Category Archives: Outings

All the Bird’s a Stage

Another day, another zoo trip.

But today’s outing was more delightful than normal. The crystalline weather with its slightly cool breeze helped, as did the paucity of crowds. The animals were compelling–they can’t help themselves. But best of all? The World of Birds show was finally open for business!

Back in MJ’s more tender years–as in, when she was one or two–this fantastic “live bird” extravaganza was the high point of our zoo trips. Then suddenly, about year and a half ago, it shut down for “restoration” and never re-opened. Over time, MJ forgot about it entirely. Cut to the present; she is obsessed with birds. We hear the show is back up and running. But then there are further delays. Wait–there’s going to be an opening day. It gets pushed back. We are dying. The anticipation is killing us.

Then today we learn it is really, truly, open at last. Finally! Having the morning free, we race to see it.

And it’s fantastic. Not in the way you might think–it is far from the well-honed performance it used to be. In the previous incarnation of “World of Birds,” every winged cast member knew its cue, had its “lines” down, and performed its part flawlessly. Ravens sorted trash with adeptness, peregrin falcons dove fiercely for prey, and giant eagles darted gracefully from point A to point B, wowed their spectators, then disappeared into the wings. (Not their own, of course.)

Today’s “World of Birds” is more like community theater. With child actors. During try-outs. It’s a fantastic melodrama of chaos, missed cues, unplanned entrances, and unexplained pauses. I loved it. MJ loved it. Talk about being behind the scenes. There are no scenes. It’s as if Bertolt Brecht got drunk and wrote the script, then crumpled it up and fed it to his parakeet.

My favorite moment? One of the two emcees waits for a small Hawaiian owl to land on her head. The gimmick is that she will not hear it coming–an owl’s flight is soundless. She sits patiently on a rock, wearing a hat, acting unexpectant. Except that the owl doesn’t come. Oh, it comes on stage, alright, but refuses to go anywhere near her. It flits from one perch to another, from roof to parapet of the Kafka-esque set, but to her head it refuses to fly. Finally the hostess grows curious. She turns and cranes her neck to see it. The owl ignores her. He eats a treat thrown his way, then flies into a nearby tree.

“You know what they say,” jokes the other host gamely. “Never work with children or animals.”

Suddenly, from a window high up in the set, a giant bird hurls in. It is an owl. An enormous, beefy, fierce-looking owl. The Schwarzenegger of owls.  Dark grey, it swoops towards the seated hostess on silent wings. But she is still looking that way. She sees him coming. Her eyes grow wide. Into her little mouth mic she yells “NOOOO!”

Then she clutches at her hat and dashes behind a rock.

Schwarzenegger flaps lazily from one end of the stage to the other, clearly bemused by the sudden disappearance of his prey.

The other host speaks with false cheer into her microphone, which is suddenly on the blitz: “Well, you guys, that—static static–to happen. That’s Harvey, our–static–owl, and if he lands on–static static–it’ll–static static static–pretty painful.”

Eventually, with the help of a shuffling trainer from backstage, they manage to get Harvey off stage. But from that point forward nothing else goes right. The remaining birds take turns stymying their trainers in every way they can. It is awkward, confusing, delightful, and hilarious, and I can only say I wish the World of Birds would remain exactly as it is now. Talk about great theater.

“Be sure to come back again soon,” our resolute hostess said at the conclusion of the show. “We’re still teaching the birds how to do this thing, and we’re breaking new ones in literally every week.”

Oh, I’ll be back, alright. I’ll be back.

I’m hoping Schwarzenegger will be too.

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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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Dish Network

It’s not only toddlers who need a security blanket sometimes.

I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party last weekend, and found myself feeling a bit socially awkward. Looking for something to do, I spotted a cabinet filled with retro games; I decided to play one with MJ until my shyness abated. This is the kind of thing we non-drinkers have to resort to. I know, it’s very unwieldy. But cheaper than a fifth of scotch.

Anyway. The game we played was pick up sticks–something I haven’t done, probably, since I was five. I eventually relaxed and went on to mingle with kids my own age. But I’d had so much fun playing that I decided to re-create the experience at home. For Mike. Using silverware and dishes.

I think I succeeded beautifully.

He is such a sore loser.

Cheese grater, anyone?

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(L.A.) River Bed

“Mama?”

“Yes, sweetheart.”

“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.

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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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Two in the Bush

Feast or famine. Either way, a bellyache.

Mike has gone from being terrifyingly unemployed to working so much that, well, it’s terrifying. I’m not sure humans are designed to pull off eighty-hour weeks. Certainly not when they’re over forty. Don’t get me wrong, the money is great. But we miss him. And his haggard face, when we do get a glimpse of it, makes me wish there was a bit more balance in his employment life. Like if he had a “regular” office job, maybe. You know, a nine to five. Word on the street is those are easy. But he doesn’t. And he won’t. And that’s probably, for him, at least, a good thing.

For us? Well, life must go on, and four-year-olds–too young to understand such subtleties–must be bodily entertained. Even on Sundays.

Since MJ’s so immersed in the bird thing right now, I decided to bring her back to the Arboretum. It’s been over a year since we went there; I knew she’d remember nothing. And I was right. Even when I tried to prompt her memory, she knew zilch.

“There are peacocks?” I reminded her. “We got attacked by a goose?”

A stare as blank as the great outdoors. This was fantastic. It would be like a whole new experience for her. The beauty of a pre-schooler’s mind: It’s re-writable, like a floppy disk.

Speaking of distant memories.

Anyway. Back we went. And it was, indeed, like a brand new outing. We may as well have been arriving on Pluto. With plumed denizens. And an atmosphere, of course.

Greeted, as always, by a flock of raucous and gorgeous peacocks, my daughter looked mind-blown.

“Mama look!” she shrieked. “Do you see them?”

“Wow, Yes!” I cried. (Silently adding: “My little sieve.”)

“And look, ducks!”

“I don’t believe it!”

“And turtles!”

“You must be kidding!”

Seriously, her delight was totally infectious. Who cares that I’d seen–and seen, and seen!–all of this previously. The day was bright and temperate, the crowds thin, and the place absolutely bursting with wildlife. The pond especially was a veritable cornucopia of fauna. In addition to the mallards (“Whoa! Iridescence!”) we saw coots, hawks, scrub jays, turtles in scads, Canada geese, a double-crested cormorant, and several lizards. Large fish (trout? Coi? I have no idea. We haven’t hit the piscatory obsession yet) virtually threw themselves at us for pretzel crumbs. Sunlight leaped and glanced prettily off of leaves, water, even my daughter’s plastic sunglasses.

Later, wandering the rose garden, we found a wide stretch of soft grass and lay down. It was a sweet spot–not too sunburny, not too cool. Dizzying peacefulness. “It’s so quiet,” MJ said finally. “All I can hear are birds’ songs.”

We listened. It was true.

“I wish Daddy was here.” Her tone was half mournful, half matter-of-fact.

“Me, too,” I replied.

Another long silence.

“I’m going to tell him I saw eight plus eight plus one peacocks today.”

“You definitely should.”

She rolled over and sat up. A wide smile sprang onto her face. “And that one was a juvenile!”

“Yes, indeed.”

“My favorite kind!”

Mine, too. Mine, too, my fledgling girl.

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Faire Weather Friend

I know. Lame. Three days since the festival, and nothing. It’s not that I’m being a jerk. I’m certainly not trying to keep anyone in suspense. I simply haven’t had a second. I went to work the day after. Worked at MJ’s school the day after that. Working now, in fact. But it’s my lunch break, and I have a few minutes to fill you in. Actually, it won’t take long, because I can sum up the entire outcome in one word:

Miracle.

But we didn’t think so at first. It poured all morning–poured!–in the hours before the Faire started. We had to set up in the rain. We threw up every pop-up tent any of us had, then rented another big one a half an hour before opening, spending extra money we were sure we wouldn’t make back. To say we were hopeless and discouraged is a massive understatement–I spent the whole early morning stomping around in a grouch so profound even the local mice knew  to stay away from me. But we soldiered on. At eleven AM we were ready.

And then, right at “doors open,” a cessation. Of the precipitation, that is. It went away, never to return that day.

In its place? People! Lots of them! Arriving in boots, slickers, and hats, prepared to participate even in a deluge. Which it turns out they didn’t have to. But God love them for being willing.

And suddenly, after days of panicking, cursing, crying, raging, preparing for the worst, knowing we wouldn’t be ready…we were. And it happened. Suddenly there was a band playing, and food being served, and kids crafting, and money–lots of it–being spent.

I won’t go into too much more detail. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, because I spent most of the event at the front table selling tickets and squealing “it’s not a disaster! It’s not a disaster!” to anyone who would listen. I didn’t even take any pictures. (Go to my friend’s blog for some). But I know fun when I see it, and happiness, and relief. And consumerism! And cookie eating! And booze drinking! And I saw all of those things writ large, in adorable pre-schooler scrawl, at our little event.

At the end of the day, as the Faire wrapped up, an explosion of deep golden sun shot through the late-afternoon clouds. Parents, drunk on homemade beer and relief, lounged at tables with legs stretched long. Kids, facepainted and nail-polished, swarmed the small stage, banging the abandoned drum set and yelling into the mics.

And I, surprised, exhausted, stunned, and happy, just laughed. 

Never again do I question that there is a God. Or that he has a twisted sense of humor. Still, I am beyond grateful. All the more so because my father won the iPad raffle. And guess who he gave it to?

Onwards to Christmas, with one more device to smooth the way!

myra jean