Category Archives: travel

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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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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Car-Oh Mio Ben

Have I mentioned? I’m blotto in love. You can tell my husband; he already knows. The symptoms are classic: I think about my new love all the time. I touch it gently whenever I walk by. I sing songs extolling its virtues. I tell everyone I know about it. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis kind of thing–it does, after all, involve a car. Mine.

My new electric car. I’m in love.

Friends, family, and co-workers have had it up to here. They’ve been listening to me for weeks. I’m like Shakespeare, but without language skills. I wax absolutely un-poetic. I can’t stop going on about it: my good fortune, its good mileage. My fellow salespeople roll their eyes dramatically when they hear me telling yet another customer about my Nissan Leaf.

“It’s all electric!” I gush. “No tailpipe. No gas!”

“None?” my customers ask politely.

“None!” I croon.

“There she goes again,” my co-workers mutter.

I can’t help myself. This is a huge deal for me. I’ve wanted an electric car for, oh, ten years, and this is the first time I’ve been able to afford one. Used to be, in order to buy an EV you had to have the extra $2500 to install a charging station at your house. Now that’s no longer required. My car–my beautiful roadster–charges from a regular extension cord run (OK, rather unglamorously) out of our garage. Plug it in just like it’s a lamp. The next day–presto!–a full charge. Which, admittedly, only gets you 85 miles, but that’s far enough for my needs. And much farther than any lamp I’ve met.

Here’s what I love: the sound it makes (none), the emissions it puts out (repeat the former), the $2500 I’ll be receiving back next month from the state of CA, the little digital song it plays when I turn it on (“ding ding ding ding DONG”), and the heated seats. Which are, of course, an unnecessary drain on the battery, but provide such profound comfort that–hell, if it comes down to it? I’ll walk.

Anyway. It’s just a car. But with news about climate change growing so dire you don’t want to read it after 8PM (for fear of wrecking your night’s sleep) it’s a little bit more than that. It’s a statement. It’s a gesture of hope. It’s a source of encouragement.

And it’s many, many, many trips right past the gas pumps.

Can you hear the angels singing?

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Calendar Fail

“This will change everything,” I thought, as I put the calendars on the register belt.  “We’ll put one up where we see it every day, and I’ll update it regularly. Mike’ll use it, too–he loves organization!–and soon the whole house will be running like a well oiled machine. Not the clunky, repossessed rust-heap we are currently.”

This moment of ecstasy occurred in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. It was August, and my sisters and I were strolling around the sun-daubed streets, marveling at the blueness of the sky and looking for birthday presents for my mom. For fun, we stuck our heads into our favorite dollar store. Canadian discounts! The best! Anyway, it was there that I found, on sale for ninety-nine cents, the aforementioned dry-erase calendars. The month-at-a-glance kind. With magnets, for the fridge! Perfect! We’d been looking for something just like them.

I bought two. “Mike’ll be so excited,” I told my sisters. “He’s all about calendars.”

But when I got back to the states Mike wasn’t so thrilled after all. About the calendars, that is. He was, in fact, totally unresponsive. When I brought them out of the suitcase (“tah-dah!”) he just looked at me bemusedly.

I scrunched my forehead worriedly. “Is it the maple leafs? I know they’re a bit weird. ”

He cocked his head, saying nothing.

“But you’re Canadian! Or your mom is. Isn’t that nice?”

Mike nodded slowly. “It’s very sweet.”

“OK, but otherwise they’re perfect. I mean, you’ve been wanting a calendar we can both write on. And look! They come with their very own dry erase markers!” I held one out. “Isn’t it cute?”

“Yes,” Mike said, with no zeal at all.

“Whatever. It’s going to change our lives. I bought two. One for this month, one for next month.”

Nothing.

“Anyway. I’m excited,” I muttered.

And up on the fridge it went.

Of course it didn’t take me long to see the problem. The boxes were too small. You couldn’t fit more than one or two words in them. That might be fine for a single person with no kids–someone who just needs to write “work,” or “spa,” or “Hawaii.” But for me? For us? It wouldn’t get us through breakfast.

So after the first week I stopped filling it out. Then, when I went back the other day, resolved to make a greater effort–if for no other reason than to prove MIke wrong–the dry erase marker had dried up.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. I could almost hear Mike’s delighted croon: “That’s your deep discount talking!”

I looked for the other marker. You know, the one for the “backup month.” Behind the stove. Unreachable.

So now I can’t write on it even if I wanted to. Oh, I could buy a new marker, but what’s the point? I hate the stupid thing. Canadian maple leafs? What was I thinking?

The next time I buy a wall calendar it’s going to have squares six inches wide. It’ll come with twelve dry erase markers, in different colors for all of the categories of our lives. And nationally speaking it’ll be neutral. Like Switzerland. After all, this is not about declaring fealty to a country. It’s about remembering when book club meets.

In the meantime? This one goes in the trash. Because God knows it’s not recyclable.  Damn those Canadians.

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Dog Gone It

They say you should let sleeping dogs lie. But when it comes to dead ones? I’m afraid the truth will out.

I’ve been avoiding letting MJ skype with my mom and step-father. Their dog Otis died two weeks ago, and I hadn’t found a way to tell her yet.

What’s the connection? It’s simple. Whenever MJ skypes with someone, the first thing she wants is to do is “talk to” their pet. The humans are sort of an afterthought, honestly. It’s the animals she wants to see. A Skype call with my mom and step-father, then, always featured a visit with Otis. Usually passed out on his rug. Still, it was MJ’s favorite part of the call.

But now Otis is gone. MInd you, he lived to a ripe–and then some–old age. By the end he’d grown stiff, deaf, and completely incontinent. Coming with our family to Nova Scotia this summer was his canine swan song–even if he shat in the car the whole way up. His last weeks on earth were happy and sun-soaked, frail and skeletal though he was.

We grownups knew he was at the end. Sometimes, when he was lying in the grass napping, we’d have to shake him lightly to see if he were still alive. It could be quite hard to tell. MJ, who doted upon him, was oblivious. It never occurred to her for a moment that, when she said good bye to him on the morning we flew home, it would be for the last time.

He was put down two days later.

Since then we’ve been agonizing:  to tell her or not? The latter seemed the better choice. With all the changes afoot, it seemed cruel to toss in an additional blow. “We know you’re upset about your mom going back to work, but–remember Otis?”

Finally, though, we broke down. A couple of mornings ago MJ asked, for the third time, to skype with my mom. We’d been putting it off, changing the subject, making excuses, but we knew it couldn’t go on. We lived in the modern world. We couldn’t hide behind a telephone. MJ wanted to see her grandparents. And, even more, their dog. We had to tell her.

Mike and I exchanged meaningful looks. This was going to suck. First of all, it was way too early for such weighty conversations. I’d barely made my first cup of tea. Secondly, Myra-Jean had never known anyone who died before. This was going to hit her hard.

MJ was sitting on the bench next to me. She’d decided to start a puzzle while she waited for the computer to boot up. “So, honey,” I said gently, putting my arm around her, “before we Skype with Nana Bonnie Mike and I need to tell you something.”

Deeply engrossed in her new undertaking, MJ barely looked up. “What?”

Mike, who was standing in the kitchen, took a step closer. In his softest, kindest voice, he said “It’s about Otis.”

“Oh.” She didn’t look up. She was piecing together a picture of a dinosaur. It was standing in flowers and wearing a derby. Hatosaurus.

I nodded at my husband. Let him be the one to break the news.

Mike cleared his throat.”So when animals get very old their bodies slow down.”

“Oh.” Another piece.

“Yeah. And then, well, they get sick, and have problems, and, um, eventually they just, um, pass on.”

I shot him a look. Pass on? She’s going to think it’s a game of hot potato. “He means they die.”

MJ looked up, her face implacable. “Oh.”

I remembered–vaguely–something I’d heard her teacher say. “Die means they stop moving and they never start again.”

“Otis is gone, honey,” Mike added, tenderly. “He won’t be able to Skype with you anymore.”

MJ nodded slowly and looked down at her work. There was only one piece missing. Finding it beneath her leg, she placed it carefully in its spot. We waited, solicitously watching her lowered head. After a moment she looked up.

“Mama?”

“Yes, sweetie?” Here it came. The death question. Oh God. OhGodohGodohGod.

MJ smiled. “I am a puzzle genius.”

There was a beat. “But honey. About Otis. How are you with all of that?”

Myra-Jean shrugged. “I’m great.” Hopping down from the table, she began putting her puzzle away. “Can I please have a glass of milk?”

And that was that.

Mike and I are praying it’s developmental and not sociopathic.

In the meantime? Our little genius wants a cat.

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Heya Culpa

Remind me next time not to fight the ticket.

I sit in traffic court, waiting to be called by the clerk so I can change my plea to “Guilty.” My cop is here–so much for the notion, widely dispelled, that “they never show”–and if I fight him now and lose–which I will, because I did it–I’ll forfeit my right to go to traffic school. So this entire enterprise has been a colossal, Kafkaesque waste of time. After eight hours of sitting in various seedy city courtrooms, staring at blue tiled floors and watching municipal employees chat each other up over styrofoam cups, I am going to have to pay the damn ticket. It’s so annoying. One more futile attempt to beat the system. I’m an ass. An ass with an empty stomach. And an ass nearly four hundred dollars the poorer.

Makes the notion of going back to work seem, if not more palatable, at least more necessary. Which is good, because I start, part-time, tomorrow.

Vacation is officially over. Life is back in session.

As for court? It never stopped.

Beach of Contract

I return to you sheepishly—the world’s worst travel blogger. It’s a designation I’m not proud of. I don’t know what happened—last year I wrote faithfully every day of my trip. This year? I didn’t want to blog about being away. I wanted to be away.

So I was. And then I felt guilty about it. That would be me in a nutshell.

Anyway. To partially assuage my guilt, here’s a whirlwind tour of some of the things I missed describing:

I did not write about my sister’s wedding. Not the 24-hour stomach flu MJ did, in the end, get the day before, nor the lovely, albeit blink-brief ceremony the day of. I didn’t write about the Deet I accidentally sprayed in my eyes at the reception, (or my subsequent eye-rinse with a nearby bottle of Pellegrino). I posted not one picture of my spectacular sister in her vintage pink gown, or her broad-grinned, big-hearted groom. But they were there, and so was I. And it was good.

A few days later I didn’t describe our harrowing car ride up to Massachusetts with five people, twenty bags, and one completely incontinent dog.

And then there was the Vineyard. Nothing written there. But oh, what I could have said. About MJ’s brass ring win at the Flying Horses Carousel. About long, guilty pleasure days at our hosts’ private beach. About fried scallops, extended outdoor showers, the Wolf range in our guest house, which I coveted painfully. About my book: “The Tiger,” which depressed and inspired me at once. About the dearth of ticks but the plethora of stinging jellyfish. (There’s always something.) About the live horseshoe crab a kid found at our beach, and MJ’s delight at same. The aforementioned species, it turns out, is five hundred million years old. Try explaining that number to a three-year-old.

Then on to Nova Scotia, land of vivid blues and barn-side reds. No writing here. None at all. But much biking. And crossword puzzling. And drinking of tea. And reading of a hardcover book called “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms.” Nonfiction. Inspired by recent sighting. Dense, but I enjoy it. More beaches–this time public, but no less lovely. Constant sunscreen. A cave walk at the Ovens. Lobster risotto. Mosquitos abound, but less so than in summers past. There are countless spiders, though. An absurd number. Like arachnid wallpaper. I kill fewer this year. My attitude has softened. The enemy of my enemy, and all of that.

These Maritime days, although long, fly by. There is only one small drama: towards the end of our stay I hire a local boy to watch MJ. He is twelve. While she sleeps—which she does the whole time–he uses my laptop to view porn. The real stuff. Featuring all major body parts. And some minor. Fortunately I have a sense of humor. And a damp cloth. Plus, MJ and I are headed home.

And thus is a vacation spent. Failing as a blogger. And possibly as a mother. But succeeding, somewhat, at the task of relaxing. Except when I wasn’t.

Now that our plane heads home I will prepare to shed my lazy ways again. First order of business? Finish this post.

Second? Write another one tomorrow.

Third? Figure out how to set parental controls on my MacBook. Vacation will come again. This laptop will go with me.  And cheap sitters are hard to come by.

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