Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dispatches From The Crust

I recently mentioned that I have moments of doubt while writing. Not many, and not often, but more often than I used to. Some of the stuff I've learned hasn't stayed learnt.  I wrote a sentence the other day with about fourteen more clauses in it than anyone really needs, and by the time I got to the end of it I was just shoveling in pronouns with no confidence that they were the right ones. In those cases, I get a machete and whack at my sentence until I get control of it again. But it would be nice to be certain. It's humbling to feel at sea in my native language.

It's not just language, though. Thanks to the social media, I'm much more likely to weigh in on other issues. I'll stick my opinions out there like I'm planting flags on conquered territory--fervently, righteously. There are so many people who need correcting, and I'm just the one to do it. It's easy to let fly without lining up your shot first.

There are times I'm sure I'm right but can't say exactly why, and there are times I'm not sure I'm right at all. Humility can be a good thing. It's a big wide world out there, and I haven't learned everything about it yet, and unlike some people I won't name but didn't vote for, I know how complicated it actually is.

So I came across a thread about all the natural disasters that are happening all over the world, and someone said climate change was exacerbating the earthquakes, and as much as I like to sound the alarm about global warming, I don't like to attribute things to it promiscuously. There's enough misinformation out there already, and I didn't want to see someone set up a straw man that some Denier could knock down. Far be it from me to suggest we're not screwed, I typed, or words to that effect, but that's not how earthquakes work.

Because, you know, I'm all science-y like that.

Tectonic events are shaped by things that are beneath us, not to put on airs. Heat within the earth, friction and pressure, that sort of thing. This guy contending that we're getting earthquakes now because the crust is heating up? I suspected him of also having the inside skinny on The Rapture. So I just made my comment and flang it out there.

And there it dangled, nice and slow, so I could get a look at it. And doubt crept in. Was there something I hadn't read about? Some new discoveries? Did I go off half-cocked? And what does half-cocked mean, anyway? How much else don't I know?

Lots, as it turns out! Yes indeedy, score another one for humility--global warming is affecting earthquakes. It's not going to create one that isn't all cooked up and ready to go, but it can trigger them in a number of ways. A fault ready to slip can go off if the weight of the atmosphere eases up on it because of a good low-pressure typhoon. Rainfall can result in landslides massive enough to release strain on a fault. Ice sheets maintain a load on the crust, but when they melt, the crust levitates. The surface of Iceland is rising fast as glaciers disappear, and it's expected this release of tension will pull in more magma below. Et cetera, et cetera.

I lie in bed and think about it. Do I believe it? Our cat Tater weighs a thousand pounds when she lies on my feet. I'm trapped. There will be no rolling over until she gets up. And when she finally does, limbs are gonna fly.

I believe it.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Comma Mistake

I got into a tiff with my word processing program the other day. I've got a new laptop and it came with a lot of features I don't need, like its own opinions. I'm always willing to listen to another point of view for a while, but not if it's going to be yap yap yap all day long.

This is a Mac program, and it is constantly weighing in with what is wrong with my writing. But I'm comfortable in my native language. Why, I'd even say I am above average in it. In fact, it is very uncommon for me to wonder how to phrase something, or spell something, or punctuate something. I know some folks who are even more reliable than I am, but not really that many, if you don't mind my saying so.

Because I used to use Microsoft Word, I'm accustomed to having my prose light up here and there. It's Microsoft's way of saying "Really?" And I check it, and often as not I say Yes, really. I meant to say "recombobulated" or "flappety." And every now and then it catches a typo, for real. There's one word I'm always sticking an extra "m" in, the first time--it escapes me now, but there is one. So it's useful. As long as it doesn't go ahead and correct everything for me without checking in first, I'm okay with it.

The Mac program is willy-nilly retyping everything without permission. I know there's an off switch on that and I plan to flip it, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. And the other day, I typed the following sentence:

        "How wet is it?" we asked.

Stupid program kept capitalizing the "we." I'd fix it, and it would just retort with another capital letter. I'd smack it down, and it would pop right back up. And this went on enough times that a little zephyr of doubt floated into my brain. What if I had it wrong? What if the way I want to write that sentence was never right in the first place?  Just a couple years ago, I discovered I was supposed to capitalize quotations in the middle of a sentence, and that was news to me. So it can happen.

Worse, these hesitations happen more frequently now. It's an age thing. Words come up missing, and I find myself wondering about things I used to know for sure.  It's like being the youngest kid in the family and you say Remember when Uncle Buddy cooked the cow pie in a crust and tried to serve it to Mom, and your older sister says It was pond scum on pizza dough, we don't have an Uncle Buddy, and by the way you're adopted.  It's unsettling.

In this case I was certain my word program had gotten all flustered at my question mark. As far as it was concerned, the question mark meant we were now at the end of a sentence, and it was time to start a new one. With a capital letter. But it was being a real bitch about it. 23 out of every 24 hours I would be confident I was right, but this was that other hour--the dark hour in which I look up "oligarchy" for the thousandth time--and I thought, well, I'll just ask my Facebook friends. Two or three people I trust will confirm I'm right, if I am. It's not such a bad thing to be humble. It's not shameful to admit doubt.

That said, here's a really good cure for humility: go online for advice. Scores of friends weighed in. A thundering majority tried to correct something that wasn't wrong. I was supposed to put "i" before "e" except after Labor Day; I was warned to avoid relative clauses whilst Mercury was in retrograde. There was a fire sale somewhere on commas and people were offering them to me in buckets. "Stick a comma here," someone would say, and someone else would be equally enthusiastic about the comma but insist it go somewhere else. This went on for a while.

I love my friends. I do appreciate all the help. I'm keeping my original sentence as originally written, and--no offense?--I have a whole other idea where you can stick your comma.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Encore Avec Le Petit Pantalon Grenouille?

Throughout most of human history, women were not expected to make a contribution to science. They were expected to make a contribution to dinner, and to reproduce prolifically, and maybe do a little light sewing. Those who did help to advance the cause of scientific inquiry labored in obscurity. This made them crabby.

Take Madame Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur, for instance, without whom Monsieur Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur could never have succeeded in his quest to determine what a male frog brings to the procreation table. In the early 1600s, the state of understanding about the male's role in fertilization was fluid, but murky. Some contended that an egg only was required. Others fingered the sperm. It was a popular belief that one or the other contained an entire miniature being that only needed plumping up, like a sea monkey. The so-called "spermists" believed the male sent the tiny being into the female where it began to grow; the "ovists" believed the tiny being was already in the egg to begin with. It was not understood in the latter case what the point of the semen was, unless it was just there for encouragement.

M. de Reaumur began by trying to accumulate any materials that might be required for successful fertilization, in the privacy of his own sal de bain. Ha ha! No, he used frogs. Female frogs were certainly known to produce eggs, but what did the males produce? In order to find out, he decided to outfit the little hoppers with tiny pants to contain their effluent, but he wasn't about to make them himself. Mme. de Reaumur was used to this sort of thing by now. She duly produced a series of frog trousers, one pair after the other, refining the design to accommodate her husband's complaints. The first pair was made from a pig's bladder, as requested, but the leg holes were too big, and the frog kept climbing out of them. The second pair was more form-fitting, and, inspired, she added rear pockets, which ruined the frog's line. "Taffeta, darling," her husband suggested.

"Again with the tiny frog pants?" she muttered, the third time, only in French, and trudged off for more pig bladder and taffeta while the Monsieur went back to his precious thinking room. The third and several subsequent versions were problematic because of the frogs' anatomy, with their skinny legs and plump paunch, but inasmuch as this was also typical of men's physiques at the time, she knew just what to do, and soon produced taffeta frog pants with suspenders. "Voici," she said, tightly, "and maybe Mr. Genius Fancypants Science-Boy could think about inventing Spandex some day."

M. Ferchault de Reaumur dressed his male frogs for love, and after what appeared to be a successful introduction to the gravid females, he examined the trousers for secretions, but either did not find any, or got bored and wandered off to piddle around with geometry; in any case he did not report his findings.

After the divorce, M. de Reaumur began new experiments with frogs, butter, parsley, and lemon, and the Mme. provided for herself nicely in her new career designing loungewear for the King's hamsters.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

With The Greatest Of "EEEEEEEEEEs!"

If I were going to do something on my birthday that was really special, something no one would ever expect me to do, what do you think it would be? If you guessed "Jump out of a perfectly good airplane," you'd be right! I would never do that.

I did, however, take a zip line tour. I thought that was something I could manage. I'd been a little taken aback when I suggested the zip line to my friends who were coming for the eclipse, and they fired back NO so fast I thought our emails had collided in mid-air. How bad could it be, I wondered?

I'm the most trepid person I know. I won't even jaywalk. There is a tremendous number of ways to maim yourself or perish altogether, and I have reviewed every one of them, and make a point of avoiding them. I can barely play piano in public. It all seems extreme, but keep in mind that I am a person who tips over while putting on socks, walks into closed doors, and sometimes get a bolus of tap water stuck in my throat.

Our Guides
Dave's not like me at all. Before they locked him out, he used to climb up to the top of the Fremont Bridge arch, which is located right under the sun. He likes the rush of adrenaline you get from a good scary ride. I think it's possible a rush of adrenaline could kill me. My cousin Jerry just got on some numbskull ride where they belt you delicately onto a park bench and drop you off a cliff, and I'm sure they have all the logistics worked out for that little number, but if I did it they'd be pulling up a corpse. My bowels and bladder would be empty and my lymph and bile would be looking for a way out too.

They're careful with the zip lines. Guide has you all harnessed in and strapped to the mothership and all you have to do is sit down in your harness and fly. I had a death grip on my harness even though it was not possible to fall out of it, and if it did fail, it wouldn't matter what I was holding onto. It would be like Thelma and Louise grabbing the dashboard. "Relax!" he advised. Sure! I made it to the next platform and the guy's buddy nabbed my knotted-up body out of the air.

Not a platform. Platforms had no railings.
It was the platform I wasn't prepared for. It's the size of a legal envelope and there are ten people on it.  We're all hooked to the tree in the middle; my fingernails are well into the bark. Plus, it's moving. "Now I want you all to back up to the very edge of the platform and lean back," he said, apparently not kidding, because everybody did it. "See how much room we have now?" I did. There was lots of space now next to the tree, so I stayed put.

As soon as I got my breathing under control, they pointed us across an undulating walkway fifty feet in the air, made of gapped toothpicks and dental floss, with no handrail.

I did get more comfortable, but I was still not about to fall backwards off a raised platform, as instructed, or sail on my back with my arms and legs out ("dead man style," the guide said, thoughtlessly), or anything else other than tip myself gently into the void. I know they're not going to let me die. I know they're not even going to let me get hurt. I can see I'm tethered to the cable. It doesn't matter. I  have a longstanding policy of not jumping off of things and it's done right by me so far. It's wired in. I see a raised platform like that and I'm looking for the gibbet.

Note launching motion
But I don't understand all those other people on the platform who are turning cartwheels and bouncing like fleas.  How is it they're able to do that? Why are they so brave?

"They're not brave," my niece Elizabeth said. Elizabeth came along and, as her birthday present to me, positioned herself as the only person on the tour who was obviously more freaked out than I was. "It's not brave if you're not scared. We're brave."

Damn straight we are. Next year? I'm going to have two slices of birthday cake, and screw the acid reflux.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Oh, well, shoot (as they say). I don't know.

We've got a problem with guns. We don't agree what it is, but no matter who you are, you have to admit we do a lot of shooting in this country. We blast away. Most of us don't, but this is one of those areas where one person can have an outsized effect. And the fact is, other nations do not experience the violence that we do routinely here in the U. S. of A. You know, unless they're in a war. So there's something going on. Can't keep pretending there isn't.

Does that mean that we're likely to be shot? Naw. If you got in line with the next 25,000 people you see, one of you might get plugged. You're way more likely to drop dead of heart failure, but no one's aiming bacon at you. At least not often enough.

There's talk about background checks but a lot of that is another slam on mentally ill people. It's not just mentally ill people. All kinds of people are ready to put some hurt on random strangers. I suppose if we were somehow able to examine everyone who bought a gun we might be able to sieve out a potential nut job once in a while.

So we have a situation in which reasonable people, people I know and love, people who will never perpetrate a crime, who merely want the ability to defend their house and home in the way they feel comfortable with, and maybe pop a deer every now and then, are so horrified by the utterly unreasonable prospect that someone is going to try to take away their guns, their protection, that they have drawn a line: and the line is somewhere past All weapons, Always. They might not need a military-style assault weapon capable of mowing down a crowd of people, personally, but they will defend to the death someone else's right to have it. Preferably someone else's death.

It's that slippery grassy knoll argument, I guess.

But where, I'd like to know, should that line really be? Anti-aircraft missiles? Nukes? Where, on the continuum that began with muskets in the Revolutionary War, do we draw the line?

I'd draw one line right through the National Rifle Association, if I could. The NRA positions itself as the friend and stalwart champion of Joe America, but gun safety classes notwithstanding, I can't see that this propaganda pump is truly dedicated to anything other than enriching arms manufacturers, and they're wildly successful, too. As long as they continue to persuade people someone's coming after their guns, sales will continue to spike. As they do after each mass murder. You'd think we'd already achieved full gun saturation (and all the safety it brings us), but you'd be wrong. Evidently there's no number of guns that is too many.

I'll admit it. I would feel safer in a country that didn't fetishize guns. But am I coming after anyone's guns? Hell no. Them folks is armed.

This blog post was written, but not published, in December 2015. I never had any doubt an appropriate time would arrive.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Stand Up. Sit Down. Fight, Fight, Fight.

It began when quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped quietly to one knee during the national anthem, before a football game. He explained later he was declining to honor a flag for a country that oppresses people of color. "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," he went on.

He's right. There are. Young black men in particular are reminded constantly that their lives are not worth as much as mine. That they're expendable. That our justice system continues, as ever, to serve some of us and not others. Under the rain of daily indignities, one might expect rage and fury, and not the composure of a man on bended knee.

Which did not prevent white people from getting hysterical. It's disrespect! It's a slap in the face to all who have suffered and died for our flag! All over the social media, on pages littered with racist memes, their friends' if not their own, they declared themselves appalled and affronted by this simple assertion of self-worth.

Soon the memes were joined by an historical photograph: Martin Luther King Jr. on one bended knee, head bowed, leading fellow protesters in prayer after they were arrested. As always, it could be bent to serve any viewpoint: an admonishment to racists? A proper posture for a Negro? Or this, from a woman who claimed--somehow, without being struck by a thunderbolt--to have a great deal of respect for MLK. Her comment: "If those NFL players who are taking a knee during the national anthem had their heads bowed like Martin Luther King Jr., that would be acceptable."

Acceptable. Good to know.

I didn't have to check to see that she was not alive when MLK was. It was clear. Martin Luther King Jr. was not beloved of white people like her until well after he was murdered and safely in the grave. If only Colin Kaepernick had bowed his head, it would be acceptable? If only!

If only he had bowed his head. And held a kitten. During Amazing Grace, and not the national anthem. In his own house. Where we can't see him. And certainly not in a sacred arena like a professional football stadium.

Oh, Petunia. Trust me! I was there. You would have hated MLK. He was trying to get people like you to pay attention. He was trying to keep his people alive, see them educated and voting, set them free. He was trying to shake you up.

Ours is not the flag of North Korea, of Russia, of any totalitarian state. Not yet. This flag is the symbol of our freedom and duty to protest. If our soldiers have fought and died for a flag, that would be travesty enough; but it takes nothing away from their courage and sacrifice to note that they have often fought and died in service to the most powerful among us and the mineral resources they have built their fortunes on, to the despair of all people unlucky enough to have been born over those resources. "Freedom" is a code word designed to guarantee your complacency as we wage war for any reason. Freedom is what you're trying to take away by compelling a man to salute, by insisting on  a deferential posture.

A disproportionate number of our brave military men and women are African-American, and they will come home from their service to the same country they left, in which they will be passed over for housing and employment, in which they will be tailed in the marketplace and harassed by officers of the law, in which they will be caricatured as thugs, in which they will have to strategize daily to remain alive, in which they must instruct their young children how to survive, in which they can expect no justice even when their sons and brothers are murdered, again and again.

In which they are living a different and harsher reality than you, Petunia, that you choose to remain ignorant of, or refuse to acknowledge, or believe that, fundamentally, they deserve.

Petunia? This isn't even that hard. The only thing being asked of you, for now, is to pay attention. To hush for a moment and listen when your fellow Americans are trying to tell you something you do not know, or do not wish to know. You should bow your head. You should be ashamed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

It's A Fly Ball

We have flies. Not a ton of them, really, just your standard set, and they're almost all in the outdoor stairwell going down into the basement. It's always a bit startling to open the basement door and see all those flies out there. They're mingling and talking over each other like they're at a church social. I don't know why they've picked that spot.

Because ever since those awkward early years at this house, we've kept the piles of cow poop in the stairwell to a minimum. We're likewise short on corpses. It is a bit untidy, and that might be attractive to flies, but it's hard to understand the draw. Being flies, they're marginally annoying even though they don't bite or anything. Probably we should install a frog.

I looked up "flies in the stairwell" to see if there was some reason they hung out there. To my chagrin, Google instantly supplied a billion articles about killing the hell out of flies, which was not what I was going for. I'm cool one-on-one with a swatter, but I always assume if you start spraying small beasts with poison, you'll eventually drop a tiger. Anyway I don't need to get rid of them. I just want to know what they're talking about.

My research proved to be a dead end. However, there was a lot of interesting advice about natural fly control, including the old "put some poop somewhere else" gambit. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that flies like poop, but I already fling the neighbor's cat's poop back over the fence, and my stairwell flies are still here. One woman on a forum was eager to underscore the poop-fly connection. "I have a pet rabbit whom's poop attracts the big fat juicy ones," she contended, and I'm not surprised. I think it's in them's nature.

But check this out. Have you heard of this? You put a penny in a plastic bag half filled with water and hang it near the flies, and they'll go away. People swear by it. I can't help but wonder if a couple of nickels would work even better.

It's not foolproof. One woman complained that although she tried the water-bag trick using fifteen pennies, flies were still hanging around her dog kennels. There's just no explaining something like that, you'd think, but someone did helpfully suggest she'd used too many pennies. is ambivalent about the efficacy of water bags. They wouldn't say one way or another, although they took a skeptical tone. It's relatively easy to construct an experiment with proper controls and an array of bags and pennies, and you can accurately measure fly concentration by tallying up the poop spots they leave behind, if that's the way you like to spend your time. The mechanism is thought to have something to do with the refraction of sunlight in the water bag amplified by the shininess of the pennies. The flies' compound eyes are completely taken unawares by it and they have to move away to unfrazzle themselves.

Could be so. I'm tempted to try it out, except for two things. My basement stairwell is a perfectly fine place to store flies, and I can think of worse places. Also, there is no direct sunlight in the stairwell. That's right: I am infested with flies where the sun don't shine.