Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cascara 2.0

It's a cascara tree. No human planted it. It was a gift from a bird who gave a shit, but not about property lines. When Dave put up a fence between our house and the next, he put it up as close to the tree as he could. Even with that, later, we realized we'd stolen some two feet from the neighbor's yard to accommodate the tree. So we had to buy the neighbor's house.

Cascaras are native here, which is good. That means birds will like it, and insects will live in it, which means the birds will like it even more. I didn't think it was that attractive, at first. Kind of dull. But that was before I started writing, and before we designated the room closest to the tree as a writing room, and before I had a chance to appreciate the birds that appreciated the tree. Now I do. I count on them. The tree is up past the second story and that means its branches are right outside my writing-room window. It shouldn't have gotten much taller than that, but it did, because it's in shadow and yearned for the sun I suppose, and we had to whack off the topmost branches because they shaded our solar panels.

That was a few years ago. The tree hasn't done well since. It could be the coppicing, but it's old for a cascara, and maybe it was doomed already. Most of it is flat-out dead. It's a weird tree. New parts keep springing out of the old so that there are viable branches going vertically out of the dead stuff. It looks like a huge, unruly menorah. I don't know how long it hopes to keep this up, but already the leafy shade our birdhouse birds might be relying on is gone. There are just a few cowlicks of leaves left.

So what you ordinarily do when a tree is dying on your little city lot is you take it down and replace it. That's understood. You tell all the shrubs that it just went to live in the country, but that's not what really happens.

I dithered about it. I need that tree. My window is on the second floor. You can't just swap a big tree out that fast. If I didn't have my birds to look at, I'd just be staring at a blank computer screen, and that tends to panic writers.

Then my birds caught wind of the plans and started piping up. They pecked at the dead parts and pulled out little grubby snacks. They grabbed seeds from the feeder and stashed them in the flaky bark. They loved it. TERRIFIC, said the chickadees. Yeah? Okay.

The bushtits lined up on a branch together. SOME TWIG, they spelled out.

Hey. I know this story. This is the story where you think everything's going great and then you lose your very best spider, and it's horribly sad. I was morose for days.

Then I was weeding a patch beneath the unruly menorah tree and saw them. Remember? That's not the end of the story after all! There, in an empty pot at the base of the cascara, were two friendly little cascara seedlings, six inches tall. I can plant them next to the dying tree and maybe they'll grow up right alongside! They said they're willing to give it a go.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Damn Spot

I didn't like the looks of a spot on my forearm, so I photographed it and sent it to my dermatologist. He indeed said he would like to take a look at that, and I should get an appointment. I did. A month and a half out. Well, I'm used to that with Kaiser. I like them a lot but if you want to see a dermatologist or a gynecologist you might be waiting a while. You might have to wait if--as my friend Noah put it--you have a vagina, or skin.

I have both. Neither is in original condition.

I'm assuming my spot is not all that dire or they would have found a way to slide me in earlier. And I'm not particularly worried about it. It's suspicious, but I have this idea, true or no, that no one dies of forearm cancer. Dying of forearm cancer would be weird. Not as weird as that sports photographer who wanted to get the cool inside shot at the dog track and got his head lopped off by the mechanical bunny--that was really weird. Or the fellow buried alive after standing on a stepladder to administer an abruptly effective enema to an elephant. Also weird.

But as long as I have an appointment anyway, I'm going to give him a tour of the neighborhood. He's never been enthusiastic. Maybe he feels short of time. He never wants to see anything but the dot I came in with, and that just bugs me. There's at least half of me I can't even see. I'm only in there every couple years. Why can't he get a bright light and have a look around? It couldn't take that long. I'm only 5'3". I don't care if he has to hold a dainty hankie to his nose, as long as he does it.

Even if I could see it all, I wouldn't necessarily know what I'm looking at. When I met Dave, I discovered he had a set of the most baroque and alarming moles on his back, any one of which looked poised to take him down, but he never did anything about them, and they're still there, only forty years older. What do I know?

I also plan to point out my tick bite. You know, the tick bite I got in March. Still there. That sucker has stamina. I suspect maybe the little bastard left some spare mouth parts in there, and I hope-to-shout he never gets his mouth properly assembled again. Or perhaps the lump is some kind of egg sac, and one night when I least expect it, it's going to rupture and aliens are going to pour out of it like Huns over the steppes of Asia. It does have a sinister Vesuvius look about it. I had a nurse friend look at it, and she wasn't impressed. Well, she's a midwife, actually, but that's the same thing, and she's had to wrap her head around, and in some cases jam her arm all the way up, way worse things than this.

I guess if the good dermatologist is that pressed for time, I can get Dave to flip me over and circle anything suspicious with a Sharpie before I go in. But I don't want to. Three minutes in, he won't be able to stop himself from connecting the dots. This I know.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Fuzzy Logic

I was walking under a tree the other day when I noticed a fizzing knob hanging from a branch which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be not a visual migraine, but a swarm of bees. A living, vibrating unit of life, admirable in every way. My friend tells me I could have knocked the whole thing into a box and had me a swarm of my own, as long as I managed to bag the queen. It ain't over if the fat lady clings. The queen is the key to the whole swarm. She is endowed by Nature with something special.

Charisma.

It's hard to know how to feel about this. On the one hand, I admire a good cohesive social group. I believe in comity. I believe we can and must band together for the common good. If we pull together we can all have honey. And if we don't, we're just a bunch of lone rangers in pollen pants. On the other hand, it's a little frightening to think of a mob following one individual so slavishly.

Pollen Pants
We all learned how this works in school. The queen runs the outfit. She decides who the boy bees will be, and they lounge around in tiny togas waiting for a chance to inseminate her. She decides who the girl bees will be, who, bless their hearts, are in for a lifetime of work. At some point she even designates a successor, who becomes a queen by being fed Royal Jelly, which has 100% of your daily requirement of charisma. The entire operation runs smoothly but it still has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian dynastic state.

Which is fine most of the time, but what if it's a bad queen?

What if it's a Nestle queen, and she decides to jack up her personal net worth by directing her workers to decant the community honey into little tiny individual flavor packets and sell them back to the drones at an obscene markup? They'll do it, too. They'll do anything for jobs. And the drones will all buy the flavor packets. I don't know why, but they will. They're biddable, those ones. It's a plutocracy waiting to happen.

Bees get along together so well not because they have no imagination, but because they're all imagining the same things. That, and they all look alike. They're soft and fuzzy. But consider the ants. Ants are reputed to work together well too, but half the time you look at them they're hauling other dead ants around. And that is damned fishy.

Let that be a warning to us. It's one thing to work cooperatively together, but if everyone is piling on board a charisma train, somebody ought to be paying attention to where the tracks lead.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Imagine Regular Willy

Archie Bunker's in his chair, talking about a guy he works with. Why, the Meathead demands hotly, do you always have to call him "Black Willy?"

"So's you can tell him from Regular Willy," Archie says.

Well there it is. We're a long way from everyone getting to be Regular Willy. And no sooner do we  have awful events like last week's, when two black men were murdered by officers of the law, and five officers of the law were executed by a sniper on a personal mission, than all of America reacts with brief shock and retreats immediately to their own bunkers.

We do that because that's where we feel safe, with our own kind, and also that's where all our ammunition is. Dig in, and be ready to fight back.

We're a very defensive people. We're pretty sure everyone is out to get us. We are not really the home of the brave. We wouldn't be bristling with either firearms or insults if we were. Behind our bunkers, we sort through our arms.

Black men are all thugs.  Or look like thugs, which is kind of the same thing.
Cops are all racists. 
Black people kill the most black people.
We need more open-carry.
Not you, Rashawn.
No one gets pulled over and shot for no reason at all.
The sniper was a veteran who was ruined by our war machine.
The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Unless the good guy is a black guy with a broken taillight and the bad guy is a cop.
You can't possibly know what it's like to be a police officer who takes his life in his hands every time he puts on the blue.

All sorted out?  Ready to aim and fire?

All righty! Let's get things rolling with a thoughtful essay about white privilege.

Are you calling me a racist? I'm not a racist. This is bullshit.

Okay sure. But if you can drive down the road and see flashing lights behind you and think oh crap and now I'm going to be even later and this is going to be expensive, but not even once entertain the notion that you might be dead soon, you may be benefitting from what some are calling privilege. If you can reasonably assume you might get in trouble for your own dumbass actions but not for who you are or how you look, you're being given the benefit of the doubt. And, no mistake, that's the way it should be. You get to be Regular Willy. Everybody should get to be Regular Willy. But everybody doesn't get to be Regular Willy.

If you're being introduced to the concept of white privilege, you're not being accused of anything. You're not being asked to apologize. Settle down. It's a call to empathy. You're being asked to consider that other people's experience is unlike yours. You're being invited to put yourself in someone else's shoes. A teenager being pulled over by a cop. Or, a cop. Or, for extra credit, a trained killer back from Afghanistan with a heap of rage and a gun. There are lots of shoes. If we're going to understand each other, we need to try them all on. It costs us nothing.

Imagine being a good kid. Or just a normal goofy kid who does stupid shit. And all your life you're followed around whenever you go into a store. Women cross the street to avoid you. You and your friends on the corner are regularly questioned by the police when you're not doing anything wrong, or you're pulled over for no reason. Over and over and over, yes sir, no ma'am. Your parents have had to teach you what to do with your hands and body when that happens so you don't die. Or, imagine being that mom or dad. How do you feel?

It should be so easy to imagine. If we could step just outside the bunker. If it weren't so comfortable in there. And there wasn't all that ammunition we'd be wasting.

And so now we witness our fellow citizens crying out in despair and screaming stop killing us, and count on it: a whole lot of white people are going to be affronted. They aren't killing anybody. They get their feelings hurt.

But they get to keep their sons.

I knew this guy, once. He thought it was nuts that black people are so worked up all the time. Overreacting. Like, buckle down, get over it, right? Get a job and ack normal. Same dude went on for hours about some rich lady on his mail route who looked all snooty at him like she thought she was better than him. Hours. One would think he could understand the sting of condescension and dismissal. And work from there to inconsequence and actual existential danger.

But because he has never felt mortally threatened by a cop, he can't imagine that police work might attract a certain percentage of bad-ass, dangerous bullies. Instead they're all brave heroes with really hard jobs to do, and their victims must have done something to deserve their fates. He simply could not imagine that if you kept your head down and stayed on the straight and narrow--you know, mostly--you would have anything to fear from the police.

Except our lives and experiences are not all the same. And if your reaction to black lives matter is all lives matter, you're not listening. You're behind your bunker, on the defense, and not paying attention to other people's testimony. And that is all that's being asked of you: that, right now, you consider that black lives are in fact disposable in a way yours is not. Jesus. Pipe down and just listen.

That won't kill you.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Not All That Much Cat

Strange times. We have it on good, or at least loud, authority that Hillary Clinton is planning to have some of our troops massacred just for the thrill of being able to lie about it to the American people. That Bernie Sanders keeps a sperm sample from Karl Marx in a locket on his person at all times to keep it warm and viable. That Barack Obama is going to make us pray to Allah five times a day just so he can look at men's butts. People will say anything about anybody. They really don't care much about the truth anymore.

Well, this stops here.

Because I am here to report that our cat Tater, in spite of everything that everybody ever says about her, is not fat. All you people who come to the front door and are greeted by our bounding and enthusiastic house mammal can just take your "my, what a fat cat you are" and stuff it. I saw you rolling your eyes when we insisted she was only the exact right size she needed to be to contain her personality. That she couldn't possibly get fat on a half cup of dry store kibble a day. I know you were thinking this was one of those "love is blind" things, like when you say your grandkid is smart as a whip, while he has one hand down his pants and the other in his nose up to the second knuckle. But after a while, when complete strangers came and knocked on the door to sell some Jesus and tell us our cat was fat, we started to think maybe it was true.

But it's not. She is medically certified not fat. We had to take her to the vet the other day. First time she's been since she was brand new, nine years ago. She had the sneezles. After the third sneezly day we looked it up on Dr. Internet and discovered we might be endangering her very existence by waiting for the sniffles to go away, so we packed her up and took her in. The vet had a look all around and held a stethoscope to her brisket for a minute and looked in her ears and in her mouth and said there was nothing wrong with her. Her teeth looked perfect. Her chest was clear. Her coat was healthy. She didn't need any medications. He didn't offer any vaccines just because. She was admirable in every way. And for what he charged us, we couldn't even have filled up the pickup truck.

"Do you think she's fat?"

"No," he said, just like that, without even hedging. He could feel her ribs just fine. "They all get that waggly apron thing; it's where cats store their healthy fat. She's just a nice big cat. She could drop maybe ten grams, but she doesn't need to."

Black Cat Smiling
Okay, ten grams is a lot of cocaine but not much cat. We've seen big cats before. We had a neighbor who went to pick up her cat when we came to the door, and she picked it up, and kept picking it up, until finally she was standing up with the front end of the cat in her arms, and its butt was still on the floor. That was a big cat. Tater's just big compared to those little noodle-tailed pansy cats you see. She's not fat. Vet said so.

She quit sneezing two days later. Next time I'm sick, I'm going to the vet. He'll tell me I'm fine, I'm pretty, I don't need dental work, and there's no need to hit the gym or the pharmacy. And my fur is to die for.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Ed's Face

This is my friend Ed. He has a business called Pedal Roaster and he roasts coffee beans and delivers them by bicycle. He recently lost an argument with Willamette Boulevard, and this is the result. You'll have to take my word for it that prior to his attempting to use his face as a brake, it was quite lovely, and no doubt will be again. But right now, his body is his temple, and his temple needs renovations.

I never ground up my face to this extent, but I've taken plenty of spills on a bicycle, due to the sheer number of hours I've spent on a bicycle and my casual relationship with the vertical. One time I landed on my face, too.

I was in Boston. I was riding my bike home from work in a snowstorm. The rule in Boston is you get five cars minimum through the intersection on a red light. If you actually stop for a red light you will get rear-ended, even if the person behind you could have stopped in time, just so as to acquaint you with the rules. Two or three minutes into rush hour this results in a total citywide turgid clog with everyone reaching into the glove box for the flask and honking lavishly.

The other rule is that you approach all such intersections with confidence and blinders and never, ever let the other guy know you see him.

I was coming up on one of these chicken games and applied my brakes and immediately went flatways and I entered the icy intersection in a slow, graceful, balletic spin, chin first. It was dreamlike: the flakes coming down, the street swirling 360 degrees, once, twice, the various frictionless car tires approaching sideways, and by the time our little Swan Lake episode was over, I was gazing into the tread of an automobile tire a yard away, and the driver was peering down at me.

"What's your medical insurance?" he said.

"Harvard Medical," I said, politely.

"Cool," he said. "I'm a doctor in that plan. My office is in the next block. Let's get you fixed up."

He helped me up and we walked my bike over to his office, leaving his car in the intersection, where it wasn't due to trickle out for another half hour anyway, and we went into his office, where he got out some instruments and began to pluck gravel out of my chin. He hummed happily. He clearly loved his work, although all Bostonians get an extra spring in their step when they've left their cars in the middle of the road.

"Looks like you could get by with a butterfly bandage," he said. "But I could make it perfect with a couple stitches. Do you want some stitches? I love doing surgery."

I was already feeling queasy about his gravel extraction efforts, and a little nervous about his enthusiasm. I declined. I have a thin scar now.

I don't remember ever being billed. Maybe I wasn't. Two years earlier I was living in London and waltzed into a clinic with a much more serious condition that was also related to my youthful indiscretions, and I got fixed up and sent out the door without a bill then too. It was slick. This is what it would be like if we had single-payer health insurance here.

I know Ed has insurance because he, like me, is a retired letter carrier with a decent benefits package. That's the sort of thing middle-class people used to have before unions were revealed to be a plague on humanity during the Reagan administration. We've been duly educated in that regard, and also are up to date about the horror of socialized medicine, so there's no danger the insurance industry is going to have to give up a ton of our money anytime soon.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Man Plan

This one's mine
You know how something seems unthinkable, and then someone thinks it, and then more people think it, and after a while it starts to seem normal? Like mass shootings. No one used to think about that at all, but somebody got the ball rolling and now it's a Thing.

So I really resisted a lot of what Trump was saying but now I'm kind of getting the hang of it. Sometimes the simplest solution really is the best solution. And it doesn't get any simpler than defining your enemies using the broadest brush possible, and walling them off, registering them, killing their families, and otherwise making them all really sorry for frightening you. How hard can it be to get a handle on a billion Muslims when they all have to kneel down and pray five times a day?

Well, I don't have much of a grudge against Muslims, but it doesn't take much thought to look around at all the threats in the world, large and small, with a clear eye, and recognize the common denominator. Men. We need to do something about men. They're scary. Not all of them, but until you know for sure it's best to just lump them all together and keep an eye on them. Worst thing a woman's ever done to me is compliment me on my haircut and not mean it. But the stalking and grabbing and raping and bombing and torturing and general death kind of scary--it's pretty much always men.

Decorative
A lot of the good old strategies are making a comeback. Newt Gingrich, an antique pasty white guy, just suggested we should bring back the House Un-American Activities Committee, for instance. His activities put him in no danger, since there's nothing un-American about infidelity, or, as he prefers it, "proactive engagement with future wives." He also complains that America has become too secular. He's already been Lutheran, Southern Baptist, and Catholic, himself. The man really can't get enough sects.

There were so many good ideas from back around World War II. The most promising for today's problems has to be the Japanese-American internment camps. That wasn't a popular idea at first because for the most part people in the western states were fond of their neighbors, but after Pearl Harbor, those same neighbors began to look a whole lot hinkier. They were easy to round up, too, because the Census Bureau ratted them out, even though the information was supposed to be confidential. The Census Bureau flatly denied doing it, however, until 2007, in a fit of retroactive truthfulness. But they still probably know where all the men are.

Even with everything that's happened, a lot of us would probably balk at stashing all the men away somewhere--a lot of us find them highly decorative--but all it will take is one more Pearl Harbor moment and we'll get everyone on board. Where to stash them, though? We want to avoid cruelty--that's not who we are, inside. We just want them quarantined for our safety, and maybe we can make off with their stuff, too. So I suggest some kind of cave. Men like caves! There's already a huge cave under Missouri that they use for cheese storage. Men like cheese!

I'm telling you, we're one cable hookup and a taco shipment away from solving the whole thing.