Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tick Talk

"How about this hike?" I showed my niece Elizabeth a photo of rolling, flowered hills.

"Never done it," she said. Huh! She's done every hike there is.

"How come?"

"Ticks," she said briefly.

Lots of ticks?

Lots of ticks. Last time she ventured out that direction, her dogs came home looking like armadillos. They had to take a Dremel tool to their ears.

Lifer Lewis's Woodpecker
"But it's supposed to be beautiful. I wouldn't mind trying it. We just have to make sure to stay on the trail."

"I'm out," Dave put in. Dave is a Portland native and has never had a tick on him. He's only ever seen one, and that was one he pulled out of me on a camping trip somewhere else. But he has an abiding and well-earned horror of insects. Mosquitoes plan their conventions around him. On a bad day he can fetch up a pint low. It doesn't calm him down to point out that ticks are more in the spider family. He is certain that if he goes into tick territory he will instantly succumb to any of the diseases they carry, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, or The Willies.

Elizabeth and I both grew up on the East Coast. My father used to do a tick check on me after every trip to the woods. It can't be that big a deal to do a tick check on children. If you've ever seen them skinned and laid out you can tell there's not a lot of acreage there, even on the tubby ones, and I was small. We figured we could be careful and check ourselves afterwards.

Because ticks are thoroughly disgusting. They look like a picked scab with hooks for legs, and they will trespass at will on your body, undetected and without permission, their revolting legs moving slowly and deliberately like the chin hairs on a hag that's gumming a baby. They are scouting for soft, damp spots. I have some of those.

Elizabeth had threatened to show up in Hefty bags but she didn't. I tucked light-colored pants into my socks, a t-shirt into my pants, a long-sleeved shirt over all, and slung on my binoculars. I was one Tilley Hat away from full-on birder-nerd fashion.

The hike was beautiful. The weather was grand. The paths were clear. Anytime Elizabeth wanted to examine a flower, she toed the line at the edge of the path and folded over at the waist like a crane. We were careful. And we didn't see a tick. We saw birds and lizards and flowers.

So we pronounced the hike a roaring success, stopped for ice cream, and toodled home. My tucked pants had done the trick, and although we were in open country and never passed under any tree limbs, I scoured my head with my fingernails several times just in case. All clear.

Then I took a shower. Shampooed up. And there, right on top of my head like an oil man scoping out a national park for the best place to drill, was a tick. It had not dug in and was easily, if queasily, introduced to Mr. Toilet. But all night long, nerve clusters in my skin went off randomly, doing tick imitations.

I'm not telling Dave. The Willies are super contagious.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

If It Walks Like A Duck

Young minds and old minds are not alike. Young people think about how to complete the most tasks in the least amount of time, effortlessly sifting through dozens of technological options, and old people think about taking a nap. Old people grew up in an era when a lot of things were out of their control. They might squawk open the door to the Rambler and head off to meet someone, but with no assurance that the car wouldn't strand them in the boonies under a plume of steam. Or they might make it but the person they were meeting doesn't, and they'll have no way of knowing why. Or they might run out of cash and that's that until the bank opens on Monday. This may sound like a worrisome existence, but in reality it was relaxing. A lot of life was just about saying "Oh well" over and over, or "Huh," or "Don't that beat all."

Which is one of the things I was thinking about when our friend Vivi, who moved to Pittsburgh, mentioned she thought platypuses were really cool. "Maybe the Oregon Zoo has a platypus," I ventured, thinking that would be another plus in the column for her moving back to Portland where she belongs. A local platypus is not usually enough to get someone to box up her dishes and go, but added to a lot of other things it could provide that last little nudge.

Now, how to find out if the Oregon Zoo has a platypus?

Young people have lots of ways. They have Devices and they know how to use them. They could shake that very information out of them without even taking them out of their pockets, probably, just by thinking at them in a hard and pinpointy way. In fact Vivi lives with a disembodied spirit named Alexa whom she is regularly hitting up for stuff. All she has to do is call her by name, because otherwise Alexa thinks you might be talking to the toaster. I don't know how any of this works, but I have no doubt that the answer to the question "Does Portland have a platypus" is readily available in the ether.

But we're old. We don't do "readily." We don't even want to. All we need to do to answer this question is ask ourselves a few others: Is it nice out? Do we have time? And are there neat things to look at outside?

(1) Yes; (2) We have time because we are retired, thanks to the American Labor Movement and the underappreciated sacrifices of thousands in the early part of the last century, and no thanks to the Republicans; and (3) Hell yes, there are neat things to look at outside, because every living thing is looking for sex this time of year. Stamens are waving, wings are flapping, slugs are swinging on slime ropes with their penises out. Woo is being pitched. It's all there for the noticing.

So off we went. We left the house at 10:30 a.m. and walked downtown and thence up the hill to Washington Park where we continued through the forest on a trail and ended up, nine miles later, in line at the ticket counter of the Oregon Zoo, where we planned to take a photo of a platypus if they had one. Dave got to the front of the line and poked his head in. "Do you guys have a platypus?" he asked. "No," the ticket lady answered. "Okay then," he said, and we turned around and walked home again, with a stop for a Reuben and a beer and a detour for ice cream at our friend's new ice cream shop.

That is Platypus Availability Determination, done old-school.



And this is the sort of thing you can get for it. Happy spring!




Saturday, May 20, 2017

And We're All Out Of Sequels

I don't write about the President much. They say this whole business is comedy gold, easy to mine, and it's not even necessary to dig deep. I could just pick nuggets up off the surface. But I can't bring myself to do it. It's not funny, in the same way insomnia and depression aren't funny. The conditions themselves strip away the humor.

My habit is to make fun of ridiculous situations and people using hyperbole. I point out absurdities by inventing scenarios and dialogue that are just that much more ridiculous than reality. But I can't make up anything stupider than what has already been said or done. In fact, I have never known anyone stupider than this president a minority of us has installed in office. There may not be a dimmer soul. He's got ten neurons in his whole head and even if he could get them all firing at once, they'd still never run into each other. Did the president just say Mussolini was a stand-up guy and if he'd just gotten together with Harriet Tubman, who people are starting to notice big time, they could have straightened out that Norman Conquest, who was a total disaster by the way? Not yet? Three a.m. is coming right up.

I don't expect any improvement, any learning-on-the-job. We're not going to light up Wrigley Field by opening up the refrigerator door in the locker room. I'll reserve my venom for the majority pirate party that, in near unanimity, has decided that the problem with America is that the billionaires don't have enough money. They're making us bend over to scramble for nickels, and while we fight each other over them they're picking our pockets. They'll sell out their own grandchildren for profits, and yours too, but hey, yours? They're your responsibility. You feel so strongly about their future, you go buy everyone solar panels and bicycles with the money you save on not having health insurance, you whining freeloaders.

Meanwhile here we all are in the back seat, belted in tight, and the wind is whipping in our hair, we're going faster and faster, and suddenly we look up and realize Thelma and Louise are at the wheel. But it's not Thelma and Louise, not really. They're a whole lot smarter. And they know what they're up to. They're even holding out the possibility of a sequel. Whoever has his foot on the gas now doesn't have a clue. When the ground drops away, he's going to repeal Gravity. It'll be easy. Believe him.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

...Or Wherever Your Final Destination May Be Taking You

The downside of traveling, as I see it, is the traveling part, especially if it involves airports. We sampled three different airlines and all of them thanked us for flying with them, as well they might. First up was Frontier Airlines, which was remarkably cheap, unless you want a seat, which is extra. Snacks are extra, and juice is extra, and when you pay for a beer with a credit card, there's a screen in which you are encouraged to tip the flight attendants, who are otherwise complimentary. There's a little coin slot on the arm rest to recline the seat at a dollar an inch for a half hour. Vaseline for your kneecaps is available for purchase, and the safety demo explains which way to swipe your credit card when the oxygen masks come down. For an additional $7.99, they will agree not to hand you the teeny bag of crispy mini wheat pucks. We had a nice flight seated next to a nun in full regalia, who was delighted to discover she'd won a wager with the sisters when she said she'd be able to snag a cup of water for free. Which she did. Could be the crew was just hedging their bets.

Fiji Air was actually our favorite.
Next came Porter Airlines, our favorite, serving a free beer-like product, and depositing us promptly in Billy Bob Airport. This is located on a small island to keep us under surveillance, but someone has dug an escape tunnel, at the end of which you can take an elevator to Toronto. So that's how we encountered Toronto: from underneath, so you could see its underpants. We had been smoothly and expeditiously decanted through customs, preparing us in no way for the return trip.

For that leg, we did arrive 2-1/2 hours early and used every second of it in customs, involving a glacial trudge through a maze with no cheese at the end. The United States doesn't want us back. We keep asking for health care and diplomacy.

Fortunately, this time we were flying United, so the plane was late. It was late, and it was either at gate F66 or F60, depending on whether you believed the departures board or the boarding pass, although nobody at either gate was familiar with our flight. They suggested we check in at Customer Service, which is where you get serviced. Customer Service featured two ticket agents and forty or so customers being processed at the rate of twenty minutes per, so we made friends with our immediate neighbors in line and settled in for the long haul in the hopes one of the ticket agents knew where our plane was. Two hours later we were first in line and discovered we had been rebooked for Portland, arriving at a quarter past never, via Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, on a plane that was in a gate a half mile away and leaving in ten minutes, according to the comedian who updates the departures board. I kicked Dave into high gear and we streaked through the airport down ever-darker hallways knocking down old ladies until we slammed into a dead-end before our gate had shown up. There was a glass door. There was light behind it. I pushed at the door, it resisted, I pushed harder, and the door started shrieking whoop whoop whoop and I spun around and bellowed SHIT! to a polite assemblage of waiting passengers, some of whom might have been Canadian, so I apologize.

"Where's Gate 98?" I asked, in a much reduced voice. The crowd responded kindly. All the gates up to 95 had proceeded in order but the end of the hallway had a little sign--a chalkboard, perhaps--with "96 97 98" scribbled on it. Also, the plane was late. Another hour plodded by, neatly corresponding with the layover time we were supposed to have in D.C., and eventually we boarded the plane, arrived in the nation's capital, picked up our new boarding passes for the following morning, and shuttled off to a Best Western for a nice four hours' sleep five hundred miles farther away from our destination.

Three o'clock came early. Security was a breeze, and we were funneled onto an airplane and bumped along the tarmac in the dark for a bit while the pilot looked for a parking spot. Fifteen minutes later he came on the intercom. Bing. "Folks..." he began.

This is never good.

A butterfly had flapped its wings in the Amazon and grounded air traffic in the Midwest, so the FAA had given them a new flight plan, and it was taking them a while to enter it into the jet's brain, but they'd be on the move shortly.

Bing. Well, folks, the new flight plan added an hour to the flight--neatly corresponding with our layover time in San Francisco--and they didn't  have enough gas, so they were going back to the gate to fuel up.

But folks? The San Francisco flight was miraculously delayed while they retrieved a plastic bag from the engine. We're back! Home! The plane politely stayed in the air until the runway showed up, it's sunny and warm, and we'd stocked the beer fridge before we left. We anticipate Christmas cards from the people in line with us at Customer Service in Toronto. It's a wonderful world.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Friends Tour 2: Toronto

Turns out that even though they talk funny in Pittsburgh, you don't strictly need a passport to travel there. But we were also going to Toronto, which is technically considered a different country, even though it's walking distance. And as a different country, they like to keep track of people like us, who might have recently found ourselves in an amnesty situation. Toronto was phase two of our Friends Tour, in which we examine the surroundings of our friends and try to determine if they're up to snuff.

We were visiting Sara and Kelly, whom we originally met through a reliable internet dating site called Murrmurrs ("World's Finest Commenters"). The air was breezy and cool when we arrived, and a fine mist of health care settled over the city. We immediately felt taken care of, respected, and ready to break a hip with impunity.

Miss Sara loves food. I mean--and I hope I'm not telling tales out of school about the salmon we had Saturday night--sometimes she even rubs it, and God only knows what else she is willing to do with it, but she can do it all day long. She will assemble a committee of tiny crumbled plants and fruit squeezings and speckled powders and whatnot and pack it all onto pork chops like little jackets, so they stay comfortable in the fridge all day. And after all that effort, she'll cook them up and let you eat them. She will.

Basically, I knew I was screwed.

Because I had already spent several days dining out in Pittsburgh, where the cuisine can be considered quite varied as long as that's understood to mean it's all tucked between slices of bread and propped up with a stack of pierogis. And now this. By Day Eight my belly was lying beside me in bed like a new roommate that you basically like, but need to have a little talk with.

Toronto is also a city of discrete neighborhoods of brick houses separated by as many as four inches in places, which makes it seem extra collegial. Many different kinds of people live side by side without the standard rancor we encourage here in the States; everyone has a nice medium-sized fluffy dog and access to a hospital, and that probably has a calming effect.

I was unable to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sara and Kelly were unwilling to make that happen, even though I only wanted a chance to say Hi and shake his. Hand.

But they were willing to do anything else. They both conjured up fine birds seemingly at will, and not just your national geese, neither. Their own small back garden easily out-warblered all of Portland. And then one morning, like it was nothing, they popped us down the road a piece to Niagara Falls, because the Colossus at Rhodes was having its nails done. Niagara Falls! Damn! For a fair piece of money (Canadian, not real) you can purchase the Journey Behind The Falls, in which they stuff you in a garbage sack and send you down a shanghai tunnel, which is exciting.

The next day they promised us a blue whale. I hadn't even realized Niagara Falls was in their back pocket, so I was not about to scoff at a blue whale, even though they're only on a Great Lake. But this one was at the Royal Ontario Museum. Apparently you can't tell the male whales from the females except for the ten-foot penis and 100-pound balls, and this one was rumored to be mounted! Also they had a blue whale heart. That was a little disappointing because I had visualized it LUBB suspended in fluid in its entirety and possibly DUBB wired up, but it turned out to be a plastic model in steak form. The rest of the whale was something else. Even without any clothes on. Plus, there was a vial of whale poop. These people know how to put on an exhibition.

So does Kelly. How often do you get to follow up a nice dinner with a private, live performance of operatic quality from a small soprano in a spangly dress and Birkenstocks, accompanied by her cat Harry in a plaintive alto? I'll tell you. Not often enough. But we did. Get your own friends.

And I would love to share the video with you, but I promised I wouldn't, and I keep my promises mostly except when I don't. Also, I filmed it Portrait instead of Landscape because I keep forgetting you can't do that. But it was really swell. People who love you feed you and sometimes sing to you. Love them back.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Friends Tour 1: Pittsburgh

Well we packed our bags and grabbed our passports and set sail for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh doesn't make everyone's list for destination cities. One imagines it to be filled with smudgy turn-of-the-century steelworkers in helmets and sturdy pants who keep themselves from jumping into the three available rivers by drinking industrial-grade beer. Probably it's the "Pitts" part that colors the picture, but Pittsburgh was not meant as a descriptive name. It was named by a British general named Forbes who was sucking up to a British statesman named Pitt and he got the honors by doing well in the French and Indian War, so you're not going to get an American spin on it. Otherwise it would be Steel And Sandwiches, Pennsylvania.

The point of the trip was to check up on our beloveds and make sure they weren't living in catastrophic conditions. Pittsburgh is one of fifty or sixty cities that is currently being touted as "the next Portland, Oregon," which is a fine thing. Ideally, we would discover that our friends are thriving in an agreeable town, but not one so fine that they don't want to come back to Portland where they belong.

Pittsburgh native
"Friends" is accurate enough, but Dave (Big Dave, to distinguish him from Little Dave, Store Dave, Homeless Dave, Republican Dave, and my own Old Dave) is more like our son. He is the man we greatly flatter ourselves to imagine that we could have turned out all by ourselves, assuming of course that he got only our finest traits and none of our parenting skills, which remain unproven and unlikely. Lucky for him, he was born to and raised by others and delivered to our care only when he was nearly ripe and needed just a few more spins in the polisher. He then doubled down by marrying Vivi, a miracle match he was able to find only after scouring the intertubes all the way to Brazil. Now they are together and demonstrating the meaning of love and marriage to the rest of us. In Pittsburgh.

So, well, shit. Pittsburgh is pretty fine. It has an Aviary and a Conservatory and a huge bunch of forest and eight million bridges and a swell little ballpark temporarily hosting the World Champion Chicago Cubs (I like to say that just to see if I get hit by lightning), and spiffy houses in cozy self-contained neighborhoods, just like Portland, except in brick. Also, there's a Church of Beer.

They tailored the tour to our tastes. And that is how one day we found ourselves in the very room where Hannibal Lector murdered those police officers, on the very day the director of Silence Of The Lambs--Old Dave's favorite movie--died. And that is how on another day we walked through Frick Park where I promptly located two salamanders. This is a pretty good city, I thought unhappily, tucking the amphibians back under their logs. Perhaps it was my troubled look that led two Park Conservancy employees to ask me if I needed help. Do you have any red efts? I asked, naturally, and they weren't sure, but suggested perhaps I could take a look in Salamander Park.

What the sequin-studded chocolate-coated gold-plated pudding-filled Heck did you just say?

Salamander Park. They said Salamander Park. Pittsburgh has a Salamander Park.

I give up. Dave and Vivi are in Pittsburgh. They'll be fine in Pittsburgh. The beer isn't as good, but they don't even drink. They'll be fine.



Saturday, May 6, 2017

It's Not Easy Being Green

"Oh man, come here! You have to see this," Dave says, as he often does, because he's an enthusiastic guy. And I like enthusiasm, but right now he's in the toilet, and I'm wary. In fact, based on the previous forty years' experience, I'm confident I do not need to see this.

We're not shy people.  I guess there are people who never look at their own poop, but we are not those people. It's your own creation! Sometimes it's more Jackson Pollack than Michelangelo but either way it's something to behold. I'm significantly less interested in beholding someone else's opus, even if I like that person very much. I never feel the same fondness for the work. I'm perfectly happy to hear a lengthy description, or even a widthy one, but I don't need to actually lay eyes on it.

"No, really, you have to see this," he said, emerging from the bathroom and gripping my forearm in such a way that I acquiesce immediately, in order to save time. And he was right. I did need to see this.

The water in the toilet bowl was a deep, saturated viridian green, verging on charcoal.  I glanced at him in alarm but he seemed acceptably perky, and not in the last stages of a legacy disease such as Black Death. Holy shit, I thought, although this was more satanic. And to think some people might  have missed it.

"It's the ice cream," he said.

We get our ice cream around the corner. We've seen licorice ice cream that was a creamy white, so we know it's possible. But this stuff is inky. I'd already stained the kitchen sink when I rinsed the bowl. Obviously Dave was deep viridian green all the way through. If he were to have emergency surgery today, they'd slice him open and run away screaming. Dr. House would still be leaning over him with a curious look but the rest of the staff would be halfway across the parking lot.

There might be more food coloring than cream in this ice cream. Why in the world was it necessary to put so much food coloring in the ice cream? There's no need for black ice cream. We have a fancy ice cream shop down the way that specializes in odd flavors. And sometimes you can taste their ice cream and legitimately wonder which is the lemon verbena + hair conditioner, or the watermelon pickle + mushroom. But licorice isn't like that. One taste of licorice and you know what you've got. If you mistake licorice, you don't know Barney the Purple Dinosaur from Godzilla.

Well, there's talk the ancient Egyptians were coloring sweets ages ago, but food coloring didn't hit its stride  until the 1800s, when people were routinely poisoned by the additions of heavy metals such as lead and copper and arsenic, not to mention bituminous coal. In Germany there were some regulations put in place by 1882 when important people were found to be affected in the form of dropping dead, and in America, the Pure Food And Drug Act of 1906 reduced the number of acceptable food colorings from 700 to 7. Goodbye, Powdered Baboon Butt! So long, Pus Pocket Yellow! Hit the road, Hemlock #5!

Licorice ice cream is colored black in order to meet our expectations for it, just as oleomargarine is dyed yellow to meet consumers' expectations for proper butter hue, since there's no improving the flavor.  Now our food additives are strictly regulated for consumer safety, except for Orange B, which has been designated for use only in hot dog casings, where it's not the coloring that's going to get you. The remaining acceptable colorings produce only fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, empathy deficiency, and other ailments that the health establishment has determined are imaginary.

Dave's alarming output continued apace for four days before the toilet bowl contents subsided into a pleasant aqua, but I'm going to report the ice cream company to the FDA. I think they brought back bituminous coal.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Commons

Our alley
Our neighborhood has alleys. They're cool. In some areas they're paved, but most of them are not.  When we moved in forty years ago, the garbage trucks used to come down the alleys. Before that, antique people used them to deliver milk too. It was handy and orderly, a bit of The Commons. There wasn't a lot of room for error with those garbage trucks. Almost everyone had a crappy garage on the alley with nothing holding it up but force of habit, and they'd sag into the right-of-way in a stiff breeze. The neighbor kid burned ours down long ago, but the few still remaining have been claimed by moss and mold and an army of microorganisms and are trying to be one with the earth again. But the garbage man always made it through.

Somehow something happened on a city level in the way of improvement and the garbage route territories got parceled out and everyone got city recycling bins and yard-debris bins and the trucks got so large and fancy, to handle all the new stuff, they quit using the alleys and started coming down the streets.

The alleys started to change. It seemed to happen organically, but that's not really true. Individual homeowners made decisions, big and small, that changed the alleys, and they began to meander, like streams pushing into soft silt. Or like a toddler with no supervision. Or a drunk. Ours, for instance, is no longer straight. Some of the neighbors sensed an opportunity to enlarge their yards. Some didn't care. And alleys have feelings too: they shrink away from aggression and lean toward courtesy. Our alley sidles toward our yard, where Dave put up his masonry wall well within the property line just to be polite. But if you want to grab a few inches of the alley for yourself, you can just go ahead and do it. It's supposed to be a public right-of-way but nobody's really in charge.

Others are impassable altogether. One was altered at the end to accommodate an RV and people to the south can't get through. Some people decided to grow vegetables in the alley and other people decided it was a great place to stack up all their garbage. Sometimes neighbors consult each other, and sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they just do whatever they want. Some of the alleys have been taken over by roving gangs of blackberries.

This is what freedom looks like, people. Some folks get tomatoes, some folks get extra parking, and some folks just get screwed. But nobody's getting milk anymore. God bless America.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

We'll Always Have Lake Lucerne

The server came by again not long after setting down our plates. All chirpy.

"How's everything tasting for you tonight?"

I grinned just enough to send her away but not let any polenta leak out, while a small shudder of revulsion danced down my neck. But the moment passed, and I went back to my dinner conversation.

"That was an odd thing to say," I said. Dave nodded. Turns out it wasn't odd at all. It's the new script. It's a Thing. No matter where we go, the server is going to come by all chirpy and ask us how everything is tasting for us tonight. I do not like this.

Put a complaint like this on Facebook, though, and nobody will tell you to lighten up, get a grip, move on, mention First World Problems, take the stick out of your shorts, or suggest there are more important things to worry about, even though someone probably should. No. You will instead generate a thread of similar complaints. Everyone's bothered by something. Women don't like being called "Miss." Or "Ma'am," if the server is younger. Or older. Lots of people would prefer not to be called "Hon," unless it's coming from a verifiable Southern woman bearing pie. Many people object to being told something is "no problem." If I thought getting a little more water would be a problem, they huff, I wouldn't have asked.

Well, personally, if I need more water and the server says "No problem," I'm fine with that. I don't deconstruct it: it's an idiom. It's been eased out by "No worries," and something else will come down the idiomatic pike soon enough. I love "Hon." I guess I'm not as prickly as I could be. So what is my problem with "How's everything tasting for you tonight?" Why does that make me want to stab someone with my fork?

It's not because it's weird. It goes much deeper than that. I'm sensitive to words. And those words, in that order, make me squirmy. Squished-worm squirmy. Lanced-boil squirmy. I feel the same way about the words "soiled panties," and it's the words, not the items: "Dirty underpants" doesn't ripple my nape at all.

So how is a modern server supposed to navigate all our crotchets? Maybe it's up to us to file down our rough edges. Get a proper perspective. Fortunately for me, I have all sorts of perspective. I've got Lake Lucerne. As Dave says, "We'll always have Lake Lucerne."

Lake Lucerne was a dot on the map in northern California, and Dave noticed it when we were driving down to the wine country for our honeymoon. It was getting late. "That sounds pretty, and it's only twenty miles this direction," he said.

We found a motel room. They were still working on it. The bathroom was down to the bare studs in places, there wasn't a shower curtain, and wires protruded from the walls. It was too dark to see the Lake, if there was one, but there was a restaurant, and the lights were still on. "Are you open?" we called out to the waitress, a capable-looking older woman, who had already begun putting chairs up on the tables.

"Sure, hon, come on in! I'll be right with you." Well, that was a bit of luck. We examined the menu and in due time our waitress came back with plates of something like Chicken-Fried Steak stacked on her arm. "Where y'all from?" she wanted to know, swinging everything down in a jiffy. We were in good hands. We smiled. We felt grateful and chatty.

"Oof!" she said, stretching her back. "Hope y'all don't mind. My dogs is killin' me!" And she pulled up a chair and took off her shoes and peeled off her socks and put her feet right the hell up on the table next to the bun-basket and wiggled her toes. Yes, she did.

I'm not sure how everything was tasting for us that night, but there's no real way to ruin a marshmallow salad.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Eyeballs

I accepted a lot of things about old people when I was a kid. Old people like Mrs. Peacock, my piano teacher. I accepted that she couldn't get up from the piano bench without plooping out a soft, percussive fart. Everything was sort of loose on her, and that was just one more example. I accepted that neither of us was going to mention it. I did not get, however, why she always wore glasses but never looked through them. She looked over them, or under them.

I did understand nearsightedness because I had a hot case of it myself. Nearsightedness and farsightedness are caused by the eyeball getting squished out of shape. Most people aren't 20/20. Myopic people have long eyes--mine is shaped like a pickle now--and farsighted people have short tall eyes. You get long eyes when you have a very vivid imagination, because all your ideas get crammed in the front of your brain, where the weight of them presses down on the eyeballs. And your imagination gets ever more vivid because you can't see anything and you turn inward. That's why your vision gets worse over time. It's a feedback loop.

Lots of critters don't have round eyes at all. Owls, for instance. They look nice and round from the front end, but they're really shaped like buttons. Owls are tremendously farsighted and when things get too close they have to see them with their fuzzy feet, because they don't have reading glasses, despite those pictures you might have seen that suggest otherwise.

The entire eyeball phenomenon strikes a lot of people as having been too complicated to have merely evolved. They prefer to think eyeballs are proof that God whipped them out just as is, because they like to give God credit for almost everything except having an imagination. In fact, complex eyes have evolved a hundred times a hundred different ways, and pretty dang early on in the history of life, too.

Anyway, people can develop near- or farsightedness in childhood, but the reading-glasses thing hits everyone sooner or later. Or, specifically, around age forty. This is when people are introduced to the notion of being old when various parts of them get stiff, or fail to get stiff, and the lens of the eyeball is one of the things that stiffens up. All of a sudden you have to hold your book further and further away from yourself to get it to come into focus, and by that time, assuming you haven't run out of arm, it's too small to read. Then those of us with glasses have to have our glasses ground two or three different ways. You might have book-reading focus on the bottom, computer-reading in the middle, and distance in the top. Works great for a while, and then you discover the book-reading lens isn't really cutting it, and you start to look over your glasses and put your reading material right next to your nose.

Sometimes I have to look at something above me through the bottom portion of my glasses, which means I have to crunkle up my neck like an archaeopteryx. Poor old bird. That's what did it in. Had to pretzel its neck just to navigate properly, and it lost all its aerodynamics.

Nothing in my glasses is exactly right for reading sheet music at the piano, so I have another pair of glasses just for that. And I need another pair for turning pages for someone else. Binoculars for distance. None at all for hand-sewing. I'm going to string them all on little jeweled chains and hang them from my neck and keep a lorgnette in my pocket so I can see which one I need next. That dangling collection of specs--that's what's really going to mark me as an old lady.

Unless I'm getting up from the piano bench at the time.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

So Much For The Blessed Meek

It's recently come to my attention that God gave Man dominion over the earth, which explains everything. The news came in the context of a typical political Facebook thread and was stated flatly and irrefutably. Which is not to say I couldn't refute it--just that my arguments would be as seed cast upon stony ground.

Four-plus billion years on this marble and everything was coming along so nicely! Little sparks of ingenuity happened all over, and sure, there are always winners and losers, but anyone with a little resiliency did pretty well, overall. And then we came along and began to chisel out our own little niche, as one does. We couldn't fly, and we weren't fast, and we weren't strong, and we couldn't see or hear particularly well, but we were clever. So we got even cleverer. In fact, at this point your average human ape is smarter than your average other ape. That's a fact. That doesn't mean that there aren't some exceptional apes that are cleverer than a whole shitload of humans, and don't make me name names. So this is just a broad generalization.

Still, as interesting as the big clever brain turned out to be, there were some early signs of trouble. Every single place we went, the large animals went extinct. One after the other. You can actually map the migrations of humans by the extinction dates of the big critters. Africa has the lion's share, as it were, of those still remaining. It is thought that since we evolved in Africa alongside the big animals, they had a chance to learn how to avoid us. But when we cast out for the hinterlands, the resident megafauna had an unfortunate tendency to walk right up to our big clubs and spears. The thousand-pound thunder ducks were doomed. The giant sloths. Mammoths. Wooly rhinoceroses. Saber-toothed cats. Giant beavers and short-faced bears. But we were just getting started.

Not saying it's necessarily causal, but everything really went to hell when we began to write. It wasn't the overuse of adverbs or the lack of an arc, either.

First it was just bookkeeping and accounting, like tallies of sheep and grain stores and such, and writing puttered along for a few thousand years, but then, boom! Bible time. The Bible itself dates back to either 400 BC or the Beginning Of Time, depending on who you ask. Claims to authorship are similarly all over the map. In any case, the important thing to note is that on the first day, man created God.

I don't mean to get anyone in an uproar over God in any of his or her specifics.  You can believe anything you want, and fight about it with whomever you want, and I'm staying out of it. But this particular Bible-God was definitely created by man. How can we tell? First thing, he was created in our own image. What are the odds? What is the chance the Creator of the Universe looks like, say, Donald Trump? I'll tell you. Zip. But here we have a God who looks exactly like us, only souped-up. Right there, the fix is in. Right away, we've given ourselves a supernatural legitimacy that we totally did not earn.

Then we started writing the dialogue. And that's where that self-dealing really comes to the fore: we're the only critters with a soul, because God blew it into us while we were still dusty. Which means we have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth. It's all ours, baby. You couldn't get a better deal if you put all your cronies in power and had them write the legislation. And now we can take everything including ourselves right up to the brink of extinction and beyond, and it's all okay because God put us in charge, right there in Chapter One, when we made him.

What a hell of a waste of a fabulous brain to take it just to the point in evolution where it can admire itself. Because then that's all it does.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Blessings On The Roof

It flat poured all night long, and into the morning. We have a metal roof here at the cabin and it sounded like the saints were throwing a party while God was out of town. Dave agreed to spend the day having me read my novel to him. Six hours in, I was getting hoarse, but carried on, emboldened by the fact he was still conscious. It rained on. We had beers.

But it was getting stuffy in the cabin, and we weren't either of us designed to sit for hours. We went for a walk. Put our rain gear on, of course, but the drips by this time were all coming from the bodacious canopy of drenched fir trees. It got dark. We came back. Rustled up some beer and artichoke dip and found crackers in the cupboard ("Best By 2012"). Mountain food!

And no sooner had we sat down than someone sliced up a fat wedge of weather and slapped us upside the windows with it. 100-foot-tall trees squinted down at us and lined us up in their sights. Things was flying. Miss Gulch and her bicycle, diced to pieces, sailed past in a rapidly disintegrating swarm. Our eyebrows shot up to our hairlines and stayed there. And we both felt it at the same time: the irresistible urge to check the weather app. What was going to happen? Was it going to rain forever? Was there going to be a break? These were all knowable items.

In that somebody, somewhere knew them.

Well, it felt irresistible, but it wasn't. Because there was no weather app. Our phones lay inert on the counter, plugged in to maintain power, because they lose power so fast here: straining and searching for the mothership, a biddable satellite, their little tentacles dangling for a connection. There isn't one. Rain pounded the place, and we had to just let it, and assume it knew what it was doing. We couldn't do a thing about it.

On an ordinary day, when we could get a weather app and see what's coming, we kind of thought we could do something; we could avoid ambush; we could strategize. Aha, we would think. You thought we'd be surprised by this shower coming in nineteen minutes, but we aren't. We saw you coming. You think you're so smart, Weather. Our trouser pockets have radar right in them.

Tell you what else we don't know, here. We don't know if anyone commented on my blog. We don't know if someone's trying to get hold of us. We're not entirely sure what day of the week it is. We've got a social obligation tomorrow, unless it's the day after, or unless we already missed it. Somebody with more power than he earned probably did something massively stupid today, again, and we don't know what it was. We don't know the name of the filmmaker guy who's married to Frances McDormand. We do know we love Frances McDormand. We do know how many beers we have left in the fridge. We do know to wear rain gear when we go out.

It takes a few days to get over not knowing. It takes just that long to go back in time, say, twenty-five years, when we made idle talk and rummaged in our own brains for bits of missing trivia, instead of tipping it out of our phones, where our species' collective memory is now stored. It wouldn't take more than a good gust of unpredicted wind on a loose-footed Douglas fir tree to send us back to the nineteenth century, when, inexplicably, people seemed to navigate life just fine.

Here's what I know. I know that the water here is sweet, and that I can walk a long, long way. I know my baby loves me. I know that if I trip and fall on a long, long walk, someone will probably help me out. I know that if there's no one to help me out and I die in the woods, it's all the same to the woods. And if it's all the same to the woods, it's okay by me.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

How To Tell When You Need Brain Surgery

My friend Linda popped by the other day and we sat on the front porch in the sun and chitty-chatted. What was I up to?  Well, I was just trying to make a lasagna with skinny little slices of zucchini in place of the pasta. Oh? Did I use a mandoline? I didn't. I used a grater. And then you salted and sweated the zucchini? Why no I did not. I don't like to sweat anything. Ha ha! Well Linda's a great cook and we batted around a few more ideas about dinner and talked about the weather, which had just turned nice. I'm surprised you're not out in your garden on a day like this, I said to Linda.

Oh, she said. I'm not supposed to bend over at all because I just had brain surgery.

Let me just say right now that if you just had brain surgery and you do not lead with the information that you just had brain surgery, and instead you toss out that little tidbit twenty minutes in, it's definitely a sign you needed brain surgery.  If I were facing brain surgery, everyone on my Facebook page would know about it well in advance. I would collect hopes and prayers and secretly hold out for offers of baked goods. I would start out with a wry statement, preferably including a pun of some sort, designed to make me look upbeat and resigned in the face of fate. More posts would follow in the ensuing weeks, any of which would serve in the capacity of last words, in order to keep my impending brain surgery in the minds of all. The closer I got to my brain surgery, the more philosophical my posts would become, with an undercurrent of desperation detectable only by my closest friends. The second to last post would just be oh mommy oh mommy oh mommy followed by a brave and somewhat flippant statement demonstrating my cheerful non-belief in an afterlife and including, preferably, another pun, just in case I wouldn't be capable of coming up with one afterwards, and then as soon as it was over I'd be all over the internet whooping and hollering again. People on the other side of the planet would know I had brain surgery. Small woodland creatures would gossip about me amongst themselves.

Photos by Tom Fritz
Linda got brain surgery by dumb luck. She had the dumb luck of mixing up her prescription meds and took a mess of Conflagra when she thought she was hoovering Lixavixen, and she went all loopy. Her husband Pete was worried and hauled her into the ER and by the time they'd finished looking for the nonexistent stroke, they'd unearthed a brain aneurysm and a companion carotid embolism all plump and ready to pop. Well, there are all kinds of things that people say are not brain surgery, but brain surgery is not one of them. They kept her for days and did some head-drilling and some flipping-back of skull bits, but the actual brain surgery was conducted from an entry point in the crotch, even though she's not a Republican. They used wires and cameras and intuition and, in this case, Obamacare.

I've heard of this kind of thing before. Gal goes into the doctor complaining about tipping over too much and they go to town on her, looking for some neurological nightmare, and accidentally stumble over an arsenic-laced land mine of a tumor in her left butt cheek, and excavate it, and she comes out good as new and with a slimmer line.

So that's my advice. Fake a stroke and add in some symptoms that make no sense and go to the ER and let them have at you. They'll be entertained, you'll be thoroughly checked out, and it might not even cost much. Although I'd hurry.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

This Is Not Just Right

Everyone remembers Goldilocks. Everyone's familiar with the story of the little girl who wants things just right. Not too hot, not too cold. But if you ask the next ten people how that story ends--and I did--they'll look all squinty and perplexed. I didn't remember how it ends either.

That's because it just sort of peters out.

Which is fine and dandy for a modern story. Modern stories are always building toward some kind of climax and then someone finally dies in a manner described as "slipping away" and then the next day someone else has breakfast and hitches up his pants and says "Mornin'" to the lady down the way and the sun climbs in the sky and there's a little dust cloud in the distance. Every time I finish a modern story I keep turning pages after it's all over, looking for that gratifying last line. Instead it dwindles straight into the acknowledgments. I rarely feel as though everything has been tidied up. I guess it's supposed to be like life.

But Goldilocks is not a modern story. Goldilocks is a fairy tale and things should happen.

So what actually happens is the bears come home and they're all upset and baby bear discovers the little girl in his bed and she climbs out the window and runs away and that's that. This is a stupid ending.

Where did this story go wrong? Anyone can learn how to write a story on the internet. You have to have a story arc for a proper story, with moments of growing tension, particularly arising from the conflict between the protagonist's deepest desires and something that stands in her way. The development should build toward a satisfying climax, after which there can be a "denouement," which is a sweet little literary curly-tail at the butt end of the massive sow that is the main story.

It starts out fine. There's all kinds of tension built in. The cabin is unoccupied. Where are the bears? Could they be coming back any moment? Are they likely to find Goldilocks to be promising soup material? They're in the woods, yes they could, and yes they might! But she stays. She lingers. There is a rhythm to her discoveries: three chances each at three items. The reader can supply the trajectory. She never finds the perfect bowl of porridge first, or the perfect chair. She is dawdling, and time is not on her side. The reader can sense trouble ahead, especially because Goldilocks apparently can't. And how can she get in even more trouble? Why, she can get sleepy. She can be even more vulnerable, sound asleep in someone else's bed. Something perfectly awful is going to happen.

You know--or not.

This doesn't even make it as a morality tale. The Goldilocks character is well developed, all right. She wants what she wants when she wants it, and she doesn't care who she has to step on to get it. It's all rightfully hers. She doesn't even consider that she is trespassing, or stealing; she assumes things should go her way; she's so comfortable in her skin that she falls sound asleep in someone else's bed in someone else's house, like she's Charlie Sheen or somebody. She is the embodiment of white privilege, and in a truly satisfying climax, she would be diced up and dropped in the porridge. But no. Nobody learns anything. She scampers away unscathed. Just like real life.

In the original story, the three bears were all males. The intruder was a hideous gray-haired old woman who was cast out by her own family. They found her disgusting, as well they ought, because she was neither young nor attractive. Clearly there was no justification for her existence, and she needed to be punished. So she was. She was discovered by the bears and condemned to sit on a church steeple until impaled. Now there's your climax. Whether it's satisfying or not probably depends on the individual reader and his relationship with his mother, his church, and his dark side. But at least you know when it's over.