Saturday, August 27, 2016

Calm And Collected

I've always thought it would be cool to collect something. Collectors have fun everywhere they go. They'll pop into junk stores looking for salt cellars, or old toys, or movie posters. Their houses are cluttered with pigs, or frogs, or owls. Sometimes people give you stuff they're sure you're collecting, which is why I have a number of lizards that they mistook for salamanders. I do like salamanders, but I don't collect them.

I don't collect anything. If I could collect something, it would be Birds I Have Seen. I would have my own Life List Of Birds. Unfortunately, I can assemble a Life List about as well as I can build a house with Scotch tape and toilet paper. I don't have what it takes. I can't remember the field marks of a bird for as long as it takes to put down the binoculars and check the field guide. Later I can't remember having seen it at all.

So when I'm out birding with people whose brains are in working condition, sometimes they'll point out some marvelous feathered item and I get all excited, and they say "Is that a life bird for you?"

How the hell should I know? The other day I got my new debit card in the mail and had the opportunity to change the default PIN to one I'd be more likely to remember, so I did. Next time I used the card, I punched in the old number, then my address, my birthday, and my anniversary, and the machine ate my card. It wouldn't give it back until  I described its field marks. I was screwed.

I don't recognize my neighbors if they're not standing under their house numbers. I look up "oligarchy" at least three times a week. I've played piano for 55 years and have no repertoire. I still hold my cell phone up to my ear and wait for the dial tone.

I had to buy a new camera because last week I put it on a little patch of moss for a second and thought "Don't forget you left this here" and that was that, and then it rained.

We got a dozen gulls on this coast and they're peas in a pod. I'm not going to be sure I've seen a life bird unless it's threatening me and looks like a Victorian lady's hat.

That's why it was so cool that I just saw a life bird all by myself, and I knew it. I didn't know what it WAS; I had to look it up. But I knew I'd never seen it. It was a woodpecker. But not a hairy, or a downy, or a pileated, or a red-bellied (because it has a red head: yeah, screw you, new birder), or a black-backed, or an acorn. Them I has seed. This one was different. I was crowing, as it were, about my life bird later.

"What was it?" my friends asked.

Well, shit, you had to go and ask. I'd just looked it up, and now I can't remember what it was called. Let's see. I know it had a white head.

So I looked it up again.

It was a White-Headed Woodpecker. And possibly an Oligarch.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

D.I.Y. Propaganda

In Oregon, the earth pooted out volcanoes every other Sunday for a long time. Mountains of all shapes jut into the sky. We were hiking amongst them, and one of them looked newer than the others: a nice, smooth, uneroded cone with some snow on it. It got me thinking about kids, and how they draw.

Kids teach themselves how to draw in such predictable ways that you can tell a seven-year-old's drawing from an eight-year-old's. Right around age ten, some kids work out how to draw more realistically. Then they enjoy drawing for the rest of their lives. The rest of the kids don't figure out the trick, and they get discouraged and give up. If cajoled into drawing as adults, they will produce the same drawings they'd have made at age ten. They draw symbols of things instead of the things they're looking at. For example, they'll look right at a nice scraggly mountain, and they'll draw an inverted cone with a blob of snow on it. That represents "mountain."

I'd managed to snag a little internet before we set out on the hike, just enough to know that my piece about Hillary Clinton had left many readers baffled and appalled. I'd thought I'd written it to be so completely over the top that it was clear I was spoofing. I even said she eats children, although I'm pretty sure she doesn't. I was troubled. How could anyone have failed to detect that I was making fun of all those awful things she gets accused of?

Well, because you read that stuff every day. People across the political spectrum wallpaper their Facebook pages with memes accusing all kinds of people of all kinds of things, and that's meant to stand in for reasonable discourse. Our digital presence is slathered in self-curated bumper stickers. If I had gone even further, and said that Hillary Clinton eats children-nuggets wrapped in corporate cash, fried in tar-sands oil, and dipped in genetically modified Bundy-Ranch dressing every fracking day of her life, a certain percentage of readers would put it on a poster and send it all over the world. Click.

Everybody's doing it. Everybody finds some clever piece of crap that's been written about someone they hate, and out it goes to all and sundry, attached to an unflattering picture of the villain in question, whether or not any of it is true. I was disturbed by some of the anti-Hillary stuff coming in from the left this year. There was one meme that declared a vote for HRC was a vote for fracking. Now when it comes to fossil fuels, I'm a leave-it-in-the-ground kind of gal, so I decided to look into it. It contained a germ of truth. I preferred Bernie's nice tidy answer to whether he would support fracking: NO. But Clinton's position was thoughtful, strategic, and honest, and included consideration of real political/economic conditions that pertain across the globe. As much as I cheered Bernie, Hillary's position was probably more likely to get us where we need to be. Not soon enough, probably not even for her--but that's a lost dream.

So at the least, this trash-talk about HRC misrepresents her. It's designed to. We are in a golden age of propaganda, begun the old-fashioned way by the establishment of fake news organizations funded by a plutocracy, but now, individuals on all sides of an issue bite off chunks of propaganda and disseminate it themselves, for free. Here are your facks, folks: we've made it simple for you, no need to look any further. The real Hillary Clinton is a mountain. The Hillary meme you're gleefully sending out to the world is a cone with a blob of snow on it. Hey, close enough, right?

So I was thinking about all this while I was hiking, and it was a happy diversion when I heard a cool noise and stopped under a tree to investigate. It sounded like a baby bird. Low, rhythmic, weeka weeka weeka. Flickers make a similar noise but never so quietly. I was sure there was a nest of hatchlings above my head. But they refused to repeat the noise, because they're cautious about my kind. I walked on.

But there it was again! I stopped again and stared up into a tree.  Go on, make that noise again. I'll find you this time. Sometimes adult birds tweet out a version of their song but use their indoor voice. Their bedroom voice. They're communicating with their honeys and they don't want anyone else to hear. Sure enough, they stopped when I did.

I went on. Fifteen feet later, after I ran through some more possibilities, I stopped one more time, determined to find the little bugger. It stopped too. Took me all that time to realize my new pack was squeaking as I walked. Weeka weeka weeka.

Sometimes you need to be very still and let all the squeaking around you die down before you can figure out the truth.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Just Put Me In A Speedo And Call Me Steele Johnson

Ah, the Olympics! The very greatest athletes in the world are on display, flipping, diving, taking a stand against gravity, poinking flea-like into the air, and being named Steele Johnson. It's impossible to watch all this human glory and not wonder: which of these events would I, personally, least suck at?

So many choices here. Track and Field is altogether out of the question. The starter pistol alone is likely to make me shit my pants and run in the wrong direction, which would suck. My only value to the team would be in the payoffs from off-track betting, where I'd produce a sturdy cash flow in the over-under for how many times I'd be lapped before I keel over at, if not beyond, the finish line. Even worse would be the power events. Your shot put, your discus, your javelin--all those things the athlete tries to get as far away from himself as possible? Not my sport. We learned this in softball when I'd run down a ball at the fence and pivot and give it everything I had, and it would ploop a lazy arc in the air and thunk down in center field. Not only do I have linguini where my muscles are supposed to be, but also I'm a little fuddled about the letting-go part. There's no guarantee the objects I'm throwing aren't going to land behind me. None whatsoever, Dave would agree--he's the one with the imprint of the pipe wrench in his forehead. I've taken out my own teammates at horseshoes. For sheer entertainment value, watch that audience reaction when I spin with a discus! The second time.

Ordinarily you'd expect I'd be even worse at the swimming events, due to my inability to swim, but in reality I'm an all-around threat, competing equally well in the 50-meter freestyle, the 200-meter flappy-insect, and the thrash-and-sink. I can stand at the edge of the pool and wobble my arms like nobody's business. And I am unsurpassed at that bit at the end of the race, where you cling to the floaty ropes and breathe hard and grab onto the person in the next lane. It's only the middle parts where I struggle.

Similarly, I show some promise in beach volleyball, because I've had so much experience sticking my butt out, tugging at my underwear, and falling over.

That leaves gymnastics, where my lack of height works in my favor, if we ignore the hooter factor. Floor exercises are not likely to be a strong point. I have occasionally been able to complete 1/8th of a flip, which is remarkable given my three-inch vertical leap. Unfortunately, it is not distinguishable, from a spectator's viewpoint, from a face plant.

Which brings us inexorably to my best event. Yes: the balance beam. The balance beam is four inches wide and I am statistically certain to fall off a city sidewalk several times a year. I will be routinely awarded degree-of-difficulty points just for walking from one end to the other, due to my handicap (lack of ability). I will have a premature dismount just standing on the end of the beam doing the swishy ballet moves with my arms. And I will totally stick the landing. Not necessarily on my feet, but I don't roll far.

I'm not aspiring to gold, anyway. I don't want to fall off any podium higher than the bronze.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Avoiding The Damp Spot

Sometimes I sit by a stream and wonder why it keeps going. Shouldn't it be possible to see the end of it? Shouldn't it be possible to watch the end of the stream go by, with a little floopity noise, and leave dust in its wake? After all, it happened to the mighty Colorado River, which now slouches along and gets dwindly and peters out into a damp spot miles from the ocean.

Which is not a great development. A couple years ago someone stood on a nice bridge across the Sandy River on Mt. Hood and must have noticed that the river was missing, and leaned on the railing to contemplate its goneness. It had just hidden behind a jumble of ice, and when that broke through, the river turned back on, bigger and deeper than ever, and took the whole bridge, and the unfortunate hiker, with it. He was found a couple miles downstream, and not in operating condition.

Similarly, I am led to understand that if you're contemplating the ocean, with its endless tide rolling in, and it suddenly disappears, you should run like bloody hell, uphill.

Well, this is practical advice. But I think about disappearing streams more often than most. Because I have been putting out this seemingly endless stream of crap here on Murrmurrs for over seven years without missing a single Wednesday or Saturday, and I still get in a panic about it. I rarely write to a deadline or anything: I have a stash. But I still understand that if I do not resupply my stash with an average of two a week, that stream is going to turn into a damp spot. I feel great if I write two a week, giddy if I write three, and there's a big shadow over me if I only manage one. Oh no, I think. It's over.

It's not that I worry my muse will go on strike. I don't have a muse. I have a running conversation going in my head in which at least one participant is funny. And I trip across headlines like "Non-Profit Collecting Used Bras To Send To Developing Countries." Then it's just a matter of sitting down and transcribing the conversation. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes there's nothing in there at all. Just the whisper of tumbling lint, same as Pootie.

But, by some miracle, we've arrived at this point with this post, which is my 800th. And I have to remind myself that just this last spring I sat on the porch with a beer, next to a piece of dog shit, and realized I could write a whole blog post about sitting next to a piece of dog shit. It's officially time to quit worrying about it all. We can worry about quality control, but that's it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Remembering A Cheshire Girl

This time of year, late June, they start before five in the morning. The dawn chorus is full on, but the bird that wakes me up is the crow that thunks down on the gutter over my head. He's a brand new guy. He goes off bleating every few seconds until his mom or dad comes by to jam something down his maw, and then makes with a sort of strangled honky noise and pauses to swallow and then goes right back to bleating again. Something similar is happening in every tree. It's nesting season, and everywhere you hear the piping and squeaking and beebling of new life.

It's a strange time to die, but that's what my friend Tamara did. It shouldn't have come as a surprise, I suppose. She got fake cancer years ago. Went in to the doctor for a routine checkup and came out with an unsolicited cancer diagnosis, and not one of your better ones. She got a port installed for chemo that maybe interfered with her tennis backhand but other than that she had no symptoms. For years. She referred to her cancer, when she bothered to do so at all, in the same way you'd talk about your neighbor who keeps parking crooked in your shared driveway. Slightly raised eyebrow and a shrug.

Jesus! Smart as hell, that one. Tamara was one of the smartest, funniest people I know, and my standards are high. Her face comes easily to mind when I close my eyes. Floats right up there like a big "yes" on a Magic Eight-Ball. So this is as good a time as any to mention how beautiful Tamara was. It's one of the first things you think of, because she had the kind of beauty anyone could agree on. If it was a blessing at all, it was probably a mixed one. Sometimes people blame a person for her own beauty, and how it makes them feel. But she had it nonetheless, and the part I can't forget is her smile. Often as not she highlighted it with impossible, arrest-me red lipstick, and she totally pulled it off, by the way. But the remarkable thing about her smile is that I do not know what her face looked like without it. I do not. She had that lightness.

Hard to say why. Hers was, by all accounts, the kind of upbringing you have to recover from, but that's what she did. The smart and the funny helped. Somehow she sifted through the fundamentalism and falsehoods and burdens and weights on the soul, and abandoned them one by one, and pulled herself steadily toward health. She wasted no time. Oh, the occasional whiskey-for-breakfast kind of wasting time, sure, or the read-all-day-in-bed kind, you bet. But she didn't squander a minute of life on regret, or shame, or self-pity, or guilt, or worry, or taking offense--none of those things that keep most of us mired in self-doubt and distraction. She blamed nobody, including herself. No ma'am: she was moving ever onward.

So it's a shock, this sudden lack of onwardness.

What else is there to report? The gardens? Fashion? Political engagement? Volunteerism? Sure, all that. But really: the food. Oh my god how that woman loved food. Most people claim to, but most women don't tuck into it headfirst by the platterful without feeling the need to apologize. Which, she knew instinctively, was a waste of time. And since she loved eating so much, she learned to cook like St. Peter's sous-chef. She loved to eat, and loved to laugh, and snorted right out loud when she laughed, and really, all that needs to be said about Tamara is that she was admitted to the emergency room on two separate occasions for snorting pasta while eating and laughing. Top that, timid ones.

It was only six months ago that her fake cancer suddenly stood up and stomped on her gut to get her attention, and then she couldn't eat real food anymore. Another person might have despaired but she just adjusted her lifetime aspirations to being able to get one nice piece of sushi down. She started to dwindle. Only the packaging, not the prize inside. She lost a bunch of weight, admitted to pain if you asked her directly, but otherwise just stayed funny and smart, per usual. Maybe it's easier if you don't have a habit of blame, or even a God to blame things on. You move onward, to the end we all share. You don't waste time.

I guess for people like her the most that is likely to be claimed for her soul is that it's now free to mingle in the spiritual plane. I won't say it. I'm not comforted. I want my Tamara undiluted.

So that's that--Tamara is gone. But I know exactly what she left behind. I can sense it whenever a chance joy settles over me, and I can see it, too, if I shut my eyes. Something sweet and bright, in arrest-me red, stretching wide across the sky.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Edit Yourself

Expertly edited photo
One of the things I had in common with my mom is an aversion to having my picture taken. That's probably because of the other things I had in common with my mom--we're both cut out of the same plain cloth and maybe too sensitive to how it's draping. But I've gotten over it. Once I started this here blog, I knew it needed illustrations so people aren't forced to read too many words in a row. So I ended up putting a lot of pictures of myself in it. I'd rather put in pictures of Pootie, but we can't always get Wardrobe to pick up the phone.

Which means there aren't too many secrets anymore. Everyone knows my eyebrows went AWOL and one of them got taken over by a mole and my entire neck region is experiencing boom times, and never mind the bust. And there's other stuff--stuff I wasn't even aware of. "Are you flexing?" Dave asked recently, and impertinently, when he snapped a photo of me in a Rosy the Riveter pose. Yes. Of course I'm flexing. But then I see the picture, and there it is: apparently I do not own a bicep. Not even after all those 16-ounce curls.

Well! Good news! No one ever has to look bad anymore, because there's Photoshop. You can twiddle with your photographs all you want and no one ever has to know until you actually show up at the reunion. It's a miracle. It's even better than the stock dummy editing features that come with your computer. Those are the ones that allow you to fuzz out blemishes and stuff. You have to fuzz them out in circular increments, so that you end up looking like the victim of a benign fungal infection, but that's still better than reality, am I right? But with Photoshop, you can go way past fuzz, and introduce alien features, such as Scarlett Johanneson.

"You should definitely get into Photoshop," a friend told me early on, speculating generously about my skill set. I looked into it. Right away there was trouble.  Evidently Photoshop is a Raster Graphics Editor, and I was already going as rast as I was comfortable with. It got worse.

Bitmaps are involved, in case you need little tiny directions. But the main protocol involved layers. Lots and lots of layers, clear layers overlaying each other. You could have text on one layer and pictures on another layer. You could have your own face on a layer and particularly desirable segments of Lauren Bacall on another, and eventually you get them all stacked up square and jam them together. (One tutorial referred to this as "compositing" multiple images. I don't know if they meant "composing" or "composting" but either way you get mulch.) The number of layers, it says, is limited only by your computer's memory. But that is not true.  Your own memory can cause you to generate an unwieldy number of layers because you don't know where any of the previous ones went.

There are tools, but you won't remember where you put them down. There's an eyedropper, but it makes your layer blink. There's a magic wand, but that's not as slick as you'd like either. Nothing about the process seemed likely to come easily to me. But I do not despair.

Because I am the Master of the Workaround. Behold my skills, and be amazed.

       

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Old And Stupid

I'd seen the man before. Eighty, maybe; he'd figured out where the card catalog had been banished, off in a corner behind the Circulation Desk, but now the card catalog was altogether missing, and he was in line at the desk, seething. The nice woman escorted him over to the table and set him up in front of a computer monitor, and walked him through the basics, kindly, with one hand on his shoulder, and when she finally left, he poked away for a few minutes, with every keystroke bringing up new and ever more irrelevant screens he was helpless to dismiss, until finally he stood up as straight as he could and walked out of the library for good, carrying a little chunk of my heart.

Nobody likes to feel old, or stupid. Not even old stupid people like it.

I preferred the card catalog myself, but somehow I was able to loop a lasso over the new technology when it first arrived, and even though most of the time I'm flapping in the wind behind the technology as it races ahead, I'm still holding on. It was infuriating at first. The computer screen seemed like a big bright sign flashing "you're dumb" over and over at me, but when I finally quit protesting and said "you're ugly" back at it, things got easier.

It's just that when you've lived a long time it seems like you should know more than other people. That's supposed to be the deal. And instead you know less.

Doesn't even have to be something as important as unlocking the key to the world's knowledge. I can't even unlock the key to my little portion of fossil fuel. Sometimes years go by without my having to pump my own gas, because it's illegal here. And when I do, I want signage. There's never signage. Do I put a card in? Or is this one of those places I have to go into the little chips 'n' pepperoni store and throw down a twenty before the pump even flickers on? I need a PIN, really? I need to see a guy in a little booth? What? Just put out a sign. I can follow instructions. How come everybody else knows what to do? And they do. So when their pump isn't working, they know to move to a different pump, and not just sit there festering and assuming they're the idiot. They've got confidence. They've got self-esteem.

They've got gas.

But food should be easy. We went into a restaurant the other day, and, finding no sign saying otherwise, we wandered to a table, sat, and waited. And waited. Oh? Nobody comes by? Okay. We go to the bar and there's a menu posted up high, and a bunch of stuff coming out of the kitchen. There are two bartenders. At some point we get aggressive enough to bark out a beer order, and then ask another customer how he got food. He pointed to a small knot of people bunched up at the bar. You order at the bar, he said. Right there? we said. Under the sign that says "Do Not Form A Line?" What do we do if there are people in front of us? Aspire to randomness?

"That's just supposed to be ironic," he said.

Jesus.

One sign in the whole damn establishment and it's supposed to be ironic. How am I expected to know that? My new friend shrugs and glances around at a restaurant jammed with young, happy, eating people who all knew that, who were effortlessly surfing layers of meaning.

"It's a little meta," he added helpfully.

I'd stay, but it's time to hitch up the buckboard and git on home. Pound grain. Slaughter the goose.