ORIENTATION

One thing I’ve noticed about gardening — not only do I lose myself in it and sort of drift away in my mind, but sometimes I wind up in an awkward position trying to reach a particular plant or branch.

Yesterday I was on my knees reaching past red-blossomed Egyptian starcluster when all of a sudden I heard an unfamiliar voice. It seemed just inches from my ear.

“Why do you do it like that?” the voice said.

I just about jumped out of my skin.

“Jesus!” I said.

“So sorry!”

I turned to my left. I was face-to-face with a large, bright green praying mantis.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” the mantis said.

“No, it’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting it.”

“Sometimes I see you lined up to do something with your right hand,” said the mantis, “like that’s how your whole body is oriented. But then you reach across and do the task with your left hand.”

“I do?” I said.

“It’s none of my business, of course,” said the mantis. “I just see you twisting like that, and you’re so big and capable, you do so many complicated things all day long –“

“Not really,” I said.

“I just wondered if there was a logic to it,” said the mantis, “some advantage you get from doing it that way.”

“In my own group,” the mantis added, “if we were oriented like you are, if we were facing that way and we needed to do something over here –“

The mantis reached out its left foreleg.

“Then we would use this.”

It extended the same foreleg, then retracted it. Twice.

“Or we would do this,” said the mantis, quickly bringing its forelegs together as if to catch a fly.

“That makes sense,” I said, admiring the precise and delicate agility of the mantis. “But in humans, one hand becomes dominant. Over time we get better at using it for certain tasks. Like throwing a ball or writing. Or using tools.”

“Ah,” said the mantis.

“In my own case,” I said, “I’m right-handed.”

“You do line up that way,” said the mantis, “but then you use the left hand.”

“Maybe you’re right. I never really noticed it.”

“It just seems so … well, I don’t want to put a label on it. It’s not something my group would do. For us, orientation is everything. Well, and balance.”

“Your balance is amazing,” I said. “I saw a friend of yours yesterday. He was upside down!”

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and scrolled through recent images.

“This guy,” I said holding up the phone.

“He’s not my friend,” said the mantis.

“Oh no,” I said. “Really?”

“He is not in my group,” said the mantis.

“Well, he is a mantis, though,” I said, studying the photo. “Different species, I guess.”

“If you’re more skilled with your right hand,” said the mantis, “why do you use the left for your phone?”

“For the phone we use both hands,” I said.

“But you’re holding it right now with the left,” the mantis said. “And you showed me the picture using the left.”

“Honestly I don’t stop and think about each little movement like that,” I said. “And just because one hand is dominant, it doesn’t mean we use only that hand. We use both.”

Just as I said “both,” the mantis snapped his two forelegs together and snared a tiny caterpillar.

“Wow,” I said. “That was quick.”

“Sorry to do it while we’re talking,” the mantis said. “I was waiting a long time for it to come out from under that leaf.”

“Is it tasty?”

“Very!”

I had never watched a mantis eating up close. I was astounded by the mechanics of the mouth. There appeared to be five or six different moving parts. It wasn’t disgusting exactly, but it was profoundly alien. Parts of the mouth looked like a very tiny version of that claw mechanism on the arcade game where you try to pick up a toy or stuffed animal.

“More of a snack than an actual meal,” the mantis said, finishing up. “In any event, quite rude of me to eat while we talk.”

“Not at all,” I said.

“Did you notice how I grabbed it?”

“Both legs,” I said.

“Did you see how I was positioned? I barely had to move.”

“You were ready for him.”

“Now if it’s okay,” the mantis said, “I would like to ask you a more personal question.”

“Of course,” I said.

“I’m not sure exactly how to phrase it.”

“Well, you’re not going to hurt my feelings, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Very generous of you,” said the mantis. “I do find myself embarrassed even to mention it, but yes, oh dear … your, ah, limbs. You have four of those?”

“I do.”

“I see,” the mantis said gravely.

After a long pause the mantis said, “Is this a reality which you experience as perilous and terrifying? Or just deeply sad?”

“No, no,” I said. “None of those things.”

“Really?” said the mantis, brightening.

“Having two legs and two arms is all I’ve ever known,” I said. “That’s how we humans are designed. Now it’s true that some people have only one leg. If they were in a war, for instance, or if they got attacked by a shark. Some people don’t have any legs.”

“Oh god,” said the mantis.

“My point is, if a millipede were to ask you a similar question — ‘do you feel the lack of all these many legs which we millipedes have’ — you would probably just laugh, right?”

“I think I would!” said the delighted mantis.

“As a human, I’m only meant to have two legs and two arms,” I said.

“You get along quite nicely on the bottom ones,” the mantis said. “It’s remarkable.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“However, you may still have some thinking to do about the other thing. The twisty, reachy business. I’m not sure we did get to the bottom of that.”

“Haha, okay,” I said, “I’ll give it some thought.”

“I shouldn’t have been able to startle you like I did,” the mantis said. “You’re so much larger than I am. But you were all twisted up and out of position.”

“That’s different,” I said. “I just wasn’t paying attention. If I’d been in a slower, more mindful state, then yes, I’d have seen you right off the bat, even before I knelt down. That’s a state-of-mind problem, not a posture problem.”

Everything is a posture problem,” the mantis said. “Or as my group likes to say, if the orientation is right, you can catch the Right Before!”

“I’m not sure I follow that one,” I said.

“The ‘right before’ is the moment which already happened, just now. It’s the most immediate past,” said the mantis. “Maybe the saying doesn’t translate. It just means, if the attitude and orientation toward object are correct, you can accomplish anything. Even that which seems impossible.”

“I love that,” I said. “I’ll remember it.”

“My pleasure,” said the mantis. “I’ll let you get back to it then.”

He tilted his tiny, shovel-shaped head down toward the weeds.

As I knelt forward and went back to work, I could hear him singing out his cheerful aphorisms in the early-evening stillness behind me.

Action follows alignment!

We catch the Right Before!

Posted in ANIMALS, SPIRIT | 11 Comments

NEVER SHIRKED A TASK

My wife and daughter were at a party last weekend. One of the guests asked where I was.

“He’s at home,” my daughter said, “talking to insects.”

Which, first of all, thank you. I feel seen.

But second, and for the record, I don’t only talk to insects.

I also listen.

No one likes a nonstop talker.

In other news, I’m headed to Montana tomorrow to meet up with my siblings and our mom. We’re going to spread the ashes of our father, Thomas A. Troyer, who died in May at age 88.

Each of us had our own relationship with Dad, and in my own case — as the fourth and final child, and a late-arriving one at that — the relationship was a little more hands-off.

Dad basically left me to my own devices and was the opposite of a helicopter parent. He was happy to help me if I asked. But he never tried to control who my friends were, what colleges I applied to, what career I chose, who I married, anything like that. He was by nature a private man, and he was happy to extend that same courtesy to others. He didn’t pry or meddle. Even as a kid I appreciated that.

My father was extremely intelligent. Supposedly he graduated second in his class at Harvard in 1955. I say ‘supposedly’ only because by the time I went there myself, spot-by-spot rankings weren’t released, only quintile placement, and I’m not sure the system was any different in his time.

That said, to the extent my dad was himself the source for this bit of family lore, then I trust it absolutely. He grew up in Omaha, Neb., in the 1930s and 40s, and absorbed the values of that time and place. Bragging was a big no-no, same with putting on airs.

I remember two times in my life when Dad chastised me. One time I deserved it, the other I didn’t. But both times he did the admonishing quietly and privately. Which, again, I appreciated.

In the first instance, he went to pick me up from soccer practice one evening. This almost never happened. He worked long hours, and my mom — or other moms — usually handled soccer carpool. I was 10 or 11 years old. My dad was supposed to pick up me and my two closest friends. When he arrived, he found just one of us at the pick-up area. And that lone boy was upset because I and the other friend had ditched him. We’d run off to some other part of the park, and it was evening, and this boy didn’t know who was picking him up or where his friends had disappeared to. He was sad and frightened. His feelings were hurt.

By the time I arrived back at the pick-up site, I realized I had violated two of my dad’s cardinal rules — don’t be late and, more importantly, be kind to others. He didn’t say anything till later when we were alone. Even then he kept it short. I’d been mean to a friend, and he was disappointed.

The other time Dad admonished me, he was in error. Again the incident involved soccer. My team had scrimmaged another team and beaten them badly. Days later my father, who had not been at the scrimmage, bumped into a fellow lawyer whose child was on the losing team. The man said our team had been poor winners and there had been trash talk.

From the way my dad relayed this allegation, he seemed to think I’d been among the offenders. I had not been. But because I was quite young at the time — maybe just 8 or 9 — and because my father’s disappointment was so rare and frightening, I couldn’t find the words to protest my innocence. I just listened and nodded, miserable.

Dad said something to the effect of, We don’t do that. We’re good sports whether we win or lose.

Even though that particular talking-to felt unjust, I learned from it. It underlined the importance of sportsmanship. As a soccer player, I wasn’t big or strong or fast. But I had stamina, a strong will to compete, and — thanks partly to the misunderstanding with Dad — good sportsmanship. I always tried as hard as possible and kept my mouth shut toward opponents and referees.

All of which makes my dad sound rigid and severe. Those moments were the exception. The norm was kindness, generosity, and a dry sense of humor. He was an excellent listener, too.

He let us have dogs growing up. He took us on wonderful summer vacations in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. He taught us how to fly-fish and ride horses and go camping. In fall and winter he took my older brothers bird hunting. In spring he took us all to Caribbean islands. He would go snorkeling with us or deep-sea fishing. When we played doubles in tennis, he would give me a heads-up before hitting the ball my way. I was younger than the others, and he wanted to make sure I got a fair chance.

He paid fully for all our college educations. None of us had any debt when we graduated.

When my mother was pushing my brother Ken to apply to medical school, my father took a different tack. He sat down with Ken, talked about his own life choices at that age, and said Ken should do what made Ken himself happy. Don’t worry about trying to please others, Dad said.

Dad was intense, and could be quirky or even embarrassing. One time he objected loudly from the stands about a referee’s decision in a pro hockey game: “Picayune offenses like that are enforced while gross atrocities go unpunished??”

So yeah, he didn’t blend in great in blue-collar settings.

He could be single-minded to the point of obsession. On a trip to Alaska one year, he and I fished for salmon on Kodiak Island. Our guide warned us and the other guests that underweight grizzly bears, fresh from hibernation and ravenously hungry, might occasionally see that we’d hooked a salmon and go ambling into the water to try to steal it off our line.

In such a case, the guide said, we were to let our lines go slack and not try to land the fish.

Dad ignored this rule all day long. Each time it was a race between him and the bear for who would grab the fish first. The guide and other guests would yell out to Dad. I’d plead with him in my quiet, worried way. Dad disregarded all of us. He’d come a long way and paid a lot. He was going to catch every damn salmon he could.

On another occasion he was fishing at a spot in Montana which was allegedly off-limits. A man walked up to confront him. Dad didn’t look up, didn’t really even acknowledge the guy’s presence, just kept laying out long, flawless fly-casts in search of rainbow trout or German browns.

“I got half a mind to punch your lights out,” the man said finally.

“Go ahead,” Dad said, watching his fly as it floated downstream. “I’ll sue for you assault and battery.”

Eventually the man just shook his head and walked away.

And then there was the time Dad shot a guy in the face.

He was bird-hunting in Kansas with my brother Bob and a local guide. By this point in his 60s — but still utterly single-minded during a hunt — Dad shot at a bobwhite quail whose location and flight path ran right up against the outer limits of good hunter safety. That is, the guide caught a couple of tiny birdshot pellets in the cheek.

No harm, not foul, ultimately. And the trip continued. But my brother was incredulous on the final day of the trip when Dad objected to Bob tipping the guide.

Dad didn’t think the man had been particularly helpful.

To which Bob said, “Dad. You shot him. In the face.”

As the years went on, my father got a raw deal, health wise. He was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in his mid 50s and then Parkinson’s disease in his early 70s. His beautiful mind began to deteriorate. He’d confuse me with Bob. He’d ask me over and over where I lived, whether I did any hunting, whether I had a dog.

He was never the angry, agitated type of dementia patient. He was unfailingly mild and gentle, easily moved to tears by movies or by any account of misfortune to a pet, loved one, or a caregiver’s relative.

He was also stoic as hell, his whole life. An injury or ailment had to be pretty far along before the rest of us heard about it.

Here’s a link to his obituary, which lists some of the impressive things he did in his public life. He was a pioneer in the field of U.S. tax law and charities. Organizations which he helped get off the ground include: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.

Even more impressive to me, though, was his private life. He was loyal to my mother, devoted to us children. He was happiest at home with us or in the wilderness with us. He never drove a fancy car. He didn’t enjoy parties. He never sought attention or talked about accomplishments. In his 40s, he was put on a short list to be Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. I think he would have enjoyed that challenge and done an excellent job. But he removed himself from consideration due to worries about income. He had a young family, was still early in his career, and did not come from a wealthy family himself. Most of all he just wanted to provide for us. That was his priority.

He wasn’t a religious man. He basically thought of religion as superstition. The scripture in our house consisted of two movies, which we all knew by heart — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Jeremiah Johnson. Quotes from these were the idioms we used with one another.

I figured secretly you wanted to know.

Hell, the fall will probably kill ya.

Small price to pay for beauty.

Everything’s always gotta be perfect with you.

But it was another western which my brother Ken quoted right after my father died. We were at the bedside. We were all crying. And then Ken recalled three simple lines from an epitaph in the Larry McMurtry novel Lonesome Dove.

Cheerful in all weathers
Never shirked a task
Splendid behavior

That is indeed how I think of my father.

There’s a scene the TV show Normal People — a college student named Connell is on the phone with his mother back home. She asks about his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He gives an answer which she doesn’t find entirely satisfying. She knows the girl has been suffering, and she’s concerned her son may have played a part.

“I don’t know what you want me to say, Conn,” she says.

“You could try, you know, being on my side,” he says.

“I don’t want to be on your side this time, Conn,” she says.

I’m quoting from memory, but that’s the gist. This exchange moved me. It reminded me of my father feeling bad for the boy whom I’d left stranded in the twilight after soccer practice.

To the extent I wound up doing anything right as a parent myself, I tend to trace it back to Dad, whose kindness was especially notable because his own father had not been particularly warm or emotionally available.

Dad was never overly invested in our professional success, nor in the daily minutiae of our lives. He believed those were fundamentally our own business. He wanted us to be happy, he was available if we needed help. And he believed every household probably ought to have a dog or two. Apart from that, he wasn’t going to second-guess or pass judgment. He didn’t see it as his place.

At the end of his life, when his thinking and speaking were so severely limited, Dad’s most frequent remark was to my mother: “I love you, Sally.”

Splendid behavior indeed.

Ken and Dad, holding the 8-lb 5-oz brown trout Dad caught in Minnesota as a young man
Posted in CHILD REARING, DOGS, HEROES, MOVIES, MY CHILDHOOD, SPIRIT | 66 Comments

FIRST AN APOLOGY

I followed a Monarch butterfly today as it floated along the sidewalk.

Or maybe it was a Painted Lady. I’m not sure.

When it landed in flowering lantana near Irving Street, I found a spot at what seemed like a polite distance and sat down on a rock wall.

Two cars went past. I could hear an airplane somewhere overhead. The day was extremely warm.

I’ve read your blog,” the butterfly said. “The beetles, the mites, all that.”

“And?”

“It’s cute,” she said.

The way she said ‘cute,’ you could tell she didn’t think much of the blog.

Or maybe she thought I had been interviewing lesser animals.

“If you and I are going to talk,” she said, “I have some rules.”

“I love it!” I said. “I’m all about rules.”

“First you need to apologize.”

“Oh no,” I said. “For what?”

“You killed many of us in the desert,” she said. “When you lived there, you would drive your machine right through us.”

She wasn’t wrong. A long time ago I worked as a newspaper reporter in Victorville, Calif., which is in the Mojave Desert. Butterflies would migrate through the area each year, thousands of them. When you stopped for gas, you had to squeegee the bright yellow bug-splatter off your windshield.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I mean, obviously I wasn’t the only –“

“Thank you for the apology. I accept it,” the butterfly said. “Now let’s talk about your great-grandfather.”

“He loved butterflies!” I said. “There’s a species named after him, I think.”

“He loved us,” the butterfly said, “but he also killed us.”

And this too was true. My mother remembers being shown his butterfly collection when she was a young girl in Nebraska in the early 1940s. The collection was extensive and impeccably kept. Later it was donated to a university. But up close my mother was shocked to see what ‘collecting’ entailed. The butterflies were all dead, a pin through the center of each lovely one. The whole enterprise seemed distasteful to her, even violent.

“Do you want me to apologize for what my great-grandfather did?” I said. “I’m willing to do that if —“

“No. You bear no responsibility for his actions,” the butterfly said. “But we need to acknowledge the past.”

“I get that,” I said. “I … acknowledge it?”

“There was a lot of suffering and death,” the butterfly said. “It continues today.”

A car went past on the street. In the distance we heard the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up.

“What are the machines for?” the butterfly asked.

“Cars? They’re actually super useful,” I said. “They take us places.”

“Because you can’t walk?”

“Of course we can walk. But if you’re going someplace far, or like, not even far but you’re bringing back groceries or whatever. I’m just saying — cars aren’t going away. If that’s what you’re getting at.”

“I know they aren’t going away. I merely want to understand,” the butterfly said. “And I want the two us to acknowledge the suffering they cause.”

“Done,” I said.

As soon as I said it, I regretted how quick and sort of business-like it sounded.

“What would you like to ask me?” the butterfly said.

“Wait, can I have a do-over?” I said. “The way I said that last thing … I just meant it like, an enthusiastic Yes!, you know? I didn’t mean to be dismissive.”

“What would you like to ask?”

“So many questions! For starters — “

“But if you could ask only one question,” the butterfly said, “what would that be?”

“Why only one?”

It’s a good exercise,” she said.

“How about three?” I said. “Three seems like a reasonable compromise.”

“See whether you can boil it down,” she said. “What is the one thing you’d give anything to know about me?”

“How will I write about you if I get just one question?”

“Is that the only way you learn about someone?” she said. “Q&A?”

“No. I describe what they look like and, you know, their behavior …. Would it be okay if I moved slightly closer?”

“You may.”

I stood up and walked to the front edge of the bushes. It felt wrong to be standing above her and looking down, so I looked for a spot to kneel. I got as comfortable as I could and began to study her.

“Do you mind moving to your left?” she said.

“Of course,” I said. “Why?”

“It’s my better side,” she said.

Her two sides looked identical to me, but I was touched by the moment of vanity. You think animals are above that sort of thing, you forget they still have their quirks.

She balanced on the branch, staying stock-still even as the branch bobbed ever so slightly under her negligible weight. She was so elegant and delicate. That such a creature existed at all seemed improbable.

And then there was the space-alien aspect, too. Up close, insects look like intergalactic creatures — big eyes, antennae, inscrutable faces, acute sensitivity to any nearby movement. They seem possibly hyper-intelligent.

“You may move closer,” the butterfly said.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to crowd you.”

It occurred to me how generous she was being with her time. I don’t know how long butterflies live, but if you convert it to human time, she was basically spending years on our interaction.

I had so many questions to ask — what flying felt like, whether she had migrated from Mexico, whether she had memories of the cocoon. But then a random question occurred to me, and it just popped out.

“Are you a parent?” I asked.

“Is that your one question?”

“It is,” I said.

“I am a parent,” she said proudly.

“Me too,” I said, less confidently.

“It’s pretty intense sometimes,” I added.

“Very,” said the butterfly. It sounded like she was smiling when she said it. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes you can hear that.

“I want to apologize again about the desert,” I said. “I feel very ashamed about that.”

“It’s okay,” the butterfly said. “You needed to go places.”

“I guess.”

“Speaking of which,” she said, “unfortunately it’s time for me to take my leave.”

She opened her wings and gave a soft, prepatory flutter. I realized I’d been dreading this moment.

“Will we see each other again?” I said.

“I’m afraid that’s unlikely,” the butterfly said.

I stood up.

“I really enjoyed this,” I said.

“Take good care,” she said.

She lifted off and began to float away. As she did, I felt that pang you get when you say goodbye for real. It’s no joke, that type of goodbye.

Posted in ANIMALS, SPIRIT | 12 Comments

FICUS LYRATA

I saw a lovely figeater beetle yesterday in my front yard.

Do you know the ones I mean? The shiny green ones?

It bumbled here and there, then flew just high enough to clear the gate to the back yard.

I opened the gate hoping to follow. But the beetle turned around — in mid air! — as if to confront me.

“Stalker!” it whispered.

“No, I was just– ”

“I’m serious! Back off!”

“I didn’t mean to chase you,” I said.

“Are you allowed back here?” the beetle asked, eyeing the open gate behind me.

What do you mean? I live here,” I said.

Ben lives here,” said the beetle.

“Who is Ben?” I asked.

“If you lived here,” said the beetle, “you would know that, wouldn’t you?”

“But I’m telling you,” I said, “I do live here.”

“Then why don’t you know Ben?”

I took a deep breath.

“It feels like we’re talking past each other a little bit,” I said. “Can you tell me more about Ben? Maybe I know him by a different name? I have a son, but I know him as Jesse –“

“Is he an old-world ficus? About this tall?” The beetle flew to a spot just above eye-level.

“I mean, that’s roughly Jesse’s height…”

“Old-world ficus,” said the beetle. “I guess they’re also called fiddle leaf figs. Or banjo figs.”

“Hold on,” I said, “I think I know what you’re talking about.”

I walked to the northwest corner of the yard, where my wife and kids don’t like to go because there are too many insects. The trellis overhead is thick with ivy and creeping vines. I like the spot for the shade. And because no one else goes there. Sometimes you can find a grasshopper or praying mantis. At night you hear the occasional rat or opossom scramble across the canopy.

When the kids were little, we tried to call this area Fairyland. The concept never really took.

Later we offered it as a place where the kids could practice shooting hockey pucks against a heavy wood board. Again, no dice.

The spot feels a bit like the commercial property where restaurant after restaurant fails. Do you know what I mean? Like the feng shui is off or something.

When our dog was still alive, he would poop in this part of the yard, so my wife rebranded it yet again. Fairyland became Shitland.

But eventually the dog died, and there was no more shit to pick up. Nowadays I use the spot as a hiding place. I go there to read or write, or to putter around re-potting plants and putting away garden tools.

“Is this Ben?” I said.

I pointed to an old, neglected ficus beside the fence. It was still in its original plastic tub. It had grown at a severe, sideways angle. In search of sunlight, I guess. The leaves were dusty. Spider webs covered the top. I honestly could not recall having watered the plant even once.

I turned to the beetle, which was suddenly just inches from my face. The beetle was … I don’t know even know how to describe it. Its whole little body was vibrating at a very high frequency. Just absolutely buzzing.

“Can you feeeel it?” it said, chattering.

“Feel what?”

“Oh my god … Intennnnse …”

I decided to give the beetle a moment to experience … well, whatever it was experiencing.

I took a seat at the little Moroccan-style table my wife bought years ago. This table, like me, has been gradually exiled to dustier, more distant parts of the property.

The delirious beetle eventually floated back to me, alighting on bougainvillea.

“THAT!” said the exhausted insect. “Is Ben.”

“I gathered,” I said.

I wasn’t annoyed exactly, but the beetle was really making a big production.

“I can’t BELIEVE you don’t feel it,” the beetle said. “Ben’s energy is AMAZINGGG.”

“Really?”

“It’s like EVERYTHING all at once,” the beetle said. “It’s the best place you ever went to and the best feeling you ever had and all your favorite memories … It’s … ”

“Overwhelming?” I asked.

“Kind of!” the beetle said. “I still can’t believe you don’t feel it. I’m actually feeling very sad all of a sudden.”

Then I heard the tiniest sniffle you can possibly imagine.

“Hey. What’s going on?” I said.

“I’m sad you don’t get to feel it.”

“Listen, I’m the one who should be feeling bad,” I said. “I really haven’t taken very good care of … Ben.”

Just as quickly as it had started crying, the beetle began to giggle.

“No one ‘takes care of’ Ben,” it said. “Ben takes care of us.”

“Well, not me,” I said. “I mean, I’m happy he has this effect on you. But for me he just looks like a plant. And a somewhat neglected one at that. I should at least –“

“Stop! Seriously — ”

The beetle was now laughing so hard it couldn’t speak.

I waited for the insect to gather itself.

“Ben’s not neglected. Or sad or happy or anything else,” the beetle said. “Ben just is. He’s like, I don’t know … a power source. He’s the star the rest of us orbit around. You couldn’t move Ben if you had ten people helping.”

“Are we looking at the same plant?” I said.

I pointed to the lonely, shabby, crooked-growing ficus.

The beetle breathed out a long, washed-out, deeply satisfied sigh.

“You’re telling me what Ben ‘looks’ like. I’m talking about what Ben feels like,” the beetle said. “Anyway, whatever you’re seeing with your eyes, it’s like one one-thousandth of what’s going on. It’s all underground, dude. That’s where the vibrations come from.”

The beetle gave me an appraising look.

“Were you telling the truth?” it said. “Do you really live here?”

“I do.”

“Then you’re a very lucky person,” the beetle said, a new measure of respect in its voice. “Five minutes with Ben, I feel like I don’t need to eat for a week.”

“You feel … full?”

“Spiritually, yes. Energetically full.”

At this point I said a polite goodbye to the ecstatic beetle and went on my way. The truth is, there’s only so much you can discuss with somebody who is blissed-out like that. They keep telling you that you can’t possibly understand. At a certain point you have to take them at their word.

The beetle was correct, though, about trying to move the ficus. Later that afternoon I tried to put it closer to the sun. It wouldn’t budge. The roots had grown through the plastic bottom and deep into the rocky patch of unremarkable earth.

Posted in UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 20 Comments

WHILE I WAS AWAY

As I got ready to leave town for 10 days, I worried about the baby hummingbirds near my porch.

I had watched them each day as they began to move around and make noise and ask their mother for food.

The day before I left, I heard a new sound.

A lizard had climbed high into the bougainvillea and was jamming its snout down into the teacup-size nest. The two baby birds were squeaking and chirping and scrambling to avoid their attacker.

I reached for the lizard. He jumped to a lower branch, then scampered to a hiding place at the base of the tree.

I went back to check the nest. The hatchlings were agitated, but unharmed.

I didn’t feel good about leaving town. The lizard knew where the nest was. There was nothing to stop him from returning the next day.

So I went and tracked him down.

It was evening. The lizard was in the leaves next to the rose bushes.

“Look, that wasn’t cool,” I said. “The thing with the nest.”

“Excuse me?”

“Up there,” I said, “you trying to eat the baby hummingbirds.”

“I wanted to see the nest,” the lizard said.

“That doesn’t feel super truthful,” I said.

“It’s my truth.”

“Oh jesus. For real?” I said.

“What?”

“‘My truth’ — all that crap. I didn’t know that’s in the garden too.”

“I can see that for a fascist, it might be frightening that others might see the world differently from him,” said the lizard.

Fascist?” I said. “Because I didn’t want you to eat baby hummingbirds?”

“Because you’re out here trying to control everyone,” the lizard said, “deciding who’s allowed to see the nest, who isn’t.”

“You weren’t going to see it. You were going to eat the babies.”

“Why are you so obsessed with eating hummingbirds?” the lizard said. “It almost seems like you’re the one who wants to eat them.”

“I don’t eat any animals at all, let alone baby birds.”

“La-dee-da,” the lizard said.

“I’m not bragging,” I said. “I’m just stating a fact. I’m vegan.”

“Cool, so is that another rule the rest of us have to follow? No one eats any animals because you don’t eat any animals?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Right. You just tried to grab me instead,” the lizard said. “For the sake of argument, what if I was trying to eat the birds? Then what? Is it your job to protect them?”

“It’s not a job,” I said. “I just care about them. I’ve watched them grow up.”

“They’re like three days old,” the lizard said.

“But I watched the mom build the nest. And sit on the eggs. And I saw the babies right after they hatched. I feel … invested.”

“Are you going to be their bodyguard forever?” the lizard said. “What happens when they leave the nest one day?”

“When they leave the nest,” I said, “they’re on their own.”

“Ahh, so there are borders to Fascist Land.”

“Look,” I said, “you can keep saying that word as much as you want. I reject it entirely. I was looking out for tiny brand-new baby birds. Which you were about to eat. And as long as we’re on the subject, I want to tell you that I’m leaving town tomorrow and I’ll be gone a couple weeks. My wife’s cousin will be staying here, and she too feels strongly about the baby birds. I am going to bring her up to date on all this, completely.”

“Is she grabby too?” the lizard said.

“I’m not grabby. And I’m not a fascist. You can go anywhere else in the yard, you can eat whatever you want. Just not the baby birds.”

So that was our conversation. And I didn’t feel great about it. The look on the lizard’s face was sort of neutral and smug.

When I returned home 10 days later, the first thing I did was check the nest. There was just one juvenile bird. No sign of the sibling or the mom.

The next day I got to watch the young bird learning to fly. It took short trips from one part of the yard to the other. At first I thought it was injured, but then I realized that it was just brand-new to flying.

Eventually I saw the mom join her child at the center of the yard. The fledgling was resting on the ground. The mom hovered in the air right beside the child, as if to say, “C’mon, it’s fun! Give it another try!”

I was entranced. I had never seen a bird learning to fly. But I still wondered. Where was the other one?

Had it been eaten by the lizard?

Had it already left the nest and successfully launched?

I saw the lizard the next day and asked him.

“Look who’s back,” the lizard said.

“I just want to know,” I said, “did you eat the other one?”

“Oh my god with the hummingbirds,” said the lizard. “Just admit it, you want to eat one.”

“Why was there only one bird when I got back? What happened to the other one?”

“I’m going to be honest,” said the lizard. “I don’t like your tone.”

“Did you eat it?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, so why don’t you go over to the pool filter in your massive, stupid swimming pool and check that before running through your whole fascist routine again.”

I felt sick to my stomach as soon as the lizard mentioned the pool filter.

I ran to the plastic plate covering the filter basket. I yanked it open. The missing bird was floating in the leaves, branches, and debris which had accumulated while I was gone.

The bird had landed in the pool during one of its own early attempts at flight, and then never gotten out.

I felt sad — and deeply ashamed. I had known the pool was a death-trap. That was why I spent so much time checking it for bees, ladybugs, and anything else which might fall in, even lizards. But then I’d left town, and I hadn’t even thought of the pool as a threat to the birds.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” the lizard said.

He had followed me to the side of the pool. He was perched on the long yellow deck chair with old metal railings. He watched me clean off the bird and then lay it on a leaf.

“Was it really awful?” I said. “Was the mother going crazy?”

“She was trying to figure out what she could do,” the lizard said. “But listen … stuff happens.”

“It’s my fault,” I said. “I need to get a cover for the pool.”

“It’s not your fault,” the lizard said.

“I’m sorry I accused you of eating it,” I said.

“It’s okay,” the lizard said. “The truth is, that was why I went up there that day — I was going to eat them.”

“Did you try again when I left town?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because by then I knew they were important to someone.”

“I’m really sad,” I said.

“I know,” said the lizard.

I sighed.

I thanked the lizard and said goodbye. I stood up and took the tiny, waterlogged corpse to a secret corner of my yard where my dog is buried. I dug a hole for the hummingbird beside a lantana bush blooming orange and yellow.

I apologized to the bird for my negligence, for not covering the pool. I told the bird I was laying it to rest beside my best friend of all time, my dog Boomer. I said it was the most special place I could think of. Then I laid the tiny bird down and covered it with dirt.

I get why people bury loved ones. You want to be able to visit them and talk. And apologize.

Posted in ANIMALS, CHILD REARING, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, SPIRIT | 35 Comments

HUMMINGBIRDS AND BEETLES

I almost made a catastrophic error yesterday with the hummingbird nest.

As far as I could tell, the mother had vanished three days earlier. She was no longer sitting on her eggs, she wasn’t feeding any new hatchlings. She was AWOL.

I got the ladder, climbed up, and peered into the tiny nest.

Sure enough there were two babies — dark brown, less than an inch long, smushed together like two miniature sausages.

At first they didn’t seem to be moving, and I assumed the worst. But the longer I watched, I realized yes, they were still moving. Just barely, but they were alive anyway.

Having been down this road before, having found a nest with two dead hatchlings, I was eager to avoid the same ending. I went inside the house and checked online to see what rescuing the babies might entail.

People do successfully rescue them, it turns out. The process isn’t particularly complicated, though somewhat delicate and time-consuming. So I made sugar water, found a dropper, and built an artificial nest of shredded paper and dead moss. I was going to place the tiny natural nest inside the larger, fake one.

I went back outside. As I approached the nest, a hummingbird zoomed across the backyard and into the blossoming bougainvillea.

Mom was back!

Maybe she had seen me approaching the nest. Or maybe it was just feeding time. But there she was again, poking her long thin beak into the nest, tending to the newborns.

I had been seconds away from intervening, which probably would have been disastrous for the hummingbirds and definitely would have broken my general rule — when in doubt, do nothing. As Gen. Allenby says in Lawrence of Arabia, “It’s usually best.”

I was still puzzled, though, by how often the mom was away from the nest. Yes, adult hummingbirds need to eat frequently, especially when they’re eating for three. But I had figured the trips for food would be bracketed by lots of time at the nest.

I went back to the computer, this time to find out how often new hummingbirds eat.

There were conflicting reports. Some writers said hatchlings need to be fed every half-hour or so. Others said a mother feeds her young “several times a day,” which eased my worries Maybe everything really was on track.

Then I saw a statistic which put the whole thing in context. Apparently the success rate for any given hummingbird to hatch, be cared for, and then one day launch is about 20%.

And that’s not just hummingbirds. Supposedly it’s true for most other songbirds, too.

Somehow this grim statistic calmed me. It was a reminder about the overall state of affairs. Most baby birds don’t make it. It’s a bummer, but it’s how the world works.

Coincidentally, I got a similar message on Monday when I bumped into a black beetle which I’d seen several times the previous week.

“Oh, hey,” I said.

“What’s up.”

After a long silence, I tried to draw the beetle out.

“The whole garden is pretty serene and chill,” I said, “but you strike me as maybe the most serene and chill of all the species here. You have a Buddha-type vibe.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“I wasn’t meaning to.”

“This place is utter mayhem every single second of every single day.”

“Really?”

“It’s basically the Roman Coliseum all day and all night. And I’m always in the ring.”

“But you don’t seem to scurry around or panic,” I said. “You move at a very deliberate pace. When you move at all.”

“Strategy, brother.”

“You don’t want to draw attention?” I said.

“Partly. It also conserves energy and allows me to dial in. I try to be aware of every single thing around me.”

“That makes sense.”

“Situations change in an instant. Can you imagine in your Back-and-Forth World if you were suddenly –“

“Wait, what’s the Back-and-Forth World?”

“That’s you.”

“You mean humans?” I said.

“Whatever word you want to use. It just seems like that’s how you spend most of your time. You go to that corner of the yard. Then you go to the garage. Then you go back to that corner of the yard. Then back to the garage.”

“I go other places,” I said.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the beetle said, “I’m sure there’s a purpose to it.”

“Sort of,” I said.

“My point is, imagine in the Back-and-Forth World if a creature three hundred times your size could suddenly appear from the sky, land next to you, and then start randomly jerking its head around, looking this way and that, and then — if it feels like it! — eat you.”

“We’re talking about birds?” I said.

“We are.”

“I know what you mean about how they move their heads,” I said. “It’s so random and twitchy.”

“And then there are lizards,” the beetle said.

“Oof. I forgot about lizards.”

“So disgusting. It’s like your worst anxiety dream come to life,” the beetle said. “And they’re the opposite of birds. They take it all in. They’re aware of everything, patient as hell. If one’s near you, then it becomes this excruciating, endless, slow-motion waiting game. At least with a bird, it’s quick. You get eaten or you don’t.”

“I’m realizing how far off-base I was with the ‘serene’ thing.”

“No worries.”

“Is there any way I can help?” I said. “Maybe bring you some food? Put you in a different part of the yard?”

“It would be the same deal wherever you put me. Like they say, it’s a beetle’s life.”

“I haven’t heard that expression.”

“Actually there is one thing. Next time you see me, if I’m still alive, do what you did today. Stop and hang out for a second.”

“Really?”

“It helps a lot.”

“Do beetles get lonely?”

“Haha, no. When you’re here, the birds and lizards stay away.”

For a really nice account of hummingbird nesting and mothering, see Eileen Stark’s essay and photos.

ready for future use, if necessary
Posted in ANIMALS, SPIRIT | 31 Comments

OKAY I LIED ABOUT THE HERMIT THING

There’s an old Buddhist story about monks raking up leaves at their monastery before a visit from a revered guru.

When the guru arrives, he looks out at the beautiful grounds with an appreciative smile, then raises his hand as if to say, Hold on, just one more thing.

He walks behind a nearby shed, finds the pile of raked leaves, and gathers an armful. He walks back out front and dumps the leaves.

“Yes,” he says, now satisfied.

There are other versions of the story. Sometimes it’s an old Zen master in the neighborhood, not the visiting guru, who dumps the leaves. Other times the story is just an exchange between student and master. As the two of them walk along, the master stops to pick up a single leaf. He puts it in his pocket.

The student says, “Master, that’s just one leaf. Let me go get the rake, I’ll do a proper clean-up.”

The master stops him. “Leaves don’t fall only on the ground,” he says. “They fall in the mind. I am picking up the leaf that was in my mind. Eventually I’ll get the others too.”

In the first version, the message is basically, ‘Don’t try to be perfect.’

In the second, the lesson is about patience and emptying the mind.

Personally I like the first story. I can get obsessive about stuff, so leaves being dumped on a lawn is a nice visual reminder that ‘good enough’ is often better — and more in tune with the flow of daily life — than ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect.’

There are similar cautions against perfectionism in other religions and cultures, as the writer Kaushik Patowary explains in this essay.

Sometimes introducing intentional imperfection into art or architecture comes from a dour, moralistic, ‘Only God can be perfect’ kind of place. In other cases, the motivation is quirkier and less obvious, as with the so-called ‘spirit line’ in Navajo rugs.

Supposedly Navajo weavers believed that part of their spirit went into the rug itself, so there needed to be a little stray line which deviated from the overall pattern. This was the pathway which allowed the spirit to leave the rug and re-enter the weaver once the rug was finished.

I was laughing the other day when I thought of my recent posts on seclusion and wanting to be a hermit.

The truth is, for a so-called hermit, I’m quite the iPhone user. I listen to an ungodly number of podcasts, I trade hundreds of texts with my nephews about either professional ice hockey or our respective Wordle results, or — in a diverting, but admittedly niche mash-up — our results playing Gordle. It’s a daily puzzle in which the answer is an active or former player in the National Hockey League whose last name is five letters long.

When I’m not playing wordgames or sending texts about wordgames, when I’m not listening to a podcast about the Northern Pacific rattlesnake or the Iberian lynx or the arrival of wolverines in Mount Rainier National Park, then I’m often listening to music on Spotify, or sending out animal-rights emails which PETA asks me to send, or watching a TEDTalk on YouTube, or spamming friends and family with whatever goddamn thing I just read, watched, or thought about.

Hey Bob, I think you might really like this story about two guys building a hiking trail in Iraqi Kurdistan!

Really I’m less of a hermit, more of a compulsive content-consumer and sharer.

I’d last about a day and a half without hi-speed internet.

Even when I put down my iPhone, then I’m often watching a hockey game on TV or reading a book about jnana yoga or the Troubles in Northern Ireland or weird cults or songbirds. Or I am boring the hell out of my wife describing one of these books.

So maybe the second Buddhist fable is actually the one I ought to be thinking about — the instruction on leaves which ‘fall in the mind.’ My mind is crowded with ideas, information, and stories. I don’t need to rake up and remove every last leaf, but a few bags worth would be a good start. At very least I could stop cramming my mind with so much new stuff all the time.

But hey, as long as I’m consuming all this content, I might as well pass along a few recommendations. Why should my poor family and friends be the only ones who get spammed?

  • The Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World. It’s in the general neighborhood of romantic comedy, but touches on deeper, more existential topics and in a totally original way.
  • An interview of author Michael Lewis on the Smartless podcast. (Thanks to my friend Lara Wozniak for tipping me to it). Whether discussing the untimely death of his daughter, the genesis for his bestseller Moneyball, or a man who did early research on marine drift patterns, Lewis is a smart, curious person and a fantastic storyteller.
  • The book On Animals by Susan Orlean. Usually I prefer animal-related reading with a more ideological, ethical, or spiritual bent. Instead this book is a journalistic look at animals which humans have interacted with for thousands of years, whether chickens, carrier pigeons, mules, donkeys, or dogs. Orlean, who is best known for her book The Orchid Thief, is especially entertaining describing her own farm. It’s less a farm and more a fractious menagerie of species which Orlean just enjoys being around. I laughed out loud at her account.
  • The recent essay by Jonathan Haidt about social media in The Atlantic, and his subsequent interview on the same topic by host Andrew Sullivan on The Dishcast podcast. Yes, Haidt covers some of the same stuff we already know — viral sharing creates problems — but Haidt places the phenomenon in a wider context, and he isn’t entirely pessimistic. He has ideas for mitigating some of the worst side-effects of new platforms. He also has a nice way, I thought, of analyzing and contrasting conservatism and liberalism.
  • The Oregon singer-songwriter Margo Cilker. Her music is sort of a folk-country hybrid, with a lyrical tilt toward melancholy themes and situations. I especially like the song “Flood Plain” on her album Pohorylle.
  • The book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. It has the true-crime element of trying to figure out who killed single mother-of-ten Jean McConville in Belfast in 1972, but it also gives a broader look at sectarian violence and interesting public figures like IRA bomber Dolours Price, politician Gerry Adams, hunger striker Brendan Hughes, and actor Stephen Rea. An extremely readable book.
  • The song “Everything’s Fucked” by the band Dirty Three. Old tune, but new to me. A haunting instrumental piece with lovely violin and electric guitar. Thanks to Lynne Englert for sending it my way.

I also liked all the other stuff which I linked to earlier in this post. So if any of that sounded interesting — trailbuilding in Iraqi Kurdistan! — then by all means check it out.

That’s all for now. Back to the ‘hermit’ life.

Posted in SAYINGS, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 16 Comments

WHEN THINGS GO SOUTH

There’s a song by Lori McKenna called “God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone.”

On the one hand, she’s probably right. Humans are social animals after all.

On the other hand, as a lifelong introvert with a deep appreciation for solitude, well, I wonder.

An excellent essay in the New Yorker this week examines the eternal tug-of-war between isolation and integration. In the context of three years of pandemic, the writer Ian Frazier surveys cabin fever both as a psychological phenomenon and as a genre of literature, film, and journalism. He also recounts his own long-ago Walden Pond experiment at a cabin in Montana. And he makes the case that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stemmed at least partly from personal isolation during Covid lockdown.

For my own part, I’ve always preferred my own company. True, my all-time happiest moments were with — and because of — others. But for all the mundane everyday stuff, I generally select One Player.

I’m sure there are various reasons, including difficulty in setting personal boundaries, fear of intimacy, issues around control. There is also a lifelong habit of self-consciousness around others, which can be tiring.

But even with a strong default preference for solitude, I have a special carve-out for a certain type of conversation — talking with someone in actual crisis.

Usually it’s a person I know well. Other times it’s an acquaintance or even a stranger.

This is not to say that I’m particularly generous (I’m not) or that I greatly help the person in distress (I don’t). It’s more to observe that this particular type of conversation doesn’t leave me feeling drained. It brings out the best in me actually.

Maybe I picked up good listening skills as a young newspaper reporter or later on as a criminal defense attorney. But I think I was probably drawn to those jobs in the first place because I was already good at listening.

One day I was talking to an older, more experienced colleague at a newspaper in Maine. He said he was dreading his next phone call. He was about to call the mother of a man who had died in a confrontation with police. The call was to get the mom’s reaction to a toxicology report showing high levels of, well, whatever it was — alcohol, drugs, maybe both.

I offered to make the phone call myself.

My colleague was taken aback. He was in his early 50s. He had already worked at bigger and better newspapers than I ever would. I was only 22.

I quickly clarified that I didn’t want a byline or anything like that. I would just feed him a paragraph or two.

He didn’t take me up on the offer, but he was curious. How would I handle the call?

For starters, I said the mother might actually appreciate the call. Police likely weren’t communicating with her due to the contentiousness of the death. At bare minimum, better for her know in advance what the toxicology report said before seeing it in the next day’s paper.

Basically I just reframed the phone call. And I said something to the effect of, ‘The worst thing in her life already happened. You calling a couple weeks later, giving her this info, seeing whether she wants to comment … it might be annoying, she might get angry or sad. But compared to her son dying, it doesn’t rate.’

This reporter was a genuinely nice man, not competitive by nature. He and I got along well. He got along with everybody actually. He made the call. It went pretty much just like we’d talked about. The woman thanked him for calling. And then he came over and thanked me.

Maybe my suggestions helped. But really when I offered to place the call, I think I already just knew I was good at this one particular thing — talking to a person in difficult circumstances.

Even at the beginning of my news career, I found I could do that type of interview in a calm, respectful, sort of dispassionate way. I didn’t beat around the bush or pretend everything was okay. I didn’t give advice or try to console. I just let the other person lead the conversation. If I was curious about something, I went ahead and asked it. In those interviews I was older than my years.

I found that I was less judgmental with strangers than with friends, loved ones, or myself. Just by temperament, it was easy for me to see other points of view. No matter how complicated or gnarly a mess the person had landed in, I could always sort of imagine myself having done the same thing.

After the posting in Maine, I moved to a newspaper in central Florida. One Sunday morning I went to the county jail to try to interview a man who’d been locked up overnight for murder. He was accused of shooting a man to death at a roadside barbecue restaurant.

Usually an effort to interview an accused killer went nowhere. But on this day the man not only agreed to talk to me, he told me the whole story and admitted to the killing.

Not that there had been much doubt of his guilt. There were plenty of witnesses to the shooting. And I tell the story here not to brag. In fact in this particular case, I feel the opposite; I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Today I recognize that there was a big power differential between the two of us that day. The accused was an elderly, low-income African-American man with little formal education. He lived in a rural area and likely had little experience with reporters. He was probably fighting the mother of all hangovers that morning. In a frank, rueful way he told me the whole story. He regretted the shooting, he said. He wished he could go back in time.

I listened quietly and took it all down. I put it in the next day’s newspaper. The article wasn’t sensational. It sought to lay out events as accurately and objectively as possible, taking into account not only the man’s version but those of witnesses and the victim’s loved ones. Still, I realized that my skilled listening at the jail had produced an article which unquestionably worsened the man’s legal exposure. If nothing else, the article weakened his position in future plea negotiations.

I wish I had told the man, ‘Look, I’m supposed to ask for an interview, but you really shouldn’t talk to anyone till you get a lawyer.’

It wasn’t my job to give him legal advice or walk away from a scoop. But on a human level, as a question of basic decency, I wish I had.

I also wish I’d stopped right then and thought, ‘Hold on, maybe I should be going to law school.’ I didn’t end up doing that until 10 years later. By then I really saw the world as a reporter, not as an advocate. There’s a big difference.

One notable exception to my alleged listening skills was in relation to my children. Especially when they were younger, if they were in distress, it was hard for me not to slide into fear, judgment, or fix-it mode.

A final anecdote, from my very first newspaper job.

When I was 19, I worked as a summer intern at the Cheboygan Daily Tribune in northern Michigan. At the end of the internship, I got a visit at my desk from the newspaper’s legendary longtime reporter Gordon ‘Scoop’ Turner, who was still filing stories daily at age 82.

He said that in his opinion my best story of the summer was my interview with a woman whose baby had been born with the intestines outside the body.

I had written so much other stuff that summer. I’d written about city government, local sports, a Bob Dylan concert, scuba divers exploring a shipwreck in the Great Lakes. I was more proud of those stories. But Turner singled out the one about the mother and child. He said the article had a lot of heart.

I remember my afternoon with the woman and her baby. The apartment was hot and stuffy. Back then I thought reporters needed to dress up for work. So I was overdressed and just physically uncomfortable after the photographer left and the interview went on longer and longer. But even in my discomfort, I was curious about this medical condition I’d never heard of, about the surgery to try to correct it.

Sitting in my sweaty clothes, filling up the pages of my notepad, I was astonished by the composure of the woman. She patiently answered all my questions even as she tended to the post-operative infant.

She was a single mom. She wasn’t much older than I was. But in life experience, in terms of setbacks, she was a lot older. On top of that, she was dealing with this highly inexperienced, sweaty mess of a reporter who meant well but was brand-new to the job. She’d probably been expecting an old pro. She’d probably expected the 82-year-old Turner.

Sometimes I wonder what the ideal situation is for me nowadays, a middle-aged hermit who in a pinch — in a legitimate crisis — can be a good listener.

A friend suggested I go back to school yet again, this time to become a therapist. But as a general matter I feel drained by social interaction, by everyday conversation. I can rise to the occasion in an actual crisis. but all the typical day-to-day bullshit, I’d be no good at it. I’d be distracted and easily annoyed by repetition or complaining.

Plus, I’d have to learn a whole new set of professional rules, buy insurance, work in an office. I prefer to be outdoors as much as possible nowadays.

It reminds me of Lucy’s therapy booth in the old Peanuts cartoons. Maybe if I changed those trees to pine trees and put the booth way up in the mountains somewhere.

I’m not sure what the hours would be or how people would find me. But I wouldn’t charge a penny. Nor would I slap the conversations on the front of the next day’s newspaper. One thing I did learn from being a lawyer was strict adherence to confidentiality.

A conversation goes better when you can honestly say, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you, but I’ll keep to myself anything you tell me.”

At my booth way up in the mountains, I think the doctor would be OUT most of the time. But in cases of real emergency? He’d be totally in.

In other news, here are garden updates from the last couple weeks

  • I rescued an alarmingly long Southern alligator lizard which had fallen in the pool. It recovered fine and scooted back to the dead leaves beneath the bushes.
  • I rescued a bunch of bees and flies from the pool, plus two ladybugs.
  • I found an abadoned egg which appeared to have fallen from a nest in the pine tree out front. I decided against trying to incubate it myself using a heat lamp. It was depressing to realize this one would never hatch. But at least it will provide food for some other animal, whether rat, raccoon, or eventually just ants and flies.
RIP
  • A new hummingbird dive-bomber materialized in the backyard. But this time I realized exactly what was going on, that there must be a nest nearby. Indeed there was. As I write, the mother is sitting on eggs in her tiny teacup of a nest just off the back porch. I’m not posting a photo, though. The nest is in a darkened recess of leaves and flowers, and the camera on my iPhone8 sucks. I don’t want to disturb the mom by trying to get closer. She already watches me closely even at a distance.
  • Some more pictures:
Posted in UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 24 Comments

BACKYARD MYSTERY

One springtime years ago, when my children were young and life was hectic, a small domestic mystery nagged at me for two or three weeks.

Sometimes when I entered my backyard through a side gate, I would hear a sudden loud buzzing to my left.

It wasn’t just a noise, but a sensation. It was the feeling of having nearly been hit.

My first thought was of the aerial drone my son had received as a gift. The mystery noise sounded a bit like that. It had the same buzzing vibration, only louder and closer to my head.

Each of the two or three times it happened, I ducked to avoid impact, and then having not been hit, looked around for the culprit. What the hell was that?

I wondered about our electrical system. The spot was directly beneath our power line. Maybe the noise was related to that?

But the distance between me and the wire was too great. The buzzing had seemed inches from my ear.

Then one morning in early June, the mystery was solved.

I was trimming bushes and tree branches when I came upon an exquisite little bird-nest. I went and got a ladder so that I could get a better look. I figured I was about to see several fragile, pale-blue eggs on a tidy bed of twigs and feather.

Or maybe the eggs would be a speckled cream color, I thought.

When I was high enough on the ladder, I peered down and was shocked. Staring back at me were the small, motionless heads of two dead hatchlings, frozen in time, waiting for a parent who would never return.

The birds were in the exact pose you think of when imagining babies waiting for their mother. The scene looked like a school project, ‘Two Birds, Waiting to Be Fed.’

The awful surprise did more than sadden me. It explained the weird, whirring noise. A protective hummingbird had been dive-bombing me whenever I opened the gate and walked past this nest.

You might wonder how in the world a grown man mistakes a hummingbird for an aerial drone or electrical malfunction. Well first of all, I’m not handy. I don’t know from electrical.

Second, as I said at the beginning, the events occurred at a certain moment in my life. I had moved into the house with my wife and children only a few years earlier. And I didn’t really have the time to sit around and study the yard or its creatures. I was always picking up my kids from school or driving them to ice hockey or rushing home to give our dog a walk before leaving again for grocery shopping.

Today I know about hummingbirds. I know what they look and sound like, where they tend to hover and feed. But back then they were less familiar to me.

Even now I wonder what happened to the mother. Was she killed by a cat? By a hawk? Was she hit by a car?

The sight of the dead hatchlings hit me harder than I would have expected. In hindsight, I think maybe the nest reminded me of my own situation. I too was trying to raise two young children, trying to feed and protect them. I imagined how awful it would be if my wife or I died unexpectedly.

I was an enthusiastic stay-at-home dad. I volunteered at the kids’ schools, I was a team manager at the hockey rink. I read bedtime stories aloud. I wrote notes to the kids from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.

I worried a lot, too. I wanted my kids never to feel scared or left out or to have their hearts broken, even though I now understand those are unavoidable experiences which help us grow.

My sadness over the dead hummingbirds was more than momentary. It stayed with me a few days and reminded me, randomly enough, of the old TV show The Sopranos.

Tony, the mob boss, would occasionally get sidetracked by intense concern for an animal, whether a horse that died in a stable fire or ducks which stopped overnight in his swimming pool.

With humans Tony was everything you expect from a mob boss — calculating, violent, deceitful. With animals he was patient and generous, even tender.

The contrast was evident during an intervention for his drug-addicted nephew Christopher. Important matters were being discussed, crucial dynamics were being laid bare. But Tony got completely stuck on a tangential revelation that his nephew had killed a dog.

Tony kept circling back to the topic, confused, angry, wanting to know exactly what happened.

Others have discussed why this was, what elements of Tony’s personality and backstory explained his tendency to connect more with animals than humans. But I wonder, is the trait unusual? Animals bring out something in us which we can’t fully explain or describe. The bond isn’t just intense, it’s qualitatively different.

A few years ago, several unrelated events caused me to slow down and really consider animals in the imaginative, empathetic way which children naturally have but which we seem gradually conditioned to leave behind.

One factor was living outdoors with my dog Boomer the last few months of his life. Another was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the ‘Trapped Bee’ chapter of Laura Lynne Jackson’s The Light Between Us.

Still other causes were: the Oscars acceptance speech by actor Joaquin Phoenix (it seemed nuts to me at the time, now I find it beautiful); two years of pandemic lockdown; and my first-ever experience with a psychedelic drug.

The combined effect of these disparate influences felt less like a brand-new set of animal-friendly beliefs, more like a return to an old, rediscovered faith. I stopped eating meat, dairy, and honey. I started rescuing bees from my pool. I got curious about rats. I imagined what I would discuss with spiders and clover mites if I could talk with them.

One day as I worked in the garden, I stopped to watch an ant cross the top of my shoe. I thought, I’m not any better or more important than that ant. He has a life just like I do.

The idea may seem absurd, or just patently obvious. But for me it felt important. It had implications about what I should eat, how I should act toward even tiny creatures.

My sadness over the hummingbirds wasn’t just from imagining their final hours waiting for their mother, nor from identifying with a parent who died before she could get back home. I think there was sadness too about how disconnected from nature I had become, how far I had drifted from a more patient, mindful mode of living, one which would have made it obvious in the moment that yes, I was being dive-bombed by a hummingbird.

Not that my knowing would have helped the birds. Just to say that I was chronically rushed and distracted, absorbed in trivial matters. For these reasons I had missed the whole story — the saga, really — of a beautiful, miniature household erected, defended, and then one day tragically abandoned just steps from my backdoor.

Posted in ANIMALS, CHILD REARING, SPIRIT | 25 Comments

CLOVER MITES

The following conversation was edited for clarity.

KIT: Thank you so much for reaching out.

CLOVER MITE: Yeah the ‘red microspider’ thing was unfortunate. We were kind of shaking our heads about that one.

KIT: I’m so sorry. But I didn’t know what species you were!

CLOVER MITE: You also said that maybe we move so fast because we’re ‘constantly terrified.’ I think that rubbed some of us the wrong way. I mean, I know it did.

KIT: You move incredibly fast for creatures your size. It was meant as a compliment.

CLOVER MITE: (Exhaling loudly) Okay, one of the best ways to piss off a mite — like to the point of ‘Fight me dude’ — is that phrase you just used. I’m not going to repeat it. You know the one I mean. It’s a total no-fly zone for mites.

KIT: ‘For a creature your size?’

CLOVER MITE: Bro, for real? Are you trying to be rude?

KIT: Not at all! There’s just such an obvious difference in scale between mites and humans.

CLOVER MITE: And humans are smaller than trees, and trees are smaller than mountains, and mountains are smaller than the ocean, blah blah blah. Who cares?

KIT: My usual audience is humans. I describe things from their point of view.Much smaller than humans’ was all I meant to convey.

CLOVER MITE: But it’s just an incredibly loaded phrase, right? ‘Smaller than’ is basically synonymous with “less important than,” or “less evolved,” or “less complicated.”

KIT: Well, I certainly don’t agree about ‘complicated.’ Even a small, newborn human is on some level quite complicated.

CLOVER MITE: Look, I want to help you. I can see you’re trying to do something good here. At least I think you are.

KIT: Can we talk about your color?

CLOVER MITE: We’re red.

KIT: It’s quite a vivid red, isn’t it?

CLOVER MITE: Thank you.

KIT: But I mean, doesn’t it attract predators?

CLOVER MITE: Some of our predators believe the color red connotes ‘poison.’

KIT: Why would they think that?

CLOVER MITE: It’s just a very common assumption.

KIT: But it’s erroneous, right? You aren’t poisonous.

CLOVER MITE: We don’t comment on that.

KIT: But you were the one who brought it up.

CLOVER MITE: I would have to go back and look at the transcript.

KIT: It was like five seconds ago. You brought it up.

CLOVER MITE: You’re starting to do it again.

KIT: In my defense, you said I made errors in my previous article. I just don’t want to make more of them now. Especially on something like poison, which seems fundamental.

CLOVER MITE: Are you worried we’ll poison humans?

KIT: Not really. But it speaks to the essence of a creature, doesn’t it? It’s like describing whether someone is ‘loving and generous,’ or ‘prickly and difficult.’ I mean, ‘poisonous’ is an important thing to know.

CLOVER MITE: We don’t think so.

KIT: You don’t think you’re poisonous?

CLOVER MITE: We don’t think the question of toxicity is one we need to answer, publicly.

KIT: So just like, ‘No comment?’

CLOVER MITE: If you don’t mind.

KIT: Some humans think you guys bite. I know it’s not true because I looked it up online. I think maybe the confusion stems from, if you see a mite on your arm and you rub it out, there’s a sort of red smear, which some people mistake for their own blood.

CLOVER MITE: Jesus. Christ.

KIT: It can’t be news to you that mites sometimes die when they come in contact with humans.

CLOVER MITE: Trigger warning much? What the fuck.

KIT: But you don’t bite, right? That was my point.

CLOVER MITE: Can you imagine if you were being interviewed by someone and in the middle of the interview — apropros of literally nothing — the person just started talking about acts of horrifying violence, about humans being smeared to death and reduced to bloody stains?

KIT: I didn’t think —

CLOVER MITE: Exactly! You didn’t think!

KIT: Hold on, let me finish. I didn’t think the stain was blood. I thought it was from your body’s coloring.

CLOVER MITE: We’re getting toward the end of anything productive, I think.

KIT: You don’t bite, is all I was saying.

CLOVER MITE: I want to make one final statement. It’s about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

KIT: Seriously?

CLOVER MITE: This is an incredibly hard time for clover mites in Ukraine.

KIT: I didn’t know there were clover mites in Ukraine.

CLOVER MITE: We’re all over the world, just like humans.

KIT: Huh.

CLOVER MITES: Unlike humans, though, we don’t drop bombs on each other or set fire to fuel depots.

KIT: How on earth do you know about the fuel depot?

CLOVER MITE: We don’t roll tanks across fields, killing millions of insects. We don’t ignite fires which destroy thousands of acres of forest.

KIT: Ukraine is a total disaster right now. We can agree on that.

CLOVER MITES: We clover mites stand with our fellow mites in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

KIT: Got it. Well, I really want to thank you for contacting me. This was super helpful.

CLOVER MITE: When will the article come out?

KIT: I don’t know. Now?

CLOVER MITE: After an editor looks at it?

KIT: I mean … not really.

CLOVER MITE: You’re the editor! You’re the boss!

KIT: That’s a good way of looking at it. But no, my wife is the boss.

CLOVER MITE: Were you going to ask my name? I don’t need confidentiality or anything like that.

KIT: I didn’t know mites had names.

CLOVER MITE: Carl, with a ‘C.’ Born in your backyard. I’ve been to the other side of the fence, twice. Not a big deal.

KIT: Carl with a C … (writing)… Last name?

CLOVER MITE: Just Carl.

KIT: Thank you so much, Carl. I really appreciate you taking the time.

CLOVER MITE: I’m glad I could help out.

Posted in ANIMALS | 15 Comments