Saturday, January 31, 2015

Random acts of (goofy) kindness

My favorite random act of goofy kindness was one I read about years ago, in the Penn & Teller book How to Play With Your Food. Penn Jillette was in a diner once, back in the day, and when he saw "red Jell-O" on the menu he decided to randomly buy some for another customer, a big tough-looking guy. The guy asked who had paid for his wobbly dessert, went over to Penn and they talked for a while. Far from being annoyed, the customer was so pleased by the surprise that he vowed to pass it on, buying red Jell-O for other random strangers and telling them "Penn says hi." I loved that idea. Since then I've had several chances to engage in random acts of goofy kindness for others, and they've almost always been fun.

A few years after Captain Midnight and I were married, we were eating out at an Indian restaurant and reveling in the joys of mango lassi (mmmm, mango lassi). In fact we were so pleased by the lassi-tastic goodness of our meal that we felt the need to share it with someone else. On impulse, we called over a waiter and asked if we could anonymously buy a round of mango lassi for some college students at another table. He agreed, and then we had the fun of watching their reactions as everyone suddenly got an unexpected mango lassi. They tried fruitlessly to figure out who their benefactors were, as we finished our meal poker-faced and left with much giggling.

Another time, while crossing the Bay Bridge to go to San Francisco, we randomly paid the bridge toll for the car behind us. The man in that car was utterly befuddled. He kept speeding up to flank us, trying to figure out who we were and why we'd paid his bridge toll, and we just kept grinning and waving and making goofy faces at him until he finally determined we were insane and raced away -- which made us laugh even harder.

You don't have to spend lots of money to spread random acts of goofy kindness. Sometimes it's as simple as leaving a silly little note or an origami model where someone else will see it and smile. Sometimes it's writing an unexpected snailmail letter full of your completely fictitious adventures and sending it to a friend or acquaintance. It's not difficult -- you just get into the habit of adding a little unexpected delight to daily life.

Try it. It's fun!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A modest proposal to anti-vaxxers: Rubellaville

Much has already been said (and will probably continue being said) on both sides of the Vaccination Divide about the recent Disneyland measles outbreak. I've ruminated on it with a certain amount of personal concern, since among my extended family and friends are individuals who cannot be vaccinated (too young, too old, too immune-compromised) and who rely heavily on the blessing of herd immunity not to catch communicable diseases that could be harmful or fatal to them. I've also been thinking about the demands of anti-vaccination advocates that it's their right not to immunize their children, and considering the old phrase "Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose." I've realized we need a solution that's fair to all parties. And, if I may be excused for a certain amount of shameless self-promotion, I think I've come up with a cracking good one.

Let's say you don't want to immunize your family, because UNNATURAL! or GUMMINT! or TOXINS! or AUTISM! (long since debunked, but whatevs) or any other daft reason that wends its way into your little noggin. That's fine by me; after all, it's your decision. But I assume that, as a decent human being with a love of your fellow man, you also don't want the death of anyone else's three-month-old infant, delicate grandma, cancer-surviving mom or HIV-positive uncle forever on your conscience. So I'm sure you won't mind if we relocate ALL of you to the vaccination-free paradise of Rubellaville, a purpose-built town in the remotest section of White Pine County, Nevada.

Of course, this is just an illustration. There won't be cars in the REAL Rubellaville.
Rubellaville will be a model community for the inoculation-free, with all standard municipal services, solar- and wind-powered energy, community gardens and composting bin, state-of-the-art transit system that goes everywhere in town (no need for nasty polluting cars), full-sized Whole Foods grocery, and regular visits from delivery drones. But this anti-vaxx utopia comes with a price: it's a one-way ticket. The town's perimeter will be strictly monitored, and no resident will be allowed to leave for any reason (including summer vacations, out-of-state family funerals, job offers in other towns, or an infectious disease outbreak in Rubellaville itself) unless and until he or she gets a full course of immunizations.

I think that's about as fair as it's possible to get, don't you?

(Oh, and before you start yelling at me about violating your God-given right to freedom of movement, a) try looking up "satire" sometime and b) this was the way Western society tried to stem the spread of highly infectious diseases like measles before the widespread availability of vaccines -- just ask your grandparents. If you want society to return to those bright halcyon decades before inoculation, you should prepare to be subjected to the full quarantine measures that went with them.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bishop Hatto and the Mouse-Tower

For a good year now, I've been enjoying (and occasionally using) the wealth of public-domain images that the British Library has generously shared via its Flickr account. The best thing about browsing images and text in the public domain is when you come across a forgotten gem. I found one of these today: the folk tale of Hatto II, Archbishop of Mainz, and his Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower) on the Rhine. In the tale, Hatto was a cruel despot who used his power as both bishop and prince to mistreat the common people of his area; during a famine in 974, when the grain had run out, the people went to the bishop looking for food. What he did to them, and what happened next, was immortalized in the following poem by Robert Southey (with illustrations by V. H. Darwin -- who seems to be a distant cousin of Charles Darwin).

Warning to musophobes: you might want to skip this one.

Bishop Hatto: a legend of the Mouse-Tower on the Rhine

The Summer and Autumn had been so wet,
That in Winter the corn was growing yet,
'Twas a piteous sight to see all round
The grain lie rotting on the ground.

Every day the starving poor
Crowded around Bishop Hatto's door,
For he had a plentiful last year's store,
And all the neighbourhood could tell,
His granaries were furnish'd well.

At last, Bishop Hatto appointed a day
To quiet the poor without delay;
He bade them to his great barn repair,
And they should have food for the Winter there.

Rejoiced at such tidings good to hear,
The poor folk flocked from far and near;
The great barn was full as it could hold
Of women and children, and young and old.

Then when he saw it could hold no more,
Bishop Hatto he made fast the door,
And while for mercy on Christ they call,
He set fire to the barn, and burnt them all.

"I'faith, 'tis an excellent bonfire!" quoth he,
"And the country is greatly obliged to me
For ridding it, in these times forlorn
Of rats, that only consume the corn."

So then to his palace returned he,
And he sat down to supper merrily,
And he slept that night like an innocent man,
But Bishop Hatto never slept again.

In the morning, when he entered the hall,
Where his picture hung against the wall,
A sweat like death all over him came,
For the rats had eaten it out of the frame.

As he looked, there came a man from his farm,
And he had a countenance white with alarm,
"My Lord, I opened your granaries this morn,
And the rats had eaten all your corn."

Another came running presently,
And he was pale as pale could be,
"Fly, my Lord Bishop, fly," quoth he,
"Ten thousand rats are coming this way,
The Lord forgive you for yesterday!"

"I'll go to my tower on the Rhine," replied he,
"'Tis the safest place in Germany;
The walls are high, and the shores are steep,
And the stream is strong, and the water deep."

Bishop Hatto fearfully hastened away,
And he crossed the Rhine without delay,
And reached his tower, and barred with care
All the windows, doors, and loopholes there.

He laid him down and closed his eyes,
But soon a scream made him arise,
He started, and saw two eyes of flame
On his pillow, from whence the screaming came.

He listened and looked: it was only the cat,
But the Bishop he grew more fearful for that,
For she sat screaming, mad with fear
At the army of Rats, that was drawing near.

For they have swum over the river so deep,
And they have climbed the shore so steep,
And now by thousands up they crawl
To the holes and windows in the wall.

Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
And faster and faster his beads did he tell,
As louder and louder drawing near
The saw of their teeth without he could hear.

And in at the windows, and in at the door,
And through the walls by thousands they pour,
And down through the ceiling, and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop's bones,
They gnawed the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him.

So isn't that fun? Not as jolly as being nibbled to death by ducks, but it makes for a good story. (Completely without historical basis, mind you, but as Jan Harold Brunvand might say, that's never stopped people from repeating a good story before.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The adventures of Roxy-cat: Chow, bella!

When we adopted the skittish but loving Roxy-cat, we wanted her transition to a new home to be as smooth as possible, so we asked the folks at the cat rescue shelter what she'd been eating (I'm not going to shill for anyone, but we'll just say it's a slightly pricey brand of kibble that claims veterinarians feed it to their pets). We picked up some of that, just so she'd be able to experience something familiar, and she dug right in.

Roxy is an unusual cat, in that she prefers dry kibble and will only nibble halfheartedly at wet cat food. (My theory is that dry kibble provides her with both dinner and entertainment -- she likes to paw individual pieces of kibble out of her dish and chase them across the bathroom floor before she pounces on them and devours them, leading us to dub her game "kibble soccer" -- but who knows what goes on in that little brain, really?) However, Miss V is often on the lookout for new food, treats and toys for Roxy, and on Monday she remembered she had a $20 coupon to visit a local shi-shi pet store not far from home.

This particular store (no, I'm not shilling for them either) was full of all kinds of expensive canine and feline goodies: premium raw dog food and frozen bones, homeopathic pet meds, pricey collars and toys, and an entire wall of little tins of fancy-pants cat food. When one of the employees asked what our cat ate and we replied honestly, she gave us a look of mild dismay. "That stuff isn't very healthy for your cat," she warned us, indicating that it was partly formulated with grains and vegetable proteins that cats couldn't properly digest. She eagerly directed us to their own wide range of tinned wet organic cat food (most of which cost more, ounce for ounce, than premium canned tuna for human consumption), helping us select half a dozen cans for Roxy's dining pleasure. These, she assured us, would be so much better and healthier for our cat than the questionable dry kibble she'd been consuming since kittenhood.


Optimistic and armed with lots of advice and tins, Miss V immediately opened a can of healthy wet cat food for Roxy almost as soon as we got home, spooning it into her dish. It gave the entire bathroom a noticeable reek of organic animal protein for several hours. Roxy sniffed the stuff dubiously and walked off. We didn't give the matter much thought (although we gave it several more sniffs) until Tuesday morning, when we discovered Roxy's final verdict: after nibbling a bit at the pungent new food overnight, she'd barfed up some healthy organic protein on the living room carpet. After some quick carpet cleanup, her dish was cleared out and filled with a daily serving of her usual kibble. Roxy immediately and happily began chowing down, apparently none the worse for wear from her little experiment with bulimia.

It occurred to me that "healthy" pet food is only truly healthful if your pet will eat it (and keep it down). Although many other cats love and beg for fancy wet cat food, Roxy obviously finds it disgusting. (Having smelled the stuff, I can't blame her.) And frankly, despite the advice we were given at the store, Roxy seems much more capable of digesting kibble than the premium wet food. So we're just going to keep on feeding her kibble, giving her plenty of fresh water, and making sure she gets lots of time to exercise, play, nap and cuddle.

And these cute little tins of organic whatsit? They're going to the cat rescue shelter.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Books books books

Well, I've been through a full course of antibiotics (Zithromax! When you have to nuke the ick from orbit just to be sure!) and I'm still hoarse and hacking, although it seems to be fading away... too gradually for my tastes, but at least I'm getting better.

Also, all the time spent in bed over the Christmas holidays meant lots of opportunities for uninterrupted reading. I've finished off five books since Christmas and am reading four more. As I get older I'm finding it easier to zigzag between several books at a time. When I was younger I had a hard time reading several books in tandem, especially if they were all fiction; the narratives had a confusing tendency to blend together in my head. These days I've figured out the secret: read books with disparate themes, and throw at least one nonfiction work into the mix. There's no danger of mixing together the texts of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Jenny Woolf's The Mystery of Lewis Carroll and Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future; even though they're all nonfiction, they're different enough in subject matter (memoir, biography, future predictions) that it's easy to keep all the texts separate in my head. Which is good, because I'm still a little woozy from the NyQuil.

Speaking of woozy, a random thought which occurred to me while reading: why are most printed books published in portrait format (that is, with pages taller than they are wide)? Why don't we have more square books, or landscape-printed texts (most image-saturated "coffee-table books" are printed in landscape format)? Does it have something to do with the way our brains process the written word, or is it cheaper to print that way, or does it have to do with the way printers used to fold a sheet of paper to make folios and quartos, or is it just "the way it's always been done"? The format is being perpetuated on e-readers such as Kindle, and it makes me wonder why we do it that way.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

No resolutions, just questions

or 2015, I've decided not to make resolutions as such. Instead, I've got a set of questions to put to myself on a daily basis, to wit:
  1. What are your priorities?
  2. How are you changing your daily life to put those priorities in order?
  3. Who do you want to be?
  4. What goals are you achieving to become that person?
I rather suspect these may be harder to live with than more concrete resolutions. But I also think they're a road map that will take me where I want to go, even if that means a lot of unfamiliar territory. Hey, isn't that usually where you find the best serendipitous discoveries?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Video postcards from Utah

When my sister Julie visited a friend in Israel, she created this series of videos of neighborhoods in and around Tel Aviv which she called "video postcards." Since she has an actual film school education and hands-on experience with cinematography, Julie's video postcards are going to look a whole lot smoother and more professional than mine, but I thought I might do worse than share with you the winter wonderland of Provo, Utah as seen from my mom's house.

Here's the view of the valley from my mom's front porch, plus a bonus pic of our neighbor shoveling snow out of his yard. Hi, neighbor!

Here's my mom's back yard, which is very steep and full of boulders -- though that's probably hard to tell right now with the blanket of snow covering everything. By the way, if you keep stomping up this hillside you will eventually hit the trail which leads to the big Y on the mountain.

Not shown: the big covered pot of homemade turkey broth cooling in the snow. Mm mm good.

In other news: still sick. Captain Midnight did take me to the Instacare today, where I was told that my particular tenacious malady is probably viral, though now I have a prescription for Zithromax just in case it isn't. For the nonce, then, I continue to bark like a seal and wheeze out sentences like the female version of Pat Buttram. (Hire me quick, Disney voice talent scouts!)