Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let there be no mistake...

A long morning spent at the Western Idaho State Fair allowed me to confirm something I have long suspected: Goats are half-martian, half-dog. Pictured here, Idaho Statesman reporter with numerous martian-dogs, Livestock Pavilion, August, 2008. 

(Photo by Kerry Maloney for The Idaho Statesman)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Is that a gun in that monkey's pocket...or is he just happy to see me?

When you go to the zoo, you expect to see monkeys, maybe a brooding vulture. You don't expect to see visitors with handguns. But you would have, had you visited Zoo Boise Saturday morning. 
About ten members of the local chapter of OpenCarry.org, a national group that advocates for citizens' rights to openly carry handguns, met there for a morning out.
After a little confusion at the front gate about whether it's legal to pack unconcealed heat at the zoo — it is, if you're in Idaho — the group, all visibly armed, bought tickets and sauntered in, past the concession stand with the dino fries, and bins of plush toys.   
Naturally, I wanted the members of OpenCarry to be bandoleered like Mexican revolutionaries. I was there to write a newspaper story after all, and I'm always hoping for a detail like that.
Alas, the closest thing I saw to a bandoleer was the black belt, studded with silver hearts, that held the holster of Carol, a friendly open carrier from Nampa. 
(For those of you not from this part of the world, Nampa is a town near Boise known for its sugar beet factory and box store sprawl where you're really likely to hear someone say, "Wow, I remember when that car dealership was a potato field.")  
Bandoleerless, Carol left her sunglasses on the whole time we talked and proclaimed herself a big fan of home schooling, along with the firearms. 
Carol has gone through the steps, the training and the background check, to qualify for a concealed weapons permit. Hiding your weapon, rather than wearing it like jewelry, is the next step up in personal safety. 
Though she now considers her holster as integral a part of her wardrobe as her underwear, she can still imagine an unarmed world.
"In an ideal society, one of peace and people taking control of their own lives, you wouldn't need a gun," she said.
Unfortunately, said fellow OpenCarry.org member Blaine of Eagle (another town near Boise, where the presence of a cupcake store indicates its relative prosperity), the world is a dangerous place of random shootings — even in malls and churches. Going through life unarmed? Folly.
The former military man said he's not a vigilante and has no desire to chase down criminals. 
"When seconds count, police are still minutes away," he said.
Neither Carol nor Blaine has ever had to use their gun in self defense. 
They have been asked to leave private property, though, like restaurants and stores where their guns made people nervous.
Lt. Alan Cavener of the Boise Police Department said that when it comes to carrying guns in public, reason has to play a part.
"We support peoples' constitutional rights, but we also want to ensure public safety. People need to use common sense about where they choose to bring a firearm," Cavener said.
The OpenCarry zoo visitors were trying to make the point that bringing your pistol, along with your middle schooler, to look at the monkeys was common sense. 
"Coming to the zoo was something we could do together, like any family would," said Carol.
The only other reporter who showed up to cover the story, was a handsome, square-jawed tv guy. He was all over one particularly photogenic clan of open carriers. 
The dad wore a Smithsonian t-shirt. The kids, a couple meek-looking, doe-eyed daughters and a boy, were all too young to carry their own handguns. They wore holsters, holding little knives and canisters of pepper spray instead. 
Zoo visitor Laura, from Salem Ore., questioned whether it was really necessary for someone besides a staffer working closely with dangerous animals to carry a gun at the zoo — legality aside. Saturday morning, the most ominous threats appeared to be runaway strollers and kids throwing tantrums. 
"Legal and appropriate are two different things," said another visitor, Alex from Boise.

I wrote my story. It ran in the paper. I am not a fan of guns, or "carrying," open or otherwise. In my personal life I've been vocal about that. In fact, the one time I've been abandoned by a man in a restaurant, was when I told a him I would not live in a house if there were guns inside it, even if said guns belonged to George Washington, or something. He got offended and stormed out. 

OK, so there were other issues in that relationship, but still. 

In the newspaper business, as a reporter, you're honor-bound to write about things fairly, regardless of your personal thoughts. So what I tend to do, because I'm so afraid of looking biased, is that I usually end up sounding sympathetic to the side I'm personally against. Also, I inevitably end up liking most of the people I talk to, or hitting it off in some weird way. Like when Carol told me she got her studded leather belt at Fred Meyer, on sale, looked at me and said, "I know. Cool, right?"  
I always get this Rodney King, "can't we all get along" thing. Not the best for a reporter.

So the fallout from this piece was, I got a few emails from gun enthusiasts who were really appreciative of the article. I think they thought I was on their side. 

The truth is, I will never think that a family that open carries is just like any other family. And this is coming from a true, native daughter of the Wild West. As a kid, I watched Gunsmoke regularly. One of my earliest crushes was on Matt Dillon. Sheriff Matt Dillon.
I got bags of beef jerky in my Christmas stocking every year, was terrorized by uniquely western fears, like, would it hurt if I fell into Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park, or would I be instantly par-boiled and feel nothing?
I did own a weapon.
I remember one Saturday when my dad took me and my brother to the sporting goods store so we could get our own knives. 
I chose a little pearl-handled pocket knife. As I recall, the attraction was the pearl-handle --really pretty -- not the blade. 

(A sign posted near the ranch of coyote-lovers outside Ketchum, Idaho. A second sign on the property reads: "'Happy' is our pet coyote. He warns our dogs when the wolves are near." Only in Idaho — maybe in Montana and Wyoming as well — will you find such a constellation of canines.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The first ones of the season

Finally, after a year of strategic planting of lots of scarlet things, my first up-close encounter with a hummingbird. These creatures are nothing less than magical. I have planted three tall agastaches. "Tutti-frutti" variety in the front yard. I was crouched down by one the other evening, weeding out inadvertent cantaloupes grown from "composted" seeds. I heard and felt that particular flapping buzz that seems to entirely change the air around it, that always means a hummingbird is near. And there he was, satiny green, going blossom to blossom on the agastache right next to me. I don't actually think he knew I was there. So I didn't move anything but my eyeballs, watching him. 
My earlier up-close encounter with a hummingbird was more taxidermic in spirit. Walking along the sidewalk one day a couple summers ago, I looked down and saw a newly-dead hummingbird. I picked him up and carried him home, sandwiched between two geranium leaves. He was that small. 
I inspected him on the kitchen table for a long time. Because how often do you get the opportunity to see a fully intact, stationary hummingbird?
I saw a long, dry, thread-like tongue. Grey-green feathers like epaulettes on his shoulders. I put him in a Ziploc bag and put him in the freezer. When I look at him now, he seems even smaller and his green color is almost gone. 
He shares the freezer with a goldfinch, found lying outside a state office building. Intact also. I suspect a collision with a plate glass window did him in. 

Battered and broken, the Hulk comes home

Broken feet in the air. Face down in a ditch. Green skin pock-marked and scratched. Sure, it looked like the aftermath of a 24-hour bender. But it wasn't the Hulk's fault. Purloined from the sidewalk outside the Outpost 12 comic book store on State Street in Boise Thursday night, the seven-foot papier maché sculpture met an ignominious end in a drainage ditch at the bad end of 36th Street. 
Following what one of the Hulk's owners, Ray Egusquiza, described as a "semi-anonymous" phone call Friday night from someone claiming to work for "the highway department," the shattered super hero cum art project was hauled from the muck. He's currently in seclusion in the Outpost 12 game room. "His arm is sitting on a table all by itself. Yeah, it's kind of depressing," Egusquiza said. 
Egusquiza, who has an art degree and crafted the Hulk, is taking the vandalism hard. He had planned to start a new project, a life-sized Supergirl, intended as the Hulk's companion. But that will have to wait. 
Egusquiza believes the Hulk can be repaired, but estimates the job may require "two or three weeks of dedicated work."
Healing the emotional injuries may take longer. 
"At first I was mad. But at the same time, I thought it was kind of nice that someone thought the Hulk was good enough to steal," Egusquiza said. "But then, finding out they dumped him in a ditch. That was crushing."
The Hulk had only spent about a week and a half on the job before his assault. But in that short time he had begun to develop a following. 
"We had whole families coming in. Kids would pose with the Hulk, parents would take pictures," Egusquiza said. "We took him in and out every day with a handcart," Egusquiza added wistfully. 
Outpost 12 co-owner Jeff Doyle was helping a customer at about 8:30 p.m., Thursday, when he saw two men in a white pickup truck leave the smoke shop nearby. They threw the Hulk into their pickup and sped away. 
Egusquiza believes the Hulk will reassume his post outside the shop after he recovers. "But he'll be secured with a nice, big chain," the artist said. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rat-A-Rama brings ardent rodent lovers to Boise

The sixth annual Rat-A-Rama was an event on a mission: To dispell unflattering myths about the frequently benighted creatures. 
RatsPacNW, a rat fanciers club with around 300 members across the Pacific Northwest and Canada, hosted the "fancy rat show and educational fair" at the Idaho Humane Society on Saturday. 
According to rat lovers like Lynn Rosscamp, a certified show rat judge who came all the way from Seattle for Rat-A-Rama, rats have personalities that combine the best of cats — independence — with the best of dogs — loyalty and a pack mentality. She fell in love with rats years ago, after her boyfriend adopted a retired rat from a science lab. She found him "charming," which went for the boyfriend, too. She married him, and got more rats. 
"Once you go rat, you'll never go back," Rosscamp said. 
She had a good day Saturday. Mitsu, her newly-adopted "Russian Blue Wheaton Burmese," a rat undeniably pretty as rats go, with a soft grey coat that looked like a sweater you would definitely want to wear, took the Best of Show prize in the "solid color kitten" category. Yes, rats younger than 14 weeks are known as kittens. 
The ideal time to show a rat is when it's between four and nine months old. That's a rat's "prime beauty time," Rosscamp explained. "After a year, you get that middle-aged spread." 
Michelle Carroll, a Rat-A-Rama organizer, raises rats in Boise and cares for abandoned pet rats or "rat rescues." Her favorite rat variety is the "hairless" — which looks a little like Yoda from "Star Wars" wearing a loose, pink suit. The sight of these animals, flopped in one of the rat hammocks Carroll designs and sells, could likely melt the stoniest heart of a rat-hater. The movie, "Ratatouille," featuring animated chef rats, helped the image of rats, too, Carroll said. But it also had an effect similar to the release of "101 Dalmatians" when people adopted puppies too hastily without considering the work that goes into owning a pet who is not animated. 
"We had a lot more rat rescues after that movie," Carroll said. 
For Robbi Schaecher of Tacoma, rescue worked in the other direction. 
Caring for her pet rats helped her recover from an eating disorder, she said. Being around them calmed her, and she liked coming home to find them waiting for her in their cage. In addition to Aaron, a squishy, handbag-sized rat who perched on her shoulder, and Joanna, a sleek rat who won a satin ribbon in the "marked kitten" category, Schaecher has made a lot of human friends through her interest. 
She drove  to Boise with fellow rat enthusiasts, a score of competition rats and several rescued rats available for adoption. 
The night before the big show, she and the others formed an assembly line at Michelle Carroll's house. One person washed the rats in the sink with baby shampoo, another person dried them, and someone else clipped their toenails. 
From the looks of the scratches on her neck and shoulders, Schaecher appeared to have gotten toenail duty quite a few times. 
"They're my battle scars," she said. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One dam, one day

The Swan Falls Dam complex sits at the bottom of a rocky basalt canyon that zig-zags through the desert south of Kuna.
Oh, and Kuna, for those of you who do not know Idaho, sits in the desert south of Boise.
This should tell you a lot about the geography in our part of the world.
After the attacks on 9-11, federal officials decided Swan Falls Dam — the first hydroelectric dam on the Snake River, built at the turn of the last century — was vulnerable as a terrorism target. So, while the modern part of the complex is still churning out power, officials closed the dam's hundred-year-old powerhouse and, most unfortunately, the small hydroelectric museum inside.
At least they open the museum one day a year and let the public in. Saturday is that day. I wrote a story for The Statesman about it, and spent the morning touring the site with the Idaho Power spokesman.

Here are some reasons why I think it's worthwhile to go to Swan Falls:

1. The approach to the edge of the canyon, and the first look down at the dam straddling the brown river below is worth the drive all by itself. The Idaho Power guy told me a man tried to commit suicide by driving over the edge. He didn't know a ledge below would stop his fall, and strand him. Dam workers heard the guy howling to be rescued. 
2. The Trade Dollar Mining and Milling Company built the dam in 1901 to supply power for the mines the company built in nearby Silver City. Horses and oxen hauled all the building material for the dam from the railroad line in Kuna, to the bottom of the canyon. The canyon walls are so steep, this seems impossible, but it actually happened.
3. The landscape of dark basalt cliffs, giant boulders and rocky spires on the far edge of the canyon are remarkable against a daytime sky. This morning the sky was grey-blue. The sun was out with a bit of a warm wind coming up off the water. 

4. The dam and its reservoir lie within the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. You might see falcons, hawks, owls. You will definitely see swallows. These are among my favorite birds. They’re small. They dart. Their body is a sleek, shiny indigo with a rust-colored belly. I can't see them without thinking of Persian carpets.  

5. Inside the powerhouse, a bright, quiet, industrial space, you can look out casement windows and see up-river and down-river at the same time.  

6. The powerhouse is made of molded concrete, like parts of the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. In both places, you can still see the marks of the wood plank molds.

7. You will never again see so many amusing vintage ads for electric power in one place. An especially notable ad pictures a farmer and a farmwife, “Handy Andy” and “Handy Annie.” Each is drawn having more arms than Shiva. The arms represent the ways electricity can help a person by lightening their load — from curling hair, to grinding meat, to massaging scalps to cooking waffles and grooming animals.
Another ad urges one to “Be a shadow-chaser” by stocking up on light bulbs.
The most adorable ad may be one featuring the "Electrikats," a family of black cats who wear human clothing and appear to have electrified tails. In the ad, a human couple is struggling to cook food on their wood stove. Mrs. Electrikat, who has used an electric stove instead, is already serving dinner to her waiting, forks in hand, family.
8. The old equipment inside the powerhouse, from the steel cranes and giant hooks overhead that moved heavy equipment around the plant, to the turbine shaft that resembles a giant egg-beater, to the “wicket” gates that controlled the amount of water coming into the turbines, is all 100 years old. But it is so solid and so obviously well made, it looks like you could switch it all back on right this minute and power a city. And then, for fun, bring a Frankenstein monster to life.

9. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let me inside the powerhouse’s control room, or "nerve center," as I like to say. But imagine this. The control panel inside is made of solid granite. The end result may be elegance. But the reason was safety. Granite wouldn’t conduct an electric charge that might have shocked the controller.

10. The modern part of the dam, which actually won't be open for touring, is the manliest place I've been for a long time, maybe ever. Hard hats and blue denim work coveralls hang on hooks on the wall. The sole bathroom has a urinal and a big pile of magazines. They aren't girlie magazines like I was expecting, but Mopar, Muscle Car, magazines instead. A couple bars of Lava Soap rested on the counter. 
The place broke with manliness in one way. The dam gets turbines from Austria. The Austrians like to name the turbines after sexy women from a certain pin-up calendar. The Swan Falls men put the kibosh on Ursula and Liesel and renamed the turbines after little girls who have gone missing from small Idaho towns and met a bad end. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Trees, suffering and enemies

I used to believe that the world was a balanced and just place. That if I were pained about something, but did my time and paid the pain tab, then something good would happen to me in the same measure to balance out the bad thing. I believed I would get a consolation prize that was just as good as whatever I had lost. My belief that the world worked like that probably came from the transformation stories that were everywhere when I was a kid: the awkward girls who turned into heart-throbs; the underdog wearers of ratty gym clothes who became tennis champions.
My personality and body — melancholy optimism edged with Pollyanna in an unusually tall girl — made me vulnerable to these stories and I believed them. Or, I did, until one of my friends, a poet well read in a dangerous way, shared this line with me from Dostoevsky.
"There is only one thing that I dread," the Russian said, "not to be worthy of my sufferings."
Somehow, until that moment, I had managed to ignore the possibility that I could have a dark time and it would never swing over into light, that I could have trouble or disappointment that would never pay off in a tennis trophy or an engagement ring or some equivalent prize.
Having this realization might sound like the normal learning curve one takes into adulthood, had it not happened this year, when I am 43. Maybe I was lucky to be able to suspend the truth about the world's lack of balance for as long as I did, but the landing into reality felt like a hard one when it finally happened.
Fortunately, a piece of literature from a very different time reminded me of another way to look at pain and pain's pay-offs — the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a staple on fifth-grade reading lists everywhere.
I had wanted to re-read this book, because even though a lot of time had passed since I read it when I was a fifth-grader myself, an image from the book had always stayed with me. It was blood, coughed up onto a down pillow by a young man dying of consumption. The family in the story was poor so they didn't throw the bloody pillow in the garbage after the man died. They covered it with new cloth and gave it away as a present. The recipient of the gift never knew about the blood, dried and secret under the soft, white cotton.
I wanted to know if that image were actually as unsettling as I remembered it. Because some images, capable of making you feel as though your gut is tickling up into your lungs the first time you encounter them, have no staying power. I speak, for example, of James Cagney's trussed-up dead body, delivered to his mother's apartment in the 1931 film "The Public Enemy." He tumbles, eyes wide-open, towards the camera and it's horrifying. But the second time you see the movie, dead Jimmy's tumble is a little less shocking. By the third time it's just Hollywood corny.
The consumption pillow, for what it's worth, has staying power. The image is every bit as gruesome as I remembered it.
But what resonated with me as much in my re-read of the book, were passages about Brooklyn kids with head lice.
The children without lice would taunt the children with lice. When the children with lice got kerosened free of the pests, those very children would join the group of lice-free taunters. Their experience, wrote author Betty Smith, humiliating as it was, taught them no empathy.
It's different now, in this relatively easy world that's not so hard-scrabble as turn-of-the-century New York, with all its vermin and coughed-up lung blood, Triangle Shirtwaist fires and airless tenements. "Sufferings" do teach empathy. Maybe Dostoevsky would have considered the acquisition of a sympathetic heart an adequate pay off.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Things that are possible with flowers

The thaw is here and things are growing. On a lark, I wrote up an alphabetical list of all the perennial flowers that will grow happily in Idaho without much care or water. I included as many natives as I could think of and the list is a riot of common and botanical names. Some flowers, like the chocolate flower, officially "berlanderia," straddle the alphabetical B-C border.
The chocolate flower is a genuinely freakish thing. Smallish yellow daisies on kind of grey foliage that you wouldn't think much of. Until you smell them. No kidding, it's like breathing in a cup of cocoa.
Then, of course, the baptista is a straddler too, that could fall under "B" but also under "F" or maybe "I" as false indigo.
I filled in all the letters, except for Q and X.
If desperate I can go with quince for Q. It's a tree, of course. But not a tree without a personal significance for me.
A quince tree grows on the edge of my parents property. It's not a beautiful tree and its fruit, in their pesticide-free yard, is measly and pocked. But the smell of the yellow fruit is sweet and clean, and a smell you might choose, were you called upon, for some reason, to designate a representative smell for the year 1932. (The color for that year, by the way, would be fly-paper yellow).
When my grandmother was alive, she made jelly out of the quinces from this tree. The jelly had a delicate flavor and was clear, pale pink. The tree is not beautiful but its jelly was. And I liked to pop the wax seal out of the top of a new jar and lick the pink off the wax.
It may be impossible to find an X plant and I may have to cheat, resort to finding a flower with an X-shaped center, or something like that.
I've thought that maybe I should plant an alphabetical garden, all labeled and fastidious. The idea came after I spotted a perfect "a" plant -- acanthus.
We have acanthus at the greenhouse where I work on Mondays (the one day a week I am not a newspaper reporter).
Apparently it can grow very big and showy. Acanthus does always look that way on Corinthian columns. But it straddles an alphabetical line, too. Its fancy name, acanthus, gives way to comedy in its common name: bear breeches.
Breeches are pants, right? Bear pants? That's comedy.
Another garden project I would like to do is to collect a list of all the ways one can transform certain blossoms into certain other things.
So far, I know of three:
— snapdragon: well, the blossom does look like a dragon head, and you can pinch it and make the "jaw" move.
— hollyhock (alcea, for science): you can pick a blossom, and turn it over so it's like a little skirt. Then, poke a hole in the top with a nail. Pick a blossom that hasn't bloomed yet and is still a hard, green ball. Leave a little stem to be a neck, and stick it in the skirt. Then it's a hollyhock woman.
— bleeding heart (dicentra, for science): I just learned this one at the greenhouse. Pick one of those little puffy hearts. Pull it apart gently and the pistil (?) looks like a naked lady sitting in a bathtub.
All of this is much better than that old "he loves me, he loves me not," petal plucking business, isn't it?
Besides, you always knows the answer to that question, even before you start to pluck.