This post is not about squirrels

This has been one of those weeks when I have a million things I'd like to write about, plus some things I need to mention (prizes, yes, I'm getting there), but this is also a week when deadlines are raining down from the sky.

That's probably why my brain is dredging up so many post ideas. It's doing everything it can to avoid thinking about actual important stuff. "Hey! What about squirrels? Yeah...? Squirrels? Let's write about SQUIRRELS!" it says.

(Don't worry, I'm not going to write about squirrels. I do have a little veto power, after all.)

So here, while I go off and work on deadlines, you can stare at this...thing...I found in a newspaper in England. It's fantastic. I don't have any clue what it means. I feel I have to spread this joy. (Click to enlarge.)

You're welcome.

In Which I Try to Talk About Weed But Get Distracted by the Weather

Last week while I was in a hotel in California...

Wait. I should explain that I wasn't supposed to be anywhere near California. But I had to get from Colorado to Oregon, and on the morning I was set to drive the freeway going west was closed due to ice and blowing snow. Closed all day, the gates shut. The Wyoming traffic cameras showed what looked like a perfectly untouched white meadow, no visible pavement as far as the eye could see. Colorado was equally awful. There was no way west.

Meanwhile on the national news, weathermen were warning about a vicious storm that might hit New York and surrounding areas, but fortunately hadn't made it past the Midwest yet and had a good chance of swinging down south or into Canada or somewhere else unimportant. While the West was getting hammered by blizzards, the edge of the weather map ended near Missouri.

This is always the case. Sometimes they show a map of the whole country, but the West is where the weatherman stands, even while swirling red and blue graphics rage behind him. Like this:

Or this:

Or even (what the heck?) this:

Do you know how annoying this is? I find myself weaving back and forth in front of the television as if I can peer around the weatherman's head. Oh! I got a glimpse of my town behind his ear!

The rest of the world complains about the US being too US-centric, but we in the West know that this is not true. The US is New York-centric. If the weather gets bad enough to kill more than a few people, we might get a mention. Ah well. He with the national network gets the national coverage.

(But we were just a little ticked off that NBC chose to interview a woman whose morning coffee didn't percolate while we over here were having avalanches and closed roads across five states. Vent. Vent.)

Since I couldn't drive straight west, I had to swoop down south through New Mexico and Arizona, coming up the backbone of California to get to Oregon.

Thusly did I find myself in hotel in California, and late in the night was standing at the sink when I detected a strange smell coming through the air vents. It was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Kind of sweet...Where had I smelled that before? It made me think of fairgrounds, for some reason. Shopping in Boulder...stores with Free Tibet bumper stickers and tie-dyed dresses...and incense...and mandalas...

That's when I realized that I was smelling marijuana. Okay, so I'm not terribly quick on the draw. This should tell you something about how often I've actually been around it before. I'm a big believer in getting my highs from life. Better highs. Like, I don't know...staying up until 4am listening to Wagner and deliriously writing Latin poetry. Whatever.

Because it was the time of night when my imagination likes to take off, I had an overwhelming desire to find which room the smoke was coming from. Not by walking the halls (dull!) but by scaling the building from the outside, via the balconies, crawling all around like a midnight vigilante. Then kick the window in and make a citizen's arrest. I could be a hero.

But medical marijuana is legal in California, and with my luck my "criminal" would be a 70-yr old woman lighting up for her rheumatism. Also, I reasoned with myself, I'm kind of against the over-criminalization of marijuana, what with all the other directions we could be pointing our police forces. And yet...I would never have the moxy to kick down the door of anything more severe, like a meth lab or a kitten-juggling ring. Arg, what a catch-22! How am I supposed to start my career as a citizen crusader if my level of crimes are the same petty crimes being over-criminalized?

I am aspiring, but meek. I'm going to go put some firmly worded notes on double-parked cars now.

The kicker to this story is the name of the city where I was staying- Weed, California. Seriously. The irony didn't even dawn on me until the next morning. This led to a whole series of jokes about how Weed got its suspicious name. Is that really fog hanging over the valley? What happens if you go to the Bank of Weed, or try to check something out of the Weed Library? Then there's the hypothetical Weed Airport, where one might reasonably assume you can catch a flight on Weed Air. Your pilot gets on the intercom to say, "Duuudes....this plane is huuuge!" You never go anywhere, of course. The plane sits on the tarmac while everyone looks out the windows saying, "Whoaaa..."

Fly Weed Air
"For when you don't care."

Where His Legs Is At

Bonus Sunday post!

Keeblerkidd located my Toilet Tube Man's missing legs! So exciting!

Toilet Tube Man's legs went down the swirly bowl in Scotland and ended up on a stock photo of a street sign in Australia. This makes sense.

Now the two can be joyously reunited.

And he lived happily ever after until the next time it rained.

The Power of

Which TV show has had the most influence on our society? When I ponder that question, the usual suspects leap to mind. There’s “Star Trek,” with its vision of a unified Earth, its forward-thinking technology, and its massive costumes-‘n’-conventions cult following. Or perhaps it would be “I Love Lucy,” which not only perfected the sitcom format, luring Americans into making TV watching a regular habit, but also celebrated the fact that a woman could be clever and free-spirited. Then there’s “M*A*S*H,” which gave voice to the nation’s awkward confession that war is not always a grand and noble thing, or “The Simpsons,” a worldwide ambassador of modern American culture. (If that doesn’t seem scary, think about it for a while.)

All of these choices seemed far too obvious, so I ground my mental gears a little harder. What most influenced me? Nature shows, no question. Jacques Cousteau, Richard Attenborough, and Steve Irwin inspired me to go fling myself out into vast wilderness, and the wonderful documentaries that Animal Planet used to air taught me more about zoology than all of my years in school. There is no one show that stands out among the others, yet all of them together surely have enriched our society beyond measure, allowing millions a glimpse of the secret ecological multiverses that intertwine with our own, and raising awareness about the importance of conservation.

“Nature shows” isn’t really an answer to the question. I’ll go in a different direction. The single most influential show of contemporary culture? Sesame Street.

What person born after 1969 has never seen an episode? In 1996 researchers found that about 95% Americans had seen the show before the age of three, while a 2006 document by the US Department of State estimated that nearly 75 million Americans grew up watching it regularly. But Sesame Street isn’t confined to the United States. It broadcasts in twenty versions across 120 countries under such names as "Galli Galli Sim Sim" (India), "Sippuray Sumsum" (Israel), and "Play With Me Sesame" (UK).

Quiz yourself. Do you know the rest of the line, “Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away…?” Can you count to twelve without slipping into the song, “One-two-three, four, five…” Can you name more than ten characters? I haven’t seen the show for years, yet it is permanently embedded into my psyche. What would the path of my education look like if it hadn’t first been inspired by the number and letter of the day?

If you look at a “Top 50” list of influential TV shows, you’ll see that they are usually measured by how much they impact adults, not children. But adults already have their houses constructed, or at least most of the walls put up. Sesame Street affects children as they’re laying their foundations, helping them build such skills as literacy, tolerance, inquisitiveness, and cooperation. And it’s been doing it for over forty years.

Can any other TV show come close?

UK, What?

Today, a sampling of British bobcat eggs that I found while travelling.

If you are an American abroad, Great Britain's not the place to go for culture shock. It's pretty easy to shrug off the most blatant differences, like having to look right instead of left as you step off the pavement, or signs that say "Way Out" instead of "Exit," or inexplicable urges to visit Florida, or Morris dancing. The subtler ones, like the vestigial influences of the class system or the (in comparison to Americans) general social reserve come across more as "annoyance" than "shock."

The most I have ever been shocked in Britain was when I went to buy a sandwich. "Prawns and mustard? Eggs and cress? Pickles and cheese? What is wrong with these people??!?" I said. Also, Marmite.

Britain's not more prone to strangeness than anywhere else. Quirky knows no bounds. Quirkiness is everywhere. (Alaska, I'm looking at you and your gold-painted moose poop.) With that disclaimer, I just have to ask, really...what is going on here, UK?

Found these babies in a...oh, I nearly said Marks & Spencer's. (Wait, does M&S even sell food? Ah yeah. That's where I found $20 per lbs cherries once upon a time.) Waitrose. Waitrose. I can read it in the picture. I'm not sure what tickles me more about these - the fact that they are what they are, or the fact that they are so CLEARLY and HONESTLY labelled. I wish all grocery items were labelled this way.

"A Creamy White FAUX EGG Sandwich Spread"

"Crunchy Puffed CORN Delightfully Coated in BRIGHT ORANGE CHEESE POWDER"

"Carbonate BEVERAGE Lightly Drizzled With SWEET BROWN COCAINE"

It would really take the mystery out of shopping.

One slow day in London I was trying to take a close look at every statue, plaque, and monument I passed, figuring that if someone had taken the time to make the darn things, I should make the time to appreciate them. Because of this I got to learn that so-and-so defeated someone at the battle of something, that what's-his-name and his company built this section of the embankment, that Lord Sir Edwards Ballingham Tippory Roo Fairchild His Excellence donated this plot of grass to the common people, and so forth.

I was especially touched by the words on this statue:

In honour of over 2100 men and women volunteers who left these shores to fight side by side with the Spanish people in their heroic struggle against fascism 1936-1939.

"They went because their open eyes could see no other way."

But...what? What...what is...? Is that a horse? ...With a melon?

I looked at this thing from every possible angle, but it never turned into brave men and women volunteers. I'm sure it's fraught with deep and meaningful symbolism, but five hundred years from now when the words have rubbed off, bemused foreigners like myself might mistake if for a celebration to ménage à trois.

No. What? No, Britain, no. There is nothing remotely Californian about this coffee I just had. This coffee was distinctly non-Golden State. I could understand if you wanted to market a bag of CHIPS this way, but...I mean, look at the size of the cup that lady's holding. Is it a European espresso? Haven't you heard of the bottomless pot? We Americans drink such large cups of coffee that I can't even get a short here anymore. They give me a tall, and I buzz around on the sides of the walls for the rest of the day. People who try to drink teensie cups of sophisticated coffee here are beaten up by roving gangs of biker-patriots who snap off your pinkie finger if they catch you holding it out.

Also, when I hear "California" and "coffee" in the same sentence, I tend to think of free rest area coffee. No. That was not the sensation I was going for when I came in here for a drink.

Yes it is! Because ten is a sin and thirty is dirty. (But forty is sporty, and fifty is nifty, and sixty is sexy...Seventy just makes you hit pedestrians and veer off the road in a spectacular fireball.)

Oh, sorry. This one's all mine. It seemed like a waste to throw out all those perfectly good toilet paper tubes. So instead I created an installation piece that forces the viewer to confront one of life's more difficult questions.

My American friend and I had a strange craving for Jello. We wanted to make it. We needed to have it NOW. But in the UK "jelly" doesn't come in powder form. It comes in these alarming jiggly blocks that, and I can't stress this enough, do not taste good eaten as-is no matter how much they look like the finished product. Before we started making the jelly, we entertained ourselves with the blocks by poking them, wiggling them, stacking them, and seeing if they would bounce. I'm actually kind of sad these aren't a US thing.

I had to include a picture of the Tardis, of course. It was well camouflaged.

a tidepool of thoughts

Lately I have been finding a healthy colony of non sequiturs hiding beneath the ol' mental rocks. Like:

When is the best time to post a gigantic post? Or a deep post? I never considered this much until my friend over at Snarke mentioned that mid-week is the best time for weighty posting. I would have guessed Friday, giving people lots of time over the weekend to read a long post. Obviously I have much to learn about the delicate finesse of blogging.

(I've also read that one should not blog excessively about the act of blogging. Whoops! Tripped into that hole.)

Recent discovery. You should not grab the shower head and sing into it like a microphone unless your goal is drowning. You can do it, however, if the shower is turned off. But what are you doing singing into a dry faucet in the shower fully dressed in the middle of the day? Get help.

On the topic of showers, I wonder how many other people step out the shower, wrap their towel around their shoulders, and pretend to be either 1) a vampire or 2) a Roman senator. Or both at the same time.

Why are they called "attorneys at law?" Is there such a thing as an "attorney at something else?" Aren't they all at law?

I've never learned how to burp Tupperware. Do people still do this? Does modern Tupperware even have the ability to burp?

When I hit the "Next Blog" button, I find that I'm surrounded by blogs about Mormons and cancer survivors. (Also sometimes Mormon cancer survivors.) What does this mean? How did I end up in this neighborhood?

So many question...

Direct Flights Are For Pansies

I have flown.

The longest flight I've ever been on was 14 hours, Sydney to LA. Fourteen hours was four hours too much. After three movies, a book, four jogs up and down the aisles, twenty jumping jacks in the bathroom (twice), and lots of sleeping, we were still somewhere randomly over the Pacific. A different take on the term "cabin fever."

The longest single journey I've been on, first airport to final airport, was 36 hours. I started in Seattle and had a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam before continuing on to Cape Town, jumper flights not included. By the end I had forgotten what normal life was supposed to look like, because the world only consisted of stewards and beverage service and departure boards.

But the prize for the most endlessly complex itinerary that I've ever pieced together was my attempt to fly from the US to Prague to the UK and back again. I could have been soft. I could have bought three tickets. Instead I had eleven.

Flight #1: Denver to Atlanta. Uneventful. Yeah!

Flight #2: Atlanta to Paris on AirFrance, possibly the best flight I've ever taken. Amazing food. A cute steward with a French accent. Video feed from cameras mounted all over the outside of the plane. Spiral staircase. Ability to play games with other passengers via the video system. Cute steward...did I mention the cute steward? Yes, AirFrance. Yes.

Except...AirFrance was late getting into Paris, which was apparently quite usual for that route, and I had another connecting flight. The staff nonchalantly put me in a van and drove me out to my plane somewhere in the hinterlands of the tarmac. That's when I discovered that all of the other passengers for that flight, ALL of them, had been waiting in a bus next to the plane until I arrived. Once I pulled up, they finally opened the doors on the bus. I lingered in the van, grateful for the shaded windows, until most of the other passengers had boarded. Sometimes it's good to avoid the limelight.

Flight #3: Paris to Birmingham, UK. Here I had to change airlines, which meant going through customs, reclaiming my bag, rechecking my bag, and going back through customs again - fab. On my entry form I wrote, "Duration of time in the UK: two hours."

"Two hours?" the customs official asked. More customs officials came over to have a look. It must have raised some red flags. "Not much of a vacation, is it?" said one of them.

Considering how narrowly I made the last flight, I was unsurprised, but crestfallen, to learn that my bag had not made it past Paris. Ate a Magnum bar to ease my pain, then went all out crazy, bought some makeup, and marched into the restroom with purpose. I might not have luggage, but I was going to not have luggage and look good, darn it.

Flight #4: A cheap hopper flight to Prague. The plane was stripped down to the metal bolts. I'm amazed they gave us pressurized cabin air for free. I had already paid to check my non-existent bag. Bitterness ensued.

Once in Prague, AirFrance gave me a consolation bag...survival kit consisting of a toothbrush (which I already had - ALWAYS CARRY A TOOTHBRUSH IN CARRY ON, PEOPLE!), some other random toiletries, and a sized XXXL white T-shirt emblazoned with AIRFRANCE!

I guess I could have used a sharpie to write on the shirt "LOST MY BAG!" and then worn it around as an explanation to the world about why I was gradually transforming into a hobo. But in two days, AirFrance came through, delivering my bag right to the door of my apartment in Prague. Aw. You're forgiven now, cute-steward-hiring airline.

Flight #5: Prague to London on British Airways. Cancelled due to a British Airways strike. BA made a quick recovery, hired another plane, and got me to London on the right day, if a little late. They even used British Airways-stamped napkins aboard just to complete the illusion.

Flight #6: London to Glasgow. Nearly missed it. This was entirely my fault. I should have taken an earlier bus. If it hadn't been for the massive backpack pinning me to one spot, I would have worn out the floor on the tube train pacing back and forth. It's a long, long ride from London city center to Heathrow, especially when your plane's engine is revving.

Flight #7: And then a volcano erupted.

This was in 2010, when some fireball in Iceland threw up a plume of ash that shut down all of Europe's airspace. The entire continent came to a standstill. People were trapped wherever they happened to be. Hotels started charging double, then triple; rental cars were sold out; train and bus stations had queues that stretched for blocks. No one could travel.

I was extremely blessed to be visiting a friend in Scotland at the time, and she very very kindly put me up for the duration. I preemptively rescheduled my flight. (The airline would not officially cancel it until just a few hours before, optimistic that airspace would open anytime.) While faint news of the ensuing chaos drifted in from time to time, we enjoyed an extended visit under sunny skies, Scotland being one of the few places that was not choked by a dark cloud of ash.

God looked out for me big time. I'm constantly amazed how reliably he is when these kinds of things happen. I always run around in a panic until I finally get it through my thick head that he's still got everything under control. "Oh, right," I'll say. "You can do that. Cool."

Flight #7: (finally) Glasgow to Amsterdam. Stared in a daze at some tulips for sale. That's all I can remember.

Flight #8: Amsterdam to...geez, I don't even know. New York or Chicago, some big hazy airport with planes that looked like Tylenols. It's getting worse now. I'm losing touch with reality. I think I've taken enough connecting flights to bend the universal fabric. Am I travelling east instead of west, also back in time? Is that a dinosaur in the clouds? I don't even...

Flight #9: Somewhere to Denver. If I fled from the airport now, I have friends here who can take me in. Am sorely tempted.

Flight #10: Denver to Salt Lake City. Cancelled due to weather. I'm shuffled onto a different flight. I think Salt Lake City happened at some point, but can't be certain.

Flight #11: Salt Lake City to Portland. And for the grand finale, NOTHING EVENTFUL HAPPENED. No lost bags, no strikes, no volcanoes, no storms. Can such a thing be? Also, did I just get through eleven flights without sitting for five hours on the tarmac somewhere? (This happened to me on a different trip.) Holy cow. I don't even remember what real ground feels like anymore.

After this I vowed I would not fly again for a long, looong time. I kept good on my vow. It lasted for a whole eighteen months. But I'm excited about flying again now, because now I have this:

Goodbye, Prague

That was my week in Prague. It brought me incredible highs and then threw me crashing down into the earth again, a passionate city, a city without mercy. There is none like it.

All cities have a song, of course. London is grey and stately, Paris sparkles with life and romance, New York is unapologetic and raw, Portland proud and disheveled. But Prague hides itself. It seeps in like a fog. It takes over.

Some streets still made you feel like the best thing to do was drug yourself til you dropped. And in some corners, dark and damp with black sewer water, you could come down with schizophrenia as easily as you catch a cold. Then again, other places seemed to emerge from the magic spell of inertia to reconnect with happier days. By some miracle, or maybe it figures, these were the oldest places...

- Jachym Topol, A Visit to the Train Station

This is a Prague not found at the base of the Astronomical Clock, nor in the crowded places or the postcards or the audio tours. It lingers in the empty streets at the first light of dawn, at night in the winding walkways that lead to nowhere. It's in the cold concrete walls and the old people, in the ringing of water pipes and church bells. It is a hungry, patient debutante, siren-boned, crashing men and minds against its beauty. And I? I have steered my ship too close.

On the Charles Bridge stands the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. It's easy to miss, as the bridge is lined with statues on both sides. The story, more myth than history, says that John was a priest in the early 1300's who took the confession of the Queen of Bohemia. Her husband the King suspected her of adultery and, assuming that she had named the other man in her confession, demanded that John tell him what she had said. He refused, so the King had him thrown off the bridge to his death in the Vltava below. He is considered a martyr for the Seal of Confession.

On the base of his statue is a plaque that depicts the moment he is thrown into the river. How this is connected to his story, I have no idea, but local legend says that anyone who rubs the plaque will someday return to Prague.

Oh well...sure...why not?

So goodbye, Prague, for now. I'll be back.

Until I heard the jackdaw

I never noticed Kafka
until I heard the jackdaw's cry
echoed in the bended halls,
saw my cheek in ghostly faces
still life-lingering;

until I saw the tombstones
through the iron Star of David,
pins of the penal machine
bleeding the message, "boots against
broken cobblestone;"

until I felt drawn to the
fifth story window, the city's
unbearable gravity,
factory hands with severed fingers,
statues without heads.

In the shadow of the bridge
in Národní's old cafe light
here is something to give pause:
does a man ride on the current
or does he make it?

Ravachol, lost son of Prague,
chills the river to a standstill,
enigmatic, wholly spent,
consumed by the narrow streets, and
waits to be noticed.

The Geo-Timeline

A few weeks ago I made the terrible decision to take a look at the newly-released 1940 US Census. It was eleven-o-clock at night.

I was determined to find more about the family who built my house. The scant information I had wasn’t bearing any good fruit through Google (gasp!) but surely the census would do the trick.

At two-o-clock in the morning I was still wrestling with the buggy census interface, windows crashing left and right. When I did manage to load a page, my attempts to scan for names were stymied by the scrawlingly-illegible handwriting. I envisioned an elderly gentleman balancing his clipboard precariously on his elbow as he hastily jotted down his respondent’s information. Little did he know that seventy years later a sleep-deprived scholar would be appraising his work with an “Aaarg!”

Needless to say, I didn’t learn very much.

If I could design a dream app, it would be something that could clamp on to a geographical location, compile every morsel of information about that site, and generate a logical, elegant timeline of its history, something like Facebook’s version, but for a specific address, or heck, a coordinate.

Just think. What if every existing photograph could be retroactively labeled with a GPS coordinate? What if search engine technology was intelligent enough to divine a reference to a specific location just by the context of words around it?

Let’s say Maggie May Sue wrote in her 1875 journal, “We came to a spot near the Platte, a great swath of grass two miles south of town, and there first laid eyes upon the mountains.” In 2009, an employee at a Colorado archive scans that page and enters it into an online database. My geo-timeline app would catch the word “Platte” and use survey maps to narrow down which “grassy swath” Maggie May was standing in. I could go to that spot (or simply enter the coordinates) and her journal entry would pop up along with any others, plus photographs, maps, and, yes, even census information.

Nirvana for a history buff! I could go on a hike to some remote wilderness lake and, if I could bear turning on any electronic device to begin with, take a look at who else had been there, what incidents had happened, whether a structure ever stood there, and if so, what it looked like.

My reverence for a place increases the more I know about it. It humbles me to think of the generations of people who have stood where I stand. I wonder about the hand that once held the nail in this wall, about the bones that might lay forgotten beneath this soil.

All right, so no amount of technology will ever unearth information that has never been recorded. An iPhone isn’t an archaeologist, after all. Still, with the vast amount of data ever growing online, perhaps my dream app could be a useful thing.

It would’ve rescued me from that darn census, anyway.

The man who did not beg

A page from my Prague journal. Not a happy story. I debate whether to share it. But travelling is sometimes less sightseeing and more just plain seeing:

Friday. A day originally planned for hedonism. Wandered down to Husava near Bethlehem Square. A walk filled with traffic and city, working people, playing children, tourists. Found the small memorial to victims of Communism, including Jan Palach (a student who set himself on fire) beneath the shrubs near the statue of St. Wenceslas. Sat beside the memorial for the longest time, thinking. Nazis, Communists, riots, water cannons, freedom, replaced now with the callousness and complacency, shallowness, consumption, rush, that comes with capitalism. A generation who does not struggle, a gift won by their parents. Do they realize? Tourists who drift and gape. No one weeping in the square. No one laying flowers on the graves. Yes, don't waste flowers in this way. There are better ways to honor the dead.

I escaped into Old Town Square intending to eat myself silly, searching the market for bramboraky (potato pancakes) and trdelník (round pastry)...Paid 10KC for a public bathroom. Highway robbery. Trying to decide between 100g of Old Prague Ham or a duck sandwich, I stopped to take pictures of a weaver at a loom. Nearby an old man was reaching into a trashcan. Did not notice him at first, but then after finishing my pictures realized the man had pulled out first one and then another coffee cup - one was a Starbucks - and was trying to sip what little was left from them.

Is it possible for a man who has lived through the Nazis, through the Communists, to stand in the very heart of this city and drink drops of coffee from the trash while all around people pay for painted eggs, tours, candy, great hunks of meat, sugared pastries, overpriced restaurants, admission to a clock? Why does no one stop? Why aren't we lifting this man on our shoulders and celebrating him?

Once I realized, I scrambled for money to give him, and came up the quickest with two 20KC coins just as he was leaving. "Prosim!" I said, holding it out to him. He said thank you in Czech, nodded and smiled - he had not been begging; he had not asked for it. "Prosim," I said again, stupidly, not knowing what else to say, because prosim means please, here you go, and you're welcome. I felt greater and lesser all at once, a saint for charity, and the lowest sinner for my gluttony, that I could think of eating pastries while men still suffer.

Here was a black hole in the marketplace, a void that sucked into it all joy, all color, all bustle. Not from the man, for he was blameless - a saint himself, an angel speaking Czech. The darkness came from what minutes before had been the cheerful crowd, the crowd who had ignored this man with sinister blindness. Where is human kindness? And now I, wracked with guilt, walked towards the Karlův Most, not caring about the traffic. Why hadn't I given him more? Why not have emptied my pockets? What is it to me? No grand lunch for me; I found a 30KC sausage and ate it gratefully, thinking that the man could buy that with my 40KC, at least...But why hadn't I given him more? He might buy himself a whole cup of coffee now, but why hadn't I given him more? He disappeared into the market, humble and bowed with age, and I, stunned, walked towards the bridge.

I want to drink; I want to sip grey coffee in a small and thoughtful place. I need to write to understand this, and now put it to paper on the benches between the Manes and Charles while the happy music from a nearby tent mocks me with its sureness.

Beheading the Lion: Part the Second

Beheading the Lion: Part the Second
In Which I Bite Off More Than I Can Macerate

(Part One can be found here)

In Spanish sea lions are called lobos marinos, "wolves of the sea." This name is far more befitting. Like wolves, they mingle in gregarious packs of both males and females, even multiple families. The dominant bull, the Beachmaster, puts so much effort into defending his turf that he often forgets to eat, eventually weakening to the point where another bull easily takes his place. Thus the Beachmaster is constantly changing; there are no dictators among sea lions.

When the adults go out hunting for the day, they leave the youngsters in a nursery area with one or two nannies to watch over them. These nursery kids were the ones I played with most often, dependent on who the nanny was for the day. If the nanny was a particularly uptight lady, she would come over and break up the fun, shuffle the youngsters away, and heartily bawl me out for overstepping my bounds.

A true lioness would have just eaten me.

Besides, sea lions look rather more like dogs than cats, a thought that returned to me as I stood next to my dog looking down at the dead sea lion we had uncovered.

It seemed like a young and healthy lion, so the first thing I did was check for bullet wounds. Although all marine mammals here are protected, sea lions have become an especially reviled scapegoat for the failing salmon fishery, an anti-mascot for fishing just as spotted owls are for logging. When officials aren't looking, locals don't hesitate to pop a sea lion with a 7mm.

I'll confess, I too have been aggravated by the sight of a bobbing brown head beelining towards me through the water just when I've gotten a fat fish on the line. The sea lions will tear off chunks until there's very little left to reel in, Old Man and the Sea-style. It's easy pickings for them, and easy curses from me.

But the universal hatred of sea lions in my hometown, the perception that the world would be a much better place without them, that they are good for nothing...this I can't stand. This is misdirected anger, but such is the nature of a scapegoat. I get it. It's much simpler to shoot a sea lion than a dam, or a policy, or a pollution. In the midst of so much helpless frustration, it gives the shooter a satisfying "I've solved a problem!" sort of feeling. We act on our gut and we go by what we can see before our eyes...and we are a people who like to take things into our own hands. We've been on this land for generations.

But they've been here longer.

I digress - There were no bullet holes on this sea lion, nor did it have any other signs of particular distress. It was just plain dead. Unsettling.

The dog, always the optimist, thought this was the greatest beach find in the history of beach finds, something he could roll in for the rest of his life. I had to agree; it seemed a shame to let a perfectly good sea lion go to waste. But as for me, I was thinking of our local museum's educational collection of skulls. I imagined its head being passed around from kid to wondering kid as the instructor asked, "Now what kind of animal do you think this is? Look at its teeth. What does it eat?"

Yes, it was perfect. I would claim its head in the name of education! (And perhaps, possibly, sea lion appreciation?)

Mind you, this is my modus operandi. I'm responsible for many of the dead things in the local,no,no! Not for killing them. Heavens. For finding them and bringing them in.

Getting the proper paperwork was easy enough, but I had to get it quickly. A seven foot carcass doesn't usually go anywhere on its own, but with winter's stormwaves soon approaching, I knew that any day the sea might reclaim its offering, never to be seen again. Several days later I returned to the beach with a permit, a garbage bag, a hunting knife, and then...


The lucky thing about this sea lion was that it had been deposited extremely close to the parking lot. The tricky thing about this sea lion was that it had been deposited...extremely close to the parking lot. The day I went to finally fetch my head there were people out on the beach - a beach normally free of people - and so I was forced to wait for them to leave, loitering around in my clear plastic raincoat, humming up at the sky, carrying a huge unsheathed knife and a garbage bag...not at all creepy.

When at last I had the beach to myself, I knelt down and got to work, fearing that any moment a family with young children or a church group or a sheriff would suddenly come strolling up over the foredune, and there I would be - bent over, splattered in blood, hacking away at a sea lion. I prepared myself to say, "It was dead when I found it! I...I have a permit!" Really, there's no good way that conversation could have gone.

Fortunately no one came. A blessing, as I had my hands full enough as it was.

Disclaimer! Warning! - If you should happen upon a dead sea lion in your home or driveway or mailbox, please do not lay into it with a hunting knife. Dead sea lions can transmit leptospirosis through direct contact. Please notify a certified biologist, like me. We will come and creepily (but properly!) dispose of it.

So now at last I was safely back in my car with my treasure: a sea lion skull. Except, was a perfectly wonderful educational skull trapped within about ten pounds of sea lion face. "How on earth am I going to clean this thing?" I suddenly realized.

In the past I've tried cleaning skulls manually. I wouldn't wish this on anyone. I've put them into mesh nets and slung them over a dock to let the wee fishies do their thing. This works, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time. I read about burying bones, but this discolors them, and about boiling bones, but this weakens them (and really, did I want boiled sea lion in my kitchen? No, no I did not.)

So I finally decided on a technique I had never tried: MACERATION. Or in English, "putting it in water until it rots clean."

Now, if you really want to macerate a bone correctly, you should strip all the flesh off it first and then keep it in a sealed container at a constant, preferably warm temperature. Because I'm a cowgirl, I did none of this. I plunked the entire head in a bucket, filled it with the hose, and set it in the side yard. Also added a bit of pond water for good measure, figuring that all those little mandibled beasties might do it some good.

Five weeks later, I had an impressive bucket of sea lion stew.

The trick to this process, you see, is to change the water often enough to keep the water from turning so murkily anaerobic that every last bacteria in it dies, stopping the decomposition process. And this meant, much to my consternation, that I had to handle, frequently, a concoction that immediately rose to #1 in my list of All Time Worst Smells. (This list is not a mild list.) It made my eyes water, my throat close up; with hose and bucket I could be seen crouched on my driveway crying, "Dear God in heaven, why? why?" feeling like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, seriously reconsidering my commitment to children's education, retracing the steps in my life that had brought me to this juncture. The smell would haunt me with headaches and bad tastes for hours afterwards. It was an undiscovered WMD.

But I stuck it to it, determined that somewhere under that grey, somewhat sea-lion-head-shaped horror I had created there was a skull...somewhere, somewhere.

And there was.

After several months, and with one last triumphant tip of the bucket, I picked up my beautiful, perfectly cleaned specimen, a prize that would have been lost back into the ocean, now a sea lion that would teach, maybe even inspire. A sea lion that will pass through the hands of school kids for generations - I hope.

Because I'm not doing that again.

Raucous Caucus Debacus!

Last night I went to my first-ever caucus. As an observer. My home state has regular old boring ballot boxes, and since I happened to be in a caucus state, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

I somehow imagined people sitting around a living room with glasses of port and trays of modest, homebaked cookies, reclining with neighborly good-humor while debating the merits of each candidate. When I learned it was to be held in the local high school instead, my mental image changed to a standing-room only crowd holding high-decibel heated arguments and spitting when an enemy candidate's name was mentioned.

Raucous caucus! Heck yeah!


It was neither raucous nor...Well, it was a caucus, so it had that going for it. We all sat around clustered into precincts while the invocation was given, stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance, then listened as mild yet convicted citizens rose to endorse each candidate one by one, thusly.

What Each Candidate Has Going For Him:
Ron Paul - National defense, stop policing the world, get gov't off our backs
Rick Santorum - Walks the walk, a good guy
Newt Gingrich - Knows how to get things done in Washington
Mitt Romney - Most likely to win (which, in a way, means, "he'll get the votes of moderates," which, in a way, means, "he's the candidate least like a true Republican," but it wasn't quite spelled out like that)

Everyone was extremely civil, referring to Obama as "the current President," which I thought was rather nice considering the acridity that's been plaguing the primaries.

My first thought about the caucus was, "Wow, this is fantastic." A chance to meet neighbors for the first time, a place where politics can be discussed openly and unabashedly. In a ballot box state such as mine, you can conceal your party alignment forever, if you want. There's never a need to tell anyone if you're a Republican or Democrat, and most people are too polite to ask.

But here there are no secrets. You see who's with you; you see your local party more or less in its entirety. There's something old fashioned and wholesome about it, something that stirs up ideas of town hall meetings and patriot pioneers gathering underneath shade trees to debate the topics of the day. Suddenly voting isn't a lonely slip of paper, but democracy at its finest, a chance to sit shoulder to should and divide opinions before reuniting as one community. It made me feel involved, even though I was just an observer.

My second thought was, "Holy cow, all of these people are crazy-go-bats." Many parts of the night felt as though they were scripted by a comedian trying to poke fun at every Republican stereotype under the sun. There were people dressed in tricorn hats and red colonial uniforms. There was the celebrating a local candidate for the fact that she loved her guns (this raised many cheers.) There was the (joking?) reference to the fact that our country might not exist in another two months thanks to the current president. And there was the overwhelming assumption that everyone in the room was completely on the same page, a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Republican walking lock step with all of the party's flagship issues.

Not so much.

There's something inherently wrong, I think, with the mentality of, "I don't care who our nominee is, so long as he beats the current president." Democrats are just as guilty of this as Republicans. Such a statement is a declaration of narrow-mindedness. To assume that the incumbent represents the worst of all possible candidates is a prejudice that would be heartily tested if one of the Republican B-listers somehow made it to November. I might buy, "Any of the four current nominees would be better," if this mantra hadn't already been initiated three years ago, long before there were any Newts or Mitts or Ricks to attach to the abstract.

Uncomfortable as the uber-Republicanniness made me, I realized that I would have been just as repulsed by its equivalent Democratic counterpart. I feel liberal when I'm with conservatives, conservative when I'm with liberals.

This made me feel better. This is why I am a moderate. This is why I detest labels and pigeonholes, and would be perfectly happy (except for not getting to vote in primaries) if I was not attached to any party whatsoever.

Or as one speaker last night described it, "a person who refuses to take a stand."


Beheading the Lion: Part the First

A funny little story from 2008 that I never got around to telling. It ended up being so long (because I, hem, got distracted and went off topic) that I broke it into two parts.

Beheading the Lion: Part the First
In Which I Reminisce About Lions I Have Loved and Lost

At the very start of winter here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a delicate window of opportunity between the departing storms of tourists and the oncoming storms of the ocean. In that window, the sky and the land and all the sea look exactly like a snapshot of the worst the winter has to offer - grey and cold, with heavy wet sand and trees sheared by the cutting wind. But it is nothing more than that - a still, silent picture of what is soon to come. The waves have yet to turn angry, the surf pulls in and out with sullen patience. The sea is waiting to strike. The clouds wait to rain, the wind waits to bite.

But not yet. Although winter will unleash itself soon, in that brief early window of warning the beach is a wonderful, wild place to explore. And so, one day in early November, I took the dog out for a walk. We had the sand to ourselves, miles untouched in either direction. The hills in the distance watched us like wise old men, beards of fog trailing across the sand into the ocean.

While I was hunting for shells along the tide line, the dog looked for smells. How often I had to drop everything to stop him from rolling in an old carton of bait or a washed-up fish head! Near the end of the walk he spent longer than usual smelling around the edges of a curious mound of sand. I went to investigate. My dog was digging now, and I leaned in to help him uncover his prize. It was a black flipper. I brushed away more sand, and attached to the black flipper was a hide of deep brown fur, and attached to the fur was a dead sea lion, seven feet from nose to tail.

I would like to think that I have a better understanding of sea lions than most people, not because I'm particularly insightful, but because of a job that put me right in the middle of a sea lion colony. Before that, I knew them only through brief encounters - a head bobbing in the harbor, a playful visit while scuba diving, watching through telescopes, waving hopeful to catch the attention of a sleek body gliding past the viewing window of an aquarium. I remember a colony at the waterfront in Cape Town that would haul out onto the docks and amuse tourists with their bickering. Sea lions have always been part of the coastal landscape to me, something just there, sleeping brown blobs that will occasionally move or bark in tandem, but tedious to watch and too distant to understand.

That all changed on the Island. (Location: Undisclosed.) There the sea lions were not distant and mysterious, but my neighbors every moment of every day. Anything that involved the water involved the sea lions. When I went to the surf to wash the dishes or take a bath or launder my clothes, they were right there, trying to see what I was doing. When I went for a swim to cool off, they came to join me, and after a while I learned how to imitate them. I swam upside down, as they preferred. I learned how to flip and quickly change directions, how to have the most fun with bubbles, and how to keep my eyes open, always open, until the salt no longer burned and the border between air and water became a very insubstantial thing indeed.

They were masters of the water, yet could take nothing seriously. They showed me that any new object was a potential plaything, especially man-made flotsam like ropes and PVC pipes and plastic forks. I joined them in their rowdy games of tug-of-war and keep-away. When I ignored them and went back to watching fish, they snuck up behind me, gathering there in anticipation. As soon as I turned around they scattered in all directions, a game of "no see me." They never let me catch them. I could almost hear them snickering.

Each day when the sea turned, the sea lions rushed to the breakwater to bodysurf the waves of the incoming tide. I tried this rough sport a few times, never quite as good as they were. Whenever a neighboring surfer passed me with a backwards glance, I couldn't tell if the look in his eyes was of pity or smug mockery. But they all seemed to delight in the fact that I made the attempt, and pointedly stayed close beside me, as though encouraging me on. (Or perhaps just for laughs.)

When at last I couldn't keep up anymore I would watch from afar as they grandstanded - riding on top of the very crests of the waves, throwing themselves high above the water with aerial acrobatics, leaping, spinning, somersaulting, touching nose to tail - until the tide slacked off and the water went calm once more. Time to haul out for a nap.

On the land, it was a different story. Whereas they circled me playfully in the water, it was I who had the advantage on dry ground. My sleek and graceful friends transformed into awkward creatures with harsh voices and horrible smells, gracelessly humping along the sand inch by inch as I nimbly, nonchalantly passed them by. Often they piled along the beach so thickly that it became a challenge to walk anywhere without stepping on a fin or whisker. Any small disruption to one would cause him to wake up and complain, which made the ones around him wake up and complain, which bothered everyone else, a chain reaction, until soon the entire beach was one long line of groaning, whining, squirming sea lions. They did this to themselves, too, especially in the middle of the night. Their culture dictated that if one accidentally woke up, everyone should wake up...including any poor humans who happened to be trying to sleep in tents nearby.

They never quiet got used to the fact that the part of the beach where we lived was no longer theirs to command. And so it was that I and my coworkers would be sitting around the table eating popcorn or listening to the shortwave, and suddenly a youngster would flop into our midst, carelessly knock over a camp stool with his flippers, bump jars and bottles off the top of the cooler, then throw his head back, whine "Maaaaaaaw!" and proceed to pass gas strong enough to make birds drop out of the sky. We would stand up and shoo him out, and all the way he would complain, "Maaw! Maa-aaah!" while his nearby comrades grumbled at us for being inconsiderate.

They felt - and were - entitled to everything on the beach. Objects on land were meant to be climbed on, no matter if they were chairs, tents, other sea lions, or a radio someone (me) was trying to listen to. Once an offending obstacle had been successfully climbed, a sea lion celebrated the accomplishment by snorting out a blast of salty water from his nose, falling asleep on it, and emanating noxious smells.

One day I was reclining in my hammock with a good book - and believe me, any book is good if you're stuck on an island - when a friendly lion fellow decided that the very exact place he wanted to be was underneath me. I didn't necessarily mind this, even if it would draw in more flies than were already swarming around me, but what I did mind was that one of my few precious pairs of sunglasses was resting on the sand right where he was about to flop. I made a snatch to save them. An arm coming down from nowhere must have been a startling sight for the sea lion, because he suddenly lunged up and hit my hammock from the underside, flailing around and giving me a decent eight seconds of rodeo action. I was still clutching the sides of the hammock for dear life when he finally retreated back down the beach, complaining about the unfairness of the world in general.

I miss those fellows - those smelly, graceful, graceless fellows who filled my days with stories. I lived with them as equals, both of us trying, wide-eyed, to understand each other's strange habits. The sight of the dead sea lion brought back all of those memories in one great rush, and I suddenly realized I'd been staring down at it for an unnecessarily long time...

Thus ends part the first.


*clasping ears, staggering around*

I'm not always the brightest taco in the piñata.

While trying to find an online hearing test for my dog, who has been ignoring low rumbly things like fire trucks lately, I found a thing on The Oatmeal site that said, "See if you can hear like a teenager!"

Well, who can resist that?

Flashback. My grandpa used to have an alarm to keep the mice out of his shop, one of those little devices that emits a high frequency squeal. It was the most painful sound in the universe. I understood why it would make mice run. Every time I had to go get something from the shop, I would dive in and out again as fast as I could.

From this I established the fact that my ears are quite healthy in the upper register, thanks.

The lower register drives me nuts. Any time I hear a low frequency rumble, I get nauseous, easily confused,'s my Kryptonite. It has now reached the point where I wear ear plugs whenever I'm walk alongside streets with too much traffic. The rumble of combustion engines makes me want to fling myself into a wall. Hooray for the future day of blissfully silent electric cars!

I'm curious about things like this (synesthesia and such), so I started reading about all the various auditory/neurological issues that are floating around out in the great wide world, waiting to settle on some innocent's unsuspecting head. Phonophobia (the fear of certain sounds), misophonia (intolerance of certain sounds - hello, low frequencies), hyperacusis (oversensitivity to certain sounds...)

Wait, I think I have that last one too. This just confirms my theory that if you have any little quirky tic or pet peeve, someone somewhere has come up with a medical term for it. Are we nothing more than a jumbled collection of diagnoses?

I fell for the irresistible temptation of seeing if I "had hearing like a teenager." What I got was a redux of my grandpa's mouse whistle blasting out through my computer speakers. Could not fumble for the keyboard fast enough.

I may be bleeding at the ears now, but at least I've won a prize, yay:

The Teenager Audio Test - Can you hear this sound?

(Created by The Oatmeal)

Pictures of Prague: Part II

More things of interest, as seen through a viewfinder:

It's a door! Covered with heads! I sat and pondered this for some time. The best I could come up with is that these heads are placed similarly to where doornails would be. Ergo, each man represents a nail, a commentary on how Communism belittled the people's very bodies as menial components easily sacrificed to support the structure of the greater machine...little acknowledging that without such support, the machine could not stand. Gives new nuance to "hitting the nail."

Speaking of heads, I overcame one of my greatest food phobias and sampled, for the first time, HEADCHEESE. Not just headcheese, but headcheese suspended in MYSTERIOUS CLEAR JELLY. It was incredibly tasty. I might have to start looking for a new "scary food" to make jokes about.

This picture is not a picture of that meal. (The headcheese picture, in all honesty, looks nasty.) This is a picture of pork knuckle and Czech dumplings. Don't ever let anyone tell you the Czechs don't know how to cook. The food in Prague was all fantastic, and included the best bacon and sausage I've ever tasted. You can eat your way from one end of town to the other...and then drink your way back on Turkish coffee, mead, and mulled wine.

This building makes actual unicorns weep. It was located in the more modern outskirts of the city, where hulking grey concrete cubes built during the Communist era dominate.

The best thing about this poster is not that it advertises hallucinogenic alcohol in a kiddie-friendly form, but that the green fairy flaming kiddie nightmare cone is "kosher."

Here's a menu that really, really tried. I think this was supposed to be dessert. Other sections of the menu included "From piggy" and "From the moo-cow."

Looming over the city nightscape and the dancing lights of the Vltava, Pražský hrad (Prague Castle.) Despite the fact that it sat atop a steep hill, I often found myself arriving at the castle whether I intended to or not. For that reason it came to represent the heart of the city to me.

A New Posting Schedule (let's see if it sticks)

Hoo-rah. Did you notice? It's a big accomplishment that I, of all people, should post every day this week. Boy, do I feel savvy. But then it occurred to me sometime in the dead of the night while I was fighting both delirium and a JPG that blogging is a Great Big Time Suck, and I have actual work to do. Posting every day? What am I thinking? I'll burn out faster than a, than a...

There, see? Now I've gone and lost my ability to make analogies. Man down. Fuse blown.

My future goal is to use Fifteen Feet as a future newsreel for any future escapades. A rambling, rhyming, guilt-wracked, off-topic newsreel. Soon my workload will increase exponentially until it reaches the point of physical impossibility. Tune in! Watch a nervous breakdown in real time!

Therefore, for the sake of sanity, no daily posts. But for the sake of my poor neglected blog I'm making a commitment to update regularly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Done. Said. Public. Committed. At least until this fall when all hell breaks loose.

The reason I've been posting so much lately is that I've been trying to get around to the point of my story, but I've come to realize that my pace is glacial and my attention is...what's that?! Ah, right. The point of my story will make an appearance here sooner or later. (Besides the fact that it already has.)

I'm not being evasive. It started in Prague.

A Love Song to the Mother of Cities

Praha, dobrý den, I greet you,
golden city spires that heat the
sun; the Prašná brána glowing
in the morning shine and showing
Gothic-y disdain, as ever,
to Špillar's Nouveau endeavor.
Down the Krakovska I drift and,
děkuji Praha!, the rifted
cobble gives my feet no falter
(Reagents' unintended altar);
with each stone a thought you foster
like an endless paternoster.
Who am I to castles climb
above the Sister of the Rhine? Oh
hail the roiling rushing river
Vltava, má vlast forever!
Lifted by Smetana's grace or
by a becherovka bracer,
either way, Boheme, I raise
a glass to health, nazdravi!, praise! for
with Orloj or metronome,
the time you trace is now your own.

For Prague I could go on and on...

If anyone's wondering what the heck I'm saying:

Mother of Cities, The Golden City, Praha = Prague
dobrý den = hello
Prašná brána = the Gothic Powder Tower
Špillar = designer of the Art Nouveau mosaic on the Municipal Building
Krakovska = a street I frequented
děkuji = thank you
Reagents = fellows who were defenestrated during a Catholic/Protestant kerfuffle
paternoster = an elevator that never stops moving
castle = the Prague Castle, sitting on a hill above the city
Vltava = the longest river in the Czech Republic
Má vlast = "My Country," a symphony by Smetana
becherovka = an alcohol
Bohemia = another name for the region
nazdravi! = Health! A toast!
Orloj = the Astronomical Clock
metronome ='s a gigantic working metronome. It sits high on a hill that once had a huge statue of Stalin. They say it counts down the time until Prague is invaded once again.

There, now I can't be accused of being cryptic.