Friday, October 20, 2017

Spiders and the shrew brain

What can I tell you about spiders? Spiders have eight legs. Spiders' legs need vascular pressure to straighten. Their natural, relaxed state is bent. That's why their legs curl up when they croak.
We’re supposed to like spiders. Spiders are good. Spiders eat bugs that bug us. Spiders recycle sewage into rainwater. Spiders give us spider honey and spider silk. Spiders make friends with barnyard pigs.
But. Only. There's a spider-shaped set of linked cells in the visual cortex. Linked by a web of connections all the way down to the part of the brain that's left over from when we were the size of shrews, running around under the feet of tyrannosauruses. The spider-shape triggers that spider-shaped set of cells, which sends a spike of action potentials (if you could detect them with a Geiger counter the clicks would blend together in a hum)—sends that spike signal down into the shrew brain, and the shrew brain says, "Squish it! Squish it NOW!"
You can override it. Your big folds, Mr. Cortex Guy, they can override the squishing reflex. Tell you that the spider is your friend, etc., etc., blah, blah. The cortex does drone on a lot. Can let you look at pictures of wolf spiders with all their hair and rows of black, beady eyes staring at the camera. Lets you pet tarantulas, if you're the type that pets tarantulas. But underneath, your shrew-monkey-cretaceous-mammal brain is screaming, "Squish it squish it squish it squish it now before it kills you!" Because the little shrew-monkeys without arachnophobia all got eaten by spiders. Only the others reproduced. Or reproduced more.
Eventually it causes problems, this dissonance between the outer and inner brain parts. Makes your eyes start to vibrate. Makes you squish other things, since you can't squish the spiders. There was an arachnologist once who got arrested for squashing all the kiwifruits at the Safeway. "They were looking at me," he said as they hauled him away. "All furry, with their beady little eyes. Had to squish 'em before they sprouted legs. Once they do that, they crawl into the heating ducts and you can never get 'em all out."
I know this about the shrew-monkey brain because it happens to me. The side of the house is Spiderville. Spider City. Especially toward the end of the fall. They're orb-weaver spiders, mostly. Big webs that look just like your textbook, comic-book spider webs. The owner hangs upside-down, right in the middle.
I was out there one night last fall, poking around in the bushes and spider webs with a flashlight, looking for the breach where some itchy little squirrels were getting into the walls and scuttling around. I felt something on my arm. It was a spider. Big, fat spider, abdomen the size of a grape, where you could see stripes and segments, see the row of little holes the spider breathes through—spiracles?—in the small circle of light from the flashlight. Feel the touch of eight brushing legs. Feel, I swear, the prick of venomous fangs testing my skin for the tenderest spot. I shuddered. For real, and I'm not a shuddering kind of person. Shuddered, flailed at the spider. Brushed it off, and my shrew brain had me stamping on it over and over in the rain.
I'm sorry now. A little bit. But my shrew brain keeps telling me I did the right thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New mysteries no. 1: mice

First mystery, number one in the new case book: What’s making that squeaking noise in the car? Squeak squeak squeak.
“What’s making that squeaking noise in the car?” I asked.
Steve says, “Maybe it needs oil.”
“You know. Oil. If your bike squeaks, if the door hinges squeak, you need to oil them.”
“Doesn’t work that way with cars.”
“Hell it doesn’t,” said Steve. “How come you have to go have your car oiled every three months or whatever it is? It’s because if you don’t, it’ll squeak.”
Steve’s not much good for solving mysteries. I took the car to a private car detective. Mechanic. Whatever they’re called around here. You leave it there in the morning, they call you at noon with the results. They said, “We’re going to refer you to a vet.”
“Yeah. It looks like you’ve got mice.”
“That’s what’s squeaking. They’re in the fuel lines and the exhaust system. We don’t have the equipment to get ’em out, so you’ll have to go to the vet.”
“The vet.”
“Yeah. The vet’ll have a mouse extractor. Sort of like a plumber’s snake with a grabby claw on the end. They’ll run it through the systems and pull out all the mice.”
“Can’t you do anything?” I couldn’t believe they couldn’t do anything.
“We can oil ’em. That’ll make them stop squeaking, but they’ll still be in there.”
I took the car home again. There had to be some way to get them out.
Steve said, “You could oil them.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “It’ll make them stop squeaking, but they’ll still be in there.”
“No,” he said. “I mean you could make them slippery. Then you start up the engine, and they’ll all come squirting out the exhaust pipe.”
So we tried it. Poured a quart of mouse oil in through the air filter. You get the stuff at the pet supply store in the mouse section. Three-in-one mouse oil, for mice, rats, and voles. General purpose, to eliminate squeaks and promote frictionless rodents.
We let the stuff soak in for a couple of hours. Fired up the engine, and about a dozen mice came squirting out of the tailpipe.
Steve may not be any kind of detective, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a genius.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Thirteen come on Friday this month (to quote Mr. Churchill LaFemme)

Friday the thirteenth. I'll start writing here about bad luck.

It's bad luck to move to a green place. Where do you think all that green comes from? It's because it rains and rains and rains and rains and rains and rains and rains and rains. Move here and it's seven years of rain.
Bad luck comes in sevens. Dwarves are very bad luck. Days of the week, too. If something bad happens, chances are it will be on some day of the week.
It's bad luck to walk into a car backwards. Bad luck to walk into anything backwards. You could hurt yourself.

One of my imaginary friends doesn’t believe in good-luck charms:
"If it works, it's not luck."
"What do you mean?"
"If something good happens because you're carrying a monkey head, or whatever, it's not good luck."
"Sure it is."
"Uh-uh. It's not any kind of luck at all. The good thing happened because you had your dried monkey head."
"Yeah, good luck."
"No, cause and effect. The monkey head caused you to find a quarter on the sidewalk. If there's a cause, it's not luck."
"What are you, some kind of determinist?"
"You're the determinist. Thinking that a monkey head can affect where the molecules go."

Maybe the good-luck charms are really anti-bad-luck charms. But there's conservation of luck. Didn't you know? If the bad luck doesn't happen to you, it lands on someone else. If you don't step on a crack, you'll break some other kid's mother's back. It all has to balance, add up in the big accounting book.
That's the reason some people have such awful luck. Everyone around them is loaded up with rabbits' feet and St. Christopher medals, and so the bad luck has nowhere to go but onto the poor bastard who hangs around with them.
So what you have to do is take your lumps, suffer the bad luck for the good of society, so no one person gets too much of it.
Or maybe it works this way: rabbits' feet absorb good luck. Down in that soft fur between the toes, by the little claws. You need one from a young rabbit, unfortunately. The older ones have spent too much time walking around, sucking up bad luck from the ground into their feet.
Bad luck soaks into the ground. Flows downhill. Collects in sidewalk cracks.
Anyway, the rabbit's foot soaks up all the bad luck that was headed your way. Eventually it fills up, an you have to get rid of it at the hazmat site. If you just toss it in the trash, it could break open.

Eric's brother Todd tossed a rabbit's foot in the trash. He didn't know. Went into the garbage truck, and when the truck hit a bump there was a broken mirror inside that sliced the rabbit's foot right in half. All the bad luck came spraying out, the garbage truck lost control, spun into a bus full of nuns and schoolchildren, the bus ran up the sidewalk and through the door of the warehouse where the electronic voting machines were kept, smashed the breaker box in a shower of sparks, sent a power surge into the machines that were all plugged in getting their batteries charged up, and Trump got elected. Four years in the hard luck house.

My grandmother saw a guy on TV who had been struck by lightning four times. Once it knocked his hat off. Once it welded the zipper shut on his jeans. Once it curled his hair. Once it turned all his fingernails and toenails black, and they all fell out a month later. The interviewer asked him, "So you've been struck by lightning four times! Four times, and you lived to tell the tale. How do you explain that?"
 "Just lucky, I guess," said the guy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How to Taste Wine

Okay, see, this is a ritual. With prescribed actions and a litany. Just so you know.

Hold the glass up to the light. Swirl the wine around. You're checking the legs. Watch out for wines with six legs. These are insect wines. None is any good, except the one made by stamping on those honey ants, the ones with the swollen abdomens full of nectar. It's a sweet wine. When properly strained there should be no legs, nor thoraces, abdomens, or jaws. Just wine.

"Nice gams," you say.

Next, place your nose over the edge of the glass and take a good sniff. Try not to snort any of the wine into your nostrils. If you do, don't blow it back out. This ruins the taste of the wine.

"Smells like wine," you say. "Does it come from ants?"

There are other places wine can come from besides ants. Italy, for instance, or Trader Joe's.

After smelling, look at the wine carefully again. Check for insect parts and whole insects, such as fruit flies. Fruit flies flock to the stuff. They're enormous lushes, which is why you never, ever give money to fruit flies if asked. They just blow it on wine or a box of those honey ants, which they take home and turn into wine.

While you're at it, check the wine's color. Is it red or white? You should know that white wine is really yellow. If it's white, there's been a mistake, and you've been given milk. They do make something in Mongolia by fermenting mare's milk, but this should not be confused with wine, which is made from grapes or ants. By the way, the Mongolians also make stronger booze by distilling the fermented mare's milk. It's nasty, nasty stuff. Horse brandy. Stay away from it if offered.

Sniff the wine again. Classify the aroma. Wine has four basic aromas: sweet, sour, salty, and ant. This wine, for example, has an anty sweetness. (The nose, they call it, if they're being all snooty. Technically this only applies to that portion of the wine that you have snorted up your nose.)

Now, carefully, tilt the glass and let a small amount of wine dribble out on your tongue. Hold it there and breathe in and out a few times. You should feel the fumes clear your sinuses, just behind the bridge of your nose.

Add a bit more wine. Swish it around in your mouth. Be sure to get it between your teeth. There should be no grittiness, no ant parts, no fruit flies.

Now, tilt you head back and let the wine run down the back of your throat.

Next, gargle. Try to gargle a familiar tune. For red wines "The Star-Spangled Banner" works well. When you get to the rockets' red glare, it is now safe to swallow.

Take a moment to reflect on the taste of the wine. It should be winy. Beyond this, look for flavors in the mix. Does it taste like oak, or more like maple or walnut? Does it have floral hints, or is it like musk or vanilla? Check for notes or thorns of blackberry, peach, durian, or ants.

Now you say, "'Tis an elegant wine, with an aquiline nose, with hints of maple and pomegranate, with a glossy finish and a kick like a mule." That's what you're drinking it for, right? Because when you take away all the trappings, at the very bottom wine is booze. Unless it's been transubstantiated, in which case it's blood. Look for transubstantiated wine in the meat department. Sorry. Don't know why I wrote that.

Next time: How to taste horse brandy and live to tell the tale.

Friday, May 7, 2010

So you want to be a gladiator? Two.

So I was writing about things to do instead of the things you're supposed to be doing. Like writing.

Look at that dust along the top of the baseboard. I bet I could just wipe that off of there. Find a cloth or maybe haul out the vacuum cleaner. And since you have it out, you might as well do the floors.

That's the thing. If you ask me to vacuum the floors, good luck to you.

"Weren't you going to vacuum?"

"Oh, right. Sorry. I had this writing to do."

But when I'm supposed to be writing, that's when I'll vacuum. Probably mop while I'm at it, since once you've got all the loose crap up off the floor, it's in perfect shape for mopping.

I didn't get any writing done. Couldn't get to my desk until the floor dried, and by that time there was only half an hour left until it was time to go.

But, see, there was this deadline. Monday. Sixteen two-page spreads about gladiators. The editor was waiting. Her name's Katie. We've never met, but she looks like your standard editor—bald, with a cigar in her mouth. Piles of manuscripts teetering all over her office. A fat dictionary on a stand, just in case. A rack of blue pencils on the desk, lined up in a dispenser like the one the straws are in at McDonald's. Push down on the bar (ever notice how it works like a Skinner box?) and a pencil pops out the bottom.

Katie gets on the phone. "Moosenose, I need sixteen spreads about gladiators, and right now I got dick-all. Where's the stuff?"

I didn't say, "Well, see, there was dusting. And I thought I'd play a few scales, just to free my brain up. And then it was lunch time."

Okay. Since I'm writing here anyway, let me tell you about gladiators.

Being a gladiator, as they'll tell you, sucked. Except apparently some of them were popular with the ladies. But the ladies always go for the bad boys.

Say you're a Roman lady. You're married to an important senator or a knight. But you've got eyes for a gladiator. Why? Could be the oil. All those gladiators in the movies are oiled up slicker than okra.

But why do you have eyes for a gladiator? They're the lowest of the low. Got no rights. Ranked by law down there with thieves, prostitutes, and actors.

So. You have your various types of gladiators. Your Russell Crowe gladiator, all done up in medieval science-fiction armor. Your Kirk Douglas gladiator, all done up in olive oil and leather. Your Warner Brothers Martian gladiator, like a bowling ball with legs and a Roman helmet.

But here are some real gladiators:

Your retiarus—a guy with a net and trident for catching people and poking them till they're dead.

Your thraxes—Thracians—which I guess would be modern Bulgarians. Guys with helmets, shields, and swords for poking people until they're dead.

Do you see a theme here? Lots of poking until death.

You know someone's going to put this on TV soon. America's Dumbest Gladiators. Twelve people in a group. They all signed releases acknowledging that they stand an eleven in twelve chance of getting poked with a trident until they're dead.

They oil them all up with olive oil, then put them in an arena and let them go at one another. At the end of every show there's the Wild Animal Challenge, where they let some lions and elephants loose in the ring.

The PETA people will complain, of course. Don't you think it's wrong to feed people to lions? The poor lions are going to be malnourished. Not to mention how dangerous it is for them to eat swords and tridents. You should feed them soy protein, or maybe Gardenburgers.

Next time: Intermission, when they do the executions. Then the afternoon program, with trident-poking.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Squirrel waves

At Louisa's Café, back by the bathroom where the pigeons usually come in, there was a squirrel. The cook knows this squirrel. Its name is Loretta. Loretta was hovering around the doorway, shifting in those squirrel instants from just outside to just inside, back again. Left, twitch a bit. Right.

Over small distances squirrels move instantly. Something to do with quantum physics—they're here, then six inches to the right without ever passing through the space in between.

Over longer distances they move in waves, their tails half a wavelength behind them.

I waved to Loretta and went into the bathroom. When I came back out, the squirrel was still there, this time along with a pigeon. The squirrel shifted left, right, forward, blink-blink-blink, that quantum teleportation thing.

The pigeon walked, one foot in front of the other, pigeon-toed, head going forward and back with each pigeon step, saying to itself, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh."

They had a plan of some kind. Raiding the kitchen for baked goods. Loretta whispered to the pigeon, "We'll split everything. You can have the sesame seeds, the poppy seeds. I get all the nuts—pecans, walnuts."

The pigeon said, "Uh-huh, uh-huh."

That's when I came out of the bathroom and surprised them.

"New plan," said the squirrel. "You distract him by flying at his head and flapping your wings in his face. I'll grab his wallet."

The pigeon said, "Oo."

I said, "Squab." The pigeon hurried out the door, still walking, wings a little way out just in case, like a gunfighter's hands twitching above his holsters.

I said, "Brunswick stew."

The squirrel said, "What?"

"Brunswick stew," I said. "It's made of squirrels."

"That some kind of Depression-era thing, or did you grow up in a trailer park?" the squirrel asked. "This is the big city, Clem. We don't eat squirrels here. Besides, you'd have to catch me first."

Then—blink—she was four feet away in the parking lot. Gave one of those squirrel laughs and tossed an acorn at my head.

I went back to the writing table.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

So you want to be a gladiator!

Here's what you'll need: something to whack people with. A stick, maybe. Some big muscles. Some oil. You see 'em in the movies, all oiled up. Takes a lot of oil. Olive oil, because they're Romans, right? Well, mostly captured enemies, but it's still Rome. So they get themselves all oiled up, then someone shoves them out into the circus.

Hooray! It's the circus! Here's the program:

First up, music. An overture. Johannes Philippus Sousus. On those big Roman trumpets that curve round like serpents. And a lyre. You can't hear the lyre outdoors in the middle of all the trumpets with the crowd blabbering away, munching on popcorn and guzzling beer. But it's in the contract with the union. There has to be a lyre. You think maybe he's lip synching, anyway.

Next, lions.

It's not a circus without lions. They keep the lions downstairs in the maze of passageways. Whole place reeks of lion piss, and there's no way to get the stuff out of the rocks.

So they open up the doors to let out the lions, but it's hot, bright, and noisy, and the lions are more interested in sleeping. They do that—you can read about it on the panel at the zoo. Lions sleep something like 20 hours a day. Get up and eat someone, then go back to sleep. So the lions are all sleeping in a big pile at the back of the room, and they have to send an old guy with a stick to poke them. It's a reasonably prestigious job, lion poker. The trick is to run inside, poke them once or twice, then hightail it out of there while the lions are still rubbing their eyes and making those morning smacking noises with their mouths.

Properly poked, the lions come galloping out of the door. Run around the ring a few times, eat a couple of Christians, then go back inside for a nap.

Next, some clowns. Nobody likes the clowns. "And now," says the announcer, "the hilarious clowns!" He has to say that, or nobody would know they were funny. A chariot pulls up, pulled by a sad looking donkey who stops in the middle of the arena, sits down, and yawns. The chariot door opens, and a river of clowns pours out. You've got your Emmett-Kelley-style hobo clowns, your Bozo-style clowns with blue eye shadow, your cigar-smoking housewife clowns in drag, and a jailbird clown in a black and white striped suit.

They run around doing clown shtick. One tries to pick up his hat while kicking it just out of reach every time. One hits another on the head with a big mallet. Two clowns in a goat costume butt a third clown in the butt. There's polite applause, then some more lions are released to eat the clowns. You've probably already heard the stupid joke that says lions won't eat clowns because they taste funny. But in this case, given the general lack of funniness, the lions are only too glad to eat them, leaving only a couple of pairs of oversized shoes.

There's a standing ovation. The lions take a bow, then go back inside for another nap.

Next, it's Gladiators, Round One: bare-handed rassling. They're all oiled up with olive oil—first pressing, extra-virgin. So the oiled gladiators come out and do some rassling. Mostly there's a lot of slipping around. One wrestler rolls in the sand and comes up looking as if he's been dipped in breadcrumbs. A lion wanders out long enough to eat him, then go back inside.

The rassling goes on for a while until the gladiators are all rassled out, then they go back inside for a costume change, and it's Intermission.

The audience stands up. Stretches. Buys some bread, traditional accompaniment of circuses. The kids get souvenirs—those popguns. Little gladiator helmets. Tridents. Then they spend all their time poking each other. Parents threaten on the way home. "If you don't stop poking your brother with that trident, I'm stopping this chariot right here. Don't make me feed you to the lions."

Next time it's Gladiators, Round Two: the cutlery.