Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A long day's journey into flight

The BF is a veterinarian, so of course we share our home with a small menagerie. On one end of the spectrum are the turtles, Millie and Jerry, who are extremely low-maintenance and equally dull. They can go months without eating, drinking, or even moving, really. I’m tempted to put numbers on them and race them—it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “wait ‘til next year.” Solidly in the middle is the dog, Cayenne, who requires the usual doggie things. We tolerate the fact that she isn’t very bright and she forgives the fact that we run way too slowly and lack her four-wheel-drive capabilities in winter when trails are slick with ice. And then there are the macaws, Boston and Phoenix. Macaws don’t have to be high-maintenance; you could put them in a small store-bought cage and admire their lovely colors and leave it at that, but you might as well buy a Ferrari and keep it in your garage all the time. Which is to say, you’d be missing the point.

The BF wanted macaws because he wanted to see them fly. Specifically, he wants one day to be able to take them to the kinds of places we go running and to let them fly while we run. It’s ambitious; the places where we run are full of tall trees, rolling hills and valleys, all of which can make things difficult for a runner and really difficult for a runner who is trying to keep sight of two parrots. It’s stressful enough when the dog gets out and goes gallivanting around the neighborhood; with birds there’s a whole other dimension into which they can disappear. The online class the BF took in flying pet birds had five different classifications for areas to fly. Level 1, for example, is an area where sight lines are good for quite some distance and there is little to nothing that a bird could get stuck in (like tall trees) or could land on and not be retrievable (like a lake). Level 5 is basically the Grand Canyon, or its equivalent; by this point you totally trust your birds to fly free, knowing they have the skills to deal with obstacles and challenges—and knowing they will be able to come back to you.

Despite the fact that we live in the middle of rural Illinois, it was surprisingly difficult for us to find an appropriate Level 1 site. Most farmland, after all, is privately owned; you can’t just wander into someone’s soybean field and let loose the parrots. The BF settled on a bit of farmland in town owned by the university where he works. We figured if anyone asked, he is a university employee, he does work at the vet clinic, and therefore his flying of macaws on university property simply constitutes valuable research on behalf of this magnificent institute of higher education. Sure. Anyway, it worked pretty well for a Level 1 site; they both got in some good flights and only a couple of times went astray, landing in the cornfields. The first time that happened, the corn was fairly high and the BF had to wade in a couple rows to retrieve the errant Phoenix. I waited, anxious, trying to think of what I might say to any ag types who came ‘round wondering what I was doing staring into the field (oh, nothing, I just really love corn?). Suddenly a fist holding aloft a bright red bird popped up from the tassels, and soon thereafter the rest of the BF emerged as well.

“Seen any baseball players in there?” I asked.

He shook his head, grinning: Nope, just one parrot, slightly lost but fine, and one parrot owner, hugely relieved.

They graduated from Level 1 by default: one morning we went to fly them in the field and saw trucks and tractors and tillers. That was almost certain to freak out the birds; it freaked us out so much even thinking about it that we turned the car around and moved to the Level 2 site. For Level 2, we took our feathered friends out to one of the far corners of our town, where some developers had been in the beginning stages of starting a new subdivision with one of those randomly generated names (some combination of glen / lake / hill / creek / green / vista / view / park) but never got beyond a road and a walking path before running out of money. There were a few tall trees here, and the interstate was disturbingly close, but still there wasn’t much else in the way of potential hazards. What little there was, though, was enough. There were incidents, hours spent searching the trees looking for a bird that got spooked mid-flight, anxious moments of hearing them calling but not knowing where they were, then not hearing them calling any more, then finally spotting them and coaxing them down. It’s surprisingly hard to get a macaw to fly downward, as down is where nasty ol’ predators prowl, critters looking to leap upon a tasty avian meal. Up, now up is where you want to be. Down, not so much—unless, wait! There’s almond milk down there! (They like almond milk, go figure. I know, it takes ten trillion gallons to produce just three and a half measly little nuts, but if it gets them down from tall trees, I’ll stop watering my own plants and donate that share to the farmers.)

All well and good, except that neither of these sites reflect the kinds of places we like to run. Just in the last month we’ve been able to take them to our Level 3 spot, a running trail with some open areas but also some fairly dense woods with a lot of tall trees. The BF has gotten to where he can release Phoenix and walk a bit of the trail before raising his hand and gesturing so that Phoenix will return and land on his arm. With any luck, soon running can replace the walking, though there is the matter of Mr. Boston to deal with. After a strong start in flight school, Boston has sadly been held back. A runt as a baby, he’s been slow to develop, and his flights at each level are a lot shorter and less impressive. I rather sympathize. Boston was named because his blue and gold colors are those of the Boston Marathon, and while I’d had hopes that he would become the best flier and I would become a Boston qualifier, we’ve both been disappointed. I like to think Boston and I have an understanding about these things; he often perches quietly on my arm and consoles himself with the little banana-shaped treats I feed him.

Most people who have seen us with the birds are awestruck and impressed, thought there was one guy who made it a point to march over to us and say “I think the trade in exotic birds is disgusting!” (I was so surprised by this I couldn’t speak. Minutes later I came up with the stinging retort, “Oh yeah, well I think your face is disgusting!” but it was too late.) The BF is the only Board-certified avian veterinarian in this state, so to paraphrase Clint Eastwood’s character at the end of In the Line of Fire, he knows things about birds. What’s more, he loves them; he would never engage in a practice he felt was harmful in the short or long term to our pets or any others. But it’s a complicated balance sometimes. The students he works with at the vet school love animals, but they have chosen a profession that means they’re going to have to do things that will be painful for the animals, at least temporarily, in the interest of healing them—and of course it means that they’re going to have to end some animals’ lives. If you believed facebook posts, every situation involving animals is a simplistic matter of evil people who do terrible things to critters such that we can virtuously declare our self-righteous indignation. Folks, nothing is ever that simple. Have we given our pets a good life, one that allows them to do what they were born to do—fly free—or are we simply indulging ourselves?

Perhaps it really is just an indulgence to watch a beautiful bird fly to you, the vivid colors streaking through space, iridescent in the sunlight. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking when you see the joy of movement in that stunning creature, a mirror of the joy you feel beholding that sight. I can’t say exactly. Maybe if you’re out sometime walking or running the trails, you can see them and judge for yourself.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Root root root for the home team (whichever that may be)

I love baseball, but don’t worry: this is not going to be one of those essays that waxes dreamily and poetically about the beauty of the game. Like most human endeavors, and pretty much all human endeavors where there are winners and losers, baseball frequently gets downright ugly. Without even getting into the drugs, the money, the egos, the immaturity, the corruption, and all the other nastiness of the game itself, there’s so much ugliness to be witnessed in the fans themselves that we barely even need the all that other crap. Now that we’re into the post-season, I made the mistake of sneering at fair-weather Cubs fans who are suddenly all about how “their” team is going to prove Back to the Future right this year and finally, finally prevail. I wondered aloud (or e-loud, at least) how many of them have actually even watched a game in the regular season—or even know how many regular season games there are, or how many innings there are, or the fact that a ballgame is divided into innings and not quarters or dimes or something else? In short, I became an ugly cliché: the die-hard fan who thinks no other fan could possibly live up to their own level of fandom.

The funny thing is, I quickly recognized that I myself could easily be accused of being a fair-weather fan, or at least a finicky fan who doesn’t know the meaning of loyalty. First off, I was born and raised in Hawaii, which has no pro sports. There was once a minor league team, the Islanders (and telling you that I went to a couple of their games when I was a kid is seriously dating me), but eventually it got too expensive to schlep the team around and have other teams schlepped to Honolulu (as much as those teams might have wanted such schlepping), so bye-bye Islanders. In short, I was not a baseball fan of any team at all until I left home. Football was my game, since my father was a big 49ers fan, and luckily we got to follow the team during the Montana/Walsh years. You can’t really be accused of fair-weatherness when you live in Hawaii and you happen to root for a damn good team. What other kind of weather is there?

When I went to college, I started following the San Francisco Giants. A football fan needs something to do the rest of the year, after all. The first year I followed them, they lost a hundred games, which certainly disqualifies me from fair-weather status (especially because that was back in the Candlestick Park days and if you’d ever been to Candlestick Park, you know that even in July, there are Arctic winds and dense fog, and the bleacher bums frequently have to be treated for hypothermia). Eventually a few seasons later they made it to the World Series … which was promptly hit by an earthquake, and they ended up losing four in a row to the A’s. Maybe this is rationalization, but it was kind of hard to care about the series after seeing freeways collapse and a section of bridge fall into the bay.

When I moved to New York, it became impossible for me to follow the Giants the way I used to, which was to watch or listen to every single game from pregame to post, so I stopped watching baseball for a few years. If I couldn’t watch my team, well, what was the point? And then there was a boy. The boy was a Mets fan, so I became one too. Unfortunately New York back then was all about the Yankees, whose unfathomably deep pockets meant they could buy a winning team and attract legions of equally deep-pocketed Manhattanites who wouldn’t be caught dead on a subway headed to another borough much less actually in the Bronx but still somehow managed to claim die-hard fan status. The Mets were “the other team,” whose fans claimed to be the tough, blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth counterpart to the Evil Robber-Baron Skankees. Even at the time I thought that was baloney, but the boy believed it, his own family from Queens, his ancestors Irish miners, his accent thoroughly Long Island (big things weren’t just big, they were “yuge”)—so I went along with it. The Mets weren’t any good, but the boy seemed to like that, as it allowed him a martyr’s long-suffering dignity.

Of course, Mets martyrdom pales in comparison to the Cubs. Here in east-central Illinois I’ve had my choice of teams to root for, and I could have ended up deciding to follow either of the two Chicago teams, the hard-luck Cubbies or the … who are the other guys again? (You want to talk long-suffering, talk to someone from South Chicago who loves a team nobody else even remembers much less cares about.) As it turned out, though, there was another boy, this one from St. Louis. And as it further turned out, the team this boy followed was damned good, year after year, present year included. This could easily earn me bandwagon-fan status, particularly from those who have been loyal to one particular team since birth, their first baby bibs emblazoned with the team logo, their first outfits in team colors. I’ve visited St. Louis a couple of times and enjoyed it very much—what’s not to like about a place where the zoo is free and the ravioli fried?—but I have no other direct connection to it, and even the BF hasn’t lived there in many decades. Why then do I care? What kind of “fan” am I, really, and what gives me the right to judge any other fan’s motives?

Obviously the only right I have to judge anyone else is the self-assumed right that comes from being a human being with strong opinions about ridiculous subjects. Of course there is no “best” way to be a fan—or to not be one, for those who would dismiss the whole baseball thing as absurd. It is absurd. It’s a game played by men who act like children and get paid a lot of money to do so. These men are professionals who have no real loyalty to the city in which they play, and in fact they may end up playing for an entirely different city next season—maybe even their current “enemies.” When I choose to root for a team, I’m not rooting for the men that make up that team or even for the city where they play, since I’ve lived in a lot of cities and I’ve found something to like (and dislike) in all of them. I guess I’m sort of rooting for baseball as a general concept, but not entirely, since I don’t quite buy into all that Field of Dreams mysticism, no matter how convincingly declared by James Earl Jones, about how baseball will save our souls. It won’t. Like so much in life, baseball is something I decided to care about, knowing its flaws, knowing that I certainly didn’t have to care about this but deciding I would anyway and then caring about it deeply, learning all I could, embracing what’s beautiful in it yet not blinding myself to what’s ugly (as well as what is, let’s be honest, frequently very boring). You can do that in life, if you’re lucky; you can pick things and choose to make them matter to you. 

And despite the fact that any given team’s fans will tell you that some other team’s fans are the rudest, the stupidest, the ugliest, the worst, despite the fact that so many people believe, as I briefly made the mistake of believing, that their own type of fandom is the only true fandom, in my experience all baseball fans are pretty much the same. They’re looking for something they can care about that’s outside themselves but still connected to their lives. It isn’t deeply connected—no one really lives or dies by their team—but it’s something that they can decide, however arbitrarily, matters to them. That’s a good thing. Can you imagine a world where we don’t find things that matter to us? Even if they’re silly, faulty, or deeply problematic, better to care about things, and enjoy caring about them, even occasionally suffer caring about them, than not. 

Play ball.