Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Matter Of Faith

Harold Sidney Brewster
What with all the religion weighing down my family tree, it's a wonder none of it slid onto me. I've got one ancestor that felt so strongly about his faith that he talked all those people into sailing on the Mayflower. I've got a great-grandfather so pious that he sent Mark Twain over the edge when they did a lecture tour together. My grandfather was an Episcopalian minister. My dad quoted the King James Bible all the time, although I'm not sure he meant anything by it. But here I am, bereft of faith.

I'm pretty sure I wasn't rebelling. By the time I was introduced to religion, it was a very inoffensive sort, just like my mom, who was responsible for the introduction. There's nothing to push against with Lutherans. It's just a bunch of nice people and weak coffee and singing in four-part harmony. No brimstone, no damnation. The word on God was that he was love. I expect I bought most of the stories at first. The whole manger scene was easy to imagine, and things didn't get real sketchy until later, but I suppose I bought that too, even though it involved coming back from the dead and floating into the sky, and other things generally accepted to be unlikely in the normal course of events.

No, the first time I questioned anything, it was that line in Mark: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." Wait--what? How could that possibly be fair? Are they just making this all up? (This was an intriguing possibility that had not yet occurred to me.) I guess I was willing to go along with the believing part. That seemed like a sound requirement if you're planning to join a club, and of course there are going to be rules: don't swear, remember the Sabbath, no girlz allowed. But throwing in that other makes no sense at all. Why not "he that believeth and performs the chicken dance at midnight on the second Sunday in June shall be saved?"

There are so many ways to go wrong,  once you start larding on these random rituals. So many ways to separate your fortunate self from the less-than-true believers. Take baptism: do you go full dunk or delicate sprinkle? Do you need to douse your infant before she has a chance to go to hell, or can it wait?

I guess there was some sort of Baptism before John the Baptist but he's the one with the marketing. Every good cult needs a gimmick. The word comes from the Greek and means something like "dip" and the general idea is you're getting washed clean and starting over, but I'd be careful where this is coming from. Dipping and washing is one thing, but at least one derivation of baptize gives its primary meaning as "plunge," with helpful examples including plunging a sword into a throat or an embryo, which leads me to believe the simple sprinkle will not suffice, and a sacrifice might be in order. Which, traditionally, is not outside the bounds of religion.

I personally have an aversion to being dipped, plunged, or sprinkled with water that is not coming hot out of a showerhead, and for this and other reasons, I am taking my chances with the heathens. Maybe I'm just not much of a joiner. I think if Jesus had had a different cousin named John the Chicken Dancer, I'd have stuck around a little longer, though.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Circle The Jerk: A Proposition

Picture a man. He's quite alone, but he's a circus barker, and he's calling in the crowd. He's introducing the acts, the clowns, the freaks: Muslims. Bad hombres. Inner-city types. A former opponent. The press. The crowd is cheering, and jeering, and pumping their fists. The man rides waves of adulation. He's a showman: he's got a roomful of plates, and he's keeping them spinning, easily, using a word and a wink, a deft insult, a shrug of dismissal. For the first time in a while, he's comfortable. He's at home.

Now pull back. View the same scene from above and pan out. In every direction, men and women are standing. Thousands. They are silent. They are carrying no signs. They are not marching. They are not chanting. They are standing still, with their backs to the circus barker. Their faces are uncovered, but the man will not see them. He is surrounded by people facing away. He is being rejected: much worse, for him, he is being ignored.

The man does not know what to do with this. He knows nothing about love, but requires admiration like oxygen. He will go where he can find it, or he will summon it to him. If he is surrounded by a thousand silent backs, he will try to prod his disciples into acts of provocation. He needs enemies to keep the plates spinning. He may even direct a military element--police, National Guard--to incite a confrontation. But if the thousands, in a ring around him, marshal the power of their own love and conviction and stand firm, in dignity, there will be nothing he can do. Nothing the entire world won't see.

This was the power of Freedom Marchers in Selma. This was the power of the Standing Man in Turkey. This was the power of the Women's March. It was in the people, millions of people, and it was in the peace. This was our tactic.

There are other tactics. Some cover their faces and dress in black and cause as much disruption as they can manage. They're exhilarated by their own violence in the same way the mob around the circus barker is. And they have an effect far out of proportion to their numbers, like a child screaming in a restaurant.

But we've got the numbers. And when we stand silently, facing away, we draw a bright line between ourselves and the mob, the military, the provocateurs.

Let's do it. Let's #circlethejerk.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Roll On, Pink River, Roll On!

That pussy hat thing was pure genius, and successful beyond its originator's wildest dreams. One woman comes up with a hat design so simple a rank beginner could make it. It has little ears suggestive of a pussycat; it's pink, for girl power; it honors women's traditional domestic arts; it allows women to snatch back (as it were) the term "pussy" from its vulgar associations, simultaneously mocking the new leader of the currently-Free World; and if it catches on, the Women's March would be a river of pink. And oh boy, was it ever! Which means now I need a hat.

I put it out to Facebook: I need a pussy hat, but I don't know how to knit.

Of course, I heard from women offering to make me a hat. Which made me realize I wasn't really angling for a donated hat. Was I? I'm squeamish about accepting gifts, so what was I thinking? Here's what I was thinking. I was thinking the phrase "I don't know how to knit" was more or less equivalent to "I can't dunk a basketball."

Maine photos by Walter Henritze
It isn't. And after all the generous offers of hats and personal lessons and the dozens of links to knitting patterns and crocheting patterns and video tutorials, I realized: well shit. I durn well orta be able to knit a pussy hat. Even if it's a shitty one. In fact, I'm gonna do it! Rowr!

Still, my doubts about knitting don't come out of nowhere. One fine summer I spent a week with friends at a house on the coast of Maine. The wide porches opened onto the Eggemoggin Reach, all sailboats and serenity.  Half of my friends could probably figure out how to knit a sweater for Siamese-twin octopuses, and the rest of us couldn't knit at all. We decided to have a teach-in. We'd all make the same scarf side by side, sitting on that splendid porch, with all the time in the world. There was a yarn shop in town and we paid it a visit.

There's the first place I went wrong. I just had to buy something fancy. After all, I've often thought I would have learned piano much sooner if I'd been given real music to play instead of stuff like "March of the Hobgoblins" that was written specifically to introduce the student to Triads and boredom at the same time. So I decided if I were going to make a scarf, it would have to be fabulous. I got some multi-colored yarn with nubbles and tufts and cowlicks engineered right into it. It was going to be swell.

Linder calmly fixes my scarf while I gesticulate wildly
But it was all nubbly and weird and I couldn't see what I was doing with it. We sat knitting side by side and periodically I'd hold up my emerging rag and say "I think I messed something up, here." One of the experts would cheerfully examine it and say "Oh see? You dropped a stitch way back here in the second row," and then she'd squirrel a crochet hook through the thing like she was rescuing a hamster from a roll of chicken wire, and boom, she'd pop up with the hamster intact, and hand it all back with a smile, but no, I didn't see, I never saw. I never saw my dropped stitch and couldn't find the hamster and even if I had, I couldn't have coaxed it back out if I'd put fudge sauce on its kibble.

I lugged around my half-finished scarf for years and finally gave it to someone who thought she could finish it, and I hope she has.

But I checked out the tutorial video for the pussy hat and it looks straightforward. I know I can do this. I just need pink yarn now, which, by the way, is utterly unavailable for the moment all across the country. Isn't that cool?

Because if I'm going to go with you all into this brave new world, I'm going to need a pussy hat to remind me that maybe I can do things I think I can't. And when all us protesters and bloggers and atheists-registered-as-Muslims and people with Black Lives Matter signs on our lawns are moldering away in the internment camps, whoever knows how to make a sweater out of mongrel fur is going to be a step ahead. There might not even be a piano.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Harbinger Of Spring Is A Binger

I can't say I always notice the first robin of spring. All of a sudden there are packs of robins around and I wonder how long they've been here.

This year we're awash in them. They've taken over entire trees and they're scattered in bright bunches all over the ground. The sun is peeking out, there is the promise of warmth, a loamy fragrance is in the air, daffodils are pushing up, and a young man's fancy lightly turns to the same thing it was turning to all winter; in short, it's springtime. And I look out at the robins, and I have the same thought everyone else does: have you ever seen such a collection of fat fucks in all your life?

My goodness, but they're corpulent. Everywhere you look, a red red robin is blob-blob-blobbing a lawn. It has to be the worms. Our chickadees are stuffed with seeds and look like adorable little Steiff toys, but robins are packing earthworms, and boy do they look it. They's paunchy. And no wonder. Except for a sparse allotment of random, inconsequential organs, earthworms are just big tubes of goo. And they can be huge, particularly in comparison with a robin. It's like if you or I ate a sleeping bag filled with pudding.

The American Robin's real name is Turdus migratorius, which doesn't mean what you think it means. Turdus comes from the Latin for "flush." Sorry, I meant "thrush." And migratorius is from the Latin for "to go." Okay, it does mean what you think it means. The robin can have two or three broods of babies per season, building a fresh new nest each time, probably because of the weight gain. The female lays three to five eggs. Amazingly, they're robin's-egg blue.

Robins generally hunt by sight, but presumably they can hear earthworms scootching around below the surface too, and then it's just stab-and-yank and down-the-hatch. Hard to tell how the earthworm feels about this. I personally know you can cut an earthworm in half with your thumbnail and string it on a fish hook, and both halves continue to visibly object for quite a long time, but they don't seem to die. They do indeed have a mouth and an anus and those are on opposite ends, so you'd think it would matter. But in fact, the only dead earthworms anyone ever sees are in the form of either dried-up crackers on the sidewalk or robin poop.

They definitely do not appreciate being dry. When they show up in huge quantities on the ground after a rain it's not because they're drowning  in their little tunnels. They like moisture. They're just taking advantage of a nice wet situation to make a little better time topside, but it doesn't always work out for them. They can be stranded on a sidewalk in numbers sufficient to prevent a small, sensitive girl from being able to walk all the way to school, and have to return home in tears just as her mommy was relaxing with Arthur Godfrey and a donut. Or so I'm told.

There's not a lot to an earthworm other than the goo, but even the casual observer will have noticed that thick portion that looks like a belt. This is where the sexual parts are kept, and all earthworms have both male and female parts. Even so, they do get together to swap sperm by holding those thick belts close together. The belt is called the "clitellum," which probably does mean what you think it means. The really cool part is that, after the mating, the clitellum then secretes a whole different layer of goo in a ring around the worm, which the worm dumps sperm and eggs into and then subsequently wriggles out of, as one would expect, since this is the earthworm equivalent of the wet spot. The abandoned ring closes up and becomes a cocoon for the baby worms. For a goo-based life form, it's right tidy.

This copulatory act would seem to be an opportune time for a robin to get a two-fer, but worms generally mate at night. And the big feathered fatties have to sleep it off sometime.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sloths, And How They're Hanging

Sure did cheer me up to see Free Range Chicken Livers available at the local grocery store. Like a lot of people, I've come around to considering that it's important how my food is raised, and frankly just the image of those chicken livers gamboling away inside the chicken has lifted my spirits. Shiny livers careen past the spleen! Romp around the crop! Scratch their tiny backsides against the gizzard! Why, if I could stand to eat livers, these are the very livers I'd buy.

Naturally, I could not contemplate the free-roaming life of the livers for long without thinking about sloths.

Because you absolutely never see Free Range Sloth Anything in the marketplace. And there's a reason for that. Just about everything inside a sloth is anchored down. It can't go anywhere. It's true. If you were to spend much time upside down, you'd be uncomfortable very fast. All your little organs would sort of slump to a lower position and press on each other and feel all weighty and congested. But the sloth's organs are pasted in place right where they belong, and they feel just fine.

Well, that's just the sloth organs, but up to a third of what is inside a sloth is sloth poop. This is not the reason sloths are so famously logy, but it can't help. Sloths don't eat anything but leaves, and they don't eat them so very fast, and they're not easy to digest. It can take up to a month to get everything you can out of a leaf. There's really nothing to do but hang around and wait. You don't get a lot of energy from leaves, either. So you're not going to see a lot of zip in a sloth. It would require some expenditure of muscle energy to sit on a branch or move around a lot, so they don't do that. They don't even rightly hang on. They just grow their fingernails out like Howard Hughes and hook themselves onto a branch and call it a day. Not a lot is going to motivate them to do anything, except once a week, when they have to throw the gearshift into Mosey and climb to the ground and poop.

They only do it once a week so you'd think they looked forward to it--I would--but it's actually a fraught time for them. They always poop in the same spot and any carnivore who might want to sample a sloth knows just where to find it, and they can just go right up to the sloth and start chewing, because of that sloth logyness problem.

So why poop on the ground, when you could just as well let fly from a high branch and get a gravity assist? Some guess that the sloth is avoiding undue noise, but I suspect an animal with a month's worth of poop inside it makes plenty of noise already. There's some speculation that the sloth goes to the ground to poop in order to provide a good substrate for the moths that breed in sloth poop and then go live in sloth fur, but that's kind of giving the sloth a lot of nobility of purpose he might not actually possess. In fact, the sloth is a universe unto itself for any number of moths and other insects, and also algae, which accumulate in its fur. The moths produce moth poop which fertilizes the algae and there's an idea that the sloth benefits from being rendered greenish and indistinct, but no one really knows. Even if a predator were to locate a big, slow, green sloth, there's a good chance it's already dead: it wouldn't look any different. So perhaps the predators lose interest. There's no obvious upside to the sloth of any of this, and frankly it's an odd mammal that can't outrun algae.

A sloth can be just as free-range as you please, but it's not much of a range except for the potty stop. And anyway, is there any reason a sloth moth could not equally well avail itself of sloth poop dropped from on high? I can't think of any. So why does the sloth endanger his life to go all the way to the ground to take a dump?

I'd like to think it's a matter of simple courtesy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Empty Hutch

It's quiet at first. Tater the cat has been swatted off the keyboard or plucked off the newspaper or punted from the quilt-in-progress or otherwise discouraged from expressing herself inconveniently. Minutes slide by.

Then comes the first "plink" from the dining room. Her favorite lightweight battable item, a small wooden chicken on the first shelf of the hutch, has hit the floor. It will be fine. There are three more wooden chickens on the hutch and in due time they too hit the floor. Plink. Plink. Plink.

It is important to not reward this activity by running into the dining room waving your arms and yelling "Potato Brewster, get down from there." There's nothing Tater would love more than to see you do that. That would be the highlight of her day.

There is a pause and then a new sound. The soft thub thub thub of a felted sculpture plummeting from the second shelf. Another pause. Then the scraping of a heavier item being relocated toward the front of the shelf. An ominous thunk and clatter.

At this point the human is no longer working. The human is mentally reviewing the contents of the hutch, and plotting the trajectory of the cat. Then a disturbing rattle is emitted from the dining room, its provenance sussed out, and the next target in line identified as a Steuben glass bud vase. No! The human vaults into the dining room waving her arms and screaming.

Cat, rewarded.

This is how I thought the Trump regime would be. In wave after heartsick wave of insomnia, I visualized the losses, totting up the horrors that would soon enough be coming our way: the demonization of entire segments of our society, the sharpening of the divisions among our tribes and creeds, the erosion of women's rights, the denial of science, the stripping of regulations from the financial sector, the accelerated transfer of wealth to the wealthy, the privatization of schools and public lands, the despoilment, the isolationism, and--the sharpest arrow to my aching heart--the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and the resumption of headlong investment into a fossil-fuel economy that will undo us all. I imagined each horror as another wooden chicken falling to the floor while the evil agenda churned inevitably through a Congress with an inadequate opposition, and periodically we the faithful would turn out to holler as the next beloved item hit the floor.

I did not think the soulless son of a bitch would clear the whole hutch in ten days.

But in ten days all of that was set in motion. A woman who made her millions undercutting public education is proposed to oversee education. Sheer fiction is employed to encourage Americans to fear each other: Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, protestors, and--oh, let's call them "inner-city types" and wink at Ben Carson. Innocents are scapegoated, assuring future carnage that will then be used to justify war or a police state. A former CEO of Exxon is installed as Secretary of State and already working on easing sanctions on Russia, allowing Exxon to drill the last oil in Siberia. The infamous abortion gag bill is reinstated with repercussions for the health of women worldwide including, not coincidentally, a spike in abortions. Diplomacy is abandoned for belligerence. Oil pipelines are approved and the military marshaled to quash dissent. Any constraint against Wall Street rapaciousness is to be repealed. The Stream Protection Rule is tossed out. Oh, let's slow down and have a look at that last one, shall we?

Coal mining is dying a natural economic death fast, due to better alternatives. The Stream Protection Rule, which prohibits the dumping of coal mining debris in waterways, is the only tool in the bucket for preventing companies from blasting entire mountains into oblivion, burying natural streams, and ruining watersheds for all time. The precious coal itself is all burned up by the time the coal companies haul up stakes and move on, stranding their workers and leaving residents to contend with poisoned water and a lifeless moonscape. Putting the Stream Protection Rule on the chopping block in the first two weeks is not about jobs: it takes far fewer men to dismantle a mountain than to mine it conventionally. It's not about energy, which is cheaper and cleaner any other way. It's certainly not for the health and safety of populations either local or worldwide. It is for the enrichment of a select few who can scrape out that last smudge of filthy energy and turn it into private fortune, and the hell with absolutely everybody else. And it's to give Mitch McConnell the woody of his dreams. That's all.

But none of that was enough. There was also the gratuitous assault on the separation of church and state. There was the transparently specious vilification of refugees for no reason other than to invent a class of enemies and grease the rails for the war machine. There was--could we possibly have made this up?--the elevation of an actual authentic fucking Nazi to the National Security Council--a man who is on record as being devoted to tearing down government and advancing the cause of white supremacy.

The hutch is empty. I don't know where Tater is, but I smell gasoline.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Terrorist Rodents

Let me introduce you to the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Isn't it cute? Pretty little gray and brown coat, white vest, big fluffy tail. What a busy little thing! Oh, see it scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch! It's plumb full of mites and it's itchy as hell. Look at that hind foot go! If you could get that thing threaded you could sew up a shirt in ten minutes! Ha ha! A-dorable!

I kid, of course. The Eastern Gray Squirrel needs no introduction, because it's introduced itself every damn where already. Just the fact that it's called an Eastern Gray when it's all the way out here in Oregon lets us know that it's an illegal immigrant, but once you let enough of them in, nobody can do anything about it anymore. The Eastern Gray Squirrel eats nuts, berries, Trail Mix, and bird seed that totally does not belong to them. When it isn't scratching or eating, it's running around like it's coked up and/or making new squirrels, in the absence of any evidence that there is a shortage.

Fun fact about these squirrels! Sometimes they don't eat bird seed that totally doesn't belong to them. Sometimes, instead, they eat all the insulation off your electrical wires, causing your house to burst into flames when you're trying to sleep. Or, as we have recently observed here, they take shelter under your solar panels, and, in a leisurely but thorough manner, strip the insulation off those wires, causing your solar panels to become very expensive squirrel shelters that produce no electricity. Every now and then a squirrel will actually electrocute himself. But not nearly often enough.

Why do squirrels chew on wires? Well, due to a horrible idea on the part of evolution, their teeth keep growing all their lives, and they need to file them down by chewing on your house and other things that totally do not belong to them. There's no good reason they couldn't have designed themselves to allow their teeth to get nubbier and nubbier over time until they become senior squirrels and they can recline in their nests while their kinfolk bring them mushy stuff to gum, but no, they are not interested in such a caring social structure, when they can just hunker under solar panels that totally do not belong to them, and ruin them with their freaky growing teeth. It's a stupid adaptation. It would be like if humans had one leg that never stopped growing and in order to keep from walking in circles all the time they had to go file it down by kicking Eastern Gray Squirrels.

Whatever charm these little rapscallions ever had has worn off for Dave and me long ago, but there's a limit to what we can do about them. Dave does own a Crossman PowerMaster BB rifle that he is perfectly willing to use to dent them up with, but we live in a very deep blue pocket of a blue state and we do not have the emotional fortitude to withstand the wounded looks and earnestly expressed dismay of our neighbors. Short of a stealth advertising campaign to promote Very-Range-Free squirrels as The Other Stringy Meat, our only option is to engage the services of one of our urban coyotes--just once a week, say. It would be bad news for all those neighborhood kitties that like to massacre all our birds that totally do not belong to them, but that's a chance I'm willing to take.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Keep Your Democracy Handy By

"Handy by."

It's a Down-East Maine colloquialism and I've adopted it for my own. I grew up in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area and we were short on colloquialisms. Nobody stayed put long enough to whomp up anything regional. There should've been a way to work dead 'possums and Congressmen into the same phrase, but mostly we didn't get too colorful.

"Handy by" just means "handy." Like you'd want to keep your ice saw down cellah, handy by, in case a weasel gets frozen to your shed again. It only makes sense to keep things handy by. Right where you'd need them. That's why, in your better households, you don't keep your cheese by the toilet and your toilet paper in the fridge.

I've been able to instill good habits just by keeping things handy by. My dental health improved tremendously when I took the floss out of the bathroom and put it by my writing desk. I'm there a lot, and I'm not always visibly doing anything. There's always time to floss.

So I was inspired last week when we got a call to arms. We are supposed to fire off postcards to our congressmen or call them on the phone.  They're our servants: ideally, they should know what we think, and I've been meaning to get in the habit. Specifically, this time, it was suggested that because Presidential Advisatrix Kellyanne Conway didn't think there was any "point" to the Women's March, we should pop her a line to help her out.

Overflow crowd at Sen. Jeff Merkley's town hall meeting
Well, it was late at night, and I opened up a new word document, greased up the keyboard, and started hammering. Turns out that late at night and two beers in, I can get kind of loose and flingy with the verbiage. I'm not much of a phone person, but words I can do. I have lots of words. The best words. I have an entire armory of the little suckers and a bandolier in my brain and I'm capable, three beers in, of going fully-automatic, too. The keyboard started blazing.

When you start listing the reasons you're resisting the new regime, it's hard to stop. There's the dismantling of the health care system and the attacks on reproductive rights and the beginnings of a new police state and the abandonment of NATO and the courting of Putin and the renewed dedication to a fossil fuel industry that should have been on the way out decades ago and the contempt for science and facts and the pussy grabbing and seriously what the hell is it with that hair and the dissemination of propaganda and the elevation of Nazis and the refusal to release tax returns and the attacks on the media and the toxic xenophobia and that America-First horse crap and the destruction of the environment and a president with the nuclear codes plus the disposition and self-control of a cranky infant and the racist dog whistling and the demonization of Muslims and just how did we manage to make Kim Jong-Un look statesmanlike already and the...

...momentary pause to fetch the fourth beer, back in the seat...still with me, Kellyanne, sugar?...And another thing...

Well. I have a tiny little .005 Micron art pen, but by the time you jam all that onto a postcard it looks more like a barcode. I ended up printing it out and folding it into a regular envelope proper and resolved to be more succinct the next time.

I'm under no illusions anyone is going to pluck my letter out of the pile and have a look, and then get on the horn and say hold off on that deregulation, Murr's made a pretty good point here, but this is still our democracy and our public servants should hear from us. According to congressional staffers, written mail and phone calls really can have an effect. I have lots of beer and a full bandolier, and I can shoot words onto postcards all night long. Assuming I have postcards.

But I know how this works.  I might think about flossing my teeth ten times a day, but I won't do it unless the floss is right there, handy by. And I can promise myself I'll write to my congressmen (or, more likely, yours) but odds are it's not going to happen unless I keep postcards. So I went to the post office. And I got a fistful of pre-stamped postcards, with lots of room on the back. And I put them in the drawer of my computer desk. I can hear them rustling about and squeaking "pick me, pick me!" They're right there. Handy by. Ayuh.

Fire one!

You can do it too. Here are Ten Actions For The First Hundred Days.