Saturday, October 22, 2016

'Snot Fair

Two recent related letters to the editor reminded me of my childhood, which only makes sense. Because why would they remind me of your childhood?

In the first, Trump supporter Gary W. Christenson bemoans the fact that hardly anyone but him has a political bumper sticker anymore, or a flag decal on their car, and this is a sign that nobody cares about the sorry state of our country. He was also bitter about the greed of we, the people. I'm not sure it is a sign of anything. I think the absence of bumper stickers is less important than the fact that people keep using "we the people" as the object of a sentence. But the gentleman is correct: you don't see many bumper stickers anymore. There are people who festoon their cars with enough stickers as to leave no doubt whatsoever what kind of people they are, or road-rage targets they would like to become. But mostly our cars are unadorned. They're $40,000 items, and not the old family Rambler.

When I was a kid there were tons of bumper stickers. Some were political but most were advertising roadside attractions. They weren't necessarily voluntary stickers.  They were just promotional barnacles your car would pick up by virtue of parking in a lot for an attraction. Take the kids to see Luray Caverns, and you'll come back out to find a gigantic Luray Caverns sticker splayed across your back bumper. This was very common in those days because there weren't nearly as many lawyers as there are now.

The political bumper stickers of the time were probably helpful to alert you to the folks you shouldn't talk politics with in the church basement, if you didn't already know. Politics has always been contentious. But it is more so now. Before, you'd just know that the guy with the Nixon-Lodge sticker wasn't your kind of people. Now, you can safely assume, no matter which side you're on, that the owner of the opposing-camp bumper sticker is personally in favor of ushering in the Apocalypse, and must be burned with the fire of a thousand suns.

Which brings us to the second letter to the editor, in response to the first. Kit Hogan complained, and rightly so, that every time she put a bumper sticker on her car "in this liberal state," she got her car keyed, or windshield wipers ripped off, or vulgar notes left on the window. Worst of all, a "Veterans For Bush" bumper sticker resulted in her car being covered in phlegm.

There's an image.

This also reminded me of a time in my childhood when I was more or less covered in phlegm. I had a series of really bad colds in fifth grade and at one point I felt like a snot factory in boom times. Mom gave me one of those little Kleenex-packs with two or three tissues in it which were completely overwhelmed by the first hour of school. After that, every sneeze resulted in a fluid spill which I believe I decanted onto the bottom of my desk and was otherwise helpless to mop up, a foreshadowing of personal feminine-hygiene horrors yet to come. It was dreadful. And I'm not proud of this, but I developed a fantasy of a world in which my grades would be determined by the quantity of phlegm I could produce. There would be something like an S&H Green Stamp collection book involved, with little squares that could be topped up over time (snot left to dry, in the viral stage, boogers in the healthy times). At the end of the school year I could proudly show off my completed pages, two pages per grade increment, say, with a full book earning an A-plus.

It is remarkable that I was ever considered college material.

But I did learn enough not to put political bumper stickers on my car.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Psst! Hey! I'm over here!

Not you, Donald. I know you can't see me. Don't need to talk about anyone's pussy for me to know that. We all know what you think of us. That's our superpower: you can't see us, but we can see you. You're a deeply insecure old fool, of only average intelligence and little education, who needs a lot of attention, and you elevate yourself by assuming you have nothing in common, even humanity, with anyone else. You further subscribe to the preposterous notion that wealth, no matter how it is accumulated, is proof of virtue. You're a boob.

I'm waving at the rest of you, right behind Donald. You guys have spent way too much time in your little clubhouse. But we can see you, even if you can't see us. We can see you, too, Speaker Ryan, even as you rise to our defense, scolding Donald and declaring that we women should be "championed and revered."

Oh, I swann, Mr. Ryan! Thank you! That's me, up there in the stands, in my pretty velvet gown, gazing in adoration as you arrive on your muscular stallion, your long lance in your hand! Now please help me down from this high seat you put me on and give me a little of your time. I'd like a word.

This is such a simple idea: I don't know why it's so hard to understand. But here it is: I'm not that much different from you. Believe me, it hurts me more to say it than for you to hear it. Even though I am female, this unknowable Other, I am a human being who was born and is going to die. That's a mortal frame around us we share, and it's more important than the bits we don't share. And I can tell when someone is looking right through me without seeing me. If you say you revere me, I know you have no idea who I am.

Some club. You know what you people are missing? Empathy. A plain and simple willingness to see other humans as the humans they are. The ability to accept that another's experience is neither the same as yours, nor ultimately that much different. Empathy means you should be able to imagine what it might be like to be a Muslim in a country that increasingly isolates and threatens you. Or an African-American who is repeatedly pulled over and searched for driving a crappy car, or a really nice car. Or a Syrian fleeing his only home with his bloodied children only to find there is no other home for him. Or an ordinary woman reflexively strategizing how to get home without being assaulted. Do some of us frighten you, or repel you, or bore you? That's a sign you need to listen harder. It takes practice. The more you are able to imagine yourself in someone else's skin, the more justice there will be in this world, and the closer we will be to achieving peace..

I don't want a champion. I'll be fine. There are some big things you could help me with: you could dismantle the for-profit health insurance industry. You could dismantle the for-itself wealth industry. You could change the tax system so that our shared burdens are borne fairly. You could recognize that economic growth is unsustainable and that the earth's resources are finite. You could put people and planet over profit.

But you won't. I can see you. I'll see you in November.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Safe At Home

Dave and I can't watch post-season baseball when the Chicago Cubs are doing well without thinking about his Mom. Murry was a huge Cubbies fan.

Right now, though, she's in a small ceramic pot. At least some of her is. We got custody of the pot of Murry after another death in the family, not that we asked for it: we did not. But we reluctantly took the jar in, and it was immediately followed by two good-sized golden cardboard boxes full of the rest of her, in case we ever need to top up the pot.

We don't want to top up the pot. We never wanted any ashes in the first place. We are rational people, and ashes are ashes and dust is dust. Once someone has been rendered to a vacuumable condition, we're pretty much done with that person, except for the love and gratitude and regret and maybe a good recipe. The problem with ashes is you can't just throw them out, unless you do so with ceremony in some meaningful fashion. So they're a burden.

And we know what we're supposed to do with Murry's ashes. We're supposed to sprinkle them on Wrigley Field. Memory is unreliable, and reality comes down to whatever you've managed to make up over the years, so we no longer know if we promised her a home in Wrigley Field or if we thought it up after she died. I'm quite certain we imagined the ceremony as a spray of fairy-dust in the breeze, a flick of the fingers, and not the bucket-dump in the ivy wall it would have to be. They frown on this sort of thing in Major League Baseball anyway, and if we were to let fly with both golden boxes and the pot, we could blind a fielder.

I resent the way inanimate things like bone dust or sorrow insinuate themselves into your life and start ordering you around. Streaks do the same thing.  They have power they shouldn't have. There is something sacred about a good streak, and the winless streak of the Cubs, who have not prevailed in a World Series since 1908, eight years before Murry was born, is as sacred as they come. My own Red Sox had a good streak going too, but it was snapped in 2004, and they've done rather well for themselves since. I'd be happy for Cubs fans if they win this year, but it would ruin the exquisite purity of their suffering. And they'd miss it. I know this. I still root for the Red Sox, but success has diluted my fervor, and now I don't care as much if they win, as long as the Yankees lose.

Neither one of us believes Murry is now in any position to celebrate a Cubs victory. We're rational people. That will not stop us from giving her credit for having some kind of influence if they win. And that is even though we never blame her when they don't. And even though we don't think she's anywhere inside the pot of ashes, we can't throw them away. Rational only gets you so far.

In 1989 Murry slipped out of the sphere too early, but with no struggle or fuss. She was found sitting up in her chair, the newspaper in her lap, her coffee cup by her side, and the Cubbies on the TV. That is either completely true, or we made some of it up. We don't know anymore. But sometimes you true a story the way you true a wheel, so that it rolls smooth. Murry loved us and her grandkids and coffee and the Chicago Cubs. We trued her life.

Go Cubbies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Battle Lines

I'm a 2016 American just like all the rest. I have my opinions, you have yours, and unless yours and mine are the same, you have your head up your ass.

I'm sorry it has to be this way, but about twenty years ago someone set up a propaganda machine and funneled oodles of money into it, and it really took off. Things had started to go south for a lot of us during the Reagan years, what with the changes in laws and relaxing of regulations which allowed a new financial sector to blossom and dominate the economy. And corporations dismantled the unions, and jettisoned pension plans, and encouraged employees to gamble with their money in the guise of freedom; and people were just plain not doing as well as they had been, and they were feeling everything slip away.

All they knew was something had been taken away from them, and they were right. The money didn't disappear, but it did get siphoned uphill, and the folks uphill preferred that nobody notice. So they funded the propaganda machine and trotted out a new News Station and stocked it with interchangeable gals with stiff yellow hair, and they began churning out News about all the people the middle class really should be upset at. Your gays, your Muslims, your Mexicans, both of your anti-Christmas people, your union members for sure--all of them were taking stuff away from good Americans. It was all pretty clearly bullshit, a sophisticated shell game, but there's nothing anxious people like better than someone to blame stuff on.

So what happened is we ended up with two sides of the country operating on entirely different information and inclined to point fingers and double down, and now we're not talking to each other anymore. Why bother? A person is free to dislike the president's policies, but when he's on the social media all day talking about the Kenyan Muslim president and his bitch Killary, what have we got to work with? You're kind of left with "Let's agree to disagree," or "Die soon."

Which means we have a problem, and it isn't going to go away if we dodge the fat orange bullet. Because there is a faction in this country that isn't going to consider that result legitimate. Even if a comfortable majority of American citizens cast ballots for Clinton, a large number of people are going to see her election as proof that the system is rigged and democracy is dead, because their votes didn't count hard enough. And this is not a universal reaction across the political spectrum: this is special.

See here: sixteen years ago, the Supreme Court tipped the election to George W. Bush over Al Gore in what a whole lot of us thought was an egregious miscarriage of justice. And we were outraged, and we complained bitterly, and we wrote heated and well-constructed letters to the editor, and maybe we drank a little, and then we moved on, because we have a grounding in civics and a certain amount of faith in the system.

But others don't. Lincoln may have thought he freed the slaves, but the side that lost the war never accepted that, and they steadily resisted, and wrote their own laws, and terrorized a whole population, until the former slaves were once again no longer free. They re-fought the Civil War until they'd won it. They ignored the law of the land and substituted their own, and they used their guns to do it.

And there are still citizens of this country who will not accept a democratic result they don't agree with, and their numbers are growing, and they're still armed, and they're still dangerous, and they've been told exactly who the enemies are, and they're ready to take their country back, from...well. From the rest of us.

Yee-haw, darlings. Buckle up and hang on tight. Remember we're supposed to be the home of the brave.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

I Lefse My Heart In North Dakota

So there we were, four cousins, in Minot, North Dakota, at the Norsk Hostfest (motto: SCANDEMONIUM!), where we intended to get ourselves so saturated in personal heritage we'd come out buttery. Butter is a major reason Norwegians are nice, and also pretty much redeems the cuisine all by itself.

I was a little concerned about that cuisine, because I've mostly been avoiding wheat for over three years now. It helps me keep my weight under control. But I was pretty sure I'd have to relax my diet in North Dakota. And I was right. If you really want to lose weight, go to North Dakota and consume no wheat. You'll be dead in a month. There are buckets stationed at the state border so that celiac sufferers can just go ahead and slit their wrists and get it over with.

Because here they grow mile after mile of wheat, and whack it up, and shovel it into gigantic elevators, and decant it directly into the grocery stores and restaurants, which then produce nothing but wheat-encrusted wheat bombs with extra wheaty goodness in the center. Norwegian cuisine in all its variety covers the spectrum from white to off-white. If anyone finds something green in their food, it is flicked away as a probable contaminant.  [Historical note: Scurvy has not been a problem since it was declared illegal by Erik the Red in 980.]

Augustana Lutheran's rice pudding
So at the Hostfest, there were several food courts offering an array of pale food. All things being equal, I decided to start off with Potet Klubb. Five minutes later, I also finished with Klubb, and looked around for a spot to sit quietly and consider my options with regard to digesting.

Klubb is made of wheat, potatoes, and mucilage, formed into wads and set to sail on a sea of butter. There were other offerings: rommegrot (wheat, milk, butter), and lefse (wheat, potatoes, lard, butter), and daringly yellow waffles (wheat, milk, eggs), plus Spud Hogs and Vikings On A Stick. Respite from the wheat can be found in Rice Pudding (still reassuringly white), cheese curds (white), or Lutefisk (white cod and Drano). Norwegian food is like polka music or Golden Girls reruns: weirdly comforting, and you always know what you're going to get. In a nod to diversity, the Hostfest also featured a German delicacy, Knoephla (wheat, potatoes, butter). I have no idea what an Oof Da Taco is.

If I have a regret, other than eating the Klubb, it is that I missed the Lefse Masters Competition. Four winners advance to the finals here to demonstrate their prowess with potatoes, cream, lard, flour, and butter, combined, rolled out, and lightly beiged in a skillet. I am not certain what makes one lefse stand out from the crowd, but I do know that each contestant must complete two rounds in order to showcase lefse in both its variety (rolled-up, and left flat). And there is, my goodness, a shotgun start. And there are only three prizes, Gold, Silver, and Bronze, leaving the fourth competitor in ignominy, even though he or she has already bested hundreds in the prelims. Nobody wants the Beige Ribbon.

These are two different dishes.
It was all very wonderful, but you can't move much in a crowd of really nice people, especially with butter in your capillaries. So my sister Bobbie and I were much revived to take a walk in a perfectly grand coulee just behind Don and Betty's house, right in the middle of Minot, where we found birds, bunnies, deer poop and its poopetrators, and squadrons of turkeys-on-the-hoof everywhere (white meat: just add wheat and butter). I was honored and happy to be there among all those nice people, but also happy to go home to Dave, who is almost as nice.

He has promised to make me a salad bigger than my head.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Passport To North Dakota!

We were all chatting in the line to get passport photos. "Where are you traveling?" the nice lady behind me asked.

"North Dakota," I said brightly, and then everyone got sort of quiet.

But indeed to North Dakota I did go. That's where my cousin Don lives, and we were having a cousin reunion, with four out of five first cousins on my mother's side in attendance. The last time we were all together was almost sixty years ago at our grandma's farm in Balfour, population not-so-many. Everyone in my family is nice as pie because that's what you get in North Dakota. It's almost as if my mom's side never met anyone rotten in their lives, so they assumed the best of everyone, and you know? People respond to that. Don is probably the nicest of us cousins, because he didn't stray far from the Grandmothership, whereas the rest of us got contaminated to some extent by living elsewhere. Don might be the nicest man in North Dakota, now that our Uncle Clifford is gone.

Minot, I'm sure you've heard, is where the annual Norsk Hostfest is held, the largest Scandinavian festival in the country. It's popular. You have never seen so many gosh-darn nice white people in one place in all your life. In fact Dave and I have a friend here in Portland named Bruce Johnson who is just about the nicest white guy we know, and by golly if he wasn't there at the Hostfest too. And you will never see so many people in one place who are not staring at their cell phones. No sir: these were people comfortable with eye contact. And, to be fair, mostly on the riper side of middle age.

There was music, and food, and arts, and crafts, but what really perked my blood was the little group of authentic Vikings they had imported from the eleventh century. They were outstanding. For the first time in my life I felt as though my maligned fashioned sense has been validated, with its emphasis on pajamas and maybe a kicky T-strap shoe in soft leather. The men wore simple tunics over baggy pants, although there were a few T-shirts in evidence--I know!--and if authentic Vikings can show up in T-shirts a thousand years before they were invented, is it so hard to imagine they also discovered America way before anyone else except the people who already lived here? I submit it is not.

Most of them had holes in their clothes, but those were authentic, too, and come from their hobby of slicing each other up with massive axes and spears and what have you. You'll find none of your dainty arrows and epees here. We were treated to a demonstration of Viking fighting techniques which left no doubt that the standard outcome was death and gore and finality all around: clobber and cleave all the way to perdition. Consequently, all of the violence has long since been carved out of the gene pool and only the inoffensive and amiable remain, some of us still wearing our heritage pajamas.

The Vikings who survived being cleft down the middle, or who were pre-cloven, also displayed their sunny side with games of all sorts. All right, there was only one sort, with several versions. They involved one form or another of jumping on each other really hard, and then trying to pull each other apart. These games were done in teams, except for that one wherein two men sat cross-legged on a bench and took turns slapping each other into kingdom come, or off the bench, whichever came first. Awesome. Winners of any given game celebrated with a mighty shout, a vestige of which remains to this day in modern Norwegians on bingo night.

Cousin Don also treated us to a splendid tour of northern North Dakota, and anyone who dismisses the landscape as flat and dull needs to have his soul taken in for repairs. Here is a banquet of rolling green and gold, slathered in pelicans and cranes. Even at night, sometimes God throws northern lights over the place just to show his approval. Of course we also made sure to visit Goodness Central, the Home of Grandma, and found it still faithful to our memory. Except that the current owners--no doubt slaves to comfort--replaced the old farmhouse with a tight and tidy ranch, displaying a cruel indifference to our nostalgia for that drafty old sucker with the colossal coal furnace we knew and loved but didn't have to live in.

Then it was on to the stately and provincial International Peace Garden, where my shiny new passport allowed me to poke a toe into Manitoba. I lingered, hoping my Canadian friends would sense my presence, but having an attractive and sensible Prime Minister has made them complacent. Ah well: farewell Canada! See you in November, maybe!

Next up: Norwegian Cuisine. Ooh ja.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What To Do With Your Old Goat

It is sad, but true, that several people have died from bagpipes, and some of them weren't even listening to them at the time.

Bagpipes strike many people as a strange and unlikely invention, but they are not. In fact, just as Life inevitably combobulates itself in the right conditions, bagpipes were always going to happen. The beta versions hark all the way back thousands of years, when bored goatherds sat around whittling sticks and listening to bloated carcasses make wheezy noises as they deflated. And one thing led, as it so often does, to another.

"Hey, you know," says the first bored goat guy, "if we gutted and boned these suckers and jammed some pipes into the leg holes, we could really make some noise." And Goat Guy #2 says "Dude, and if we keep blowing air into the goat, we could keep it going!" And the third goat guy says "We could totally hang a flute down from the neck hole and play a tune at the same time." And the last guy says "Shit, boys. If you did all that and added one more pipe, you could all blow it out the ass." But he was grumpy and always bringing everybody down and no one paid any attention to him. Instead they sewed the butthole up all neat and puckery, and the fabled "sixth pipe" lived on only as a regional vulgarity. Modern bagpipers have never even considered the possibility of the butthole drone.

So for many hundreds of years, people blew into goat guts and cow flaps and surplus dogs tucked under their armpits and never suffered any ill consequences other than murder. That was before Bagpipe Lung.

Bagpipe Lung is a much greater threat today because most modern bagpipes are made out of Gore-Tex. In the old days, even the most soiled piper could blow an old goat for only so many hours before getting the willies, at which time he subjected the whole apparatus to a good rinse. But nowadays, most of the bagpipes don't need to be cleaned as often. Unfortunately, that leads to bad hygiene habits, and some people don't bother cleaning their instruments at all, even though they've basically been snotting into an old raincoat for years. These are the conditions that encourage fungal growths, and before you know it, it's spore-city for the pipers' lungs. Inch by inch the bagpiper's epithelial tissue is replaced by tiny mushrooms and eventually the musician keels over dead, although his beloved bag continues to wheeze on post-mortem.

That's what I want when I die. Do not send in the harpist. Too ethereal. Give me a solid drone with a goat sack, and make sure he's got a kilt.