THE BIRD IS THE WORD

Just what is it about birds? Is it their natural beauty and grace as they extend their wings to soar and glide against a backdrop of sky? Perhaps it is their measured lovely notes as they usher in dawn and bid adieu to dusk? Or maybe it is the way they, just through the process of sheer observation, bring the looker closer to the mysteries of the natural world? It could be, though, that in addition to all of these obvious attributes, I am, with all the predictable messy angst of humanhood, simply envious of birds. All birds, everywhere. Why? Well, for one thing, birds accept their particular beauty; their species driven proclivities; their daily routines and tasks, as predetermined…and not due to ignorant submission or lack of will or power, but because of an innate instinctual drive, which exists free (lucky birds!) from the morass of a mere human’s existential grapplings. Ever since Robert McCloskey’s Mallard family made their nest in the Boston Public Garden, and ever since Mrs. Mallard demonstrated the ease with which Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack, fell in an obedient line behind her as they waddled their way through the streets of Boston in search of peanuts, literally just days after they had shaken that off-white keratin covering from their moist wings, my fascination (and jealousy) was established. What, I wondered, did they know–what intuitive knowledge of ebb and flow and rhythm and rhyme and reason–had the birds been graciously granted, that evaded us humans?

By way of contrast, let us peek through the raised blinds of an average human family “nest” on a typical Saturday night (disclaimer: the scene described is fiction; any resemblance to the author’s own life–even if you were an actual witness to the events described–is purely coincidental):

Mom (returning to the nest to feed her young, after a restorative day away from said young, so that she could go winter waterfowl birding without someone needing her gosh darn attention each and every gosh darn minute of the gosh darn day):  “Hi…I am home!  Wow, it is really snowing out there.  Birding was great–just great; I can’t wait to show you the pictures I took of the Snow Geese.  Where is everyone?  Hello…is anyone here?”

Gaggle (well, three- of children):  “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom…hi mom…you are back…how was birding?…the dog peed on the carpet…shhhhh, dad is sleeping….I forgot to tell you, I failed my science test, but it was so unfair….mom, mom. mom, mom…why can’t I play Mortal Combat on the X-Box?  Everyone else plays it, and it is fake blood; the blood is fake…I don’t feel well…uh oh, the dog is peeing on the carpet again; get the dog….”

Dad (from the sofa):  “ZZZZZZZ…….zzzzzzz…….ZZZ….zz…..ZZZZZZZZ……”

Mom (putting her bags down and grabbing some white towels and cleaning spray):  “Didn’t anyone remember to walk the dogs?  How long has your father been asleep?  What’s wrong?  You don’t look so well.”

Dad (disoriented, waking on the sofa, and soon disappearing into the bathroom):  “ZZZZZZZ…what, who, what. where…I’m up…I’m up…hey, mom’s home!  How was the bird thing? Kids were great…just great…wait, I need to go to the bathroom.  Did anyone save me a Ho Ho?”

Mom (on hands and knees cleaning up dog pee, before the puddle starts disappearing under the refrigerator):  “What’s a Ho Ho?  Really (to gaggle), you do not look so well…are you ok?”

Gaggle (cacophony of voices, all speaking at once):  “I think I am going to be sick…me too…the Ho Ho eating contest may not have been a great idea…cupcakes, with cream inside…dad bought us Ho Hos, because we had never had them…I didn’t eat them; too many artificial ingredients…yes you did…just one, because I wanted to remind myself how much I hate artificial ingredients…and he said if we let him nap, we could have a Ho Ho eating contest…which may not have been a great idea…”

Mom (finished cleaning up pee and standing up to efficiently take care of and organize gaggle):  “How many of these Ho Hos did you eat?”

Gaggle:  “Two boxes…I am going to be sick…like now…like right now…I need to get to the bathroom…right now…”

Mom (incredulous):  “Two boxes????  Of cupcakes….???  Are you kidding…???”

Dad (from behind locked bathroom door):  “We had a great day…a really great day!  Did you notice that it’s snowing outside?  I’ll be right out…did you kids save me a Ho Ho?  Tell mom about the Ho Hos….”

Gaggle (opening mouth to answer question put forth by incredulous mom, but, instead, well….):   “sorry…the bathroom door was locked…I couldn’t hold it in….ewwwww….I am so glad I don’t eat artificial ingredients…..I feel so much better now….me too…mom, let me help you clean it up….that’s disgusting….mom, mom, are you ok?”

Dad (finally emerging from the bathroom):  “Did you see the bird?…what a great day, really…what’s that smell…WTF did I just step in….?????”

And so, as I again ponder the enviable ordered existence of birds, recalling–for example–how a colony of western Acorn Woodpeckers works as a single industrious unit to store thousands of acorns in carefully drilled oak tree holes, and how both males and females join together to seamlessly raise several young in a single communal nest, I am again  in awe of the innate understanding of complex social structures these birds demonstrate.  It is most certain that the Acorn Woodpeckers’ instinctual communal living model is free from that dreaded mandate of group habitation, the House Meeting, that I was forced to endure during my tenure as a commune-style living participant in my carefree Berkeley, California college days. The endless, and generally unsatisfying clash of agendas realized as the various house members tried to figure out whose turn it was to wash the dishes; whose job it was that week to empty the garbage bins;  who had allowed the Deadheads to set up camp in our living room, so they could drop–over consecutive days–the last 30 tabs of their acid before heading back East; and who, selfishly and without thought to the feelings and needs of the rest of the house members, replaced the communal pan of premium hash brownies with regular old Duncan Hines.  How trivial these concerns seem (other than the hash brownie conundrum) when juxtaposed with the larger goal of species survival, that is paramount to our avian friends.

Finally, speaking of survival, I would like to extend a world of thanks to the gods for my own personal stash of Goose Island, with which I (pretty much) nightly use to soften the hard edges of my own family nest:

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And thank you to the glorious birds everywhere, flying somewhere, so that we as terrestrial beings may see them….and in our minds follow them….and dream:

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(and, yes, these are my actual photos from my non-fictional waterfowl trip:)

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SCHOOLED!

“We busted out of class had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”

–Bruce Springsteen  No Surrender 

It’s the most wonderful time of year……for mothers (and fathers?) EVERYWHERE!  September is most definitely the most anticipated month (yes, T.S. Elliot, April can still be the cruelest) when we as conscientious, screen averse, organic food obsessed, activity particular, overzealous, helecopteresque, mothers (and fathers?), can send our loud (though articulate), argumentative (though Socratic), messy (though cerebrally preoccupied), opinionated (though individualistic, forward thinking, and original) progeny into the more than capable hands (and, if not, who at this point really cares) of institutionalized education.  I know I personally participated in the mass hysteria induced exhale that took place within moments, nay seconds, of the ubiquitous Facebook picture posting of our youthful ranks–well scrubbed, lightly tanned (though not too tan as a result of an entire summer’s worth of careful sunblock SPF 100+ application; the light tan a result of the fateful day dad was left in charge of UVA and UVB blockage), thoughtfully dressed, dutifully happy, diligently excited–as they headed off to another year of……well, we survived it, didn’t we?

Remember, in the chapter, “More Than Camp,” from Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage, when Lauren admitted that her family’s summer vacation “cost less than the ‘rest cure’ and therapeutic meds (she would) require if she had one more schedule-free kick back day of summer at home” with her three children?  Well, I believe that this is not an uncommon sentiment come August, when the tensions are high and no conflict is too small, no issue too trivial, NOT to incite a sibling rivalry which, at this point in the family’s togetherness, could induce a level of chaos which may potentially and problematically interfere with a parent’s commitment to daytime sobriety.  At the end of the summer, it is as if no amount of conservative Christian value infused Froyo could provide the SWEET glue that families everywhere crave to (F)ully (R)ely (O)n (G)-d.

In addition to providing a much needed reprieve from each other for parents and children alike, the public school system, to its credit, introduces its charges to many of the very ideals that form the philosophical foundation of this great country of ours.  Last school year’s sixth grade graduation ceremony provided a perfect example of how democracy and individualism could be flawlessly woven together to create an inspirational backdrop for the roughly 200 eager young students as they officially transitioned to the seventh grade.  All sub-groups (general education, gifted and talented, arts magnet) of the graduating class were grouped together as one, gracing the stage as they faced, in the semblance of a single democratic unit, this tremendous milestone.  Yet, they were given the opportunity to be seen and appreciated as the individuals they were, had become, throughout their brief seven years of elementary school.  They were called up one by one, as the announcer read each name and provided three accomplishments for which the diploma receiver should surely be proud.  For example, Abigail Bright (from GT 314) was lauded for “being a state chess champion for the third year in a row, playing piano at Carnegie Hall-twice, and competing as part of the winning Odyssey of the Mind team, which had been given the unique opportunity to travel to South America for the final competition,” while Charlie Dundun (from Gen Ed 101) was loudly applauded for “enjoying reduced fat milk with lunch, conquering his fear of the playground slide, and winning his class neat desk competition no less than six times.”

Of course, as the school year wears on, and the former carefree days of summer melt away like Sweet Frog on a child’s tongue, many once ecstatic mothers (and fathers?) worry as they witness, in the words yet again of that oft-quoted great American statesman and philosopher, Bruce Springsteen, “young faces grow sad and old and hearts of fire grow cold.”  So, in closing, it is incumbent upon us, the parents, to stoke the embers of that cooling fire–before the specter of standardized testing wipes away any and all remnants of free thought and creativity from our children’s minds and souls–and help instill for our frustrated, overworked, and sleep-deprived young, an experience of education which provides “a wide open country in (their) eyes/ and romantic dreams in (their) heads,” without, of course, resorting to homeschooling.