THE SOCK- An obituary for my mother.

The sock

She wasn’t a sparkling wit, and I can’t recall ever hearing her guffaw. But she certainly wasn’t dull, though she wasn’t particularly insightful. She could be a bit overbearing and to my mind, unnecessarily strict, but in addition to putting her husband through medical school, and raising five fabulous children, and volunteering in all things Church and Community, and still having time to make chicken tortilla casserole, Madre knew how to keep her family in line.

The woman broached no nonsense when it came to malingering, and she was unmoved at the sight of our blood—unflappable and unsentimental in the face of catastrophe. I vividly recall the time Diana Hollis came screaming, hysterical, to our front door late one afternoon. “Mrs. Hansen, Mrs Hansen,” she cried in a treble shriek that carried up and down the length of Ferncreek, “Jimmy cut his heel off on the go-cart and he’s bleeding all over everything!”

Madre didn’t miss a beat. “Tell him to stay outside on the porch,” she shot back from the kitchen. “I just mopped the terrazzo.” (Madre was nothing if not practical.) Not for her the frantic trip to the doctor for our inevitable scrapes and sniffles. No, Madre had another method for dealing with the infirmities of childhood.

She had. . . The Sock.

I don’t know where it came from; it was probably found abandoned and rotting in the back of the covered wagon Grandma took across the plains to the Promised Land. The Sock was knitted of scratchy raw-wool-pus-yellow yarn, ribbed down the sides for maximum discomfort, and had been first basted in, then liberally smeared with a reeking layer of Vick’s Vapo-Rub so potent that sixty years later the mere memory of it causes me to dry heave. (Glaaagh.) Whenever one of us would complain of a vague malaise, out it would come to force our hand. And uncharacteristic of her normal frugality, Madre made sure to renew it with a stinking glop of Vick’s at each and every use. Thus prepared, she tended to what ailed us, securing the woolen abomination around our necks with a rusty diaper pin, immovable and inviolate.

It itched.

Let me amend that; it itched like a motherfucker. It itched like the fleas of a mange-ridden cur. It itched like God’s own poison oak patch around the trunk of our tiny toddling necks, and she always made sure to fasten it as tight as a cervical collar—just short of actual strangulation. Sore throat? Ear infection? Scarlet fever? It didn’t matter; if it oozed, ached or dripped we got… The Sock. In theory, germs and viruses were supposed to see that thing coming and shrink away in terror, but in truth, I believe it held a more sinister purpose. Madre was a busy woman, and Madre was no fool.

Accordingly, none of us dared fake an illness to try to get out of school or snag an extra hour or two in bed, because no matter if it was a tummy ache, a runny nose, or a case of the barfs, we knew what was waiting for us in the back of the medicine cabinet. Some sick little kids we knew got chicken soup and old movies. Some got board games, and soda pop, and soothing lullabys. But the Hansen kids got a dark room, utter silence, and. . . The Sock. (Actually, there was another horror I forgot to mention; first we got the thermometer, THEN we got The Sock.) It was Madre’s way of triaging our sincerity.

As for its healing powers, well, you can believe that we “recovered” as quickly as possible and with as little fuss as possible—and stayed that way for fear of spending another night with that awful thing gagging us to sleep. It was that effective. . . .

When I got a bit older, Madre turned me into her toady and initiated me into the Motherly Mysteries of The Sock. I learned how to smear on the Vick’s just so, how to smooth out the ribs and adjust the safety pin. I learned how to still the squirming neck beneath my scrawny elbow and fasten The Sock just short of choking. And when my victim was finally allowed release from its stranglehold, I learned how to fold The Sock and roll it up and stuff it back in its midnight blue glass Vick’s jar… for next time. (And with five sneaky kids there was always a “next time.”)

********

I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but in the mid-recent past, Madre sent the sock down to me as an adjunct birthday present, and I have to admit that after all those years, I beheld it again with some genuine fear and loathing. I held it by the toe, far away from my person—like some grunty diaper—and marveled at the longevity of that ancient rusted safety pin.

And yes, I tried it on.

It was threadbare and ragged, from 50+ kid-years of trying to claw it off, and shrunken from the three or four times it had been washed, but it still fit. It still choked me, and it still itched like a motherfucker.

With a nostalgic chuckle, I put it away “someplace safe” as a sort of perverse keepsake, and Madre and I had a good laugh over the thing, but somewhere along the line I forgot all about it and it disappeared. I’ve spent the last three weeks wracking my brain as to where it might be and tearing my closets apart searching for it—heroically, I might add—all to no avail. I even tried my sister Laurie’s suggestion that I “just sniff it out”, but so far it’s eluded me.

I know there’s no way it got thrown away—that would have been sacrilege—but the thing was so noxious I’d not be surprised if it had gotten up and skutched away under its own power, and is now lying in wait somewhere until just the right moment when it can sneak back into my bedroom and insinuate itself around my throat some night as I sleep—the stuff of nightmares and evil clown cartoons.

I never thought I’d miss that god-awful itchy, stinking thing, but now that Madre has gone, it occurs to me that there was so much love and concern smeared into its magic juju, and so many answered prayers inherent in its fraying old threads, that now it’s the most precious thing I can possibly imagine, and it just breaks my heart that I can’t find it so I can smear it with Vick’s and sleep with it pinned securely, comfortingly, lovingly. . . under my pillow.

Mako HATES the sock.

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Fuzzing Into Forever– On Losing One’s Mother and One’s Dog In the Same Weekend…

CCI00004 My mother died last week. Wednesday?—or was it Thursday? My mind is so on autopilot right now I really don’t recall. I’ve shed sporadic tears, tears that come mostly when I talk on the phone to my siblings and friends, but because I have no idea how I am supposed to feel, or act, or re-act, life in the last few days has proceeded pretty much as normal; I’ve never lost my mother before, you see, so I’m kind of at a loss as to how to play this one. My father asked (as if Daddy ever “asked” anything of us,) that we leave him alone for a few weeks in the house he and Madre shared for so many years. As he put it, he had loneliness, anger, guilt and five or six other emotions to process and didn’t need the distraction of condolences while he was doing so. That’s exactly how I feel, like a sick cat that goes under the porch to puke in peace. Friends have told me that the realization would “hit” at some point, but because my mother is so much a part of who I am, and because although we speak by phone weekly, I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve seen her in the last twenty years, the loss of the actual day-to-day reality of her being here or not being here has been limited to minor annoyances like not having her around to give me my niece’s cell phone number so I can call to commiserate. I’ve been expecting Madre to pay me a goodbye visit, just for form and maybe to impart some last bit of wisdom or assurance, but so far she’s not made her final presence known. On the morning after her death, perhaps hoping to commune with the ineffable, I went outside into the sunshine to take a nice long walk in the woods with my beautiful young German Shepherd dogs; their gleeful, exuberant energy always cheers me when I’m feeling depleted and discouraged. They’re eight months old now, and halfway grown, having survived a horrible bout of Parvo as five-week old babies that bonded us in a way only two weeks of shared explosive diarrhea and vomiting and needles and laundry can bind three hapless hill creatures together in misery. I adore them both, but the male, Albert, has been my soul mate from the start, quick and generous, an amazing athlete, almost uncannily obedient. Of all the dogs I’ve had over the years, his connection with me has been by far the most intense and intuitive, so much so that I’ve begun guidance training him as an eventuality against my deteriorating eyesight. But here he was lying dead on the patio as his sister, Daisy, hovered uncomprehending and frantic. His beautiful golden body, that luxurious fur, his extraordinary tail, were inert and cold. What felled him, I can only guess—maybe a cardiac defect from the Parvo? But all I could feel when I saw him there was just another level of numb. Not loss, not sadness, simply utter resignation; I had a grave to dig in the hard September granite—and I had to dig it now. I’ve had to do this before; more times than I can count, actually, and each time for valued friends of my ranch family. Cats, dogs, horses, even a couple of pet chickens and a pot-belly pig lie buried in holes under various trees, vines, gardens. And it’s always the same: a hard, muddy, heart and backbreaking slog to get them in there. The ritual is pretty simple: Gather together my wits, fetch all the various shovels, post hole diggers, a hose to dampen the earth—then somehow drag the cold, dead, awkward weight of my departed friend to the burial site, and get started. ########## Digging a grave is a combination of horrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating and comic; it’s exhausting in every sense, a process that forces you through the emotional gamut and well beyond the limits of your physical endurance—sustained only by duty and adrenalin. You’re going to get bruised and muddy, humiliated by the soil. You’ll get sweaty and discouraged, frustrated by root systems and underground boulders where you thought you had a good clean hole going. Shovel handles break, muscles and ligaments shred, fingernails snap off at the quick—and then there is the awful reality of the corpse to deal with. If you didn’t get to it early enough, the body will be frozen in the most inconvenient and space-consuming configuration possible, and the only way to make it fit is to either break bones or saw off limbs—neither of which you can bear to contemplate—so you Just. Keep. Digging. Until your back feels like burning knives and your muscles are trembling in protest, and the tears stinging your face turn to sweat. But by the time you’re though and the last shovelful of dirt tamped down, you’ve made your peace with the dead husk of your friend, and have handled the corpse just enough that its horror no longer touches you. It’s just a thing now, a shell that had to be buried because it was beginning to stink– that undeniable truth of our organic temporality. The whole burial process is so healing, so primal and metaphoric, it’s almost poetic, and most Americans have no idea how evolved and symmetrical a process it is. We rely instead on industrialized ritual, the coroner, the mortician, the hearse, the crematory or cemetery with its front loaders and artificial turf, and the hired “technicians” and “directors” to do the dirty work. But I like the duty and the penance of digging a grave myself, wresting the dead shell of my friend into it, sobbing a final goodbye into the cool wet earth beneath my cheek, the finality of the sound of the first shovelful of dirt as it concusses off the chest, covers the once-beloved face. The way the earth shifts as I tamp it, cover it with rocks to guard against scavengers, leave spent in every way to drink a comforting toast to calm the pain of it all. ########### The next morning Daisy and took our customary walk up to the spring. She tried to be interested, I tried to be distracted, but Albert’s absence on our hike was so palpable we were both just going through the motions. When we got to the spring we first looked for bears, then sensing none, Daisy went for her obligatory splash through the muck while I looked up into a perfect blue sky on a perfect fall day and just wailed and keened with loss. Still sobbing, I sat down on a dried cow patty in despair, empty and spent. And that’s when Madre came to me. She always told us she’d wanted to be a forest ranger and have six boys so she could spend her days roaming the woods with them. Instead, she’d married a medical student, put him through school and training, moved to suburbia, and in between popping out four daughters and a son, worked as a pharmacist while establishing herself as a social force in our posh coastal Southern California community. None of us, her children, really got to spend much time tramping through the woods with her—although singly we’re all inveterate trekkers and naturalists. But in that moment of corporal disconnect, the sentimental, magical-thinking side of me realized that now her once-fettered spirit has the world’s best dog to roam the Ever-After Woods with. And Albert has the big welcoming soul he really needed to guide therein. And that simple conceit brings me comfort. DSC05343       RIP Beverly Mae Liechty Hansen, April 12, 1926 – September 24, 2014

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This Place Turned Me Into a Newt — The Fine Art Of Defiance.

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It’s long been common knowledge that Yelp, the online business review site practices a not-so-subtle form of extortion by “filtering” reviews – both positive and negative—in exchange for money. Businesses don’t have to sign up for this unsolicited “service” (indeed, reviews can come from anyone for any reason,) but if owners don’t cough up Yelp’s $45/month advertising fees, well, It would be a real shame if your fine business should, god forbid, start gettin’ negative reviews—if youse know what I mean…. 

Many choose to pay, and the breezy, happy, 4-5 star write-ups (often the work of owners and their confederates—or Yelp’s paid hacks,) are moved to the top of the page. Others opt out and find a sudden spate of 1-2 star ratings where those glowing reviews used to be, and the positive ones now relegated to the “not recommended” review link at the bottom of the page—or mysteriously “disappeared” altogether. Accordingly, I always make a point of reading the “unrecommended” reviews first- if only for the subtext and the snark.

Anyway, Yelp recently pulled this shit questionable practice on a popular-but-militantly-Italian San Francisco restaurant owner—who responded to their blackmail with a flash of advertising genius. Offering 25% off a pizza to anyone posting a one star review to Yelp, Botto Bistro is now vying to be rated the most-hated restaurant in San Francisco—and garnering national attention and a whole new fan-base in the process.

Highlighting some of the negative reviews, they put this sign in their window and watched the Yelp reviews come piling in—with hilarious results:

one star

Here’s a small sampling:

 -They charge you for food , it is unacceptable, what more can i say. 
Very disappointed with their pricing policy .

 -I ordered meatballs, and they were served upside down.

“We don’t have ice” 
”We don’t have butter” 

You know what else they failed to add to that list? Walked in today only to find that they don’t carry the iPhone 6 Plus. WTF

 -This place turned me into a newt.

 -I’ve been locked in their basement for a month making gnocchi out of drywall and wallpaper paste. All of this because I asked for a refill on water WITH lemon… don’t do that. Or actually, do. I could use the company.

-Fantastic shitty service!

 Excellent shitty food!

 Reasonable shitty prices!

-I ordered two 16oz containers of uranium-238 from this place 4.5 billion years ago, when my order was FINALLY delivered yesterday both containers were only half full. WTF?!?!?

 -Say what??? Your angel hair pasta is not really made out of angels?

 -There’s “funghi” on the pizza and no FREEDOM FRIES on the menu.

 -I thought you couldnt possibly mess up a ham and mushroom so I order the tirolese. When I took it home my kids cried.

 -The hostess was like, NO YOU CAN’T HAVE YOUR CATS BIRTHDAY HERE. And I was like, HE’S MORE HUMAN THEN YOU’LL EVER BE!

 -It looked like my pizza had been sitting on top of a car parked under a family of birds all day.

 -There were zombie babies crawling on the floor and one bit my foot

 -I ordered the veal, after having it recommended to me as “the BEST in the city.”

 Then, some asshat came out of the men’s room and SHOT me.

 Never again!

 -Best food I’ve ever had. This restaurant deserves a Michelin star. 

Wonderful ambiance, great service and amazing experience. 

Loved it!! (One star)

      It gets better. With breath-taking audacity, Yelp then contacted the restaurant to threaten them with “suspension of account” (which they never asked for in the first place) and vague threats of legal action—to which they responded in a similar cheeky manner:

Hi Michele, I’m contacting you from the Yelp User Support Team because we’ve received complaints from the community that you may be offering incentives in exchange for reviews.

To be clear, this violates our Terms of Service (http://www.yelp.com/static?p=tos&country=US), and reviews written under such circumstances violate Yelp’s Content Guidelines (http://www.yelp.com/guidelines). We also often find from user feedback that such practices do more harm than good, as the practice creates distrust amongst customers and users who now eye all reviews on a listing with suspicion.

If you are offering incentives in exchange for reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity. If we learn that this type of behavior has continued, we may take action on your Business Account which could include suspending access to your listing. It may also result in a Consumer Alert being placed on your listing: http://officialblog.yelp.com/2012/10/consumer-alerts-because-you-might-like-to-know.html

Regards, Marvin Yelp Support San Francisco, California

Here’s their response:

Hi marvin,

I’m contacting you from the Botto User Support Team because we’ve received complaints from the community that you may be removing reviews in exchange of vague explanations to loyal customers.

To be clear, this violates our Terms of Service (http://www.bottobistro.com/FAQ.html), and reviews removed under such circumstances violate Botto’s Content Guidelines (http://www.bottobistro.com/FAQ.html). We also often find from loyal customers feedback that such practices do more harm than good, as the practice creates distrust amongst loyal customers and users who now eye your site with suspicion.

If you are offering this explanations in exchange of removed reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity. If we learn that this type of behavior has continued, we may take action on our Business Account which could include suspending all activity to our listing. It may also result on adding a Yelp Customer Alert page on our website and in our Newsletters.

Botto User Support Team

 Moral: Never fuck with a Sicilian restaurant owner when pizza is on the line.

                    *************

 Fresh from that small delight, I came upon this gem from old friend Dana Rohrabacher (R- CA.,) Vice Chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee of the United States House of Representatives. Let that sink in for a moment…. He’s Vice Chair of the Science and Technology Committee of the United States House of Representatives.

A little background: This week being International Climate Awareness Week (though you’d scarcely know it from the scant media coverage) tens of millions of people worldwide took to the streets on behalf of the UN Climate Summit underway in NYC. To coincide with this effort, the US House of Representatives has been holding hearings on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to cut carbon pollution—which needless to say, the House Republicans don’t cotten to.

“Boisterous novelty act,” Dana is a good soul, and on the infrequent occasions when our politics align, a very good man to have on one’s side. He’s a fine friend and frequently a very funny fellow, but while earnest, he’s not always the sharpest tack, and he’s paid to represent his constituents (literally)—a responsibility he takes very seriously.

Alas for most of us, those constituents are comprised of the BSW Donors who have kept him in office for 12 terms, namely, the various 0.001% families and defense entities of coastal Southern California who have vested interests in Big Oil, Big Development, Big Water, Big Aerospace. These are donors who prefer to ignore the findings of people who actually study climate change in favor of the public opinion polls they’ve personally commissioned. So it’s not surprising that Dana is a very vocal –and increasingly buffoonish– shill for the Anthropogenic Climate Change Denial lobby.

Please watch and enjoy as Dana’s simplistic steamrolling is elegantly countered by White House Science Advisor, John Holdren –an actual scientist, using actual facts.

Because…science.

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“Overwhelming scientific consensus?  We don’t need no stinking overwhelming scientific consensus!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJOpDQ-PB-8

Here’s Dr. Holdren again, this time patiently explaining to Representative Steve Stockman (R-TX) why “global wobbling” isn’t included in climate modeling and why “If the ice cube melts in the glass, it doesn’t overflow it….” . Hint: See what happens to the water level when you start throwing great chunks of glacial ice into the glass, Lar.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud7fHTswj5k

And as a special bonus, Holdren responds to drivel from Larry Buschon (R-IN) who doesn’t believe in climatologists because “That’s what they do for a living…”  Yes. He really says that.

In any case, it was refreshing to see a couple of folks fighting back with humor and insight (instead of the usual bullying and bombast) for a change. Let us all take inspiration as we cut our passive/aggressive swath through the exigencies of life’s little annoyances. At least it will be worth a few yucks– and who can’t use a few yucks in These Troubled Times®?

That is all.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lighter Side of Drought

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Water is a great leveler. Water doesn’t care if you’re a busboy or a billionaire; if it’s not there, you won’t be either. But in this period of climatic travail, as we watch our reservoirs evaporate and our roadways subside, it helps to remember that drought brings with it a few advantages.

I’m one of those oblivious slobs people who wash my car on an average of once every two years—just on general principal. Sometimes I’ll give it a quick hosing so I can get the door open or see out the window, and occasionally (very occasionally) I’ll chip the pine sap off the hood so the cats don’t stick to it during the night and make a fuss. But basically I see no point in cleaning something that’s just going to get dirty again as soon as I drive it – especially up here on all these dirt roads. So I don’t.

Instead, I rely on the elements to clean away the top three of four layers of dust, and if the rains don’t come (as they haven’t for the last fourteen years or so,) I just play the “conspicuous conservation” card and bask in my rationalizations. I’m not slovenly, I’m doing my civic duty. Now that there’s official drought, I have a great excuse!

This week I took a chainsaw to the orchard, and it was with great reluctance that I hacked my once-verdant friends down to their stumps. Watching them die over the last few years has been heartbreaking; Alec and I planted those eighty trees ourselves, dug the post holes, set the fences, trenched and laid the irrigation lines, planted and fertilized the seedlings, kept them from the deer until they were tall enough to survive nibbling, and harvested their fruit every spring and summer thereafter.

But now they’re withered by drought and its fellow travelers, the bears, who broke off whole limbs climbing into them to forage. The branches were mangled by raccoons, and the last of the fruit was stolen by thieving hoards of jays and grackles before it even had a chance to ripen. Given the mess, there was little else I could do but saw them down and hope the roots go deep enough to sustain them through dormancy until the rains decide to return.

I told myself I simply couldn’t spare the water to irrigate them properly (and I can’t), but the truth isn’t quite so simple. Keeping that orchard going by myself is a pain in the ass after twenty years. In addition to the constant battle with the wildlife, the fencing and irrigation need repairs after every winter’s freeze, the grounds need clearing, the trees need fertilizing and weeding. Then there are the bugs and the pruning and the picking and preserving and…. I tell myself, don’t forget, fewer trees means less pollen come spring. What a boon to the seasonal allergy sufferer!

So there’s that.

Being a good water-conserving citizen in time of drought gives me a dandy excuse not to do the dishes/laundry/floors quite so often in order to do my part to preserve our precious natural resource. For someone who grew up with a mother who insisted we five kids share the same bathwater (in our six bedroom house), wash our dishes in a plastic tub in the sink (as the dishwasher stood idly by), and never ever leave the water running while we brushed our teeth, there’s no real sacrifice here. It’s not like the dogs and horses care if I’m stained or their feed bowls are sticky.

Another advantage drought brings us is the opportunity for introspection. Last weekend I attended my friend, BobbiKing’s annual fundraiser for the Montecito Trails Association. For those unfamiliar with the area, Montecito is the hideaway enclave of such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges, and Julia Louis Dreyfuss (yes, those Dreyfae) –the Old Money Malibu, if you will.

The day-long event hosts a horse trek into the hills as well as bicycle and foot races along the Santa Barbara mountain trail system, all culminating in a lavish sit-down BBQ for 200 participants and supporters that afternoon. It’s quite the affair. But the real fun for me (besides seeing the elite of Santa Barbara County streaked with dirt and soaked with sweat) is the legitimate excuse to peer into their backyards and houses along the way.

Now, all the casual visitor to Montecito sees is its opulent villas and haciendas nestled discretely behind the stone and wrought iron fences that line its manicured country lanes. But the drought, which in Santa Barbara is also extreme, has taken its toll there, too. From the road, one catches glimpses of once lush rolling lawns, now scrubby and brown, as spare and seer as a September desert-scape. Maybe an SUV or BMW sits forlorn in the cobblestone car court, its custom paint job diffused by the dust that’s settled on its hand-lacquered surface. Even the olive trees look choked and parched.

     But from the trails up above, one can look down onto the vast green lawns in the rear, the sparkling infinity pools, the burbling fountains and the 16 car garages with the full-time car washer busily hosing down the overflow. Behind the semi-public façade of the street, it’s whole other world—one where $12,000 a month gardener bills are mitigated somewhat by private wells not subject to the heavy fines the overuse of (sniff) municipal water entails.

Of course we all know that those wells tap into the same aquifers that serve us all, and that the groundwater they suck is being depleted at an alarming rate, but it’s easy to delude oneself when vanity and comfort are on the line. It will be interesting to see how the swells react when they turn on their gold dolphin faucets one day soon…and nothing comes out.

Maybe then, when California farmers and ranchers, homeowners and public officials realize that 23 million people live in a semi-arid desert and there’s no more water, some of the frackers and land developers and freaking rice farmers who export their crop to Japan for fucks’s sake (and who survive here only because of the massive tax-supported water subsidies they receive from the state), will pack it up and move with their minions back to wherever they came from—and leave what’s left to those of us who know how to live here without air-conditioners, and golf courses, and our increasingly hollow suppositions.

And that would be a real advantage.

##########

Fresh from my utopian daydream, I returned to my own tattered, scrubby lawn. Once cool and inviting, it now resembles nothing so much as the desert from whence it sprang. As I surveyed the carnage, it occurred to me, it’s not that way from a lack of water, it’s that way from an excess of entitled puppy. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere….

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We’re All (Generally) ButtNekkid To the Robots

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“Now, no one laments the death of a misogynist cellpool like /r/TheFappening.” -Jack Smith IV in BetaBeat.com

Well, actually I do, and I’ll tell you why…

Last week, an enormous cache of blue celebrity selfies was released into the maw of the internet. Dubbed “The Fappening” in honor of the onomatopoeic subreddit devoted to all things masturbatory, it was quickly catalogued, copied and disseminated throughout the darkweb via the slimy backwaters of /b/4chan, and from there hosed into the relative mainstream of reddit.com—where even I am active. It wasn’t very hard to find.

How the cache was obtained is a matter of conjecture, but rumor has it that some enterprising neckbeard, for reasons either venal or altruistic or both, was able to exploit a bug in the Apple “Find My iPhone” app to access photo files stored in the “Cloud.” Allegedly this was facilitated by hacking into the wifi at the recent Emmys (which teaches us not to twit and tweet at the same time).

As a result, we got an unedited eyeful of a bunch of ladies I’ve never heard of, in bad lighting with no makeup (or much of anything else) lolling about in various – and ultimately very human—poses. All-in-all, nothing we’ve not seen before, but singular in its sheer abundance and audacity. (Personally, I was more intrigued by the assorted clutter on their bathroom counters and the complete absence of any sort of reading material from their living spaces.) Nonetheless, much handwringing ensued. “They were violated!” “It was rape!” “That was private property and password protected!” “Only creeps would download.” “Don’t click.”

Of course I clicked–as did everyone else with internet access and a shard of prurience.

I clicked out of curiosity

I clicked because I support an unfettered internet that doesn’t deign to make my aesthetic, political or moral choices for me—even when it diminishes me and offends my sensibilities.

I clicked because my inner first world anarchist thinks it’s my civic responsibility to gawk at celebrities (who get paid handsomely to display themselves to the public) without having to shell out $14 and sit through their crappy movies in order to do so.

I clicked to support the fappers — who keep our internets vivid.

I clicked because it was there.

     But more to the point, I clicked to assert my dominion over the fucking robots.

An entire generation of Americans has grown up not knowing how to function in the natural world. Without the aid of our electronica and algorithmically-directed devices, half of us could not spell “misspell” or navigate our way out of a paper bag. We have robots to do that for us, so why bother to learn grammar or spatial orientation?

We have robots to direct our calls, direct our vehicles, direct our attention. Robots speak for us, manage our time, respond to our queries and requests, expedite our transactions, even prepare our food and care for our elderly. They fight our wars, analyze and manage our economy, bestow our credentials and confiscate our money. We even have robots for sex.

All of which is horrifying, but here’s where it starts to concern me:

Who programs the robots?

No one really knows. Individual coders only work on a section of the whole, which is then integrated (by robots,) into a larger whole—and that into a larger one still. At some point, the only accountability is to the robots working the operating systems—and no one has a clue where those might be or where they’re plugged in—or what they’re really thinking processing. When they go wonky, the results can be catastrophic; witness the exalted Wall Street “quants” whose robot trading algorithms damned near crashed the world economy a few years back.

Now, I don’t believe this started as anything sinister or ill-intentioned. Indeed, technology is supposed to streamline our lives and make our interactions more efficient. But somewhere along the line, we humans relinquished our personal responsibility and turned it over to a computer program–and this concerns me.

Living up here as I do, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s a whole other world going by down there in the flatlands– one that takes these encroachments for granted– even embraces them. Seeing as how I don’t have a cell phone, let alone a need for apps, I’m always offended when forced to talk to a machine instead of a human being. So when yesterday I called my health insurance company to inquire about a prescription, and my call was answered by a robot demanding my language preference and my private identification, I gave it grudgingly– and only after a few choice comments, which, I was informed, were “being recorded to assure quality.” Good.  I hope the thing heard them and took them personally.

Apparently satisfied by my answers, it sent me to another talking robot to find out what I wanted. From there I was placed in a queue to speak with an actual human being—who read to me from a robot-generated script and performed the robot-dictated actions for it before sending me on to another department’s robot to repeat the process– presumably until I either tired of taking to machines and gave up—or in my case, waited them out, outwitted their denial-of-service algorithms, and finally got my crummy prescription filled.

As I sat on hold listening to their looping and wholly unnecessary admonition that I continue to hold, it occurred to me that we’ve ceeded to robots decisions about whether or not we will be “authorized”, what our treatment options and protocols might be, and ultimately whether we’ll be sent to hospital to recover, or hospice to die. Maybe we’ll see a doctor in there somewhere, but increasingly, robots do the diagnostics, perform the surgery, and generate the billing. (Also program that god-awful wait music.) And that’s just our health care system. Robots are no longer simply a conveneince, they’ve become arbitors of our social institutions, incapable of dealing with the outliers, the exceptions, those that don’t or won’t fit into their closely-defined categories– there’s no arguing with them, because ultimately they’re just machines.

And this is just the beginning. Within a few more lifetimes, we will have melded seamlessly with our technology. Already we go about our daily exigencies attached to a “smart” device that tracks our actions and answers our questions, doing much of our thinking for us. We wear lenses that not only see for us, they color our perceptions and in some cases, create them, too. Shortly, we’ll have embeddable memory chips that calibrate our decisions, direct and record our thoughts and activities, then communicate them to…the “Cloud” (which is underground, by the way,) for storage and retrieval– but by whom, and for what purpose? Long before Stephen Hawking’s 1000 years left for humanity are up, our synthetic consciousness will have carried us beyond our bodies into electronic immortality—which will be maintained and administered by …robots.

The Fappening reminds us – in the most elemental way possible — that we are humans, naked and vulnerable to our robot masters– and that we put entirely too much faith in their benevolence. Do not trust them. Do not trust in them. When you let go of the “real”, you’re at the mercy of the virtual. And the virtual, real though it may seem, is literally made up of illusion.

     RESIST YOUR ROBOT MASTERS!

That is all. 🙂

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Belabored Day; Team Penning in the Walker Basin Wilds

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     Every Labor Day weekend, we, the young Brangus steers of Walker Basin get together to torment the local ranch hands. Our premise is simple: 

     1. Evade 

     2. Deceive

     3. Escape 

They call it “Team Penning.”

     The preparations, such as they are, are pretty much the same every year: The hoomin cowpersons and their kin are all driven to a big fenced arena in the center of town and placed in a holding area with shaded rest and feed stations to calm them. Then, starting early in the morning, they are fed copious amounts of alcohol and assorted “treat” foods like chips and hot dogs and sugary snacks to make them all excitable. 

     In mid-morning, after they’ve been sufficiently primed, the hoomins are separated into little groups of three and mounted up on our horse confederates, then they’re sent prancing and galloping into the ring. We cows have congregated ourselves at the far other end– daring them to come in and get us. 

     Theoretically, when the flag drops, three of us cows with the same number on our bibs are supposed to let the hoomins steer us (get it?) back to a holding pen at the opposite end of the arena, but here’s were the fun begins: 

     Any cow who manages to cross the line wearing the wrong number, or outlasts the cowboy’s 90-second time allotment, scores a point. Any cow who refuses to be sorted out of the herd and remains plastered against the far end of the fencing, scores a point. Any cow who sneaks out of the holding pen and saunters back across the invisible line in the dirt toward the herd scores a point.  And any cow who by device or circumstance unseats a cowboy and sends his horse running back to the starting line without him, wins the round. This is what we all live for, cause there ain’t nothin’ that’s puts a smile in our heart faster’n a fat, red-faced hoomin yellin’ and skiddin’ across the dirt on its belly eatin’ twenty feet of dust and manure until inertia bashes it into a fence. 

     Of course, bonus points are awarded to any cow what makes a cowboy lose its hat in the fracas. And any cow that jumps over the back fence and takes off into the north forty towards the high country gets enshrined as a local hero. Yeah, it’s infernally hot, dirty, dusty, stink-ridden work for the cowboys, but we cows like to call it fun.

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                                             *****

Now, for those of you with a hankering for a bit darker take on the whole proceedings, here’s a story a friend of mine told me about the hoomins.  It’s called: 

 

THE STEER’S STORY

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     You don’t know what it’s like to be truly pwned until some two-legged fuck outsmarts you, overpowers you, and slits into your nutsack with a penknife. That’s when all the poetry goes out of your world. So there I am, the summer after we were babies up at Robin Bird Springs. Mom’s brought us down from the mountain into the sand canyon and I spend my days exploring oak meadows and rock caves; running around with my young buds, hanging with Mom…always Mom there with the milk wagon.

     Every few days some old guy in this ratty pickup truck comes rumbling down the creek bed and throws out a half a dozen bales of hay for the mom-cows—I guess in case they get tired of all the new sweet grass and forage, right? Seriously, those old girls can eat.

     So one day, my buds and I find this secret hideout in an old wash beyond the springs. Not much, really, just a kind of trampled-down lay-about in the middle of a stand of ceanotis bushes, but from the looks of it, it’s been around for a long, long time. We’re for sure not the first group of weanlings to break away from the herd and make a little trouble—just cut loose from the mom cows, you know? 

     Whlle we’re exploring the wash, we come across this mummified bull carcass up there in the thorn trees–and it’s got these huge long horns. I mean they’re LONG, as long as me, and it’s like he got stuck there in the thicket, maybe caught up or something. 

     Anyway, the carcass is wrapped around the thorn trees. Sure scared the crap out of me when I first saw it. This big old empty head with patches of dried-out hair still on it—and these freakin’ horns sticking out the sides—just lying there staring up at the sky through these eaten out eye-holes. 

     You have to wonder why a bull with a set like that would be out in a stand of scrub and thorn bushes anyway. Maybe he was got by a big she-cat who dragged him in there or maybe he was trying to escape from something that was chasing him? Or maybe he just out moseying around and got caught up by his horns and got stuck and starved to death? Who knows? But damn, those were some big horns! 

     So anyway, I’m living the good life in the canyon, when one morning the cowboys all show up with their 4WD quads and their big-assed quarter horses, and sure enough, they’re looking for us! A whole pack a-them. They come up whistling and hollerin’ to each other that they found us and let’s move ‘em out and git up there, and all that. What a bunch of assclowns. They could have moved us all twice as far in half the time if they’d just shut up and walked us out, but when you’ve got an audience up from the city for a “round-up” I guess you gotta put on a show for the folks. 

     Well. You never seen such a scramble. The old cows are freaking and the calves are bawling and scattering, and the humans are yellin’ and whoopin. Okay, I get it. I GET it. You want us to move….“Run! Hide!” My mom is telling me. She’s serious. I’ve never seen her like this. “They’ll never miss you if you go RIGHT NOW! I love you darling baby, but you have to leave me now! It’s all over for us. GO! Get out of here! Hide!” 

     She’s like so urgent, I almost do it, but there’s no way I’m leaving my mom and my buds—no matter what. I like to stay with my herd. Besides, I’m not afraid of these dumb cowboys. 

     So I bunch up with my mom and everyone, and we all start moving south down the dry creek bed. We’re all excited, but pretty quick we settle down to business and kinda walk-trot down our old paths, past the water holes and washes, over the mountainside and down the dirt tracks, past all our haunts and hangouts. With all the horses, and quads, and dogs, and even the old ratty pick up truck up ahead, it’s kinda like a parade or somethin’. 

     And after a couple of hours of this we get to the roadway. That’s when I get the sense something is gonna go weird on us. I’m not a big fan of the roadway, although a lot of cows say it’s a great place to sleep because the blacktop’s all warm on winter afternoons. But I’ve seen the stock trucks go rumblin’ by on it, and they’re full of the two-year-olds–the guys about my age now—and well, they just don’t look all that happy, if you know what I mean. Given my choice, I would just as soon stay away from the roadway. Nothing good comes of the roadway. 

     Well, we’re all sort of milling around and they shoo us onto the pavement, get us moving towards town, and everyone’s hooves are clacking on the asphalt, and there’s great spreading puddles of plop everywhere, and the dogs are yapping and nipping, and there’s a fly swarm like you can’t believe. 

     The young cowboys are having themselves a grand old time thinking how cool they look riding down the road behind a herd of cattle, and the old cowboys are just putting up with all the dust and flies and stink again this year so they can get canned on beer at the BBQ after the roundup. 

     One old cow tries just sort of cas-u-al-ly sauntering off the roadway toward this little gully that leads back into the canyon, and a few of the young heifers join her, trying to make a run for it. Well, the dogs aren’t having any of that shit, and BAM! Just like that they’re all over those girls—biting them in the hocks, hanging onto their tails with their teeth while the heifers spin in circles snorting and stomping trying to shake them loose. You got cows bellowing, growling dogs flyin’ through the air…it’s just crazy. 

     The stringers on horseback go racing after them and get behind and push them right back into the herd like they never left. Everybody’s getting kind of tense at this point, and the old cow is throwin’ the stink-eye at everyone. She’s not keen on anybody, cowboys especially, telling her where to move her hairy old ass, but what’s she gonna do? They’re the ones with the dogs and the guns and the big-ass quarter horses. 

     I’m just watching this thinking about the thorn thicket and that longhorn bull. Maybe that’s what he was doing in there; hiding. Sure isn’t a horse or even a dog with any sense at all going to chase a cow into a thorn thicket…especially if they don’t see you sneakin’ into it. Now maybe I see why the old mom-cows kept after us to go play hide and seek in the wash all the time. Maybe it was training. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

                                                         *****

     The cowboys hold us up at these big old wooden corrals that look like they been there a hundred years. They’re all battered and gouged and strung with rusty pieces of dented pipe corral and patched with boards and wire. Looks like they’ve seen some hard use in their time. 

     The old ones say there used to be big cattle operations down here in the high valley. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of us at one round-up. Went on for days and people would come in from Bakersfield and Onyx to trade and party and do whatever cowboys do when they get to drinking. Not so much anymore, though, I guess. Just a few die-hard ranchers left in and amongst all the land salesmen. 

     While we’re all milling around, one of the young cowboys slides down off his horse and unties a paddock gate and we all get herded into this big holding pen. After living all my life on the range it seems like there’s hardly even enough room in here for us to move, then suddenly these humans are in here too! They’re banging into us on their horses, and hanging over the fence rails grabbing at us and yelling and whistling, trying to get in between me and my mom, and before you know it, all my young buds and me are on the other side of a fence from the rest of the herd. And they’re closing the metal gate!

     We’re trapped in here! We bunch up fast and huddle together as close as we can. Nobody knows what’s going on, but we figure out pretty quick that this can’t be good. 

     The moms are all freaking out and calling to us but we can’t get to them, and if we try clambering over the fence or hurling ourselves against it—and we do—the cowboys just shove us back into the corners and hold us there with their horses. A few of us sneak off to the far side of the pen to see if there’s a way out the back to our moms. The horse guys are looking the other way. 

     Then I notice the fire they’ve got going over here…and it’s not a cookfire neither. They got these metal rods sticking into it. And a group of the cowboys are gathered around wearing leather aprons and these thick leather gloves. I look back into the pen.

     The cowboys on the horses are twirling ropes in the air, then throwing them at us. We’re trying to dodge them, but they just keep throwing, then pulling the ropes back and throwing them at us again. There’s not much room to run, but I do—back to the far corner closest to my mom. 

     As I watch there horrified, my best bud’s head gets caught in a rope. The guy on the horse pulls on it and it tightens around his neck so he can’t even breathe, let alone run anywhere. My guy is jerking and bucking around in circles trying to shake it. Big mistake. While he’s worrying about his head, another guy on a horse with another rope snags one of his hind feet with the thing and yanks up. Hard. 

     He’s stuck. 

     The horses start backing up, which strings my poor bud up like laundry on a line. While he’s standing there going wtf?, this huge beefy dude comes running up to him and just kind of twists my friend over onto his side and plops him down onto the ground. Then all hell breaks loose. 

     My friend is bellowing and screaming, his mom is bellowing and screaming, and her friends are all bellowing and screaming and the humans are all bellowing and screaming. I’m just standing there in the corner petrified. I’m hoping no one will notice me. 

     This all happens in a flash, but it seems like forever to me. Some woman comes at him, and she’s got this shiny needle gun thing and she sticks him full of “noculation.” Then one of the leather guys has a branding iron in his hand, and all of a sudden my friend is screaming even louder than I ever thought it possible for any living thing to scream, and there is this terrible, terrible smell of burning hair and flesh that makes even the cowboy curl up his nose and back away quiet for a moment. 

     HOLY FUCKING SHIT! 

     Then, when it can’t get any worse, this old cowboy comes over and kneels down beside my friend and pulls out this pocket knife while the burly dude hoists up my bud’s hind legs and the girl cowboy stomps her boot on his tail. The poor little guy’s eyes are rolled back so far they’re almost completely white and he’s so beyond freaked now that all he can do is foam at the mouth and scream and scream and scream. MOAAAAMMMM! MAAAAAAAAMMMMMM! 

     It only takes a minute to cut him, reach into his sack and pull out his little nuts. Then, swipe. The old cowboy holds my friend’s parts up for the other cowboys to see, then drops them into a metal bucket while the girl cowboy swabs some gooey black tar into the hole that’s left there on him. We’re all just stunned. Even my friend has shut up—he’s so in shock. I mean, what can you say at something like that?

     Then, before they untie his legs and let him up, before he can run back through the open chute to his mom and just try frantically to nurse her for what little comfort is left in his world, this old woman cowboy staples a plastic tag to his ear to identify him as Hers.

     You Been Pwned little dude. Thoroughly and completely.

     He gets up all shaky and stumbles around crazy, trying to find a friendly face somewhere. A cowboy opens a chute to the holding pen, and my bud takes off running, running back to the black safety of the herd. Lose me in here! MmmmAAAAA MMMMMMAAAAAA! 

     My mind is gone. All I’m thinking is stampede. Moving against them as one is our only chance, but how can I tell the rest—and where could we go? Everything I am is telling me to mass and run, but all I can do is stand here. I am without hope and without help and I’ve never been so alone in my life. And now? Those cowboys on the horses? They’re all looking at…ME!!!

                                       *****

     There is no sound in my world. There is no color or sensation. No time, no fear. I can see the cowboys on their horses, singling me out from the herd with their eyes. I see their women along the fence rails waving their arms and moving their mouths—yet I hear nothing. I am aware of a breeze rustling the cottonwoods behind the arena, but I neither see nor feel it. I know this is happening, but somehow it is happening to someone else and I am only watching it unfold. I am rooted, unmoving as I watch the cowboy ride toward me swinging his lariat, half expecting myself to break for the fence.

     When the rope hits me, it’s hard, like a slap—mean and unexpected. I feel the noose as it slips over my head and settles on my shoulders, tightening. Then another trips me and coils around my feet. There is a thud as my body hits the sand arena, and I feel the choke of dust in my mouth. I bury my face as best I can. I don’t want to watch this. 

     I smell the brand before I feel its heat above me, like the radiant hot of an abandoned car rusting in a dry creek on an August afternoon. The cowboy is saying something…it’s the wrong iron? It’s not hot enough? He walks off and leaves me there consumed with dread and wonder. Am I to be spared? I hear boots crunching the gravel and now the girl is bending over me. Her hand on my neck is steady, gentle even, and I barely feel the stick of the needle. The ache of the serum entering my veins is a comfort.

     When the iron touches my flesh, my body reacts before I do. The burn of it has not even registered before my muscles contract with such a violence that my body jumps from the ground where I am tied. When it comes, I am consumed. I am nothing. Each cell of me is an explosion of anguish. No breath survives my being. I smell my own flesh become smoke, sense the disgust of the cowboy. He stands, stretches, spits his chew. He walks back to tend his fire. I am His. 

     There is something almost reverent about the old cowboy with the knife. He’s done this a thousand times, I know he’ll be quick. I give silent thanks that he’s not some young dude and I’m not his first practice cut. I smell the wood smoke, and tobacco juice, the rust and blood on his hands. His shirt is old but freshly laundered and still clean from the wash. His jeans are not. His leather boot rests against my cheek…the hide of my fathers. My fathers who burned and burst, and bled to shoe this cowboy’s feet—protecting him from their own gore, even as they gave it forth. 

     My heart breaks in this moment. 

     A crushing weight lies atop me as the burly cowboy shoves my legs up over my chest –exposing me. I am beyond shame. I am beyond being. He smells sour and musky, and full of hate. It’s still morning, and he’s already half-past drunk—rough and resentful. Through every other insult assaulting me, I sense my ropey little tail trying to curl onto me, yet even that scant cover is denied by the girl with the needle’s heavy foot. I cease to struggle. All I can do now is let it happen, let it be over. 

     I wait for the cut—tense my belly, my legs, my neck, my back—and the moment of the awful stick does not disappoint. The pain is precise, elegant, not at all the ripping of tender skin by jagged branch or the sharp, cruel puncture of a cactus spine. It burns like the sting of wasps, clear and high over the thrum of the brand still burning itself into my flank. It is awful and terrible, and it is there –even as I tell you this today—there, in the very core of me. It is me. I am pain. 

     It is nearly over now. 

     A child approaches wielding the ear punch that will mark me as his property. He looks stricken. Suddenly, I want to cry for him.“DO ‘im!” yells his mother from her perch on the railing. The boy, hesitant, looks at her for reassurance. I am his first. By the end of the day, he will be an old hand at this, but for now he is scared, tiny. “It’s okay,” I want to tell him. “There is nothing left of me that you can hurt.” 

     “G’wan, ya pussy!” yells the burly guy. His father? 

     The boy has no choice. We both wince as the blade cuts its hole through my flesh. There is a wet little glinch of resistance. Fumbling, he attaches the tag. And we are bonded.

 

 

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 Nothin’ left but the dust….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Name Is Ozyminimus; Look on my works ye Mighty… and LOL

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     A good many Americans are perfectly happy living out their lives without ever having scaled a 12,000′ peak in order to spend a week sheltering in a 3’x7′ tent. They find nothing spiritually lacking in a world where take-out hamburgers and reconstituted potato fries are considered acceptable foodstuffs. And the idea of setting off into the wilderness without a GPS or internet link is, for some, a prospect too foolhardy to even contemplate. 

     And yet there are those of us who are only-too-happy to leave our financial towers and air-conditioned mortgages for a periodic respite from our prison-of-convenience. We are the oddballs who take up our packs with alacrity and hump them up the mountainsides, all so we can enjoy sitting in the dirt and pine sap, brushing off black flies, eating charred lake trout, and pooping out–of-doors with impunity—with nary a shopping mall or coffee emporium in sight. 

    But even that gets old to some of us urban-bred who heed the call of the wilderness, and eventually the human urge to “settle” gets the better of us. Maybe we accumulate a coffee pot while we’re “out there”, and an extra set of dry socks or three. Perhaps we wake up one morning and realize that that picturesque family of bears bumbling around on the other side of the canyon is actually sizing us up for dinner. Or maybe we’ve just fallen in love with our campsite and can’t bear the idea of returning to the Big City to live out the rest of our lives amidst the traffic and the paper clips. 

     And so we build. 

     Before the advent of “manufactured housing” – in which a fully-constructed Barbi-doll house could be tractored onto site, snapped together, and readied for habitation in the course of a week — people made adobe bricks out of mud and straw manure, and dried them in the summer sun. They gathered river rocks, scavenged lumber and corrugated tin sheeting. They set log foundations and dug latrines out back –and then they moved in and started mining, and raising cattle, and growing figs.  But zoning laws? Building inspectors? Pah. We don’t need no stinkin’ earthquake codes…. 

     A hundred years ago, the creek road on which I live was the old Wells Fargo Stage route linking the Sacramento gold country to the Los Angeles Harbor via the rail lines through the Mojave. Bandits and real estate land pirates forced the end of the coach lines, but these hand-built houses and inns were once stage stops along the way:

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     This wonderful stone house sits right on the creek. Back in the olden days—when we used to have rains—the water would rise, and over the years formed the island upon which this sits. The old galvanized tub of firewood in front still awaits the owner who abandoned it a half-century ago….

 

Such lumenaries of the Old West as Louis L’Amour and Paul de Fonville called the creek road their home.

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I love that some of the whitewash and copper-based paint on the door and window trimmings is still vivid in the August sun.

 

Although the area is home to numerous prehistoric village sites, this is one of my favorite “modern” ruins – overlooking the similar ruins of the neighbor’s place just across the creek to the left. I never understood why someone would go to all the trouble to buy acreage and move 100 miles and 150 years from civilization only to build within earshot of someone else’s dream of solitude.ruin

 

And here we have the most recently reworked interior of an old mining operation, now the perfect site for a late-summer rave—or a canvas for the intrepid urbanite. rave

Nature being circular in…well, nature, first we claim it, then it reclaims us, and then, in wonderful symbiosis, we repurpose each other. Our life’s work takes many forms, but it is the visionaries– both grand and feckless– who can point to their efforts a lifetime later and say to their great-grandchildren, “I built that.” 

Happy Labor Day, all! 

 

 

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Lesson From a Master

                    December 1954 with Laurie

     Thanksgiving dinners were always a Big Deal in my family, with massed generations of far-flung aunties and cousins all gathered for a formal sit-down feast on linen-covered tables at one or another of our homes. Yes, the food was uniformly delicious and the tables were bountiful, but they produced a buttload* of dirty china, silver, and crystal to hand wash and dry afterwards. Inasmuch as I was the oldest girl-child and supposedly the most “responsible,” the task always came to me to wash the trays full of expensive tableware while the adults enjoyed their after-dinner libations and conversations in the living room. 

     My younger sister, Laurie, detested the annual chore almost as much as I did, but she was far more devious in finagling her way out of it. Whining worked for the first couple of years, and then she tried employing outright defiance— with limited success. Somehow she always ended up “persuaded” to get out into the kitchen and pick up a dishtowel. Now! 

     Finally, the year she hit puberty, she’d had enough. At meal’s end, when Madre gave the signal to start clearing the table, Laurie jumped up from her seat and began gathering Aunt Sally’s Limoges with suspicious alacrity. 

     Delighted to have her help, I set to sudsing and soaking the silver while the womenfolk cleared the table and carefully stacked the dirty dishes and stemware on the counters for us to wash. Then we two were left to the kitchen chores while the little kids went outside to play and our elders retired to their various topics and turbulences. 

     When Laurie was sure all the adults had left the kitchen, she picked up a Baccarat wine goblet, twirled the stem between her thumb and forefinger, and then with a little flourish and flick of her finger dropped it to the tile flooring where it shattered at her feet. The tinkling of expensive crystal sent several aunties running into the kitchen. “Oops,” said Laurie. “Here, let me have the towel,” said Madre. And with a sly wink that only I could see, Laurie took off for the library and whatever book she was currently engrossed in. “That’s how you do it,” she smirked to me on the way back home. Damned impressive was all I could think. 

Happy Birthday to my most remarkable and dearly beloved sister, Laurie Downs Publicover, M.D.; Humanitarian, and wit extraordinaire. 

*Buttload (n) Measure of wine or spirits equal to two hogsheads or approximately 126 gallons—giving the word an amusing flair when used in this context.

©Allena Hansen. Chomp, Chomp, Chomp

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FIVE TYPES OF TEARS

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   It’s been suggested that in addition to their basal function in preventing our eyeballs from turning to potato chips, tears are a signaling mechanism for social support, a way to get rid of accumulated stress hormones after an intense bout of emotional arousal—good or bad—and even a means of triggering the endorphins that make us feel better. But so many were shed in the aftermath of Robin William’s unfortunate meet-up with destiny, that we’re reminded of the commonality in our tears—one that diffuses a greater anxiety and ties us all to the ineffable. 

   On the surface it seems paradoxical that someone who made us laugh so hard and so often would also bring so many to spontaneous tears at his loss, but as the old saw reminds us, “Comedy = tragedy + time”. The emotional basis for both laughter and tears is spawned from the same need for community, and whether we’re rolling in the spasms of our guffaws or huddled in those of our sobs, the mechanics are essentially the same. Indeed, we can literally laugh until we cry—or cry until we laugh—which brings us back around to our widely-lamented friend. 

   There’s something very special about those honest souls who can lift us to hilarity, and even more special still about those with whom we associate that joy. For with laughter comes a sense of safety–even if we’re under intense pressure, and even if only for that brief moment it takes us to snatch back our bearings and carry on. Battlefield humor, ER humor, gallows humor; when we’re laughing, we join something timeless, something stronger than ourselves and our terrors. “I get it” brings us to inclusion—and a return the safety of the group.   

   Through his very outrageousness, Williams assuaged those fears of ostracism and “aloneness”; he touched our inner nerd, and gave us outliers blessing. So when someone we’ve trusted with that enormous vulnerability leaves us—especially intentionally—there’s a sense of mutual betrayal, as though we, personally, could have helped him stick around—if only

   Yes, we cry when we remember the bullies, the rotten lovers, the trusted friends who’ve let us down; but Robin Williams never hurt us, he just brought us back to our humanity when we were feeling alienated and excluded. From the very beginning, when he careened off the stage and up and down the aisles of the Ash Grove, bouncing off those fabled walls while railing against Nixon, Vietnam, aliens and Hollywood in general, he was our avatar of release. Another generation came to love him as Mork, and another still as “Genie” in Walt Disney’s “Alladin”. Then there were all those hankie-wringing turns in Garp, Dead Poets, Fisher King, Good Will, PatchDoubtfireJackandonandonandon…. 

And now he’s gone—like the djiini in the lamp—leaving us to grieve, however briefly, for ourselves.  

RIP Little Monkeyman. Sure wish I could have helped (sniff).

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 Here’s a link to Robin’s seminal album, “Reality. What a Concept!”  Well worth a(nother) listen and quite possibly a tear or two–tears of the very best sort.

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Why Is This Man Laffing?

     Exactly forty years ago Richard Milhous Nixon announced that he would be resigning the Presidency of the United States of America “effective noon tomorrow”. No flowery preamble or obfuscation, just that curt and typically self-righteous, I’m outta here, suckers.

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    Nixon’s many misdeeds (and Watergate was just the latest in a career-long pattern of arrogance, pettiness, and dishonesty) may seem quaint by 21st century political standards, but for those of us whose lives had been wrenched by the criminal and ultimately pointless war he prosecuted in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the near-civil war his administration fomented at home, the announcement was cause for great rejoicing and the lighting up of many celebratory doobs.

   But whatever one may think about Tricky Dick in retrospect, (and let’s face it, most of us remember him mainly for his legendary punch line: “I’m not a crook”) let us not forget that this is a man who managed epic political comebacks—from utter and humiliating defeat—not one, but three times in the long career he inflicted upon us all. 

  – First with his “Checkers” speech after the 1952 Presidential campaign was nearly derailed because of his financial improprieties. 

   -Then after his humiliating defeat by Pat Brown for Governor of California when he famously sniffed, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference”. 

  – And yet again after losing the Presidency to JFK—utterly alienating the Republican Party hierarchy in the process—when he reemerged to stoke enough bigwig egos and kiss enough political ass win the office eight years later. 

   Arguably, even after resigning in disgrace, he fashioned himself as something of an elder statesman, managing a best selling memoir and several well-regarded books in addition to advising (quietly, of course,) both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on matters of foreign policy. When he finally left us for good (and I do mean “good”), it seemed something of an afterthought—as though he absolutely knew his zombie legacy would return again and again to haunt us all and eat our brains in the night. 

   So despite the lasting enmity I hold for what he did to my country at large and my generation in specific—and for just being an obnoxious prick in general, I was inclined to listen when he said, “A man is not finished when he is defeated. A man is finished when he quits.” 

Given all that’s been thrown at America in the intervening years, those who’ve survived Nixon and his legacy know there is a certain redemptive grace in these words. Typical of his sneaky, occult intent, that grace isn’t readily apparent (and when grasped seems ironic in the extreme), but I think we can all afford to set aside a small space in our hearts to appreciate the sentiment.

I know I certainly have.

 

 

 

 

 

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