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.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Get Your Gladys On

There's singing.
These are tough days, and it's not good to spend too much time in your own head. It's loud and cranky in there, and your internal political oratory is only slicing minutes off your life, to no obvious benefit. The best way to get out of your own head is to spend time in someone else's. It's springtime, and it's time to get your Gladys Kravitz on.

Your kids all know who Gladys Kravitz is. There's plenty of Legacy Television to watch instead of playing outside; but for you old folks out there who can't quite come up with names anymore, Gladys Kravitz is the nosy neighbor who was always spying on the Stephens family in Bewitched. She probably had a good idea about Darrin's sexual orientation before it came out in the general press.

There's tail-fanning.
But don't waste your Gladys on the neighbors. Snoop on the birds instead.  They're randy as the dickens right now. The males are spiffed to the nines and singing their hearts out. They're hoping the same lines that worked last year will work this year too, and they probably will. The females are completely on board, but they're playing it coy, hoping to get a few dinners out of the deal. You can see all of this easily enough if you just look. Love is in the air, and new birds are in the pipeline.

Our chickadees, Marge and Studley Windowson, are back this spring looking into the rental box outside my window. I just saw a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets nearby and got all excited that they'd be interested, even though it turns out they don't use boxes, but they didn't stand a chance anyway. Studley ran their asses right off, or maybe it was Marge. There's nothing our chickadees like better than picking on something smaller than them, like bushtits or kinglets. It makes them all puffy in the chest. They leave hummingbirds alone because they're too mean and pointy to take on.

We need new birds. There aren't near as many as there ought to be, since we persist in poisoning our gardens and ripping out stuff they like to eat and sending out death squads of darling killer cats and putting in windows that look like sky. In spite of all this there are birds. And right about now, they're all working real hard to make even more birds, and they'll let you watch.

There's THIS.
They won't necessarily show you their nests. That's a secret. You'll have to get lucky, by following a bird with nesting materials. Crows are easy. They're flat-out carrying lumber.  But I'm still hoping to score a bushtit nest this year. Bushtits are very plural. If you've seen one, you've seen twenty. They make a brief show of pairing off this time of year and starting in on their nests, but invariably they say what the hell and invite the whole crew in once they're done knitting it. It's a sock. A big stretchy bouncy sock with bedrooms all full of fuzzy little tits.  That'll get you out of your head, or you ain't right.

Don't worry about how you look. Yes, you're staring into the sky, and your mouth has gone slack, and there might be a little drool, and you look like one of those people waiting for the Rapture. But you're nothing like them. They suffer from more certainty, and less reward.

[...and then there's THIS. I'm going out on a limb with my little friend here and calling her an American goldfinch, and I don't know what the heck she's doing, but she totally let me watch. Ah, spring.]



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Creature Comfort

It occurs to me that part of the genius of Nature is that it is all about comfort. At any given time, anything you're likely to see in the natural world is comfortable, or otherwise it would be somewhere else. Every living thing seeks its own comfort. It's not precisely the word ecologists use, but it's what they mean.

We're not talking about cats, here. Really doesn't matter where they are. They are going to be comfortable wherever they land and make it seem like a matter of policy. It's not really a policy. It has more to do with the fact that, with the exception of the big bone in their heads they use to keep their eyes lined up, they are entirely filled with pudding. They could sink all the way to the bottom of a bed of nails and emerge yawning and unspindled.

So cats have sort of punched their own ticket, comfort-wise, which is why the invasive little suckers act like they belong anywhere they roll up, including under my bird feeder, even though they totally do not. But we're talking about other living things that, in the course of their perambulations, are going to follow a comfort gradient to the cushiest available niche. I started thinking about it when my fellow frog-wrangler Karen kept finding salamanders, magnificent migrating salamanders, and I didn't. What was her secret?

"I look for them in the cracks of the pavement," she said. Oh! We're trying to rescue frogs and other amphibians as they cross the road, which they will do as long as it's wet. But evidently the salamanders pause when they come across a fissure in the asphalt, and maybe they slide right in, and it's probably just that much damper in there, and the sides of the crevice feel all cozy and nice, and they hang out a while. It's soothing to imagine all the imperfections of the pavement mortared up by comfortable salamanders. Except for that traffic thing.

But comfort is not limited to salamanders. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it's hard to find a surface that hasn't been colonized by beauty. Lichens will appear in any likely spot that has a modicum of moisture and light. Then they'll get even more comfortable by secreting acids that crumble up the surface just an eensy bit, and settle in like a dude molding his butt in a bean bag chair. And if it's not too sunny and not too dry, any random moss spore that happens by will snug its butt in right on top of the lichens. And as the mosses grow and parts of them disintegrate, they decompose into a nice spongy soil. And then regular plants stick a toe in and say aaaah. You can look at just about any tree-crotch in Portland and discover an entire miniature forest made up of comfortable things, just enjoying their Goldilocks moment.

That's why I'm here too. I rattled into this little fissure of the world and stayed put. I'm comfortable in the dear damp and the fertile gloom of our close grey skies, a place where the forecast "intermittent sunshine" refers to July. Where our star is modest and polite, asks if this is a good time before barging in, keeps its music low. If it means I have to let moss set up camp on my northern flanks, it's worth it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

All Of This Is True

My friend Katie has an artistic nature. She is able to look at almost anything and find the beauty in it, and concoct a plan for it. She will rescue it, and collect it, fully intending to repurpose it. Anything. Plastics. Scrap metal. Refuse. Things that ordinary people would look at and see only junk.

Basically, junk.

Katie and her home are much burdened by her artistic nature. So I was happy to drive her out to the country to fetch her new car. A new car! Her friend Harreld was coming along too. "In case it blows up before I can get it home," she explains.

Huh.

So it's not a new car, precisely. Precisely, it is a 17-year-old Toyota van that has been parked in a field in the rain for a few years. "It's a good deal," she said.

We arrived at a ranch house at the butt end of a dismal cul-de-sac and were ushered into the back yard, which was entirely graveled and contained no fewer than 23 cars, plus some large metal hangars with unknown contents. Katie's new car was toward the rear. It didn't look too bad. Sort of mossy.

I looked around. Something about this seemed awfully familiar. We used to have two immigrant Russian families on our block. Both were fully involved in the business of accumulating wrecked vehicles of dubious provenance, getting them marginally roadworthy, and selling them for cash. Apparently it's a thing. In the old country, nobody had a car newer than thirty years old, and all the boys grew up knowing how to keep them going. They also developed skill at body work, using a combination of tin foil, flour paste, and guile. Vehicles showed up in their yards and disappeared later. It was mighty seedy.

Harreld pointed at the back row.  "Hey, I know who owns that car," he said, pulling out his phone. Uh-oh.

I walked over to Katie's car, where the proprietor was just latching the hood. "Iss purring like kitten," he said, wiping his hands on his sweatshirt. "Please to keep running for few hours while battery charges."

"Katie, I don't think you should buy this car," I whispered.

"Aww, that's what Harreld said. And his friend Chris," she added. She looked disappointed. She was sincerely interested in our opinions, because if they supported the choice she'd already made, she would feel even better about it. She began to peel $100 bills out of her wallet. "I've never seen these new bills before," she chirped. The man held his palm out, expressionless. He had.

Meanwhile, curious, I walked over to the driver's door, which had a hole where the handle should have been, intending to peer in the open window. A stench billowed out that could drop a jackal pack. It was urine-forward, with notes of buzzard poop and bay-bottom, and a mystery element. The climate hasn't taken a hit like this since Satan's soil-pipe backed up. The seats were shredded, and the floorboards were littered with condiment packets, ripped-open registered mail, and, after a moment, my eyebrows.

"You have got to be kidding me," I hissed at Katie, reeling away, as the last $100 changed hands. "The hantaviruses are thick enough in there to make paste."

"Oh, I know," she said, amiably. "It's going to take a lot of Lysol."

It's going to take explosives.

Harreld affixed a damp kerchief to his nose and lowered himself bleakly into the passenger seat like a man going to his own execution, and I followed them in my car as they headed toward the DMV to get the title changed. Dandelions shriveled in their wake. Katie lurched unevenly onto the freeway, weak from fumes and unaided by the driver's-side mirror, which was missing. A kettle of vultures formed above the convoy. Katie pulled into the lot, turned off the ignition, and a plume of steam belched out from under the hood and into the sky. One of the vultures sputtered, stalled, and corkscrewed into the pavement. Harreld creaked open his door, tilted out, and stood for a minute, swaying.

"That's not good," he rasped, pointing at the hood.

"Is it steam or smoke?" Katie wanted to know.

"Either way," Harreld said, bent over with his hands on his knees, "not good."

But Katie's luck had turned. There were fewer than thirty people in line ahead of her in the DMV. She began to fill out a form on a clipboard. Could Harreld go out and check the odometer reading? He could. She had almost everything filled out when he came back in and reported that he couldn't read the odometer because the car wouldn't start.

"Oh well," Katie said as her number was called, "I'll just guess."

At Harreld's suggestion, we went to buy a battery charger, and returned to the lot. He hooked it up and checked the coolant reservoir, which was bone-dry. He bought water. Juice trickled into the battery, which was acting like a dying man turning his face to the wall, and then quit.

Towing was going to be steep. Harreld suggested she join Triple A and get free towing. It would be cheaper, even with the membership fee. Next thing we knew Katie was on the phone with Triple A and explaining that she'd just bought this lemon car and wanted to join up so she could...

Harreld was waving his arms like a crazy person. "Hang up! Hang up! Jeez! Go on line and sign up, then call."

Katie went on line. Signed up. Then called. "Hello, I need a tow--my membership number? Sure thing. Oh, you might not see it yet, because I just joined five minutes ago, because I just bought this lemon car, and..."

Harreld smacked himself in the head repeatedly.

Katie hung up. "He'll be here in a half hour," she said. "And it's going to be $67 dollars because it was a pre-existing condition."

"You know," I said, "you could just get this thing towed right back to that Russian guy and maybe get your $1000 back. Or even just a part of it. You'd be money ahead, in the long run."

"I can't. I just spend $107 getting the title transferred. It's mine now."

"Plus," Harreld put in, "$60 for the battery charger, six bucks for the water, $110 for the Triple A membership, and an extra $67 for your big mouth."

"And the ice cream," Katie pointed out. Harreld had thoughtfully bought her a resuscitative pint of ice cream, which she was currently shoveling into her mouth with a credit card.

"And you'll need all new seats, plus the dump fee for the old ones, and a new door, and whatever they charge over at Ghostbusters." It was getting warm, but I rolled up my car windows because I'd parked too close to the death van. Napalm had nothing on that thing. Something really horrible had happened in there. There was some mystery element to the reek; I couldn't put my finger on it. "Tell you what. You could get the guy to tow it to a boat ramp, put five hundred bucks in the glove box, set it on fire, and sink it in a lake, and you'd still be money ahead. In the long run."

"Naah," she said, resigned and beginning to sound a little depressed. "At least I learned one thing. I  should always listen to my friends."

"YOU DIDN'T LEARN THAT AT ALL! I JUST TOLD YOU WHAT TO DO AND YOU TOTALLY IGNORED ME! AGAIN!"

"I said, I learned I should listen to my friends."

Harreld checked the progress from the battery charger again--there was none--and we occupied ourselves while waiting for the tow truck by poking around the van for knick-knacks, accessories, and crime scene clues. All we turned up was six or seven extra keys, none of which opened the rear hatch, and a wasp's nest.

The tow truck driver was young, polite, and no fun at all. He sold Katie a new battery, checked the electronics, pronounced everything in good shape, and assured her she'd done just fine.

"I've seen worse," he said, beginning to wheeze, as clumps of his hair drifted away on the breeze. Harreld and I looked at each other in despair. How was she ever going to learn with Pollyanna Pete over there? Already she was starting to perk up, dreamily plucking small maple trees out of the weather-stripping. Her eyes softened as she visualized the interior artistically shingled with Little Tree air fresheners.

"Really, Toyotas run forever. You get a car like this that's been out in the rain for a long time, you're just going to have problems with belts and leakage. Your seals, and such."

The mystery element! That was it. A dead seal.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Shoe Has Been Dropped

Sorry for taking a tone. But things are changing altogether too fast around here, and not for the better. And now they've changed the Monopoly tokens.

No sooner had I complained about the exile of the perfectly exquisite little thimble piece than a bunch of others, including my beloved shoe, were rounded up and marched to the Bastille, and for no reason whatsoever. Marketing. Someone in Marketing thought there weren't enough people talking about Monopoly and they decided the people should have a say on the tokens. "Have a national conversation around them," as they'd probably put it, in Marketing. Screw Marketing. There is little evidence, and certainly no recent evidence, that The People can be trusted to make wise choices about anything just because they can vote. We already have too many choices. Breakfast cereal takes up a whole aisle. There should be no more than two types of screw-heads, and one shade of black.

Don't tell me it doesn't matter. Of course it matters. People need something to hold onto. Everybody has a favorite Monopoly piece. Dave, for instance, likes the man on the horse. If he can't get the man on the horse, he takes the cannon. His fingers lack slenderness and he wants a tall piece to move around. I like the shoe, but I'll settle for the thimble. They both have a roundness that appeals to me. The other night we talked about this with friends. Both Mort and Dave liked the horse-and-rider, so immediately there was some tension. Mort is a nice man and he acquiesced. "I guess I can always take the wheelbarrow," he said.

Too late, Bucko! All five of these pieces are out the door.

This stuff is personal. Hell, we even judge other people, just a little, for their choices. "I like the race car," someone will say, and some little part of you will think Really?

They've already messed with the board. Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues are brown now, for no reason.  The Poor Tax is now a Speeding Fine. (We don't have a poor tax anymore. We call it Jail.) You used to be able to decide whether to pay a percentage of your income in the Income Tax or a flat tax of $200, but now it's just a flat tax, which makes sense, because it favors the wealthy and people who can't do math, both trending demographics.

So I don't care much if they change more of the board. Free Parking can become a bike rack, and Jail can be Cell Service Dead Zone. We can put a homeless camp on the Just Visiting square, so you'll still be okay but feel kind of icky passing through. Maybe they can make it so if you buy the Water Utility, you can change it to Nestle's Bottling Plant and charge everyone a hundred times as much for their water. Whatever. Just leave the tokens alone.

They've changed before. Dave's horse-and-rider didn't exist before 1942, and neither did the Scottie. But those don't count because they happened before I was born, which was when Time began. Which means, it's always been this way, just like indoor toilets and jet travel.

But that should have been that. Instead we have a Cat now, which is no surprise, since they're an invasive species. And also a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a Tyrannosaurus rex. And of course they're all plastic, because there are still one or two sea creatures that haven't choked on any of our shit yet.

It ain't right. And don't get me going on blue M&Ms.




Saturday, March 25, 2017

That Spooky Invisible Hand

I don't know what's more alarming: that a house should suddenly go missing, shed to shingles, or that I can't remember what it looked like even though I walked by it all the time. But no matter where you go in this neighborhood, or how often you stroll by, you're going to run into gaping craters where a house you should remember has been deleted, like it had been taken out by a comet. It's all so sudden. Just a hole in the ground, and a porta-potty, and a radio set to a Spanish station, and then you turn your back for a few weeks and there's a big shiny house in one of three neutral colors and a Sale Pending sign.

It feels like Monopoly. You pass by a little green house and by the time you make it around the block again, there's a big red hotel instead. Pluck off, plunk down.

Monopoly wasn't one of the games we had at my house when I was a kid. I got introduced to it somewhere else. And in all these years, I've never come close to winning.  I feel that little burst of optimism when I put my game piece on GO and then it's all downhill from there. At home we had games like Parcheesi. You'd roll the dice and move your pieces just that many dots and no more, and there was an opportunity to jam things up and get in people's way, which, as a small child, appealed to me. That was the limit to the strategy, as I recall.

But at my friends' houses, I'd get all set up with my play money, and my game piece, and I'd fly past the railroads and the tan streets to buy Illinois Avenue or Pacific, reasoning (in an early foreshadowing of my investment acumen) that I liked red and green, and things would progress a bit, and then all of a sudden some kid is horse-trading. "I'll give you this, because you really really need it, and you give me that and that and all that there and most of your cash. C'mon, that's fair, isn't it?" No! That makes no sense! The price is right on the back of the card! You can't do that! That can't be in the rules! I'm telling your mom!

But they could, and they did.

I'm still not over it. Things shouldn't just cost what the richest person is willing to pay; people shouldn't have to sell stuff because they're losing ground in some spooky ethereal market. The Art Of The Deal is a dark art. There's nothing wrong with the little green houses around here. But because money is thundering into this town at this time, it's thought to be a smart thing to take out the little green house and put in a big red one, and the same number of people will be living in it, but they'll be richer, and so will the development company in charge of the comet.

As a result, Dave and I are sitting on what could become a comfortable pile of cash, and we didn't do a dang thing for it except buy a house a long time ago, just to live in. It doesn't feel right. Mediterranean Avenue should just be $60. And there was no reason to take away the thimble.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Fix Is In

A long time ago, a boyfriend and I moved into an apartment. I took the first shower, and the water didn't drain. I chucked in some Drano and some Mr. Plumber and all I got was a big tubful of toxic soup. I poked at the drain with a stick, to no avail. It was jammed. We called the landlord. He sent out a guy.

The guy squinted at my toxic soup with disgust and brought out a snake and got nowhere with it.  He was baffled for a moment, then he looked at the handle on the wall and turned it, and everything whooshed out at once. Boy howdy, I'd never seen a bathtub drain stopper in a wall like that! The plumber looked at my boyfriend, and my boyfriend looked at me, and back at the guy, and my boyfriend said "As God is my witness, I didn't think she was that stupid."

Don't get all worked up on my behalf, ladies. My honest reaction was: Aww, honey. Really? You didn't? I was touched.

Because I'm really not good at figuring things out. Sometimes I do fix things, but I'm squirrelly about it. I can't go from A to B without involving the rest of the alphabet. Nothing is ever obvious. If I were the little Dutch boy, I'd stand back and hurl a basket of gummy bears at the dike until something stuck. I've solved the exact same problems dozens of times and the process never seems to shorten up.

No surprise that come the digital revolution, nothing much changed. I've improved somewhat in that it takes me a little longer to get pissed off. I have just enough confidence to Google a problem and scan the results, even though it is rarely helpful. There's usually a forum. Someone has had the exact same problem I have. Someone else tells them to go into the HTML and find the phrase "Call Me Ishmael" and replace it with a piece of code. The first person says "Thanks, MobyMan! That took care of it." I go into my template and Ishmael is nowhere to be found. Instead it says "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin."

I'll follow all nineteen steps in a Mail Merge Wizard and right at the end when I click on the last bit and my mailing labels are supposed to shoot out into the room, a portal to the underworld will appear instead, with a gif of a bony hand reaching out and the text "Do you want to continue?" and no, I don't, I don't.

Basically, I can't see the screen for all the pixels.

So when my phone refused to load the weather app, I Googled it and slalomed through all sorts of conflicting advice, and an hour in, just before deciding to un-install several demons I'd never heard of before and might or might not actually be possessing my phone, I thought: Or I could go next door and see if Noah can help me. Noah is a Young Person.

"My weather app won't load," I said, catching him up with all my efforts so far, so as to save him the trouble, and meanwhile, he stood there patiently with his hand out waiting for me to hand him my phone, and finally I surrendered it, and he turned it on, and then--oh, what's the word for a tiny amount of time? An infarction of a second? A gramlet? A cubit? Oh yeah, a nanner-second--in under a nanner-second, he said "You're in airplane mode."

I did think better of mentioning that I couldn't be because I was not on an airplane.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

There's Another Word For Servicing Yourself

I don't like self-service. It sounds dirty. Plus, I'm no good at it. I learned that years ago, the first time I encountered an unmanned pay station in a parking lot. Against all odds, I managed to navigate the buttons and introduced my credit card to the machine. I even got it back out again. I looked around for a ticket to come chunking out of the box, but there wasn't any. So I wandered off the lot secure in the belief that some collaboration had occurred between my card, the machine, and a global positioning satellite, and they had sent a halo of paidness over my car.

They hadn't. A whisper of a receipt had wafted into a slot at the bottom of the machine, intended for my dashboard, and perhaps the next person had gotten it, or not, but my windshield was wearing a $40 ticket when I came back. I sent a note to the authorities explaining that I had paid and was merely an idiot, but I used complete sentences and spelled everything correctly, and they were not moved. If I'd gone in person, my shortcomings would have been more clear. I would have had my money back in five minutes, plus maybe a little something extra to tide me over until my caretaker showed up.

I guess if I knew how any of it works I would be a little snappier about it. I've tried to buy a light-rail ticket only a few times. They've got machines right on the platform. Two or three trains will go by while I'm prodding the pay box for soft spots. First, of course, I look for the place to put my coins. It's not obvious. I imagine it's about at walker-height. But they'd really prefer you use something else. I find another portal to the ticket-world and start hammering away at buttons, but that's rarely successful either. I always think the machine has just quit on me, but it turns out that somewhere it's waiting for me to tell it "okay" before it will go on. Everything's got self-esteem issues these days.

"Okay." Still no ticket. Then I remember that most people on the train have their tickets jammed right into their phones somehow.  I don't know how they get in there, but I take out my phone and pass it over the machine Ouija-style, up, down, along the sides and underneath, hoping something will go "blip." Instead a paper towel shoots out the bottom and apparently I've also ordered the third season of "House Of Cards." And this, I think darkly, is a machine in my native language in my home town.

I will not do the self-service line at the grocery store. I will not. I'd probably scan my vegetables too hard and get premature salsa. No, sir: I want human hands on my fruit. Someone whose shirt I'm on a first-name basis with.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Draining The Swamp

Daddy and I always went out salamandering in the springtime, so we knew where all the best spots were. When it was looking to be a fine warm wet night, he'd grab his camera and flashlights and we'd hit the vernal ponds looking for spotted salamanders. Because if a puddle party of spotted salamanders doesn't inflate your soul, you've got more problems than can be addressed in church.

So he was the first to notice when they started paving them over. Ditches were gratuitously filled in, damp spots were erased. As an educated man who married a nice Lutheran woman, he didn't have access to a lot of salt in his vocabulary, and had to make up for it with actual eloquence, delivered in a preacher's cadence and for the benefit of nobody's ears but mine. The powers that be had seen every pond as a seep of contagion and an eyesore, and done their damnedest to eliminate them. I was young, and certainly understood the value of spotted salamanders, and if they represented even half the worth of the ponds, that made them quite worthy enough. Daddy had even more knowledge in the bank. I remember swatting bugs one hot summer day and whining "What good are mosquitoes anyway?" and Daddy didn't miss a beat. "Frog food," he said. Well then. Okay!

People are, collectively, stupid. They'll take an axe to an oak if they need a toothpick in December, and then complain about the lack of shade in July. Individual people can be pretty smart, but they get together and stupid right up.

It takes time and attention to learn what there is to learn in this world, but people, collectively, know a lot about wetlands now. All those boggy spots might appear to those without imagination to be worthless, but those people are as blind as they can be. Wetlands mitigate flooding, restore shorelines, filter water, sustain life, cache groundwater. For free. The Army Corps of Engineers can get as fancy as they please with concrete but they can't come close to duplicating the value of the wetlands, and they don't come cheap, neither.

Someone recently lurched into power with a promise to drain the swamp. A lot of people think he has broken that promise, because they see he has packed the pus-pockets of power with even more privateers and pirates than we had before. But they didn't take him literally enough. The other day, just taking a break between drowning refugees and jacking off the Big Oil boys, he drained the swamp. He put the boot to the Clean Water Rule that protects wetlands. Apparently, it cuts into golf course profits.

Some people can look right at the magnificent, unmatched genius of nature and see nothing of worth--nothing as valuable as, say, a Walmart on a slab. Two main reasons: they're greedy, and they're stupid. Don't underestimate the stupid. And so the trees come down, and the swamp is filled, and the concrete flows, and the Walmart pimples up, and the true bill is left for someone else to pay, down the line.



That's who is in charge now. Someone who will mine your organs for their value on the black market and then rig you up with a respirator and dialysis and say, See? Good as new! Bummer about your liver. But some day someone'll come up with a replacement for that, too. The best replacement, a beautiful thing, like you wouldn't believe!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Beer: A Love Story

Back when our parents were warning us about the evil reefer, it was common for us to accuse them of hypocrisy because they drank martinis. They countered that it wasn't the same thing. They said they just enjoyed their martinis, and it wasn't like a drug at all.

I didn't do any accusing, personally. My parents didn't have martinis. Or the occasional glass of wine. Or anything else, except once a year when they'd uncap the fusty old bottle of cheap Taylor sherry and have themselves a little nip. When it came to the proper acquisition of bad habits, my parents were horrible role models.

Nevertheless I soldiered on. I didn't like beer. Not until I went to live in London, where the beer was a whole lot better. That's where I made a study of it, and Guinness in particular. "Tall, dark, and have some," it said on the billboard, and I did. Oh, honey. It was gorgeous. It had a creamy head you could write your initials in and still see them at the bottom of the glass, in case you forgot who you were. Golden curls of goodness roiled and frolicked beneath the foam. Bubbles sidled along the glass like an ever-renewing fountain of yum. It was delicious. And most of all, it solved everything. It filled up all the tiny holes: all the pits and pocks of my muttering soul, all gone smooth again.

We dope-smoking hippies were right: the alcohol really was a drug.

I'm not complaining. This isn't an anti-alcohol screed. I think alcohol is a good thing, until it's not. Our parents (well, maybe your parents) drank to take the edge off. It works. It's good medicine. It gets to be a problem when there are too many edges, and it takes too much medicine to smooth them over. If your soul is shot through with little holes, no amount of alcoholic spackle can be enough. When I came back to America, I located a decent beer--Narragansett Porter--and began taking the edge off at ten in the morning. That would be what some people might have called a red flag, but some of us need more flags than others.

The other thing I came back with was a recurring happy dream. I'd get it once or twice a year. In my dream, I'd take a few steps down from the street into a London cellar pub and have a wonderful local brew and shoot darts with the locals. Then I'd come back into the sunshine (in my dream, London had sunshine), walk another few blocks, and step down into a different pub. And repeat. For thirty years this was my happy place dream.

Meanwhile, I concocted some of my own spackle and began to put my soul back together. I made it out of a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. A little music, a little truth, a little walk in the woods, more than a little time.

I haven't had that happy dream in years. I can walk out my door right now and partake of any of a hundred different local beers in a matter of a few blocks. I'm living the dream in the best beer town in the world. If your soul has a few pits and pocks in it, it will take the edges right off.

But if you don't have too many edges, it will just put a doily of joy under your big tumbler of life.