Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Old Fart Central: R.I.P.

Aw, man, the Videorama store is closing.

I guess it had to happen sooner or later, and this is way, way later than you'd think. Videorama is a little neighborhood store that rented DVDs or CDs or PBJs or whatever they were--the things you jam into one of your boxes with all the cords hanging out of them and a movie would appear on your TV as long as you could figure out which of the seventeen remotes you don't dare throw out is the right one. It was just our speed. We had a routine. We'd decide to watch Breaking Bad and we'd go down the block and fetch the beginning of Season One, with five days on the rental, and then we'd go back six days later and pay the late fee. We're not really set up for binge watching. Dave falls asleep twenty minutes after the TV comes on and I have to keep monitoring him to see where I'm going to have to back it up to the next night. But it worked for us. It got us out on a rainy night for a little walk and the ice cream store was right there on the way back.

We weren't the only ones in there, either. There'd always be a half dozen old farts shuffling through the aisles and, remarkably, two or three people behind the counter. I loved those kids. They'd help out when we finally discovered we were missing Breaking Bad episodes. It took us a while because we were accustomed to being confused about the plot and, after all, something horrible was always happening to the characters, so it looked right. Turned out the manufacturers would put out discs and call them "Complete Season One" before half the episodes had been produced, and we'd think we had the whole thing. So we got in the habit of coming in with our disc, handing it to the counter kid, paying our late fee, and he'd find us the correct new one.

The thing is, we figured we were just about the only people left who rented movies. Everyone else had gone over to some other system. For years people have been getting movies through their mail slots and then later they were sucking them straight out of the air and into their TVs. I looked into it, once. I would have needed a new box of some sort, and sure, I could probably find room for it on top of the old Tivo or the eight-track player, but accumulating another new box with wires depressed me in a way that walking in the rain to Videorama didn't. Especially with the ice cream store right there on the way back.

Now you don't need the new box as long as you have a new TV. I still wasn't sure how any of it worked. It wouldn't have surprised me in the least to discover that people were now summoning movies directly to their retinas by licking their phones. "It's easy," they'd say, "and if you spring for the laser treatment one time to get the chip implant, you can just pay for it by blinking." I'm not interested. My retinas definitely do not support High-Definition and I'd probably scrape the shows off with my monocle anyway.

But our nephew keeps dropping off appliances as he upgrades, and so we found ourselves in possession  of a new TV, and we hung towels on it and such, and seven months later a young friend plugged it in for us, and showed us how to suck movies out of the air with it, and it's all working very nicely. But I can't help but feel that the little Netflix button on the new remote was what drove the last nail into the Videorama coffin, and I'm sorry.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Jesus Loves The Food Containers Of The World

Everybody on the planet wishes everyone else would just stay put. That's about the nut of it. Everyone's used to the people they were forced to get used to, and they don't really want to get used to anyone new. It's hard enough getting used to the regular people. Trouble is, we're going to have to get used to new people. Folks are on the move. And not always just for fun.

Sometimes their entire country dries up and blows away. Sometimes they get run out at the point of a spear, or a whole lot of penises that are up to no good. Sometimes they get bombed out by a really nice other country that is only trying to drop the bad guys into a crater, and kind-of misses. Sometimes there's a plague. A lot of times it isn't even a matter of scarcity. It's a matter of a small number of people hoarding all the resources and screwing everyone else.

Coming up soon, there will be people on the move because their land is underwater to a degree incompatible with breathing. Or there will be a spectacularly awful new virus. There are billions of people on this marble and maybe we could figure out how to have most of us stay put if we could learn to share, but wealth does not work that way. Wealth is a virus that leads to blindness and hardening of the heart. And if it comes down to a choice of moving or having no water or food and having your family tortured and shot, people are going to move.

God, we hate that! New people don't even smell right. They smell like some stupid thing they're cooking out of pounded plant roots and ground-up seed pods. They believe completely different weird things from the weird things we believe. Their women are tiny and their men are hairy. They change everything. We don't like them.

What we need is a world-wide exchange program. We need to learn about each other and discover our common humanity. I propose we model it after the International Sisterhood Of Food Storage Containers. Your Tupperwares, your Rubbermaids, your Snap-Tights. They've got it down. In some technical respects, food storage containers are not strictly alive, but they do have the ability to move on their own. They have autonomy.

We first met them long ago at parties in their honor and took them home. Later a religious element was introduced, when they convened in church basements, filled with green bean casseroles and marshmallow salads, and everyone got a good look at them in all their diversity. Then they showed up at people's doors like evangelists, saying "Have you heard the Good News about quinoa," and stayed for dinner, and never left. The people they ended up with strained to remember the provenance of the new food storage containers, and eventually gave up and put their own leftovers in them.

Now I have yours, and you have mine.

So when I look in the cupboard for something to stow the potato salad in, I see foreign Tupperware. "You're not from around here," I say. "You look different. Mine has a blue gasket and snappy sides. You have a red flexible hat. You're not like mine, but you know? You're not so bad." Food storage containers are the masters of ecumenical outreach. We Are All One. Red and yellow, black and white, we will snap together tight.

In the meantime, we should probably isolate those Syrian boat refugees who want to undergo a rigorous two-year naturalization process in order to commit terrorist acts on us more conveniently. We can stick them in with all the transgendered people who victimize people in public restrooms and the people who impersonate other people to vote. Somebody must have a broom closet about that size.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ambulatory Snot and Gastropodcasts

Our friend Mike once described a mutual friend as being "so lazy, if she shit the bed she'd just roll it out with a stick." Which puts me in mind of slug poop.

I hadn't given much thought to slug poop in, like, ever, until I learned that certain slugs have developed a hankering for baby birds. They climb right up the tree and snarf away. No one has actually observed the slugs doing this. We infer it because baby birds have been found with debilitating slug injuries and also because the slugs leave their poop behind. Slugs poop? It's obvious, I guess--everything poops--but somehow I never visualized slug poop. Even in an election season.

If I'm being honest, I sort of imagined slugs didn't poop at all. Just sort of ate stuff and got bigger and bigger, like a constipated mucus ball. But poop they do.

I had to look it up. Turns out there's more to slug poop than meets the eye, which, on the good days, it doesn't. Slugs (or, as snails call them, "the homeless") sometimes poop and then roll it up. Their anus and lips are very close together--nothing is that far apart on a slug--and sometimes they pull out a string of poop with their lips and poke it under their foot, and then they roll it into a ball and sleep on it. Not because they want to ponder it or anything. They're just sleepy.

We know this because there are slug and snail aficionados who lovingly observe their pets, and pooping is one of the only things they do. It is possible that slug owners have limited social connections.

Slugs have only the one foot, and yet they do not hop. They mosey at best. But although there is not that much to a slug, they're way more than ambulatory snot. Like us, they're mostly water. Unlike most of us, they have every sexual organ in the book. They can even have sex with themselves. You can too, but not as spectacularly, because you're not as well equipped, no matter what you say anonymously on the internet.

So I didn't know what slug poop looks like, but most people really aren't that good at poop ID. How many times have you heard a disgruntled roommate holler "Who left all this shit here?" See, they don't know. So it's helpful to get a good description. What does a gastropodcast look like? Is it tidy, or untoward? Well, slug poop has been described as "pretzel-shaped," but that's not helpful. Do they mean the curly kind? The long stick kind? The short fat peanut-butter-filled kind? We're left in the dark.

One of the other interesting things about slug poop is it's like a little commuter bus for nematodes. Nematodes like to eat the same things slugs eat--rotting vegetation--and that is, by its nature, transitory. Once the vegetation has been eaten up, where do the nematodes go? They're really little and can't make time on the road the way a good slug can. So they get eaten by the slug and carted to the next good meal and pop out the other end good as new.

Yes, they get pooped out. You'd be tired too if you spent much time in a slug gut, which has a grinder in it. Scientists still don't know if the traveling nematodes have any control over when the bus pulls out of the station, but they're eager to find out. Yes: there are scientists who are eager to discover whether tiny worms are driving the slug poop bus. And that is why I still love humans.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Slugged To Death

Some of you may recall last spring, when our nuthatches tried to make new nuthatches out of whatever they had lying around the house, and everything went sideways for them. One nestling might have made it, five were dead in the nest, and the seventh was snatched up for scrub-jay chow on its maiden flight. That was deeply disturbing. The scrub jays and I had had an understanding. They'd hang around and watch me weed and I'd toss them an insect larva whenever I unearthed one. I thought I was just being companionable, but evidently the jays were running a protection racket, and when I fell a little behind in the larvae, it was curtains for the nuthatches.

What I've learned is that manufacturing new birds is a dicey enterprise at best. Other birds want to eat baby birds. Snakes want to eat baby birds. Mammals want to eat baby birds. Mites want to picnic on their insubstantial, goobery little skins. It's a tough go. But I didn't appreciate how tough until this week, when two news items came to my attention.

The first was that deer are now known to eat baby birds. That wrecks their herbivore cred for sure. Lots of vegetarians are one strip of bacon away from moral free-fall and evidently it isn't much different for deer. Deer don't want to be restricted to plants; they just don't have the teeth for anything else. But show them a nice gummable nuthatch chick, and they're all nom-nom. Who knew?

Well, I had my suspicions. One time during a hike we saw a lovely doe well across the valley. She began to amble our way. She wasn't in any hurry; but she pointed  her pretty nose at Dave, and she headed right for him. It was funny at first. Then Dave turned and tried to walk away, but by then she was on the trail and closing the gap fast. He picked up the pace. So did she. It didn't make sense. It didn't make sense to be wary of a small deer, either, but when animals don't act right it makes you apprehensive. Now that we know deer will eat meat, it's all coming into focus. What part of Dave, that can be seen from the rear, is reminiscent of a baby bird?

I don't think there's a bird mama in the world that would hesitate to dive-bomb an ungulate who is busy nibbling on the family legacy. But deer aren't the only problems. Item two: slugs. Slugs in Europe eat baby birds.

It's not going to be a good way to go, for the nestlings. Slugs have rasps for mouths. They don't bite off and chew; they scrape away. That's going to feel good to an itchy mite-infested nestling for about two seconds and then it's going to be all out of skin layers. There's just not that much to a bird at the loogey stage. All of which begs the question: how neglectful a bird parent are you if you allow a slug to sneak up on your babies? Slugs are only marginally sneaky.

Many birds' strategy is to lay bunches of eggs. Because they're not all going to make it. Maybe they're philosophical about them; I hope so. They always said that in the olden days people had scads of kids to help run the farm, and mitigate the losses to childhood illness. (That's one reason; the other is that Daddy won't quit poking Mommy with that thing.) Maybe bird parents are like Catholics. They pump out enough to run through the standard twelve names (Patrick, John, Francis X., Joseph, Paul, Matthew, Mary Celeste, Mary Catherine, Mary Mary, Colleen, Eileen, and Baleen), and then you've got to count on some attrition if you're ever going to name another one.

I still feel sorry for my nuthatch family, but maybe it's for the best. Catholic school ain't cheap.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

All The Beauty I Can Afford

Every now and then, probably when Mom was using the haircut bowl for something else, Daddy used to take me to the barbershop for a dollar haircut. My hair was snipped halfway down my ears, parted on the side, and pulled off my forehead with a small barrette raked across my scalp. I think I can still feel the furrow. Mom could jam that sucker in there so that it would last all day. There was enough DNA in one of those barrettes to clone me.

By the time I was tipped unwillingly into adolescence, by a sheer stroke of genetic fortune I had the kind of hair that was popular at the time. It was straight, light, and long enough to iron on an ironing board without bending over. In fact the object for the next eight years was to grow it as long as it would naturally go before petering out into a fuzzy hem of split ends. That would be just below the butt crack, so  it was pretty long, although one must note that there isn't as much distance between my head and my butt as there is on regular people. But still.

And that is why I never had cause to visit a professional beauty salon until I was a junior in college, when I was living in London and suddenly unfashionable. Since I hadn't had a haircut in eight years, I decided to go big and go to the Vidal Sassoon salon. That's where I first learned that there are two parts to the beautician's job: to make you beautiful, and to persuade you that you are in calamitous need of being made beautiful. That, in fact, you are hopeless and pathetic, without professional assistance.

"I don't know," the man said, curling a lip in distaste, lifting a section of my hair and letting it drop. My proud, glossy curtain was abruptly revealed to be a sad, stringy bundle of possum fur. Lift, drop. Grimace. Lift, drop. Grimace. Tsk, tsk, cavernous sigh. "I guess I can do something." With a look of bleak despair, he asked me what I had in mind. Thence came the following exchange, a classic of dueling idioms, in which I, in my American accent, apparently declined a proposition he never made, and he introduced me to the British term for a hairstyle that can be maintained with a hair dryer alone:

"I dunno. I don't wanna Shag, really."

[Stunned silence.]

"Well, do you want a blow job, then?"

The execution of the haircut--at that point, whatever he wanted to do--progressed in awkward silence.

Subsequent professional haircuts followed the same pattern. The beautician stood behind me, lifting and dropping my hair while glowering into the mirror, and finally allows he might be able to do something with my hair if he does enough texturing and sells me enough Product and only because he is a genius. Once I visited a friend's recommended stylist and it all went pretty well, in the sense that he kept his despair about what I'd given him to work with to himself, and I thought the result was just fine too, when he spun me around and gave me my glasses back.

"Great!" I said.

"Do you want me to do anything about this?" he said.

About what now?

He puckered up his face in genuine concern and ran his fingertips over my cheeks, where, for the very first time, I was made to notice I had a fine thick blonde beard, and that there might need to be something "done" about it.

"No, thank you, that's fine the way it is," I said, reserving a portion of his tip for an extra adult beverage.

So went the next thirty years, during which I twice grew out my hair long again so as to avoid seeing myself through a hairstylist's eyes, and now I'm back to short, especially since there is a nice barber right around the corner who charges me the senior rate of $12 even though I've told her several times that, in spite of appearances, I'm three years shy. "Oh go on, you," she giggles, and continues to charge me less. I've decided to accept that.

She also asks me what I want. And then she tells me I can't have it. "You can't go that short," she says. "You have those cowlicks in the back. It will look weird."

Or "Your face is too long." Or "You need more hair to cover that thin spot at your temples." Or "That gray is washing you out." Or "You might want to pull the attention up and away from your this point."

And I nod and think: Twelve dollars, twelve dollars, twelve dollars.

But the last time I vowed to persevere, and I demanded it short. Very short.

"How short?" she said, masking disapproval.

As long as it's just a little longer than my beard, I'm good.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Berry Poopers

Wickedly smiling berry pooper
As my niece told me, pokeweed is invasive--so much so that it has now outrun Wikipedia, which thinks we don't have any here. It's planted by birds. Birds are unaffected by the seeds and so they eat them and poop them out and fly to a branch and smile wickedly at us. It's an inward smile, on account of the beak situation. They're smiling because pooping out toxic plants is their plan to get back at us for letting our stupid cats out. And for pesticides, and windows that look like sky, and tidying up our gardens so there's nothing to eat, and climate change that's throwing off the insect hatch, and mountaintop removal, and all that there.

We don't like invasive species, officially, even though we're responsible for most of them. Some of them chew up all the plants we really like, or choke off the fish in lakes, or outcompete natives, or otherwise throw everything off balance. Even the ones that appear harmless, like the plague of ring-necked doves, can be very disruptive to the musicsphere. All hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo, all day long, like some crappy avian New Age music that they play in the naturopath's office that's supposed to calm you down and totally doesn't. Somewhere in Florida right now there's an escaped tropical pet bird with constipation heading this way with a load of kudzu seeds and a pair of stowaway Japanese beetles. Invasives! Bleah. We hate them.

That might be what psychologists call "projection." After all, the worst invasive in the world is us. The glaciers held us in check for a long time, but once they pulled their icy lips back off the marble, we invaded like crazy. Look, there's a nook! There's a cranny! Let's jam ourselves in there. It'll be right roomy once we wipe out all the big scary animals. Heck, we can use this entire middle part for growing Cheez Doodles if we shoot all the bison that are stomping on it. And their bones are so much fun to stack up.

We can't get enough of invasion. Even now we've got people absolutely incensed that some of the real estate has been pulled off the market, like our parks and refuges, because all that wasted land could be used to make hamburger or toilet paper or money. We assume we own every little thing and then we treat it like we can always get more.

But right about now the world is gathering up its forces. There's anthrax thawing out in Siberia. There are viruses auditioning mosquitoes and chickens for hosting rights. There are droughts spreading and people moving toward diminishing sources of water and we're bombing each other over the goodies that are left. The sea is rising and sending little fingers into the coastline. That's the earth feeling along the ribs, looking for the sternum and diaphragm, and when it gets a good grip it's going to Heimlich us out of here.

The earth won't last forever, either. The sun's getting brighter, and the oceans will evaporate, and the tectonic plates are going to grind to a standstill, and the planet's going to get a good wobble to it, but it'll still be a cushy ride for another billion years or so, plenty of time for a do-over of the species list. Maybe it will even come up with something like us, with an ear for music, prehensile antlers, a handy pouch, and two tails to send mixed messages with. Maybe it can whomp up something really smart. After all, it only took about sixty million years to score a human being out of a basic shrew. Smart's okay. Wonderful things have been created by smart humans.

And maybe next time the Smart won't have enough momentum to outrun the Wise.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Fine Mess

Back in the late 'Sixties a new song came on the radio waves, and it really stood out in a year whose number one hit was "Sugar, ah honey honey, you are my candy GIRL, and you got me wanting you." It was a cool song. It was raw. It was Southern. It was Poke Salad Annie.

Poke Salad Annie was a piece of work, she was. Gators got her granny. Everybody said it was a shame 'cause her mama was a-workin' on a chain gang. She didn't have a lot going for her but she was mean enough to make the gators look tame, and also she ate poke salad.  It's a plant. She'd go down and pick her a mess of it. "Mess" is a unit of poke salad.

Because of that song, poke salad was mythic to me as I grew up in the heat and humidity of northern Virginia and imagined somewhere even hotter and cruddier, with gators. Tony Joe White sang the song and he growled and chomped his way through it, and when everyone else was singing Build Me Up Buttercup, he was a tonic.

So a while back when I saw a new plant in my yard that I definitely did not plant, and asked my niece the Plant Professor what it was, and she said it was pokeweed, I didn't believe it. Naww, I drawled appropriately. We don't have no pokeweed 'round these parts.

"You do now," she said. "You don't want it though. It's invasive."

Okay, but I kinda wanted to see how it turned out. Weeds grow where they aren't wanted, so maybe this one would give up if I acted like I wanted it. Note: plants do not respond to reverse psychology. It was cool-looking though. Bright green, pretty purple berries, and a certain enthusiasm. I figured I'd wait it out and nip it the next year.

Lawsa mercy. Next year it had gotten its feet under it. It was massive. It would give an unemployed lumberjack a woodie. (That's what lumberjacks get.)

Pokeweed, as it happens, is spectacularly poisonous. You can only eat the stems and leaves and you need to bile it up and serve it with fatback, which, being concentrated pig deliciousness, is worth dying for. If you're not Poke Salad Annie, you're not mean enough to try it. The roots will kill you retroactively and a single berry will tidily drop a kid in a couple hours. The bigger it is, the harder it'll kill you.

In the years since I saw that first plant, pokeweed has shown up everywhere in town, and there are some hundred or so of the little contenders poking up in my garden. Which is a problem, because a lot of kids roam through this yard, and some of them we really like.

So now, belatedly, I'm pulling them out as fast as I spot them. No mercy. I'm gonna pick me a mess of 'em. Wretched, spiteful, straight-razor-totin' woman.

Saturday, September 3, 2016


I should point out that nobody around here has a decent lawn. Those are all down the hill in the nicer neighborhood, where people wanted to live before they wanted to live here. They're all sitting down there in their big houses wondering why the little bungalow pieces of crap up here are going for the same amount their houses are. Ha ha! Who knows? But their lawns are nice.

We're none of us supposed to like lawns anymore, because they take so much water and work and fertilizer and chemicals and stuff. So up here we look down on the big houses and big green lawns as evidence of poor moral character, and even though we would secretly like to lie down on them sometimes, we don't covet them out loud. Up here it is now considered normal to have tomatoes and squash in your front yard, or at least a bunch of xeric plants that look the same alive or dead and don't need a hose in either condition.

A lot of folks up here do still have leftover default lawns, but they're really crappy. I was just thinking I hadn't heard a lawnmower in forever, and that's because no one waters their lawn after God quits doing it in the spring, and it just looks like something a horse would spit out. The grass is brown and short and cowlicked with big sproingy weeds.

I should also point out that our aversion to watering lawns has more to do with solidarity with unfortunate drought-stricken populations than it does with an actual water shortage. We have lots of water compared with most people. I use more than most, but I hand-water it in the dark like I'm sneaking a cookie. I grow a lot of pretty flowers and not as many edibles, and come the earthquake my preference for Food For The Soul is going to kick me in the ass. But anyway when I do select flowers, I tend to ignore the ones that want lots of water.

Except this spring. I saw a nice Brugmansia in a little pot and thought: hey, it's been a few years since I've grown one of those, but I'm in the mood for a little pizzazz and ka-pow. I bought a giant pot for it because I know it has ambition and I put it on the patio and it looked like a dandelion on a football field. For a week.

Thing about those Brugmansias is you can't tell how big their paws are because they're underground. Within a month my plant was a galoot. One day it began to pout dreadfully. I hurried some water on it and it re-erected fast. The next day it pouted harder and I dumped a few more gallons on it. Day after day I rushed out with more and more water as it clutched its throat and threatened to faint on the divan, and every time it popped right back up and said "Just kidding."

This has to be how people feel when they go to all the trouble of making a cute little baby and they feed it with tiny spoons for years and years and then all of a sudden it's a big meaty teenage boy with a bad attitude and a 10,000-calorie-a-day habit and they find themselves thinking "What if I just don't feed it?" and that's okay. Go ahead and think it. You know you're going to feed it anyway. You don't want all those years of strained peas to have been in vain.

At least my Brugmansia is going to be properly dead by November. Your big kid is going to be in your basement playing video games until he's forty.