I didn't even like beer until I lived in London. Then I liked the bejeezus out of it. It was purely a quality issue. As a post-adolescent with serious anxiety and maturity issues, I was perfectly willing to submit to an alcoholic oblivion. I just didn't care for beer. But in London, lovely people everywhere served up pints of medicinal Guinness, with a head of fine froth you could finger your initials into, and still read them when the head hit the bottom of the glass. The servers grew ever lovelier by the pint.
When I came back to the states I was horrified to discover that the beer here was every bit as hideous as I had remembered it. The worst of all came from a company with a large number of Clydesdales on staff and they probably produced the product personally. The rest wasn't much better. So I began to make my own beer.
When you make beer, not using an extract but with real grain and real hops, you get some interesting odors. Like that of many cheeses, it only smells good because you know what's coming. One of the steps in making beer is called "sparging the wort," and that was reason enough to do it right there--you could always tell people you needed to get home and sparge your wort. Generally they'd let that comment, and you, go without speculation.
I made several decent batches of beer and bottled them up, but soon after I'd gotten started in the venture, someone in town finally started making decent beer to sell. So I bought it. I put my pot, carboy and bottle-capper away. Then more people made more good beer. My little burg began to be known nationwide as "Beervana."
Which brings us to our annual beer festival here in downtown Portland. That's only six miles away, so we walked there. It seemed prudent. They sell you a little plastic mug and a bunch of tokens, each token good for a "taste"--four would get you the whole glass. We discovered early on that almost all the servers gave you a nice generous taste, certainly more than a quarter mug. Initially, that seemed like a good thing.
Periodically the whole frothing crowd would erupt in spontaneous whooing. All it took was one fellow with a good set of pipes to raise his mug and go "whoooo" and the whole crowd took it over. It was quite the demonstration of democracy in action, like a ballot initiative with everyone signing on. It was sort of inspiring and sort of frightening at the same time. Depending on my mood, it sounded like the song of a summer wind or the malignant battle cry of a sour Confederacy. I feel the same way about ballot initiatives.
Craft beer tends towards colorful names. I peered about the festival, finally focusing on a tap that said something like "Toad Suck Amber." The fact that that sounded pretty good to me should probably have set off an alarm. But by the first dozen "tastes" I had had about the equivalent of five particularly alcoholic beers, and had begun to tilt. Beer is a healthy, natural food, I reasoned, and I rationalized the next dozen tastes with the same logic a dieter uses to load up on salad, saturated in bleu cheese dressing and avocados and crusted over with bacon. I knew I had started with twenty-five tokens, and I tried to approach my condition logically, to do the math, which had become fuzzy. Twenty-five quarter-mugs, let's see. After concentrating for about fifteen minutes, the only thing that was clear to me was that I'd need three more tokens to come up with a whole number. Having a genuine integer to work with seemed important to the calculation.
We walked home, I assume. I have pictures on my camera of things on the way back I don't remember seeing, and can't recognize, but we must have walked home. Because here we are.
I have no aptitude for what is called multitasking. I can sometimes sneeze and pee a little at the same time, but that's about as far as it goes. If I owned a cell phone and tried to use it while I was driving, I'd be dead in a week. That's if I could concentrate long enough to learn how to operate it. As it is, I can't even follow directions unless I turn the radio down. I can do only one thing at a time. Sometimes fewer.
Sometimes, in fact, if I look up at the stars I tip right over. Every now and then I forget how to swallow. I can't talk and think at the same time. I can't even think and think at the same time.
I have a little room upstairs with an old monitor and keyboard set up just for writing. Dave built me a chickadee house and set it up right outside my window. We were both flabbergasted when genuine, top-grade chickadees moved in. A lot of the time I am supposed to be writing, I am actually staring out the window towards the chickadee house. I am not writing. I am not thinking. I am staring. Not at anything, either; I am staring at a point in loose focus about a yard past the chickadee house and my thought balloon is completely empty. Sometimes a chickadee inserts itself into my field of vision, and my thought balloon says: "chickadee." That's about the extent of it.
I garden the same way. I move slowly through the beds, just as though I were planning or problem-solving, but I'm actually just letting everything hit the retina and go right on through the back of my head, there being nothing much to stop it. The new progressive trifocals give me a form of tunnel-vision, and that heightens the effect. I wander, I "think:" penstemon. Lewisia. Salvia. Artichoke. Ants. Hebe. Shiny round chrome thing. Agapanthus. Wait a second. What? What is that? Shiny round, bright red bits, white plastic, what? It takes a full few seconds for me to recognize a child's brand-new bike for what it is. This morning the space between the Agapanthus and the Hebe did not have a child's bike in it, and now it does, and my brain can hardly take it in.
Turns out it's Calder's brand-new bike, and he and his mom Lorna left it here on their way to the coffeehouse this morning because Calder didn't have it in him to go all the way around the block on it. I love that our neighbors think of our yard as a little park, and they do. We encourage people to amble through. Sometimes I stand by the window and stare out into the yard, and they drift into my field of vision. While I gaze, other people generously assume I am having deep and creative thoughts, but they're just being nice. The balloon is blank. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, Calder and his mom, nothing, nothing, Beth and her sister, nothing, nothing, chickadee, nothing. I have without effort achieved the state of mind that Buddhist monks strive for their whole lives. Striving won't get you there. It's a gift. It might be a gift from all those drugs forty years ago, but it's a gift.
As if Saudi women didn't have it bad enough, it turns out that they're not allowed to work in underwear stores, which puts them in a bind. They are mortified by the prospect of discussing underwear with male clerks, so as a consequence many women in Saudi Arabia are wearing the wrong size bras. In this respect, of course, according to Oprah, they are no different from American women.
There are degrees of mortification. Every single bra-shopping trip in my life triggered an aftershock from the initial excruciating episode when I was twelve or so. My family was modest to a fault. I was humiliated by the prospect of bringing up my need for a bra to a woman who, I have no doubt, conceived me immaculately while fully clothed. Eventually, and a bit late in the game, the mortification of not having a bra trumped the other mortification. But neither could hold a candle to the mortification of the actual purchase. As always, both parents were in attendance, my father reluctantly. He was a wonderful man with no ease whatsoever in social situations, and unfortunately the bra department maven was someone we knew from church. Daddy hung back uncomfortably, distracting himself by pawing through a basket of silk undies at the counter. "Now, you leave those alone, George!" the bra lady sang out merrily for the benefit of the hard-of-hearing, and Daddy retreated instantly, shamed and miserable. Meanwhile, I was cringing in the dressing room with a bevy of brassieres, blushing all over--it was easy to tell--when the bra lady whipped the curtain open to find out how "we" were doing. She invited herself in and proceeded to give me, and much of the greater metropolitan area, instructions. "Now just bend over, dear, and pour yourself in," she bellowed happily. She loved her job. I tried to pour myself through the floor vent.
From that day on, I did all my bra shopping alone, with mixed results. Nothing I bought was ever all that comfortable, and by the time Oprah came out with the news that most of us were wearing the wrong size bra and could benefit from a professional fitting, I could concede that it was a possibility, albeit one I would never look into. Until one day I was in Nordstrom's, with their alarmingly helpful personnel. I insisted to the clerk that I didn't need any help, but made the mistake of admitting I was looking for something that didn't exist: a comfortable bra. Well! Would I like to be fitted? I would not, but the clerk was already squinting knowledgeably at my chest and pulling bras off the displays, and I let her follow me into the dressing room.
Here's how a fitting works: the fitter puts a tape measure under the breasts, pulls it tight enough to hinder respiration, and takes note of the circumference. That's just for drill; it's the measurement around the forearm that we're going to end up using. The cup size is considerably different from what one is used to, as well. The elastic is robust enough to have drawn in flesh from the sides and back and points south, so we are contending with a lot more volume than before, and a cup size that would be cozy on a missile-head is recommended. A series of bras is produced and installed with the use of a foot planted firmly in the back; the result looks like an exploding tourniquet. Clearly the bra, and its contents, are not going anywhere for a while. So, yes. Like most American women, I have apparently been wearing the wrong size bra, if by "wrong size" you mean a 38-C when it should have been a 22-OMG.
"Now. Don't you look better?" the clerk beams, and begins to take advantage of my inability to inhale by ringing me up. I go home wearing my new correct bra, suspecting that if I ever get it unhooked, it will shoot clear across the room and clip the cat. But we will never know. With even a spot of perspiration, there's no removing the thing. Even if you're highly, highly, highly motivated.
Mostly I prefer to set the girls free in their original packaging nowadays, but it's getting to where that doesn't fit so well, either.
Horrible story. Sixty-eight-year-old lady, name of Lee Redmond, was in a terrible high-speed accident and was thrown clear of her SUV. Tragedy ensued. She broke her fingernails.
She was a world-record holder; each nail was nearly a yard long. In the pictures, she looked like a neatly coiffed giant sloth. There's an interview with her on the web, right next to an ad for fingernail polish, although I think someone missed a bet by not advertising one of those Japanese toilets that do everything but read you the paper.
Because if you look at the pictures of her "before," it's hard not to immediately come up with some everyday tasks that would be just about impossible with those giant claws. That's right--there's no way she's ever going to be able to pull off those arpeggios in the Chopin C-minor Etude. In fact, the entire enterprise of nail-growing seems like a pain in the ass. Nevertheless, although she admits that life after the accident got a lot easier in many ways, she was never tempted, in thirty years, to do away with them. These sorts of ventures get a life of their own, becoming their own justification. I think of it as the Vietnam Escalation syndrome. If you've already lost twenty-eight thousand "boys" over there, the case could be made that it's time to wrap things up and bring everybody home. But that's not the way people reason. If we don't sacrifice twenty-eight thousand more, the first batch will have died in vain. Same exact thing with fingernails. You're thirty years into the thing, you're not going to stop no matter what.
I know how she and Lyndon Johnson felt. I can't cut my hair off. My hair is totally annoying to me, but I've got too much time invested in it. I could cut it off and give the strands to the Locks of Love to be made into wigs for bald children. For that matter, Locks of Love could probably do fine work with one or two weeks' floor sweepings. My hair is all over the place. It's on the floor, it's on the carpet, it's turning into felt in the folds of my recliner. It clumps up and bounds across the bathroom floor like tumbleweeds.
The vacuum cleaner is gagging, and wants to know if John Deere makes anything for the home-appliance market that could roll the stuff into bales. Rogue strands sail silently through the air looking for casseroles to hole up in. The drain in the shower has begun to make that same sustained horking sound that usually precedes the cat getting punted off the bed. The native dust bunny population, cowering under the furniture, is in danger of being overrun.
Some strands never even quite make it off the mainland. I routinely extract hair out of crevices on myself that they didn't originate in, and that I wasn't planning to floss anytime soon. These are likely to be a deal-breaker for Locks of Love.
I know I'll be happier just as soon as I whack it off into the thin, sensible old-lady Prince Valiant bob it wants to be. But unless I have a serious mishap with my bicycle and a nearby weed whacker, I may never get around to it.
There's something positively electrifying about being with people who are all in one place for a common purpose, bursting with pent-up energy. Picture a starting line for a race. A roomful of kindergartners, waving their hands in the air to be picked. A colonoscopy clinic waiting room.
The waiting room is filled with patients and their designated drivers, so every other person is seated on the edge of his or her chair, clenched with something like excitement, accompanied by a dour companion, who is reading a magazine and breathing shallowly. There is a restroom just a few feet away. This is a good thing. This is a bad thing.
The atmosphere is very like that inside an airplane carrying first-time skydivers, everyone facing forward, maintaining focus. In some very specific respects, it's probably identical.
I couldn't help but think about this when I read about the mammogram bus in central Oregon. Health care can be a little hit-or-miss in rural areas, and many women find it onerous to cram in an appointment (as it were) for a mammogram when they have to travel so far to get one. So the Asher Community Health Center in Fossil, Oregon arranged to pick these women up and take them to Bend to get their x-rays, and work in a spa treatment and a shopping expedition along with it. It's almost a party atmosphere on the bus, with everyone anticipating a day of getting things permed, polished, painted, purchased, and pancaked. It's just this side of jolly.
And I couldn't help but think that if it works for women needing mammograms, maybe it can work for colonoscopy patients, too.
There are probably a few logistics problems to be worked out. The preparation for a mammogram consists of making an appointment and not applying deodorant. The preparation for colonoscopy is a bit more detailed, and leads to a general sense of urgency. So it would have to be part bus, part ambulance. Call it a "flatulance." The siren could be a lot of fun. The bus would require some retrofitting: plastic seat covers would be a good idea, and some sort of hose apparatus might have to be developed which could link individuals into the exhaust system. But a good engineer might be able to make the whole thing pencil out. Rigged up properly, fuel expenses should be close to nil. It should make a dent in the tailgating problem, too.
I'm an avid gardener, but I'm not indulgent. I like to introduce my plants to adversity early on so they learn to cope. This is a tough old world, I tell them. Mommy may not always be here to protect you. Sometimes the rain won't fall, sometimes the sun won't shine, sometimes a fleet of cutworms will hack you off at the ankles. Sometimes, I warn darkly, Mommy will be too busy having a few beers and throwing darts over by the tool shed to tend to your every need.
Still, there are always a few specimens I try to keep an eye on: new citizens without the rootage to withstand drought, potted plants that always whine for water or fertilizer. So when I go away for a few weeks, I try to enlist a little help and I try to keep it simple. Just make sure the flowerboxes get water, I explain. You might want to check on this little guy over here, I point out. He's a recent transplant. But generally I expect to entertain a few losses.
I needn't have fretted. In the two weeks since we'd been gone, the topiary frog looked ready to leap. The corn's ears met the elephant's eye. The cherry tomatoes lit out for the territories, and the heirlooms sent a posse out after them. The strawberries were studying a plat for a new development and negotiating with the diascia for open space. Peppers popped. Zauschneria split up into gangs and roughed up the other ground covers.
The squash, showing deference to the seniority of the tomatoes on the east side, galloped to the west and made for a patch of marigolds. The toad lilies were hoppy. Buzz was building for the Shakespeare Festival on the north side, with the nicotiana and datura duking it out for the part of Oberon, King of the Fairies. The little eyringium, which had knocked the Puck audition out of the park, observed impassively. Encouraged, the new pomegranate got together with a few reticent players in the aster family and set up a chapter of Toastmasters International, gaining confidence with every performance.
The phlox stood up and cheered as the helianthums busted out into a chorus of Didn't It Rain, Oh My Lord, Didn't It Rain. The caryopteris shot up two feet to see what the commotion was. The gloriosa daisy shot up three, to see over the caryopteris. The scrub jays, who had started a book group, were unperturbed. As is the case in most book groups, nothing much got read; they were basically in it for the blueberry nosh.
The hummingbirds did one round each on the fuchsias and then had to go lie down for a while; I don't know where the sofa, barely visible under the blue hosta, came from. The star jasmine not only made it to the bottom rung of the new trellis, but went condo on a nearby rogue asparagus plant. The lemon cucumber exhausted its vertical possibilities and shot out over the zinnias. The hibiscus is treating it as a hostage situation.
The only plant that looks to be a little worse for wear is a handsome but dissolute penstemon, which had always been known to drink too much, given the opportunity, and was found staggering over the ground. It will probably recover, given the chance to dry out, and now that I'm back in charge, that's a chance it's likely to get.
As for the weeds, half appeared to have been dispatched and the rest terrified. A particularly tenacious colony of oxalis between the stepping-stones had been completely rooted out, possibly with a spoon and tweezers, and all the thistle seeds have blown away, bearing tales of a holocaust.
So this is what a garden looks like when it gets every little thing it wants. All it ever needed was to be left for a few weeks in the custody of a nice woman with a lot of time on her hands. And a pretty good stash of pot.
Why would a girl from Portland, Oregon go all the way to Maine to see a meteor shower? It's a reasonable question. Why not North Dakota? Dave ("Mosquito Feast") hadn't had a good case of West Nile fever since our last trip to Maine, so he was rarin' to go. Walter and Linder had arranged for a bunch of us to spend a week in a magnificent house on the coast, where we had mid-Augusted before. (Retired union folk on a fixed income don't "summer," but that's okay.) It's a loon-laden and ospreyed-over locale, and beautiful, and would be plenty quiet if it weren't for the loons. This is not a complaint.
The only rule at the Punch Bowl on the Eggemoggin Reach is to do what you really want to do, as long as you wouldn't be doing it otherwise, and a big help in this regard is that the place is unmolested by the Internet. That gains everyone a few new hours a day right there. First there's the sleeping-in competition. Linder always loses; she claims she never dreams, so she has to settle for watching the real sun rise over the water instead, followed by a few hours' communion with an eagle or a seal, while swatting hummingbirds away from her left ear (honey, what's in there?). Then the rest of the crew comes to and tucks into breakfast (leftover cake and ice cream). Someone always steps up to make something deadly for dinner, and the rest of the day is spent as we wish.
We became accustomed to the local soundscape: the chirruping of the osprey in the cove, the hootling of the loon in the reach, the clattering of the helicopter in the meadow. The helicopter would be Chris and Hetty's. Chris and Hetty take "dropping in" very seriously.
Monday (lobster night!) many of us spent the day in the Punch Bowl, the shallow little inlet where the water hits the hot sand at high tide and warms up like any other bathtub full of starfish and barnacles. Tuesday (crabcakes) Linder was gracious enough to give watercolor lessons to all interested parties, even though she does that for a living. I brought a box of pastels instead and indulged in hours of painting en plein air, which is French for "under the pooping birds." This is also how Jackson Pollock got his start. Bruce, Elizabeth, Walter, and Donna continued their efforts in watercolor Wednesday (lobster night!) and Thursday (sauteed shrimp). Dickie gathered items off the forest floor and made a table out of them. Jeannine trolled the house for feet to oil up and rub. Elizabeth devoted her days to fashioning fabulous and slimming bead jackets for stones. Stones, she explained, are modest. Mornings, she exercised on a yoga mat, knees clasped, rocking gently back and forth, back and forth, echoing the ambient sound of the waves slapping and farting against the shore.
Maine has been rainy and cool, alternating with cool and rainy, all summer. So we hauled in some of that fine sunny weather Oregon has been known for since the Republicans bollixed up the climate. You're welcome, Maine--it was nothing. We've had a surplus. We also checked out the forecast for the meteor showers. They were expected to peak on Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon. No sunglasses are that good, so we crawled up to the roof at night with nothing over us but the whole Milky Way and a thin blanket. The meteors, being stones, were modest. Dave, swaddled in mosquitoes, attracted a giant diving bat. This sort of thing no longer surprises me.
Dave and I kayaked for loons. Your standard loon, natty in vest and tie by Frank Lloyd Wright, is un-harrassable as a matter of personal policy: he will dive when approached, popping back up in the next zip code with a bellyful of anchovies. But on our last visit a loon putzed around us just a few webbed feet away, diving under our boats, and Dave watched him so ardently that he tipped right over. It's all about context: same heinie one might see any given morning getting a good scratch in the bathroom is a far more glorious thing when it's heading into the drink in pursuit of a loon. The loon thought it was funny, too. He told all his friends about it, all night long.
The only mandatory event at the Punch Bowl is the daily Watching Of The Sunset, convened on the capacious west porch. The sun is toasted with wine and spirits, everyone seated in a comfy chair, Dave standing off to the side, dimly visible inside a cloak of mosquitoes. On Friday (lobster night!) we took in our last sunset, Dave's new West Nile belly rash glowing rosy in the fading light.
I'm thrilled to report that, for once, I am in complete agreement with something Sarah Palin has to say. The statement in question is located on her Facebook page. Scroll down past "What Children's Book Are You?" (Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!) and the status report "...requests help with the Move Stolen Furniture job in Mafia Wars." And there it is:
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."
Right on, sister mama! That doesn't happen in the America I know and love, either. But let's not stop there. Contrary to what you may have heard, or may yet hear:
The America I know and love is not one in which elderly Pomeranians are sent away to be recycled into insulation batting for poor households.
The America I know and love does not levy taxes on houses of worship until they agree to open up a needle-exchange program in the basement.
The America I know and love does not submit overweight toddlers to be diced into nuggets and sent to aid groups in Somalia.
The America I know and love does not require that debutantes that are not immediately snapped up be taken directly from Cotillion and funneled into arranged marriages with large, unattractive members of the same sex.
The America I know and love does not force its citizens to drive their babysitters to the abortion clinic in tiny, underpowered cars.
The America I know and love does not confiscate its citizens' leaf blowers and insist that they eat their yard debris with a side of sprouts and a dollop of Newman's Own.
The America I know and love does not require that its public servants pass any tests of general education, civics or integrity.
The America I know and love is not engaged in research into the grafting of wings onto monkeys, although it may have secretly delivered monkeys to wing-graft studies in Jordan or Syria. Political figures in the America I know and love do not associate closely with flying butt-monkeys. Monkeys cannot fly and fling poo at the same time.
The America I know and love is a serious place with serious business to accomplish, and its public figures do not waste time leaping out of doors at the American public and yelling "boogity boogity boogity."
It was getting on the middle of August, time for the annual Perseids meteor shower. Dave and I are always holding out hope for a celestial doozy, something you could read the newspaper by, something just this side of a war zone. The way I see it, a person's got to die some time, and there are a lot worse ways to go about it than to be hailed on by flaming space rocks. We bring our best attitudes, lying in the lawn chairs, pointing our marshmallows towards the sky. Hey, optimism is free. But although Portland, Oregon is a pretty terrific city, it's still a city, and if one is to really appreciate a meteor shower, it's best to go a little ways out of town.
So we went to Maine.
Sadly, this involved air travel. Air travel can produce horrors for even the most intrepid traveler, and I am notably trepid. Even my most routine trips have a way of going sideways. All I had to do in this case was get myself deposited in Boston and I would be scooped up and carried off by loving friends with cars, brains and everything. I would be ferried about without a care. Linder or Walter would take care of everything. Just get to Boston.
Not long ago, Dave and I had attempted to fly to Portland, Maine, where Linder and Walter were planning to retrieve us. At that time, they probably were unaware of our unique proclivity for disaster, and were merrily on their way to fetch us when we woke up on the floor of the LaGuardia airport, in the wrong gate, having missed our connecting flight to Maine by a good hour. Not many people with a five-hour layover miss their connecting flights. Not many people can fall asleep on the floor at LaGuardia. Not many square feet of floor at LaGuardia are devoid of bird poop.
We had a crumpled piece of paper with Linder and Walter's cell numbers on it and frantically threw quarters into a phone at the terminal, which hoovered them up like a slot machine. The poor phone had not seen action in years and was clearly starving to death. It balked and barked and finally held onto a tenuous connection long enough for us to reach our friends and save them another hour of driving. One much-later flight, a taxi ride, a stint on Greyhound and about twelve hours later, we were scooped up at Boston and all of us tried beerily to put the day behind us.
So on this occasion Walter reviewed the arrangements by e-mail and asked, in a hopeless postscript, if we had somehow managed to acquire our own cell phones in the intervening year. (Even in e-mail his query had a certain bleakness to it, as though he were a musician on the Titanic examining the bass fiddle for buoyancy.) Of course, we hadn't.
We boarded the plane without incident, set up shop in 27B and 27C, and peered nervously at the passengers coming up the aisle. And there, lurching towards us straight out of a Gahan Wilson cartoon, wide, squid-eyed, and unhinged, was the proud tenant of seat 27A, who wedged himself in and began to expand. It was only two hours to Salt Lake City--not so very long a time to sit with my shoulders bunched up under my ears. On the next leg, however, I was delighted to discover that the window seat was occupied by a small woman, neat and narrow, who slotted herself into the seat with enough room left over for her entire aura, and who smelled like nothing at all. Ah! There she sat, just she and her romping little rhinovirus, which she presented in aerosol form for the next four hours.
Boston. Just make it to Boston. The sky was clear as we began our descent, right on time. There wasn't a cloud in it, except one really turgid one right on the runway, looking like something the tarmac burped up all on its own. The plane abruptly plunged into darkness and when the runway finally appeared, about ten yards below, it was not the section of runway the pilot had in mind. The engines roared and the plane clambered back up to the sky and headed away. After a few minutes the pilot chimed on, cheery. "Well, folks," he said predictably, "that little cloud back there wanted to give us a little trouble, so the tower has given us leave to circle around for a little while until it clears up. But don't worry--we'll get you folks back on the ground in another five minutes, one way or the other."
"Another five minutes" does not actually mean the five minutes coming right up, but rather a whole different five-minutes about an hour into the future. Also? There's only one way I'm interested in getting back on the ground. Not the other.