Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spare The Hotrod And Spoil The Child

If you're raising kids these days, you'd best toe the line. We know a lot more about parenting than we used to and we're all willing to jump in--as a village, you might say--and cluck at you if you're doing it wrong. Don't think we won't. We will raise eyebrows and widen our eyes in your direction. Or, you know, call the cops and have your kids taken away, depending. If you spank your child, say. Or vaccinate it, or refuse to vaccinate it. Or even for such a mild transgression as Springfield native Alana Nicole Donahue recently committed.

She got in trouble for towing three children in a plastic wagon with a short rope attached to the bumper of her car. Reportedly she was doing 5mph in a roundabout, and just continued to go around and around, but that's only sensible when you consider that the wagon had no brake, for Pete's sake. It's not like you can just stop, so you pretty much have to commit. Which she probably was smart enough to recognize after she began by towing the kids through the neighborhood at 30mph. The two-year-old got all upset when the wagon briefly went up on two wheels but toddlers are notorious sissies, as everyone knows. Anyway apparently a number of citizens who hate freedom and have the nanny state right in their contacts list got Ms. Donahue in trouble.

The two youngest were her own children and the eight-year-old was a nephew. All in the family, and no harm done. It's all a big to-do over nothing much; what else are you supposed to do when you're just trying to watch Family Feud in peace and the kids are all whining that they're bored and you don't even like your sister's kid and you're two and four years too late for an abortion?

Maybe the case can be made that this particular genetic patch could use some weeding. But the fact is we're raising a bunch of pantywaists. Gone are the old days when the neighbor lady would send us to the corner store for a pack of ciggies. "Run," she'd say, "and take the scissors with you. They need to get some air too." Nothing was all that sharp in that house, not even the knife that was set aside for digging the toast out of the toaster. We learned what was dangerous by experience, which is by far the best method, for the survivors.

Raising Little Dave.
But we were very safety-conscious. On snow days we'd always test the sledding velocity on Suicide Hill by sending the skinny kid with the flippers for arms first, because he was the most likely to be able to slide under a car unscathed and he was always cheerful no matter what. We were rinsed off only once a week, on Saturday night, but we were regularly exfoliated, old-school, using asphalt. We got sent out to play kickball in the street and also World War Three, which involved throwing rocks, after being duly warned not to do anything that would put an eye out. As far as I know no one did put an eye out, or take candy from strangers, and if there was a little culling of the population here and there it didn't upset anybody for very long. Stuff happens. That's one of the lessons.

But you start siccing the po-po on some poor woman just trying to show the kids a good time, who may not have the money to buy them each a personal digital device to stare at, and you'll end up with adults that don't know a damn thing about centrifugal or maternal force. And they'll never be able to handle Boston traffic. Sissies.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Noberry Home

It was early September, time for Mary Ann and me to go on our annual huckleberry hunt. This year I hadn't had a chance to check out the crop in advance, so we didn't know what to expect. The last two years, boy howdy, the bushes were nuts. Huckleberries pushed at the margins of the forest like they were behind the velvet rope at the nightclub, saying Pick me! Pick me! And, like roadies with all the power, we were able to select just the prettiest ones most likely to put out.

"But you never know," we said this time, perfunctorily modest. The fates frown on audacity.

You never do know. Still, we approached our berry grounds with all the anticipatory glee of a postal worker taking his paycheck to Reno. And we pulled up to our accustomed turnout and charged into the woods with empty buckets and full hearts.

A half hour later, the hearts were running a pint low but nothing else had changed.

"Huh," we articulated.

"Do you suppose it's been picked over?" Mary Ann wanted to know.

With a Huckleberry Hound.
No, I didn't. They don't all ripen at once, and ordinarily you can see little berries all green with ambition right next to their voluptuous sisters. What we had here was that rare non-existent variety. We'd brought along our friend Margaret and a huckleberry hound for good luck, without vetting either one properly for auspiciousness. But berrying is a bright and hopeful pursuit and we gave it all we had. An hour in, I had thirteen berries to my credit. They huddled along the bottom of my bucket like the skinny, morose kids about to be picked last for dodgeball. There were few enough that I got to know them by name, and have favorites.

Two hours in, I had begun to scan the smaller alders in case our berries had switched teams since last season. Whereas the alders failed to turn up any huckleberries, it must be noted that they didn't produce much fewer than the huckleberry bushes did.

Well, you can keep this sort of thing up for hours at a time, especially if you are content to sift quietly through the dappled light of a fir forest to no particular end. There is a restorative quality to the early-autumn slant of sun in the woods, and although this year it has a pinkish cast from not-so-distant fires, it still feels like a benediction. And one of the beauties of our local berries is that you don't have to bend over for them. In fact, I'd say just about all the berries that weren't there this year were at waist-height, probably.

After 7.5 berrypickerhours and a consolidation, we had finally covered the bottom of one bucket, assuming it was kept level. We could achieve two pies if we used jar lids for tins. And added apples.

But that's two more huckleberry pucks than we've made all year. We're chalking it up as a win.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On Sucking

The cloud's silver lining is more of an ash gray at this point, but here it is: the predicted highs of 100 in Portland in Jesus Johnson September did not arrive because wildfire smoke obscured the sun. This is what counts for good news in Climate-Change-Denial Land.

At sundown, it was 87 degrees and snowing. Snowing something. Because my idea of quarantining young men between the ages of 12 and 28 has never gained traction, we now have 33,000 acres of pristine forest on fire, and counting. The Columbia River Gorge, strenuously green and laced with waterfalls, is systematically being incinerated and its ash redistributed over the Portland area. This follows a particularly hot and dry summer season which we have been advised will be our new normal. Anywhere you live, actually, you may now expect a new normal, but--our short attention spans aside--novelty is not in itself a worthy goal. The wildfire currently consuming the Gorge is a direct consequence of humanity's systematic extraction and burning of otherwise dormant carbon stores over the last couple hundred years. With punctuation provided by one or two young assholes with firecrackers.

We first heard the news while eating lunch in a diner on Mt. Hood. The waitress brought over a glass of water with a plastic straw in it. "Hold the straw," I forgot to say. Seems like straws come automatic these days, and it always surprises me. I can't think of anything I drink that needs a straw, let alone everything I drink. There's a campaign on now to get people to say "no" to straws. It probably started with the heartbreaking video of a rescue worker pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle's nostril. Straws, and all other plastic garbage, have a way of making it to the ocean.

Things are going to have to change around here, and straws seem like easy enough targets to start with. Because when do we ever need a straw? If we're not prone in a hospital bed with only a bendy straw between us and nutrition, when do we need one? Must we suck? So. At the very least let us campaign against straws.

I tried, when I got a glass of water at a local brewpub that prides itself on being environmentally friendly. They answered my letter promptly:

While the concern for sea life is pressing, most of Portland's garbage goes to the Columbia Ridge Landfill, which is located east of The Dalles and away from the Columbia. There would have to be some extenuating circumstances for our plastic trash to make its way into the ocean.

Extenuating circumstances! Yes. And yet those are what somehow manage to send 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic to our oceans. Sad, as they say, but that's circumstance for you.

We used to use biodegradable plastics for straws and to-go wares. Unfortunately, Portland stopped accepting these items in their composting program, and we had to take a hard look at our disposables. We ended up making the decision to stock a high post-consumer recycled content straw, because if it's all headed to the landfill we want to make sure that we're using a plastic that has lived through more than one cycle and been utilized to its full potential.

Okay. However, there is such a thing as a paper straw. And, there is such a thing as not needing a straw in the first place. I grew up without plastic straws and air conditioning and a lot of other things that we now apparently need. So did the rest of the humans that existed before about 1970, which is quite a good portion of them, all told.

A friend offered an explanation for the sudden proliferation of straws. "I think it started with lipstick," she said. "Lipstick is too hard to wash off glasses, and requires human scrubbing, which is not cost-efficient. Thus, straws are provided with each glass in case the human plans to put lipstick on it." All righty then, that makes sense. Lipstick: another plastic tube containing significant amounts of palm oil retrieved for profit from monoculture plantations for which gigantic swaths of primary forest have been razed, resulting in 80-100% loss of native species, and also containing compounds that kill fish and plankton and cause mutations in amphibians, packaged together in order that we might provocatively accentuate our pieholes, and necessitate the use of plastic straws to trim labor costs.

Dear lord, dear large theoretical sky person who cares about us and watches over the sparrow that falls, by all that is holy--and I would include here the moss and ferns and pikas and salamanders of the Columbia River Gorge--may we humans begin to define "what we need" as what we...actually...need? And, failing that, dear lord, might you allow us to suck less?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Moses Supposes Erroneously

I don't like to admit it, but there are times when--can I be honest?--I walk into a business establishment and I would really prefer that the employees were the same race as me. I'd just feel more comfortable, all right?

Well, okay, that has happened only one time, but it was last week. Fact is, I was already well along the road to getting through my whole life without having had a pedicure. I'd never felt any need for a pedicure. Or a manicure. Memory being what it is, I am not absolutely certain I even used a razor on myself on my wedding day. I did take a shower. I am, depending on how you look at it, a low-maintenance woman, or a woman of deplorable hygiene.

Cosmetically impaired, anyway. I keep clean. I didn't always. When I was in college, I showered every day, but the washing machines cost 25 cents, and that put a hole in my pizza budget. I'd come home for the summer and both my mother and my trustworthy sister gently suggested I could use some deodorant, but I couldn't smell myself, and I thought they were nuts, and besides it sounded like an Establishment position. Now I am in a city full of fine young people whose hoodies have never made it through the rinse cycle, and I'd like to say right now, Mommy? I'm sorry.

Point is, I hadn't had a pedicure, and I figured I never would, but then a couple weeks ago Dave came home with an unreadable smile on his face, and our friend Vivi at his side. Vivi had talked Dave into having a pedicure with her. Vivi is a Brazilian/Swedish bombshell with a big heart and a big brain and big pretty much everything, and if Vivi had told Dave to walk off a cliff, we'd be scooping him up with a spatula right now. So Dave took his fifteen-mile-a-day feet and had them carved into near-original condition, and he was looking pretty pleased about it, too.

It all led to my friend Linda suggesting we could just go ahead and have a pedicure our own selves, to celebrate our successful eclipse-viewing. So we did.

There I was in a massage chair that had knead-knock-and-flap setting and rolling flesh-mashers and a particular rotating knob in the seat area that I was pretty sure I'd have to pay extra for, with my feet in a warm bath and a tiny woman on a stool below me, and I know it's wrong to generalize, and it's wrong to make assumptions, but I couldn't help but think this woman--let's call her Kim--had gone from being a cardiovascular surgeon in her native land to a leaky boat to this gray paradise, just to hunch over and scrape away at my 63 years of unmolested toe jam, and who would willingly do that? Besides Jesus, I mean.

Two young women sauntered in and sat nearby like they did this every week, and so did two older women, and all of them appeared to regard this state of affairs as routine maintenance without which they would not care to be seen in public. For the times they might want to be seen in private, a portion of the spa in the back was dedicated to even more personal services.

We'd been told to pick out a nail polish color, and I hovered over the sensible corals for a while, and then was drawn to something completely different, something that really stood out, on account of it being the only green in a sea of red and pink, and instead of thinking that this might be an unpopular color for a reason, I grabbed it. "Kim" did not react, but conversed with her colleague in her native cardiovascular-surgeon language, quiet as moth wings, and whatever she was saying, I was pretty sure I had it coming.

So here are my feet, all smooth and ridiculous.  I can see now that this is not a good color for toes. Not at all. In fact, the only reason anyone would have this color painted on her toenails is if it matched her bridesmaid dress. And she couldn't see it past the puffy sleeves. I hope Kim got a big kick out of it. I owe her that.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Smoke On The Water, Fire In The Sky

Overlooking Crater Lake and Wizard Island
A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part Four

We had arrived in Trail, Oregon, a remote dot on the Rogue River. At eleven o'clock at night, after 12-1/2 hours on the road, we had not noticed any stars, but the trees were towering over us in a gang and my eyeballs were not really tracking much anyway; surely we city folks would be treated to a skyful of stars the next night. Meanwhile, we had the clear blue depths of Crater Lake in Oregon's only national park to look forward to. Sure, it's depicted on the quarter, but we heard it's even better in person.

The next morning we woke to an inflamed sun smoldering in a butterscotch sky. The same webcams that had boasted a blue lake yesterday were apparently on the blink: flat gray. But we had an hour to travel and anything could happen.

It smelled funny out.

We figured we'd start out at the lodge, where we could learn all sorts of interesting geological and botanical things, but the parking lots were full, and so we slid back down to the Rim Drive, and we pulled over there to have a look at just the right spot, right smack in front of Wizard Island, and we got out, and we stood on the rim, and Yes! There it was--see? That sort of darker gray shape against the lighter gray expanse of probably-water? No, left of where you're looking. There you go!

Well, the Blanket Fire was only about a quarter-mile to the west, on the slopes of the old volcano, and the wind had shifted since yesterday. It could shift again, though. Right? Sure it could.

High above us, a pig flapped by on strong pink wings.

Meanwhile, we knew we were standing at the exact perfect spot on the rim of the caldera, because with our backs to the lake, and the sun on low power, and our arms in the air, we could get three bars, and stare at our tiny screens, and thereby learn that Crater Lake was formed after a massive volcanic eruption that lopped a mile off of Mount Mazama and redistributed it as far as Saskatchewan, all of which we knew already. Also, that it is the deepest lake in North America and the ninth deepest in the world, which we also knew.  Also, the name of that actor lady who was married to the guy who directed the movie with the fellow with the screwy teeth. Were those his real teeth? Damn. Down to one bar.

Well. We were still friends, and we were still ambulatory, and we found us some waterfalls, and some flowers, and some butterflies, and a decent place for pie on the way back to the cabin, and an astonishing stone canyon barely containing the mighty and muscular Rogue, and a handsome troop of Zuni hot shots taking a break from firefighting, and a beer and a bowlful back home, as the bountiful river slid away to the sea. There were no stars. There was a tree full of oriole nests hanging over the river. One of them was built to last: half of it was made out of fishing line.

That's what you do. You take what you find and you make the best of it. We're short on blue lakes and the Milky Way, but we've got friendship with over forty years of weight on it, and it's pressed into crystal by now. We can throw a lot of light.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Down To Zero

A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part Three

So let's review. Oregon is largely on fire. There are four of us in the car. All vital personal equipment including bladders are all well over 60 years old. We're out of sandwiches; we are three baggies of provisions to the good (pistachios, M&Ms, cherries); and we are currently parked on a four-lane highway in dimming light. The little shithead that lives in Linda's phone now suggests we are going to arrive at our destination at 7:30pm, but has developed a smirking tone when she is permitted to speak. We have traveled almost ninety miles in six and a half hours and zero miles in the last thirty minutes. Dinner options, according to Yelp, include an establishment renowned for its chicken-fried steak that is either two miles or three hours away, depending. The pistachios look good.

I was still puzzled by this exodus to the south, until the brake lights illuminated a sea of California plates. In a flat tone, Linda updated our ETA to 9:24. Ignitions turned off. Ahead and behind, men extracted themselves from their cars and walked to either side of the road, where they turned their backs to traffic and stood quietly with head bowed and hands folded in front of themselves, probably praying. A half hour later women went to pray a little deeper into the woods. I remained in the driver's seat, alert to any opportunity to half-inch ahead, and monitored the condition of the sciatic nerve in my right buttock. It was not ideal. Perhaps, I thought hopefully, a medic could do a root canal on it and pack it with ground glass for a little relief.

All around us, people meandered around and between cars, exchanging pleasantries. Two sylph-like sisters strolled the shoulder singing an angelic duet. The car in front of us had a nice dog and a promising cooler. Biff and Skippy were a hoot. No one's navigation app had any helpful advice, but Moonchild was going to get back to us after she studied her eclipse-day star chart. That bird lady? There was no getting her down. I took down Hank's address for my Christmas card list. The Hankster!

The hills to fore and starboard were ominously filling up with what appeared to be smoke. I turned to Linda. "What does the little shitty person in your phone say now?" I queried, possibly with an edge.

She glanced at her phone, snapped it off, and turned to the window with a look like a mother whose child has been caught pooping in the city pool.

Hours later, we approached Chemult, which I had thought we had passed already. And hours after that, we finally reached our turnoff highway in dead dark. I pasted my attention to a fuzzy white line, dropped the accelerator to the floor, and rocketed to our destination (or, as my vintage eyeballs would have it, hurtled into the void).

Actual time of arrival: 11:00pm. First beer down: 11:02.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On The Road Again

A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part Two

So we did it, baby. We got the sun and moon in our pocket, baby. We spanked it. And there we were on the far side of Madras planning to head south, away from Portland, well ahead of the crowds. Sure, everyone was leaving at once, but they'd be hours getting untangled, and we had the jump; and there might be a little slowdown here and there, all to be expected, but we were riding high. We'd practically teleported to Madras, we'd met a really nice old gentleman with two working toilets, we'd bagged the eclipse, and we were on our way to beautiful Crater Lake. Ten minutes after totality, at 10:30am, we were pottied up and on the road again with a cooler full of water and sandwiches and a spare can of hubris in the trunk.

And traffic was moving! Within five minutes we were driving the limit on I-97 with the theoretical wind in our hair, and trying to decide whether to go straight to our Airbnb cabin an hour past Crater Lake and come back to it the next day, or hit Crater Lake along the way. My passengers began pulling out their magic tiny phone boxes. "Webcams at Crater Lake show clear blue water," came the happy consensus. "Two and a half hours to Crater Lake, or three and a half to the cabin, estimated time of arrival 1:55."

I am not wieldy with the magic tiny phone boxes or the little talking geniuses that live therein, and I marveled at the twin wonders of nature and technology. Everyone was on a high, mostly natural, not that we hadn't visited a Dispensary. Brake lights appeared briefly ahead, and then dissipated, trailing a vapor of distant shark music.

"There's a bit of a slowdown coming up," Linda reported a short time later, "but it clears up after Redmond. Estimated arrival time at the cabin now 2:20." Not so bad! It only stands to reason it's going to go a little slower with 100,000 people trying to leave all at once. Most of whom, one must assume, are going north. We can take a little delay in stride.

Then all the cars stopped altogether. I squinted while laboring at the arithmetic without a device. Eleven o'clock, still north of Redmond, current speed zero miles an hour, puts us at our destination by...carry the one...never.

Linda piped up again, after consulting the savant in her phone. "There's a service road coming up that will take us right past this blockage," she said. We found the road right away and were soon back on pace, paralleling the line of stopped cars at a smug 40mph. Until we smacked into the clog of other drivers using navigation apps, which appeared to be all of them. We slunk back to I-97 on a gravel road of shame. All the way to Redmond and then Bend the line of traffic lurched and sputtered, smooth as a ghost dragging a chain. Some stretches were sufficiently sludgy to allow us to walk around to the trunk and retrieve sandwiches. "Picks up again after Bend," Linda's lying sack of phone contended, "so we're now estimated to arrive at 4:55."

"That's not so bad," I said. "Let's go straight to our bnb while it's still light out and go to Crater Lake tomorrow." It was so agreed. All phones in the car furthermore agreed that clear roads were just ahead of us and we were about to bust on through to freedom any minute, as soon as God could put a stent in.

As a matter of fact, however--we can see that now--we were in the moist center of an epic bolus of traffic that was pushing its way down the esophagus of I-97 with yards of intestines yet to navigate and hours to go before we reached the end. At which point, of course, we'd be pooped out.

"At least we're moving," I chirped, noting with approval the speedometer needle quivering near 4mph, and then we stopped completely.

Did I mention Oregon was on fire?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

There's A Little Black Spot On The Sun Today

A Song Cycle In Four Parts. Part One

By now you're probably aware of the remarkable phenomenon that happened last Monday: all at once, the entire population of the United States motored into one thin belt across the country, as though we were trying to snap a crease in it. I did it too, and took along my friends Linda, Max, and Peter for extra snap. There was no guarantee we were going to make it.

In fact, there was much to discourage us. We were assured that the few roads into major eclipse territory were going to be plugged with traffic ("traffic [noun]: all the cars that are not yours"). The cars might not even, technically, move. They might just coalesce into a single carbon-spewing organism of low motility, such as a barnacle, or a 40-year-old kid in his mom's basement.

We were determined to give it our best effort, though, and got a head start by driving to our cabin on Mt. Hood, from which Madras, Oregon was normally a 1-1/4 hour trip. We got up at five a.m. and gunned down some coffee (but not TOO much coffee) and then eased our way down the gravel to the highway. We were anticipating a difficult insertion into the traffic stream that might require lube and a shoehorn, but in fact the cars were coming up well-spaced, if steadily.

My own car was inadequate for the situation. It is adorably red, but that's about the best you can say for it when you're planning to stuff four adults and their luggage into it. Especially if we were expecting horrible delays at best and starvation or death by combustion at worst. So I rented a full-size car from Hertz downtown. I was afraid of a full-size car, inasmuch as I scrape my own against the curb with regularity and it's the size of a Tic-Tac. But the worst was over once I got the sucker out of the parking garage, a hellish six-floor death spiral with a two-way lane so narrow you couldn't even pass gas.

Big old Chevy proved to be quite comfortable though. We packed a cooler and put it in the trunk and everyone seemed to have enough room to wave their arms around if they got excited. Fifteen minutes into our trip it began to seem possible we were going to make it into the path of totality with hours to spare. The sun clambered over the horizon and into a clear blue sky. It was odd to see it, our old familiar star on its old familiar path. Did it even know what was going to hit it?

(At this point someone is going to get out his pencil and protractor and wave his arms around and roll his eyes and 'splain that the sun wasn't going to get hit by anything, you moron, but by now we all know that isn't true. It was going to get hit by the new moon. And we've all seen the new moon. There's a picture of it on every calendar: it's a big black circle. And that's exactly what hit the sun a few hours later. Quod A Rat Demonstrandum.)

Not only were we sailing merrily toward our goal at highway speeds, but we had an ace in the hole. We had Debbie's grandpa, and you didn't. My friend Debbie mentioned on Facebook that her grandpa lived just south of downtown Madras and we could park in his driveway if we wanted to. For miles around Madras, cars were parked in fields in quantities rarely seen outside of a casino or an air show or somewhere else that attracts the kind of people who never walk anywhere. And we shot right past them to Grandpa's house. Grandpa Melvin himself came out to greet us and show us his outstanding fossil collection. We were welcome to set up anywhere on his two acres and march right in the house to use the toilets like royalty. There were two toilets. Take that, port-o-potty masses!

So we set up our folding chairs in the corner of a field for a private viewing. I had been leery of being in a crowd that would break into mandatory and prescribed woo-hooing and hollering, obeying a dog-eared script from rock concerts and sports events. However we four reacted, it was likely to be genuine. We had almost three hours to fill, and we took them and watched hawks with them.

Seeing the moon gradually intrude upon the sun through our eclipse glasses was interesting enough, but it was taking a while, and so we found ourselves trying to identify a distant bird instead (tentatively unraveled as a juvenile second-year flatchinated hawkperson in cruising molt), which led eventually to the pathetic scene of four of us standing with our backs to the dwindling sun not even looking at a bird, but at pictures of birds in our phones, and then we came to, and turned around to give proper tribute, and then the new moon slammed into the sun, and a flaming hole in the sky opened up, and sunset became general, and a roar from an unseen crowd swelled over the hill, and Linda went all to pieces, and lo, that, all of that, it was very good.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Petunia Sphincters

We were just treated to a rare celestial event here. It had been predicted, and although the details of how such a thing comes about are well known to science, the casual observer could be forgiven for succumbing to awe. We'd heard about the phenomenon, of course. But until you see it for yourself, it's easy to dismiss. Nevertheless, sure enough, right on cue, the skies began to darken, and we all looked up in joy and wonder.

Yes. Water was coming right out of the sky! Just a little at first, bearing its fine mineral smell, the fragrance Life dabs behind its ears. And then a little more. By morning there was visible wetness all over everything. According to official records, this used to happen all the time. But fifty-seven consecutive days of unrelenting brightness has a way of frying the memory tank.

In fact, those same records show that sky water is a frequent visitor in these parts, to the point where people get impatient with it, and wonder if it will ever pack up all its crap and leave, but all that sounds like fake news now. Every day for the last two months, that searing ball of inevitability has barreled across the sky unchallenged, spreading mandatory cheer into the darkest crevices, more cheer than is good for us.

But Sunday it rained. Lord do love a duck. Snails are racing! Ants are excavating! Leaves are putting on weight!

Which, naturally, puts me in mind of stomata.

Stomata, or stoma pores, are my Spark Science Fact. You birders are familiar with the term "spark bird"--that would be the bird whose sheer stunninghood first sparked their interest in seeing even more birds, and consigned them to a life of nerdy clothing and gear and dangerous driving habits. My spark bird was the Western Tanager. I'd presumed that 90% of birds were indistinct and brownish, and then my brother put a Western Tanager into his binoculars for me and made me look, and that was that. WHEN, thought I, did they start making THOSE? What else might be out there?

My spark science fact also changed everything. I was in tenth grade Biology, a required class that I had been dreading since first grade, when I first heard I'd be compelled to slice up a live frog some day. I hadn't heard of menstruation yet so this was the biggest horror I thought I'd ever have to face. But there I was in Biology class and Mr. Kosek was teaching us about stoma pores. Which was one of the coolest things I'd ever heard of.

I vaguely understood that plants "breathe," but I'd never given any thought to a mechanism. This was normal for me. For instance, not knowing anything about construction, I thought walls were impenetrable, until Amy Cook accidentally sent her butt through one while roughhousing at a slumber party, and there it all was, the whole story, gypsum dust and drywall and a peeved parent. Similarly, I knew plants respired, but I didn't even think to wonder how.

Stomata are awesome. Consider a leaf. It is made up of legions of cells. But some cells are specialized: the paired guard cells of the pores. Stomata are the plant's means of facilitating gas exchange. That's right: they are sphincters. Stoma pores close up when water is scarce, and open when there's plenty. But here's how: they consist of two fairly large cells shaped like kidney beans, lying side by side in such a fashion that the concave portions meet up and, together, form a hole. Or, if you prefer to see it that way (and many do), they are like a set of matched buttocks, at rest. The portions of the two buttocks that form the hole are thicker and less elastic than the surrounding portions, like a constriction in a balloon, so that when the cells plump up with absorbed water, they bend toward each other and the hole becomes larger. At this point, you may prefer (and many do) to abandon the "buttocks" visualization and go back to the kidney beans. The point is, when there is enough water in the plant, the water can escape through the hole, and when water is scarce, the buttock beans go slack and the hole shuts down, and the plant retains its water. Nothing could be simpler, or more ingenious.

We never sliced up a live frog. There was an earthworm and there was a pickled piglet. There was so, so much more. Science class was the hypodermic syringe of joy, and I was ready for an injection. I even ended up with a degree in Biology. It is a wonder in itself.

Because I thought I would be a writer.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

From Here To Totality

Let the record show we were on to it first. First, I say, and everyone else should get in line. By "we," of course, I mean my friend Linda, who notified me well over two years ago that there was going to be a total eclipse of the sun right handy-by, and that she was going to come out and watch it with us.

Not a lot gets by Linda, so it's good to travel in her wake. If there is a beetle in the natural world with a roof rack, pop-out cabinets and a convertible dinette, Linda has already read about it. If there is a sea creature with expandable tentacles for parachute capability that lures minnows by secreting vanilla pudding out its blow-hole, Linda will find it and send me a link. Linda can detect minor asteroids with her aura.

So this eclipse has been on our calendar a long time. "Great!" I said. "We'll do a little hiking, cook up a few nice meals, and the morning of the eclipse we'll pop down south a ways and soak it right up. Totality is only forty minutes away." Plans were later refined to get a slight jump by going to our cabin the night before, from which Eastern Oregon, with its more reliable sunshine, is but an hour's drive. We'll wander out to Madras, lean up against the fender, and have us a time. This was Linda's eclipse as far as I was concerned.

And then this eclipse got internet all over it.

Suddenly we are on the cusp of All Hell, and it's fixin' to break loose. One million people are slated to travel to Oregon just to see this sucker. Off the coast, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, leery of being upstaged, is sensing an opportunity to drown 300,000 tourists all at once. Inland forests and grasslands are expected to burst into flame from sheer anxiety. We are solemnly informed that allowing five hours to drive fifty miles is far too optimistic, and that if we really want to be in the path of totality, we should leave just before dawn four days ago. We should pack a cooler of water and sandwiches and a Bug-Out Kit with supplies to last three weeks including green-bean bake, freeze-dried protein pucks, astronaut poop bags, prescription medicine for ailments we don't have yet but which run in the family, a Glock, and a selection of luncheon meats. We should run through the list of personal friends that own helicopters and favorite them in our phones.

Meanwhile, astrologers have been working overtime to produce Content. Because this, that, and the other thing were mysteriously lined up when Donald Trump was born, we are warned that degrees were activated and are likely to be reactivated during the eclipse. A careful study of nearby celestial bodies, some of which have malevolent intent, reveals that something perfectly awful involving the president might happen soon, so watch out.

[Forewarned is still forescrewed, though.]

People who can't even get their Chevy to pass a National Guard water truck naturally ascribe great power to the moon passing in front of the sun. One fellow has advertised for a woman to conceive a baby with during totality. Such a child would be born to two parents who believe the universe is playing billiards with its matter-bits and who possibly shouldn't be trusted with a ballot; but confidence can get you a long way. For instance, this guy is pretty dang sure he can hook up with a random ovulating stranger and get the job done in a couple minutes, and I think he can, too.

Linda and I and our buddies Max and Peter are going for it. We're all in. If you don't hear from me by Wednesday, send someone out to paw through the charred-out remains of a mid-size rental car near Madras. It might smell like green-bean bake.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

That Clears Things Up

From my correspondence file:

Thank you for contacting us!

Yepzon one,works only in 2G networks that can be connected with Windows Phone 8.1 + NFC -iOS 7.0 or newer +Bluetooth Smart T 4.0) - Android 4.3 or newer + Bluetooth Smart (BT 4.0) + NFC. You can use the device with Bluetooth. Yepzon One has no LED on this device. In Yepzon One has Surface mounted M2M SIM component (MFF2 size standard), not changeable by user.

Please let us know if you have any further questions.

Best regards,

Dear Anmol,

(1) Huh?

(2) I have an old 10G flaxon with rotating wankle-satchels. Could that be reconfigured with 14-cubit spatchcocks where the hipbuttons normally insert, or would that cause undue asparagus? I guess I'm worried that the coating might peel off.

(3) Is Anmol your real name?

(4) The W-Series 9-inch springform with stud-mounted rocker arms will not spatulate with only the four-and-a-quarter inch bore unless the quench area is preheated, at least at sea level. Is there an update?

(5) I think I'm in love with that barista with all the consonants in his name, but he doesn't even know I exist.  Everyone says I have a pleasing personality and am fun to be around. I'm 3'7" and love walks on the beach. Should I wear a hat?

(6) I'm told that inefficiencies in oxidative phosphorylation due to leakage of protons across the mitochondrial membrane and slippage of the ATP synthase/proton pump can be mitigated by continuous applied pressure to the clutch and passenger's forearm at the same time, but what if he pulls away?

(7) Re: compatibility issues with 64-bit internal and unsigned applications, I did wipe the SSD by going to Disk Utilities and selecting 512 GB SSD but I still had to change the partition size. Should I try the kind that's quilted for extra softness?

(8) riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. True or false?

(9) Why does everybody mumble these days?

This post is dedicated to David Gerritsen, whose birthday is today, and who would understand ALL this.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Going Over To The Dockside

The Dockside Restaurant is a modest pile of old timber surrounded by shine and money, and there are cheeseburgers in it, really good ones, the kind that isn't presented on a ciabatta roll with large food groups you can't wrap your teeth around--no. A nice squishy bun and a modest squishy burger, served with a side of potato chips and an RC. And lord only knows why the owners haven't sold out their precious footage in prime territory yet, but a lot of people are glad they haven't. You see an outfit like this, squatting like a turd in a field of gazelles, and you just find yourself rooting for it.

So it was fitting to discover that the Dockside's main claim to fame is its association with Oregon's own Tonya Harding. Or, more specifically, Tonya Harding's trash, not to be redundant. We loved Tonya Harding around here. She was a scrappy, hard-working figure skater with thighs that could snap a logger in two, and then pull an Applebee's off its foundation. She could leap into the air, spin three times, and part out a Trans-Am before hitting the ice again. She had rigid yellow hair and high bangs with enough engineering and product to fend off a tornado. She learned to skate in the Lloyd Center shopping mall, between the Cinnabon and Forever 21. And she was ours, all ours.

Also, she was not Nancy Kerrigan, a lanky, toothy beauty, and Tonya's chief rival on the ice. Nancy Kerrigan's dad was a welder and her circumstances growing up probably weren't much different than Tonya's, but we figured we knew a princess when we saw one, and that made us root for Tonya that much more. Tonya was more sturdy than beautiful. She was our Dockside.

So what's the Dockside connection? When Nancy Kerrigan was whacked in the knee by a large unintelligent fellow, the whole world immediately suspected Tonya was behind it. Our Tonya! But we knew her. We didn't suspect--we knew for a fact she was behind it. All the perps rounded up were related to Tonya in some way but she herself was held legally blameless, for lack of evidence. No matter: we were her fans and we knew what she was capable of, and we had faith in her too, knowing someone in this crew was going to do something massively stupid at some point, and then they did. She and her friends were heading to the transfer station with bags of trash and got within a mile of it and spied the Dumpster behind the Dockside, and they pulled over and hurled their trash in there, saving themselves the dump fee.

When the owner of the Dockside took trash out the next day, she saw the freeloaders' offending bags, and did what anyone would do: checked inside for clues to the miscreants. And there was an envelope with handwritten instructions for where to find Nancy Kerrigan and when and where she trained and an "X" where the treasure was and maybe a little "Kilroy was here" drawing. In Tonya's handwriting.

That's our girl.

We didn't like her in spite of it. We liked her because of it.

Tonya was banned from figure skating and carried on in a state of disgrace we find comfortable and familiar, and her legend lives on, as well as her place in our hearts. It might seem odd to cheer on a dim criminal with no principle beyond expediency, but resentment of the beautiful Nancy Kerrigans of the world can take you a long way. We're not looking for perfection. We're offended by it. The elites make us feel bad.

So don't say we haven't seen this kind of thing before. Donald Trump is just Tonya Harding with a nice 14-million-dollar bump from Daddy. He's always going to have his fans.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

When Juices Run Clear

Maybe you heard about our heat wave here in Portland. We were in for a good three days of temperatures in the mid-hundreds, followed by a cooling-off into the merely obnoxious nineties. The forecasters had this horror in their sights over a week ago and the local news was all over it, breathlessly spewing out strategies and warnings. The first and most important bit of advice was to begin panicking early so as to save time later. After that came earnest tips such as "try to stay cool" and "stay out of the heat" and "check on the elderly," many of whom were otherwise expected to sit and rotate quietly until they were evenly browned. In spite of this, no one has yet checked up on me, but one of the benefits of being elderly is that I grew up without air conditioning and I have skills.

The first day, it got up to 106, although on account of the breeze it only felt like 102, assuming you are in a quickie mart at the time, draped over the popsicle chest. Our house has so far remained in the eighties. We have our routines of opening up the place at night and exhausting the air with window fans, and shutting everything up and pulling the drapes in the morning. Tater, as a member in good standing of this household, has her routine too. First she goes to the hottest part of the house and sits in the sun, plugging herself in like a rechargeable battery. When she has accumulated the maximum survivable amount of thermal units, she wanders methodically through every other room in the house in order to radiate heatness into it, and ultimately beaches herself on the kitchen counter, where she puddles out to platter size and slowly turns into paste.

It takes a few days of this in a row to really get this place up to pork-roast temperature, but I remain on the alert for the smell of cracklin's, at which point I will find the nearest popsicle chest and make a nuisance of myself until I'm booted out. Then I guess I'll go to the basement. The basement is always the coolest part of the house. Science has shown this is because of the cooling effect of the spiders, all of whom are massively cool.

So, not so bad. At least, not as bad as the hottest day I ever experienced. It was July 1976, and it was 115 degrees in Salt Lake City. We were passing through on a bicycle trip. Fortunately, we were going downhill at the time, so it could have been worse--and it was, the next day, when it plummeted to 110 degrees and we decided to cross the Bonneville Salt Flats with a pint of water each, because our mothers were not there to stop us. Science has shown that the Salt Flats were formed over many years as dull-witted bicyclists passed through in a state in which they were no longer capable of perspiration, and had begun to flake out into a salty powder instead. This layer plinks off and settles to the ground, eventually forming a thick, flat surface. This does take a long time but there isn't a scientist in the world who will tell you that the salt flats were built in a day, and there's no shortage of dull-witted cyclists. Because of the complete lack of lumps in the landscape, scientists further surmise that deceased bicyclists turn entirely into salt and blow away.

Anyway, good news. After suggesting we might get as high as 113 degrees, the forecasters have revised the temperatures downward somewhat because British Columbia is on fire and a fortuitous wind has blown smoke in from the north. In similarly good news, I plan to stay warm this winter by slaying a cow and climbing inside its carcass.

We remain doughty and stout of heart. Thanks to all of you for your concern; we are especially grateful for the kind words of sympathy coming out of the Phoenix area ("Grow up, bitches").

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Doing It Right

Sometimes, on good days, Portland reminds me of Dresden, without all the bombed-outness. We visited a friend in Dresden some years ago, and even though significant portions of the city were war-damaged or soiled or missing altogether, there was still a sense that people had their priorities straight. You could tell right off that they were doing something right because they were energetic and healthy while carrying a beer in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. No one seemed either particularly prosperous or destitute. Our friend didn't have much money but neither did anyone else. There's a level of contentment to be had in modest means, shared. The roads were filled with pedestrians, or people walking their bicycles, which doubled as baby strollers. The middle of any street was packed with people, and behind them would be a humbled automobile with its gearshift set on "plod." One didn't get the sense that the driver was at all impatient, either. He understood where he belonged in the processional. The celebrants were all ahead of him and he just carried the train.

This is as it should be, people.

As the masses milled about the ancient city, its stone buildings stained by a few hundred years of coal, with bright flounces of graffiti at their hems, I felt I was looking at the past and the future at the same time. This poorer nation was demonstrating our future--if we do it right.

Portland is groaning under new wealth but still taking deliberate aim at a sensible future. Meet Sunday Parkways. Periodically, on summer Sundays, the city closes off a goodly loop of streets to auto traffic and the neighborhood blooms with bicyclists, enjoying life in a civilized setting. It's not at all enjoyable for people in cars trying to get somewhere in the vicinity, of course. But shoot: car-driving makes people crabby anyway. That's a known fact.

Our local loop was eight miles, give or take, and included three major parks, with musicians and entertainers in them, along with food booths and free stuff. I've been in many mass-bicycle events but this one was different; we poked along, coasting behind little boys on scooters, and tandems with freeloading toddlers, and life in general slowed down so much it was strokeable. Portland Opera was set up at the first park and we discovered that, whatever else we'd planned to do that day, we had plenty of time to sit in the grass and listen to a dozen arias.

The entire first half of the loop was downhill with a sturdy tailwind, so I was bracing for the return trip, but in FutureLand it's downhill both ways. So many neighbors had claimed the peaceful streets that it seemed impossible we wouldn't run into someone we knew. Dave ran into someone he didn't know, but neither of them got too badly banged up. His bike is fine too. You can't really mess up a 1965 orange Schwinn Varsity. That vintage hunk of lead is now a certified classic and earned many compliments from those not called upon to operate it.

I looked around at the liberated streets and the smiles of the children and I said, fuck it: I'm leaving my helmet at home. I never wore one till I was 35 or so and I've hated it ever since. I suppose I should have been a good influence on the children, but then I realized that now is as good a time as any for our young people to recognize I'm not their best role model.

Hiphop at Alberta Park, blues at Woodlawn; gentle breezes turned with us and remained at our backs; miracles abounded; and then we rode right past a particularly fine brewpub. Ha ha! Of course we didn't. If you don't sit on a bioswale with your bike against a tree on a Sunday Parkway enjoying a pint of Breakside IPA, you're not doing it right.

You get a city like this on purpose. You combobulate neighborhoods where almost anything you need or want is a walk or a bike-ride away, and then--well, that little girl with the butterfly wings and the pink helmet and training wheels? That's all the faster you need to go.

Now to shut down some of those streets for good.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Does This Extinction Event Make My Asteroid Look Big?

Everything has its own perspective. What's good for one might not be so great for another. For instance, Dave doesn't like it, but he has effortlessly maintained a five-star rating for years on Mosquito Yelp, so somebody's happy. And while most of us are not thrilled about deadly disease, somewhere to the north a population of suppressed viruses has long awaited a savior that will allow them to rise again, and now that our permafrost is melting, their day of redemption is at hand. Hallelujah! (Or holy crap, depending on your viewpoint.)

So I don't know if the viruses and the bacteria and the mosquitoes are going to inherit the earth, or whether they are suitably meek--I wouldn't have thought so--but somebody is going to, and it isn't going to be us. And that's because of us. We are the architects of the Sixth Extinction event and it's certainly looking like we're going to be among the missing. We've done it a number of ways. We've resurrected a fatal bolus of carbon from its burial grounds and sent it into the sky, and done it in a blink of time. We've scraped off our natural vegetation to grow monocrops, and sent the fertilizer required into the oceans, killing them piece by piece. We've overfished. And so on, and so forth.

Lots of folks don't really believe we could make that much difference, but that's false modesty. Lift up your heads and own it, humans! Together, we're as big and strong as a killer asteroid! Boo-yah!

Well, poop. We didn't evolve to consider long-term consequences. We're wired for the tiger and, at most, the next growing season. So instead of trembling in fear over the disaster we're creating, we're all worked up about the moles in our lawn, or the waitress who totally dissed us. We'll point at something shiny in the road and not recognize it's Godzilla's big toenail. What's that shadow?

And maybe some of the fun we've been having could have gone on for a while longer, if only there were a reasonable number of us to dilute the consequences of our shenanigans. But there's nothing reasonable about our numbers. We're seven or eight billion and headed straight up. We'll have to get those numbers down. Way, way down. And honey, that involves attrition. That involves death.

There are a lot of choices here. There's your starvation--that'll wipe out a bunch--there's your disease, your plagues, your genocides, your war. All of these will come to pass, especially since so many of us are going to be on the move. Also, there's birth control. Can't realistically count on anybody keeping it zipped but we could make reliable birth control free, and encourage or even require people to hold it down to one or (why not!) none. And of course there's abortion.

I've read the script, and at this point it is mandatory to assert that even though many people support the right to choose, nobody is pro-abortion. But it's not true. I, for instance, am all for it.

Yes, I said it: I am a big fan of abortion. I believe that at over seven billion and counting, we can no longer consider ourselves so very precious. I don't even think I'm precious. It would be better if we just quit getting knocked up (except maybe the once, if we absolutely must), but we do. There might be 16 billion of us before this century's out, all wanting a standard of comfort and convenience we never could afford. As a result we're about to go extinct and take most everything down with us. I'm pro-abortion because I'm pro-life. In fact, I'll double down. When I look at those in power who are so willing to burn the whole village down just to hunker in their spider-holes and fondle their money, I think in some cases abortion should be retroactive.

I know this upsets people. I can hear some of you clicking off, never to return. I'm sorry about that, because I love my audience, and small as it is, I don't want it any smaller. You all sustain me. And mostly I want to make you laugh, and maybe every now and then to make you ponder. As I'm typing this, I am only imagining the rejection; I can still forestall it; I can write about chickadees, and not post this at all.

That's the beauty of looking realistically into the future. You can see what your choices are, with your eyes wide open. I choose to post.

Today, August 2, 2017, the forecast for Portland, Oregon is 108 degrees F.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Not Pioneer Stock

There's more than one way of getting to the little lake we wanted to visit. We wanted to take the Pacific Crest Trail, famous for scenically containing Reese Witherspoon and her giant backpack in Wild. But the signage was unclear, and we accidentally took a parallel path. After a quarter mile, it dumped us onto a dirt road. In fact, we were on the famous Barlow Road, named after Famous Barlow, who did some honest work felling trees and widening deer trails to allow passage of a covered wagon, or a few hundred thousand, across a major volcano, and collecting a nice toll at a cinch point. Without a doubt, I presumed, this road would transition back into an attractive woodsy trail and meet up with our destination lake, which not only had a mountain view but was likely to harbor gray jays. We like birds that land on us. We'd brought an entire baggie of Cheerios just for them.

"Not to worry," I told Dave, consulting my mental map--old people still have those--"this will end up in the same place if we just keep on it." And so I fervently believed for about four miles. The road failed to adjourn to woodsiness and dust began associating with my pants. I was, in fact, dusty. Like the people on the Oregon Trail, I said to myself.

The Oregon Trail is local history and of much interest to those who trace their heritage to it, but I never got real interested. Seemed so bleak. All dust and slog and sizing up your companions as possible dinner material. You didn't even get to ride in the wagon much. You were too busy fixing your wheel or pushing your oxen out of a rut or dividing a potato nine ways. And you probably started out starving or you wouldn't have left in the first place.

Maybe most people looking for a home in America were driven as much by the need to escape something as the promise of a better future. My ancestors had hopes of finding a territory unscathed by religion, so they could put a bunch of theirs in it. You might be seasick in a tub of a boat or eating dust on the trail, but none of it was easy.

This Barlow Road was beginning to get on my nerves. There should have been a tie trail to the Pacific Crest at some point, but it kept not showing up. The dust made me want to push my bonnet back with a weary forearm and say Lawsa Mercy and Saints Alive. Then I got bit by a mosquito. I can go years between mosquito bites if I stick close to home. Then came the second mosquito. I can do math, and I was thinking geometric progression. What's the point of already being in Oregon if we have to be on the Oregon Trail again? The road veered away from the direction I'd imagined the lake was. A fly showed up with a vicious gleam in its compound eye. Dave was squinting at me like he was wondering how I'd go with potatoes. I began to doubt that we were going to find the lake. Maybe this road was going somewhere else.

Maybe Kansas.

But maybe that's not all bad, I thought, rationalizing another quarter mile. Some of the very nicest people I've ever known are from Kansas.

Oh wait. They're from Kansas. Which means they got the hell out.

We turned back. We saw a deer. We had a beer. Someday soon, folks are going to be on the move again, likely without electricity or reliable food sources. But no point going pioneer until we have to.