Saturday, June 25, 2016

Good Intentions, But Not Paved

The wild rhododendrons are blooming now. I thought it would be cool to find a good rhody hike. "There used to be tons of them at Plaza Lake," Dave said.

Plaza Lake. Oh hell yeah. Let's do this thing.

I've been hearing about Plaza Lake and Abbott Road for forty years. They figure in a number of Dave's disaster stories B. M. (Before Murr). Or possibly it was just one story so traumatic his memory split it into more manageable chunks. He and his buddy tried to turn the pickup truck around on Abbott Road and got the back end hanging off the cliff and they slithered delicately out of the cab and roped it up to a tree and set out walking in their shorts and T-shirts until it got dark and cold and they had to try to sleep in the woods in a more intimate position than either of them would have preferred. And walked for twenty miles without meeting a soul before realizing they'd gone the wrong way.

There might have been wolverines.

"Let's go to Plaza Lake," I said.

I'd looked it up. It was only a 2.4 mile hike round trip but a very long drive, some of it on a bumpy road. We prefer hiking to driving but we were in it for the rhododendrons.

The directions suggested it was a 100-minute drive from Portland, and that was true, if by "Portland" you mean some place nowhere near Portland, and by "100 minutes" you mean three and a half hours. And it was a "bumpy road" if what you mean by bumpy is "could be charitably described as lunar."

Once we left the pavement we still had about 17 miles to go. I drove my little red car. It's adorable. It has a clearance about the same as my vertical leap, or three inches. The potholes were cavernous. The ruts could have been navigated by a gondola. Driving my little red car on this road was like sending a dung beetle across a waffle.

Our sense of adventure kicked in. Who cares how long it takes? We wormed our way up Abbott Road like a hopped-up slime mold. The miles trudged by as if borne on glaciers. Shadows lengthened. We didn't see a single person. It began to occur to us that if we did get stuck, we would have no recourse but to bail out and walk for twenty miles in the waning sunlight. We decided to try something we'd never done before: we chose discretion over valor. Two short miles from our goal, we turned around. It was just a wide enough spot that we might be seen from the air if we spelled out HELP in pieces of axles.

Usually when we take a road like that, Dave's driving our thirty-year-old four-wheel-drive pickup. I hate it. I ride in the passenger seat weeping quietly and trying not to throw up. This time, with me driving, Dave was a model of serenity. When we turned around he got out and promptly took a dump in the woods. People cope in different ways.

Seven hours after we left, we were right back home again. We could have driven to California.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To


The Democratic nomination process is either over, or it's not, or it never will be, and now everyone's barking on the internet. I've got my hands over my ears, begging mommy to make it stop. I'm used to Our Side fighting the Other Side, but people? This is making me nuts.

Last fall I watched five Democratic candidates for president in a debate. They each made a lot of sense and I'd be happy voting for any one of them. They were respectful of each other, too.

Now there's talk of rigged elections. When I look at the evidence, it seems heavy on anecdotes and entrenched suspicion. Voter fraud or rigging must be investigated, but I'm not taking anyone's "bad feeling about something" to the bank. I know how this works. As soon as you decide "they" are out to get you, you will see evidence of it everywhere. We are a most suggestible species, even more so now that every odd notion that shows up can be disseminated worldwide before anyone has time to check the math.

And this was also the year we all apparently learned how the parties nominate their candidates. Horrors. Superdelegates, caucuses in the laundromat, winner-take-all, reading chicken guts under a full moon, whatever--they've done it for years; it's their club and they can write the rules however they want to. But you can join the club and get active and try to change them if you want to. It's never been one-person-one-vote. If this was all a surprise, consider yourself educated, but not cheated.

Here's what I've noticed. All you have to do now to work up a righteous froth is comb through the conspiracy theories and curate your own dudgeon. Take what works, discard the rest. It's easy.

That's how we know Hillary Clinton is the most loathsome candidate in the race. My goodness, but she is awful. People are torn over whether she should be in jail or in Hell. You actually go back and check her positions on things, and her votes in the Senate, and her accomplishments, they're pretty solidly left of center. It's a mixed bag: strong on abortion rights, disappointing on the environment and warmongering. But evidently, as well as being a fictional murderer and a symbol of corruption, she stands for everything else we revile. She murders Muslims and can't frack fast enough and used her own email servers so she could put LOLs on State Department business and did something-or-other in Benghazi and holy cow there's a forty-year-old video of her doing an embarrassingly bad MLK accent.

What she is, of course, is a moderate-to-left pragmatic politician with a stout record of accomplishment who has been praised by members of both major parties for her ability to get some things done, because she is willing to horse-trade a little and make progress in increments rather than make none. That's sort of the way things used to be done, before things quit being done at all. She's taken a bunch of money from Wall Street, like every single other political figure out there on both sides except Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but there's no good evidence she's in their pocket.

As I recall, it was she who first pushed for universal healthcare twenty years ago, for which she was accused of not knowing her place, or having fat ankles, or treason, or something. She got in a ton of trouble for speaking dismissively about baking cookies right around the same time. Oh, and using her maiden name in a subordinate role. And murdering her close friend. All of a piece. Just today I read that she's been "wrong about everything since she was a Goldwater girl." That would be 52 years ago. Remind me not to run for office.

I don't even know how she's able to stand upright at all after forty years of this shit. She is incredibly tough, smart, and resilient. Those are traits we might want to see in a President if it weren't, you know...if it were someone else. But we can't stand her, because she's only mostly right. And we lefties--we're like Megachurch Dads, now. We're demanding a Pledge of Purity.

Well, I get it. My go-to-the-mat issues are so dire--climate change, extinction, unsustainable growth, and the obliteration of basically everything--that "incremental" doesn't work for me, either. Change simply can't come fast enough, and we're probably already screwed.

But we keep trying. So you bet I voted for Bernie. Yes I did: I voted for all of them. Howard Dean. John Anderson. Canvassed for Clean Gene McCarthy before I was old enough to vote. When I was growing up, I knew we were Adlai Stevenson people before I knew my own phone number. I associated it in my mind with the fact that we used a push mower and had a compost pile and an old car, too. Rumor had it Daddy briefly signed up with the Communist Party in college. This apple thunked straight down from the tree. And when you vote for idealists, you take your losses hard.

I voted for them to declare my conscience even though none of them would ever have been able to push through the reforms they wanted. And that was even before the opposition party abandoned the truth altogether in favor of the sour victory of deadlock and destruction. No one figurehead will be able to do what needs to be done to address the financial sector, the carbon bomb, or our obscene income inequality (formerly known as piracy), until people stand up and demand it. A lot of people. And they have to keep standing up. It will be hard work, and frankly, there aren't enough of us. Most of us are watching Netflix.

But right now we have a strong, smart, tough candidate on the right side of most issues running against a cartoon character. The Republican brain trust knew long ago that the only way they could get their big orange toddler elected would be to divide the opposition. Instead of accusing Hillary of murder or lack of femininity, which doesn't work so well on lefties, accuse her of personally corrupting the election process, or being in the pocket of Big Oil or Wall Street. Slide that propaganda into the social media, and plenty of people who get their information from memes and posters will buy it. I'm concerned about these things too, so I looked into it. It doesn't hold up.

But I do know that the entire Republican platform can be found on Satan's private email server in Hell. So ease up on Hillary. She can take it--how, I don't know--but I can't.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Cat-Shaped Bag

The older my thoughts get, the more free rein I give them. I figure they've earned a little trust. I have as many as I ever did, but they're harder to keep track of. Sometimes I let them out first thing in the morning and they're not back by dinnertime. And by the time they come straggling in all slouchy, I ask them where they've been, and they say "Out," and I ask them what they were doing, and they're all "Nothing." I don't know what you're supposed to do about things like that, but it's not like there's any pinning them down, at their age. I've learned not to count on remembering my thoughts as they traipse through. Sometimes I write little notes on their underwear tags so I can make sure to get them back, but it's no guarantee I'll be able to recognize them later. I have a note here on the back of an envelope that says--I think--nostril movements nonregime butter Mr. Happy, although I have truly horrible handwriting, and I can't be sure.

I do trust that all my thoughts are still in the general vicinity even if I can't find them at the moment. It might not be true, because if they're gone for good I'll never know. But I don't want to contemplate the other possibility. Some of them no doubt are gone for good. I had some teenage ones that went missing decades ago, when I was reading a lot about Zen, and seeking a spiritual path. When they put one of them on the milk carton and do an age-progression, it just says "Have another beer."

That used to be a thing I'd think about, the possibility of achieving an enlightened state of not-thinking, and I've achieved that state admirably, albeit in front of the TV with a cat on my lap. Tater is a cat of capacious and sprawly fur. Some people think she's a little fat but I don't. I think she just needs a certain ampleness of skin to hold all the guts and personality and purr in, and she sees no point in skimping on the containment vessel. You can move it all around. You can rumple up a section on her back and slump it over her ears if you want. Her fur is basically a big relaxed bag that is essentially cat-shaped but can be arranged any number of ways. She's not particular. She has every confidence that everything she needs to be a cat is somewhere inside.

That's what I think about my mind, too. It's gotten sprawly and the elastic is sprung, but all the thoughts are in there somewhere in a cat-shaped bag and you can find them if you just rumple it right.

And that's the kind of thought that comes straggling home if you give it free rein.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando

Someone drops a boulder in a lake, and the water rises at once into a crown of shock, and then back down again, and ripples fan out, intersecting other ripples, at first in an orderly way, then chaotically; rivulets follow well-worn gullies to their usual destinations, puddles reappear in their usual depressions, every drop resettles into its easiest, most accustomed spot--and the lake reassembles, one stone higher. It's hard to see how many stones it will take for the lake to abandon its banks altogether.

Most of us cannot even imagine harboring the hate that would drive a man into a nightclub to mow people down. It's unfathomable, we say, but then later, as we recoil from the inciting horror, and call out for our brothers and sisters to reconvene into our familiar tribes, and gather our armor, and set up pickets, and ready our weaponry, and peer suspiciously at the next band over, we can feel it, just a little bit.

This one had it all. You can see the cross-currents forming right away. Everyone scans the headlines for their own vulnerabilities: who's under attack? Is it "them," this time, or is it us? Who's to blame? And even then we can't agree. It's clear as tears that the LGBT community is the target of this terrorist act. But everyone feels threatened. American Muslims note the name of the attacker with dread, and hunker down, knowing they're next.  News establishments cast their stories as an attack on "Americans," protecting their bread-and-butter, the anti-Muslim sentiment.  Gun advocates scroll out their tired talking points, ready for battle. Factions rush in to remind us that Wounded Knee was a worse massacre, as though unable to make a distinction between a lone gunman and the 7th Cavalry, and certain that righteous historical victims have been dismissed yet again. Others declare the disaster the natural consequence of ignoring God's law (and not the one against murder). Multitudes take to the social media to babble incoherently, unable to navigate their own turbulence, their hatred of Muslims and their hatred of queers suddenly in tension. A presidential candidate discovers that, once again, it's all about him.

Behind our pickets, we can feel that hatred, just a little bit. We won't do anything about it except to keep chucking pebbles in the water, but we'd all be fine without this tribe, or that tribe. We'd be fine if only the Muslims would go away. Or the Christians. Or religion. Or secularism. Or the gun nuts. Or the faggots. Or the liberals. We've all got someone to hate. It's the hardest thing to let go of. We're doing our victims a disservice to let the hatred die, we think. We're dishonoring them.

Someone reportedly once said we must love our neighbors as ourselves. It's impossible, of course. It's ridiculous. It's bringing a pillow to a swordfight. It doesn't solve anything.

The swords don't either.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hot Off The Press

June 4th. It's over a hundred degrees in Portland bless-my-liberal-heart Oregon. It's unprecedented, since Calendars. Hell, since trilobites, probably--but let's get real. It's not July, and it's not Dubai. It's fucked up, is what it is.

So now I would like to take this opportunity to thank our newspaper of record, The Oregonian, for taking a courageous stand against accepted climate science. Yes, I know any given individual day of weather is not predictive of a change in climate. I know that kind of thing, because I am literate in science, and I am not on the editorial board of The Oregonian. I also know, unlike the editorial board of The Oregonian, that we are, collectively, seriously screwed.

I get it. Climate science is uncomfortably accuse-y. It points a finger of blame. At us. And we can't have that. We're nice people, just trying to accumulate a little money, and we're not trying to wreck anything. So if you write a reasonable article about human-caused global warming, you'd better put in a trigger warning. For stupid people, who do not want to be reminded they're stupid. Enter The Oregonian.

This time The Oregonian is all upset because the Portland Public Schools said they wouldn't accept any curricular material that suggested climate change wasn't real, or huge, or human-caused. The Oregonian claims that's not really scientific. Real scientists don't stifle controversy. We must teach the controversy! Remember when we merged the Home Economics Department with Religious Studies when someone found that image of Jesus on a pancake?

And our best teachers and scientists are all about having an open mind. They truly want to Teach The Controversy, except when Mercury is in retrograde, which makes them feel hesitant, something the climate-change deniers could surely sympathize with; and also, they don't like to work with their heads up their asses, because it gets their spectacles all smeary.

But I get it, Oregonian. No sooner do all the climate scientists of the world come up with a thumping consensus about climate change than other folks feel compelled to be contrarian about it. It just feels right, to go against the grain. The more thousands of climate scientists line up against you, the bigger your contrarian woody is. And hey: the science of climate-change-denial is a slam dunk. They used to say eggs were bad for you, and now this. Screw Science. Am I right? Weren't we always able to sit down in a faux-leather seat and transport ourselves twenty miles to a big-box store just to pick up chips and a twelve-pack?

Damn right we were. That's why we like to hear from Dr. Gordon Fulks so very often, and fortunately The Oregonian gives him a big ol' platform several times a year. Dr. Fulks comes with an antique Ph.D and a solid grasp of thirty-year-old science. And he's easy to find, because he lives in the basement at the Cascade Policy Institute and never misses feeding time, when they throw down the antelope haunch.

Dr. Fulks says we've had global warming before. Lotsa times! It's natch'l! Such as in the old days when we had monster forest fires and gigantic flatulent termites and raging volcanoes, a time Dr. Fulks probably remembers with some fondness.

It's not like we haven't been messing with the carbon balance for thousands of years, what with our stripping of the forests, and our tilled agriculture, and any of a number of other practices that have steadily pumped carbon into the air. Of course we didn't get super efficient about it until about 150 years ago, when we started mining out the really major carbon deposits and frying them into the air as fast as we could. Holy moly, what a ride we're having! Cars and jets and rockets, faster and faster and faster!

It's all totally normal. There'd be nothing to conclude from it, if the graph for our carbon emissions didn't fit so perfectly inside the graph for catastrophic global warming. But it does. It's slick as a knife in a scabbard. Or a head up an ass.

It's snug.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

From Loogey To Fuzzball

Dave the nuthatch finally quit coming back to the nest box, finally quit beeping from the branches, finally moved on. He'd help raise at least two babies, and at least one of them might not have been impaled on a scrub jay. There might have been more. Don't know.

Or I didn't know, until last week, when I saw Marge and Studley Windowson, our chickadee buddies, checking out the box. It seems late for them to start a brood, but I got excited. I called Dave the Man, whose job it is to clean the nest box. He took it out to the patio and uncombobulated the roof of the box and looked in. Bunch of sawdust and wood shavings. Nothing like the soft mattress the Windowsons set up every year. And what's that?

A dead baby?

Five dead babies? Five. All feathered out but smaller than the two that actually left the nest. They were probably one or two days dead by the time the successful ones took off. And now it was over a week later. They hadn't yet turned to goo, but I couldn't tell much about cause of death. Could be a lot of things, I guess. The world, it must be said, conspires against baby bird survival.

But I know who would know. Julie Zickefoose would know. There is no one on this orb who knows more about baby birds than Julie, and that happens to be fact, not hyperbole. That is why she wrote a book called Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into The Nest. How do you learn so much about baby birds? Why, you monitor their nests, and you slip a hatchling out for a quick watercolor portrait, from nose to nubbin, once a day until they're grown. No, I wouldn't have thought of it either. And neither has anybody else. It's a first. And it happens to be true that if you've taken the trouble of painting something accurately in watercolor, you have observed the living hell out of it. You know stuff.

Julie gets in there, spirits out a little baby to paint, scrubs behind its ears, makes it a mealworm meat sandwich with the crusts cut off, picks up its poopies, checks its math homework, opens up a college fund, and snaps it back in the nest before its real mom has time to do a second count. And she does it every day until they fledge. The changes she records are jaw-dropping. It's like if you have a baby and in twenty days it's bearded, six foot tall, out the door, and already plotting to move back into the basement.

And in the course of this project, she saved the day for many of the broods. One thing I've learned from her book is that it is a sheer miracle any bird ever makes it to adulthood. I may feel real bad about Dave the nuthatch, but these tragedies are happening all the time all over the place. It's a jungle out there.

House sparrows and house wrens are a particular menace. The taxonomists say they're not closely related, but they are: they're in the Asshole Family. They'll go in a nest and spindle the eggs or even perforate the babies just for something to do of an afternoon.

Get Yours Here.
So Sheriff Julie blasts in and routs them. Relocates snakes. Thwarts raccoons. Pulls entire nests out for a quick pop in the microwave to kill mites and puts them back again. It's got to look like a miracle from the birds' standpoint: everybody's all itchy, then the Mighty Hand Of Julie reaches in and removes their bedding and puts it back all spanky clean. Basically, Julie is Bird God. She smites the mites, she visits devastation upon the enemies, and lo, she is with them always, even unto the migration. She doesn't save them all, but it's not like the Bible one has such a great record, either.

So if you want to find out exactly, and I mean exactly, how you can make an entire working bird in a few days starting with an egg the size of a Tic-Tac, and you do--you do!--check out Julie's big, beautiful book. She's got all the portraits of the birds through all the stages from loogey to fuzzball. You will be amazed. Besides, if you buy this book, maybe Julie can top up all those little college funds. And buy herself sumpin' pretty.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Edge Of Flight: Part 2

When we last left the Nuthatch Family, a scrub jay has flown off to a tree, possibly with a nuthatchlet. I can't quite tell if the jay had anything--it was all too quick--but it does Not Look Good. I'm utterly bereft. I want to call the authorities. I want to call the President. It had taken a whole month to make this little dude, and also I'd just videoed him, up close and personal. I was invested. After a while Dave (the nuthatch) is back in the tree again. I wonder if there are any more babies in the nest. Then he goes into the box empty-beaked and comes out with stuff. And again. And again. It's like he's tidying up after a party, picking up the Solo cups and paper plates. There are clearly no more babies. I don't know how many there were; I don't know if I missed any earlier ones. Within an hour Dave is continuing to clean up and sitting on branches acting fluffy and flappy and flirtatious. Was he planning a new brood?

During commercial break I looked it up and it seems it's unlikely. Usually they have just the one nestful. I guess he's just a neatnik. I do see another nuthatch fly straight through the tree and away, and I don't get a good enough look to be sure, but it was slow, more prop plane than jet, so I think it's the first baby I saw. Good.

Then the Missus comes back. She flies into the nest box with Dave (the nuthatch) already in there, and then she turns around to fly out. But she's stuck. She's STUCK! HOLY FUCK! Her foot is all tangled in some nesting material/pine-resin glop and she's flapping like mad, but she can't go anywhere. Dave looks out and now they're snapping at each other, like he wants to get out but she won't let him, and she's snapping back I'm fucking stuck you idiot, take this shit off my foot, but he doesn't get it, and then he flies out anyway when she ducks.

She's picking at the stuff her foot is stuck to, but getting nowhere. I'm growing desperately upset. I don't want to freak her out by opening the window and working on her foot, and I don't know how I'd go about it, anyway. Dave (the man I married) looks out the window and says "Uh-oh."

"What 'uh-oh?'"

"Scrub jay on the fence. He's hopping closer. He's looking up. He sees her!"

Amazing how fast I can lose that hesitation. I fling open the window, put my hand out to cup her back and wings with one hand and free her foot with the other, and she takes one look at me and blasts out of there. She lands in the tree. Dave (the man) and I stare. Yes, she still has a foot attached. Yes, it's still working. She flies away.


And for the rest of the day, for hours, for hours, Dave (the nuthatch) sits on a twig and beeps. He beeps loud, he beeps long, he beeps fast and he beeps slow. He goes to the nest box to look in. He comes back out and beeps. The next day he's still at it. And the next. Beeping and beeping. Checking and checking. He's beeping himself hoarse. He keeps going in and out of the nest box to make sure. We don't see any babies. We don't see the Missus. They're all gone.


Perspective is a theme for me. I like to think of things from different perspectives. This little drama has many. There is the perspective of the insect being nabbed out of the air in the prime of its three-day life and jammed into a beak. There is the perspective of a nest of baby scrub jays, waiting for dinner. There is the perspective that this kind of drama is playing out all the time, everywhere, and we just aren't paying attention. There is the perspective from outer space, where all these scenes, and ours too, are revealed to be trivial. I should be able to accommodate all these points of view at once; I have that habit.

But I can't. This time I have my own perspective. And it's a lot like Dave's (the nuthatch's). And on this, the fourth day since his entire family went away, he's breaking my beepin' heart.