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.