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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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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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