Category Archives: Books

Bird Flew

Stages of grief. There are the ones famously described by Elisabeth Kubler Ross. But there are other, lesser known types as well. Those, for example, experienced by a four-year-old girl who has to return a favorite bird book to the library. A book she has had out for two-and-a-half months. A book that can no longer be renewed and is many days overdue.

These stages look something like this:

Denial.

Realization.

Meltdown.

Strong-arming parent into buying book on Amazon.

Whereas Kubler Ross’s stages can take months, we went through all of ours in a couple of hours.

First, MJ lost it with the babysitter. I wasn’t there for that part. But I heard about it.

“MJ was a little tender tonight,” the sitter told me when I got home from work. “She realized her bird books had gone back to the library,” here she gave me a meaningful look.

I winced. “Oh, right.”

“So she had nothing to read at dinner…”

“But we have other books.”

She nodded sadly. “She wanted the library ones.”

I felt myself growing defensive. “I told her. She knew they had to go back.”

“I know. She was just really upset.”

Shit. “Like, freakout level?

She nodded, “Pretty much.”

After she’d left–I paid her extra for her trouble–I went into the bedroom. MJ was putting her stuffed owls to sleep under a cloth napkin. She barely looked up when I came in.

“Hey,” I said gently, putting on my best horse-whisperer-near-skittish-colt voice.

“Hi, Mama.” she still didn’t turn around.

“Hear you had a tough night tonight.”

She looked up at me. Her face was streaked with dried tears, long salt stains on each cheek. “My bird books are gone.”

I knelt beside her. “I know. Remember we talked about this? We’d had them out for nine weeks. We had no more renewals.”

The tears immediately recommenced, tracing new paths over their predecessors. “I want ‘Look Up.’ I miss it. And the other one. ‘Birds!'”

“Which ‘Birds?” We had two–”

“The one with Blood Lust!” she sobbed. “I want my Blood Lust book!”

The situation devolved from there. She wanted the books back. NOW. Nothing could console her. I tried telling her calmly that it couldn’t happen at night–the library was closed. Big mistake. Reality was not of interest to her. We were at an emotional Defcon five. I could almost hear the sirens.

Opting for a different tack, I told her we could go tomorrow and try to take them out again. This worked for a second. But then I saw her face change.

“W-what if they’re gone?” she sobbed, voice quavering wildly.

“Well, they…might be. But–”

“They’re going to be gone!” she wailed. “My books! Another kid will get them!”

“Oh, honey,” I crooned. “I know. This is hard.”

Aimless sympathy was not what she was looking for. “I need to own them,” she screamed. “I want them always here!”

Ah. So this is was her endgame. Possession. I got it, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. After all, I couldn’t go buying her every library book she got attached to. We’d end up looking like Strand Bookstore. And being just as broke.

I told her as much.

“Then I’ll buy them!” she cried.

Really. I decided to call her bluff. “Well, you have loads of money in your piggy bank. Do you want to use some of it for this?

An upturned wet face, desperate with hope: “Yes!”

“It may not be cheap…”

“I don’t care. I have, like, ten hundreds of money.”

So, for the next half an hour, MJ and I traipsed around the house gathering cash from her various stashes. Most of it was coins, but she had some dollars, too. Adding it up as we went, we piled it all into a paper bag she occasionally uses as a purse. Once we’d gotten to $14–an amount I thought fair for two kid’s hardcover books–we went to my laptop and ordered.

“Fortunately for you,” I said, as I clicked the final button, “we have Amazon Prime.”

“What’s that?” asked Myra-Jean.

“Today’s Friday. You’ll have your first book on Sunday.”

She smiled beatifically and cuddled into my chest. “I’m ready for bed now.”

As promised,”Look Up!” came today. Myra-Jean was predictably thrilled. We read it this afternoon, at dinner, in the bathroom, and before bed. Tomorrow, God willing, we’ll receive “Blood Lust.” It’s coming from a third-party seller because–big surprise!–it’s out of print. Probably banned in some states. Used as kindling. Sold for mulch.

As for the money? It’s the first MJ has ever paid for anything. She had a hard time parting with it, in the end. But I think it’s important for her to understand that sometimes you have to buy the things you want. Not every day is Christmas. So I’m not giving it back.

I can’t, however, bring myself to put it in my wallet, either. I don’t want it. It’s her precious loot, after all. Meaning far more to her than it ever could to me.

So there the bag sits on our kitchen counter. A reminder of a sad night, a cycle of grief, a problem solved. Some good memories, some bad…

And some just out of print.

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Let Me Eat Crow

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.

Grim Cheepers

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.”

“Really.”

“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.

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Double Birdie

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.

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Bird (on the) Brain

First the Big Bang. Now tiny tweets.

As they are wont to do, Myra-Jean’s obsessions have shifted again. Leaving behind the interstellar plane, they’ve flitted back to earth and landed nimbly in the world of ornithology. Good-bye, Jupiter! We are all about Juncos now.

It began with a book our next-door neighbor gave us some time back. It’s a quirky, prettily drawn tome called, simply, “Birds.” It sat unread for awhile, but gradually MJ took to it, eventually memorizing it nearly completely. This happened between literary flights to outer space, of course. “Birds” was a side interest, you could say. A flight of fancy. Had a bit too much Kuiper Belt? Let’s take a palate-cleanser with a belted Kingfisher!

Then my mom got her a bird bingo set for Christmas. A simple but pleasant game, with gorgeous drawings of exotic breeds, it became a daily activity. MJ–a typical, classification-loving four-year-old–learned quickly how to spot Spotted Kiwis, Arctic terns, and Magnificent Frigatebirds. It’s weird to hear your kid pull a card out of a bag and cry, in a competitive fervor, “Come on, Andean cock-of-the-rock!” But, with kids this age, you get used to anything.

The bird bingo craze abated. But, for MJ, interest in her feathered earth-mates did not. A couple of weeks ago, at the library, she found a just-published book called “Look Up!” Everything you ever wanted to know about birdwatching, it’s for kids a bit older than my daughter. But that didn’t stop her. We read it. And read it. And reeeeeeead it. Soon she (and we) knew more about ornithology than any person without binoculars decently should. I was more than a bit embarrassed when, at the zoo, MJ pointed at a cage and yelled “Look! A Eurasian blackbird! I think he’s a juvenile!”

“Ok, kid,” I muttered. “Simmer down. Let’s keep the Linnaean classifications to a dull roar.”

One day not long after that we took a trip to the beach. Many of MJ’s classmates were there. “Why don’t you go play with them?” I asked.

“No way. I want to go sketch those brown pelicans.”

“Um–”

“And Mom! I think that’s an albatross!”

Little Miss Audubon drew for hours. I went to sit with the adults.

The obsession, at this point, is at what I’ve come to call its “boiling point.” We’re as far in as we can be. I half expect to go into her bedroom in the morning and find my daughter incubating eggs. All day today she insisted on being called “Saurus Crane.” She routinely squawks. She says she dreams of penguins.

And we’ve hit the library again. In fact we’ve pretty much cleaned it out. The whole avian oeuvre is here, with us. We have books about penguins, birds of prey, crows, owls, and sparrows. We have generalized bird books. We have “Birds of Los Angeles County” and “the Audubon Guide for Young Birders.” We are steeped in ornithological facts. It’s even infecting me. I am looking at our local ravens with new eyes, staring obsessively at mourning doves, and considering killing the neighbor’s cat on behalf of the local hummingbird population.

OK, not really. Although I have taken to calling him Hitler.

Anyway. It’s super weird. But also wonderful. I wish I’d noticed the natural world when I was younger. Perhaps, growing up in Brooklyn, it was an impossibility. Certainly growing up in my brain it was. Either way, I’m thrilled to have a kid who makes me pay attention now. Oh, there’s a down side. The more you learn, the more there is to get depressed about–half of the damn bird species are struggling to survive, and the neighbor’s cat will continue to do his fucked up, feline part. But there’s beauty in the minutiae of this world; I’ve found that learning about it makes the somewhat rampant ugliness a touch more bearable.

So here’s to the robins! Hail to the mockingbirds! Kudos, California condor!

Now how can I get a bell on that asshole tabby…?

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Rained In

In Los Angeles, rain. Finally. It’s a miracle.

The certainty of impending precipitation has made the last few days feel holiday-special. Grown adults have seemed giddy with excitement. When will it come? When will it be here? Rushing to our windows to check for its arrival, we’ve acted like children on Christmas eve. Amazing to think that we ever took it for granted. We recieve it now with a gratitude bordering on frenzy. Because, believe it or not–and hate me if you must, all you east coasters–sunny, dry, unrelentingly perfect weather can be not only tiresome, but downright toxic after a long enough stretch. We’re so dry here we’re crumbling. Dust has accrued in epidemic amounts. Skin is nail-file rough. Shocks  from the slide at the playground have grown, well, shockingly strong. To say nothing of the larger, drought-related misery.

But no more! Finally, I hear it falling! Weather has come!

And with it, a cold for Myra-Jean. Not as an effect, of course. Their coinciding arrivals are simply bad timing. If it is, indeed, bad. Just as well such an affliction happen now, when she will be forced indoors anyway. Still, it’s never fun. She’s a wreck–angry, red circles under her watery eyes, deep, wrenching cough, violent sneezes. She looks like the guy from the Robitussin commercial, but in astronaut pajamas. And female. And four. And–OK. She doesn’t look like him at all. But her cold sure does.

Anyway. Due to MJ’s ill health we spent the entire afternoon reading. First it was multiple repetitions of Ranger Rick Jr.–I know more about vertebrates now than anyone on my block–then on to one of her favorite books. And mine. We usually read “Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space” in short sections. Tonight, though, it was nearly cover to cover–something that took over an hour. I couldn’t have minded less. “Astro Cat” contains much of the same information as “The Big Bang,” so it felt like visiting an old friend. A clever, smartly-drawn, feline friend in an orange space suit, that is. It’s an effective conceit. Imagine if all tough lessons were delivered by such a spokesperson. “On Particle Physics, by Professor Astro Cat.” “Your 2014 Tax Return,” by same. He could hold forth on nearly any subject and I’d be rapt. I think they should start a series.

All kidding aside, it’s a wonderful book. Did you know there’s a diamond-filled ocean on Uranus? That black holes cause something called “Spaghettification?” That the quicker a spaceship travels through space the slower it will travel through time?

Here on earth we have rain. Far better understood, but, today, at least, just as magical.

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Making Space

Learning about space delights me, but book clubs cannot be ignored. Completing “the Big Bang” with some wistfulness, I continued on to a pulpy thriller called “What the Dead Know.” Not a lot, it turns out. Certainly not about writing.

Fortunately, MJ has no such literary distractions. She’s been able to stay true to her obsessions–space, mostly, with a minor sprinkling of natural sciences. Her studiousness has, at least to a mother’s eye, borne some fruit. Her drawings of flowers have progressed nicely, and her latest depiction of the solar system is, if not totally accurate, at least a decent approximation. Look closely (and with a little imagination) and you will see Saturn’s rings, Neptune’s blue hue, even the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.

This matters to me. My child is learning to look outward. She is blessed with curiosity. She does not find the vastness of our universe terrifying.

Not yet.

As for me, I’m waiting for the library to get my next book club selection in. It’s “Lean In.”

Talk about terrifying.

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