Monday, April 22, 2019

Boston stronger

The novelist Jane Austen once said … oh don’t roll your eyes; I’m not going to go into raptures about Mr. Darcy or debate which of the bazillion filmed versions of Pride and Prejudice is the most swoon-worthy. I’m going somewhere completely different with this, trust me. Anyway, the novelist Jane Austen once said of her snobbish, manipulative character Emma Woodhouse that she was a heroine nobody would like but her creator, meaning Austen herself. This proved to be inaccurate; people love Emma, whereas the one heroine of her six finished novels that inevitably comes in last place is Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. This is for good reason. Emma is rich, beautiful, clever, and has a fun-flirty relationship with rich, handsome, caring Mr. Knightly. Fanny is quiet, modest, morally upright, and in love with her cousin Edmund, though she’s too quiet, modest, and morally upright to do anything about it. Plus, come on. Her name is Fanny. Really, Jane?

But Austen was onto something important with Ms. Price. It’s easy to love an Elizabeth Darcy or an Emma Woodhouse, all wit and vivaciousness. It’s another thing altogether to perhaps be rival to these sparkling beauties but lacking their dynamic personalities. Yet shy people, reserved people, people who can’t muster a charming fa├žade or toss clever quips—they want the same things everyone else does, and that includes being loved. They too deserve to be heroes sometimes.

And now I’m going to talk about our parrots.

Phoenix and Fred are both green-wing macaws, which despite the name means they are mostly bright red. Boston is a blue-and-gold macaw, which means he is exactly those two colors. All three are large for pet birds, but green-wings are slightly larger than blue-and-golds, and red is red: nearly impossible to ignore. As such, whenever we’ve had our boys out in a public location, inevitably Phoenix or Fred will be the center of attention. It doesn’t help that the two big red guys have certain attributes that make them fan favorites. Phoenix is the best at flying, and Fred is the most approachable. Boston is … puzzling. He was a runt when we got him, slow to develop, slow to shake off his baby-bird tics. He seemed to try to make up for this by learning to climb, and then fly, a lot sooner than Phoenix, and for a while Boston was definitely Top Bird. I liked this. Before we got Fred, Boston was my favorite. He was named for the Boston Marathon, and I had hoped that the runty bird who had been slow to grow would, like the completely non-athletic girl who didn’t start running until she was 37 (me), ultimately triumph.

And then, as is wont to happen in both novels and life, complications ensued.

Boston began to lose confidence, ultimately faltering as Top Bird and letting Phoenix claim that title. He also seemed to let Phoenix boss him around quite a bit. When Fred came onto the scene, we hoped that perhaps things would change, but they didn’t. If anything, now Boston was getting picked on by both bigger birds. Because it’s more fun to work on a bird habitat than a human one, we ignored the crumbling plaster walls of the living room and instead K redid the aviary such that each bird had his own separate area complete with perches, foragers, and toys. These were large areas, each still a good ten times bigger than the biggest macaw cage you’ve probably ever seen, but still we worried. Macaws are social. Now they were isolated.

I myself have been guilty of neglecting poor Boston in my writings lately. Fred is just so darned personable and quirky and cute, I can’t help but dote on him, and the story of how he went from being completely grounded to suddenly flying is truly astounding. But Boston was my first favorite. I’d had such hopes for him—and for me. Given that Boston Marathon qualifying times recently got faster, I’ve started to think it’s going to take a miracle for me to get there. Fred flies now; how many miracles can a person expect to witness?

Maybe one more. Boston, you see, is Top Bird again. Over the last week or so, ever since the boys have been separated, Boston has been flying like an ace. We’ve created a “macaw mini-golf” course in our big field, with a bunch of different perches set up in a looped circuit; K will let a bird go, walk to one of the perches, and the bird will meet him there. In the past, Boston has stunk at this, but now he’ll get in a good three or four perfect rounds in the course of an evening, better than Phoenix ever did. What’s more, he looks like he’s having fun out there. He’s confident, assured. Maybe he just needed to get out from under the wings of his two big brothers, so to speak. Maybe he needed to see that he’d be just fine on his own.

Or perhaps I’m anthropomorphically projecting. Perhaps, but I do think that rather than seeing the way animals are like us, we do more justice to everyone by seeing the way we are like them. Animals aren’t saints. They can be bullies, and worse. But we can see this in them, and ourselves, so we could change if we wanted to. They can also be unlikely heroes. It isn’t always the flashiest creature that triumphs. Sometimes it’s the quiet one in the back. They’ve been there for a long time, but it’s OK. They’ll move forward yet.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The walker

Ever since Fred Bird surprised us with that first wobbly, uncertain flight a couple weeks back, he has gotten in a little flying almost every day. Sometimes he’ll get in two or three launches, but often he’s a one-and-done. He’s OK midair, but landings have been tough, usually just random drops into the field. Then he’ll just sit there in the weeds until one of us picks him up. It’s hard to figure out how Fred feels about this flying business, perhaps because he’s uncertain himself. Often when he’s outside for some flight time, he’ll perch on K’s arm and lean forward and flap his wings like crazy—but won’t let go. “He’s really holding on,” K has said, and I know what that feels like from both sides. I’ve had Fred on my arm while he flaps away but stays firmly in place, claws gripping my arm until I think it’s going to snap in two. But of course, as a human being, I also know what it’s like to be afraid to let go of a known thing. I understand fear of falling.


My father is 90 years old. He has trouble seeing, hearing, talking, and walking, but has found workarounds for all of these ailments. He gets large-print books from the library so his less-than-perfect vision won’t keep him from reading, and happily as a result his mind has stayed sharp as well. As for hearing and talking, as he told me recently with a chuckle, “I just avoid having conversations as much as I can.” The walking, though, had remained problematic until just this week.

“I keep telling him to get a walker!” my sister frequently yelled to me. My sister is one of the only people I know who still calls people on the phone instead of texting. I kind of hate it, to be honest, since I am one of the many people who hates talking on the phone, but because she lives near my parents and I don’t, she’s been tasked with their care, so I don’t complain when the phone actually rings and I have to answer it with my voice and have a conversation. Shudder.

“He is so stubborn! He says he’s afraid the walker will trip him and he’ll fall. That’s what the walker is supposed to prevent!” she shouted. My sister raises her voice a lot when she talks about our father. I suppose the text equivalent would be all-caps and some angry emojis.

“He’s saying that as an excuse,” I offered. “He’s just afraid of having to try a new thing. And then there’s his pride, too.”

“Yeah, I know. He hates the idea that he needs a walker like an old person. Uh, you ARE an old person!”

Our parents live in a senior living community. It’s not assisted living; it’s just a gated community for people over 55, and given that I’m distressingly not far off from that, it’s not much more than an ordinary neighborhood. At 90 my father is likely one of the oldest residents there. Neighbors 20 years younger have to get around with canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. “Everyone there is old and needs help getting around,” my sister pointed out. “Why would he care what other people think? Who cares if he has to use a walker? They probably think he’s stupid not to use one!”

But our father has never cared much about what people think of him. Because he is sensitive to cold temperatures, he often wears several layers of clothing, and each layer will be a different, vivid, non-matching color, including his favorite pink sweater. “Who says pink is a ‘girl’s’ color? It’s a color!” he would insist, and don it over two shirts, maroon and blue. So I doubt he cared about other people thinking he was weak and helpless. He cared, I suspect, about not feeling weak and helpless himself.

This past weekend, however, common sense finally prevailed. “We got a walker!” my sister all-caps shouted. “And he’s happy with it! He said it makes walking so much easier.”

“Duh!” we shouted in unison.

“It’s got a built-in seat he can pull out and sit on if he gets tired,” she continued. “He likes that. He also likes that he can walk straight and upright. And he doesn’t worry as much about falling.”

All of us know that at his age, one fall could very well be the end. A walker won’t keep him living forever, and nobody can ignore the reality of a tired, frail body. Life is endlessly, relentlessly humbling. But at least he has this now: he can continue to move through the world, one slightly more confident step at a time.


After a flying session, Fred often seems quiet and subdued, like he’s still trying to make sense of what just happened. Flight, the thing he seemed to yearn for so keenly and desperately whenever he saw Boston and Phoenix take off, is now suddenly, terrifyingly, real to him. And it, too, is a humbling experience, replete with failing and falling and getting up shaken and afraid. Yet, continuing, in whatever way, as long as it’s possible.