Saturday, March 28, 2020

Covered For Covid

Don't worry about us old people. Sure, we tip over a lot--you would too if you had one foot in the grave. But check this, Junior. We're going to sail right through your little virus dealie. Because we got Life Skills. We got Lore. We got Laudanum. We'll be fine.

Shoot, we been training for this forever. We're supposed to start looking at children as little disease vectors? Way ahead of you. And we know exactly how far apart six feet is. It's coffin depth. It's the gap you keep from the person in front of you at the ATM. It's the distance between Rob and Laura Petrie's beds. It's the length of a proper dog leash. You young people with the retractable beagles are the ones getting confused.

Six feet is weird anyway. Supposedly that recommendation comes from the idea that it is the distance an infectious droplet can travel when coughed out. Well ain't that precious. Doesn't anybody smoke anymore? We had an old man down the street from us growing up who could launch a loogie ten yards into a headwind. He'd get started hacking and you'd think someone had tied tin cans to his bumper. Speaking of bumpers he had a hell of a tailwind too. Mr. Frank was a deeply frightening man, to a little kid. We kept our germs well away from him. He had to get sick all by himself using nothing but Viceroys but that's the kind of can-do initiative people used to have, before we had to have fancy imported viruses.

What else? Wash our hands all day long? Oh fine, but there's a limit. Our tissues are thinner. You start soaping off too many layers and you're getting into a damaged-packaging situation. And then we're supposed to stop touching our faces? What's left to touch that we can still reach without bending over?

Old Person Amusing Himself
Besides I only touch my nose ten or twelve times an hour, just to get the crusty bits on the outside. I don't do any actual excavation unless there's no one else around, so that's safe. And I hardly ever have to go in past the first knuckle. What I really do a lot of is stick my finger on my eyeball. I do that because I wore hard contact lenses for forty years and completely lost the revulsion factor. Sticking your finger on your actual eyeball is the best way of getting those stray eyelashes out. Of course, you have to lick it first. Anyway, I haven't seen anything specific about not sticking your licked finger on your eyeball. I'm fine. Also, I've made extra sure I wipe my nose thoroughly on my sleeve and my hands thoroughly on my doorknobs. The doorknobs are metal and viruses slide right off.

You want contagious, you should try measles. One kid could easily measle up a whole class of fourth-graders. But we measled in rolling shifts for efficiency. That way we could still maintain dodge-ball teams all winter, which was an important lesson in survival skills, especially for your smaller and squishier children.

I'm in fine shape. I spent a good portion of my life learning how to amuse myself. I can hole up here in the house for months. And thanks to our lack of weatherstripping, we can get a pizza slid right under the front door without losing a mushroom.

But we've got another ace in the hole: nobody visits old people. We only have hard candies and our breath is bad.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Odds And Ends In The Junco Drawer

Oregon Junco female
Shitty birder Murr reporting in again, with birdy enthusiasm and Magic Slate brain. Birds are erased from my memory as fast as they slide in. It's a problem, if you want to have a Life List of birds that means anything.

I don't. Instead, I will get all excited about spotting a Life Bird and one of my friends will say, "No, you saw that one back in 2012, perched at three o'clock in a western cedar, just to the right of a varied thrush." And I will respond, "Who are you, again?"

So I was excited to find an honest-to-goodness new bird when I visited my sister in Colorado. I do know some birds pretty well, and this one acted a lot like a junco. For instance, it hopped around on the ground, both to and (as noted on the Audubon site) fro. And it had those white junco tail feathers. But this one was sort of bluish and had a red sweater, not at all like our Oregon Junco, which is brown and white with an executioner's hood. I looked it up later and was pretty chuffed to discover it was indeed in the junco family. I had not only bagged a Life Bird but I'd gotten it down to a near relative.

Oregon Junco male
Only, no. Hold on there, little missy! As it happens, there are at least five distinct juncos out there and all of them are now called Dark-Eyed Juncos. You see one, you've officially bagged them all. It's totally not fair. If I'd seen them in 1972, I could have counted them as five different species, but since then, ornithologists, who are people unduly interested in bird sex, have decided they're all the same thing.

This because in those areas where the different types overlap, they interbreed freely, as opposed to reluctantly.

(And the areas where they overlap would be your cloacal areas.)

Now, otters have been known to mate freely with cocker spaniels, but they are not considered the same species, because they do not get a live Cock-Otter out of it, and in fact the cocker spaniel usually doesn't make it either. Otters are real cute, but they're assholes.

But an Oregon Junco can mate with a Gray-headed Junco and get real operational nestlings out of the situation. I don't know what they look like.

Juncos have been much studied because they're easy to catch and relatively tolerant of manhandling, which is to say they don't spazz out or drop dead. This is probably an unfortunate trait for the junco. Being studied by ornithologist rarely works out for the bird. Some early ornithologists messed with a bunch of juncos by exposing them to cold winter conditions while simultaneously adjusting their light exposure artificially to make it seem like spring, all to see if they went ahead and mated or just pooped in their water dish. I don't know what they found out, but I'm sure it was grad students who had to clean it up.

Slate-colored Junco
The reason all the forms are now considered the same damn bird is they have only begun to diverge recently, since the retreat of the glaciers around 13,000 years ago. That gave them plenty of opportunity to branch out sartorially while maintaining a healthy ecumenical horniness.

I'm interested in this because I happen to have a Slate-Colored Junco in my yard. Yes I do: he's supposed to be east of the Great Plains, but he isn't, he's right here. Not only that, but he's been coming here for at least two years. Yes, I'm going out on a limb and saying it's the same individual, which means they spend a season up in Canada somewhere and then come right back to the very same city lot every time. Mine. And if my Slatey mates with an Oregon Junco and produces something new, say, something in a dapper plaid, I'm calling it Murr's Junco. Junco murrus nanner-nanneri. Boo-yah.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Feeling Blue

So, it was snowing. There wasn't any way anyone could have predicted this, and maybe it was really fluffy rain, or possibly a Democrat hoax to make the weathermen look bad.

At any rate, whatever it was doing, it didn't look like anything I wanted to walk around in. The Hoax People say I shouldn't be walking around anyway. We've got enough food for a while if we're not too precious about the quality of it. We're probably going to find out what those mystery packages in the freezer are. Two of them are sort of yellow and we can't offhand remember any yellow meals we had that we liked.

It's been a weird few days. Not long ago I thought we'd finally gotten Joe Biden off our shoes but he has bounced back in a big way. I had thought Elizabeth Warren would have appealed to a lot of people who were torn between Biden and Bernie but evidently her voice is too high and she is too forthcoming about her plans. Bernie is much better about having the same ideas but not getting into the weeds with answering questions, and Biden is much better about saying things like Now is the time and We must move forward ahead together by cracky. I was terribly disappointed about Warren and slumped for a few days like a hypochondriac in a pandemic, but I've recovered.

And that is because I finally realized it isn't all that important who our figurehead is. We have had a real fine group running for office and many more already elected who are doing good and brave things. Anyone who thinks the parties are all alike at this point would have trouble deciding between a pillow-top mattress and a hill of fire ants.

Oh boy
So what we have now is a team. With a lot of all-stars on it. Biden himself, I recall, impressed me a good deal in one of the debates in 2008. And he is by most accounts a decent guy. It is not the worst thing in the world that he is too moderate for me. And that is because of the other thing I realized: if I had gotten my dream candidate in there, she wouldn't have been able to get the things done she wants to do. She could move things in the right direction, but she would face virulent and massively-funded opposition. Same thing with Bernie. There is no Democratic Socialist fairy. But there is the power of our numbers and our fervor, if we quit sulking and use it.

Those are our marching orders now. If Biden is our candidate, we get in there and let all our representatives know we support them when they fight the plutocracy and their hired vermin in Congress. Let them know we have their backs. The platform of the Democratic Party has not yet been assembled. Pick a plank and grab a hammer.

And if you are one of those idealists who is crowing about how you'll leave your ballot blank if you don't get your man? I'm going to guess you're a child. A white child, with no personal skin in the game, who is in a position to ride out someone else's storm.

I know how dismissive this is, and I happen to agree that Boomers have made a hash of things and deserve your derision (although you'd have been the same way)--but there is something that old people have earned just by staying alive, and that is perspective. We've seen this show before. We were idealistic too. We haven't given up our ideals, either, but we understand it takes longer and more sustained work than one just election. We'd like to keep all the fossil fuels in the ground starting yesterday too, but it's not going to happen merely by winning the vote. If there's any hope for it at all, it's going to happen by some cataclysm out of our control that will--much later--be seen as a blessing. A virus that shuts down commerce and transportation. A mass famine. A small asteroid.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter what we do. Try to imagine where we'd be if Gore had won in 2000. We wouldn't have started a war in the Middle East. We would have started to turn the climate ship around. The billionaires would have done their damnedest to prevent us, and we wouldn't have gotten enough done, but we'd be a lot further ahead. This is no time for petulance. Hold your nose if you must but vote for the Democratic candidate for President. Don't think of it as voting for some old fart. Think of it as voting for Biden Bernie Warren Harris Buttigieg Yang Abrams Inslee and Klobuchar. It's a damn fine group.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Love In The Time Of COVID-19

Well look at that--big fat flakes are coming down and things could hardly look festiver. It's mid-March and this is certainly not unprecedented, but it's still a surprise, and I can't remember if we had any snow this winter. In fact the winter has seemed unusually mild. Our normal winter days are rainy and top out in the mid-forties, but it's been a good ten degrees warmer than that, enough to make me wake up in the middle of the night and kick off my beloved slab of blankets and fret about what summer will be like on our new, remodeled planet.

What else? Oh. There's a new virus in town, perhaps you heard. If you drew a Venn diagram of People Who Should Be Real Worried and Me, you'd have one big dark circle. Nevertheless I find myself not real worried. This is mainly a matter of principle. Worry has always been the least helpful tool in my kit and often as not I can't even find it in among the store receipts, pennies, and itty bitty screws.

I am not yet a complete dunce, however, and have adopted all the protocols recommended by scientists in the Deep State, a.k.a. the remaining still-functional bureaucrats whose salaries I am happy to pay with my tax money. Even though I am well over sixty I believe I would survive an infection. I worry more about Dave, who, despite being apparently bionic in fundamental ways, was a smoker of long standing, and the creative things he can do with a simple respiratory ailment are legendary around here. We're hunkering down.

The thing that's weirder about my state of mind is that I find all of this actually exciting, in almost the same way I find our imminent mega-earthquake exciting. I'm always impressed by massive real events beyond our control. Things that shake us up. In this case we have a tiny item, a virus, which, like all other living things, is doing its level best to reproduce itself, which it must do inside a "host"--in this case bats, or us. "Host" is a mighty accommodating word and suggests a degree of hospitality we might not actually feel. "Mark" might be a better term. The virus catches a ride on a suitable cell and shlorps itself inside, where it cajoles the cell into helping it replicate, slips on a new jacket, and busts out of Dodge, which is real bad for Dodge, and then it hops the next available mark, eventually existing in, conceivably, half the world's human population, plus a number of bats.

Meanwhile, we continue to hurtle toward environmental doom, even though we know full well what we need to do about it--because we knew we needed to do it fifty years ago. No politician on the planet could overcome the stubborn short-sightedness of our rapacious consumption. The disruption to our economic system would be so severe that people will not consider the far heavier price of doing nothing. The entire system needs to be overhauled, and there's little support or political will for that. Certainly not among the plutocrats, and not among the powerless serfs so easily gulled by them. I always vote as hard as I can, but it's clear to me that only some crazy outside catastrophe could turn this ship around.

But looky here: commerce is grinding to a halt. The transportation sector is nosediving. Unearned treasure is losing its value. The systems are crumbling. A crafty 120-nanometer sphere of protein and DNA has done this. It's a little viral miracle.

Scientists don't agree on whether viruses are living or not. They can't generate their own energy or live for long outside their hosts. But they're hardly inert. They're as successful as an internet rumor. Or xenophobia, which spreads rapidly but can't exist for long outside Fox News.

So that's what's filling my sails. There is something right now that has managed to bind all us individual hosts together, all over the globe. We are in a state of heightened awareness of each other's basic humanity, of what we have in common, what we each need, what we need from each other, and what we can live without. And we finally understand that what we do affects everyone else. This virus dissolves false boundaries.

We might as well call it Empathy.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Newts In Love

It's spring, and--I know you're all with me on this--our thoughts invariably turn to amphibian sex. It's obvious to me, as a volunteer Frog Shuttler, that frogs are highly motivated to reproduce; the males somewhat more avidly, I think, but I could be projecting. Male frogs are hoppiting to the vernal ponds well in advance of the females, but the females do get it in gear eventually, and then there's lots of hugging and cuddling and things squirt out and new frogs happen.

All of that sort of makes sense to most of us. The frogs reproduce by means of external fertilization, meaning they need to provide the materials for tadpole assembly, but it all happens outside of the bodies of the consenting adult frogs. Still, we all recognize an embrace.

It's the salamanders that always seemed more problematic. The literature is straightforward. With few exceptions, they fertilize internally. Now you're talking, we think. But no. The male deposits a sperm packet somewhere, usually in water, and then the female meanders over and picks it up later with her hoo-hoo. And then the internal fertilization takes place.

This doesn't make sense to us. It feels remote. There's not enough...friction, let's call it. Even Louis C.K. never said "If you don't mind, I'm going to jack off over here, and then, what say you come over and sit on the wet spot?" Nobody really wants to sit on the wet spot. Although, of course, if it's underwater anyway, it's probably not such a big deal. Still, where's the female's motivation?

Newts, as anyone staring into a pond in springtime knows--and isn't that all of us?--are very handsy. They are all over the females and they aren't interested in letting go. Sometimes a lot of males are all over one female, creating something called a Newt Ball. Nothing about this seems sexually persuasive, and in fact, females have been known to drown in the attention. Although in many species across the animal kingdom it is the females that choose their mates, this may not be the case for newts. However researchers have discovered that there is at least one newt species in which the female sometimes gets out of the situation by feigning death. You do what you have to.

Well, what apparently seals the deal with salamanders is our old friends the pheromones. The males produce pheromones that entice the females to swell up in the critical sperm-packet-reception area, which probably feels better than it sounds, and in some cases they lead the female to the junction as well. In one observed species, the male deposits his sperm packet, which probably feels better than it sounds, and then wafts pheromones toward his female of choice (basically all of them) and coaxes her to follow him as he backs up toward his packet of Genetic Legacy, and then when she's in the right spot he turns sideways in a blocking move.

It all seems to work and I doubt there's anything clinical about it. We are not in turkey-baster territory here. Probably I've been thinking about it wrong. We all know how it feels to be massively attracted to someone clear across a room, even before any friction is involved. We don't really understand that either, but it is undeniable. So that's the deal with spring salamanders. It isn't only about sex.

It's love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Buy Tulips!

Meet our little friend. We don't know what he's made of, but if you put him in water, he gets ten times bigger in a couple weeks. Take him out again and he shrinks down to his original size. Apparently you can do this over and over. We call him Stockmarket.

383 years ago the market for fancy tulips crashed and devastated fortunes in the Dutch Republic. It seems odd to us now that people were speculating on tulip bulbs like that. It's not like they're beanie babies. They jammed the parking meters and rolled off the bar counters. But speculate they did, until some unworthy peon planted one of the suckers and became unacceptably wealthy a year later.

Nothing has any value except what we agree to. Paper money is worthless unless someone is willing to trade you something for it. Right now you can buy a company using nothing but ones and zeroes. You don't even have to have your own ones and zeroes if someone else is willing to loan you some in case you make more with them later. And with all that non-money, you can buy back shares of the company and give it to yourself instead of investing in the company, and after a while there's no company, no product, and no employees, but you have fancy tulips right out the ass.

And you can take them and give them to the fairies that are holding up the stock market and pull the lever on the slot machine and hit the big time, and eventually you can see that the whole ill-gained lot of it goes to your shitty kid; and somebody out there will tell us the shitty kid earned it and should be left alone in case he sprinkles jobs over the economy somehow.

But then of course because the entire structure was glued together with unicorn snot, it all comes crashing down one day when someone sneezes importantly and everyone tries to get out at once. And that really screws the people who had a bit invested in the hopes they could retire some day, having been encouraged to contribute to the casino by the people who took their pensions. But it would appear to be not so vital to the 50% of the population that isn't in the market at all.

Except it is. Because now people aren't going on vacation so much and don't need their hotel rooms cleaned, and are holding off on regular haircuts, and cutting down on donuts and lattes, and what with one thing and another people are going to have to be let go.

Which proves who the real job creators are: regular people with adequate wages and enough cushion to be comfortable who like donuts and need their hair cut.

The thing about the stock market is it rarely measures anything meaningful. How can you point to an overheated market and say it means the economy is doing great when so many people are living in tents by the freeway? And when other people are so wealthy they could lose 95% of their treasure and live exactly the same?

We have a market in free-fall because of a virus that might take a divot out of the population, but it soars with the success of the energy sectors that fuel the global warming that will take us all out. But we're not worried about that. Climate change is a legacy catastrophe. We're over it.

I'm not sure this particular version of the market is worth preserving.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Of Ducks And Dicks

Dave and I took advantage of a wafer of sunny February weather and walked to the Rhododendron Garden. It's a bit over six miles away. Twelve mile walks are no big deal for us; there's a brewpub in this town every other block. And they're really no big deal if you're going to see a mandarin duck, which ordinarily requires a trip to Asia.

Nobody knows where this mandarin duck came from. They're not subtle. The Rhododendron Garden is slathered in ducks, with an emphasis on wood ducks, which are stupendously gorgeous birds, unless they're paddling next to a mandarin duck. No fair, the stupendously gorgeous male wood duck thinks, then. Might as well wear an old sweatshirt. The females of both species look a lot alike, and you gotta figure some of those female wood ducks couldn't help but notice. You could at least make an effort, they're thinking.

The species are a bit similar though and are related. But the mandarin duck doesn't normally live here. People are so impressed with them that they get scooped up as pets, and sometimes those get loose. There are a few small populations in other places, notably England, where some of the looser ones did some raping and pillaging. Ducks are not nice birds, sexually. Ducks are among the few birds with penises and apparently being a dick about it comes with the package, as it were.

I guess this particular mandarin duck left in December. One does wonder where he went. If he were to show up at some random wet spot along the flyway, you'd think somebody would've noticed. This is why I think  he's probably in Vegas with the show girls, blending in. Any time a rare bird is found, word gets out. We had a stray indigo bunting here at a refuge a few years back, just sitting in a tree bunting away, and the parking lot was stuffed with birders, because they don't belong here. I'd just come back from West Virginia where you dang near had to scrape them off your binoculars to see anything else, so I was pretty serene about it, and set off in search of a bittern.

So if anyone is keeping track of the various perambulations of Dave and Murr, we have now walked twenty miles to not see a platypus at the zoo, and twelve miles to not see a mandarin duck at the Rhody Gardens, both of which feats could have been accomplished in a lot less time, with the same amount of beer.

Let's review. The wood duck is as snappy a dresser as you can get outside of the tropics. Green helmet with white chin straps, pale sidewalls with racing stripes, bronze breast with stars. The mandarin duck has all that plus three colors on the helmet and a purple breast and full golden beard and a giant bustle off the butt you don't ordinarily see outside of Project Runway. Presumably the bustle is made of a matched pair of overachieving individual feathers.

Look at that, the female wood duck says to her mate. If you're just going to let yourself go, you could bring around a couple of snails now and then. To which her mate replies: He's obviously compensating. And snails? I ain't no chickadee. Screw you. And then he does, because he's a dick.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Gravity 101: Mad Mike Edition

The world was shaken by the death of daredevil Mad Mike Hughes the other day, or at least the portion of it that his rocket smacked into.

Mr. Hughes was attempting to shoot himself 5000 feet into the air in a homemade rocket in order to see for himself if the earth was flat, or more on the rotund side. He was not the sort to take other people's word for anything, although he might have done well to take a tip or two from rocket scientists.

A former limousine driver, he had not previously succeeded in killing himself despite many attempts to do so, including a world-record 103-foot jump in a stretch Lincoln Town Car.

The generally accepted model of our planet, according to the Flat Earth Society, is a disk rimmed in a wall of ice the rest of us call Antarctica. This closely resembles the design of the United Nations logo, only with ice in place of olive branches, and in fact the UN logo is taken by some to be further proof, for some reason, of the validity of this model. The designer of the logo had to fiddle with it to make it fit on the head of a lapel pin and not leave any countries out.

Flat Earth theory, in contrast, merely has to fit in a pinhead.

People believe the earth is flat because they don't want to be the ones hanging upside down from China. Their entire notion of "gravity" comes down to things being either "up" or "down," and as long as you're on the"up" side of the disk, you're in good shape. There's no suspicion that people might just float off (or "up"). If nothing else, Mad Mike contributed a stunning demonstration of gravity, here defined as the degree to which the disk sucks.

I am among those skeptical that Mr. Hughes was, himself, a Flat Earther. I think he liked to do scary things and didn't have enough dough to make them happen. I am assuming he was let go from the limousine company after he launched the Lincoln. He had tried to raise enough money to make a crappy rocket in 2016 but netted only $310. Not until he signed on with the Flat Earthers did he reach his financial goal.

In other words, Mr. Hughes claimed to be a Flat Earther in the same way others of prominence claim to be Christians in order to be elected to a position of power and wealth. If Mad Mike had contacted a random Koch brother or Vladimir Putin he could have had the hell funded out of him. They'd be all over that flat earth business. Flat Earth people believe NASA's space program is a hoax, and anything that leads people to distrust experts, scientists, and government agencies is red meat for a libertarian or autocrat.

The fact is, you can get people to believe any fool thing. Already you have people believing billionaires earned their money, and their shitty kids did too. You could have a president say "I don't know, maybe the earth is flat, who knows? People are saying that, you hear people saying that. We'll see." And whammo, just like that politicians will win office by promising to shim up the world just enough that the icky greasy people slide out of America.

Poor Mr. Hughes. I'm told I shouldn't make fun of the dead, but nobody says I can't right up to the moment of impact. In any case I believe it would honor him to have him buried at the very edge of the disk, with the planet rolled up over him like a burrito. This is not currently possible because of the fifty-foot rim wall of ice otherwise known as Antarctica. But the ice is on the way out, happily, thanks to the efforts of more gullible people and billionaires, and he should be easy to maintain in fresh condition at the ice wall until it disappears altogether.