Fleas Destroy Dualism and Prevent Addiction

I’d like to talk about fleas. But first I’d like to talk about people. One of the tricky things about being a person is figuring out how to make yourself feel better without hurting yourself. We like to go for the big guns: Sugar! TV! Online shopping! Doritos! Heroin! What we really need are weird, personal, harmless ways to self-soothe. (I’m getting to the fleas, I promise.)

I’m not saying I’ve figured this all out, but I have stumbled on a couple of things. In college I realized that peeing outside was a huge stress reliever. I used to pee behind a palm tree in my co-op yard, hidden in the shadow cast by the street lamp. It was weird, I know, but also primal and reconnecting and effective. I recommend it.

Recently, I realized that combing Squinchy for fleas is also really soothing. It’s the ultimate primate expression of connection and caring, I guess. Squinchy doesn’t have too many fleas, but he does get some and I’ve noticed something about them:

Fleas roam in groups.

I’ll comb most of him and not find any, then find three or four in a clump. I got to wondering what you call a group of fleas. Is it a pack? A flock? A herd? Which led me to wonder — are they grazing or hunting? The answer is either neither or both or something else all together. Kabam! There goes dualism. And I feel so much better. Thanks, fleas.


Spring and Doom

One of the petty sad things about climate change is that it makes a nice day feel like a doomsday portent. And nothing ruins a beautiful day like a sense of climate guilt. I’ve had that feeling a lot this winter, since this winter has basically been mostly spring. (Sorry, East Coast, I’m not trying to grind it in.) The lilacs and the apple tree began blooming in March, and I did my Annual Flower Count today, and though I did it ten days before the 2013 count date, I did it late. The ideal day is when there are still daffodils and one or two forsythia flowers, but also lilacs and apple blossoms. That day was over a week ago, and now most of the daffodils are gone and the only reason I even got 37 (compared to 40 in 2013) was that I counted all the flowers I bought at the nursery on Friday. Also, the flowers might be out, but the insects aren’t, and I’m worried about the pollination of our fruit trees.

If I slow down, I trust that the Earth will deal with all of this and life, in the most cosmic sense of the word, will be ok. But humans might not be there to see it, and I love my particular life and my species and my flowers a lot.

On a side note, this is also why I’m hesitant about AI. It seems perfectly likely to me that any sophisticated artificial intelligence is as likely to knock humanity down for the good of life in general as it is to annihilate us out of selfishness, and both seem more likely than that it will peacefully be our slave forever. But geeks don’t listen to me. Anyways, Happy Easter.

I Heart Rednecks, Sometimes

In college I took a poetry class from a guy who brought a littered beer can to class every week. It was a class about the modern nature poem, but he spent a lot of time picking up the can and saying “I understand this [mimes drinking] but not this [mimes throwing on the ground].” I guess that relates to every American nature poem of the 20th century or something.

Anyways, I took Squinch and his brother to the river today and there was a campfire littered with beer cans and plastic bags. Classic Snoqualmie redneck party. One of my students just wrote about the giant garbage patch, so I decided to pick up the trash. Keep it out of the ocean. I understand this but not this, said my professor in my head as I poured the beer dregs out on the sand.

But I disagree. I think I do understand. It’s something we all do. But rednecks are just more upfront about it. How many times have I listened to a story about climate change on NPR while driving around in my car? I can’t point any fingers here. I was getting maudlin about the smell of stale Rainier and cottonwood trees, when the dogs started barking at a lady in a bougie jogging outfit. I apologized and she told me to be careful because “there was a leash law and there might be other dogs.” Which is something I just can’t see the throwers of the beer cans saying, especially since what she really meant was “don’t let your dogs bark at me.”

Sometimes, I just prefer the redneck thing.

Your Mama, My Boogers: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Like many of people, I’ve been following the story of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and because I’m always good for an opinion, it turns out, I have one.


The attacks, obviously, were horrific and wrong. To quote my mother, “people are not for hitting.” It goes without saying they are also not for shooting. Equally obviously, free speech is incredibly important. A free and just society is an active, constant creation, much like love, and speaking freely and truthfully is a crucial part.

But just because it is your right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. I’m not talking about political correctness or other people telling you what not to say — censorship of all kinds is frightening. I’m talking about taking responsibility for the power of your words.

Words are very powerful. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a flat-out lie. Satire is a particularly powerful tool, because of the way it can speak truth to power. This is where Charlie Hebdo was right, and this is also where I think they were wrong.

We’ve been hearing a lot that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity satirist. However, the implications of making fun of different people are really different. Satire is imbedded in the political and social structure — it’s whole role is to comment on that structure. But that means that it can’t escape the power dynamics of race, gender, class, and the colonial residues that are part of that culture.

Making fun of Islam in a country that a) colonized a lot of North Africa, and b) has a long history of marginalizing Muslims, and c) etc. is not the same as lampooning the president or the Catholic Church. It’s not speaking truth to power — it’s picking on the underdog. Clearly, the editors thought differently, as is their right. And I may be missing something, since I’m getting these cartoons in translation. But the conversation I’m interested in isn’t so much about that particular newspaper as it is about free speech and responsibility — both of the speaker and of their society.

We have the right to write all kinds of things. I can say anything I want to about your mother (as long as it’s true!), or talk endlessly about my own boogers. If I want to do these things, I shouldn’t be censored, but I can be held responsible for what I say.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite essays, “Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” by Robert Bringhurst. It’s an essay ostensibly about morality, language, and design, but it doesn’t stop there.  He says that “there are always plots afoot to limit the moral sphere. These schemes are often called philosophies, but they are rarely more than claims to the ownership of power….” He goes on to define morality as a “working relationship” with humans, other life forms, objects and ideas. Artists are those who “act from a developed moral sense towards certain inanimate things.” Paint, or wood, or cartoons, for instance. This doesn’t make artists more moral than other people, it just means that “the artist is, in his particular field, articulate. We might, in a healthy culture, ask the artist to meet many more criteria than that.

What criteria might we ask our satirists to meet? That they write courageously in the face of intimidation, yes, but perhaps also that they write from a spirit of love, or that they pick their targets with the good of people in mind, or that they are wise, or kind, or genuinely funny. And what about the rest of us writers?

This (along with how to keep the recent events from fueling Islamophobia) is the conversation I hope we all have.

(A couple relevant links:  In a look at the problems with the cartoons, Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian wrote, “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.” And an interesting article from 2012 in Slate about the hypocritical way we treat offensive speech against Jews vs. that against Muslims.)

That’s me on the Claps

When I was a lonely teenager, I had the conviction that the key to life was to turn the right direction down the right street at just the right time so that the Important and Spontaneous Thing could happen. I went on a lot of aimless walks where I dithered at the street corners under the immense pressure of being open to fate. Usually, nothing interesting happened. Now I think that worrying about serendipity is counter-productive. I focus more on walking confidently in a (semi) clear direction. But sometimes the random turn at the random moment does turn up a true, pure serendipitous thing.


Take my last night in Dublin this September. I had gone out to look for some dinner. I was crossing the street, when I looked left and saw the sunlight shining on a bridge over the river. That’s where I’m going, I thought, so I did. On the bridge was a man in one of those Irish caps. He had binoculars, and he was looking at another man who was stumping around in the mud where the river usually was when the full moon hadn’t pulled the tide so low. What’s he looking for? I asked the man with the binos, and he gave me a look.The man in the river had a trowel in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. I think he was a treasure hunter.


The man with the binos’ name was Joe and he was from Dublin, and we started talking about things, which was a huge relief after four days in a hostel where no one wanted to put down their devices long enough to have a conversation. (Tangential rant: people, when you’re traveling, please get off the internet and talk to people so I can have some faith in humanity.) Joe decided to show me a block on Henrietta Street where all the old tenement houses were still standing, so we started to walk across the city.


When we got to that one particular block, we heard music coming out of a building. Joe inquired and found out they were the Na Píobairí Uilleann — the Uilleann Pipe Society — recording a radio show. They invited us in to listen.

So there I was, fifteen minutes into a conversation with a stranger, in a basement with a bunch of Irish musicians playing incredible music. If you don’t know this, in studio shows are much more constructed than they sound. They don’t record the things in order. They recorded all the music, then took the clapping separate. We’ll take the applause for Sheila now. And we’d all (including Sheila) clap our hearts out. You can listen yourself if you like, thanks to radio archives. Maybe you’ll hear me cheering.


Later, Joe and I were eating chips on a picnic table, when an old man in a dirty coat rode up on a bicycle. Joe offered him some chips, which few people would do in the U.S. The man sat down with us and told us stories of his time in Brooklyn and of marching against the Iraq war, even though he felt it was futile. I never did get dinner, unless Guinness and chips count, but I did get to listen to people I so easily might never have met. I don’t know if this was an Important Thing like I was imagining as a girl. It was something more subtle than money or love or fame or purpose. But I felt the current — the story — that moves through life. I felt that sense of possibility. And that’s still a reason I walk down the street.

Into the Wind

As many of you know, my cousin Evan died suddenly last Sunday. He collapsed while running a half marathon. He was twenty eight. Even though Evan lived in Seattle and our parents are close, I don’t think I’ve seen him since my sister’s wedding. It’s so easy to take people for granted.Evan Sebenius

There was a memorial for Evan at his folks’ house yesterday, a huge and beautiful party of a couple of hundred or more people who cared about this man. There were stricken faces and also there was laughter. There were sunflowers and music and food. There was a great amount of beer. It made me wish that everyone I knew would get married, because that’s the only other time people have a gathering that good in their honor, and with marriages they get to attend. They get to see how loved they are. Though in the cosmic merging of the afterlife, I would hope people feel loved too.

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Photo credit: Patti Pitcher

There is a circle of cedar trees at Evan’s family’s place, and they strung prayer flags up high in the branches that fluttered like spirits and made a circle to grieve inside. The cedars grow in a thick circle, and as I stood inside them I thought of how even as some of the magnificent trees fall over time, the circle will still stand and the remaining trees will grow to hold the space. That circle of trees feels holy, and it feels resilient.

I don’t know that trees grieve like we do, and I know Evan is deeply grieved, but I saw that same magnificence and resiliency in Evan’s circle of brothers and friends. They made something together, through their inter-grown lives. They made something that is still growing. It was so clear, watching people speak yesterday, that Evan is mourned by a community, not by a few straggling lone souls. This speaks to who he was as a person, and to the love he was raised inside.

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Photo credit: Patti Pitcher

At the end of the memorial, they released a cluster of balloons into the sky. As a childhood subscriber to Ranger Rick magazine, I admit I cringed at the thought of where they all would land, but there was also something so incredibly right about that act. His family stood in a tight circle and released the balloons, which wiggled slowly into the air. They moved strangely like sperm, which made a kind of beautiful, circular sense. As they rose, the sky seemed to grow larger. I could almost imagine infinity. It didn’t happen instantly; for a while the balloons seemed to hover, as if they were looking down at the party. Then they shrank into specks. People turned towards each other, moved towards the beer. I forgot to be watching the moment they disappeared into the clouds.

There is a memorial 5K run planned to honor Evan, and also a fund going to help out his family and let them complete the orchard that Evan had been helping build. It’s really beautiful to see so many people chip in to help.


Yesterday I was reading an article about hedgelaying, which is the craft of maintaining hedges. Some hedges have been around for a thousand years, and they aren’t just a row of bushes — they are periodically cut and woven together into a living fence that then grows up providing berries and shelter for birds and voles and weasels. Anyhow, the whole subject was pretty fascinating.DSCN3474

Afterwards, I walked to this little biodynamic farm called Velwell Orchard, and who should I meet but a hedgelayer! Turns out they guy who runs the farm, Jeremy, makes his living building walls and laying hedges. The farm itself isn’t a moneymaking venture. Instead, it’s worked by volunteers (some of whom also donate money) who then get the produce. Jeremy says he ran it for three years as a commercial farm and lost 8000 quid, and has run it as a community venture for two years and hasn’t lost anything. Instead of being a model where everyone is trying to get the best deal, his is a model that is based on generosity. He gives people veggies, and they give their time. 

In my case, I helped him turn a big compost pile. Then we had tea. I went home with a wealth of raspberries, tomatoes, beans and zucchini (er, excuse me — they’re courgettes here). It was interesting — I felt shy taking it all, and wished I could have worked more, given more. Whereas if I’d spent two hours worth of money buying those veggies, I’m not sure if I would have felt like I’d gotten a good deal. And back home, the generosity continued, as I felt no hesitations sharing the raspberries with my housemate here.

Jeremy and I had an interesting conversation about invasive species. I’ve always felt like people’s intense hatred of them is a projection of our own guilt, as Western culture is the most invasive presence of all. Of course, it’s not quite the same in England, where there are thousand year old hedges. In the US it’s hard to find a way of living that really feels right — some kind of middle ground between concrete strip malls and primeval forest. It’s so easy for things to feel like a pose or a starry-eyed experiment. Here, though, there’s another story. Take the hedges. A person could trim them with a machine, which makes them so patchy they have to be lined with a wire fence, and trims off the fruiting wood. That’s the modern way. Or a person could let the hedge turn into a row of trees, and then a swath of trees, and then a whole wild woodland. Or there’s that old middle way, hedgelaying, which makes wildlife habitat and farmland, and can also pay a generous young farmer’s bills.