Monday, September 25, 2017

Air beneath the wings, water under the bridge

We inherited a new macaw last week from two of K’s clients who were getting too old to care for their high-maintenance pet anymore. He’s a green-wing macaw, he’s 25 years old, and his name is Fred. This doesn’t quite fit the two-syllable city-name theme we started with our boys Boston and Phoenix, but we can pretend that Fred stands for Fredericksburg, which can be altered to “Fredericksbird” which can be shortened to Fred Bird. I imagine the transition to new people has been traumatic enough; no need to further torment him with a new name, as appealing as it would be to have a parrot named Vegas.

Fred did seem a bit freaked out at first by his new environment. K is the only familiar element, and K is Fred’s vet, so it’s a little like a child being adopted by their dentist or the principal of their school. Initially we kept him separate from our boys, but gradually we’ve been putting the three together in hopes that they’ll all get along and perhaps even be buddies one day. They’re social animals, and though there was a bit of tension and some minor skirmishes, in the long run Fred should have a better life. The transition will likely be tough, though. In terms of a captive macaw’s lifespan, Fred is barely middle-aged, yet he has still spent a quarter of a century in a relatively small cage being served food in a cup, as is the case with a lot of pet birds. Our aviary is nothing like that. It’s a room, a big one, not a cage, and there is none of this food-in-a-cup business. Nuggets, vegetables, and nut treats are hidden in tubes to be shaken or wheels to be turned or wire contraptions to be pried from. If you want to eat, you’ve got to forage. This isn’t a cruel tease—just the opposite, in fact, since foraging is what they’d have to do in the wild and it’s what they’re very, very good at, so long as they’re used to doing it. Fred isn’t. It’s a brave new world.

Then there’s the even stranger world known as outside. The first time we set him on an outdoor perch, he seemed stunned. What happened to the walls? Where’s the ceiling! My god, what is that thing that looks like a gigantic piece of broccoli? A “tree,” you say? WTF!  Everything seemed to fascinate him: butterflies, airplane contrails, twirling windblown corn husks, the elaborate bird fountain K constructed from PVC pipes for the boys to splash around on hot days. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing, but there’s something poignant about that kind of wary wonder. Discovering something new at a not-so-new-to-life age can be terrifying or exhilarating, and usually both. I can relate. 

But there’s another relatable aspect of Fred’s new life that isn’t quite so exuberant—is, in fact, a bit sad. Fred wasn’t kept shut up in his cage all the time; he had been allowed to roam around the house, but as is common with large birds, his wings had been clipped when he was very young, so he never learned to fly. The practice is common because many owners of macaws can’t realistically deal with a large flighted bird in their homes, with windows to crash into and things to knock over. If the bird never learns to fly, it can be taken out of its cage from time to time or even kept in an open stand. That’s nice and all—the bird can still have a good life with caring people—but … it’s a bird. Keeping a bird from flying is about as much missing the point as keeping a horse in a stall all the time. And this is how we ended up with a dilapidated farmhouse on four acres of land in the middle of the cornfields. Our birds fly.

Well, at least Boston and Phoenix do. It is unlikely that Fred ever will. Though his clipped wing feathers have long since grown back, flight seems to be something best learned at a very young age. So whenever Boston and Phoenix take off for a few loops around our property before landing high up in the giant broccoli, Fred stays behind on his perch, alone. Sometimes we’ll catch him fanning his wings awkwardly, frenetically, which could simply be a sign that he’s anxious in these strange surroundings or could be borne of some innate yearning to be up there too. Boston and Phoenix aren’t flying aces yet—Boston in particular still doesn’t always stick his landings, and while Phoenix is quite skilled at most aspects of flight he hasn’t use these skills in many places other than home. But they’re only 3 years old; they’ve got most of their entire lives ahead of them to explore the skies. Fred doesn’t and probably never will.

I say all these depressing things because again, I can relate. I’ve never been one to believe that anything is possible; many things are possible, sure, and because we don’t always know what those things are, it behooves us to try out a whole bunch of stuff in case we do end up being deeply enthralled by and/or gloriously successful at some of them. But not even the most talented, privileged, fortunate person on earth can do whatever they want whenever they want it, especially given that many endeavors have expiration dates. Fred may be too old to fly; someday, I may be too old to run long distances as fast as I want to—and then too old to run at all. When I started training for a Boston-qualifying marathon, I hoped to push that day off a bit. Now that injury and time off from training has derailed me, I start to wonder just how far off that day really is. Age is just a number, and I don’t happen to think my particular number is all that enormous (despite the fact that rotary-dial phones, rabbit-eared TVs, and even a manual typewriter figured prominently in my childhood). But there’s a reason they make BQ times slower for older runners: many things, running and flying among them, get tougher with time.

Thing is, people also get tougher with time, and perhaps macaws do too. The one thing that did not seem to intimidate Fred was the fact that he’d soon have two new roommates. When Phoenix first approached Fred, stretching his body out to look bigger and fake-lunging at him, Fred held his ground. Didn’t snap at Phoenix, didn’t squawk in anger or fear, just shrugged it off. I like to imagine him mentally rolling his eyes and thinking Oh brother, look who thinks he’s Mr. Big Shot. Give the old man some room, will ya, kid?  We are hoping this bodes well for the future; K has this idea that we can all go camping together someday soon, maybe somewhere in the southwest where there’s a lot of room to fly if that’s your thing, and a lot of beautiful scenery if it isn’t. Yeah, it’s crazy, but who knows—we could end up deeply enthralled and/or gloriously successful, and as with attempting to BQ, there really is only one way to find out.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dream the quite possible dream

You know that feeling you get when someone starts to tell you about “this weird dream” they had last night? It’s always a weird dream, as if there’s any other kind, as if the rest of us are dreaming about watching TV and eating potato chips. It’s roughly the same feeling you get when someone pulls out their phone to share an endless series of photos about their vacation: nobody else could possibly care as much about it as the dreamer/vacationer does, and much of the time the listener cares only enough to be just barely polite without being in any way encouraging. If you don’t know that feeling, well, hold my beer.

So in the weird dream I had last night, I was attending a business meeting in a government building and the building began to tremble. It wasn’t an earthquake; it was a bomb, and the building was about to go down. As we ran outside, I realized I’d left my purse behind and had grabbed a handful of papers from the conference table instead. Everyone else, I noticed, was carrying something of actual value—money, a computer, keys to car and home. I turned, stupidly hoping I had time to go back. I didn’t. The building went down, all of it, a smoking pile of rubble within seconds. Terrorists, people were saying, and worse: someone I knew was accused of being one of them. I knew he wasn’t a terrorist; he was a pianist, a good one, and his friends were desperate to prove his innocence but we didn’t know how. Luckily Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot version) showed up and arranged a concert amidst the ruins of the demolished building so the musician could prove he was who he claimed to be. There was a grand piano there, half buried in mud and crawling with caimans, but Wonder Woman fearlessly stood guard as the pianist smiled up at her through the opening chords of Rachmaninoff. The music was beautiful, they were beautiful, and I—I was off to the side feeling useless and petty, because I had done nothing to help my friend (whom, truth be told, I had a major crush on), because I always seemed to bring the wrong thing with me in times of trouble, because I was no super hero, so what was I supposed to do?

It’s funny that English uses the same word, dream, to describe both the things we long for in our waking life and the anxiety-provoking REM-sleep narratives we bore people with. But both types of dreams do have a few things in common. Longing may simply be anxiety on a different scale, for things that seem grand rather than petty, and both kinds of dreaming may end up being about control. This is what I would do if I had the power, the first kind of dreamer says, while the second kind, helplessly writhing in the coil of sleep, says this is what happens when I don’t have it.

Given today’s date and various current events, certain aspects of my dream seem relevant. (Others of course are pure dream wackiness. I don’t know any concert pianists, and I have no idea why the piano was stuck in a caiman-infested bog except that I probably watch too many nature shows.) What concerns me enough to write about it, though, isn’t what happened but how I reacted. As my dream-self reminded me, I’m no super hero, and though I enjoyed the Wonder Woman movie as much as the next person, I can’t say I felt personally empowered by it. My bracelets do not repel bullets, and even if they did I doubt I’d be able to move fast enough to make these accessories life-savingly useful. Moreover, I have no idea what specific actions I would be capable of if a friend needed serious help—if they were falsely accused of a crime, say, or forced to leave their home. Like most people, I like to believe I’d be brave and heroically save the day, but how

Of course I know heroism is not just dodging bullets and fighting off swamp reptiles. Bravery is often quiet, not grandiose, and frequently many people each taking many small but crucial steps are necessary to save the day. Furthermore I know that the day you save may not be today or tomorrow but a long time from now, because saving anything often takes a lot of time and continuous effort, not just a single daring act. I know all this, but—that dream. I can’t do what’s really needed, and what I can do is pointless, and isn’t that just a little too much like reality? 

This morning I took the eggshells and banana peels and torn-up pasta boxes out to the compost pile. I’ve been eating much less meat lately, and I drive my car only when absolutely necessary. Global climate change has not drastically abated as a result of these actions, nor do I go to sleep at night satisfied that I’ve at least done the righteous thing. The polar ice caps are still melting, and when I do manage to conquer my insomnia, I dream about being useless, not virtuous. We do what we can, I know, I know, but it’s never enough—and perhaps it never should be enough. Both kinds of dreams are necessary, the kind that pushes you to strive and the kind that keeps you humble, because that’s pretty much the human condition in general, isn’t it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Temporary problems

K and I were chuckling one morning over the sign in our hotel’s fitness center, which stated the typical disclaimers to ensure that the equipment would be used in a safe and lawsuit-preventative manner. At the end, the sign warned, “If you experience discomfort, discontinue activity.”

K snorted. “If I followed that, I’d never get out of bed!”

True, that, and perhaps increasingly true as one gets older. As a fictional character famously said, life is pain. Perhaps less cynically, life is at the very least uncomfortable much of the time, and for all that we might like to think that discomfort can be conquered a la mind over matter, our minds are often pitiful prisoners in a cage of bones and meat. Happy now? Wait a few hours. You’ll at the very least need to eat or drink or pee or poop, and if it’s late summer and you live amidst farmland and you suffer late-summer allergies, wait a few minutes and try to remember how comfortable regular breathing feels. Sure, those are all temporary issues, but wait a few decades, until you are firmly in the second half of your life, and find yourself wondering if the only temporary thing in your life is you.

Boy, that’s cheerful. But I’ve just come back from visiting my family in the Pacific Northwest, and that’s put me in a bit of a dolorous mood. Don’t get me wrong; it was actually a very nice visit. This area is a great place to visit in general, whether you like being active or being a glutton or both in equal parts, as K and I do. It was also an important visit because my parents are quite old and have experienced their share of the kinds of health woes that come with quite-oldness, and to be uncheerful but honest, each time I see them could be the last. 

Funny thing, though: each time I see them I’m struck by how good they look. Usually when you see someone infrequently, you expect to be shocked by how they’ve changed from the way you picture them in your head, as opposed to the person who sees them all the time and fails to notice the effects of time. But this time I was once again pleasantly surprised by how healthy they appeared and acted. My mother insisted on cooking dinner one night. My father has written a book he’s trying to get published. Yes, my mother told me nine times what she was going to cook for dinner because she’s become forgetful about some things, but the meal was still delicious and nobody got sick from it, so I’d say that’s success. 

As for my father, this book of his is something of a white whale. As near as my sister and I can figure out, it’s supposed to be a textbook of sorts, one that will revolutionize education as we know it, or something, hell if we know. We’ve seen it. It’s not going to revolutionize anything; it’ll be lucky if anyone gets to read it besides us. Oh, it’s coherent enough—that’d make a swell cover blurb, wouldn’t it?—and I’m glad he gave himself a project like this, one that keeps his mind active and gives him a sense of purpose, but part of that purpose is a bit grandiose and delusional. This visit he made sure to corner me and agree that should the book be accepted for publication after his death, I would review the “galley proof” while my sister would take care of the contractual matters. Sure, Pop. Will do.

That wasn’t all, though. “I finished writing my Christmas cards last week,” he informed me after we’d polished off Mom’s dinner. “The addresses and stamps are on the envelopes but the envelopes aren’t sealed yet. If I die before I send them out, your sister is to write the date of my death on the cards. That way everyone can be informed.”

K, sitting between me and my father, nodded politely. I laughed. Hard. “Oh, that’ll be awesome. ‘Merry Christmas! I’m dead!’” I couldn’t stop laughing or cracking wise; Mom’s dinner threatened to erupt from my nostrils. “‘Woooooh! I’m the ghost of Christmas present! Happy holidays from beyond the grave!’”

My father didn’t get upset. Even though my visits are infrequent, he’s used to my smart-assery by now, and when you’ve lived nearly 90 years, I suspect you learn to let a lot of things roll harmlessly off you. Some things can’t ever be rolled off, though, and despite my jeers, I understand perfectly well why my father had written his Christmas cards in August and given his daughters these morbid duties. He’s trying to get some kind of control over the one thing beyond anyone’s control. At some point, temporary issues become permanent. My father’s eyesight is bad, and when he turns 90 next year he knows he’s going to lose his driver’s license. He already can’t walk very far, and this limitation of mobility—and freedom—isn’t going to go away with a little bit of rest, the way my recent shin splints will if I don’t screw it up by trying to do a 20 miler this weekend because I have seen the future and it makes me want to run really fast and really far in the time I have left.

Even people who like pithy aphorisms often make fun of the one about how you should live each day as though it were your last. Jeez, if I did that I’d be even more depressed than I am now, either that or completely strung out on happy drugs. Truth is, though, at the point where you are living each day as though it could be the last, you aren’t likely going skydiving or running with the bulls. It seems like your main focus is on acceptance. You do what you can but acknowledge what you can’t, and you try to be OK with that even if you won’t ever be entirely successful. There’s a lot of discomfort at the end of your life, but disclaimer signs to the contrary, you continue activity as long as you can.