It started with the taxes, of course, as most of my annual bouts of aggravation do, although in this case I didn't even get to the Doing Taxes part. What I did was load the tax software into the computer until the little icon popped up and when I went to drag the little icon to the Applications folder on my dock, I noticed I no longer had an Applications folder, and it didn't come when it was called, either. So I started poking around until I found something called Applications and tried to coax it onto the dock, but it flat refused to go. And then I managed to drag the tax software into the folder anyway, and clicked on it, and now it says it won't even start until I upgrade my antique operating system. So what with one thing and another I decide to install the newest version of my operating system, "Yosemite," and the machine starts chugging away with all the vigor of someone pulling up a 5,000-pound halibut from the seafloor with a nylon cord; meanwhile a progress bar suggested (at first) that I would have to wait nine hours for it to download. And then suggested I check back next Tuesday. And finally shrugged digitally and declined to advise.
I walked away.
Even nine hours was plenty of time to talk with my neighbor and learn that the operating system I was pulling up from the seafloor was likely to blow up all my data by the time I got it in the boat, and even if my data are stored on the cloud (which is something, in theory, I've been paying for), it doesn't mean I will ever get any of it off the cloud, although in her case it all turned out to be her phone's fault; and by this time I was so confused I decided it would only be prudent to call up the folks at the Mac store and have a chat.
But when I realized that I had, once again, held my cell phone up to my ear for a good minute waiting for the dial tone, I lost all confidence I would understand whatever they'd have to say. So I walked even farther away. And commenced pulling weeds. Weeds I understand.
And then the day got worse.
Dave got out the power washer to clean the patio and walkways. At least that's how it always starts. Dave loves, loves, loves his power washer. I bought it for him one Christmas because I knew he would love, love, love it. It speaks to all his most extreme neatness tendencies and juices them with turbo power. He loves it way, way, way too much. There's nothing he can't destroy with it, one neat, satisfying layer at a time. He could peel the wrinkles off a rhino. He could strip the Holy from the Pope until you couldn't tell him from any other guy in a dress.
Now, to recap, I had a computer slurping up the seeds of its own destruction; it might never come back; and I had a hundred decibels of assurance that our garden and house might soon be thinned to vapor. I walked even farther away. I started pulling weeds at the house next door. Weeds I understand.
You can spend nine hours pulling weeds, and they'll always come back.
That was some compelling ad copy on the plastic Palmolive dish detergent bottle. It was 30% more. Thirty percent! Thirty percent more than the 19-ounce bottle, that is. This was a 25-ounce bottle. So that's just a little free arithmetic lesson for us. They're off by three-tenths of an ounce, which is sloppy if you're trying to send a rocket to Mars, but pretty dang close for detergent.
Any way you look at it, it's more plastic. We go through a lot of plastic. Dave and I at least try to fend off some of the more egregious uses of plastic. For instance, you can buy a little plastic box with even littler plastic tubs of crackers and cheese if you want, assuming it's too much trouble to slip some crackers and a few slices of cheese into your lunch sack. Now, apparently, you can even buy a large plastic tube of individually-plastic-wrapped graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate, plus some sticks. A plastic S'Mores kit.
You can sometimes purchase large plastic containers of product to decant into your smaller plastic containers; for instance, you can buy a big-ass bottle of Windex to fill up your smaller-ass bottles of Windex. You're gaining something there. There's less plastic per volume of product in the larger bottles. Except you still have to buy the bigger-ass bottle packaged with a smaller bottle and shrink-wrapped together with plastic.
So every two weeks when we take out the garbage we find there is a tremendous amount of plastic in it. Even after the plastic that is theoretically recyclable has been sieved out. I have my doubts about the recycling. I suspect it's being ground down and crammed into exfoliating facial cleansers where it can go down the drain and into the ocean and mimic plankton, to the detriment of the entire food chain. Clearly the thing to do is quit buying the damn stuff in the first place. The shit never goes away. Never. And we didn't used to have it. I'm old, but not in a geological sense. And I can remember when we didn't have it. We got by.
I've mentioned it before: that first TV ad for Prell Shampoo. Someone reached coyly around the shower curtain (it was a WOMAN! She was probably NAKED! What a PRODUCT!) and asked for the shampoo, and her husband lobbed her the Prell in the little plastic tube. She was horrified! She shrieked attractively! But it didn't break! Husband is a freaking genius! I related that ad again to a young person recently, and she said: really? Wasn't it dangerous to take a glass bottle in the bathtub with you?
Yeah, no. Nobody got hurt running with scissors--we were drilled on that early--but people drove
drunk and got killed, and people occasionally burned themselves up smoking in bed, and people came back in pieces from Vietnam. But nobody I knew, or anyone else ever knew, got taken out by a glass bottle of shampoo in the bathtub. It wasn't even an option in the game of Clue. What we did was exhibit the small amount of care one must when transporting a glass bottle into a bathtub. We did not, in fact, throw bottles of shampoo at our family members. Not even once. Not in your better families, anyway.
And some day, best beloveds, someone will be explaining to an incredulous child how we used to look for danger at intersections, rather than counting on our genius automobiles to screech themselves to a halt in front of the semi while we're shooting the breeze with someone across the country using Bluetooth. That's right. We used to look.
It's even possible we could re-learn how to keep ourselves alive in the shower in a post-plastic world. Even if we culled a few people from the gene pool, it might be worth it.
I always have a reality show going on right outside my writing-room window, and these days I'm watching my soaps. It's fun all year, but now it's spring, when the new season gets underway, and they're pulling out all the stops. Things are getting tense. The music swells. So do the testes. There's pathos, and there's romance, and there's aggression.
The Windowsons are back. Or possibly the Windowsons' grandchildren. I have no idea. The Windowsons and their kin have been nesting in the chickadee house one foot outside my window for six springs now. That gives me an exceptionally intimate view of them, and yet in all that time I have not been able to detect a jot of difference between them. As far as I'm concerned, if you've seen one Windowson, you've got a good idea what all the rest of them look like.
There are people who would know. My friend Julie Zickefoose would be able to rattle off their lineage down to the third-cousin level. She would be able to do this because she will have already noted a familial tendency to shrug the left shoulder upon perching, and further narrow it down to an individual because of a cowlicked nape feather or the quirk of an eyebrow. Even though chickadees do not have eyebrows, which is one reason I so relate to them.
But I am not Julie. I do not have her observational mojo. In fact, if you show up at my door and ask for donations for the soup kitchen, I will write you a check, and if you show up five minutes later with your hat turned backwards for the Sierra Club, I will write you another check, and never suspect a thing.
Nevertheless, even though I am a shitty birder, I have enjoyed many an hour doing nothing but observing birds. Whilst simultaneously not writing. That's right: I can do both at once. And this time of year is the absolute best time to watch birds. Everyone's strutting a shiny new suit and everyone has an agenda. And they do not suffer from my brand of confusion. Finches are busy pairing off with finches, and pine siskins are pairing off with pine siskins, even the ones I think might be finches. Meanwhile, they're establishing boundaries. The Windowsons are particularly proprietary, because they claimed the birdhouse. They have lots to say beyond "chickadee-dee-dee." They have voices they use only with each other. One of them will be inside the house working on putting the mattress together. The other will perch just outside and emit enough noise to be heard only by his or her mate (who the hell knows which it is) and one procrastinating writer. He or she will be all "how's it coming in there?" and "if you wanted to fetch me a grub, I'd eat it" and generally just keeping the connection going.
But then someone else will show up. There's a suet feeder a couple yards away. The itty bitty bushtits like it. But no sooner does a tit show up on the suet than one of the chickadees, easily twice its size, bombs in scolding like mad and knocks it off. BOOM. And another shows up, and BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Then a big-ass flicker lands on the suet, and the chickadee is right on it, BOOM. And the flicker, completely taken by surprise, falls off the suet and perches on a nearby branch to think about things. The chickadee, meanwhile, even more surprised, snaps onto a distant branch and is suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. Holy shit, the chickadee is thinking. I totally didn't mean to do that. Holy shit. Dude is huge. And the flicker shakes it off and goes back on the suet, and the chickadee doesn't say a word. Not until the flicker falls bloated off the suet, and then the chickadee makes some parting shot about its mama and shoots into the birdhouse.
And I observe it all. So it cannot be said that I'm unobservant. It can be said that I don't know one species from another, beyond the basic backyard set. And even those I'm a little foggy on, especially if they do not arrange themselves in the same position as the birds in the field guide. Could you turn and face the right? It's like I'm running the line-up down at the police station.
In spite of my limitations, I am once again going to humble myself by getting in a van with a bunch of real birders and hold down the stupid end of the back seat. These are people who can reliably assign a dot in the sky to a species before I have ruled out "eyeball floater." They can pull one single thread out of a blanket of birdsong and drop it right into the correct slot on the check-off list.
I can't find the splinter in my underpants even though I know exactly where it must be.
Songs, hell. They also speak Chirp. "Hear that? Savannah sparrow," they say, pointing into the grass.
"You mean that chit, chit?" I say.
They frown. "More like tsip, tsip," they say, helpfully.
How can real birders do this? A number of reasons. They've put a lot of time in. They have made a study of it. And, most important, they're complete freaks.
Well, I'm not afraid of getting in a van with freaks. I used to do that in the old days all the time, when the van was guaranteed to break down and nobody had any money or a phone and all we'd brought was some pot and a bag of Oreos. It worked out.
So as you may have surmised (speaking of writing checks for random people at the door), it's the annual Birdathon fundraiser. The twelve of us are going to try to make a little money for Audubon. Audubon does many wonderful things like conservation and advocating for wildlife but my personal favorite is outreach and education for kids. Audubon Society is in the business of teaching kids to give a shit. Eventually that produces voting adults who give a shit. Giving a shit is good. If you do, I'd be plenty honored if you wanted to sponsor me. It'll get you a Portland Audubon membership, too.
Here's how old I am. We had brontosauruses when I was a kid.
Then they took them away and replaced them with apatosauruses. It never sat right with me. The deal was, some 19th-century guy named Othniel Marsh found bones and arranged them into something he then called an Apatosaurus. And soon after he found more bones and strung them together and called it a Brontosaurus. And somewhere down the road everyone decided that they were basically the same critter, so they stuck with the first name, and made it official in the '70s.
Well, fine. I didn't love it, but I went along with it, because the school kids were nonchalant about having an apatosaur and no brontosaur, and they were wieldy with the metric system, and were annoying in other ways as well, and I didn't want to be that dagnabbity person.
But it festered. I happen to be exquisitely sensitive to the music of language. And if you've got yourself a beast that wouldn't even fit in my yard without folding up--and I have a double lot--you don't name him "apatosaurus." Just listen to the name. It belongs to a little scampery thing. A little hopping noodle of a dinosaur flitting through the woods with its tiny feet going apato apato apato and making eeping noises. Not an enormous thundering megadude who could quiver a whole swamp just by strolling by. BRON-TO. BRON-TO.
Apatosaurus, my fleshy fanny. Both names come from the Greek, of course. The Greeks were ancient, and thus closer in time to the dinosaur era and more familiar with the subject matter. Bronto-saurus means Thunder Lizard, as well it should. (Dinosaurs weren't lizards, but that etymological ship has sailed from every port.) And apatosaur? Goodness gracious. It means "sneaky fake lizard." Ain't that a fine how-do-you-do.
There isn't really any good reason to resurrect Apate, the goddess of Deceit, at all. You know that rental house across the street that had been blessedly vacant? And then one day the U-Haul pulls up leading a convoy of rustbuckets and all manner of crap starts coming out of them and going into the house? That's Apate's family. Her mother was Night, her father was Darkness, and of course they had a shitload of kids: Suffering, Doom, Carnage, Blame, Old Age, Strife, Retribution, and Violent Death. And the whole crew is going to be out on the front porch making noise 24/7 and nobody with any taste and discretion is going to think: I should name a noble dinosaur after one of these.
Nevertheless thanks to Mr. Marsh we have a splendid edifice of muscle and appetite with a dinky name. It's like if Dick Cheney went by "Skippy."
But now the Brontosaurus is back. The new powers that be have decided that the critters had slightly different collar sizes and could rightfully be considered separate items. If I run into one, I'm not liable to throw a tape measure around its neck. I'm just going to assume it's a Bronto, baby.
My presidential aspirations were shot years ago because of some photographic evidence that doesn't play well in Iowa. Also, I've said a lot of things that shouldn't be said in polite company, because I'm never in polite company. Now I hear that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is in political trouble because he's allergic to dogs, which is widely considered a fatal character flaw in America. So I'm screwed on that account too. I'm not allergic to dogs, but I don't have one, and, worse, I don't want one.
It's nothing personal. We had a dog, back in the days where you let your dog out to poop in the neighbors' yards and they let theirs out to poop in yours, and maybe you picked it up with a shovel every couple of weeks when it turned hard and white, but you certainly didn't bag it up like mixed nuts and carry it around with you. I'm not saying the new protocol isn't an improvement in many ways, but it took the shine off of dog ownership for us.
Anyway, dogs are lovely. They're almost guaranteed to like you whether you deserve it or not, and like you all the time, even when it's not convenient. We do get to have a really swell dog from time to time as a loaner, when her people cut out for the hinterlands. Dana is a big old orangey dog with the finest smile on two continents, and we like her a whole bunch. Turns out Dana is a poop-on-the-fly sort of gal. She keeps walking and drops a bomb every few feet, as though that's how she's planning to find her way back home.
She isn't at all barky, I'll give her that. She might pop out a whuff if she sees a critter that needs investigating, but she doesn't go on and on. Still, there's a whole drum kit of noise that comes with the dog package, and it takes some getting used to. The cat, not so much. Worst you're going to get out of the cat is a sort of muffled galloping with auxiliary punctuation in the form of, say, a crashing Christmas tree, but that's seasonal. But even with the quiet, polite form of dog such as Miss Dana, there's a lot of clickety clickety clickety of the claws on the floor, and then more clickety clickety clickety, and yet more clickety, followed by someone saying go lie down, followed by the whump of the dog hitting the floor, followed by a prolonged, exquisite sigh of disappointment that there isn't more going on, followed by the shlurp shmack shloop of a sleepy dog getting her lips at ease for the nap.
Ordinarily you get a dog like Dana and you wouldn't expect a lot of ball-licking, though. She never used to have balls, but when she turned five hundred, she started up a ball collection of her own, and she's gone at it with all the fervor of a girl with a Bedazzler. They're all over. Back, belly, legs. When she trots it looks like dingle balls on a sombrero. The bigger ones apparently require regular lingual attention.
So add ball-licking to the list.
It took a few days for the last item in the sound repertoire to register. It was subtle, almost imperceptible at first--the soundtrack of foreboding, a sort of velvety, benign tinnitus. I couldn't place it until the day I caught a little movement out of the corner of my eyes. Something was roiling in the periphery: clouds of blondness tumbled along the baseboards, clumps gathered and holed up in the upholstery and thundered across the carpeted plains. Yes. The liberated undercoat of the dog was rounding up a posse and getting ready to do everything but clean up this town. Dana's a good-natured dog. She'd probably let me vacuum her. If she lets me use the crevice device, that would take care of that other thing.
As it is, though, I think I have enough material to make a swell new dog if I ever get the urge.
Everyone's talking about religious freedom, which doesn't mean what it used to mean. It means you have the right to refuse to sell someone a wedding cake if you think Satan gets to lick the bowl. We're talking about some seriously special rights, here. I mean, I have some very strongly held personal beliefs based on my own observations about justice, morality, and the human condition, but none of them--none of them--can be said to be religious in nature, by which I mean Flang Out Of The Sky On A Tablet. Or even Strongly Suggested By The Great God Thor, or in any other way handed down from some entity that nobody has personally met and vetted. No, my strongly held personal beliefs have no official provenance whatsoever. And yet state legislatures are now treating these matters as though my beliefs aren't worth anything, they're all veneer and refinishing, and everyone else's have the Antiques Road Show seal of approval. It's all about the provenance.
If you've got some belief system that originated with a bunch of wandering goatherds 3,000 years ago, you're going to get way more money for it, conservatively speaking, at auction, than I am going to get for a belief system that's only a hair over sixty years old and makes some kind of sense in the real world. Screw that--it's got no value unless it can reliably be shown to have been committed to papyrus. I'm still free to put a frame around my beliefs and enjoy them in my own home and pass them down to the kids, but nobody's going to give me any money for them.
Which brings me to Deuteronomy 23. The issue is whether any given soul should be allowed to be in the company of God (which is assumed to be desirable, no matter how mean God might have been in the previous four chapters), and it turns out there are rules. Lots of rules. First verse in Deuteronomy 23: "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." What does that mean? That means King James was one lyrical sumbitch. That's poetry, right there. Which means it needs to be improved on in the modern era, thus: "A man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off may never join the assembly of the Lord."
Them's the rules, Stumpy. It doesn't really matter if it was an accident involving loose underpants and the company table saw, or something featuring a machete and a girl named Lola and you totally had it coming. Nope. You're out. And while we're at it, you're also out if you're a dwarf, or have runny sores, or bad eyes, or a rash. You're pretty much doomed if you're out of plumb in any significant way, or are anything other than perfect, and we'll get to the sin of pride in another chapter and verse.
This is the kind of religion we're enshrining here in the U.S.A., or at least Indiana and some nineteen other states. By George Washington, you're free to make any old cake you want. But if you want to stay on the right side of the Lord, you'd best ask your customers to drop their drawers before you do any sellin'. I'm not going to Hell because I hate to travel, but you--you'd better not take any chances.
So, after writing about the Dalai Lama, and his seven centuries of intimate ancestry (it's very intimate when you are your own ancestors), I got to thinking about reincarnation. The notion has a lot of fans. It's an attractive scenario for those who really chafe at dying. And that's most of us. Most of us are not at all happy about being extinguished utterly. There's something embedded in our own consciousness that rebels against being snuffed out. It's probably built right into the motherboard.
If it's just your conscious mind trying to grab eternity by the tail, though, I think reincarnation is an unlikely bet. You're assuming your spirit, or soul, is timeless, and just periodically needs a new ride. And presumably this is true for everyone. But we have something like seven billion people now, and we can't all have been serially reincarnated, unless a lot of us are carpooling.
Some people claim to have found out who they were in a past life. I've never understood why they aren't looking into their future incarnations as well. We all seem to have some idea that time progresses linearly, so that our future selves haven't happened yet, but somehow I doubt it. I don't think we're traveling along a rail of time like a bowling ball on the return chute. Maybe we're more like a marble rolling around a rumply Möbius blanket. All the time is happening all the time, but we only perceive that little point where our marble is intersecting the blanket. It seems like a straight line to us as it rolls, but maybe we're going over, under, behind, and ahead of ourselves constantly. Of course this possibility makes our heads blow up. We are wired to have a lack of imagination about time.
Some of the traditions have more interesting reincarnation prospects. Some Buddhists hold that there are a number of realms into which you can be reincarnated, with the ultimate goal of having things figured out so that you can eventually step out of time altogether. You could be a human. Or an animal. You could be a supernatural being, and if you land in the top tier, where it's lilacs and lollipops all the time, you run the risk of being so happy you quit working on yourself, and then you backslide into a lesser realm. I think that's a neat option. It's realistic. Get me into a recliner and I can't even always summon the gumption to change the TV channel. Modern Family episode I've seen ten times already? Good enough, I say.
Or, if you're a certain kind of soul that is unlikely to be Buddhist, you can just freeze your own ass and hope someone comes up with a cure for what felled you. Cryogenics is the sort of technical whizbangery whose proponents think of themselves as forward-looking, but it could equally well be a very short-sighted move. If you choose this path, apparently it has never occurred to you that if you are in some kind of suspended state beyond death, you might discover it's okay after all, just the way it is. And you're nevertheless planning to have yourself yanked right back into a much less satisfactory existence just because of your own lack of imagination. If you come back you're probably going to start out old, for one thing. And if it's just your head that's being frozen for future redeployment, you're going to come back old and really, really short.
We all just want to remain alive. But it's really our consciousness that wants to keep itself going, against all odds. And if we're not consciously aware of the coherence of our serial lives, I can't see how reassuring that is. If, right now, I am the continued soul of a stout-hearted woman who perished in a terrible riveting accident during World War II, but I don't know it, and neither did she, how is that reassuring?
Maybe I do have a spirit that will outlive my earthly ride, but I'm okay if I don't. For now I'll just stick my head out the window and feel the breeze on my muzzle and call it good enough.