Saturday, July 28, 2018

Lepidopterology For And By Dummies

We were on the mountain and we saw an orange butterfly and then we saw another orange butterfly and they piled up until eventually, at alpine elevation, the butterflies reached confetti saturation. Whatever they were up to, they were all up to it. It was a social. A Mixer.

Don't know where the punch bowl was, but butterflies fly like they're drunk. You'd think they could only blunder on whatever they're looking for, flower nectar or Personal Butterfly Nectar, but you'd be wrong. There they are, flapping away and staggering across the sky, until another one shows up, and suddenly it's all highly precise aeronautic do-si-do and allemande-left, soon to be followed by butt-to-butt and shwing your partner. Clearly they do have a plan and know how to carry it out.

See the comma?
And clearly I need to learn more about butterflies. Starting with our little orange friend. Question one: who is it?

Question two: did you know there are five bazillion orange butterflies in the field guide? And that there are worse things to do with your time than spend a half hour leafing through them? My orange friend is a Gray Comma. Commas are so-called because of an eensie beensie white mark on the back of their wings that looks like, um, a parenthesis. There are also Question Mark butterflies. Basically, you should ignore all the fancy colorful bits in the front and flip your butterfly over to look for punctuation.

You can also spot the comma-that-looks-like-a-parenthesis if they fold up and show the gray mottled backside of their wings. They have raggedy edges to their wings and when they fold up into the praying-hands position, they look like crap. Specifically, they look like leaf litter, presumably so as to be less noticeable to predators, although just between you and me, plenty of birds like to kick leaf litter around.

(Even then, they're crappy at looking like crap compared to the Giant Swallowtail, which comes out of the egg looking like bird poop. That's okay. Mom was pretty much done with them after she laid her eggs on a nice breakfast plant. She's not going to fret about their social challenges. The strategy is: nobody eats bird poop. Even mystery bird poop that appears to be chewing up plants just as fast as it can. The bird poop caterpillars unzip their suits when they're too tight and reemerge as larger bird poops because it worked out so well the first time. They'll do this four more times until they're too large to be plausibly poopy and then a whole new fancy version shows up, but I digress.)

Back to our little orange sots. Evidently they are lurching around looking for meaningless sex. Long-term commitment does not apply to butterflies. They find each other by sight, and seal the deal with pheromones, little molecules of flirtation. They also have photo receptor cells at their genitals, which have to be pretty close to Where The Sun Don't Shine, but we're not here to criticize. The rest of the show is the same old story: the male employs a pair of "clasping organs" and his "tubular structure" is extruded into the female's "vagina," or hoo-hoo.

This may go on for several apparently agreeable hours. The male may present the female with a nuptial food gift in addition to his sperm packet, which no female really regards as a gift so much, and then eggs are laid, larvae emerge and eat everything in sight, and eventually, uh-oh! The caterpillars pupate in a chrysalis. Sure, it's embarrassing, but it can happen to anybody.

What follows is the amazing metamorphosis that every school child learns and can illustrate readily with folded construction paper and little crappy rounded scissors. There are numerous videos of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly but they are not satisfying. You can't see what's going on. A big goober crusts over and hangs around and then a butterfly busts out. Like, what the hell.

It's all been a big secret, until now! The chrysalis is actually open in the back where you can't see it, and the butterfly was in there all along in a bag that looks like it's securely fastened, but really has a secret zipper in the bottom. Distraction doesn't figure in. The process takes a few days and they know perfectly well you're not going to be looking the entire time.

Now we're back to having a butterfly and the crowd goes wild. People love butterflies. People sometimes find a butterfly has landed on their very person, and they're usually pretty honored by it, even though the insect is basically attracted to their salt, and would be equally interested in landing on poop or a corpse. They might even have just done it before they landed on you. They're just big tubular structures, that way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Slivery Moon

So we got into the car around 10:30 and left Jack and Devon's house and drove around the corner and up the hill, and Lo! Lo, I say!

Biggest dang orange crescent moon ever, total sky hammock, with the biggest brightest juiciest star ever, tipped just off its toe, on a solo spangle, just hanging there over the horizon. Gobsmacked doesn't cover it. "That's got to be Venus," I said to Dave, totally guessing because he wasn't liable to contradict me, and accidentally getting it right. I have seen a fair amount of sky shows over the years and I've never seen anything quite like this. It's as though Aphrodite flang her giant flag all over the western sky. The flag of Turkey, actually, for some reason, but whatever.

Venus is the goddess of love and beauty, and all the trouble that goes along with that. She is a stunner. That's probably why I guessed her instead of big ol' spotty Jupiter. According to the Romans, she was born when Saturn killed Uranus, sliced off his wiener, and threw it into the ocean, where it generated what was delicately called "sea foam," as if. Up she comes out of the "foam" standing in a big scallop shell and the rest is history, or something just as good.

Anyway it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Huge orange slice of moon and big bright star that had obviously just rolled off it. OMG OMG OMG, I said to Dave, Jack and Devon have to see this! And I don't have my phone! And you don't have your phone! OMG OMG OMG! What to do, what to do! And Dave said, after giving me one of those looks, "They're a block and a half away. Turn the car around."

Always an analog solution.

We turned the car around and fetched them out and soon we all stood there at the crest of the hill with our smacked gobs, and I wished aloud I had my camera, even though I have never ever taken a decent picture of a night sky and wasn't likely to do so now, and Dave said "You could just look at it," which is what he does.

This, but bigger and oranger.
I did. If Venus had been any closer to the moon, he would have poked a hole in her. She's Venus, he probably wanted to. And of course both objects were enormous, about to set. Scientists insist that this bigness is an illusion, but they have at least three different theories about what causes it, to which I'd add a fourth: they're wrong. The moon really is freaking huge on the horizon.  It starts out all dilated and nervous, and then it gets smaller after it has a chance to do some reconnaissance and climb up the sky a little where we can't get at it, until it gets to the other side, when it blows up to do one last nanner-nanner at us before dropping safely out of sight.

Oh, victim of the modern world. Along with thinking I needed a cell phone, and a camera, I also wondered why I hadn't read about this in advance so I didn't miss it. But is it always good to pre-smack your gob? Maybe not. This vision was made more stupendous by its serendipity.

It's not that I think knowledge ruins things. It doesn't, unless your thing is ignorance. I have friends who are so attuned to the sky that they can watch the swing of the stars and the perambulations of the planets in perfect intimacy, their minds at ease in a friendly web of stardust and time. The constellations are their personal friends, the neighborhood of the near universe is familiar and dear. Their joy is amplified.

And they're not necessarily scientists. Once there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night: they knew all about it. I'm a city girl. I don't know as much as the shepherds in the field.

But still the glory shone round about me.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Opportunist

It is a wonderful thing, the fabric of life. No sooner does one cut a notch out of it that something notch-shaped shows up to occupy it, the way weed seeds roll into a sidewalk crack. We don't even know the half of how any given ecosystem works, with its long, laced fingers, its slender webbed strands. Japanese whalers probably thought if they transferred the whales from the oceans into their mouths, there'd be that much more room for fishes--that's the sort of conclusion you draw when you start with the premise that whale is delicious. But it was not the case: the system evolved with whale poop and began to founder without it.

You strip all the milkweed from the Great Plains in order to grow Wonder Bread and hamburger, and all the monarch butterflies disappear. And yet, if you get enough liberals to plant milkweed amongst their arugula, a few expatriate monarchs show up again, like magic. For every molecule that drifts by, there's an antenna yearning for it.

What's that in the distance?
It was a source of amazement to me when we planted our first asparagus patch some forty years ago. I believe we may have had the only asparagus patch in a square mile. And I'll be dogged if we weren't soon playing host to the only squadron of asparagus beetles in town. Where did they come from? Who gave us away? Are there asparagus-beetle surveillance drones?

Meanwhile the sky is charged with seeds, airborne on fluffy crafts, hoping to happen upon a satisfying dot of substrate. Right here in my garden we have a number of flower colonies that we never planted, such as foxgloves and calendulas and evening primroses. They just show up. I yard out most of them and leave a few for fun. And just the other day I noticed a new plant. Upon careful inspection it revealed itself to be a western bleeding-heart. Not the fancy kind that you buy in the nurseries, but the native. This is the very plant I personally refer to as "Naked Man Climbing Ladder," after a particularly harrowing visual event I have been unable to evict from my brain, but there's no reason to get into that. I don't know of any pockets of native bleeding-heart in the vicinity, and yet here it is. According to the literature the leaves are up to twenty inches high.

Ours are about twenty feet high.

All right, many people would take that as an indication that all was not well with our siding. In fact, I too believe it is not a good sign when an entire plant is growing out of the side of the house. This is in spite of the fact that I have honed a successful emotional strategy over the years based on willful avoidance. It works very well for me: I am a buoyant person. So, for instance, I can look at ripples in the sheetrock inside and imagine that that is just what sheetrock does, all on its own, from time to time, out of sheer exuberance. And I can notice places where the baseboard is pulling away from the wall and the paint is bubbling up and surmise this is the sort of thing that can happen as a house settles. And I can observe, on the outside, that the clapboards are bowed and flexed crazily in a vertical plane neatly corresponding to a downspout where the tower meets the roofline, and I can think: Gosh, they don't make siding like they used to.

Yes, I can.

I can, that is, until my friend Mike points out the very same phenomenon and suggests gently that I might have a water problem, and then, well shit, it's out there, isn't it? All spoken out loud, and everything. Unraveling my finely honed emotional strategy entirely.


So there it is. I have a bleeding-heart hanging out of my siding halfway up my house. Dicentra formosa. I know stuff about plants, and I know this one will turn yellow and disappear altogether in mid-summer, shortly after it quits blooming. That's what they do.

It will be as though my house has healed itself.

I should call a contractor. But if I can wait till the plant goes away, I'm good to go. Until the house sprouts tadpoles.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

This Either Is, Or Is Not, Awesome

This here is my one-thousandth blog post, which is obviously awesome! By "awesome" I mean immensely cool, or even just cool, or else I'm just signaling the end of a sentence and now it's your turn to talk.

Cranky language people like to sniff that we've gotten careless with the word "awesome" and that if we use it, we'd better be talking about, well, God, or somebody equally impressive. Or one of his larger or more photogenic works. Mostly they don't notice that it started out, around 1600, meaning "full of awe" (so it would, say, refer to somebody beholding God rather than the big guy himself). And then only later was it applied to the awe-inspiring item. At any rate, the curmudgeondom is pretty certain "awesome" shouldn't refer to a collection of blog posts, or a satisfying dump, or even the observation that a person can meet someone at the movies at five. None of those should evoke an "awesome."

This doesn't bother me much. I understand that there is a need to shanghai words for one's own purposes sometimes, and there's a further need in any community to shake the vocabulary up a bit so it doesn't sound stale. "It's garbage day," I might say, and someone might say "Awesome" back. It didn't even have to be "awesome." It could have been "saline" or "gibbous." The point is to move conversation along and, maybe, send a signal to your own tribe that you're a member in good standing. Some day in the future, you might hear someone saying "Gibbous, dude," although "dude" will have been replaced by then. By "bosco," or "kipper."

"Awesome" has been on the way out for a while. Now you're more likely to hear things are "perfect." If you order something off the menu in a restaurant, your servidude will automatically say "Perfect." One suspects that every single thing on the menu is equally perfect and you doubt that, but after all it's a sunny attitude to take toward your food, or your willingness to schedule an appointment at a certain time ("Perfect").

First post
Anyway, I don't get real worked up about it. I know how this works. Some word or phrase or even inflection becomes passed around your cohort and before you know it, you hear it vaulting out of your own face like a dog after a squirrel. Bam. It's like influenza. You think you're immune, but you're not. You can go sixty years without ever saying "I know, right?" or "I can't even with this" and then, suddenly, you do. You might feel sort of weak and susceptible when you hear yourself saying it for the first time. (But at least you know what a "cohort" is.)

Still, I was startled the other day when Dave and I were on a walk, and we saw a young man get out of a delivery truck, and we said "Hi there, which direction  is Burnside?" And he smiled and said "What an amazing question," and pulled out his phone to check.

I laughed outright. "No it isn't!" I said.

He looked at me and laughed back. "I guess you're right!"

"It's kind of an ordinary question, really," I pointed out.

"Yeah! It is. Huh! I guess I just said it to be friendly."

Good enough! We did all feel a few notches happier, all right. He pointed toward Burnside, after checking his phone, and got back in the truck. We took his amazing information and headed toward Burnside.

Nice kipper, that guy.  Truly crepuscular.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The New Neighbor

There are a lot of  ways to tell you're getting old. The revolutionary anthems of your youth are playing in the pharmacy aisle. You can mold your own elbows like Play-Doh. You have a different relationship with death.

Young people don't think about death much at all. When they do, it's in the form of nameless terror that comes unbidden, a sudden, nocturnal wad of dread, to be replaced come morning with your regularly scheduled immortality.

Old people have more familiarity. Death is the new neighbor who moved in down the street. We can smell what he's cooking. We've been peering at him through the blinds for a while, and we're getting to know his habits. They're not all good. We probably should bring over a fruit basket so he will think kindly of us, but it's too late and awkward now.

Old people get specific about this. It's not a big dread-wad anymore, but a sober review of options, most of them unpalatable. Most of us have notions of the nature of our own demise, educated guesses mostly, and we also have our druthers.

Me, for instance. I druther be minding my own business on the street and have a piano fall on top of me. According to cartoon lore, this sort of thing used to happen all the time. People stared at pies on the windowsill by means of hyphens, people ran off cliffs and were doing fine until they looked down, and people walked under falling pianos. My friend Bill actually had his grand piano craned up twenty floors into his apartment, and back down again later. So I had a shot. When I go, I want to be smashed into veneer and hear that 88-key clusterjangle, last thing.

But that's not what I think will really happen. I think one day my neck will gang up on me and sit on my windpipe. I can feel it gearing up sometimes when I fall asleep in my chair. Any time my chin drops forward, my neck gang convenes and plots to take me out.

Another way to tell you're getting old is if you refer to your own neck in the plural. But there you go. It's a gang. It's three against one. I don't like my chances.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Iams Okay, Youms Okay

Tater Cat, here, eats Iams Proactive Health Healthy Adult Original cat kibble in the bright orange bag, and don't you be slipping her anything else. She will think you're trying to kill her. Actual chicken? Actual fish? Pet store cat-candy? Wet food? Ice cream? Don't even try.

We keep her bowl of kibble in the kitchen. Same general vicinity as all the rest of our food. We're not super tidy. There are food bits around to be found, if you're in the entrepreneurial vermin class.

So this winter, in the midst of the Rat Capades, I discovered a neat cache of cat kibble in the kitchen, under a sofa, in a throng of rat turds. Not grain, not beans, not bread crumbs or fruit from the basket. Kibble.

And yesterday, an enthusiastic parade of ants discovered the kibble and sent word back to the nest that the Promised Land had been found.

All of which leads me to wonder: would Iams Proactive Health Healthy Adult Original cat kibble make a good crunchy topping for a 1950s casserole in the absence of Durkee canned fried onion rings? What's in this stuff, anyway?


That would be your chicken, your chicken by-products, corn meal, corn grits, beet pulp (why not), Natural Flavor, eggs, yeast, thirty unpronounceable nutrition bombs, and rosemary extract. I've always wondered what Natural Flavor was.


That would be your essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. In other words, it's what you use if your Bark 'n' Bean Bake could use a little extra barky flavor punch. It's chemically identical to artificial flavoring but has a fancier provenance; fortunately for consumers, it costs more.

So, on to the chicken by-products. That's got to be eggs, right? No. It's any part of the chicken that people don't want to eat because they think it's offal. White people, anyway, with the possible exception of Norwegians, who probably still revere some ancestral recipe for tusk as a delicacy (as long as there's butter). Chicken feet, backs, spleen, brains, lungs, things like that there. It would also include hen's teeth, which do in fact exist and can be created by turning on a gene pathway discovered in a mutant toothy chicken, which is probably something the pet food industry wants to know about.

A lot of these things are also legally considered fit for human consumption, of course, as long as they are ground into sausage. Sausage is sort of defined as a tubular parcel of things you don't want to know about.

Speaking of things you don't want to know about--are you still here?--if you see something generically labeled "meat by-product," you might have road kill, dead zoo animals, or euthanized pets in there. I'm all for reducing waste, so now I have a new plan for my own earthly remains. Cat food. Tater won't touch it, but how bad could it be?

Saturday, July 7, 2018


"I suppose you want something," I said to the crow on the wire, who emitted a noncommittal squawk. "I've got walnuts. But hey. Since I have you on the phone line, what the hell was that all about the other day, when you and your gang mobbed me halfway down the block? I was already walking away from your kid. You guys are supposed to be smart. Recognize faces, and all that. You know perfectly well I've been nothing but friendly to you."

I fetched the walnuts, squinted up at the wire, and decided to hold out.

"Yeah. So smart. And they say a crow is as smart as a seven-year-old human."

The crow emitted a noncommittal squawk and then cleared its throat.

"Easily. And age seven is the pinnacle of human intelligence, after which you all dwindle down to Candy Crush and reality TV. So."

"You DO talk?" Dave had been hollering "Hey, Walnut-Boy" for years as he placed nuts on the patio, hoping someday the crows would start saying "Hey, Walnut-Boy" to him.

The crow ruffled briefly and sleeked back down. "Tsss. Remember when you used to stare up into the trees and go 'Caw, caw, caw?' Were you expecting some kind of reply? As if. How about if we sat outside your window and yelled 'Dude, dude, dude' over and over again?"

"That would be awesome. That would be cute. It's not like you don't say the same things over and over again already."

"Hardly. You're so provincial. If you hear something that doesn't fit into your narrow world view you just ignore it. But have somebody put on a minstrel show and say Dude Dude Dude and you brighten right up. It's offensive."

"Well, I do like Chucklehead over there in the cedar. He's cool." Chucklehead rarely caws. Chucklehead starts with pairs of hoots and then cuts loose with a virtuosic string of clicks and ratchety noises.

"Her name is not 'Chucklehead.' Cecilia Clickenheimer is a sage."

I was willing to believe that.

"Anyway, glad we can make you feel good about yourself with the walnut distribution."

"You never even take them until I go away."

"They're not going anywhere. And we see no reason to reward you for a blatant case of cultural appropriation. We've been eating walnuts for generations, but you discover them and now it's all about you. You don't even know where walnuts come from."

"I do too. They come from Costco."

"They come from trees. Trees you people keep cutting down and replacing with fancy non-native bullshit trees or something."

"Walnut trees are messy. You should see what they do to cars."

"You should see what we do to cars."

"Hey. I plant plenty of natives. I leave the seedpods to ripen for you guys."

"So occasionally you manage to not mess everything up, and then you want credit? Anyway we just saw you pull out the foxgloves as soon as they quit blooming."

"Oh. You saw that. Well you don't eat seeds anyway."

"The hell. Besides, sparrows eat seeds, and I eat baby sparrows."

"That's disgusting."

"Cry me a river, Veal-Girl."

"The point is, there's no reason to scream at my head if I get near your baby. You know I'm not going to hurt your baby. You know all, see all. Wait. Is it because we let Tater out on the patio with us at Beer-Thirty? Is that it?"

"It's not the cat. It's perfectly obvious your cat is only out here to eat grass and throw up. Awesome little sidekick you have there. A real Einstein. But remember when you put that baby robin in a shoebox and dropped an earthworm on its back? And then you couldn't get it back off again?"

"It was wiggly. I missed. I was only six."

"That poor robin! Peeping away with a worm wriggling through its little feathers."

"That poor robin you would have happily scarfed down?"

"As is my wont. I can take care of myself. You would starve to death in a full pantry if you didn't have a can opener."

"Not true. I saw a Life Hack. You can rub a can against the pavement and the top will pop right off."

"Excellent! It's Cling Peaches and cold goopy black beans for the rest of your days! Honestly. The fact is you people are wrecking everything, and you know it."

"Now, now. I've read that crows do very well in an urban setting."

"Of course. We're smart."

"So you're all high and mighty about the sorry state of the world when you know perfectly well you'll do just fine."

"I see! You think I'm all 'I've got mine, I don't need to worry about anyone else! Howdy, howdy, howdy!' Typical."

"I didn't say that."

"You just did say that. You assumed I'd be as oblivious and self-centered as you people. That's called 'projection.'"

"That's not true. I'm not like that. I am a Democrat and a dues-paying union member."

"Ooo, ooo, ooo. Somebody should give you a cookie. Where are you going? Leave the walnuts."

"Sure. I'll leave the walnuts. You won't eat them until I'm out of sight, but you always eat the walnuts. 'Cultural appropriation,' my bald fanny."

"Reparations, baby. Reparations."

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day Special

As I understand it, Mitch McConnell and his wrecking crew not only held up Obama's choice for Supreme Court, but did the same for hundreds of other vacancies in the judiciary, so that by the time their biddable bag of meat acquired the Presidency, he could pack the courts with young conservatives who might be expected to steer the country hard to the right for many decades.

Which is awesome if you happen to believe that abortion is the most important moral question we face. It's an answer to prayer. To the Republican majority and the billionaires who underwrite them it is less a matter of God's will than the culmination of a long-term strategy designed to gain and maintain power. It's one element in a campaign that also includes gerrymandering, voter suppression, union-busting, propaganda, and flat-out cheating.

There are a number of reasons I believe abortion should be legal, reasons having to do with coercion and control, and the mysteries of the soul, and the pragmatic consideration that more abortions can be prevented by access to free birth control than by criminalization, and a bias in favor of women's health and autonomy over fetal rights, but it's not something I intend to argue about with people who describe themselves as pro-life.

Suffice it to say fetal success is not at the top of my list of concerns. Not above civil rights for the born; not above the destruction of the particular climate that has sustained us and other life forms; not above the demonization and marginalization of entire groups of people, by race or faith or country of origin, which precedes and condones their elimination; not above the lust for war, which precisely tracks the lust for money. So much. So much I care about.

So many of us do. Enough to march. Lawsy, wasn't that a march! That sea of pink hats! There are more of us than there are of them. How did it all go so wrong?

Let's go back to the anti-abortion folks. Sure, they're just one element of a constituency that includes nervous gun owners and xenophobes and outright racists--there's some intersectionality involved here--but let's look just at them.

These people care. They really care. They care enough to vote, and they vote every chance they get. They put their people on the school board. They elect judges. They elect their city council. They scrutinize every ballot to reward the stance they favor. They're in a minority, but they win. Because they vote.

Is there anything we care enough about to do that? To vote?

Peace? Justice? Sustainable energy and economy? Shared prosperity? Do we care about extinction? The collapse of the oceans? Refugees? Poverty? Do black lives matter to us, at all? Do we assume our own version of righteousness should prevail on its merits, without us having to bother to vote for it?

How would this world be different if Al Gore had had enough extra votes that the Supreme Court would have been ashamed to hand the election to Dick Cheney? Would climate deniers have dominated the Cabinet? Would we still be mired in a fossil-fuel economy? Would we be at war in the Middle East? Did we really think Hillary and Donald were equally bad choices? Really? I guess so. Enough of us stayed home pouting. Waiting for that gorgeous candidate, so we could rest easy, put a LOVE sign on our lawn, and go back to our oblivious daily lives. We didn't care enough.

We care enough to march. We care enough to write checks and make calls. We can start caring enough to vote, every election, every chance we get. Or we can start knitting pink handbaskets.