Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Those Flying Teddy Bears

“All that is round invites a caress,” writes Gaston Bachelard, and the chickadee is the embodiment of caressable roundness. With its big domed head, tiny bill, and widely-spaced eyes, he is the teddy bear of the avian world. Who can resist that baby-like charm? Grown men have been known to stand for hours, hoping that a chickadee will consent to pick a seed out of their outstretched hand. 

Everything about a chickadee--including his mating call: hey sweetie!--is sweet. I, along with every other pandemic prisoner depending for company and entertainment on the goings on at the feeder, am a sucker for that sweetness, so I feed them seeds and suet, and make sure that the bird bath stays unfrozen even in sub-zero weather. If only I could know every one of their tiny hearts’ desires, I would try to fulfill them, all in the hope that in return they would think of me as their friend. 

But last week I listened to a lecture by the ornithologist  David Hof , Ph.D. about the emotional lives of these birds, and got a shock. I’m sorry to say that chickadees are, by human standards, anything but sweet. In fact, you could say that a chickadee is a wolf in bird’s clothing, except that wolves are a lot nicer. 

I learned from Dr. Hof that chickadee society is as hierarchical as the most rigid caste system. Worse, all chickadee males outrank all females, with the lowliest male able to shoo even the alpha female away from the feeder, no matter that she is married to the alpha male. Like many birds, a male chickadee sings to keep other males out of his territory and away from his mate, but he does not apply the same standards to himself: if he covets his neighbor’s wife, he sneaks into his neighbor’s tree and has his way with her. 

I was not exactly shocked by this. I knew from watching endless nature documentaries that many animals, including the most endearing, form rigid hierarchies, fight over mates and territory, and commit adultery. A lustful nature is not necessarily incompatible with sweetness. But my remaining illusions were shattered when Dr. Hof related that, after spending hundreds of hours capturing, banding, and observing a tribe of chickadees, he had found one in the act of murdering a rival-- a brutal attack in which the beta bird of the flock went on pecking savagely at the alpha long after the latter had expired (the widow fluttered off, but I shudder to think of the marriage that she was later forced to endure). 

It’s not fair, I realize, to hold chickadees to higher standards than other birds. Among eagles, the biggest chick in the nest usually kills one or more of its brethren, and female eagles have been known to kill their mates. But eagles look like frowning, angry old men, with their flat heads, deep-set eyes, and enormous, downward curving beaks, so we are not surprised to hear of eagle cruelty. But the cruelty of chickadees feels like a betrayal, their fluffy adorableness a feint designed to take advantage of our good nature. 

Of course, the chickadees can’t help it, anymore than the male lion can help killing his rival’s cubs when he takes over a pride, or the stags can help giving each other concussions in their attempts to sire the next generation of fawns. Wolves are merciless towards strange wolves who wander into their territory. Chimpanzees bicker for dominance, and kill individuals from other groups. 

But chimpanzees, wolves, stags, lions, and chickadees are nothing more than furry or feathered envelopes engineered to protect the real culprits: the implacable genes that will stop at nothing to keep themselves going. As Darwin proved, the individual is expendable; it’s the species that counts. Which, when I think about it, is beyond depressing, but at least it makes it possible for me to look more charitably on the chickadee, and find it in my heart to forgive him.


 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

My Friend, the Egg Timer

 In my quest to lead a responsible life, and to acquit myself of many onerous but essential tasks, the egg timer is my tool of choice. I refer to that clockwork gizmo—predictably shaped like an egg or a broody hen--that you can set for a maximum of sixty minutes (if you’re cooking an ostrich egg). It ticks loudly as its inner mechanism unwinds, and lets out an ear-splitting buzz when the time is up. 

This humble tool keeps my life on track by fooling me into thinking that it, and not I, is responsible for deciding when I can stop working on some unpleasant task. I realize that I am the one who sets the timer, but such is the mind’s capacity for self-deception that I can trick myself, when the buzzer buzzes, into believing that a higher authority—God, my mother, the German nuns who educated me—has deemed my obligation met, at least for the present, and I am free to pick up my needlepoint or watch another episode of “Call My Agent.” 

Take, for example, the task I most dislike: preparing income tax returns. Not only does it deal with boring things like forms and numbers, but it is also scary—what if I make a mistake that sets the IRS hounds on my trail? The combination of boring and scary is conducive to procrastination, guilt, anxiety, more procrastination, and the need to file for an extension.  But I am glad to report that this morning, thanks to my egg timer, I made a start on it. 

After setting the timer for sixty minutes, I assembled my files, a pad of yellow stickies, some paper clips, a black pen, a red pen, a pencil, a stapler, last year’s calendar, and a calculator.  The timer’s cheerful ticking kept me company as I sorted and compiled medical expenses, charitable contributions, 1099s, and random bits of paper, and before I knew it the buzzer buzzed. I shoved the lot into a box to await tomorrow’s session and went for a walk with my dog  Bisou, feeling like a kid let out for recess. 

House cleaning is another task I dread. The prospect of cleaning the house, or even cleaning just one room, throws me into existential despair. How will I feel, on my death bed, about the hours of my “one and precious life” I spent cleaning? Who even knows what “cleaning” means? One might begin with dusting, then press on with wiping, polishing, sweeping, vacuuming, and disinfecting, and never be heard from again. 

Again, the trick is to think “by the hour” rather than “by the job.” If it’s a dusting day, I set my timer for sixty minutes and begin. Perhaps when the timer rings I’m still in the room where I began, in which case I must have done a thorough job. But no matter how far or how well I have dusted, the egg timer has spoken, and I obey. 

On days when the sidewalks are icy, or the snow forms huge balls on Bisou’s “feathers,” I exercise her by throwing balls for her indoors, an activity that she adores. For me, despite my love for her, throwing balls the length of our cottage until she gets tired is sheer tedium. I try to focus on the moment, to take pleasure in her pleasure, to remember that this is the least I can do for a being who brings me such comfort. But the truth is, I am bored out of my mind. How long must I do this before I can in good conscience stop? 

Here again, the egg timer saves me. I set it for fifteen minutes, and then ignore it as it ticks away. Knowing that it’s in charge lets me enter into a mindless zone in which I throw the ball, praise her as she retrieves it, throw, praise, and throw again until the buzzer jolts me out of my hypnotic state. Then I put the ball away, and Bisou collapses into blissful sleep. 

I also use a timer for meditation. If I didn’t, I would be opening one eye to check the time every two minutes. But here I use the timer on my phone, which emits a bucolic cricket sound that doesn’t make me jump out of my skin. I could use the phone timer for everything else, but I am fond of the loud, companionable ticking of the analog machine. 

What about writing? Heaven knows we writers need tricks to get us going and to make the task seem less hopeless. But I don’t use a timer for writing because, when I am in full avoidance mode, even setting it for five minutes feels overwhelming. What I do instead is take a nap, one during which I may or may not sleep, but during which I allow my mind to ramble through its various wastelands. Then I get up and go to the computer, having made a solemn promise to myself that I will write a one single solitary sentence, no more. Next thing I know, I’ve written paragraphs.

But for everything else, nothing beats the egg timer.

Bisou after chasing balls

 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Winter Rabbit

A run-of-the-mill Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus (or “forest hare of Florida”), is spending the season under our porch. Despite his species name, he is no flatlander—like a true Vermonter, he knows how to get through the winter. He couldn’t ask for a more convenient accommodation: he only has to stick out his head to munch on the oil-rich sunflower seeds that rain down from the feeders under the eaves. When he’s feeling brave he lopes across the yard to nibble on the stalks of dormant bushes, and when he gets thirsty, he drinks out of the heated birdbath. 

I don’t have to look out the window to know his whereabouts. If my cat Telemann--who has finally, in his fourth year, learned that it’s impossible to hunt squirrels through the glass--is dashing from windowsill to windowsill, yowling and lashing his tail, I know the rabbit is out feeding. But if Telemann is lost in meditation, contemplating the endless snow of this endless winter, it means that the rabbit is under the porch. 

They are a dreary looking lot, my outdoor winter guests, rabbit and squirrels and birds in their grayish, brownish coats and plumage. Only the red head of the woodpecker and the smear of pale orange under the titmouse’s wings bring relief from the drabness, and I find myself longing for the rusty red of the fox. 

Where, come to think of it, is the fox? What’s become of last year’s family? By now the new litter should be nursing in the den across the road, and their father, the dog fox (whose spouse is not the bitch fox, but rather the vixen--don’t you love the English language?) should be coming by on his hunt, morning and evening, like he did last year. Heaven knows that my squirrels, not to mention the bunny, have reached perfect dinner size, with enough fat calories to satisfy all the fox’s dependents. 

Perhaps the foxes have left for good, in which case I will miss them, with their elegant coats, black stockings, and clever smiles. And I will also miss the life-and-death dramas that they enacted under my window, which gave me a shameful kind of thrill, not unlike what the more sensitive Romans must have felt at the circus. 

If the foxes stay away, my rabbit will probably make it to the spring, and will then get busy making more rabbits. I will not depress you with wild rabbit survival statistics, which are dismal, but the taste for rabbit is widespread in Nature.  Depending on size, not just foxes, but dogs, cats, owls, hawks, bobcats, snakes, and humans eat them. So to keep the species going, the poor things have to procreate nonstop. 

Does the rabbit under my porch know that he’s not likely to live to his first birthday? Is he anxious about food and shelter and predators? Does he feel that this winter has been going on for eons, like I do? 

I used to love Vermont winters—the cold, the snow, the bare woods, the silence. It felt good to take a break from warm-weather chores and hibernate along with the chipmunks and the bears. But now I, along with the rest of (responsible) humanity, have been hibernating for twelve months straight, and it’s getting old. 

Unlike my rabbit and too many of my fellow citizens, I am not anxious about food, shelter, or predators (except for the merciless invisible spherical one). The sources of entertainment at my fingertips—Kindle, computer, TV—offer way more than I can even begin to consume. As for human contact, I have a spouse at my fingertips, plus zoom, phone, and masked walks with friends. And it’s not as if in normal times I was an avid shopper/hiker/concert goer/restaurant diner/traveler. So what is lacking in my life? 

Perhaps during the last twelve months I have contracted the equivalent of a spiritual virus that has left me unable to even imagine things to want. The color of my mood is not blue, but rather dun: gray with touches of brown and occasional white—a lot like the coloring of my friend the cottontail. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed. I’m just…meh. 

But I know one thing that will make me and most living things in this hemisphere feel better. A couple of days ago I was out in below 20 F weather, getting some fresh air before the next snow storm, when up in a Bradford pear tree I heard a bird singing--the first one in, like, forever. Not just a couple of random tweets, either, but a full-throated, full-hearted aria that was then answered from the top of another Bradford pear by another singer. I stood transfixed, as if Saint Cecilia herself had descended from heaven with her harp. And while I was looking up into the branches, trying to find the source of that passionate rivulet of sound, I felt the warmth of the sun touch the exposed skin between my hat and my mask. 

So never mind the woodchuck’s forecast. Spring is on the way.

 



 


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Artichoke on My Face

“And then God sent an angel to pick blackberries,” my mother says, tucking me in. “He chose the two biggest, darkest ones and gave them to you for eyes. Another angel brought two roses for your cheeks, and he then flew to one of heaven’s cherry trees and brought down the ripest cherry for your lips." 

My eyes are starting to close, but she goes on. “But then God sent a younger angel, one that didn’t have a lot of experience, to look for something to make your nose. And that silly angel went to the vegetable garden and picked an artichoke, and God plopped it in the middle of your face.” As I nod off the Catalan word for artichoke, carxofa, seems to perfectly recreate the sound and feel of God plopping the artichoke on my face. 

But I am no more worried about having a carxofa on my face than I am flattered by the blackberry and cherry clichés. What sticks in my mind is the miraculous care and attention—all because of my specialness--that my creation story presupposes on the part of God, the angels, and my mother. 

It is only when I am a few years older that I realize what the artichoke metaphor is all about: I have inherited the Benejam nose. According to my mother, that nose, which my father got, along with his musical talent, from his mother, is disproportionately broad. The Benejam nose sits in the middle of our faces like an artichoke among the fruits and blossoms of an otherwise pleasing still-life. 

I don’t perceive any meanness in my mother’s tone when she critiques the Benejam nose. Heaven knows she loves my father and me to death. I have to grow a little older before I realize that, coming from someone with a narrow, more classically correct nose, her talk about the noses of her beloveds carries a whiff of schadenfreude. 

Oddly enough, this does not give me a nose complex. Even at the nadir of my adolescence, when I deplore most aspects of my anatomy (too much hair, not thin enough, etc.), my nose ranks low among my concerns. Rather, in my longing to draw close to my father, I like to think that the resemblance of our noses is an outward sign of the deep bond between us.

If my mother does not stint her observations about my nose, she is equally unsparing of her own perceived shortcomings. The chief one among these, according to her, is her legs, which are slightly bowed—something I would never have noticed if she hadn’t brought it up. And she in turn heaps praise on my legs, which she says are straight and perfect as Greek columns. 

Neither my artichoke nose nor my columnar legs have much emotional impact on me as a child. What does put an indelible mark on my psyche is my mother’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Hearing her analyze other women’s appearance in clinical detail—eyes too small and close together, nice long neck, pity about those short arms—I learn to pay close attention to looks, mine and everyone else’s. 

Now I am in tenth grade, and my mother is concerned about my teeth. It seems that my jaws are too small, or my teeth too big, and she takes me to the orthodontist because, as she explains to a friend, “nobody is likely to marry this child for her money, so we need to make sure she looks as good as possible.” Braces are only the latest in her list of improvements, following years of orthotics for my supposedly flat feet, and surgery to correct my errant left eye. 

I am grateful to my mother for her proactive attitude towards my appearance. Thanks to her my eyes and teeth are reasonably straight, my feet well arched. But I’m glad that she left my carxofa nose alone. These days I am often startled, when passing in front of a mirror, by what looks like the ghost of my mother. When did I grow to be so like her? But if I stop and look closer, there in the middle of my face is my nose, in all its Benejam splendor, to remind me that I am also my father’s daughter.




Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Revelation

I am wandering around in our house in Quito—the one my mother chose because it has the best views of the surrounding volcanoes—looking for something to read. There wasn’t much room in the three suitcases that the airline allowed us when we left Barcelona, so this house is almost bare of books. It is almost bare of furniture, too, and in the kitchen there is only one big pot for boiling water (what comes out of the spigot is full of parasites that we’ve been told might kill us) and a frying pan for omelets. We believe that we’re here for only one year, so we’re sort of camping out. 

On the dining room table, among a stack of letters from Spain, I notice my mother’s passport. In the photo, my mother looks especially happy, because she is about to fly to the wilds of South America. (My mother is the most beautiful woman I know, as beautiful as the statues of the Virgin Mary that I see in church—not the ones where She’s holding her dead Son, but the ones where He’s still a baby.) 

Below the photo I read, Date of Birth: February 28, 1918. But this cannot be. We’re in 1955, which means that my mother is…thirty-seven years old! I repeat the math, just to make sure, and there it is again, that appalling, fateful number that tells me that my mother is extremely old, and will die soon. 

As I stand holding the passport, the room swims and darkens around me. A ghostly hand squeezes my ten-year-old insides, and my breath feels as tight as when I run in Quito’s 9,000 ft altitude. My father is upstairs, rehearsing Dvorak with his string quartet. My mother is taking a nap. I am alone with my terrible secret--because it is a secret, and must remain so. I cannot reveal to my mother that she is in imminent danger of dying of old age, because the knowledge might kill her on the spot. Let her spend her remaining days in blissful ignorance. I must deal with this horror alone. 

My mother, dead—I can no more imagine that than I can imagine my own non-existence. The sense that she is essential to my survival is as deeply rooted in me as if I were still in her womb. But yet here she is, an impossibly ancient woman of thirty-seven, with perhaps just a few years or even months left to live. 

What will happen to me when she dies? Although I know that my father is a few years older than she, the realization of her imminent mortality is too overwhelming, and leaves no space for wondering how long he will last, or what my life with him will be like. No, when my mother dies I will be left alone in this strange country of volcanoes and no seasons, left to find my way back to Spain somehow. 

If I had come across my mother’s passport in Barcelona, I would have had two sets of grandparents nearby, all of them older than thirty-seven, yet going about their business without so much as a cane to lean on. Or I might have confided in one of my mother’s sisters, who would have mocked me a little, and jollied me out of my fright. 

But all those people are far away now, across the Atlantic, and here I am face-to-face with my mother, carrying my dreadful knowledge. Our uninterrupted mother-daughter duet, now that the buffer of grandparents, aunts, and uncles is gone, is beginning to weigh on me. Without her in-laws to please, her parents to worry about, and her sisters to shop and argue with, my mother is free to concentrate on me: my posture (slouched); my hair (in my face); my smile, or lack of it. In our nearly empty Quito house, there is nowhere for me to hide. 

But in the secret recesses of my cells, the hormonal tides are rising. The feathers that will power my future lifelong flight away from my mother are beginning to sprout. This wordless sorrow at the thought of losing her, my utter inability to envision life without her presence, are the last fraying threads of the cord that has bound me to her from conception. 

For now, however, the rumbles of my oncoming puberty are too faint for me to hear. As for my mother, she is in her glory, surrounded by volcanoes, having adventures that she could not have imagined as a child in her Catalan village. Her husband adores her, and the Dvorak sounds divine. The Amazon beckons, with its orchids, ocelots, and head-hunting tribes, and the best is yet to come. After all, she’s only thirty-seven. 



Thursday, January 21, 2021

Drowned Men's Undershirts

Summer, 1947. My grandparents’ farm, in a valley at the foot of the Pyrenees. In the afternoon, after the siesta, which is necessary because being out in the midday sun is considered suicidal, my parents take me along on their walk. 

First, however, we have to find the sailor hat without which I am not allowed to go outdoors. My mother has a complicated relationship to the sun. On the one hand, she thinks it essential to my proper growth, and after one week in the country I turn as dark as a hazelnut, a process that the entire family encourages and applauds. 

On the other hand, going outside without a hat puts me in immediate danger of catching an insolació (sunstroke), believed to cause malaise, fits, and hallucinations. When my mother warns me against insolació, I imagine the hot yellow sun drilling into my skull, gilding my brain and the inside of my face and my throat all the way down to my stomach, making me glow like a lightbulb. 

The fact that my Mediterranean DNA has provided me from birth with an inch-thick thatch of hair to protect me from the rays of our favorite star does not assuage my mother’s fears. When she finds the white sailor hat, she plops it on top of my curls and leads me out the back door. A couple of semi-feral barn cats, alerted to the possibility of bread crusts by the squeaky hinges, scatter when they see my empty hands. 

My parents’ afternoon walks are of two kinds. The short version takes us along the dirt road from the farm house, past a wheat field, up a gentle slope to the threshing floor and the big hay barn. The long walk leads to the irrigation canal that, first envisioned by the Arabs in the 10th century and completed in the early years of the 20th, transformed the valley from a semi-arid wasteland into a paradise of green fields and almond, olive, and fruit orchards. 

The canal’s broad swath of brown water runs placidly between high banks bordered by shade trees. My parents and I walk on the narrow path alongside, my father holding my left hand and my mother my right to prevent me from succumbing to a fit of toddler insanity and diving in. 

We’ve been walking a while, and I’m getting bored. I want to go back to the house. “But we can’t go back now,” my father says. “We’re almost at the weir. Don’t you want to see the waterfall?” Long before we reach it, I can hear the water rushing over the top of the weir wall. I can tell that we are getting closer because my mother tightens her grip on my hand, the way she does in Barcelona when we are about to cross the street. At the fall, my father picks me up so I can see the thrilling sight. 

I am both horrified and fascinated by the noise, which is louder even than the thunderstorms that we watch from the covered terrace of the farmhouse. And I am intrigued by the water, which was a dull sepia in the peaceful stretches, but now gradually pales as it plunges until, at the bottom, it forms a roiling, boiling mass of bright white spume. 

“That’s enough, Lluís,” my mother says. “Get away from there. You’re making me nervous.” My father retreats, and puts me down, repeating the lesson I have heard a thousand times, “You know that you must never, ever go near the water, especially here at the weir.” And this time my mother adds something new: “The waterfall is so dangerous, that even grown men have fallen in and drowned.” 

Grown men drowned in the canal! My mind, ever determined to make sense of the world’s weirdness, seizes on this as the obvious explanation for the white froth churning at the bottom of the fall: it consists of the drowned men’s undershirts. 

My parents take my hands and we turn back towards the house, and my afternoon snack (dinner is at 10 p.m.). In the damp, shadowy kitchen, which smells of drains and potato peels, my grandmother drizzles olive oil onto a thick slice of crusty bread. 

“Where did you go on your walk?” she asks. 

“We went to the canal, all the way to the weir, and I saw the undershirts of the drowned men.” 

“The undershirts of…” she echoes, peering at me closely. 

She hands me the bread, wipes her hands on her apron, and goes to find my mother. “Did the child wear her hat when you took her out this afternoon? I ask because she may have caught an insolació . She said she had seen the undershirts of drowned men….” 

My parents and I on the canal path



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Baby Carriage

The vehicle in which I rode as an infant was a kind of horseless barouche, black as a hearse, with a large hood that could be folded back to allow for the beneficial effects of sunshine. Set high on its four wheels, it enabled the adult pushing it to maintain uninterrupted eye contact with the infant contained in its depths. It had excellent suspension—I can still feel its comfortable bounce as my mother wheeled me over the cobbled streets of Barcelona. 

Once I was old enough to sit up, my mother removed the middle portion of the carriage bed, which left two small benches at either end. How I loved those benches! The endless possibility of choice they offered--now the front one! Now the back one!--in a life otherwise ruled entirely by others, made me feel powerful, self-reliant, free. 

I owe my earliest memory to that baby carriage. It is the summer before my first birthday—it has to be summer because in the photo the carriage is parked on a dirt road, and dirt roads belonged to summer. Someone is telling me to be still so that I can have my picture taken, but instead of sitting still I plop my bottom back and forth from one of the little benches to the other. With the big head and black hair of a court dwarf by Velázquez, my eyes squinting in the sun and my tongue poking out of my toothless mouth, I am being disobedient, and bursting at the seams with the sheer gloriousness of me. 

There is no question of the identity of the photographer. My father’s camera is as much an expression of his masculinity as his violin, and it would no more occur to my mother to take a picture than he would be inspired to fry a sardine for my dinner. I also know that my father was the photographer because of the certainty, which has remained intact for three-quarters of a century, that my momentary misbehavior is being watched with smiling benevolence, a quality that I associate with my father rather than my mother, who despite her affection is unswerving in the immediate enforcement of her commands. 

My father, summer-brown in his white polo shirt, the only garment that exposed his hairy forearms. My father, who loved the countryside with the fervent passion of the city-dweller and who, freed from the round of rehearsals and performances, would, during the siesta hour when he could neither practice the violin nor compose at the piano, take my grandparents’ horse and cart for a leisurely ride to the next village, feasting his eyes on the orchards, fields, and hedgerows of my mother’s native landscape. My father, the all-but invisible recorder of my childhood, who would suddenly materialize with his camera, saying, “Quick, go outside! I want to take your picture.” 

And I would stand, more obediently with each passing year, my espadrilles sunk in white summer dust, my skin tanned the color of a hazelnut, and my eyes squeezed tight against the glare of the Mediterranean sun.