Wednesday, April 28, 2021

By Any Other Name

 
Even the scientists didn't know what they were looking at when they netted the little critter off the coast of Vancouver Island. It looked like a dang tadpole in the salt sea, only less attractive. Finally one took the pencil out from behind his pocket protector and mined for earwax, squinted, reached all the way into the recesses of his considerable education and said "Aw, I know what that is. That, there, is a bony-eared assfish."
 
As soon as he said it, of course, everyone realized it had to be a bony-eared assfish. The thing about a bony-eared assfish is it makes you wonder what other kinds of assfish there are. Are there semi-flammulated assfish? Gibbous-bellied assfish? Stippled or morose assfish? I looked it up.
Well, what the hell. The only assfish is the bony-eared one. That doesn't really seem fair. Just the one assfish. Seems like calling it an assfish is bad enough and the bony-eared part is just piling on. Not that it's that great-looking a fish. It's bony and flabby, all at once. Wouldn't it have been more polite to lump it in with the other bottom-fish?
 
Nobody actually knows how the bony-eared assfish got its name. Yes, it has an anus. But no cleavage, per se.
 
There is some speculation that it has to do with the Greek name for the species, bestowed upon it in 1887 by German ichthyologist Albert G√ľnther. He didn't take the oppportunity to name it after himself, and who can blame him? Anyway the Greek name means something like "bristly cod," which is sensible. But in Greek the word sounds like the word for "donkey." Or ass. And since everyone who was anyone in the late nineteenth century could get a chuckle out of a good Greek pun, Assfish it was.
 
We're not that familiar with the bony-eared assfish because, one, it is distinctly uncharismatic, and two, it's at the dang bottom of the ocean, and we're not. Like a number of other critters in the vicinity, it travels up to the surface at night for snacks. And back again before daylight. It has the distinction of having the smallest brain-to-body-weight of all the vertebrates, and it's not like it weighs much. The best it can do is get half a notion. Like, I've got half a notion to go up to the surface when it gets dark. And half a notion is all it takes.
 
You've got to give it credit, though. The biggest migration, by numbers of individuals, in the world is the migration of critters from the bottom of the sea to the top and back again, conducted nightly. And how does the little bony-eared assfish the hell know it's nighttime? There's no light down there. How much darker can it get? But in its tiny little brain it knows. The bony-eared assfish knows.
 
So, respect due.
 
But the poor bony-eared assfish is no beauty. At its best, at the bottom of the ocean, it is a sort of bristle-headed flaky thing with a skinny tail. At least there it is relatively sleek, but when it rises, and the pressure decreases on it, its cells swell up until it is a goobery mass of sad jelly, still with the skinny tail. And then it sinks back down to its previous ugly-but-not-gelatinous fish state.

Operating a brain takes a lot of energy and if you don't need your brain for any more than popping up to the surface and back again you can let it devolve over time. As it happens, we know our own human brains have gotten smaller in the last 10,000 years. And things are happening in a hurry, now. Speculation is that since we're now storing information outside of ourselves, in books, online, etc., we can get by with smaller brains. I know mine can't manage an article over 2,000 words anymore and I'm lost if I have to remember a password. TL,DR. Precious few of us know enough Greek anymore to be able to properly disparage a tiny assfish.

But assfish don't care. Assfish keep making more assfish.

The lack of good lighting probably helps.

Note to Uncle Walt: So long, and thanks for all the assfish.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Ponzi Dream


Terrible, terrible news. Humans are no longer spawning at a replacement rate and in a matter of decades we might be down to about nine billion of us, all told. It's a catastrophe.

Here's what I read: "Population growth is vital for the world economy. It means more workers to build homes and produce goods, more consumers to buy things and spark innovation, and more citizens to pay taxes and attract trade." If we don't keep pumping out the babies, the experts say, the economy will not be sustainable. It will not grow. It must always grow. How can it? It can't. But it must. 
 
A constantly growing economy is, of course, not sustainable any way you look at it, and maybe we should be placing our chips on a plan that doesn't depend on using up all our resources and cooking the planet and poisoning the water. Because that is truly unsustainable. (To explain what it means to be unsustainable in a way even Matt Gaetz can understand it, it means you can't keep it up.)

But the people who worry about the baby bust say there will soon be too many old farts and not enough young people, and then who will pay the taxes? And take care of the old farts?

Thus it is revealed that the entire vaunted world economy has been a Ponzi scheme all along.

Well, I suspect if money is the problem, maybe we should set things up so that everyone has at least enough to trade around and nobody has way way way too much. Even out the spoils a little. You can still structure it so you have really rich people if that's what you want.

A lot of people, though, will go to the mat to defend the rights of billionaires to keep all their money. Boy, what a con job! Somehow the fat cats have got the little people believing that wealth is its own proof of virtue. What about all the jobs Bill Gates created? Did he? The way wealth actually works is you might have to suck for a while but once you've got the siphon going, it will just keep pulling that wealth out without you having to lift a finger. After that, you might still suck, but it's optional.

They don't mention the Waltons, whose money originally came from destroying manufacturing jobs and family businesses by having their products made on the cheap in countries that utilize slave labor and have no environmental standards; that's Walton The First, and Waltons Two through Eight got their billions by shooting out of a worthy Walton womb.

Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, siphoned plenty by destroying his competition, in much the same manner as Walton did with Walmart. The third richest woman in the world got her pile by divorcing Jeff Bezos. #49 is a pig breeder, speaking of unsustainable practices. Tons of resource extraction on that list too. We're running the human operation into the ground so fast that people (like Elon Musk, #2) are suggesting we move the whole franchise to Mars, and they're not even kidding. Damn! A whole new planet to mine.

So. There aren't enough babies. This catastrophe is brought to you by birth control combined with educated women who are shirking their duty to pump out more consumers. Even Italy is slated to halve its population this century.

Ah, those blessed consumers. Consumption, of course, may be vital for The Economy, at least for a few more years, but it's otherwise a losing game. So it stands to reason that a falling population would be good for the planet. Fewer people, less consumption. And it is: except that it's the consumption that is the problem, more than the number of people. A dozen rich dudes can do more damage to the planet in a long weekend than some entire African tribes will do in a year. Wealth is the culprit. And most of us who like to complain about the population explosion are ridiculously wealthy by any reasonable standard. We've run through more energy in the last fifty years than in all the years since the first ape stood up. We'll destroy an ecosystem to pull a mineral out of the ground to operate a plastic talking Bob Ross Bobblehead for a few weeks before we chuck it in the ocean, and not give it a second thought. We're the problem.

Relying on rampant consumption to run the world economy is like finding a faster car to drive off the cliff. This has been fun, but we're running out of choices and time. There will have to be a better way to manage things. A less showy but more intimate way. We'll build our shelters smarter, we'll generate our power on site, we'll grow more of our food locally, we'll feed and entertain each other in person. Even without the bobblehead, we'll probably be happier.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Hope Bleats Eternal



It's sunny. It's seventy degrees. The birds are pitching woo, and apparently that is all the evidence I need to determine it will never be cold, ever again, and so I have gone to the plant nursery and jammed a bunch of little pots in the back of my car. None of this bucks tradition.

One tradition is, I will buy more flowers than I can plant in a day, or three. I will scatter some of them here and there while I think about where they should go, and change my mind and move the pots around, and finally I'll get around to planting them except for one. It might say "hardy in zone seven" on the tag but what it needs to be is "hardy left in a black plastic pot in the sun without water for three months," and odds are it isn't. Another tradition is: I'll get everything settled in and then we will get one night close to freezing and they'll all sulk for a month. Oh, they won't die. They will just mope around like kids who didn't ask to be born.

The first thing I do is fill the flower boxes. I used to shake that up but for quite a few years now I've put in the exact same plants. Geranium-Lantana-Cuphea-Callibrachoa-Heliotrope. I worry about this. There was this lady on my mail route, Mrs. V., who could politely be described as "rigid." The first time I met her, I was crisply informed I was late. A few days later I was unacceptably early. Mrs. V. employed a miserable-looking gardener and every year she directed him to plant the flower beds all at once: tulips, to begin with, lined up like soldiers, socially distanced on a grid. Then they got pulled out and tossed so they wouldn't naturalize. A fresh platoon would be mustered the next year to stand at attention. At a precise moment that was neither late nor early they were pulled out and replaced by a row of obedient salvias and a precise edging of lobelias, just the way Mrs. V. wanted them. The gardener never smiled and the garden itself, although quite well-behaved, looked unhappy too.

So I worry a bit that I have gotten into a routine with my flower boxes, although I would like to point out in my defense that everything but the Cupheas come in lots of colors, and I mix those up a bit. The thing is, it is a grand mixture, they play wonderfully well together, and in a good year, this is a thing of beauty and a joy for the whole block.

Meanwhile a number of things are conducting springtime in their own fashion without my input. For instance, I have grape hyacinths. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And there is definitely such a thing as too many grape hyacinths. They are a rolling blue tide thundering through the soilscape and lapping up against the walkways and how anything else wheedles its way through the mass of bulbs, NONE of which I planted, I will never know. I begin yarding them out by the bucketloads year after year, starting before they even bloom, and it does not slow them down one bit, because Jesus loaves-and-fishes them till Kingdom Come.


Meanwhile, we enjoy our seventy degrees. A lady crow in the tippy top of the fir is putting out a metronomic bleat every ten seconds from dawn to dark, indicating she wants a treat. I used to find this repetitive but now I am rather charmed by the dedication she applies to thoroughly annoying the neighborhood, and the fine results she obtains. Per tradition, now that I have my prescribed flowers planted, with their tentative, petite rootage, a crow will come down and yank one of them out of the flower box and replace it with a hole.

He is presenting his find to his lady friend, and his lady friend informs him yet again--does he even remember last spring?--that the nest is done and she is not interested in a bouquet, but maybe a snack of some kind, and he drops the limp $4 flower into the yard and plucks out another one, dully thinking "Maybe she doesn't like pink, let's try orange," and his intended reaffirms that actually she would like a delectable larval item or at least something in the arthropod family, thank you very much, bleat bleat bleat. And the courtship goes on apace.

Meanwhile a few weeks of significantly less friendly temperatures ensue, everything botanical pouts except the grape hyacinths, and I examine the empty spots in my flower boxes and go right back to the nursery.

It's a tradition.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Hawk Up


Studley Windowson, my personal chickadee, and I have had a tight relationship for the past three years, and by this point I can pick out his single "chip" note in a blather of birdsong even when I'm inside and he isn't, which he mostly isn't. (That one time he hopped into the house and landed on my desk didn't work out well for anybody, although it was briefly adorable.) Yes, I can tell Studley's voice just as fast as I can find an errant apostrophe in a page of prose. I generally go to the nearest window and put my finger up for him--so he knows I'm "on it"--and fetch my mealworm container and pop outside.
 
So I was on the back porch the other day dispensing worms for Studley as usual, and as usual he takes one and zips out to the hibiscus to saw it up for himself. He tears it neatly on the perforations. While he was busy doing that I looked up in the sky, because that's what birders do, and I've given up saying I'm not a birder even though I'm not good at it. Clearly I am a birder of some description, or I'd never drive two mph on the highway with my head crammed into the windshield.
 
There was the usual traffic. Three local crows were doing a lazy circle around the Douglas fir next door, a whacket of pigeons went by, the neighbor's Katsura coughed up a spray of goldfinches. And way up high, there was a hawk. Not one of the big fat ones. This was one of the little skinny ones with the long narrow tail, either a Cooper's or a Sharp-shinned, which, for my money, are the same bird. I will never tell them apart, but I can pick out a skinny hawk from a great distance, and I personally know people who don't even recognize chickadees that land on them. I looked back at Studley. He was still sawing away at his worm.
 
I kept an eye on the distant hawk, a dot in the sky. The various species of birds were occupying different layers of air like a living Bird Poster and he was at the tippy top all by himself. I know that hawk can move in a hurry and I'd already decided I would go stand next to Studley in his shrub so I can bat the hawk out of the air if he gets a notion for chickadee nuggets. But then Studs finished his worm, which usually means he's coming in for seconds, only this time he stayed put, and glanced around, and made lots of little noises best represented by punctuation marks. He wasn't going anywhere. The hawk wheeled away and back again and only when he passed over the house and out of sight did Studley dip back for his snack.

What a smart Studley! What a bird! Fully operational crack raptor detection system using eyes the size of poppy seeds. I was so impressed he could pick out a silhouette of a threat from so far away! But I shouldn't be. All the proto-chickadees of yore who couldn't recognize a hawk have long since been nipped out of the gene pool. Still it amazes: I'm sure it must come with the whole original package. They can't be learning this all from personal experience. That would be dreadful. The spark of caution must be in the yolk somewhere.

I don't know if there's a parallel human experience. Most of us seem to be born wired to jump away from snakes. Spiders too. We're born afraid of heights, which is sensible for the wing-deprived. But especially in the last couple hundred years, we've thrown so many layers of comfort and convenience between us and what we need to survive that we couldn't tell a real threat from a horror flick. We poop in the water dish and kick over our kibble bowls. Extinction has to be fictional. But vaccines, antifascists, going gray, and Mercury in retrograde? Scary.


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

New Little Dude


There aren't any rules about who gets to have kids and who doesn't, and I guess that's just as well, though we all know people who should have been steered toward hamsters instead. But let it also be said that every now and then the very best people become the best parents and might even have the best ingredients on hand when they're whomping up the little buggers. Like, maybe the chile is a gift to the whole world. Like, is it possible the new arrival will descend on a golden cloud with pudgy arms raised in benediction? Because we could use something like that right now.

That's sure how we felt when our friends' first baby rolled off the assembly line. We couldn't imagine a luckier child, and more than the usual effort had gone into his production. And now he has a baby brother. The docs said his mother was already "geriatric" for the first one, which seems rude and, as far as I can tell, means "over 26," but the point is it can be a bit of a challenge to seal the deal in these cases. Which makes this new one a plumb miracle. Oh, sure, lots of people refer to all babies as miracles, but just between you and me, some of them are a little disappointing, Lord And Savior-wise.

Thing is, though, that first child had tributes rained on him, toys and swaddling and onesies and furniture and college funds and what-have-you. We provided some of that rain ourselves, and I even made him a complicated quilt that took a long time to put together. Not nine months, but still.

This child?

Big Brother
Haven't sent him a thing. Big brother's old clothes should work--he doodled in them, but they have a washing machine. They'll give him a name at some point. We should probably send him something cute. Any minute now. We should, but we probably won't get around to it. He's already got something his big brother will never have.

He's the youngest.

And that's the greatest thing ever. Dave and I, we know. We're both the babies of the family. We had it made. The people in charge would snatch us out of the way of a speeding train but other than that? Go play. Figure it out yourself. Mommy's napping.
 
I'm the last of four children. Our parents were fairly strict. By the time I showed up (let's not pretend there was any planning involved) they were old, too. They didn't torment us with their visions for our future, but they definitely had standards for our behavior and were not remotely wheedleable. As a Brewster child, you might not get what you wanted, but you didn't suffer over thinking you mighta coulda if you whined long enough.

You wouldn'ta couldn'ta.

And even so, when all of us got together as adults, and I made some kind of casual but shocking pronouncement, and my parents shrugged and wandered off, my oldest sister looked at me in disbelief and said "You've done wonders with Mom and Dad!"

The number of photographs of me as a child are in the dozens. Yeah, sure, there are even fewer of my brother as a child, but those Daguerrotypes don't hold up. These days, first children are immortalized in pixels a thousand times a week, and the second child has to settle for his mug shot.

So listen up, new little dude. Your big brother is pushing Three, and he may be all walking around upright like a genius tyrannosaur and everything, but at some point  he's going to do some things, some currently unimaginable things, that your parents are going to want to talk to him about. They're going to want to talk to him about his choices and how what he does affects other people and ask what he really wants out of life, and with you? They'll be all, Whatever.
 
You grab that Whatever, child. That's a wide, wide landscape, and it's all yours. Go play in the mud, devise your own private troubles, and then shine, shine, shine.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Can't Touch This


Hey hey! Welcome to my humor blog! Join us on a madcap romp through the world of strange science, fun facts, and human foibles! Now let's talk about abortion!

Oh. We're not supposed to talk about abortion. It's a "touchy" subject, kind of like Hell is "toasty." I just got to thinking about it on account of all the so-called "heartbeat bills" that are getting passed that criminalize abortion at the stage a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or about the time when a woman starts feeling bloaty and crabby for no reason. 

I suspect the whole heartbeat thing has to do with how we romanticize the heart. It's where we imagine love is, it's what we paint on our valentines, it's how young girls dot their i's. Seems like a good place to draw a line, but here's the thing: any line we draw is going to be arbitrary. Even the moment of heartbeat detection depends on what device you use to detect it. Are you bent over a belly with a warm stethoscope, or jamming a wand up a personal area? Is a heartbeat the beat of a heart, or a flickering of electrical activity in a group of cells that aspire to be a heart?

Doesn't really matter. The only thing that we ought to be able to agree on about abortion is that we can't agree on a thing about it. It all depends on what we as individuals believe about human life, and its preciousness or insignificance, and that's personal. Many people abhor the thought of snuffing out even potential human life, and there we're getting into unfathomable territory: the existence of the soul, and the moment of its inception. Is it here, at the eight-cell stage? At the kidney-bean stage? Is any of this obvious? Some people believe it starts with the gleam in the father's eye. That it is sinful to obstruct the safe passage of a raft of sperm cells on its glorious emission.

That's why the one thing that has been proven to dramatically reduce abortion numbers across the board--the provision of free birth control--is still controversial.

Heck, whether you believe in a soul at all is not a given either.

I myself tend to the non-preciousness side of the scale. I think a viable dodo egg is far more valuable than any human blastocyst. It's a supply-and-demand thing in a world choked with people. But that's just me. I also would have no trouble deciding whether to snatch an infant out of a burning building, or twelve jars of unimplanted embryos. No trouble at all.

But here's the other thing I believe about abortion. I believe that there are some politicians who know in their maturely-beating hearts that abortion is a great sin. That is why they got into politics. But I believe there are far, far more politicians who thunder on about abortion, with trembling fingers and quavering voice, and don't actually care at all; might even have underwritten a few. For them, abortion is a lever to move as many voters as possible to their party so they can do what they really care about: assure that the vast wealth of the country remains in the hands of the few.

You might think your legislator is doing the Lord's work, and that's your right, but maybe he's just working you over.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Don't Open The Shed


Someone's been charged with murder in two cold cases here. In the first case, they just assumed the murder took place, in the absence of a body. I don't know: it's hard enough to keep track of all the people we have and if someone lies low for for a while it seems rude to just conclude, ipso fucto, he's been murdered. I suppose there are clues. I, for instance, can hole up inside the house for a long time--I've got toys--but if a few weeks go by and nobody sees any beer bottles in my recycling there might be cause to worry.

Anyway, the cases appear to have been broken due to forensic genealogy. That's the relatively new practice of sleuthery using data that were volunteered to an outfit like Ancestry or 23andMe. Our murderer might have had cause to wonder just how much Neanderthal he had in him and didn't stop to think that dribbling drool into a tube might have consequences for him down the line. (I'm guessing there was a lot of Neanderthal.) Or maybe he just wanted to reassure himself he was super white.

He was connected to the first murder due to the discovery of Probable Murderer DNA in the victim's house. He was connected to the second murder due to the discovery of the victim's dismembered remains in his shed. In criminal investigation circles, that's considered a red flag. I'm guessing he lives in the boonies, and didn't need his mower for a while.

He's also being investigated for a number of other unsolved murders. They'd have him in the slammer already, if any of the detectives searching his house had gotten a craving for fish sticks.

It makes me think of when the Bob Crane murder case was reopened after the discovery of "previously overlooked" brain tissue in the suspect's car. It wasn't enough to convict, but again, highly suspicious, there being vanishingly few innocent ways to get brain tissue in your car, even with the worsening pothole situation.

The other thing it makes me think of is I don't really know what-all is in our shed, and maybe I should find out.

Dave built the shed a long time ago and it has two doors that swing open wide. One of them opens easily by turning a bent nail and the other one is latched shut by two eye-bolts that slot into a cavity, and you have to pull them out from the inside. For thirty years now I've bothered to open that door only a couple times. If I want anything on the right side, I hold onto the middle post and swing my body around like a pole dancer. There's too much stuff on the floor to actually step all the way inside. I am not tidy.

I do have four big containers of water in there somewhere for The Earthquake, and I should replenish them one of these days, but it's a bother, and I figure even real old water would be fine in an emergency. Anyway I can't rule out a body part or two. It's not a big shed, but not everybody is all that big, and things happen. I know we have a saw.

We did find a whole cat tail in there once. Just the tail. Seemed like there had to be a story connected, and I was content to just wonder about it, because I don't reserve my sentiment for outdoor kitties. Cats are wonderful creatures but once they step outside they're coyote chow as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, months later, we did see a tailless cat skulking around the yard. I'd like to say we had ways of making him talk, but we didn't.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Lettuce Assassin



I chop lettuce. Go ahead, let me have it.

You're not supposed to chop lettuce. I'm no cook but even I know that. I don't know why exactly, but I know you're supposed to tear lettuce, not chop it.

Which is better than leaving it untorn. One of the downfalls of going to a nice restaurant is you're likely to get a salad with great big leaves flapping around in it. You can try to fold it up into a tidy package with your fork, but you're still at risk of looking like a turtle, snapping your neck back and forth trying to corral the greenery. Little fringey bits are trailing all over your face because despite your best fork-folding efforts the stuff is springing back out of your lips and dripping unsightly dressing down your cheek. And you're also not supposed to go after it with your fingers. You have to herd the escaped greens back into your mouth with your fork, and that can't be done with any delicacy. I don't know how the Queen manages it.

It's worse if you have a small face. I have a small face on account of I have a small head, and my face is on the front of it. Sure, everything from the chin down has swollen into pudding, but there's not a lot of acreage in the face itself. I start smearing runaway lettuce onto it, I look like I've planted myself in a hedge.

Poo on that. I make my own salad, I chop the bejesus out of the greens. I want every portion of that salad bite-sized. I want to make the transfer from plate to gullet as orderly as possible. Let's just say when we had a dog, she didn't park herself next to my dining chair.

That's allowable, in your lesser restaurants; you can tear your lettuce into little pieces. But I am not inclined to stand there over my cutting board and rip plants into confetti when I can just whack at them with a big knife in four seconds. Done.

I read up. Seems the reason you're supposed to tear, not chop, is that the resulting pieces will separate along natural cell-wall lines and not rip the cells apart. I've studied plants with a microscope before. The cells are generally lined up like subway tiles. And they're very little. Even if a whole bunch of them are screaming at once, you're not going to hear them over the chewing.

Well, I can't even separate an invoice from a page along the perforated line without messing up at one end or the other. I could, if I took the time to fold it real good and crease it with my thumbnail, but that's not my idea of a good use of time.

Presumably the cells damaged by my kitchen knife produce polyphenols in order to protect the plant against further damage. I'm making a salad. I'm already planning on damaging the hell out of those little princesses, right quick.

I'm chopping. If the Queen drops by, I'll chop a salad for her, too.