Tuesday, September 27, 2016

We say tomato



I’ve been helping one of my ESL students write her resume, and besides suggesting synonyms and enforcing parallel construction, by request I am also trying to figure out how to transform the piddly experience of a 23-year-old into something impressive and noteworthy, or at least not quite so piddly. “What can I say?” she asks me despairingly. “Those jobs were nothing. I didn’t do anything important. I don’t have anything else.”

So I have her facilitating this and developing that, all the while personally relieved to the skies that I don’t have to go through this particular career phase ever again. To me it’s worth grey hair and less-than-glowy skin never to have to endure a lot of the firsts we face in our youth. That may surprise you to hear—may even make you skeptical; after all, one of the laments people have about growing older is that new experiences are harder to come by. In middle-age it’s rare to do something for the first time, in part because we become more cautious and less likely to try new things, in part because when we do take that chance and try that supposedly new thing, it inevitably reminds us of something we’ve already done. What’s rather grimly more, many of the new experiences still ahead of us are ones we don’t much want to think about, the ones involving permanent loss. 

All that depressingness said, I still think you can have enjoyable firsts at any time in your life. I got married this year for the first time, after all, though so far married life doesn’t seem all that different other than having to get used to calling him the husband. It’s a funny word, husband. I like to drag it out, huzzzzzband, so it sounds even funnier. In getting married, I did gain more than a huzzzzzband; I also got stepdaughters, turtles, macaws, and a dog. And of all these, the most unusual experience, the one I’m still trying to get used to, involves the macaws. I did not think it would be this way. I always had pets growing up, and though parrots had never entered the picture back then, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal to take them on now. 

Another thing that can still happen to you at any time in your life? Being spectacularly wrong.

Before we got Boston and Phoenix, I was always surprised and maybe even a little scornful when people told me they were afraid of birds. Yeah, the Hitchcock movie was pretty vivid, but let’s be realistic: bird attack deaths are, I would guess, as rare as hens’ teeth, and since hens don’t have teeth that’s one more reason not to fear them. And yet the first time Phoenix landed on me, I froze stock still and implored the husband for help. I’ve heard birds are the closest living creatures to dinosaurs, and indeed the way I reacted it was as if T-Rex had suddenly appeared in our livingroom. Thanks, Jurassic Park

Being comfortable in my own body is something that’s taken me a very long time to accomplish, and I’m still not completely there. When I go trail running, there are moments I feel strong and confident and sure, and such moments are almost inevitably followed by my feet catching a root or a rock or each other and my wobbling and stumbling and flailing. Gravity has a way of reminding you how little control you have, and while macaws are a slightly less pervasive force in the universe, they have a similar effect. Around them it seemed I was always standing the wrong way, moving the wrong way, standing still the wrong way; my arms, head, fingers, neck, and eyes were never where they were supposed to be, and I was beginning to feel like some anatomical freak—which, to them, I suppose I was.

When I started trail running and fell down a lot, people told me I’d get used to it. I didn’t. I’m even more afraid of falling now than ever—you should see me in winter on ice, waddling like a penguin. Same thing goes for bites. The fear of being bitten is instinctive and primal; I don’t think you have to be bitten first to have this fear. Moreover, you don’t just put it behind you. The first time Phoenix latched onto my finger with his beak was a terrible shock, one that I never got over. To be fair, the “bites” he gave (for it was almost always the far beakier Phoenix and not the more aloof Boston) weren’t necessarily intended as such. Most of the time he simply needed to hold onto something to get him where he wanted to be, and since wings are useless for all but flying and claws don’t have a very far reach, a macaw’s beak does what hands do for us. At the same time, I still considered arming myself with a falconer’s glove—or possibly a suit of mail.

It wasn’t just bite-phobia that kept me distant from them, though. I simply did not know what to do with them. I could take walks with the dog, run with her, play rope-toy-tug with her, pet her, teach her easy tricks, or just sit quietly reading while she lay comfortably at my feet. The birds, I could watch. That was about it. I enjoyed watching them, but the husband wants them to be more than just the feathered equivalent of tropical fish. They can be interactive pets, he believes, just like dogs and horses, and he’s been able to demonstrate this interactivity with them himself. You never think of a bird as being cuddly the way a puppy or a bunny or some other furry mammalian pet might be, but Phoenix would frequently become a big goo-goo-eyed baby in his arms. Boston, ever reserved, would look on with faint disdain, but even he would permit being stroked on occasion. I knew it could be done, but I just didn’t know how to make that connection.

Now we get to the other thing I tried for the first time this year: gardening. Even though my parents grew a lot of our veggies when I was a kid, for most of my adult life I had no desire to take up this practice myself. Sticking seeds in dirt didn’t sound like much fun, plus I had a strong feeling I’d suck at it. For whatever reason, however, this year I decided I wanted to grow stuff. I went with what I’d heard was easiest to grow: tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and basil. There were some surprise successes (the yield on my sugar snaps was ridiculous, and don’t I just sound the gardener?) as well as some disappointments (some fiend chewed my green bean plants into lace and seems to be starting on my fall spinach), but the biggest surprise was how much I loved it. I loved sticking seeds in dirt. The second biggest surprise was that this brand new endeavor ultimately ended up being the connection to our macaws.

The husband will tolerate vegetables, but that’s about as far as it goes, and there are some types that don’t even make tolerance. Suggest a member of the cruciferous family for dinner—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower—and you might as well suggest scraping the scum from the shower curtain and serving that up as a side. Boston was a picky eater; he’d clamor for a veggie, hold it in his beak a few seconds and then drop it untouched. It was Phoenix who ended up appreciating my gardening efforts the most. It gave me great delight to hold out a grape tomato to him, watch him take it gently in his beak and roll it around, then grasp one end with a dexterous claw and flip open the top. He would then proceed to scrape out all the insides, carefully, methodically, as if it were a macaw’s version of an Oreo cookie, and finally drop the empty skin. Very clearly he began to see me as the tomato lady, which was fine by me, especially since he took these treats so delicately and consumed them with such obvious enjoyment. There’s an intimacy that comes from feeding someone something you produced, whether it’s a mother nursing a baby, a parent making dinner for their family, or yes, even a newbie gardener holding out a little red tomato to a big red bird. 

I think next year I’ll write the Burpee Seed people and ask which tomatoes they recommend as being the best for parrots. If they can’t answer me, perhaps I’ll delve even further into obsessive gardening and create my own hybrid. I have no idea how to do that; my resume has zero in the way of botanical research. But be it job hunting, trail running, marrying, gardening, or befriending a dinosaur, you might as well give it a try.