Strange signs and portents abound in the land.
In Brooklyn, bees are turning red.
The innocent residents of Boca Raton are living in terror of an attack otter, which climbs out of the water to bite people in their backyards.
And in Washington, the Senate passed a big bipartisan bill.
Is it any wonder that people speak in trembling whispers of the end of days?
Fortunately, things are not quite as apocalyptic as they seem. The bees, according to a column by Susan Dominus, had been hanging around a maraschino cherry factory. A wildlife expert told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that people may have been feeding the otters, which makes them aggressive.
And the bipartisan bill, which would overhaul the nation's food safety system, still has to go back to the House, so there's plenty of time to screw it up.
Congress has been working on this legislation since 2008, when a big food-poisoning epidemic reminded everyone that the Food and Drug Administration is currently working with laws written during the Great Depression. It survived endless delays by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who believes the free market is your last, best defense against E. coli.
But staff members for the leading Democratic and Republican senators on the health committee actually got together and worked things out the way they used to do in olden days.
Not everybody was impressed by the achievement.
"Oh, my gosh! It's so important," said Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I'm glad I rushed back from our break to work on food safety."
Brown felt the Senate should have been focusing on economic issues, particularly his effort to stop the extension of unemployment compensation benefits until the Senate agrees to the Scott Brown Unemployment Compensation Funding Plan.
"Is it because I'm a Republican that we're not going to pass that? Is it because I'm the new guy?" he demanded.
We will now have a moment of silence to contemplate the suffering of Sen. Brown. Who had to come back the week after Thanksgiving in order to vote on a major bipartisan bill aimed at keeping people from being poisoned by contaminated food. And then became a victim of discrimination.
Congress is not exactly in a holiday mood. The Senate Democrats are frustrated because the Republicans won't let them bring up any bills until they vote on extending the Bush tax cuts. On Wednesday night, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York proposed that everybody just compromise and extend the tax cuts for people with an income under a million dollars a year. "Will you accept?" he asked Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "That's a great compromise. Or are you going to say, 'Oh, no. Hold out for the millionaires?'"
Alexander is a particularly affable guy, as he demonstrated the other day when he got up and announced he was going to say "one good thing" about each of the 16 retiring senators.
The whole world waited to see what he was going to do with Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who has reset the bar when it comes to combining craziness and crankiness. Was Alexander going to find some way to make a warmhearted anecdote out of the time Bunning single-handedly held up an important administration confirmation because he was angry at Canada for banning the sale of flavored tobacco?
No, as it turned out, Bunning "has been a persistent leader in fighting for sick nuclear workers who served our country during the '50s and '60s." Who knew? Good work, Sen. Alexander.
But that was a fleeting moment. Alexander quickly dodged Schumer's offer, insisting that the Senate could actually do nothing whatsoever about taxes until it got results from the "great negotiations" that were begun by the White House.
While it was extremely pleasant to hear Alexander finding a way to extol some unlovable outgoing senators, it was very unnerving to hear him sounding so confident about the White House's willingness to negotiate away taxes on the rich.
So the Senate Democrats are frustrated. And the Senate Republicans are unhappy, too, because the Democrats keep saying that the GOP cares more about "a tax cut for millionaires" than the middle class, the unemployed, gay soldiers, immigrant college students or stopping nuclear war. This appears to be true, but that doesn't make it any less irritating to hear.
Maybe things will work out. Maybe the White House will not cave, and the Republicans will not be intransigent, and the Democrats will get their act together and be canny and unified.
Maybe we should not rule out the possibility of zombie otters.
© 2010 New York Times News Service