fake-cough and watch them startle

Like most any other internet lemming these days, I have myself a facebook account. Mostly I use it to share silly images or videos, and keep in touch with (and/or track of) the bucketload of acquaintances I made down at Occupy.

The problem, of course, is that when you’re part of the Lefty Fringe, you wind up meeting with people who, while otherwise quite ordinary (for what passes for ordinary amongst the Lefty Fringers, anyhow) also go on about some really weird stuff.

Joke: How do you know if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll fucking tell you.

Most of this I do not mind. It gets the raised eyebrow of WTF and then I scroll by. It’s entertaining, the same way looking at a thunderstorm and thinking “Oh, so that’s where they came up with that particular myth” is — or the way reading up on conspiracy theories is. It’s like having my very own X-Files, and I never keep getting reruns of that grotesque goddamn man-fluke episode. Everybody’s got their superstitions. Thing is, most of us will damn well keep ’em to ourselves and not write huge [TOXINS] internet screeds about [CHEMTRAILS] the secret messages in [WAKE UP SHEEPLE] the Emergency Broadcast System if you [FRINGE POLITICAL PARTY] use indigenous Incan morse code.

It’s okay, more or less. You got your thing, whatever. Long as you ain’t hurtin’ anybody else I will just be amused and then move on. That’s the key part: as long as you aren’t hurting anybody.

Which is why the anti-vaxers make me desperately wish for a widespread outbreak of measles.

I got into it with one of them today. I know better, I really do, I just could not help it. Trying to talk sense into these anti-vax prophets (I use that word deliberately) is about as effective as scolding a cockroach. The roach does not give a damn and you kind of look like an idiot for wasting your time. And yet — I get into it anyway.

I’m perhaps more aware of this than average folks, as several of my near and dear are either immunocompromised or at-risk in one way or another. Let me put it to you this way: a friend of mine travels the world researching pathogens. She is very very good at what she does, and way smarter than all of us. She told me that they make yearly flu-vax shortlist exceptions for people like me who can easily fight off a flu but could carry it to someone it could really damage. “You’re exactly the people we want to see coming in for vaccines,” is basically how she put it. But that isn’t enough, for me to get my yearly jab, because all these people who are important to me have to go out and be civilized around the morons who think a vaccine contains more mercury than a tin of tuna.

The great tragedy of my life: I can’t protect everybody from everything. Call me Garp.

When I see the garbage about vaccines linked to X or Y or Z, I can’t help it. I just see red. What I want to say is: “You are putting the people I love at risk. Get skullfucked by a syphillitic donkey.” But that, for some reason, is considered an over-the-top reaction to people acting like morons about highly contagious and deadly diseases.

Instead I link them to this post called ‘Why We Immunize,’ about childhood diseases and what they do. To date I haven’t gotten a single bit of backtalk. Perhaps it’s all the copied gravestone inscriptions. Teeny tiny coffins. How’d House put it? They come in so many colors; that’s good business. Frog green, firetruck red.

Go back to that link, now. Go read it all, especially the personal stories sprinkled in through the information and gathered fantastically in the comments. Smallpox. Pertussis. Measles. Polio — and that last one fascinates me most of all, because as part of the early-eighties cohort, I am lucky enough to have absolutely no idea what it’s like to live with that threat.

Again, I wish my grandmother was still around. I wish that at least on a daily basis, if not more, and for so many different reasons. Today the reason is that I want to know what it was like growing up when she did, in the twenties and early thirties, and then having kids who were bang in the danger zone when the biggest polio outbreaks swept the country in the late forties and early fifties. I do remember she had a vaccination scar on her upper arm – I think the right arm? – which she didn’t like to show. It must have been for smallpox. It was a round whitish scar, about the size of a pencil eraser. As a kid I was both fascinated (hey cool, scars!) and frightened (oh god, needles!) by it. She’d just laugh it off, because that little scar beat the alternative.

(I find, more and more, that I am turning into her — and that I do not mind it one bit.)

It boggles my mind to think about how many of the things I did were known vectors for polio: puddlehopping, swimming in pools or the beach, hell, even being out in public. The best way for oral-fecal bacteria to travel is through water. I’m imagining being a kid and weighing the cost of a potentially deadly disease versus an afternoon in a sprinkler. Or being an adult and trying to weigh that cost. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’ve been reading on this stuff all day, and I keep wanting to know more, the same way I always want to know about things nobody bothered to tell me about.

I saw a quote somewhere, recently, that theorizes any historical fiction set a hundred or more years ago is practically indistinguishable from science fiction, since technology and social organizations are so different. That is very true. Especially in this case: this polio stuff — Suzie, put your chin on your chest NOW! — sounds like something out of a Ray Bradbury book, with the invasive alien disease in the otherwise idyllic 1950s landscape. The day it didn’t rain, nobody came outside because the puddles could be toxic.

The only remotely similar experience I had was chicken pox – I’m old enough to remember pox parties, where everyone had to go hang out with the kid who got it, because there wasn’t a vaccine and it was best to get done with the damn disease as soon as possible. I had it for a week, raised maybe three spots, and spent my time bouncing around the apartment like a deranged Boston Terrier. My mother, somehow, also contracted it (then in her late thirties) and spent a week huddling in a dark room, miserable as all hell. But now there’s a vaccine for that, and that’s fucking fantastic.

The thing I hear the most — or, perhaps, the one that infuriates me the most — is this: “It’s extinct in the wild. The disease is dead.” No, it’s not. Do just a little bit of research: some are zoonotic, some are still endemic in other parts of the world, some are naturally occurring, and unless we keep inoculating and inoculating until we finally get every last person immunized, they never will be extinct.

Here’s what I wound up saying to that one idiot, and what I would happily like to say to all the rest of them, providing there are no syphillitic donkeys nearby….

“Check out a graveyard from the 19th century and feast your eyes on all those headstones for babies and children. Have ten kids; watch four live to adulthood, at least one likely disabled after surviving something that killed the other six. Shoot the dog when it gets rabies, die of suffocation and/or starvation because of tetanus, watch children drown in their own snot. Sounds like a blast, huh?”

I’ll stay over here in the 21st century, thanks. Y’all go be stupid somewhere way the hell away from me, and everyone I love, and everyone they love, and so forth. Which turns out to be everyone. Stay away from them all, except the skullfucking donkeys.

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setima, sagrei, sir, and a bukkit

Note the Oxford comma in the post’s title. You can have my Oxford commas when you pry them from my cold dead hands, which is important, because this means I can Talk All Southern and still maintain some semblance of grammatical coherency. Sometimes. More importantly, I know how to point out when I see the lack in others, a trick my mother taught me and probably has regretted ever since.

A conversation from yesterday:

MY MOM: “You want some cwafee?”

ME: “Watch out, Ma, yer Jersey’s showing.”

MOM: “My what?”

ME: “Cwafee?”

MOM: “Oh god, did I really do that?”

But she gets her own back, on a regular basis.

ME: “So we’re laughing, we’re joking around, then he turns all serious and says, ya gotta do it like this, and I go very serious too, I’m all, yessir.”

MY MOM: “Sir?”

ME: “Huh?”

MY MOM: “You actually said, ‘yes, sir’ to him?”

ME: “Yeah.”

MY MOM: “You are so Southern sometimes! God!”

This is what happens when English majors are allowed to reproduce, and then produce offspring with a decent grasp of linguistics aided and/or abetted by a walloping big case of dyscalculia. Not that I knew what that was, when I was a kid. Not that anyone else did either.

We get into it about words all the time. It’s a thing with us, a habit, a tradition. We’ll dissect sayings and accents, we’ll pick apart lines on television. Which is why this next item had me, and then my mother, so horrifically outraged.

The best part of Tampa is a little place called Ybor. It was originally Ybor City, its own entity entirely, back a hundred years when Port Tampa was still the port and Henry Plant was drawing railroad schematics and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were digging tunnels under the UT hotel in case the Spanish-American war went badly. It looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans, all wrought-iron and brick, but it’s more accurately the Cuban Quarter – well, that and Italian, there’s a lot of Italian history there too. Recently Ybor was decided to be the official historic birthplace of the Cuban sandwich, which ends the sub/hoagie/grinder debate entirely because they are none of them Cubans and, thus, substandard. Ybor is small. It is also very pretty, very old, and very important.

Image shamelessly ganked from the TB Times. I will shoot some of my own before they’re torn down.

The recent to-do concerned the main drag, Seventh Avenue, which is not always actually marked as such within the confines of Ybor proper. It is La Setima, a slangy alternate spelling of septima, which means Seventh. The newer street signs say both Seventh and Setima, one above the other, but the old brown ones ditch the English entirely, which is as it should be.

At least, it was. Until today. The City Council, in possibly the dumbest move in their recent history (and man, have there been some doozies with that lot) decided that, because the RNC is coming, we cannot have one of our most important streets misspelled. They are ignoring a hundred years of tradition and renaming that strip of cobbled brick – down which I drove this very afternoon – La Septima.

I’m so angry I could spit. (Is that Southern enough for you, Mom?)

Nevermind the fact that fancying up the town for the RNC is like having a house redecorated before the ghost of John Belushi throws a frat party. Nevermind that all these outta town tourists are going to be asking how to get to Why-bor City. The council has decided that this one particular quirk, in a town bursting with them, is something that they will not be having with for a moment longer. Because the RNC might make fun of us. I’m shivering in my flip-flops at that notion, I really am.

Besides — if they can say ‘Houston’ wrong in Manhattan, we can bloody well call it Setima.

And so help me god, the next tourist to ask me how to get to “Why-bor City” is being directed onto I-4 and told to turn left after the Plant City exit.

Speaking of Setima and highways, I spent a decent amount of time today on both – heading out across town for therapy, because it is apparently a law of my universe that the quality of a therapist increases in inverse proximity to my house. I bet the shrinks in Alaska are amazing. A friend lives out there – the one who has the frog fear – so I pop by and see her after my sessions.

I hopped into the car, plugged in my music, stowed my ever-present water bottle, and gunned it twenty miles across town, weaving through the suburban assault vehicles and the everpresent construction – all perfectly normal.

Until.

I had a guest. I’m sure you know what this means.

Lady, you drive like a crazy person.

I keep my phone in my pocket when I drive – or in my bag, if I don’t have a pocket handy. I shot that photo while stopped at a particularly long red light. (So don’t worry or fuss.) The long red light was an intersection between a four-lane road, where I was, and an eight-lane road, which I was waiting to cross.

That, of course, is when the anole peeped out from under the windshield wiper and took a good look at me. We crossed the eight-lane road safely and made it a couple of blocks before the little critter started tap-dancing up and down the hood of the car. I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

I pulled over onto a side street, hopped out, grabbed another Useful Paper Bag from the trunk, and set about trying to catch the lizard. It skittered away to the ground and under the car. I rolled the car forward about five feet, hoping I hadn’t squashed it, then hopped back out to replace the bag in the trunk. There, in the same place but on the opposite side as my first anole stowaway, was this new lizard. So I did what I do: caught it, bagged it, folded over the bag, probably scolded it for being difficult while I was catching it, and then lizard and I were on our way.

While I was doing this, a rather unkempt man with a large and darkly-furred beer belly peeking out from under his wifebeater stared from the front step of his house. He didn’t ask me anything. He just watched.

Pal, you live in FLORIDA. If you think a girl with a purple bandana on her head pulling over a car blasting the Beatles to catch a lizard on her windshield wiper is weird, you need to get out more.

The anole was safely released by a lovely large oak tree behind my therapist’s building, and as I folded the bag up I tried to figure out what would be a better lizard-catching apparatus to keep in the car, because clearly this is becoming a theme in my life. The best thing I could think of would be one of those plastic pitchers with a lid that snugly fits into place: no danger of animals getting crumpled, or getting out. I need a lizard bucket, is what.

After my session I met up with my friend, and for a treat we popped down to the nearby burger joint and got ourselves some delicious deep-fried American gastronomic atrocities. While we ate, I told her about a concept I’d learned on the internet, a long time ago. I can’t remember the site where I first read this, but it is called the White Queen Threshold. In Carroll’s book, I think it’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The White Queen Threshold, then, is when you don’t have to work on believing the impossible things anymore. You are no longer surprised, whatever happens.

“But that’s our entire lives!” my friend pointed out. “That’s every day for us.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “that’s my Florida version of the theory. We hit the threshold when we’re about six months old and just keep going from there.”

When a man in a dark grey coverall barged in and dashed off behind the counter as though he owned the place, I did not bat an eye. He reappeared and started arguing with the store manager, I assume, over a bucket. HE CAN HAZ BUKKIT? In tones loud enough for everyone to hear, the man explained that he’d come to fix the leaky water heater that morning, and when he left he’d forgotten his bucket, and some tools inside it, and they were not there anymore.

“Must’ve taken them with you,” the manager was saying.

“I left my bucket here and I need to get it back!” the plumber kept telling him. “Now I don’t know what you did with it, but you need to find it!”

The moral of this disjointed jumble of stories is: don’t sit on the hood of a car in heavy traffic, always rescue the lizard, don’t change historic names, own your regionalisms, look calmly upon the unexpected, and never get between a plumber and his bucket.

“You know what else?” my friend said, later on. “Costumes. I am never surprised when I see people in costumes. Doesn’t matter where or when it is. Just, oh, hey, guy in a costume. Whatever.” This is true, too. Pirates and Rough Riders, mostly, and that one memorable time in Ybor with a leprechaun; though, that’s a story for another time.

the stowaway

Yesterday I had to go perform the Running of the Errands. This happens frequently, modern city life being what it is, and most of the time it’s nothing particularly special or important. I don’t bother to write about those parts.

The rest of the time, though…. That’s when I find myself sitting in the car staring at a scuffling paper bag thinking, “this will be a good blog post.”

Yesterday I had two objectives: collect a rather large shipment of drugs from the pharmacy, and then collect a slightly smaller shipment of comestibles from the grocery store.The downside was that I decided to do this during rush hour, which in this part of town generally means gridlock and Mad Max driving and people being jackasses.

Hint: if your vehicle’s aggressively-styled chrome bumper is at a level with my skull, I strongly dislike you.

Back in my early days of having completely mentally gone ’round the twist, driving was very hard. Impossible. I think for about a year I couldn’t do it, which is ridiculous and tragic, because it used to be my escape. When I was in high school, I’d gotten the fast-track voucher for a license from having taken a driver’s ed course, so I went about things backwards: I got that and then perfected my skills. Late at night, usually, when the roads were empty, feeding my budding insomnia, when my mother was either asleep or didn’t give a damn. I’d load the dog in the car, set the radio to one of about six classic rock stations we had at the time, and devour asphalt at a buck-ten a gallon until calm had been achieved. I miss that.

Driving isn’t a scary torture anymore, it’s just another damn thing I wish I didn’t have to do (and why does this city not have any damn decent public transportation) which probably means only that I am getting older and more cantankerous. Though, if we did magically sprout subways in the limestone aquifer — aside from them being underwater, which might pose a problem — I’d have to deal with Other People. Which is also not appealing, especially when one has to tote a ton of groceries home.

Thus: off in the car I went, with Gogol Bordello loaded up on Игорь (Igor, my ipod) and not all that terribly far to go, but with about a thousand cars between me and everywhere I needed to be. It is, I have decided, perfectly acceptable, when driving still gives you a case of “ehhh I don’t wanna,” to plan your route so that it is entirely right turns, especially when it’s parking-lot rush hour in south Tampa.

First I went to the pharmacy, and I got a ridiculous quantity of drugs — legally! — and I opened the trunk and stowed them in there. I didn’t see anything then.

Then I took the long way around, and – what kind of soldier wears BDUs (not the dark green jungley type, but I don’t think the desert ones, something in between) and what appeared to be a black wool beret? Because without even thinking about what I was doing, I gave him the “STAY” gesture that I give the dog, out the window of the car, to prevent him from left-turning his SUV with bumpers as high as my skull into my path so I wouldn’t go smashing into him. He stayed, I went, and all was well.

After taking the long way around, and probably aggravating the fuck out of everybody behind me for allowing an old man in a motorized wheelchair to cross the street before I made a turn, I arrived at the store. I got the groceries, which is usually uneventful, except for the part where I had a list and a sonic screwdriver pen to mark off the list (it was that or a pen a friend sent that says: SPRINGFIELD SEXUAL ADDICTION CENTER / From PERV to PERFECT in as little as 10 days! -you see how I can never be taken seriously, ever) and I successfully stifled the urge to make my sonic ballpoint pen light up and make noise whenever people went by.

One girl, five years old or so, completely melted down in front of all the butter. Her mother looked agitated, her little brother looked like he did not give a damn, and one of the guys working at the shop had stepped in to try to calm her down — but being that he was the approximate size and shape of Enkidu it didn’t really work. I did not sonic the kid, either, though I was sorely tempted to either do that or shush her like Eleven does and see if that worked. It works on the dog. And on my mum. Not for long, though.

So – food being gotten, and paid for, and bagged up, I rolled the cart (with three wheels that want to go shopping and one wheel that wants me to go fuck myself, so at least my arms got some work in the process) out to the car. I opened up the trunk, started to put the bags in, and then, finally, I saw it.

the stowaway

See him? That’s a full-grown male anolis sagrei, looking somewhat worse for wear, being stuck in the weatherstripping of my car for Squamata knows how long, rumbling along with the stop and go and petroleum stink of rush-hour traffic.

There was only one thing to do. I carefully put the groceries in the trunk, watching the lizard: he didn’t move. Not a good sign. He was alive, but sluggish, shocky perhaps. I carefully extricated a big brown paper bag from the trunk – I always have a few in there, they’re very useful – and rolled the cart out of the way.

I tried to coax the lizard into the bag but he wouldn’t go, so I caught him by the slightly-less-dignified method of trapping him under a hand and sliding the other underneath, then dropping him into the bag. He scuttled around in there, but couldn’t get out – he was lethargic and confused, and the sides were smooth. I folded the top of the bag over, set it atop the closed trunk, rolled the cart away, then picked it up and brought it into the car.

in the bag

I did all of this because when I find a lizard clinging desperately to a crevice in my car, of course what I am going to do is capture it and bring it safely home to be set free in my back yard. What else could I do?

I opened the bag once I had loaded it and myself into the car and got the AC going: male, full-grown with a nice spinal ridge, rapidly panicking by the dark shades his skin was turning, and a survivor of a tail drop at some distant point: the new tail had nearly grown in, but not quite, and while the end of it seemed clipped off bluntly the rest was slightly smaller, as though it didn’t fit, which happens when they drop tails.

I folded the bag shut, stowed it carefully – taking a moment to listen to the scuttle of tiny reptile claws and limbs against brown paper – and then headed off. Back into traffic, with a consignment of controlled – but prescribed – substances in the trunk, and a load of groceries in there too, and Gogol Bordello on my ipod which is named in Cyrillic, and a sonic screwdriver pen in my purse, and a honking big anole in a brown paper bag on the passenger side.

Which is completely normal, if you’re me.

lizard transportI took him home and went inside, with purse and waterbottle (seen above) and lizard-in-a-bag, setting all three down and warning my mother to leave the bag alone.

“Why? What’s in there?”

“A lizard. Found it in the car.”

She did not so much as blink at that. She raised me; she knows how I am about these things.

I hauled all the groceries in, put them away, grabbed Vera II (the camera, yes, everything I own has a name) and the bag and the dog, then headed out to the back yard. I opened the bag carefully and tried to catch the lizard in my hand, thinking perhaps that I could hypnotize and calm it like the magnificent specimen in my header pics. This particular anole would not be having with that: he’d spent the day wedged into an uncomfortable spot in a car trunk, then had been caught and rudely dumped in a bag, then had to listen to the Trans-Continental Hustle all the way home, then was deposited — still in the bag — in a house smelling strongly of dog and cat, and now that he could see sky again that same interfering hominid was trying to catch him? Hell no.

“Look, I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery. But so far, I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room. Well, maybe that’s all right for a bunch of powdered gee-gahs like yourselves, but I’m feeling decidedly strait-jacketed.”

He easily scaled the side of the bag, bounced across my lap, landed on the deck — I held out a hand to tell Dog “Back!” and she did — then lit off as quick as lightning to the relatively safe space under the deck. Not quite what I had in mind, but wild animals get to make their own decisions about these things.

I hadn’t gotten my post-rescue photo, so there was only one thing to do: carefully settle myself on my belly in the sun-warmed grass, fire up the camera, point it into the dark space under the deck, and get a shot of the stowaway back in the wild.

stowaway, released

I think he’ll be all right. He’s strong and large, clearly a survivor. Stay free, anole. Stay free.

behavioral conditioning in mesocricetus auratus

This is fascinating stuff, guys. I’m using what I’ve learned from Beloved Dog – adapted for an animal the size and weight of a cellphone, of course – and I’m reading up online, though most of what I’m finding there is Skinner boxes and less things like “how to teach a hamster to perform behaviors the way a dog would.”

Still, it’s really neat to see Myshka’s teeny tiny brain molding and changing itself, laying down new pathways and reflexes, in response to the things I encourage and discourage. I know animal training is Not A Big Thing, in the grand scheme of Big Things, but it always strikes me as some kind of minor miracle: I am communicating with a critter that is not human, and we are understanding each other, and accomplishing things. It’s immensely gratifying. (Before you ask: I would only be willing to do this professionally if I didn’t have to train the owners, and that’s most of what other-peoples’-pets-training IS. Animals ain’t Disney characters.)

Right now I’m working on handling and hand-taming, with little Myshka. The operant-conditioning reward system makes this really easy. I will explain how I do this, as I’m not 100% working with scientific methods here. A bit more intuition, a bit less rigidity.

I try to get the animal to perform a behavior I want. If they perform the behavior, they get a high-value reward. With Dog it’s either food or playtime with a valued toy; for a hamster it’s a particularly delicious treat. That’s the positive-reinforcement stimulus. If I don’t get the behavior, then they don’t get any reward: that’s a neutral stimulus, neither reward nor punishment. The treat is still on offer though, so the animal can try other behaviors to see if they can get it. For Dog that means she’ll roll through every trick she knows when I’m trying to shape new behavior. For the hamster… well, he’s new to this, so it mostly means confusion. But we’re working on it.

After that comes the shaping, where I reward behavior in increments until I get them from “WTF” to easily doing a complex series of tasks. For Myshka, that means: first he gets the treat when I bring it to him. Then he gets the treat when he approaches my hand. Then he has to climb onto my stationary hand to get it. Then he has to climb on my hand and eat it there while I lift him up. The end result of this would be that he’d come willingly to my hand, because that usually means food, and in the interim he would become accustomed to being touched.

There’s no force involved: either he does it and gets the treat, or he decides not to and there is no punishment. If he grabs the treat and takes off, that’s what happens. (but I round up the treats when they’re left behind, so they don’t lose their value) It’s all up to him. But delicious snacks are very tempting, and every time we do this successfully I’m a little less scary and a little more appealing.

I rarely use negative reinforcement. It’s gotta be something big and bad. For Dog, that’s mostly things like chasing possums or wedging herself under the house or pursuing cane toads – then there’s a sharp reprimand and usually a timeout, because that is what works best on her. With Myshka, there’s really not much wrong he can do — the only thing is cage-bar chewing (Jack’s favorite vice, and cause of many sleepless nights for me) which I am trying to nip in the bud. Reading and experimentation has shown that the best negative reinforcer for a hamster is blowing on them like a hot coffee. Startles them, they don’t like it, but it doesn’t hurt — which is perfect for my purposes. I don’t want him afraid in any way, I just want him to learn: “I chew bars, I get bad air startles. I will, therefore, not chew the bars.” And when he leaves the bars and goes to do anything else, he gets praise-voice and delicious snacks, which redirects that chew urge to something he can gnaw.

That’s the theory, anyway. We’ll see if it works. Though it seems to be: he’s been climbing onto my stationary hand to retrieve a treat, and a few times now (in the cage, mind) I’ve got him to walk from one hand to another. He still flinches at an unexpected touch, but they are not as much of a violent startle as they used to be, and sometimes he accepts it without reaction. It’s a start.

It really is sad how much fun I find this. I MOLD THE LITTLE ANIMAL BRAIN! YES!