Sometimes the anxious is the enemy of the nice.
It’s not pithy, but it’s true.
When I wrote the other day that the birds Mike made for me as prototypes for my AE class were “not Pinterest-worthy” I was being unkind. And ungrateful, considering the hours he’d spent making them. Or, OK, minutes. I don’t know–I wasn’t there. I was at book club, discussing a book I hadn’t read.
I guess I’m a bit of a jerk across the board.
Anyway, I have a feeling I’ll be hearing the phrase “not Pinterest-worthy” for the next forty years. And deservedly so. Sorry, Mike. Your birds were definitely Pinterest worthy. And AE-worthy.
Overall, you’re just a super worthy guy.
Today Myra-Jean was a lammergeier.
What the hell is that, you ask? I have no idea. Or hadn’t, until today. Turns out it’s a bird. Otherwise known as a bearded vulture. My daughter’s ornithological knowledge has officially passed from the cute to the bizarre. It’s one thing when your four-year-old pretends to be a sparrow, heron, or even a blue tit. (Although the latter did raise a few eyebrows in the over-ten set.) It’s quite another when she claims to be a bird that no one has ever heard of and that you, her parent, can barely pronounce. Speaking of which, where the hell did she learn to do a french accent? The whole thing is just creepy.
“I eat mostly bones, Mama. I drop them onto rocks to break them open.”
“Then I eat the marrow inside.”
“Can we finish brushing your teeth now, please?”
“You mean my beak?“
Right now she’s super into a book called “Guide to Birds.” It’s excellent–detailed, packed with interesting information, well written. It’s also for older kids, so it’s a wee bit on the graphic side.
“It takes practice to become a proficient killer,” one section, called “Blood Lust,” starts.
“So most birds of prey specialize in a particular strategy. For members of the eagle and hawk family, the principal weapons are the talons, which kill by puncturing the prey’s body and inflicting mortal wounds. In contrast, falcons hold small prey in their talons and use the bill to snap the spine and cripple them.”
“Goodnight Moon” it’s not.
I feel slightly mortified introducing such imagery to her, but MJ seems drawn to it. She asks for the same pages–the bloody ones–over and over again. True, she was initially perturbed by the book’s high body count. But she quickly grew able to compartmentalize. Take secretary birds, for example. These odd creatures, looking like “eagles on stilts,” are the only birds of prey that both stomp their victims to death and swallow them whole. MJ “loves” them. Loves! Most girls her age love cookies. And puppies. And “Frozen.” My kid loves the avian equivalent of the Terminator. Either she’s compartmentalizing or she’s crazy.
Mike says books like “Guide to Birds” are probably as good a way as any to introduce MJ to the vagaries of life. I suppose this is true. God knows it’s easier to talk about birds dying than people. Still, when I’m sitting with her in the rocking chair, cuddled up under a blanket, trying to define the word “impale” without traumatizing her completely, it all feels like a bit of a parenting “don’t.”
On the other hand, if it toughens her up a little bit? Makes her roll with the punches–like scraping her knee, getting her hair combed, or being handed the wrong-colored bowl at breakfast–a tiny bit more easily? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. Better than a claw through the skull, right?
Now there’s some good parenting for you.
Another day, another crafting anxiety spiral.
In an hour I have to go teach Afternoon Enrichment class at MJ’s school. Remember AE? My anxiety attack over the spiders? My misery as I tried to come up with novel ways to make perfume? It rolls around, once a month, as inevitable as the tides. And as relentless. Work got me out of it for a while, but now I’m here again. The theme today? Birds, of course. How could it be anything but? When your child is waking up in the morning and screeching “Don’t call me MJ! I’m a blue tit!” you don’t have a lot of alternatives.
For days I’ve been googling “bird crafts for preschoolers.” There are plenty of ideas, believe me. But none seems quite right. Or easy enough. Or doable in a sixty-minute time period with eight antsy five-year-olds.
I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over it.
So yesterday I did what I always do. I went to Michael’s and wandered the aisles aimlessly, hoping for inspiration. Last night, when Mike came home from work, I told him the outcome.
“I got some styrofoam balls.”
“And some feathers!”
“And, um, some lollipop sticks.”
“And now I’ve got to go to book club! Can you figure something out for me?”
Look–he should be helping out. He’s far more creative than me. Plus, he knows the stress of this gig. He’s had to do the last three. I think it’s the main reason he worked so hard to find another job. That, and his unemployment running out.
I came home from book club to find a variety of foam ball birds on the counter. Pinterest-worthy they may not be, but they’ll have to do. I hope the kids can emulate them. I hope they get us through an hour of crafting time. I hope no one turns on me and screams “This is lame!”
I hope Mike is unemployed again next time AE rolls around.
“Can we play something?”
A long pause. “It’s 6:30 in the morning.”
Impatiently: “I know.”
I have been awake all of fifteen seconds. “What do you want to play?”
“L.A. River, of course.”
I sigh, and pull my robe tighter around me. “I need a cup of tea first.”
This is all the assent she needs. Myra-Jean leaps from her bed and flies into activity. “I’ll get it set up.”
Ever since our trip there last week MJ has wanted nothing more than to play this new game of her own invention. It’s a simple one, really. She spreads a bunch of blankets on her bedroom floor, gets out her bird dolls, drags me (or Mike) down next to her, and spends the next hour squawking. And making us squawk. That’s it. Basically.
Oh, except for the random and assorted objects–a handful of hair clips, a rubber prickly toy, a wooden spoon, a green shopping bag, a plastic vial of bubbles–that have come, inexplicably, to be essential to the game. The ball is hidden and found. The clips go on birds beaks. The rest? I’m not sure. MJ has reasons for each of them. I cannot begin to comprehend them. It matters not at all. I am there merely as an accessory–another player to talk to, a placeholder, an outline to be filled in. I am a tricolored heron, an eared grebe, a pintail. I am a character of MJ’s making; I contribute nothing to the “plot.” True, generally I suggest taking a nap–this is a tactic of mine in every game–but otherwise I have no more agency than the clips, the blankets, or the birds themselves.
Except that this prop requires caffeine. Once I get this I am happy to play. Until breakfast, at least.
One additional plot point I insist upon: the blankets get cleaned up in the end. I don’t want the dog lying on them.The L.A. River may be dirty, but have you seen Mina? We’re talking a major pollutant.
Morning rang with birdsong. OK, from an iPad app, but still. What a way to start the day: sunlight filtered through louvred windows, yogurt and granola in cracked Heath bowls, Western tanagers warbling from our little white tablet. This, believe it or not, was MJs first foray into portable computers. I’ve been trying to keep that horse in the barn. At least until it was old enough to wear a bridle.
“Now I know what an app is,” MJ said dreamily. She scrolled through the “C” section of the bird index. “What’s this one, Mama?”
I leaned over. “Cinnamon Teal. Eat your breakfast.”
“Wow,” she replied, taking a bite absently. “I’m going to play with the ipad all the time now. Can I?”
“Well, you can certainly look at birds.” The living kind, not the Angry ones, I added silently.
It seemed prudent to get her out of the house and put some of her newfound cyber-knowledge to practical use. You know, the virtues of reality, and all of that? Good thing we had a field trip to the Audubon Center planned. Ten minutes later we were whizzing there in the Leaf. Half an hour after that we were on a nature hike with twenty other pre-schoolers. Not a Thoreauian silent ramble by any stretch of the imagination, but still very enjoyable. MJ wore the new binoculars her grandfather had given her.
“I think I see a rufous hummingbird!’ she cried.
Her peers looked impressed. I handed her the water bottle. “Stay hydrated, bird girl.”
The hours passed pleasantly. Soon it was time to go. On our way out we passed through the Center’s tiny gift shop. There MJ spotted a rack of stuffed birds–the kind that make a “genuine” sound when you squeeze them. Fondling a blue one she looked up at me longingly. Every parent knows this look.
“Can we buy it?” she asked.
“‘We?’ Or me?” I asked her, teasing.
“Mom. It’s a great blue heron,” she responded, without cracking a smile.
“We” bought it.
After driving home, preparing new snacks, and re-caffeinating, (me), we grabbed Mike and headed back out. Ever since he finished his insane work week Mike’s been promising MJ a trip to the L.A. River. I’d never been. We’d heard–although it seemed hard to believe–that there were lots of birds there.
Before she got back in the car MJ made sure her new doll “Bluey” and another stuffed bird–a Killdeer–were in her satchel.
“Do you have your binoculars, too?” I asked.
She checked. “Yup.”
And a good thing, too. The river, funky and urban as it is, turns out to be a spectacular place for birders of our ilk. The novice ones, that is. At this time of year, at least, it’s a veritable Boston pops of waterbirds. We saw blue herons, Canada geese, sharp-suited stilts on delicate legs, mallards, tiny coots, a magnificent and professorial-looking egret, cormorants, and several others we were unable to name. By the end of our walk all of us were grinning and punchy. MJ waved her two dolls overhead:
“Did you see them, Bluey? How about you, Killy?”
I’ve been meaning to talk to her about that name.
“Caw–aaw!’ the stuffed birds responded. I don’t think herons or killdeers make such a sound, but neither Mike nor I was in the correcting mood. We’d seldom seen MJ–or her toys–so excited.
Frankly, I was pretty jazzed, too. How insane, how profound, how inspiring, to find this wellspring of life wedged between grim freeways, sprawling power plants, and mean-looking tow-yards. Sure, there were some old plastic bags on branches, and a few teens drinking beer, and I could do with a lot less cement. But the birds were like poetry amidst a bunch of junk mail. They classed the joint up. Spectacularly, in fact.
As for my daughter, she found it pure magic. And that, of course, was magic for us.
It’s six-thirty now; Mike’s in with MJ putting her to bed. They’re reading “A Field Guide to the Los Angeles Region,” as Bluey and Killy watch from the floor. It’s a sweet tableau, and a peaceful one. Soon, MJ will gather up her birds, along with the blanket they’re perched upon. Tumbling backwards and pell mell into bed, she’ll allow herself to be covered, and sung to, and settled. In moments she’ll be sleeping, her soft friends tight in her arms.
And maybe, just maybe, she’ll dream of Happy Birds.