The Lump In My Throat Just Keeps Getting Bigger — A Christmas story in which I get far more than I expect.

36 North forty in Autumn

They always told us “it’s the thought that counts,” but really, didn’t we all want that pony? After a dozen or so Christmases spent ramping up my hopes only to see them dashed by the trinkets and toothbrushes that invariably took their place in Santa’s stocking, I learned to accept that the happy surprises of my fantasies all-too-often took a backseat to the exigencies of my parent’s financial reality—and adjusted my sentiments accordingly.

I’ve not had a Christmas wish for many years now, but somehow I always seem to get infected with the holiday spirit a week or so before it’s upon us. And although I’m too embarrassed to give gifts face-to-face anymore (there’s always that unspoken implication of reciprocity – which there’s not,) I do love giving presents on the sly, or better still, anonymously and unexpectedly.

Secret Santa exchanges were made for people like me, so when reddit.com announced their annual match-up, I was one of the first in line. Over 200,000 people from 149 countries signed up (along with such luminaries as Bill Gates and Snoop Dog) to exchange gifts with anonymous strangers then post the results on the website.

Now, I’m a pretty lucky camper actually, and certainly old enough that I don’t need any more “stuff” in my life, so here’s what I asked my Secret Santa for:

I would ask that you anonymously place the cash equivalent of whatever you’d spend on my Secret Santa gift into the mailbox, pocket, backpack, textbook, collection bucket, shopping basket, purse, ??? of the individual or family of your choice (not some institutional collection effort or charity, but an actual person you think might be glad to have a bit of unexpected money at holiday time.)

Alternately, please quietly pre-pay the grocery bill of the oldster in front of you in line at the store, or slip a few bucks under their groceries as they’re being tallied up — especially if it’s an old dude or lady buying cat food. You’ll know which one I mean.

And here, unedited, is the lovely gift my Santa sent to me:

“I would like for you to know how I spent the 20.00 that i set aside for a secret gift.

First off I was at a diner at the bar eating and seen the man next to me a bit rude, old, grumpy guy kinda being an ass to the waitress. He didn’t leave her a tip. I used 20.00 right then and there.

Then I went to local Walmart and paid off someone’s layaway bill, that was a bit more than 20.00, but a single mom of 2 kids got two new bikes for her kids for Christmas.

Lastly I was eating at a Mexican burrito joint yesterday. it was a bit busy a homeless man wandered in and ask some people for some money. I watch as a few people gave a few bucks and he got a small plate of food. As he sat alone me and my friend started to talk to him.

A timid man, beaten down by his own bad habits, but still grateful to be alive, I asked him if he was thirsty and would like for me to buy him a drink and he said no thank you I don’t drink soda. I figured he would be like FREE sure. But he said no……Not once did he ask for money we said good bye and left.

I reached into my pocket as we walked out and I felt the bills in my pocket it was only like 8 dollars but said maybe this gets him until the next week or a few days of food, I walked back in quietly hand him the cash in a low profile way not to draw attention to him or me. I told him Have a good holiday and that there are people out here who care. . . .”

Here’s where I lost it:

“. . .He could barely utter the thank you in his voice, and his eyes were that of a sad puppy. It was the best Feeling I’ve had in awhile and only wish I had some more to give him. Thank you for giving me this gift As I am usually numb to feelings, this was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Thank you Happy Holidays!”

(Allena fishes out hankie, honks nose.) 

There’s so much burden in the world right now, from cyber warfare to the continuing betrayal of our national ideals. Our idols once again turn out to have feet of dried muck, and our citizens increasingly feel their lives are worthless. So it makes me enormously happy to know that someone out there “gets” it. Seven people’s lives were made a little bit better by my Santa’s kindness, and I got a lesson in happy consequence; what more could anyone possibly ask for Christmas? 

TL;DR: My Secret Santa ends up thanking me for giving me my gift. I end up sobbing my eyes out.

Note: for those who would like to read the comments this story garnered, here’s a link:http://www.reddit.com/r/secretsanta/comments/2prji6/the_lump_in_my_throat_just_keeps_getting_bigger/

Standard

A Roadkill Christmas

roadkill peacock

For those with a marginal holiday budget and a lively sense of culinary adventure, nothing beats the fun of “found” protein sources. And for those confronting less-than-welcome drop-ins who show up expecting to be fed and entertained, here’s a dandy way to discourage them from sticking around for supper.

“Hey, what’s for dinner?”

“Roadkill. . . . . No, really.”

 ***********************

Times are hard. And accordingly, the creative cook must work with the ingredients on hand.
 Sometimes these are cleanly packaged and readily available, and sometimes, well, maybe not so much. If you’re facing a feasting holiday with a depleted larder, take heart. One of my all-time favorite Christmas dinners featured a road kill peacock that still sets me to salivating when I remember how wonderfully it turned out.

Now, if your initial reaction to the idea of serving your guests salvaged carrion is revulsion, let me just say that properly prepared, it’s not nearly as gag-inducing as you might imagine. After all, that hundred-and-fifty dollar prime rib of beef you’re contemplating was probably dispatched and dressed with less care than whatever met its demise at the front end of someone’s SUV. With a little creativity (and the stomach to google for butchering instructions,) your road kill repast is, at the very least, bound to be memorable. Besides, do you really want to spend the holidays with people whose sense of festivity doesn’t extend to their gullet? (Unless, of course, you’re stuck with insufferable foodies, in which case, road kill, unidentified as such, is probably the perfect main course for further stuffing their stuffed shirts. Just be sure to tell them you special-ordered it from a free range rancher in Sonoma.)

*********************************************************

From “A Roadkill Christmas“-copyright 2010 by Allena Hansen

It had been snowing on and off that December evening, and by the time I got to the canyon on my way back from town, there was ice all over the road. Fortunately I’d been driving with uncharacteristic caution, because if I’d sped by like I usually do, I’d have missed it. The plumage caught my headlights and reflected off the glistening ice, a dark form against the white snow, iridescent and unmistakable—a peacock! Likely a coyote kill from the ranch up canyon. I was feeling frugal, having just blown the last of my year’s discretionary income on dish soap and toilet paper, and it seemed like a terrible waste to leave it lying there so I pulled over and carefully peeled it off the pavement.

It was a big one, maybe 15 pounds or so, and already beginning to freeze. Granted, there was a sizable chunk missing from the breast where whatever had nabbed it had gouged out a dinner, but danged if I was going to let that discourage me. I mean, how often do you get a chance to dine on roast peacock?

I threw it in the trunk and carted it home where I skinned and gutted the thing, blasted it clean with a garden hose, and carefully trimmed the mangled part from the carcass. Then I rubbed it all over with koshering salt, set it in the refrigerator, and went to bed.

The next morning, contemplating my folly, I rinsed, patted it dry, and inspected it for any unspeakable things I’d missed the night before. Finding none, I salted it again, and stuck it back it in the fridge for another 12 hours figuring the salinity would kill any untoward microorganisms still clinging to life on its surfaces.

That evening I gave it a final rinse and brined it overnight in a stockpot to which I’d added two cups of salt, an equal amount of maple syrup, and enough ice water to cover it all. The next morning I dried it inside and out, stuffed it loosely with figs and black walnuts from the orchard, then trussed and rolled it in cracked black pepper and dried garden herbs. Thus prepped, I settled it into the Komodo oven and slow-smoked it over apple wood for the next two days.

I’d alerted a couple of my epicurean nerd friends of my find, and they were sufficiently trusting—as nerds alone at Hannakwanazachristmasolstice tend to be—to venture up to join me for Christmas dinner. Knowing both my predilections and my propensities, they’d brought along a bottle of good champagne and several peppery pinots to soothe me as I cooked and fussed. (There’s no point serving peacock without good wines and an audience—and nerds tend to make exemplary drunks.) So, after reheating my prize, I carved the smoked bird to minimize the missing breast chunk, and served it with a wild current jelly I’d put up the previous summer, grilled root vegetables from the garden, wilted winter greens with balsamic vinegar, and wild rice with shallots and morels.

It was an extraordinary meal, baroque in the best sense of the word. Four of us devoured the entire thing in one sitting, with nary a sandwich’s worth left over for later. The irony of dining so sumptuously on such blatant lowlifery was delicious, but the memory of that road kill Christmas turned out to leave the best taste of all.

My one-time triumph notwithstanding, this year I bought a goose; me chancing upon a fresh-smacked peacock is likely a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, given the invasion of scrub jays who’ve taken to tormenting me this winter, I’m sorely tempted to drive through their claven and transform some of them into a side dish.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Travel well. Eat safely.

Standard

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.

Standard

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

Standard

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

DSC05568

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.

DSC05580

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

The Lighter Side of Drought

DSC05532

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….

DSC05550

Standard

We’re All (Generally) ButtNekkid To the Robots

bite me

“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. 🙂

Standard