Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tiny Little Voices Going Beep Beep Beep

Whenever I hear it,  nyank nyank nyank, my world lights up just a little bit more, because I know there are nuthatches around. I adore nuthatches. If it weren't for all the other cute birds, they'd have the cute franchise sewn up. Red-breasted nuthatches aren't at all uncommon but it wasn't until a couple years ago that I saw or heard them with any regularity at my house. That first year I heard lots of them. We even hosted a couple in our birdhouse, when they aced out our chickadees Marge and Studley Windowson, who were still measuring for the piano when the nuthatches bombed in with first-and-last and the security deposit. It didn't work out well for the nuthatches, though. Their tenancy turned out to be a complete disaster and the Missus wasn't even speaking to her mate when she flew off for the last time. This year I haven't seen any nuthatches at all, here. I've assumed the whole place brings up bad memories for them, and I'm sad about that.

Interesting fact: Dave can't hear nuthatches. Whenever we're walking and I point them out, he looks baffled. Even when I imitate them and point in their direction he can't hear them, or me. Apparently they beep in a very narrow frequency range and he doesn't have the bandwidth for it. My voice is in the same range. A lot of the time he can't hear me either. Apparently.

On the other hand, I can't hear the dog that drives him nuts. Our neighbor has a dog that she lets out into the back yard to deliver updates to the neighborhood. Everything the dog has to say he says in the first five seconds, but he's real thorough, in case anyone passing through a half-hour later has missed the first bulletin. It's not really that I can't hear him as much as I tune him out. He has a low voice, like Dave, whom I also don't always hear. Apparently. Probably I don't hear the dog because I get a lot of sleep and I'm thinking about other things.

I'm sure this annoys Dave though. It's pretty annoying when something is driving you nuts but your partner is all "what-ever" and smiling like the freaking Buddha. It makes you feel small and petty. I'm not sure why the Buddha didn't get his ass handed to him more often than he did.

Some of the time the dog is barking, I'm thinking about something I'm writing, or want to write. Sometimes there's almost nothing going on in my head. Sometimes I'm thinking about how I feel pretty good, which means I might have ovarian cancer, which often presents with no symptoms. Sometimes I'm just thinking about how nice and quiet it is.

"Haven't heard the dog barking in a while," I might say, at the risk of irritating Dave, if in fact the dog had been barking up a storm and I hadn't noticed.

Dave's head pops up, ready to refute, and then his face relaxes. "I don't hear anything," he marvels.

Yay! The nuthatches must be back!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Me And My Big Tool

Everyone should have a hod carrier to call her very own. What is a hod carrier, you ask? Well, that's what Dave was one of. The way he explains it--and he's perfectly happy to explain it in the presence of bricklayers, who can be thick and scary--you have your bricklayers, and you have your hod carriers. And all your bricklayers do is lay bricks. Your hod carrier is the one that sets up the job, anticipates the needs, gathers the materials, makes the cuts, does the math, brings the rocket ship home, and makes everything work. So the hod carrier is the brain and heart of the operation, and the bricklayer is the meat.

The point is, hod carriers take care of all the little details in your life so that it runs smoothly and everything you need is ready at hand before you even know you need it. If your personal hod carrier is, like mine, particularly good, you can go through life assuming groceries magically appear in your refrigerator and toilets are always clean. The toilet paper replenishes itself, gas tanks are always topped off, the bird feeder is full, and the cat is never hungry.

Even now, after all these years, I have the sorry habit of thinking that if I have everything I need or want, it's just because that's the way life is. I don't always give proper credit. But I do know to come to Dave for special requests. I think of him more as a multi-use all-in-one tool, with nothing missing but the little toothpick.

There's the Extend-A-Dave, with which I retrieve objects from high shelves. It operates wirelessly, triggered by a pointing finger and pitiful whimper.  "Ennh ennh ennh," I say, and point, and the crackers float down to the counter level.

And then there's the Stompinator. The Stompinator has size thirteen shoes and it can compact an overflowing yard debris container into a solid wad a third the previous volume. Yesterday I chopped up a bristly conifer and jammed it in the container. A mass the size of an entire Christmas tree towered above the lip. The Stompinator wadded it up in a minute and pulled four extra conifers in on top of it. There's still room for your softer weeds.

So there you have it: the Stompinator and the Extend-A-Dave, all in one easy tool. But wait! There's more!

One time we spent an entire day yarding out hedges and vines and stickery bushes and shoving them into the pickup truck to take to the dump. Limbs were married together and thorny branches intertwined and the entire tangle of rejected vegetation howled with malice. It was a mess. Nothing, it would appear, would be pulled out easily. Because the situation was insufficiently dire, we also did this on a 95-degree day, which is known to be fatal to Pacific Northwesterners. Dave pulled the truck around to the spot we needed to disgorge our debris. "How are we ever going to get this all out," I whined, plucking impotently at a vine and shouldering my rake in despair, and Dave handed me the rope from the tarp and said "Well, just coil this up for now," and I did. I spent a half minute coiling the rope around my elbow and I stashed it in the cab and then I turned around and our truck was flat empty.

Dave had a plywood sheet in the bottom of the truck and strength not generally required of 21st-century men and he'd gotten himself in the back of the bed, lifted the plywood sheet up, and dumped the entire load in fifteen seconds. He busied himself for another minute sweeping the dust out, shut the tailgate, and climbed behind the wheel.

And that's why he's also called The Big Dump. Happy 34th anniversary, sugar plum, that's the story I plan to stick to.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dearly Beloved

I was minding my own business until the crows started up, and then I decided to mind theirs. You get a little group of crows all going off at once this time of year, and odds are pretty good that somebody's cat needs skedaddling. By the time I walked outside, the racket was tremendous. And there, in the sky, was a gyre of at least a hundred opinionated crows. It was something.

"What is that?" my neighbor said.

"I'm not sure. But it's something."

"It sure is," he said.

A dogwalker came down the alley and looked up. "Wow, that is really something," she said, confirming our guess. The crows went round and round and round. They were circling above Sumner Street, just to the north. My neighbor Gayle poked her head out of her door with a look of abject horror.

"What are they doing, Murr?" Gayle is terrified of birds. Even the tweety variety. It might have been an early Hitchcock exposure. This was more than she could tolerate. She knows I like birds and, like other people who know even less about them than I do, she considers me an expert.

"I don't know, Gayle. But isn't it something?" Everyone agreed that that was exactly what it was.

An August Crow
Thing is, I have acquired a bit of bird knowledge. I've done some readin', and some writin', and I've also done some simple observin', resulting in what I consider reliable enough lore, even if I've never read it anywhere. And what I know about our crows is they go downtown to roost in the evening most days of the year, and they get together in nice raucous packs to do it, but they don't do it during nesting season. They stick around and jam stuff in their kids' front ends to get them to shut up for a second. That's what's happening now. A little later, in August, the adults will molt and look like shit for a few weeks. Then when they're all snappy again they gather the kids and hit the roosting scene downtown. This is too early for that. I briefly considered the possibility that there was a dead cow on Sumner Street, but rejected it. Even though that would have been a Life Cow for my yard list.

I settled on the possibility that one of the crows got into a can of malt liquor and started feeling a lot better about her lot in life, and then someone else showed up. "Go ahead, Harriet," Millie would say, "one little sip isn't going to kill you. Let the men feed the kids for a minute." Millie always thought Harriet had kind of a stick up her ass, to tell you the truth.

Harriet beaks away at the can and starts to feel kind of good too. "I mean, it's brawwk brawwk brawwk all day long, am I right? And I told the little shit, pick up your own damn walnut. It's right there in front of you. Put it in your face." And Millie is all "You know it, girl," and then the whole block shows up, and everyone's going on and on about the entitlement kids seem to feel these days, and would the world come to an end if the girls just checked out for a little while? Fine and dandy to get all that help with building the nest but it wouldn't kill those eggless wonders to take over all the feeding for a lousy half hour.

And so on.

I mentioned my theory later to my friend Margie. "Crow funeral," she said briefly.

Oh. Well, crumb. Maybe so. Margie's husband had once plunked a crow with a BB gun and then their dog pulled the stuffing out of it in the street, and, she said, the crows showed up from miles around to circle and complain. And they didn't forget, either. They harassed him and the dog every time they came outside for years. Windshield wipers fell off their truck, roof shingles began appearing in their yard, their home insurance lapsed when the annual bill failed to appear, and their credit rating mysteriously tanked. Don't mess with crows.

I looked up "crow funeral" and it's a thing. Scientists decline to characterize the crows' behavior as "grieving," preferring to assume instead that the crows are merely assessing what could possibly have gone wrong with the deceased crow, so as to avoid a similar fate themselves.

Horse poop. Scientists are so afraid of anthropomorphizing that they refuse to entertain the most obvious hypothesis. And these suckers were not investigating an unexplained death. They're crows. If they were doing that, there'd have been a chalk line around the body, somebody would have a pipette and test tube, someone else would have conducted a test for lead, and the one that looks most like Peter Falk would say, "Excuse me, ma'am, I don't want to be a bother. Just one more thing..."

That's just a fact. Could have been any one of them. They all look like Peter Falk, in August.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

Glabrous Tidings

When last seen...
I understand you can have your eyebrows dyed now, either to make them show up better or the opposite, depending on which affliction you imagine you're suffering from. I'd be willing to try it but my eyebrows entered the witness protection program years ago and I don't know where they are.

I know, I know. I whine about this too much, and nobody else cares about the availability of my eyebrows for viewing. I can already sense some of you delicately suggesting that I move on, that this particular ship is over the horizon, that there are other things to attend to here at the dock. Which causes me to doubt myself: am I that guy in Tiananmen Square, standing alone against the tanks of unsightliness? Or am I that ragged soul clutching a Confederate flag and pouting about heritage?

I will move on.

In general, hair grows at a rate of about a centimeter a month, or a bit more in the United States, where we round up to an inch. The way body hair works is it grows to a certain length according to its aspirations, and then it falls out and a whole new one pops up in its place. It can do this sort of thing over and over for years and years and then at a certain point the futility of the whole proposition becomes evident to the follicle, and that's that. The follicle has been stuck on the same career path and never getting ahead and never retiring its debts, and once the kids are gone it pulls the plug. In some dramatic cases, the entire scalp decides to start over, ditch the knick-knacks and move into something shiny and easier to clean.

The fur enterprise has been going on for a very long time. Even well before the rise of mammals proper, there were critters with hair. We know this because some was found in a fossil turd dating back to the Permian. This is the earliest indication yet that mammals, when they eventually arrived, were destined to be delicious. Most mammals nowadays have quite a thick pelt of fur, with a few exceptions that include pigs, elephants, and me.

I used to have more of a pelt. I distinctly remember appreciating my own arm hair, and being grateful that I'd taken after the arm-hair side of the family and not the bald-armed Norwegian side. But now I can hardly see my arm hairs. I used to think maybe the hairs on my body got farther apart as I grew up, but this can't account for the sparsity, because I never got all that big. So I guess they just fell out.

Now I have virtually no arm hair, or leg hair, and also one other place I recall having had a bit of a patch. That would be an area that hasn't been all that busy of late anyway. If there's not a lot of activity in your inbox and outbox, you can keep your desk pretty clean.

Another thing you can do with your eyebrows is pluck them, to remove eyebrow hairs where you don't want them. I'm going to get right on that as soon as I finish mowing the sidewalk.

In the meantime, I haven't given up on the prospect of rounding up my missing eyebrows. If I get one more chin hair, I'll have me a posse.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Thanks, Don and Roberta!

When I first came to Portland, the go-to hiking guides were written by Don and Roberta Lowe. There's always a nice picture in the back of the couple, clean-cut Don in his darkroom and smiling Roberta in a plaid pencil skirt and a sensible Pixie cut. As far as I know, no one else had decent trail guides to this area. They had the franchise. Nevertheless, I suspect they didn't get rich. People in the olden days accepted a reasonable remuneration for their efforts and weren't expecting the big score.

I used these guides to death. The glue on the spine didn't hold up in the rain, and the pages kept falling out, which was actually handy, because then you could take the individual pages in your pack and reintroduce them to the complete volume later, after your shower and beer. Eventually other people started doing the work of documenting trail conditions and directions and elevation gains, but I kept with Don and Roberta for a good long time, because I already had the guides, and the new people were asking serious money for their books, and after all the terrain didn't change that much, did it? I picked up a few new books but I haven't yet thrown out Don and Roberta's oeuvre, which now exists as piles of individual pages loose inside the covers.

Some of their instructions are antique at this point. "Be sure to fill your water bottle before you go," they warn, "because some water sources are not reliable through the season."

"Not reliable," meaning some of the trickles might dry up. Not: the water is loaded with Giardia and you'd best have four quarts loaded in your pack if you don't want God's Own Diarrhea for the next eight weeks.

Wasn't that many years ago that I had their hiking guide with me as I introduced my friend Linder to the wonders of pikas and ferns and alpine meadows, and we hesitated at one juncture, unsure of the correct path to take. I fished out the guide and quoted: "Veer left at the old hemlock stump."

At that intersection, everything visible was considerably past stumpage. Linder paused and framed her query in a calm tone.

"Murr, how old is that hiking guide?"

I consulted it. Well! Not old at all. Shoot! Look at that date. I was a young adult. Which could not possibly have been long ago. Nevertheless, I did the math.

"Um, forty years?"

Linder said nothing.

"Is that old?" I wondered. There was no answer.

Today I got out my Don and Roberta Lowe hiking guide to guess at how far Dave and I just hiked. We'd gone up to Salmon Butte, the site of a former lookout tower. The guide had a photo in it depicting the scene from the top: snow-covered peaks in the distance, a rocky prominence, and a two-lane road that is utterly not in existence at the moment. I had to do some more math to come up with the answer, because the current trailhead is a good mile and a half away from the Lowes' trailhead. That kind of thing is happening more and more up here on Mt. Hood, and basically we approve. Some of the trails were accessible from old logging roads, and now those roads are being decommissioned. They pull out the culverts and return the streams to their natural topography; they use earth-moving equipment to shove some hummocks and low spots in, hoping to discourage motorbikes. The first few years these trails look unreasonably wide, and then the alders and such start to fill in, and by about year five you can hardly tell there was a road there at all.

Possibly your quadriceps can tell. We're kind of tired. We had a twelve-mile hike with considerable elevation gain that used to be a nine-mile hike when the estimable Lowes hiked it. And that is just fine. That is quite within our capabilities. Spooky thing, though? This is such an amazing coincidence, and there's no explaining it: in the forty years since our hiking guide was published, we got forty years older.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Oh Vanity, Where Is Thy Sting?

There are two doors to our downstairs toilet--possibly a design flaw--and if I don't make a point of shutting them all the way, I can count on my cat Tater to bump open the first door with her nose, glance at me, execute a graceful arabesque, and then stroll out the second door, leaving me open to the breezes. Her motivations are selfless: she is giving me an opportunity to admire her.

Which is admirable in itself, inasmuch as a lot of folks believe she has let herself go. It's emotionally healthy. I could learn from her. But I haven't felt real admirable in a while, thanks to a brisk and efficient visit from menopause. What's that, junior? Oh menopause is just a little heads-up. It's the universe's way of saying brace yourself, sugar bun, there's a bunch of stuff coming up for you to worry about, but at least you don't have to worry about being pretty anymore. 

So I don't waste a ton of time worrying about my looks, but it does occur to me on a nightly basis that I'm going to look like shit, dead. Assuming I'll die in my sleep (in a way other people will refer to as "peaceful," not knowing the terrifying content of my last dream), I have a pretty good idea what my survivors are going to see. Because as I drift in and out of sleep, I have become aware that my face and body, in their most relaxed state, assume an arrangement best described as "puddling up." Sometimes when I roll over, I have to pick parts of myself up and rearrange them on the mattress so I don't get a crease. It ain't sexy.

"She looks so peaceful," they'll say. Then they'll give in to curiosity and lean in, squinting.

"What IS that?"

"Huh. Oh, that's her lips."

"No, that. Over on the side of the pillow."

"Yeah, that's her lips. See? They're sprawled out on the edge of her left cheek, there."

"Man! I thought that was an old taco or something. What're her lips doing so far away from the rest of her face?"

"Looking for the cool spot, maybe?"

"And shouldn't there be breasts of some sort?"

"Sure. See [pointing]--that's one right there, sort of wedged underneath the armpit. You can tell if you follow it out from the chest. The other one has to be around here somewhere too. Turn the light on."

"Got it! It's hanging off the edge of the mattress. We should put these back."

"How we gonna do that?"

"I dunno. Fold 'em on a 45 and roll 'em down the front like shirt-sleeves?"

"Sure. What's all the rest of this stuff? All along the sides?"

"Huh. Now that we got the light on it, it looks like it's just the rest of her skin. It done come unmoored, somehow. Like frosting that didn't set up."

"Right? Aww. She looks like a big flying squirrel."

"A-dorable! Well, we should probably call the coroner or something, see if they can get this all scooped up."

All right, y'all. First one on the scene, have fun, but I'd be much obliged if you could get me resheveled and spruced up proper for company. Take all the time you want. I'll leave a couple spatulas and some duct tape and putty on the nightstand, and there's beer in the fridge.