphernalia to replace your mind and muscle, and you think: yes. That looks right. That's how it's always been.

It's how you crash all the fish in the sea. It's how you get a Donald Trump and his fuzzy crown of tonsorial vapor.

God, we need to get that cat on a diet.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Penny's Bat

My friend Penny swears she didn't shriek. She is basing this on her personal knowledge of herself, which includes the strong conviction that she is not a shrieking sort of person. She has known herself longer than I have known her, so I will concede the point. I will just state for the record that Penny emitted a brief squeak of very high pitch and decibel level that was completely out of context for the conversation we were having.

I no longer remember details of the conversation, but she was holding up her end of it when she decided to clean up a few dishes that had been left by her sink, and noticed a teabag in the bottom of a glass tumbler, and reached in to pull it out, and it was a little damp and a little squidgy but just a bit larger than your average teabag, and before she was able to fully process this observation, a wing unfolded on the teabag, which was revealed to be, in fact, a bat, and that's when the thing that couldn't have been a shriek happened.

I don't think she has anything to be ashamed of. If I had reached into the very same tumbler and pulled out the very same damp bat, there would have been an authentic shriek and an airborne glass tumbler and wild jerky moves on my part that might have disrupted the entire kitchen ecosystem. I am readily startled.

Dave enjoys this about me. At least once a day he sneaks up on me in some way that will cause me to shriek. He claims he is merely monitoring my heart health for me, but he is really doing it for his own entertainment. He can count on my reaction even though I've been on the lookout for Sudden Dave for years. At some point in every day I'm going to drop my guard, and there he'll be.

There are a number of critters that evoke this response in many people. I am not afraid of any of them. Snakes are splendid. Spiders are attractive and interesting. Bats are flat-out cool. What my sympathetic nervous system objects to is the sudden snake, the sudden spider, the sudden bat, and the sudden Dave. I want a little warning.

I'll put my nose an inch away from a spider in an orb web to admire it. If a spider walks across my pillow--and it would have to be mere inches away from my face for me to see it without my glasses--I'll jump a little, but still have the emotional wherewithal to calmly relocate it out the window. I could watch bats swooping in my vicinity all evening. But put that same bat in my bedroom when I'm not expecting it, and I'll fill my shorts. Those little black spiders that run like the wind give me the willies. One day I stepped into the very center of a patch of baby snakes and they wriggled off in every direction. I thought the ground was boiling. Everything inside me--food, bones, organs, dreams of glory--liquefied at once. I don't remember what happened after that, but I'm pretty sure there was some cleanup involved.

We'd decided Penny's bat was dead. It was kind of head-first in the bottom of the glass, and it wasn't moving, just unfolding a little. Penny also believes she didn't shriek because she likes bats, as most of my favorite people do. Therefore a damp teabag bat could not possibly have startled her in any way. Whatever: I will report that she thereafter calmly relocated the bat--in the tumbler, but without putting a cover on it--outside on the ground, under a fern. A half hour later it was gone. We're hoping for the best.

Maybe bats startle easily too. Maybe it just fainted dead away at the very moment Penny didn't shriek.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Old Farts Reunion: Phinal Phart

So the question is: can you visit your own youth?

Sure, as long as you can still see it from here. First you need to reassemble the old neighborhood. It's near the smell center of your brain. Fetch up the mimosa blossoms and the honeysuckle, the sweet humid fragrance of Gifford's Ice Cream Shoppe, and the taste of rain on a window screen. From there it's a short hop to the brick Colonials, the split-level "mid-centuries" that used to be called "new," and a particular rec room and bomb shelter with secrets in them.

Now you're ready to invite your old friends. You get a core group to loop together the threads of their various connections, add Google and the airline industry, and then your youth--or something like it--will show up one day on a lake in the Adirondacks. Friends Lake, in fact.

It's not going to be exactly the same. When we were all eighteen or so, there was that fizzy element of infatuation, barely submerged. Not many of us in this socially awkward group knew just what to do with it, but any observer could map it out. All you needed to do was was watch
us unroll our packs in whatever cabin we hiked to and negotiate the space, everyone willing to settle for mere proximity and possibility, the sleeping bags arranging themselves on the floor like iron filings obeying an invisible magnet. That part is pretty much gone now, at least I think it is, our attractions having been diluted into a comfortably low-key group crush.

That first day at Friends Lake was a scene thrumming with joy. Sometimes I stood to the side just to watch as new arrivals showed up and smiles bloomed around the room and laughter rolled in eddies. It was later in the evening that we began to catch up and reconnect in more intimate groups that shimmered and sparked on the deck, a bright constellation of friends.

Unless you've grown distracted or inattentive, you're still in touch with all the ages you've ever been. But it's a special gift to spend time with the people who loved us when we were young and full of the future, who can still make out the eighteen-year-olds at our centers. We have custody of each other's past. We can set our memories loose to roll around together until they shine again. Until each of us is a polished stone in someone else's pocket.

Then the week is part of your past too, and the whole thing slides away, and you can watch it go, one hand on your pocketful of stones and one hand on a slim new tether to the last memory.
Nothing changes.

Which, in my case, was that dreamy Bob Gearheart kissed me goodbye.

[On the cheek, Dave.]

[Not that cheek, Dave.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Old Farts Reunion: Phart Three

I headed off with a somewhat smaller group for a hike to a waterfall. Anyone says "hike" and I'm usually in. For a while it didn't look like this hike was going to involve any actual forward movement. You get an astrophysicist and a geologist with a GPS device and they'll hunch over in the middle of an obvious trail for hours staring at their whizbangery. I'm technologically backward, but evidently there exists a little square box that can tell you where you are with CIA proficiency. "There should be a large, striated metamorphic boulder eight feet to our right," they'll say, hunched, "and right now we should be directly under a suspended spider visible from space." They look up.

Already this is a lot different from the old Hostel Club. We didn't really care all that much if we got lost, because we were young and unfamiliar with mortality. There was never a guarantee Lynn's VW bus wouldn't strand us on the side of the road, we had no cell phones or cash machines, and if we did undertake too many expeditions in a row without getting lost, we'd try spelunking. We'd drop ourselves into a narrow hole in the ground on a rope and scrabble about in the mud and the dark like salamanders until even J. Edgar Hoover gave up looking for us. We always assumed at least one of us knew the way back to the rope, and as long as there was still a prospect of descending on the nearest Howard Johnson's on the way home like the Attack of the Mud People, we were happy.

Bill, or Clumsy Carp?
But there's no getting away from the modern ways, which are undeniably cool. Still, it wasn't technology that saved the day for me. It was Karen. And she isn't even an original Hostel Clubber. She married in.

We left Bill at a water hole with his fly rod and took our noisy selves further up the stream in search of the mythical waterfall, which was exactly where, in the opinion of John's GPS, it was supposed to be. Three of us, not including your correspondent, plunged into the pool below the falls, while your correspondent examined the falls with just a little disappointment. This was puny by Oregon standards. There were rocks and water and a smattering of gravity, but not a lot of fuss to it. But Karen is a marine biologist, which means she is an avid appreciator of life in all its speckled, gelatinous, stridulating, or wriggly majesty, and she and I were soon flipping rocks in the stream and scoring frogs and crawdads and a toad and little tiny insect larvae and she whipped out her magnifying glass and revealed yet smaller (but still enthusiastic) forms of life. She found me a freshwater sponge. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a freshwater sponge! You can tell them from the marine sponges by the scrubby pad on one side. And then. And then!

Fishies! But not normal fishies. Fishies with zest and ambition and piscatory derring-do! Fish smaller than my little finger were galloping straight up the wet rocks and bounding into the cascades, everywhere we looked. They bunched up in pools the size of a bicycle helmet to get a good running jump and they flipped themselves into the miniature torrent and zipped and squiddled their way upward, ever upward. Diminutive bears waited at the top of the falls with their mouths open. Itty bitty videographers from National Geographic stood off to one side. Somewhere a band of tiny trumpeters was playing the theme from Rocky. Karen and I crunched down as small as we could and cheered. Go, tiny fish, go! Go, tiny fish, go!

We have two biology degrees between us, hers a working model and mine vestigial, and we have no idea what the hell they were doing. They couldn't have been old enough to spawn. Maybe they were little kid fishes playing "bet you can't" and "watch this." It was an honor to observe them, and hard to leave them. But we'd promised Bill we'd meet him back at his fishing hole, and there we found him, troutless and a bit worse for wear. He'd slipped on the rocks and fallen in, twice, to the detriment of several body parts he wasn't done with yet. John and Karen and Morris had plunged in on purpose. I was the only one high and dry.

Mostly high.

Here's a video of our heroic fishies. Look closely! A couple of them make mighty leaps at the very end. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Old Farts Reunion, Phart Two

We're well provisioned, I'll say that. Penny is in charge, and we're glad of it. It was Penny who budgeted and shopped for our epic seven-day bicycle tour of Amish country, back in 1968, coming in at twenty bucks a head. She has a steely determination and fiscal ferocity matched only by her coupon collection, and if we eat any more food, the grocery chains are going to be sending us money to stay away. We're in good hands.

As for activities, it's not like we all have to do the same thing. We have options. There's talk of an excursion to the Adirondack Museum. There are bicycles and canoes. There is a lake to hang out in. And there's rafting. Rafting: why not? What could be better for a girl like me, who is terrified of water, than to rocket down a river without a seat belt, or a personal relationship with the Almighty, in the company of friends who promise to pluck me out of the drink as long as I don't bounce out of reach? Sign me up.
Photo by Bill Priedhorsky

Problem. The first thing on the waiver was something about death and dismemberment. The last thing on the waiver was something about one's heirs and assigns. I'd blacked out on the stuff in between. Janice and I traded wretched looks. She looked every so slightly worse, actually, because she had managed to locate the only two working black flies in the area with her face. We embraced, exchanged last words, and trudged into the cattle car. School bus, I mean.
Photo by Bill Priedhorsky

At the put-in, our guide, Madd Dog, eased us into a shallow eddy to practice rowing and piling into the belly of the raft for emergencies and following orders and not stabbing each other in the head with our paddles, until we were a smooth, well-oiled machine. And then we shot into the mainstream and pinballed down the Hudson River like a spastic, panicked centipede, oars clacking violently, our little arthropod legs going north and south at once.


Madd Dog looked over his team with the bleak serenity of one accustomed to disappointment. He had the steering wheel but no brakes and apparently no drive train, but he knew his river. Our crew had a good forty years on every other crew on the river, which meant we didn't have as long to live, but might have better lawyers. He piloted us around all of the more obvious Gyres of Doom and managed to keep our lungs undampened.
Photo by Bill Priedhorsky

Seventeen miles later, we sailed into port on silky waters, oars a model of synchronicity. The Trilobite had landed. We were ready to go home and regale our museum-going counterparts with smug composure, and as long as nobody checked for hematomas, we could pull it off. What happens on the Hudson River stays on the Hudson River. If my fingernail and the skin from my knee should happen to wash up on shore, though, I'd like them back.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Old Farts Reunion: Phart One

Attention! The fifth annual meeting of the Yorktown Youth Hostel Club is now in order, 45 years after the fourth. It's an experiment. Take a couple dozen nerds who went on what was essentially an extended mass date in high school, scatter them across the map, wait a very long time, and then throw them into the same pot again and see what cooks. We all showed up with plenty of seasoning and some of our bits were crispy, but boy howdy if we don't still make a tasty stew.

Photo by Bill Priedhorsky
It was an outdoor club. No surprise our current lodging is festooned with vintage bicycles and canoes. We're on a lake in the Adirondacks, laughing so hard we've humbled the loons. We're all in our sixties, so we know that life spools out like a bolt of fabric, unrolling faster and faster as the bolt gets smaller. But it turns out you can pause for a moment and fold that fabric. You can line up 2015 with 1968, say, and that pleat will hold, at least for a little while. Then all you need to do is hold both ends and shake it to unload all the intervening years, the careers, the triumphs, the losses. For hours we stood and nattered like magpies on espresso, and continued over dinner on the deck, but the next day it was time to get moving. The Hostel Club is not a group of fanny-sitters. We decided to climb Crane Mountain.
Photo by Bill Priedhorsky

We should have been ready for anything. We had an emergency room physician, and if he couldn't handle anything that came up, we had a backup hospice nurse and, um, a coroner. We had an electrician and a poet and a real estate agent and a geologist and a psychologist and an occupational therapist and a marine biologist and a physicist and a mathematician, and figured we could cover any contingency shy of voting Republican (or, as it happens, working the microwave). So off we went.

Crane Mountain is a 3200-foot pile of boulders that the state of New York gets a civic kick out of calling a "foot trail." There was the occasional trail marker, but we could navigate just as well by keeping an eye out for the fingernails of earlier hikers embedded in the rock. We had three stents and six heart bypasses among us, unevenly distributed, plus an assortment of herniated disks and grumpy joints, some hiking poles of which much was demanded, and an unreasonably sunny attitude. We were going to bag that
summit and collect all that scenery if it killed us, which was no longer just an expression. Maybe our short-term memory isn't as good as it was, but we're pretty sure the head counts at the beginning and end of the hike matched up.
Is he dead?
In the 'Sixties, we had fun and movement and laughter and all of it thrummed with an undercurrent of youthful hormones that most of us weren't sure how to get into gear, and now we were having all of it without the hormones, I think. We're not that much different. The former smart-asses are now merely smart. Teenage psychic pain has been replaced with the mature version: pain pain. But we're cool with that. There might be pizza and ice cream tonight, and we have a whole week, and there's probably more stuff to shake out of the fabric.
Photo by Tom Boothe

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Fright Stuff

Astronaut Receptionist Training
In July of 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to plant a foot on the moon. By most accounts he was just the dude for the job but it's not like they exhausted the possibilities. John Kennedy had made the call to put a Man on the Moon in 1961 and I was not even in the running. I might have had a shot at being an astronaut's receptionist. Which is not fair. Also, I was eight. Which, the way I see it, meant I was all potential.

By 1961 Neil Armstrong had been a test pilot flying faster than the speed of sound for several years, and I was still asking the kickball pitcher to roll it Slow and Smooth so that I would not be knocked over at home plate. It is worth noting that prudence is a virtue in space travel. I was already beginning to sense my powers. For instance, merely by stepping up to the plate, I was able to make the entire outfield come forward ten feet.

Kennedy worried that, as a nation, we were not most of us astronaut material, and were instead heading toward doughiness. At the time, you could count on finding one roundish kid in every class of thirty, and not the 25 you see today, but for him that was one roundish kid too many, and he vowed to get us off the green bean bake and marshmallow salad and out into the playground. The President's Council on Physical Fitness got us all out there doing sit-ups and chin-ups and shuttle runs and the 600 Yard Dash, later renamed the 600 Yard Walk And Run because of kids like me, who disturbed a minimum of dust for 300 yards and then straggled to the finish line gaping like a landed guppy. Girls didn't do chin-ups. We hung from the bar for as long as we could, in my case approaching five seconds. It is worth noting the the ability to do chin-ups is of no value in space.

Meanwhile, Neil Armstrong got slotted right into the astronaut lineup before anyone even got my phone number, which even NASA didn't want to dial because it had two zeroes. He did well. Armstrong had lightning reflexes and a cool, clear head in moments of crisis. He once coaxed a spaceship out of a death spiral by reaching over his head and flicking all the pertinent switches in a precise order whilst tumbling end over end once a second. I feel woozy if I look up into a tree too long, I still listen for a dial tone on my cell phone, and sometimes I tip over while putting on my sock because it never occurs to me to let go of the sock. It is worth noting that I have never been given the benefit of astronaut training.

On the fateful day or possibly night of the moon landing, Neil Armstrong held off near the surface looking for a good landing spot until he had only fifteen seconds of fuel left. I do not play the odds. If I went skydiving, I would pull that ripcord in the first second out of the plane. I leave so much space between my car and the one I'm following that people keep moving into the gap, until eventually I'm going backwards and discover I haven't left my driveway yet.

Assuming I had been allowed to be an astronaut, which might have occurred as long as they didn't winnow people out by popping a paper bag behind them and seeing who levitates, I could have made a significant contribution. I could have been the first person to test the on-board computers with a variety of bodily fluids. I could have demonstrated the potential of harnessing the propulsive power of panic diarrhea. It is worth noting that more is learned from the mishaps than when everything goes smoothly.

Neil Armstrong was gracious and glib when speaking publicly but ultimately retired to his farm in Ohio, preferring it to the demands of fame. That is exactly what I, astronaut-like, would do if I were famous. But the similarities stop there. I would never have left the "a" out of the "one small step" speech. Never.