Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Wraith


When I have visitors, I like to take them on mountain hikes because that's my favorite thing to do, and so I'm pretty sure it's their favorite thing too, even if they don't realize it at first. These are five-star humdinger hikes, with meadows and hummingbirds and paisley drifts of wildflowers in every color and vistas of volcanoes on the horizon and a scatter of beeping pikas and, theoretically, maybe even a fat furry marmot: every component, in other words, of true happiness. And the hikes are mostly flat, too, except for being inclined at a sharp angle. Remarkably, several decades'-worth of visitors have--independently of each other--referred to my hikes as "death marches." I'm sure it's meant affectionately.

When Linda and Walter came for a vacation actually devoted to hiking, I made sure to front-load the event with my very favorites, figuring they would be left breathless by, probably, the beauty. And then we went to hike on the coast, where a surprising portion of the beauty is at sea level.

Everyone loves the ocean. People in the personal ads always say they like long walks along the beach. No one ever mentions death marches. Walter and Linda were thrilled. The waves roll in and out and people stand before them mesmerized, as though they are watching infinity in a frame, and are somehow comforted by that.

I'm not. It creeps me out. The ocean is just fine from a distance, like a hundred miles, but up close it's all drowny. There's nothing but water out there and most of it is over my head. There's teeth and tentacles and stingers and slithering and darkness and death. It reminds me of the very dwindlety of life, crushed under time, the waves inexorable, doom, doom, doom, and some day one of them is going to take me out. Somewhere out there is my wave, getting a suggestion from the moon and a spin from the rearing continental shelf and beginning to crank my way. I can't look.

But there are distractions. The cliffs are a frozen snapshot of lava hitting the sea. Birds coat the sea stacks. Every tidal puddle is its own neighborhood. We tread the sand for hours and nobody gets even close to dead. I begin to relax.

"What's that?" Walter asks, pointing at the shoreline.

I raise my binoculars. It's a murre, and it's all wrong. Murres shouldn't be standing at the shoreline all by themselves. Murres should be diving for fishes and flying in bunches and jamming the tops of sea stacks and pooping on rocks. Murres definitely shouldn't be shuffling their feet and letting me walk up close enough to take a picture.

My murre is dragging a wing and has a major gash on her breast. My murre is going to die soon. I long to wrap her up in a fleece and drive her all the way back to the mountain and leave her in the custody of a kindly marmot with a well-stocked larder and a dab of mercurochrome. But I turn to leave. I got the message, friend murre. It's all teeth and tentacles and darkness and doom out there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Whisperers Of The Wild

When Walter and Linda come to your house for a hiking vacation, you not only have the company of two of your greatest treasures: there's more. Walter is a tamer of wild technology and will surreptitiously go around fixing things you've suffered with for months, and things you weren't aware were broken, and, in some cases, things that haven't even been invented yet. And all those things will suddenly run smoother in a way you'll probably put down to random cosmic kindness or the vicissitudes of the magnetic field or something, but it's really Walter.

Linda, of course, is the original magnetic field, and attracts everything you've ever wanted. Linda claims a bedroom and before long Pootie has snuck under the covers. Tater the cat hears the creak of her bedspring and vaults out of my sheets to tunnel into hers. Dave and Walter at least think about it.

And, of course, Linda will find you a bear, or a pika, or a murmuration of starlings, or anything else you have a hankering for. It's not just that she sits and waits quietly until the forest melts her a critter. It's that, like Pootie and Tater and everyone else, the critters are drawn to her. So I had high expectations. What would I order up? Well, in spite of their vaunted ubiquity around here, I have never seen a wild river otter. I thought I might have once, a fast brown parabola in the rushing stream, but I was never sure. So that would be a nice start.

Not that.
Six hours after we picked her up from the airport, Linda produced an otter. "That's a nutria," I said, a little disappointed in her.

"Not that--just over the nutria's shoulder, on the bank," she pointed, as a sleek and unmistakable silhouette turned her way in salute, and rippled into the undergrowth.

Then she set about locating Life Birds for me, in my home territory. We studied a woodpecker for a while before I finally pegged it for a particularly disheveled Hairy, but she said it was a Black-Backed Woodpecker. I have never heard of a Black-Backed Woodpecker. What the hell. Turns out they're rare, which didn't keep this one from showing up for Linda.

We'll ignore the hummingbirds that unfailingly try to drill into Linda's left ear, looking for the source of sweetness. That's old hat by now. We can gloss over the bear tracks she found on the beach, and set aside the whale spouting out of season, the meteors, and the slug fornication. Surely, if there really is a secret in the mossy dark of the Pacific Northwest, we can put Linda's talents to a more singular test. See what she is really made of.

Well, the girl's no good with secrets. She doesn't have any of her own, and, lacking guile and deceit, might be careless with someone else's. This doesn't bother me. But there's always a smile on tap in that face of hers, sure as shine on water. It's never submerged for long, and then it otters up again. It's powerful. There might well be a secret in it.

If Linda, rising as usual at dawn and venturing out barefoot in a nightshirt, has already shared a conversation and her morning coffee with Sasquatch, we'll only be able to guess it by her grin.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fangs A Lot


I'm not saying it's a really big deal. People go through a lot worse; it's just off-putting. I lost a little bit of a tooth the other day. You can't tell from the front. It just got thinner from the inside, where a shard calved off. It's just another example of the fact that you can't really count on anything. I remember when this particular tooth was brand new. It had little ridges on the top. My teeth have never been prize material: they're stained, small, and crooked, but by gum, as it were, they have always done the job. They've diced up truly heroic amounts of food over the years and sent it straight down the hatch, no problem. But now, apparently, they can just snap off on a soft chicken-andouille sausage. What's next? If I slug down a kiwi smoothie with the seeds still in it, can I expect to see kidney shrapnel in my urine stream?

As soon as my tooth sheared off, my tongue mounted an exploratory expedition. A new entry point was discovered right away, and various new ravines and shafts were mapped. Continued effort revealed the possible presence of artifacts thought to date from the ancient Bicuspid civilization, and investigation is continuing on a nearly 24-hour basis even without funding. It's not sustainable.

The thing is, a girl gets used to her own body, and comes to depend on various components of it, and then they let you down. It's bad enough to watch your own skin puddle up at the elbows or your boobs get so far away that you can't get the middle part of your trifocals on them. At least with all that, everything's still in the vicinity. But now things are just snapping off? How is that fair? And it's only likely to get worse. I've heard of women dropping their uteruses. I'd always put it down to inattention, but it's not like I'm getting any sharper, myself.

This inexorable decay can wear on a person. I remember old man Moore down the street when I was little. He'd get to hacking and you could hear the lung nuggets rattling away like a string of tin cans in his throat. Every time he's start up, I'd think: he's on the way out. It scared me down to my spongy new marrow. And that's when it hit me: if you can't prevent deterioration, re-cast it as a new power. We have the power to provoke existential dread in the young. And we should use that power.

You know how certain animals--butterflies, newts--are brightly colored as a warning to potential predators that they are dangerous? Maybe that's what old-lady breath is for. It's a warning to others not to get too close. Stand back! We're disintegrating faster than you can duck. Things could fly off of us at any time. You could get impaled on a suddenly sproinging chin hair. Teeth could detonate. We're one missed curb away from spraying hipbone fragments at you. We can take out a toddler with one swing of the bingo-wings. We may be on the way out, Junior, but we can take you with us, and don't think we won't.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Brain Frisbees

From Trousering Your Weasel

In our last post, we discussed how marijuana should not be combined with leftover turkey. So how does marijuana work? Well, it goes straight to the brain, because most of the time that's already the highest point in the body, and it travels through the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier exists in order to allow helpful items like glucose and hormones into the brain's fluid whilst keeping out the little fatties like bacteria and Botulinum that are up to no good. This is why you can inject Botox into your forehead to smooth out wrinkles without worrying about smoothing out the brain also, which you do not want. The active ingredients in marijuana are sleek, and they slither right on in, often illegally, where they wander around before settling down in a few specific areas of the brain: the basal blobular area, the antebellum, and the hippocampus. Fortunately, you're not using most of your brain most of the time. The basal blobular area is only there to keep the rest of the structure from caving in, and the antebellum sits at the back end to provide a cushion during whiplash events. The hippocampus is from the Latin for "the quad where the large animals hang out and play Frisbee," and naturally it's the go-to spot for pot.

The cool guys who were good at tossing a Frisbee could toke on a joint, tuck it under the lip of the Frisbee, and send it to the next guy, and that's sort of what happens in the brain, too. The hippocampus, like the rest of the brain, is lousy with neurons. There are more neurons in the brain than you can count, because you'd fall asleep before you finished. The neurons are single cells but they are not physically connected, and if they want to communicate, they have to throw neurotransmitter chemicals at each other. The pointy end (the axon) of one neuron winds up and tosses the chemical information to the branchy portion (the dendrites) of another. It's all Neurons In Space in there, and the neurons rely on each other's ability to toss and catch to get anything done at all. If the receiving neuron already has its hands full, the doobie of information falls out.

And that's what happens with the pot. The THC in marijuana acts like just another Frisbee and jams the receiving end of the neurons, which gums up their normal functions. Which, in the hippocampus, include your coordination, your short-term memory, and something else. Something-something. I used to know.

So anyway you might look at a pretty red flower and think: oh, wow, that is so red. And a moment later you're still looking at the flower but you think it's the first time you've really looked at it, and you think: oh, wow, that is so red. And so on, and so forth, until soon you are steeped in a redundancy of redness and you will be moved to write a poem about it, a poem without any of the coherence you'd have if you could properly recall your most recent thought. But that won't be clear until you look at the poem later.

And sometimes the fundamental incoherence of your now-compromised neurons starts to set off alarm bells until you're in a full-blown panic about the situation, no long able to track time, with your past disappearing before your eyes and your future, by extension, in doubt. That's what started to happen to me every time I smoked pot, which did not prevent me from continuing to smoke pot. Our generation had a lot invested in the idea that marijuana was harmless, and it took a while for me to consider that it might not be that good for me, personally. In reality, many of us had trouble with panic attacks and paranoia, but we didn't blame the pot. We blamed the Establishment, which was out to get us, a fact we could perceive most clearly when we were stoned.

(Kids are idiots. They'd be better off if they were stashed in the basement at age 13 and not let out until they were 30. Of course, a number of us did spend an equivalent amount of time in the basement, and didn't turn out that well. But it could have been so much worse.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Doobie Careful

From Trousering Your Weasel

Marijuana is now legal in a couple of states (smoked and baked), and close to legal in several others, where it is relabeled "medicalmarijuana" and available to all who suffer from medical conditions such as chronic sobriety. There's a problem in the flat-out legal states. The drug can be purchased in ingestible treats such as brownies, and apparently some people are a little confused about the proper dose. The drug effect of marijuana is delayed when it is eaten, as opposed to when it is smoked. So a person could have eaten way too many brownies by the time she realizes the stuff is working after all, and then it's too late.

That's how it is with getting stoned. You don't suddenly recognize that you're stoned; you recognize that you've been stoned for, like, five minutes. It's like sticking your foot in scalding bathwater. You know you're in trouble, but it takes a second for the pain to hit your brain (or longer, if you're really tall). "This is going to hurt," you have time to say to yourself as you pull your foot out, and you're always right. If you've eaten too many brownies, it could begin to dawn on you that you're in trouble and there's nothing you can do about it.

So some dispensaries are putting warning labels on their pot brownies. Take a little bite, they say, and wait an hour to see how it's going. Well, no one does that with brownies. They should put the stuff in okra if they wanted people to be prudent.

Weed wasn't very strong when I was a kid. You were going to have to soldier through a pretty fat joint before any effect became noticeable. What with all the pauses to hack your lungs out, you could pretty much keep track of your mental state and adjust your intake accordingly.

Within a few years, though, folks were getting sophisticated about their growing techniques. Instead of buying a baggie of leaves, you'd buy a sticky bud, a tiny packet of trouble. For me, it acted like a little seed of panic, set to sprout in about a half hour. Call me a gardener, but I kept planting that seed, figuring I'd get a blossom of fun this time. I was not that bright.

Anyway, the last time I had pot brownies, it wasn't made with the Good Stuff. We were just being thrifty. One day we took everything that was hanging around in the corners of shoeboxes, knocked out of the cover to the White Album, the contents of leftover roaches; seeds and stems and lint balls and things that might have been pot but might have been oregano or spiders or little mousie nests. Who knew? In it went, into the pan with the Betty Crocker brownie mix, and we had at it. They did not taste like brownies. They tasted like shit. The same culinary thrill could have been had by dicing up peat. Moderation was never much of a watchword for us, and we polished off half the pan looking for that elusive chocolate taste.

Then we went to dinner. At my mother-in-law's house.

Where, somewhere into my third bite of leftover turkey, everything started going sideways.

Turkey is not a moist meat under the best of circumstances. Reheated turkey has the constitution of dentists' cotton wads. All my saliva had retreated to parts unknown, even before the turkey. After I'd been masticating for a couple minutes without being able to swallow, it occurred to me that I looked suspicious, so I sawed off another bit of turkey and wedged that in alongside the first. A few minutes later I did it again. My mouth was now solid turkey wall-to-wall and evidently I was a little green, too. My sister-in-law, who was a take-charge person, saved the day. She leveled an authoritative index finger at me and said "Murr, you're sick. Go lie down." I had never loved her more.

Dave was persuaded to take me home. We got all the way there before it occurred to either of us to spit out our turkey. Or, rather, peel it off the roofs of our mouths and drop it in the shrubbery.

I don't know if that was the last time I had pot. It might have been. But I'm not sure, because one incident like that will erase memories of things you haven't even done yet.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nobody Likes A Cocky Potty


I'm in a toilet stall at the airport, I've done all that I could reasonably have hoped to do, and now it won't flush. There is no handle. I gingerly palpate any protuberance on the fixture that looks promising. I turn around a few times and waggle my fanny in an encouraging manner. I wave my hands over it delicately, then frenetically. I'm Joe Cocker trying to serve tea. I am beginning to get a familiar feeling of stupidity, and the only thing I feel certain of is that there is a hidden camera in here monitored by a luggage-flinger on break, named Leroy.

I resent being sized up by a toilet that pretends to know more than I do about when to flush. I'm not even getting the dubious courtesy of a waiter who wants to know if I'm "still working on that." I miss the toilet handle. I was in control of the handle.

It's all supposed to make life easier, but there's a virtue to seeing a little cause-and-effect, to retaining a little sense of intention, to putting one's hand to a task. Once upon a time people went to the river with a bucket. They fetched water with it. It was easy to understand. The pump handle wasn't as intuitive, but they got the idea after the first time they used it. Eventually we got water delivered right to the house and you turned a handle to get it. There was a handle for hot and a handle for cold. Around mid-century, a single-handle job showed up with a mixer valve. You wobbled it around on its ball like a joystick, trying to find the sweet spot, and after a few years the handle snapped off. Now, you go into someone's remodeled kitchen and find a sleek Swedish-looking number where the handle might flop sideways and it takes a little experimentation to find out how to get your desired product to come out, but you're still in control.

But not in public restrooms, where, often as not, the fixtures are mute and water comes out only when you put your hand under the faucet. Or, more likely, it cogitates for a couple seconds, by which time you've pulled your hands back out, and then comes on, and you slam them back under again. Same thing with the soap. The soap dispenser could well be out of soap, but you're going to wave at it like a conjurer.

If paper towels don't roll toward you on approach, you pass your hands underneath the dispenser, then up along the sides, as though you're trying to locate its aura. You look like a damn mime. Leroy is sitting on a box of paper towels in the storeroom and cackling till he hacks up a loogie.

If everything is working properly, it's just setting you up for a stellar face-plant on a glass door that you thought would open by itself, and doesn't.

Really, the hell with innovation, sometimes. My sainted mother-in-law was once observed on her knees in front of the oven door, trying to pry out the button on her first Butterball turkey with a fork. "Dang it, I know it's done," she muttered, unsure of herself for the first time. This shit makes us cranky, and why shouldn't it? We old people are already getting stupider on our own, and it's just piling on when they keep raising the stupid-bar. Meanwhile, kids still damp from the womb are navigating their electronic world with the grace and alacrity of a ball of mercury on a plate. Not that they would understand that metaphor, because their candy-ass parents had them packed in foam and never let them play with mercury.

Hell. These are people who can look straight into their refrigerators dead sober and declare themselves "out of water." And they think the old farts are stupid.

That's right, foam-butt, we're talking about you and your fancy technology. Don't you roll your eyes at us, Miss Priss, or we'll tear all the buttons off that turkey.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Woodpile


Everyone loves genealogy. We all want to scour the musty annals of our dead for clues to our nature. There's no subject that interests us more than ourselves. Each of us pokes through our personal attics to find out: who collaborated to produce the wonder that is me? Or--depending--who can I pin the blame on for this pisshole of an existence?

If we weren't so irretrievably interested in ourselves, we wouldn't click on so many odd internet quizzes ("I got Pol Pot. What murderous totalitarian dictator are you?") We're hoping for Attila the Hun, but we'll take anything as long as someone asks us what our favorite flower is, or our favorite rock star. Ask us anything about ourselves, market research gnomes! We'll tell you!

Remarkably, four out of five students of genealogy who dig deep enough discover they are descended from Charlemagne. This is a familiar enough phenomenon. No fortune-teller peering into anyone's previous lives has ever turned up a horse thief or a sewer worker. We are all reincarnated royalty.

Sure, we know plenty about our own parents, but they seem to fall short in important ways and can't quite account for all the intricacies of our character. We study them and come up with a collage of qualities. We get our nose from our father, say, and our impatience from our mother--although, in our case, it's not impatience so much as a desire to see things done properly.

I've never delved into my own family history, because the fanciest parts had already been logged on a scroll and handed to me as a youngster. We had the family tree going back ten generations to the Mayflower, when my fore-Brewster led a doughty band of religious folk to the new world and promptly lost most of them the first winter. It's hard for me to relate to the dude. I'm peeved at the Supreme Court for thinking it's okay to invoke the name of Our Lord And Savior Jesus Christ at a town hall meeting (the opinion of the majority being that Jesus Christ is everyone's Lord And Savior whether they know it or not), but I wouldn't pile into a wobbly bathtub of a ship over it. Still, I have to admit it: I've got clergymen tromping all over my DNA.

Supposedly the information on the scroll accounts for my makeup, with a little leavening from my sturdy and cheerful Norwegian side. There are a number of writers in the woodpile. My grandmother got poems published in Scribner's. Here's one she wrote about my father:

To My Son.

All that thou art to me? Oh love, my inmost heart,
If I could say
The half of what thou art to me each day,
It were but mockery, and my love were dead.

Holy shit! Douse me in lilac and slap me with an antimacassar! Four lines, with the subjunctive tense jammed in twice. My grandmother spent her adulthood in bed with the consumption, writing poetry and waiting for the laudanum to kick in. Am I in there anywhere? Her father was a popular author who toured with Mark Twain. He annoyed the bejesus out of Mark Twain, in fact. "I like him," MT said. "But in him and his person I have learned to hate all religions. He has taught me to abhor the Sabbath-day and hunt up new and troublesome ways to dishonor it."

I'd sure like to believe a stray sperm of Mark Twain's had found its way into my great-grandmother. But maybe my essential germ is somewhere else. There are a hell of a lot of womenfolk who dissolved, along with their maiden names, into my family tree. Maybe I should start snooping around those parts a little. Find me a decent horse thief. Somebody.