Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Cowardly, Lyin'

It is considered wrong, I am told, to tell someone else the right way to protest.

And there are a lot of ways.

People are pissed off. There are a lot of people who are so pissed off they wouldn't recognize progress if it offered them a sandwich. They'll string up a decent politician for something he said fifty years ago. They'll howl for his hide if he offers them 60% of what they demand plus a soup kitchen to be named later. There are people getting off on such a perpetual state of blinding rage that their positions are frozen.

There are plenty of enraged people on the right, of course, the original home of black-and-white thinking, but they're mirrored on the left by pious progressives who still, in 2020, claim we should vote for a unicorn because there isn't any real difference between Democrats and Republicans. And also that anchovies and ham would be good on ice cream.

They come in all ages. A lot of the younger ones can keep a righteous boner going all night as long as they light something on fire. Around the corner here we have a graffiti gang busily scribbling over the landscape with the self-importance that comes with their rage and age. Some are particularly impressed with themselves. "Why refuse the mask? You've been wearing one your whole life," scrawls one, with all the insight of a precocious ten-year-old. The Black United Fund building is routinely decorated with screeds against cops and landlords and capitalism and although the building has needed a paint job for decades, it's also possible they could have squeezed out a few more scholarships for Black students if they didn't have to pay for cleanup.

One must never tell someone else how to protest. So I am told. But you know what? Ham and anchovies would be really shitty on ice cream, and there are some really shitty ways to protest.

A really good way to protest is peacefully, persistently, and in huge numbers. Over and over. And that's what's been happening in Portland. That is the story here, or would be, if the sanctimonious late shift could be persuaded to confine their fireworks to Mommy's trash can. And so, by the light of another pointless dumpster fire, an idea reared up in the darkest heart in the nation, and an anonymous paramilitary force was parachuted in to bang some heads and disappear some citizens, while much of the country was fed a fiction of friction in service of the great leader's favorite narrative: his unique ability to solve problems he made up himself.

So, hell. We had been winding down, but of course we had to send in the Wall of Moms. And the Wall of Moms, like all great theater, got noticed: too much, maybe, deflecting attention away from the original message that Black Lives Matter. BLM protestors have rightly wondered where their white allies were in every march since before Ferguson, but now that white peple have shown up in droves, we're in danger of taking over. It's a fine line, and one we'll never get just right. But here's the thing. It had to happen. The wall of Dads with leaf blowers had to happen. The wall of veterans had to happen. Because we've got goons to deal with now, dominating a dab of downtown real estate at the corner of Tiananmen Square and Argentina. And they must be confronted, and so must the sad little coward who sent them. Because the truth is if he fucks this country any harder, he'll have to send it hush money.

I haven't joined the Wall of Moms, although the urge is strong. I'm still safeguarding my health. And after all, I can't claim to be a Mom.

But maybe I can, after all. Maybe that's a spark I still carry inside. Because I swear to God, the first thing I thought of when I saw the video of those cosplaying soldier-boys gassing and shooting and whacking my fellow Portlanders was this:

Don't make me come down there.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Old Friends Make Good

One of the cool things about being old is one is less likely to be unduly impressed by famous people, because we remember them when their daddies were taking the switch to them in the back yard, just at the bed-wetting and squirrel-torturing stage, before they made a bunch of money to fill up their depleted souls and were able to bomb entire countries into gravel as though they were their own ex-wives or the kids that laughed at them in gym class.

Still, it's startling to stumble across a familiar name from one's own youth, and seek out a current photograph of someone you clearly visualize suspended at an eternal age twelve, suddenly catapulted into a doughy dotage like the rest of us.

I saw just such a familiar name the other day. It appeared in a George Will column. As a twelve-year-old the boy was smart, erudite, and damned impressed with himself. Sure enough this fellow is still an intellectual. He's written this whole thing about Deep Literacy, defined as engagement with "an extended piece of writing" in a way that draws the reader into "a dialectical process with the text." And how much we've lost in the way of critical thinking through our addiction to digital content. Or something like that. Too long, didn't read.

Well, I could certainly look into it to see if it's the same fellow. That's the cool thing about digital content: sometimes you can find out what happened to all those people you've lost touch with. At least if they had unusual names.

It's weird. We were all stoned, ambition-free hippies in college, I thought, and then after a few years when I signed on as a mail carrier, I discovered everyone else had gone to law school and was now pulling down a half-mil a year and speaking in complete sentences. Some of them owned slaves.

So while I was thinking of that, I typed in another unusual name from my sixth-grade class. And by gum there was a whole thing about her. It turns out she is a senior marketing research professional available for comprehensive management of primary and secondary research projects and integraton of information across multiple data sources. Dude!

I pressed on. Methodologies include: qualitative, quantitative, trend tracking/secondary search, private online community panel management, competitive intelligence.

Um. Positioning, segmentation, brand equity, consumer relationship marketing, new product development (concept, product, volumetric forecasting), marketing mix, multi-country studies...

All right. If all that means "adept at being your very best friend for an entire year and then suddenly one day turning her back and siding with your other friend against you and never telling you what you did wrong and sending you into your adolescence in an emotional tailspin that lasted several years," by gum, I think I found my girl.

Then I clicked on a photo of George Will's boy. Yup. Totally the guy who smacked me in the side of the face with a slushball.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Starts With Devo

Shh! You know what? There's been this project in the works for a long time. It was ambitious as hell. The idea was to take everything we as a society had hammered out that made us prosperous as a people, and chip away at it until it was gone, until everything we held in common for the common good was hoovered into the private treasuries of a small number of people. Obviously that's not the kind of thing you're going to talk people into. They're much better off with their Social Security, their Medicare, their free educational system, their relatively petite police forces, their clean water and safe food, their pensions and benefits. Lord knows all of those things could be made even better, certainly starting with our crazy-expensive system of health care through private insurance, but still your average American wasn't interested in losing what we already had just to feed the insatiable greed of a few.

So the project didn't really get off the ground for the first few decades, but finally got rolling under Ronald Reagan. There'd been a worldwide energy crisis that provided him and his backers an opportunity. A good crisis should never go to waste. He recast the labor unions that supported the middle class as thieves and heavies, and suggested that we could do much better as individuals if we weren't carrying all that dead weight. And he helped create a new financial sector we could gamble in, using some of the money that used to go to our pensions. We could all hit the big-time, because we're so smart. And he read us new bedtime stories: how the government stood in the way of prosperity, and couldn't do anything efficiently. And how the new financial sector and corporations that sucked up all our old pension money would grow ever stronger and create ever more jobs once they were free of oversight and regulation. The Engine of Growth would lift all boats.

That was such a compelling con job that people didn't even notice that the corporations in all their efficiency bought each other out and killed or sold off solid industries and went overseas where slave labor was more abundant and environmental restrictions less onerous, leaving entire American towns in the dust. Or that mergers created billionaires at the expense of our living wages. We didn't notice we were losing ground every day. The idea that we individuals were so smart we could get rich on our own--an idea repackaged as "freedom"--was too seductive to abandon, even as we slid down the economic ladder, even as many of us tumbled into homelessness and poverty.

They took our public wealth from us. They privatized our public prisons and rigged the justice system to ensure there would be plenty of incarcerated bodies to profit off of--even to the extent of extracting unpaid labor from them; even to the extent of harvesting migrant children to detain at the cost of $750 per day, per child--our money, streaming straight into the pockets of private prison contractors.

They take our vital water utilities for profit. They run our wars for profit. They create our wars for profit.

It's been a hell of a successful fire sale of the commons, but there is nervousness now amongst the moneyed elites: their peculiar, stammering cartoon character of a figurehead is losing his shine, especially during a crisis that shows exactly what government of the people and for the people should be doing. But their project isn't done yet. They still haven't bought up all our public schools. Time's a-wastin'.

And that is how we must frame the latest edict from our Secretary of Education, a filthy-rich woman who has never been in a public school, never been an educator, whose family profits from privatization, and who was given the Cabinet job vowing to dismantle the system of free education in this country. She wants all the kids back in the classroom. (Who doesn't?) She declares it safe, or safe enough. And she says if schools decide on their own not to reopen, they should not receive federal funds. And those funds should instead be given to the parents as vouchers. So they can send their children to private schools, preferably Christian.

Betsy Devos. She's just one more poisoned arrow in their quiver, aimed at the heart of us.

It's the libertarian edict. Never let a good crisis go to waste. You can always make money off it. Always.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Break On Through To The Other Side

When I was younger, I admired old women. Their faces and bodies had gone to pot, but they didn't care. Or didn't act like they cared. That was what I admired. There was no attempt to disguise the age. No spackle, no paint, just jowls swinging like a hammock in the wind, a general corrugation, a cover crop on the upper lip, you name it. And they didn't care.

I knew that was something to aspire to. My first ten years of life, I had no awareness of my physical or sartorial shortcomings. Then, in my adolescence, my peers laid it out in excruciating detail and I was revealed in all my inadequacy. After that, I did care.

It might not have looked like it. I never did get locked into that trap of makeup and hair dye that women can't extricate themselves from. But of course I cared. I had one or two things (two anyway) that worked out for me that I could play up, and some idea what my best angles were, and wanted to look nice in my clothes, although that project never really got off the ground either. If my belly stuck out, I tried to suck it back in.

But look at those old women! Smiling and laughing with their yellow teeth, not a care in the world! I wanted that sense of self-possession. They call it "letting yourself go." Doesn't that sound wonderful? Better than keeping yourself locked up. I wanted to feel what it was like on the other side of their faces.

Well, welcome to the other side of that face. It happens in a hurry. You think you're on the morning commute and something distracts you while you're running for the train and all of a sudden boom you're on the way to Hogwarts. Now you're inside of that old face, looking out.

First of all, it's nice in here. Roomy. All those shits you used to give had a way of tightening things up. Now you can laugh yourself jiggly. You get to care about a lot more things once you don't care what people think of you.

On this side of that face, things that used to be important aren't anymore. They're trivial. All that time you spent thinking you were too fat or too skinny is gone, replaced by "too close to dead."

It never made much sense to mourn the loss of some version of beauty you never lived up to in the first place. Any discomfort in the transition goes away with the realization that there isn't anything you can, or should, do about it. It gets filed away with the other things (not beer) that are a waste of time. Time, like collagen, is what there's not so much of.

And here's your old-lady ace-in-the-hole. That short-term memory thing? It finally kicks in on your behalf. From this side of my face, I forget what I look like. It totally slips my mind. Every now and then I get a sudden glimpse in a store window or I'm ambushed by a stealth mirror and I'm all Holy shit what happened there but then--right away, I forget about it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Aha, Aji!

The key ingredient, apparently, in the recipe that looked so nice in the picture was a ready-made sauce I'd never heard of. There were no suggestions for substitutions. This is a foodie kind of town so I thoroughly expected to find the sauce. But two good groceries didn't have it, and I finally Googled the ingredient and found one place in town that carried it. When I showed up at the address it was boarded up and two homeless men were curled up in their sleeping bags at the front door, like larvae.

It's a foodie and homeless-man kind of town.

Somehow I tripped over an international market on my way back home and there, miraculously, was a jar of my ingredient on the shelf with the yak butter and ground beetle bits. I brought it home and eagerly started my recipe. The sauce was a component of a chicken marinade that ultimately, as it turned out, gets scraped off the chicken. I felt a little cheated. I'm never sure about marinades. Are they the ghosts of food? (Answer: No. You're thinking of farts.)

So I looked for more recipes that use my Key Ingredient, and I found one. No problem!

Problem. The first ingredient on the recipe list: eight quail eggs.

Mind you, this wouldn't have been a problem in the old days, when we lived across the street from Kevin and Scott and they kept quail chicks in their basement. When the quails got excited they made the most impressive gargly bugle like they were shaking a bag of marbleized loogies and that always got Dave excited too, and then he'd be out on the front porch gargling right back at them, at the top or possibly bottom of his lungs, and we outlasted all the neighbors who witnessed that so who cares what they thought?

The point being we had quail eggs right across the street. First time we went over there after they got the quail, Scott, who is a master chef, offered Dave a dozen eggs for breakfast and asked him how he wanted them cooked, and Dave said "over easy," because for a big guy he can be a real little shit, and Scott calmly plated up twelve quail eggs over easy, because he has skills.

But we don't have ready quail egg access now and I don't know where you're supposed to find them. Furthermore they are supposed to be hardboiled and presented alongside of the main course, peeled. Peeled. I can't reliably peel a chicken egg without having it go lunar on me.

Fortunately, the recipe says the quail eggs are optional.

Unfortunately, one commenter complained that the whole recipe should be thrown out because the authentic version definitely calls for hummingbird eggs.

I've got limits. I only just learned how to skin a butternut squash and I ain't peeling no dang hummingbird eggs. If I did manage to do it, I'd devil the suckers. They would be adorable. I'd serve them with spider drumsticks and a dandelion-sepal salad.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Somewhere Over The Transom

Gosh, this is the fun part, huh? I've written another novel and have to find someone on the Inside who can jam it into a publisher's heart. In the old days, apparently, it was easier to find an advocate for your work. I wouldn't say just anyone could land an agent, but your odds were at least better than being killed by a meteorite.

Hell, in the old old days, you could just type up your entire book and sail it over the transom at a major publishing house. The transom is the magic portal above the door and if you dropped it from there it got some nice momentum. Then it was just a matter of some overworked editor (gruff, haggard, yet somehow endearing) noticing your manuscript splayed out on the floor and seeing the genius fumes wafting up out of it, and pretty soon you're summoned to the office (in a rainstorm, with a taxi not only ignoring you but splattering you with mud while peeling away from the curb) and then there's a whole scene and you unbundle your hair bun and take off your glasses and the music swells and you're a published author.

Now there are only five publishing houses and they've sealed up their transoms but good. You need someone on the Inside. You need an agent. And you need your query letter to sparkle just a little more than the other nine hundred letters she gets that week.

Well, I've done this before, and I'm serene about rejection, so it isn't as hard as it could be. I did land an agent once. I can't remember how many I tried before she took me on. Thirty, maybe.

Holy shit. I just actually went back and counted them up. Eighty-four. Anyway. Here goes. I'm ready!

Sort of. I forgot one thing. You work up your list of possible agents, and then whack it down to a short list, and then hatchet that down to a top five, and write up your best letters and shoot them off into the void. Right? Not so good if you get rejected and start to realize how you could have made your letter better--but now you've already lost your favorites.

So you work that much harder and research the living crap out of the agent list and try again. By the time you've ironed all the kinks out of your letter, you've lined through a fair number of gold-star targets. The quality of your query is going up while the quality of the agents goes down. The rejections begin to filter in. The no-response-at-alls hover coyly in a vapor just outside your laptop. You wonder: should you take a chance at the big-ass guy at the big-ass agency because he seems like the best fit, even though he's a wildly successful agent of forty years' standing who holds reunions at the Pulitzer Prize ceremonies? Or do you query his equally good fit at the agency who just got bumped up from the mailroom? You've only got one shot at this agency.

Do you confine yourself to agents based in New York City, or does it matter anymore? It used to.

The vapor of non-responses develops heft and pressure and hovers harder outside your laptop, smirking.

Months in, dilemmas like Top Guy vs. Mailroom Guy begin to seem quaint. I still have my unearned self-confidence. I know I've got a great book here. I can continue to believe with all my heart that I've got what it takes, because nobody has actually asked for a manuscript yet and told me it's crap. So there's that.

But I'm not far away from querying the agent who's set up a pop-up office in the parking lot of a food cart pod. As long as it's in New York.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Thirty Days Per Gallon

I made the observation on the Old Person's Social Media Platform that I hadn't bought any gasoline since February. Might even have been early February, and I still had half a tank.

"All electric?" my friend Jeremy wanted to know.

No. All parked.

"You need to take it out on the freeway once a week for twenty minutes," he opined. My own opinion was that I the hell did not.

He elaborated. Something having to do with condensation. A crankcase. Rust. Dead car. I needed to run my car.

I'm sure he's right. But when it comes to cars, and pets, and life mates, I need something that doesn't ask much of me. Because that's what it's going to get. I certainly do not want to have to go throw a ball for my car. I don't even have a crate to put it in. Besides, moving it would disturb the new plants just getting their roots down in the sludge next to my parked tires.

In forty years, we've had two more or less self-maintaining cats and one dog that climbed our fence paw-over-paw and headed out to the hinterlands for better cuisine, returning happily every evening with a mouthful of biscuit and sausage. It was a great arrangement. Sometimes we'd get a phone call to come pick her up at the tavern where she was hanging out, if she had overstayed her welcome, but mostly she just did her usual route, pooped in someone else's yard, and knocked on the front door once we were home from work.

I don't know what a crankcase is, but it doesn't sound like something I want to be appeasing. You start in with that kind of indulgence, pretty soon your car is going to be whining for oil and a bath. I don't think I've washed my car since Obama left office. There's a distinct topography of bird poop mostly on the right side under the telephone wire. I'm not sure I want to disturb it even if I could at this point. It would be like vandalizing stalagmites.

Mainly, I'm lazy, which is how some people refer to my efficiency of leisure, but also when it comes to cars I have the opposite of pride of ownership. I'm ashamed. I certainly understand why it is cool to have your own capsule you can drive anywhere anytime all by yourself, but the sheer volume of infrastructure we have built up for this remarkable convenience is just embarrassing to the species. Pavement absolutely everywhere. Pavement just for parking. Bonus pavement to fill in ditches where wildlife might otherwise show up. Ships and pipelines and wells and tankers and refineries and drive-ins where you can idle while awaiting fried cow on a bun. Big box stores in former wetlands, moated with asphalt acreage. It's ugly and dirty and convenient as all get-out.

And of course there's that little detail of the carbon pollution that is quickly making our home planet uninhabitable. You'd think that would be of concern, but it isn't. We don't care if we're going straight to perdition if we can do it in leather seats with a good sound system.

So I don't want to be seen spoiling my car. I don't want to have to exercise it, and there's really no way to pick up its poop.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Beta Reader

When you've written a book, you're supposed to have beta readers take a look. Beta readers are supposed to let you know what does and doesn't work in your novel; where you've lost their attention; and how they think it should have ended. If you're lucky, a lot of them won't even get back to you at all.

But what I need beta readers for is other stuff. Stuff like noticing that my hero is born in 1965 and yet is now only thirty years old, and this isn't a magical realism story. Or that Selma was the secretary at the sheriff's office on page one and worked for the post office on page forty. Or that a guy named Dave shows up in the middle and no one knows who he is, because he was Steve thirty pages ago.

I have trouble with names. I spend a lot of time trying to work out my characters and outline my plot before I ever start to write. After a while I give my characters placeholder names so I don't have to keep typing out "rich girl" and "village idiot." When I do start writing for real, I change their names, sometimes more than once, and I don't get tidy about sweeping up the old ones. Also, sometimes I forget which one is which.

It got easier when I discovered the "replace" function but that was troublesome too. One novel I wrote had an "Alan" character, and at some point I realized I occasionally spelled it "Allen," so I did a search-and-replace for Alan to Allen and got 50 replacements right off the bat. Felt pretty smug about that until I reread my manuscript and discovered words like "ballence" and "nonchallence" sprinkled all the way through.

One of my first actual beta readers noticed pretty quickly that half of my names started with H. That's fine in real life, but it's unnecessarily confusing for readers. I wasn't aware I'd done it. My reader started circling "H" names and writing "another H" in the margin, until, in my very last chapter, I introduced a Hannah and she just underlined it and wrote Really? in the margin.

The book I'm writing now is particularly confusing. I am following a half-dozen characters, and I'm filling in their histories in flashbacks. So it goes back and forth from the present to their adolescence and points between--in literary circles, we refer to that as "willy-nilly"--and now I can't swear that some of them haven't given birth to their own grandmothers.

It kind of makes me wonder how God did it. Just slammed everything down bip bam boom and came in ahead of deadline and knocked off for a day. That's some serious chops. Of course he was a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy. No flashbacks there. You just create a setting and plop in your characters, and if Time is operating correctly, it should be pretty coherent from then on.

Heck. Anyone could write that.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

One Bird Too Far

So many things going on during nesting season if you're paying attention. The trill of victory, the agony of de tiny little feet! Everywhere one soap opera after another is playing out. Studley and Marge plumb disappeared shortly after the scrub jay incident and didn't show up for worms even though we extended our beer-thirty hours JUST for them, and we had no idea where they went or even if they still...were. The resident crows are just past the stage where their baby has plummeted from the treetops and been grounded for a few days, and we knew that because every so often we heard a great cawcophany from the neighbor's yard followed by two little kids screaming their heads off and dashing back into the house. It was very satisfying. Now the crow baby is aloft for good and pecking around the garden beds with its blue eyes and gape-remnant lips and it will soon be the best-looking one of the bunch, because the adults are all about to go gappy and drop their feathers.

Then Studley came back with three of his little guys in tow! They're not any littler than he is, of course, but they're beebling away in the trees waiting for Daddy to show up with snacks, and we couldn't be relieveder. They too can be recognized by their shiny new suits and I do believe they outweigh their father too, because as usual he has worked himself skinny. His molt will start any day now. Last year by this time he had a ragged cheek bib and a bald spot on his head. This year his head feathers look okay but he's had this one feather sticking up on his back for weeks. I tried to smooth it down once but Studley has stopped just short of allowing me to touch him in a personal fingery way. And I know this because it's everything I can do to keep from chucking the little dude under the chin.

wayward feather
And because it is not enough to have a private tit to show off to your friends, my niece was inspired to try to entice a pair of juncos that were nesting in her yard, and succeeded in getting them and their babies to take food from her hand, and start a new brood, and get those babies to do the same, and, what the hey, the local song sparrows seemed to show an interest too, and what with one thing and another, she is basically encrusted with birds every time she walks outside. Dave shakes his head. Brewster girls, he says, without elaborating.

It's not a competition, but I will point out she doesn't have a chickadee yet.

And so I'm happy that I've made my garden a destination resort for the feathered set, and contemplate what more I can provide, because birds are awesome in every way, but I would like to mention that I the hell did not mean I wanted freaking pigeons nesting under my solar panels with their stupid breathy cooing like they're fat little Olivia Newton-Johns in a world of opera stars and all walking around like they do with their tiny stupid heads poinking along behind them like they're trying to catch up to their own plumpety bodies. But there they are flapping down to the rental house's gutter and coming back up to our roof with big old sticks because not only do we have freaking pigeons committing lavish poopination under our solar panels but sure enough we didn't get around to clearing out the gutters last season and thanks for reminding us.

I know I'm supposed to be more even-handed about this as a bird lover but I really don't care for pigeons much at all or the whoop-whoop-whoop Three Stooges routine they do or their unmatched outfits, the best of which look like a motor oil slick in a puddle, walking around all dumb and eating white bread preferentially, and I know they have plenty of admirers and can do some amazing things such as find their way home even from a very great distance, which they can go ahead and do any time now as far as I'm concerned and I hope it's way the hell across the ocean.