20 January 2017

Decline and Fall


L
ooks like it’s time to say goodbye to freedom and greatness and all things good and beautiful as we bid a fond farewell to the last president of our republic and welcome in the first Kaiser of our new Amerikan Empire. As the Groper and the Golddigger take possession of the White House a host of stunningly incompetent people likewise prepare to move into positions they are manifestly unqualified for. A governor who ran his state into the ground is to ride herd on the Empire’s nuclear arsenal, a woman whose ignorance knows no bounds will take charge of educating Amerikan youth, a guy who doesn’t know if lead in drinking water is dangerous will keep our environment safe—what does this tell you? When the guys who’ve just taken over your airliner turn out to have no knowledge of how to land a plane it’s kind of a clue that they have no intention of bringing the thing down safely.
Given the level of incompetency in the incoming administration it’s a fairly safe bet that their Empire is not going to have the shelf-life of the Roman version, let alone the juggernaut that the Confucian bureaucrats kept going for century after century. How long before our favorite pussy-grabber flies the airship of state into the Trump Tower is anybody’s guess, but I’d guess sooner rather than later. Our best hope as passengers, I suppose, will be to go out like Flight 93 rather than (say) Flight 77, but it isn’t going to matter much to those of us who don’t survive the debacle. Personally I hope, like the anonymous reporter watching the Martian machines wade across the Hudson, to cover the whole terrible spectacle until I drop dead from the fumes, but I doubt I’ll be so lucky. Euthanasia’s too good for the likes of us. No, in the Groper’s Amerika it’s going to be a lingering dysthanasia—or a quick and painful oblivion.
This is the Old Rational Ranter, reporting from Sheol, signing off. Good bye—and good luck. We’re all going to need it.

19 January 2017

Wind Chill


T
here are moments that—for whatever reason—stick with you. Flash memories fixed in form by some casual happenstance of time and space. Frozen snapshots or animated gifs that insist on installing themselves on your mental hard-drive. A winged Pegasus against a crystal blue sky. My infant brother pouring orange soda into blindingly white sand. A green bottle uplifted under an orange-colored sky. Colored leaves swirling in a circle on a concrete playground. Sunbeams shining through the curtains on the morning of my fifth birthday.
There’s got to be some sort of reason, some explanation, for why these particular memories get filed while others of more importance get thrown out as cerebral trash. If there is, I don’t know what it might be. What is the selection mechanism? It’s not obvious, whatever it may be. It seems arbitrary. Capricious. Pointless.
In one of these bits of frozen time I am walking home from school with my best friend Bruce on a hellishly cold winter Friday. A stiff wind is blowing in our faces; it cuts through my warm red parka-like jacket as if I was wearing nothing, and the cold is so intense I keep having to stop and turn my back to it. Bruce periodically turns and walks backward to keep the wind out of his face. At one of these points, about half-way home, when I was having serious doubts that we were going to make it, he said something to me that I have never forgotten: “It’s not the cold that’s so bad—it’s the way the wind blows it at you.”
It was the very thing I was thinking about at the moment. The cold was manageable on its own, up to a point, but there was something about that goddamn wind that made it intolerable. Maybe that was the first time it had really been driven home to me the difference between just plain cold and the relentless cold of a chill wind. Maybe that’s why the remark stuck with me—I don’t know.
According to my best recollection there were two incidents of intense cold during my years at John Rogers, one in fifth grade and one in sixth. They were strange times; we were allowed to dress oddly to stay warm, even in violation of the dress code (girls could wear pants, for instance), and recess was indoors. The landscape became alien, like something on another planet; the ever-present puddles froze solid and the dirt path to school cracked under your feet as you walked on it. If my memory is to be trusted at all the first time I was caught unprepared; the second time I had thermal underwear, uncomfortable but warm.
A few years ago it occurred to me to wonder whether I might be able to establish the exact date of the incident, based on the handful of clues embedded in the memory itself. I mean such incidents were rare in Vancouver, and it being a Friday might help to limit it. That stiff wind blowing in our faces might be a clue, too—we walked east to go home, so I’m looking for a cold period with a significant east wind. I turned to the weather archives and started poking around.
Turns out that during my grade school years there were indeed two such episodes—one in January 1962 (fifth grade) and one in January 1963 (sixth grade). That much was gratifying, in that it matched what I recalled—but both of them started on a Friday, and both of them involved a stiff east wind. It was colder in 1963 (21° vs. 25°) but the wind was a bit stiffer in 1962 (25 vs. 18 mph), so that’s a wash. In my memory it was colder when we left school than when we came, but in 1962 it was about the same and in 1963 it was actually warmer.
But I’m going with wind over temperature, and voting for 1962. Besides, as I said, in 1963 I was better prepared, and had insisted on having thermal underwear. I was obviously not so equipped on that particular walk home. So, in that case, if my memory is to be trusted and the available information is correct and my deductions are sound, it was exactly fifty-five years ago today that this memorable (for whatever reason) incident occurred. 19 January 1962. At twenty-five degrees, with a wind of twenty-five miles per hour blowing in our faces, we would have felt at least ten degrees colder, I imagine. And, as my friend observed, it wasn’t the cold that was so bad—it was the way the wind blew it at us.

18 January 2017

Pickled Wilderness


[A passage from The Motor Chums in Alaska, or, The Search for Incan Gold, written 18 January 1979]
T
he intrepid party now found itself in a wild and desolate region of mountainous aspect. Huge volcanoes flared intermittently in the distance, seemingly in answer to the spouts of water beneath the chums—the famous geysers of the Yellowstone country. So savage was the country that one could easily imagine that hordes of untamed Indians still roamed the land as in ages past. Not a sign of civilization was visible. Only the picnic benches, lights, marked trails and the gigantic Ferris wheel gave mute evidence that the hand of man had ever touched the region.
“This is Yellowstone National Park,” Harry observed unnecessarily, as usual acting as a guide for the expedition. “Founded in 1872 it is the oldest of all National Parks, and contains nearly 3000 acres of scenic beauty, wildlife, and geysers. Attempts to exterminate all dangerous animals from the park have yet to prove successful, but with the rapid removal of many of their natural defenses, such as the trees, and the building of many new roads, it will not be long before the result is assured. Soon the park will be made so secure that even children and the elderly will be able to enjoy the thrill of being in a real wilderness in perfect safety.”
Phil laughed. “A playground for the elite,” he said. “How many of the factory workers in Trenton or Montreal are ever going to visit this park?”
“If they worked their way to the top they would,” Ned pointed out.
“It does seem like a waste of good farmland,” said Laura, “Although of course it is rather pretty.”
They were interrupted by the sound of hissing air from above them and a howl of anguish from the control cabin. At once Harry moved to the front of the ship, arriving in time to see the control rods detach themselves from the free-spinning flywheels and fly through the canvas gasbag above. With that the ship began to settle rapidly.
Not one whit alarmed, Tom shut off the fuel-valves “to prevent an explosion” and short-circuited the alarm system “so as not to frighten the passengers.”
“What happened?” Harry inquired.
“How in the blue blazes am I supposed to know that?” demanded Tom. “I’m not a walking encyclopedia.”
“Well, the emergency parachute system appears to have activated itself correctly on this occasion,” Harry said. “We should land safely.”
“If we aren’t smashed on the rocks and don’t land in the river,” put in Mr. Kemp, “or get blown up by a geyser.”
“Don’t let the passengers hear you talk,” Harry cautioned him, “They’re nervous enough as it is.”
Tom strode out and gave a brief explanation to the others. “We’ve decided to camp out to-night at the park, so as to make a few minor adjustments to the engine. We will be landing in a moment.”
This prophecy proved correct, as the ship abruptly came to a halt and then tilted to an angle, throwing the passengers against the walls.
“We landed in the river,” shouted Mr. Kemp. “I predicted this would happen!”
“Well, let’s go out and take a look at the park before sunset,” suggested Tom, “while I check the Rainbow II for damage.” This was done, and soon the young people were enjoying themselves in Father Sam’s own playground.
Tom and Harry, with the assistance of Ersatz, examined the ship carefully. Harry looked over the engine while Tom supervised Ersatz in inspecting the gasbag. Suddenly Ersatz raised a shout. “Dis am bery strange,” he exclaimed. “De bag am full ob little holes! Dere mus’ be t’ousands ob dem in dis ol’ canvas!”
“Can you see anything else?” Tom called.
“Birdshit!” the colored lad replied.
“And, by the way, Tom,” Harry interrupted, “the whole engine mechanism seems to be fouled.”
“With what?” Tom demanded.
“With feathers, and what appears to be some kind of excrement,” Harry told him. “I can’t be certain, of course, but I would say that it originated with birds.”
“Marse Tom,” said Ersatz, landing with a thump beside his chums, “Ah t’ink de birds am got it in fo’ us.”
“It’s one of the tests the legend spoke of,” said Mr. Kemp. “I knew better than to come along with you lads, but I did, and now we must all be punished. ‘To enter the gold city one must be pure of heart—one must be tested and found worthy, by ice, by capture, by wild beast.’ By wild beast.” He paused. “There are still beasts wild enough in Yellowstone Park, God knows.”
As if in conformation to these words a growl emanated from the ship. “Help, help, alretty!” came a cry. “A lion loose on de ship iss!”
“Lions are not indigenous to North America,” Harry nitpicked.
“Maybe he means a puma,” Tom suggested. “Where are the guns?”
“In the control cabin stores,” Harry replied. Further conversation was prevented by the sudden apparition of Franz Joseph fairly flying over the railing and landing in a heap about twenty feet away from the chums.
“A lion hass the control room overtaken! He iss pigger dan pig—de granfadder of all lions alretty!” he babbled breathlessly.
“Maybe we can entice him out with some meat,” suggested Tom. “It doesn’t seem sportsmanlike but without our guns we don’t really have that much of a choice.” 
“We have no meat, either,” said Harry. “We may be reduced to hoping he will leave the ship of his own accord.”

17 January 2017

One of Those Dreams


[16/17 January 1993 note:]
“L
ast night”—literally yesterday afternoon some time—I dreamed one of those dreams that seem full of significance, and linger after even when you’ve awakened. It had all evaporated when I woke up, but fragments clung to my conscious mind like electri­cally charged dust. There was a place—a sort of space left over between two stores or something. There were places to sit and so on, and it was rather dark and gloomy. I noticed [a girl I’d known in high school two decades ago] was in the room, moving about, doing things. At some point we were seated close to each other and I felt her arm touching mine. I thought she didn’t know anyway, and I didn’t pull away because I valued that small shared warmth. Then she did or said something that made it clear that she knew we had this contact too. She said something about having spent a summer in Oklahoma as a teenager. I could­n’t figure out why she spoke of being a teenager as though it was some­thing in the past, and then it hit me that she must have turned twenty since we left school.

16 January 2017

No Isaiah


[Passage from an untitled novel, written mid-January 1996:]
T
he prophet of the Dead Sea was as shaggy and unkempt as rumor made him, and for the life of him Joseph could not see what the people found in him. “He’s no Isaiah, that’s for sure,” A―― said under his breath before dismounting.
Still there was something unworldly about the scene; the gray-robed half-human shape knee-deep in water, the milling throngs on shore, the endless procession of men and women going up to the water’s edge to be shoved under and—they imagined—to be purged of their sins.
A―― advanced to the shore and shouted to attract the “prophet’s” attention.  The wild man’s eyes met his, examined him, dismissed him, all without an indication of his thoughts, and without interruption to the bizarre rite he administered.  A woman emerged from the water, her hair wet about her shoulders, shrieking incoherently.  “Glory to God in the Highest!” shouted somebody on one shore.
Joseph dismounted, following A―― reluctantly. What did the Temple authorities mean, sending him on this wild goose chase? He felt obscurely disappointed. What had he expected? Did he really think the heavens would open, that angels would appear, that a prophet had come to take away the world’s sins? He laughed at himself, but his laughter tasted bitter.
Now, abruptly, the “prophet’s” eyes met his, and something extraordinary did happen. It was as if he was being examined inside and out; he felt as though his spirit, even his soul, were being examined coldly, dispassionately, by an Intelligence beyond this world, alien and unnatural. As if the sediment of his mind were being stirred up, Joseph felt forgotten sins rise to the surface of his memory and flood him with shame and a sense of overwhelming desolation. He could no longer feel the solid earth under his feet, the rasp of robe against his skin. All reality seemed to be sliding away from him and then—
—and then it was nothing, just the dirty-robed “prophet” and his deluded flock wallowing in the river Jordan. The man gave him an ironic half-smile before returning to his business. Joseph felt embarrassed, humiliated, as though caught masturbat­ing in public. To cover it he strode forward angrily. He was on official business of the Temple, of Yahweh’s House on earth, and no fraud of a prophet was going to keep him by some sort of shell game.
A man officiously blocked his way. “Excuse me,” he said belligerently, “If you’ve come to be baptized, you’ll have to wait your turn. And if you’ve come for anything else, you’re wasting your time as well as ours.”
“And just who are you?” Joseph wanted to know.
“My name is Andrew bar-Zebedee, and I’ve been appointed by the Baptist himself to keep the crowds in order,” said the other man. “More to the point, however, is who you are. Or should I say perhaps, who you think you are.”
“I am Joseph Bar-nabas, and I am sent on important business from the Temple to talk with John, called the Baptist,” said Joseph, nettled. “Will you be so good as to inform him of my arrival?”
Andrew stared at him a moment, apparently consulting some internal manual, then spun on his heel and waded out into the river. He spoke quietly to the Baptist, who nodded, and then raised up his hands for silence, motioning the next candidate to wait. “Friends,” he announced, “we have important visitors.”  Joseph thought there was an odd emphasis on the word important, but could not tell what it was. Was the Baptist being ironic? Was this a code word of some sort? There was a collective inten­sity in his audience which suggested something of the sort, but there were nuances here beyond him.

15 January 2017

Coastal Storm


[Passage from my journal, 15 January 1974]
A
bout 12:47 a.m. PDT—This entry is unique in several ways, concern­ing the circumstances of writing it. (1) It is the first entry this year. (2) It is the first time I have written a journal entry in Daylight time in winter (due to the so-called energy crisis). (3) This may be the first entry I have ever made by candlelight. (4) It is probably the first time I have ever writ­ten while lying on a sleeping bag in a bathroom, certainly the first time in Yachats. (5) It is the only time (so far) that I have made an entry while suffering back trouble miles from human aid, (6) and it is possibly the only time I have made an entry while a raging windstorm whips around the house, hammering at the doors and windows and screaming through any chinks it finds.
The last weather report for the area that I heard predicted: 20–40 mph winds, with rain, increasing to 40–60 mph winds Monday to Tuesday, with gusts up to 75 mph, decreasing to ?–25 mph Tuesday. It is windy in San Francisco and Portland, but only raining in Seattle.
The power went off at 10:20 pm Monday and is still off. Last time I checked the phone was still working, so I guess it’s a general power failure, not just here. I doubt they’ll do any­thing before morning, though.
I heard from various family members earlier, before the power quit. Nothing new. Hope the phone line doesn’t go, al­though I think it’s buried under the road. There  were power failures last night too, but not here.
So far wind not bad. Keeps stopping (i.e., going about 10–25?? mph, so it doesn’t rattle the windows or make noises), with occasional bad spells. S–SW direction it originates. Cats calm, haven’t brought the dog in. By the letter of the prediction we should be already to the bad part but I have no confidence in that reasoning. If it does hit 60, with gusts up to 75, I’m in for an interesting night, or morning.
For the hell of it, let me mention that Daylight Saving Time has made for peculiar changes. The sun doesn’t begin to rise until eight, and even at nine the sky is not fully lit. I can’t say we’re really compensated by having it set later; it is still dark at dinner time. But it is a refreshing change. I wouldn’t object if they made it permanent (though I would have when I was going to school), just so they quit hopping back and forth every six months. Setsu Butsu Horseshit.
Have been on heavy nostalgia trip recently, no sense to it. Time: 1967–1969. Place: Hudson’s Bay High School. And for what? For nothing. For experience, is the best reason, but it’s not a real one.
Read No Time for Sergeants, The High School Freshmen, other Motor Chums type books, Casebook on Declaration of Independence, Morse Style book, and no doubt others, as well as portions of my own novel yesterday and to-day. (7) This is the first entry I have made after completing a novel.
Horseshit. Horseshit, horseshit horseshit. Horse­shit. Horseshit horseshit horseshit horseshit, horseshit horseshit horseshit. Horseshit horseshit horseshit. Horseshit horseshit, horseshit horseshit horseshit.
KOMET KOHOUTEC FIZZLES OUT
In a thundering blaze of glory, President Nixon today de­clared that full scale rationing will be unnecessary as long as the oil companies continue to make a profit. “Power to the peo­ple,” he said, “is entirely unnecessary at this time.”
A spokesman for the nation of Assyria today proclaimed, “There is no reason for the continued existence of Israel today. The only block to the shipment of oil is the refusal to accede to our request for the 553 border with the Jewish State.”
Hopes for the release of Henry Kissinger proved premature. That story in a moment.
So you want to know, what can I do about the energy crisis? Well, I’ll tell you.  First, turn off all your heaters. This alone will result in a great saving of power. Then, drain all the gas out of your car, and take the bus to work, or walk. Finally, burn your furniture to keep warm. Remember, it’s up to you to conserve energy. You caused this mess, you can stop it. Message brought to you in the public interest by Exxon-Arco conglomerate.
4:37 a.m. PDT—Power still out. The storm, such as it is, is abating, or so it seems; the lights, such as they aren’t, remain dark, of which I am certain. Daylight is still four hours or so away; my head hurts; I have eaten; I shall attempt to sleep until light—real light—comes.
9:45 a.m. PDT—I have slept no more than two hours. The storm continues, albeit with less vigor. Though another gust like that last one inclines me to the theory that it is not declining at all, but rather hiding, awaiting its moment to pounce.
Nothing happens. The power, having returned fitfully for about fifteen seconds on two occasions, is still off. The cats chase each other as if demented. Little Cat plays with my pen even as I write this.
Mudslides, Rockslides, Floods, Evacuations, High Winds. Roads blocked, power out—the radio is a cheerful bastard. The winds are scheduled to decrease this afternoon and evening. No mention of when power is expected to return.
A frog croaked briefly last night, possibly enjoying the water. He stopped quickly, though.

14 January 2017

Twenty Years Gone By (Updated Repost)


I
 dreamed of my father again last night [I wrote ten years ago]. We were standing in the kitchen of the old Fourth Plain House—actually gone much longer than he has been—and I was explaining to him about this set of glasses I’d bought, now much the worse for wear. “It was actually a set of twenty-four glasses originally,” I told him.
Bryce—my father—looked at me in mock-horror. “And there are only nine of them left now?” he said. “What have you been doing with them?”
“I bought them when you were dead,” I told him. That whole business came back to me in a flash, when the hospital had lost him somehow, and had claimed he was dead to cover up their mistake. (For some reason my subconscious seems to have evolved this theory to account for Bryce’s occasional appearances in my dreams.) “A lot of things happened while you were dead, and some of them were pretty hard on our glasses.”
“Electricity is all around us,” he said, or something like that.
We called him “Bryce,” I guess because our mother did, though I don’t really know. Once when we were kids—five and six, maybe, or somewhere in there—our mother took us aside—my brother Bryan and me—and suggested that it was kind of odd that we called her Mom and him Bryce. “People might think he’s not really your father. Do you really want that?” Well, no, we didn’t. Bryan and I talked it over for some time, and finally came to the conclusion that the only fair thing was to call our parents Ruth and Bryce, which we did from then on. Many many years later Bryan recalled this incident, and said ruefully, “You know, I think we were supposed to choose Mom and Dad.”
Bryce was born in Wyoming in the 1920s, but grew up mainly in North Powder Oregon and Grand Junction Colorado. He went to school and joined the Boy Scouts. He displayed his interest in applied science by accidentally blowing up the school bell, and his fellow scouts were arrested for stealing cars, but at least he was in there pitching. He talked his mother into buying a radio in the display window at Sears by appealing to her sense of thrift—it was on sale for two dollars off, I think he said. The case was up in the attic for many years, until my brother’s kids threw it out.
Radio fascinated him. He listened to radio shows I never heard of, for the most part, though there were some familiar ones. Our Miss Brooks. Vic and Sade. He built radios, and listened to short wave broadcasts.
When he left school he drifted up to Portland to work at the docks and wait to be drafted. The army took him in spite of his appalling vision, and he spent the war—WWII—on a hospital ship named Marigold that plied the Pacific from Honolulu to Japan. He was there playing baseball when Japan surrendered.
Post war he set out to be a writer, turning out several short stories and about a fifth of a Kaufmannesque play, as well as attending community college for three years. While there he met Ruth (later to be my mother). The two of them were married and settled down to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in the Colorado mountains. Well Ruth taught; I’m not sure what Bryce did.
A succession of places follow: Portland, where Bryce went to radio school and his first child (me) was born; Moscow, where he was fired for Thanksgiving; Artesia, where he scanned the skies for flying disks and his second child (Bryan) was born; Vancouver (very briefly); Portland again, where he was living when his third and last child was born, Vancouver (sixteen years); and finally Portland (twenty years). KSVP, KHFS, KKEY, KXL, KOIN, KGW, KWJJ, KOBP—I’m sure I missed some—the radio stations came and went over the years, but he was always working at one or another—and sometimes more than one at a time. When I was extremely young I used to hear him on the radio—when he signed off it meant he would be home soon.
For most of his life he stuck to engineering. He designed facilities, build boards, changed lights. In the wind and snow and dead of night he would be out at the station, keeping it on the air or getting it back on the air, as the situation demanded. He stuck with radio for decades before finally getting into television.
He liked earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, and venomous animals. (I have a childhood memory of him nonchalantly turning over a black widow spider to show us the red hourglass underneath.) Diseases especially fascinated him. “Mad cow disease,” he would muse. (I think he liked the sound of the name.) “Now that’s a threat to the food supply. We ought to be looking for it. Avian flu in Asia again … hantavirus in upstate New York … and the marmots are dying.” That was the news for him.
I don’t know what his religious views may have been. If he had any, he chose not to share them with me. There is an often-told story about a dialog between him and a Catholic priest who was trying to convert him. The subject was faith. Everybody has faith in something, said the priest. He pointed to a door across the room. “For example, you believe that’s a door, don’t you?” To which my father is supposed to have replied cautiously, “Well, it looks like a door from this side.”
I once asked him what he thought about life after death; he said he hadn't thought about it. I gave him the choice between an afterlife and going out like a candle. He said that if he had to choose, he thought it was more likely that we went out like candles.
He died twenty years ago today, on 14 January 1997, at 6:11 in the morning.
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