Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bird of Jove

A dark shadow swooped down over the roadway, banked left and headed diagonally toward the river.

I craned to see what beast of the air had cast such a huge shadow over my afternoon commute.

Hugging the steering wheel and peering up through the top-most part of my windshield, I could see its distinctive white head and curved yellow beak.

I held my breath, not for a moment thinking about what perils would have befallen me had there been oncoming traffic.

There was no doubt. I had just seen a bald eagle.

A. Real. Bald. Eagle!

This wasn't a Muppet named “Sam” giving political commentary, or a gimpy-winged bird of Jove gripping the arm of a wildlife rehabilitator at a children's library event. This was a living, breathing, soaring, adult raptor hunting in my neighborhood.

And I'd never seen one in the flesh and feather before.

To say I was excited would be an understatement.

I sped home, ran in the house and regaled the first person I saw with a dramatic rendition of all the events leading up to this moment. … Starting from the late 1960s when only a single active pair remained of the entire state's bald eagle population.

Eyes glazed over as I meandered around a century of eagle history (thanks to Google and the NYS Bald Eagle Conservation Plan website) and recounted the ravages of industrial pollution and not-yet-banned pesticides on these poor birds' unviable eggs.

Weeks later, I was still talking about the majestic bird soaring over the highway when I noticed the three-foot hawk at the top of our backyard's tallest tree.

“That's not a hawk,” said my son, using a birding app on my phone and his own eagle eye. “You might want to get your camera.”

Which, I did. And through the longest lens, I could see its tell-tale white head and curved yellow beak.

As I crept closer to base of the tree, it craned its head to look at me.

And then it flew off.

It was magical and a little melancholy now that he (or she) was gone.

I began to fill the space of its absence by searching page after virtual page of eagle facts and trivia.

No one batted an eye as I read from my fistfulls of printouts: “Did you know bald eagles were one of the original species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973?”

In fact, just then, I think my oldest kid yawned.

“Did you know that the state set up a kind of foster program for eagles? They got eaglets from other states and gave them to the pair to raise?

And then she made the universal sign of teenage ennui: she rolled her eyes.

I thought for a moment about sending her to be fostered by eagles, but plodded on with my lecture:

“And while this proved successful, the mortality rate of the juvenile birds being high, and the fertility of the foster parent pair being non-existent, conservationists tried a falconry 'hack' that involved hand raising older nestlings and releasing them into the wild once they could fly. And I assume there was also a lot of breath-holding and agnostic prayers that the juvenile eagles would survive and thrive.”

My youngest kid was shaking his head.

“I can Google, too, you know,” he said with a hint of superiority. “Says here: 'The experiment worked. By 1980, hacking helped reestablish the first breeding pair of natural reproducing bald eagles. By 1988 the state had reached its goal of 10 nesting pairs. ... In 2010 New York had 173 breeding pairs which fledged 244 young. Each year, New York's bald eagles fledge about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before'.

“Hey! Maybe those 'ginormous hawks' you've seen aren't hawks after all.”

For a moment I thought I had managed to reel the boy into my obsession.

But then he whistled with fiendish glee.

“Now THIS is what I was looking for! It says there's a $20,000.00 fine for harassing eagles. … I'd be careful tip-toeing up to them if I were you. You might be tossing away my college fund for a closeup.”


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mall rats

I feel a slight twinge in the pit of my stomach. Then a moment of dizziness followed by a rapid heartbeat. For a split second, I wonder if I'm hungry.

No. It's not that. The thing I feel is the gnawing sensation of being out of sync with a place I once found familiar and comforting. I try to get my barrings as I survey the territory. But the landscape has changed. I hardly recognize anything.

The sun is blinding. I feel as If I should be wearing my sunglasses the way the optician intended, and not as a headband to hold back my hair.

I don't remember the mall being this bright.

Nor do I remember the layout being quite as sprawling. I could swear, half of these stores used to be located elsewhere, while the other half must have materialized like magic out of thin air.

“Weren't we just here at Christmas time?” I asked my daughter as I stare up at a sign I can neither pronounce nor determine what items it purports to sell. This shop wasn't here six months ago. I am sure of that.

But she didn't answer.

My daughter hadn't heard me. She and her friends had already taken their leave and pulled a disappearing act of their own. Probably said goodbye in a sing-song voice I hadn't registered amid my deer-in-the-headlights stupor. They had headed, no doubt, to one of the oodles of smoothie counters or dress shops or cosmetics boutiques they'd pined after. They each had a handful of gift cards burning holes in their intricately adorned little gift-card holders, and their cell phones were each set to the same infuriating ringtone.

If I called her, I bet, each of the girls would dig into their bags thinking it was their number that was up.

A part of me – the maniacal part – wanted to phone every few minutes to set off this digital dervish of whirly-girling activity even if I could only see it in my mind's eye.

Another part of me – the curious part – wanted to trail their every move. Watch as the girls weaved around this castle of commerce, and spy on them as they half-wave to the imaginary crowds of adoring fans. “Oh, to be young again,” I'd tell myself wistfully as if their joy – or, more likely, their perpetration of joy – wouldn't irk me to no end.

No! Ugh. Yuk! Who'd want to see that? A gaggle of girls walking around like they owned the place, holding food court as if everyone around them were jesters. ... And only they had survived the apocalypse.

Well, they and that rack of really cute blouses at that shop I couldn't pronounce.

God, I hate this place.

"It won't be long now," I tell myself.

Or that's what the news tells me every time it tweets.

The talking heads say malls, with their burgeoning rents and lackluster sales, will likely go the way of the dinosaur. They describe a slow death of a thousand remodels and one lost anchor stores. The view every small change as a cultural shift that will force new trends (like free shipping and same-day-delivery). Eventually, ghostly plastic shopping bags will be the only things tumbling through recently expanded parking lots.

Of course, it could be a quick and cataclysmic ending, like a meteor or liquefaction: The once solid ground underneath these megaplexes will soften and slurp them all up simultaneously. When the dust settles, and the ground hardens, a warehouse with robots and aerial drones will have taken its place.

The mall rats, bless their little hearts, will be gone.

This moment of nostalgia and whimsy dissolves as my phone vibrates.

“We're headed to the food court,” says my daughter in a cheerful voice she usually saves for friends. “Would you like to meet there and join us for lunch?”

I think about my stomach and the dizziness I felt before.

Perhaps it was only hunger.

“Now … Which way is the food court?”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An honest answer


My phone lit up the dark of my car. Tossed on the seat next to me, I could see my daughter's face on the screen, and one line of text:

“When are you getting home?”

The subtext was clear: “You should have been back by now …

“And I am tired. And working on homework. And need you for some reason I won't say, even if you beg. Any such exchange will diminish my autonomy as a burgeoning teenager.

“Also … we're out of milk.”

I didn't answer the question. Nor did I enquire about its urgency. At the traffic circle, I just told my empty car that I was on my way. As soon as there was an opening I'd weave myself in.  

I hadn't been gone long. There was another adult at home, so I knew there wasn't an emergency. But I understand the crazy perspective of time. When we're waiting on it, we don't control how it moves.

Time speeds up and stands still, sometimes simultaneously. 

She was smiling when I arrived. I was the victim she had selected for her homework assignment: A study of peer pressure in the modern age.

Apparently, the object was to ask an older member of your family four simple questions about what social jousting was like before the evolution of Snapchat. And I was that relic.

“What was peer pressure like when you were a teen?”

My eyes shone. What an opportunity! Not only would I be put on the spot – asked to reveal the deepest, darkest core of my misspent youth – but I could effectively reflect the searing light of mortification onto her and her 32 classmates just by answering honestly.

An honest answer – I suspected – is not what the teacher expected.

“Please keep in mind that your comments should be clean, free of expletives, and in no way should they include unvarnished truths. Varnish away, please.”

She knows me. But knowing me also assumes I have trouble adhering to the guidelines.

“Peer pressure is probably the same now as it was when I was a kid. The big things (whispers: sex, drugs, criminal misdemeanors) and little things (curfew violations, rebellious attitudes, acting against your own best judgment) are typical adolescent transgressions from the established norm. It happens. We all feel pressure to do uncomfortable things. Sometimes it's for the best (I quit smoking!). Sometimes not:(I start smoking in the first place). The strange thing is I've come to understand peer pressure never stops if I'm honest. You just have to hope that having more time here on Earth helps you develop coping skills.”

“Yeah … I'm just going to go with that first part –  'Not much has changed' -- and leave it at that.”

I shrugged my shoulders. 

We next traversed the dicey terrain of my most embarrassing moment (which was mostly about being immediately and irrevocably disappointed in my own behavior) and the age I was when I first felt peer pressure's downward forces (earlier than I expected).

The most important question, though was this: “How did you resist peer pressure?” Its answer was a bit of a surprise to me as well:

“I guess I used my parents. I'd out myself for whatever mess I'd made then I'd blame them unabashedly for holding me back.  I'd act mad at being grounded, but I was secretly relieved.”

“That's a pretty good trick. Terrible but effective.”

“Sometimes you just need something in the subtext. ... By the way, I got your milk.”

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Earth Day, revisited

It had been a long day.

You know, the kind of day where you go from one place to another, from one thing to another, with barely a pause.

The type of day you can't quite wrap your mind around without checking and double checking a list. Or a calendar. Or a schedule. Or whatever marker stain remains on your lower forearm from the night before ... to remind you of that one extra thing you are no doubt forgetting.

We've all had this kind of day; the ones that make you feel old and out of shape because, of course, you will not be able to keep up. You will gloss over something. And that thing you lost track of would have been glaringly unforgettable to you a scant decade ago.

And even when you get to the end of a day like this, there's always more. There's dinner to make, dishes to clear, pots and pans to scour and scrub. There's homework to hassle, baths to draw and bedtimes some little someone will draw out for as long as humanly possible.

That's the kind of day I had had as I stood over the trash can, my foot pressed down on the pedal, its clamshell mouth opened wide and waiting for the jar I dangled above to fall inside.

This is wrong.

So wrong.

Growing up in the '70s nothing had affected me more than the iconic image of Iron Eyes Cody, and his second-generation map of Italy face, shedding a single tear over the modern, litter-infested environment he tried to traverse in his buckskin and feathers.
It was a powerful message.

And while the ad seemed wildly popular as it spoke a simple truth – that we humans were mucking up the planet – it has been criticized like all popular, well-intentioned things are, for being overly trite and under effective.

And old Iron Eyes wasn't even a smidgeon Native American.

So there!

I am supposed to shrug my shoulders and admit that facts are as malleable as opinion. But oh, how I hate it when my closely-held beliefs are torn asunder.

In my mind, and despite the facts, that one ad changed the world. I remember those trash-strewn highways and smog-belching smokestacks. I remember driving in the back of my parents' Buick, watching the car ahead of us unwind its crank-driven window and release a confetti of fast food wrappers into the air all around us.

Inevitably a cup with drops of orange soda would glance off our car and stain the windshield.

My father would swear under his breath. My mother would tell me to keep my window rolled up and my hands in the car at all times as if I were the monkey who would see and then do.

Since then, it seemed, the world had cleaned up its act.

Trash no longer begot trash. In fact, recycling became a new filing system of our family's (and probably your family's) extensive scrap library. Eventually, something called single-stream recycling came into our lives, and the hardships of source separating glass from paper and paper from plastic went out. The only effort now seems to be remembering to drag the recycling bin to the curb on the designated day.

Except …

As I stand here in the here and now, holding my jar and its thin film of peanut butter remains, over the trash … It was as if I'd turned back time, cranked down a window in the old sedan and was waiting for the moment when it would be right for tossing.

The moment passed.

I felt Mr. Cody's tear.

And I brought myself to the sink.  

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Keeping one eye open

Her green eyes shone like moonstones despite what seemed like utter darkness.

A sliver of light from a street lamp slunk past the curtains and found its way into her cold, steely glare. It was just enough to set her orbital sockets aglow.

Which, quite frankly, scared the bejeebers out of me.

I still call her The Little Cat, but she's grown as ferocious as a tiger and meaner than your average of numbers.

Of course, I was not asleep. But I was close, just teetering against the blissful gray of nothingness and the unhappy, imaginary figment of falling upright. Heart all aflutter but still not wide awake.

I sense the cat the same way I sense an impending hot flash. Waking before the heat spreads across my flesh until a river of sweat extinguishes the blaze. Covers off. Covers on.

She is there. Watching.

A twitch of a tail. A bird-like chirp -- cultivated, no doubt, in the rich spiderweb that is our ecosystem cats have the maximum efficiency to fool their prey into thinking they are more friend than foe.

Even if she only kills the fat, sable brushes that I use to dust my cheeks with powders and tints.

She knocks the makeup brush around the bedroom floor for a while until I drag myself out of bed or until my husband throws a pillow in her general direction.

Eventually, she will find her way to me; lifting herself gracefully from the floor to the bed. A single, almost silent bound.

She turns around twice before settling near my shoulder. She is careful to press only her back feet against my scapula. Her tail flicking the air before she curls it around herself like a shawl.

It is a loving gift the proximity; her catlike whisper, a mechanical purr, that shows me to be the person she identifies as her own. It is also a threat: "If you make any sudden movements, I will cut you.”

She can tell that I never liked cats.

I think cats have always known this about me.

Even as a child, cats have found their way to my lower extremities. Weaving around my legs, jumping into my lap, even curling up around my neck like a diabolical scarf while I stay still as a statue. Waiting for them to leave.

At slumber parties, I'd be the one to wake up in the dead of night thinking I'd somehow become paralyzed in my sleep, and worst of all, that I'd have to tell an adult of my predicament once the sun rose and my newly useless legs wouldn't carry me to breakfast.

Of course, in the morning I would find the cause of my paraplegia: A fifteen-pound cat named ?ainbow,or "Mittens," or "Mr. Fluffynoodle."

I know, it's hard to believe, but I'm not as neurotic in my advanced years. Although I now have cats, so I think it's a trade-off.

Until we got a cat, I thought the continual parade of dishevelment was the result of the husband, or the children, or the derpy old dogs. None of whom wipe their feet, or put dishes in the sink, or did anything much to the laundry besides pile it into life-like models of Kilimanjaro and then tear it down like a leaf pile in autumn.

None of them compare to the cat, who is a typhoon of destruction. She tears at the furniture, claws at the walls, knocks over water bowls, lets herself into to kitchen cabinets and helps herself to the snack foods.

"Training techniques" have only made her irritated and vengeful.

This is why we don't have nice things,I say with a laugh and a wince.

But I know how it works. I sleep with one eye open. She has me trained.