My apologies for not including photos in this essay, but I don’t know who owns photographs of the White House Christmas decorations, and, given the litigation-happy nature of this administration, I’d really prefer not to invite Rudy Giuliani’s wrath (or even his presence).

That’s right, children, gather ‘round, for the annual unveiling of the White House holiday decorations, for First Lady/Krampus Melania Knauss’s last “fucking Christmas*” in the White House!

For the past 400 years (it feels like that, anyway), the First Lady of the United States (and possibly undercover Krampus) Melania Trump has insisted on decorating the White House. And, like her, the results have been austere, stark, off-putting, and a little horrifying. One recalls the Tolkien line, “great and terrible to behold.”

There was a forest of blood trees. The creepiest wreath of all time. The horrifically, starkly white and alien-looking recreation of US landmarks. The underlying theme, one must assume, of all previous Christmas decorating-attempts at the White House was, “Christmas in the Uncanny Valley.” Which is a really weird phenomenon, in retrospect; as an alleged New York model would, presumably, have the phone number of someone who could discretely come down and literally spruce the place up tastefully for Christmas. Instead, we’ve gotten visual reminders of who we sort-of voted for in 2016 (in light of America’s political about-face, I’ve been asking my British friends if they can’t just nationally demand another vote on Brexit, now that they’ve sobered up and seen BoJo in the light of day). Again, I have to wonder if Donald’s reelection chances would have improved if he could have gone a week or two without reminding everyone that he was in charge, HIM! Donald J. Trump! Father of Beavis, Butt-head, Javanka, Barron, and Tiffany! Bitter ex-husband of Ivana and Marla! But I digress. …


Occasionally, on life’s journey, one encounters these freaks that simply can not bear the thought of being out of the spotlight (to paraphrase Wodehouse). We’ve all encountered them, usually at the larval stage of development — the tattle-tale, the show-off, the braggart, the bully — there’s always someone out there who demands your constant, full attention at all times. Then, most of us go on to higher education or start careers, and learn that when grown-ups pay close attention to you, it’s not a good thing; it usually comes with lectures, demotions, and penalties. Quick show of hands, who reading this piece has ever seen a squad car behind them and felt, “Oh, good?” Not very many, I’d imagine. The inevitable signifier of maturity and a mental transition to adulthood is that most of us start putting qualifiers and conditions on the sort of attention we like. We all want our lovers to gaze at us as we enter the room. …


Folks, I’d like to take you back to 1995 (yes, I’m old, leave me alone)(and get off my lawn). It was a notable year as the time we all realized we could have a sexual predator in office, and, more notably, two greats in the world of newspaper comics retired. I’ll spare everyone the condescending discussion of pre-Internet media and go right to the important part: Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, and Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, stepped down. They both felt (and I might be misremembering or paraphrasing, forgive me) that they’d both said as much as they could, and they wanted to move on while they were still beloved figures and collecting royalties on their IP. JK Rowling might do well to listen. …


I woke up this morning and dashed to my phone to check on the news. This isn’t necessarily a new development, but, for a change, I was kind of excited and a little happy with the task. It wasn’t some grim chore required to figure out if I need newer, safer filters in the biohazard bunker or check on whether the ACA is about to be totally scrapped; it was genuine, enthusiastic curiosity to see what was happening. And, blessing upon blessing, there wasn’t any real news. Oh, there’s still plenty of chatter and analysis about the election, Biden’s acceptance speech yesterday, and the vague schadenfreude at seeing a family of bullies start to cannibalize themselves over who gets the thankless task of pointing out to Donald that he has 70 days to clear his desk and leave, before security escorts him from the premises. But, apart from the news of the last week, for the first time in four-odd years, there wasn’t anything terribly new. No new random firings in the White House; no Congressional Purges, no dramatic bureaucratic reshuffles, no weird attempts to swindle China or anger Iran, there was no real news at all. On a Sunday morning. …


The last week has been a gut-wrenching process for every single person with significant stakes in the political machinery of this country, from black women (who can now become Vice President) to people in the hospital waiting for a friend or relative to recover from COVID to Hispanic folks in border cities who lived in fear that ICE/Gestapo agents would ship their children off to concentration camps. And now, we can all breathe a little easier. And, if you voted for Donald, here’s the good news, you can breathe a little easier, too. Here’s the thing about increasing justice, fairness, and opportunity; you can not do it for a select few, it’s very much an all-or-nothing deal. I can’t demand universal healthcare access and affordable housing, and then turn around say, “but only for me and my friends.” …


This is a critical concept to keep in mind when discussing the 2020 election. Although I can’t say with absolute certainty that Biden and Harris will win this election, it’s looking like a better bet with each passing hour. And, in a bizarre flip, Georgia is now a battleground state. …


The Roman poet, Ovid, was banished to the outskirts of Thrace (now Romania, around the edge of the Black Sea); at the edge of the known world. Surrounded by hostile tribesmen in the middle of Terra Incognita (or the Latin version of that idiom); Ovid did what any decent writer would do: he wrote about his circumstances. The cool part is that we still know about the man and the works he wrote in (and about) his exile; Ibis, Tristae, George, and Ringo.

Even though I’m not in Ovid’s weight class, at the time and place of writing (late October 2020, in Yosemite National Park); I feel like I’m also at the edge of the known world. The Yosemite of today bears very little resemblance to the one of my youth, and that’s generally for the better — the forest is better managed so that the park isn’t a massive tinderbox that periodically explodes, and there are far fewer people than usual. The latter is obviously due to a new plague destroying society — and, before accusations of recklessness come in; I should point out that this is a family trip, and interpersonal maneuvering in my gene pool makes the tales of Brutus, Nero, and Caesar look like schoolboy pranks. …


I recently asked a friend whether she prefers horses or dogs (I’d imagine there equestrian feline enthusiasts, but the closest I’ve personally seen is begrudgingly keeping a few barn cats on the premises as mousers). She pointed out that her own dog is 50-odd kilograms, and having mobility issues, so, on a pure efficiency basis, it was easier to help dogs with old age.

She doesn’t know how right she is. I’ve watched a horse die, once — the first horse I rode regularly. Before any accusations of animal abuse or neglect come in; he colicked (when horse intestines get blocked — it’s a long, complicated veterinary story, but horse innards are actually quite delicate and need far more maintenance than evolutionary biology might lead one to believe). It was a uniquely awful experience to watch an animal that majestic and friendly suffer. Without hope; I might add. Most of the time, a vet can pump a horse full of various laxatives, oils, and eye of newt, and things will end up fine (that was the case of another horse who is still very much alive and well as of writing). …


In 2100, the natural world is suffering terribly. The frontier forests are largely gone — no more Amazon or Congo or New Guinea wildernesses — and with them most of the biodiversity hotspots. Coral reefs, rivers, and other aquatic habitats have deteriorated badly. Gone with these richest of ecosystems are half or more of Earth’s plant and animal species. Only a few fragments of wild habitats persist as relics here and there, guarded by governments and private owners rich and wise enough to have held them fast as the human tidal wave washed over the planet.
Like human genetic diversity, the fragmentary biodiversity that survived to 2100 has also become much more geographically simplified. The cosmopolitan flow of alien organisms has flooded each fauna and flora with immigrants from multiple other faunas and floras. To travel around the world along any chosen latitude is to encounter mostly the same small set of introduced birds, mammals, insects, and microbes. These favored aliens compose the small army of companions that travel best in our globalized commercial transport and thrive in the simplified habitats we have created. An aging and wiser human population undestands very well — too late now — that Earth is a much poorer place than it was back in 2000, and will stay that way forever.
Such is likely to be the world of 2100 — if present trends continue. The most memorable heritage of the 21st century will be the Age of Loneliness that lies before humanity. The testament we will have left in launching it might read as follows:
We bequeath to you the synthetic jungles of Hawaii and a scrubland where once thrived the prodigious Amazon forest, along with some remnants of wild environments here and there we chose not to lay waste. Your challenge is to create new kinds of plants and animals by genetic engineering and somehow fit them together into free-living artificial ecosystems. We understand that this feat may prove impossible. We are certain that for many of you even the thought of doing so will be repugnant. We wish you luck. And if you go ahead and succeed in the attempt, we regret that what you manufacture can never be as satisfying as the original creation. Accept our apologies and this audiovisual library that illustrates the wondrous world that used to be. — Edward O. …


I wish I could say this was the result of Wodehouse-ian binge, or some really cool, rare books, or some wacky, overpriced E. Musk gadget that nakedly appeals to conspicuous consumption. But it wasn’t. It was just gym equipment. And none of it was even that interesting — a mid-range, adjustable bench press/barbell rack; a really high-end barbell (I mean, sure, I could get the 10 kilo cheapies made of zinc, but I could also floss with used Kleenex)(pro-tip; apparently mid-range barbells aren’t a thing, which shocked my mid-range-priced outdoor enthusiast sensibilities); and some very high-end resistance bands. I did this for the same reason I got a weight vest in February, bought overpriced dumbbell weights in June (that really set me back, trust me), and am currently looking into affordable stationary bikes; because gyms have gone the way of the Eisenhower conservative. …

About

Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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