Timewise

Daddy-Daughter Time does not happen frequently enough for either of my girls. I actually spend virtually all my non-work time — with the exception of my five annual guy hikes — in the close company of my daughters, maybe not actively playing with them but still at hand for their nattering conversation, for their questions, for one’s reports of injustice at the hands of the other, for the lovely interruption of a book tossed in my lap to read aloud even though I’m in the middle of writing or researching a blog post. But each of my little dearies wants and needs to spend time alone with me and not have to compete with anyone for my attention for a while. We instituted Daddy-Daughter Time (also known as Millie-Daddy time and Mara-Daddy time) a year or two ago to fulfill this need.

Ducklings attend our canoe adventure in Union Bay.

Ducklings attend our canoe adventure in Union Bay.

Daddy-Daughter Time is really hard to schedule. Our lives are a mess. Angela works constantly; almost she is working whenever she is awake, and because I am 20-miles away sitting in a cubicle every day and unavailable, Angela also basically “runs the farm”, making the long and frustrating phone calls to internet service providers and dealing with leaky pipes. She also gets the girls where they need to be and makes sure they have playdates, which is another full-time job in itself. As for me, I’m constantly exhausted. My job is a good one, an easy one in many ways and free of the kind of stress that kills people, but I feel old and tired a lot. Something happened to me. I feel constantly the rush of my death toward me and the urgent need to be busy and experience life while I am still alive, but I also feel defeated much of the time, like I can’t get anything done, or even start things.

One thing on my mind a lot lately is how short a time we have to spend being with each other — whoever we are, all of us — just enjoying together the many wonderful things there are in this life, right under our noses. My recognition that the most important thing right now, always, is to spend time with other people who are important to me conflicts in my breast with other impulses, and I’m not referring only to my characteristic standoffishness. Most of the things I want to accomplish from one day to the next are solitary; I’ve actually been doing a lot of blogging on a family history website I started, digging up old photos and scanning and cataloging them and then posting them and writing whatever I know about the people or places in the photos (this is one of the reasons this here blog has wound down considerably). Pawing around in my family history has led to a whole side industry of contacting cousins and other relatives whom I have never met before or haven’t seen in decades, and trading photos and information, and this is all taking up a lot of my time as well.

So when we finally get a Daddy-Daughter day on the calendar, it’s the most valuable and precious thing. To me there is nothing more important, even though it seems often less urgent. Millie has wanted me to take her fishing for some while now, and she’s mentioned it enough times that I know it’s not just some one-time vapor of idea escaping her head. So I bought her a Disney Snow White closed-reel pole and we went up to the schoolyard to practice casting (after trying it on the sidewalk in front of the house first and wrapping the line around the telephone wires). She’s got it. The timing of a cast is the hardest thing a kid has to learn, motor-skills-wise. Let the button up too late and the lure whips onto the ground, too early and it sails up and lands behind you or wraps itself around an alder branch. I think we’re going fishing for trout early tomorrow if everything works out but it may not. We’re going to see the Doobie Brothers play at Zoo Tunes tonight (yes, the girls too, as part of their education in popular music of the late 20th century), and Sunday we’re going to a baseball game for Father’s Day, and there are a million other things that have to get done, too. We’ll see.

Last Saturday Mara’s turn finally came. We rented a canoe down at the university’s Waterfront Activities Center and paddled around in the marshes. It was a gorgeous morning. We saw mallard ducks, baby mallard ducks, a great blue heron, maybe a green heron, a curious red duck we couldn’t identify, and billions of geese. Turtles crawled out and lined up on logs to take the sun. And we heard redwing blackbirds by the score, though we only saw a few of them. We chattered amicably, which is something I hope never changes. I often think I should be having deep talks with Mara — she’s ten now and big changes are headed her way — but you can’t force those conversations with her. They happen or they don’t and mostly they don’t. She keeps a lot of her inner life quiet; it’s just who she turned out to be and it’s lovely and perfect.

This is the only moment. This, and the next one.

This is the only moment. This, and the next one.

But being an intensely expressive person myself, emotionally and intellectually, I sometimes wonder if I’m “being there” for her if we’re not sharing heart stuff out loud. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the fact that it’s the time spent that will have made the most difference to her, and to Millie, in the end. Just that. Just the fact that in such a busy life — when there are so many things I must do and so many other things I want to do, and so many of them the kind of things that take me away from people into my own crazy inner world — I would lay it all aside and climb into a boat with her and putter around among the reeds, fecklessly, unhurried. It’s so unintuitive and strange that while death is racing up behind us at a pace we can do nothing to alter, yet the most important thing I can do at this moment is to lay the paddle across my lap and sit utterly still and silent in the company of my daughter and regard the sunlit water drops hanging from the end of the paddle and then falling to make perfect little splash circles that eddy and disappear behind us as the craft keeps gliding forward.

Taking a long view of things

Since the last time I posted about something besides birds, I have taken scores of pictures of birds, hundreds of pictures of birds. I’ve been taking the camera to work almost every day and rushing over during my lunch hour to the longer of the two beaches in the state park and, after shooting the juvenile and adult eagles and the great blue herons and any unusual looking waterfowl there, pressing onward beyond the beach to the boardwalk that winds through the woods of alder and cottonwood and fir along the mouth of Issaquah Creek, where depending on the season I am likely to see the red-breasted sapsucker picking at his small tidy rows of holes in tree trunks, or the pileated woodpecker or the rufous hummingbird or the ruby-crowned kinglet or the Western tanager or the pair of cedar waxwings, then even further to the muddy spit at the end of the walk, where the creek empties into the lake and where there are likely to be hooded mergansers or common mergansers or mallards or Canada geese or Northern shovelers dabbling or diving in the brown water or a lone chattering belted kingfisher or a quiet and near-motionless green heron sitting above the creek on a shaded branch, waiting to dart headfirst into the water to bring up a fish in its beak, and always lots of tree swallows and the odd cliff swallow or barn swallow (I’m not sure which) swooping and dipping in crazy loops and often a bald eagle or two in the tall bleached snag on the creek’s far side, surveying the fishing grounds beyond the patches of cattails on the lakeshore, where a redwing blackbird often can be heard piping out its zinc-plated call. I have taken photographs of almost all of these, and good ones of some of them, and photographs of one or two that I think are remarkable. The camera’s SD card keeps getting so full of photographs of birds that I have to go through and delete the duds, which is 90 percent of them.

Western tanager. This is not about that.

Western tanager. This is not about that.

But this is not a post about birds, or about photographs of birds. Yesterday, for reasons unimportant, I had no way home from work but to ask a coworker to drive me across Lake Washington into downtown Seattle, where I planned to catch a bus north. He let me off where I could catch a bus directly home, but it was such a wonderful day that I texted Angela that if she could work it she should grab the girls and come meet me at the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner, the which she happily did.

The Old Spaghetti Factory is at the other end of town from where I was, so I set out hoofing it, and while I threaded my way through old familiar streets I dug out the camera and started looking around. I only had the long lens with me because I always need to be zoomed in closer when I’m shooting birds. In fact you can never get quite zoomed in enough when you’re trying to photograph a bird. But in the city, the long lens is immediately a liability for most kinds of photos most of us want to take most of the time. We want to get a wide view that captures things, discrete things like buildings, in their entirety, but the long lens slices out parts of things and places them next to parts of other things, and shrinks the spaces that separate them so that objects seem coupled in unusual ways and often even mashed together. With the long lens in the narrow confines of city streets, you cannot get far enough away from anything to capture all of its bounds, so you have to look at the pieces and see what you can put together in the frame. I thought about that as I walked, and wondered what I could do using only the long lens.

I found it exhilarating to be surveying the hard edges of the city again after so many months scouring the ungridded wilds of the state park. The afternoon was hot like an August day only without that Augustine sadness — the air of late May is still full of scent and movement and energy — and the bright sunlight ran ahead of me cutting things in two and searching out nooks and narrows. I was beside myself with glee as I kept stopping to test a view through the camera’s viewfinder, or waiting for a pedestrian to put herself in just the right place or for a bus to get out of the way of a man sitting on the sidewalk. I don’t get to be in the city very often anymore. It used to wear me out after five workdays and I couldn’t wait to get away from it, but working out in the boondocks (which what with freeways and air traffic and construction are no quieter) I have really missed the visual pleasures of the urban built environment.

I took a photography class once, and of all the things the teacher said about this and that, I remember one thing most clearly. He described four different statements that progressively expressed what he considered a better way to imagine what photography is about. I don’t remember them all, but I remember that the first and least interesting statement was “I was there and I took this picture of it,” and that the last and most interesting statement was “I experienced such and such and I made this image of it,” the difference in engagement and creative effort being evident in the phrase “made this image”.

In that spirit, then, here are a poet’s dozen of “the images I made” yesterday when I experienced the city at street level, on foot, from King Street Station at the south end to the Old Spaghetti Factory at the north end with only my long lens to help me see with. A couple of them are revisitations to scenes I’ve shot before. They are not great exposures, but in each of these images I see things that meet or come near each other in interesting ways or create some sort of internal, visual rhyme or even something that simply amuses me or pleases my eye. As an example, the one of the man sitting alone on the waterfront has several mammoth industrial cranes in the background, virtually all turned toward him, but they don’t seem able to lift him out of the heavy place he’s in. In another, two triangular buildings seem to be facing off, their argument refereed by a larger, squarer building standing between them. In yet another, a highrise condo with doors that rarely open serves as a backdrop for a door left wide open high up in a steam plant. Not all of them are allegorical; one simply has more people in it than you might initially see. But there’s some thought or feeling in each that is brought out by the compressive quality of the long lens. Maybe you’ll see something I didn’t. If you do, let me know. I just now — only now — noticed that in one image I framed for a completely different reason, the yellow signs mimic two men crossing the street.

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Some you win (with apologies to James)

A happy outcome to the story in my previous post. I saw immediately today that the eggs were gone, and I stood staring for several minutes before I saw anything else.

The eggs were nowhere to be seen, and I stood looking for several minutes before I suddenly saw them.

Can you see them? To enlarge, click once and then click again.

They made not a sound nor a movement, not even a twitch, which is why I couldn’t see them even though I was looking right at them. I had been checking almost daily because the killdeer gestation period is 24 – 28 days and it had been about that long since I’d first spotted the nest. They were still in ovo last Friday, so I had a feeling there might have been a change over the weekend. Mama and Papa both went apenuts when I bent to take the photo. (“Sorreeee”.) All present and accounted for. Each is about the size of a golf ball.

The virtuous deception

I will GET loud!”

— Robert Downey Jr. channeling Alfre Woodard or a killdeer in Heart and Souls

A killdeer is a small nervous bird with long legs and red irises whose call is a high, piercing stutter. I photographed one a couple months ago while walking in the state park at lunch. At the time, I didn’t know much about killdeers and honestly, I wasn’t interested in them as much as I was some of the other birds I was getting to know, especially the waterfowl.

Killdeer at Lake Sammamish State Park.

Killdeer at Lake Sammamish State Park.

But another birder I met at the park one day pointed out a place on the beach just a few feet off the walking path where a killdeer had made her nest. I hadn’t even noticed, even though I walk by there every day. The bird was away at the moment and a single egg lay in a little scoop in the ground. It was the 30th of March.

When I was able to return three days later I came back with my camera and found the killdeer sitting on the nest, blending so well with the surroundings that I might again have missed her if I didn’t know where to look for her. She didn’t stir until I got a little too close in my effort to photograph her. Then she hopped up and ran away from the nest, calling in a high, twittery, broken sounding way, and I was able to see that there were not one but three eggs now.

Baby killdeers disguised as pebbles.

Baby killdeers disguised as pebbles.

A few yards away, the bird did this strange, beautiful thing: she put her wings out partway, scraped her belly on the ground and lowered her tailfeathers so that the vivid brown color of her inner feathers could be seen. She put her tail at an angle as if it were broken and shook herself, continuing to call out loudly.

The gimpy act.

The gimpy act.

Her cry, if I might be so bold to interpret for her, said “Come and get me. I’m wounded, an easy kill, a plump dinner right here for the taking.” It was her attempt to draw attention away from her eggs. I’d heard of this behavior in quail many years ago but never seen any bird actually performing this act. I left her alone and wandered off, noting however that she quickly regained her composure, tiptoed back to the nest and lay over the eggs again.

I walked down the beach to where a woman with a camera was taking photos of some mergansers while her dog snuffled around offleash — an infraction of park rules carrying an $80 fine. I didn’t congratulate the woman about her being special and the rules not applying to her because I’ve been special in other ways at other times (cf. stone, casting first), but I did hope that she was not heading down to the end of the beach where the killdeer’s nest was. My hope was in vain. I watched her wander down the beach and, though it was now far away, I could see that the woman’s big fluffy hound was trotting across the area where the nest was, and not directly across but in that doggish back-and-forth way that seemed at this moment optimally suited to covering the most ground and assuring the accidental destruction of small eggs underfoot.

You can be a few yards away and not even see her sitting there.

You can be a few yards away and not even see her sitting there.

A park employee in big green raingear was doing some work up ahead and I stopped and told her how bummed I was that special people were letting their dogs run free against park rules when there was a killdeer who was trying to raise a family out there. The lady signaled sympathy with my dismay about Specials, but was even more interested in the killdeer nest and wanted me to show her where it was.

I hesitated, mumbling that I had to get back to my office — true, this — but she said “we can take the Gator”. She hopped onto the little green park vehicle — basically a golf cart with a flatbed for rakes and shovels. I couldn’t resist.

We sputtered across the park with a small breeze beating against our faces, and I showed her the nest. She stood a shovel up in the gravel a yard or so away to identify the spot and said she’d have her supervisor help her mark it so the lawnmower guy wouldn’t mow it (apparently they mow the gravel beach). She said the killdeers were some of her favorites but their numbers are dwindling in the park (right, I thought, because they aren’t smart enough to build their nests away from foot traffic), and with a sad expression noted that between the seagulls and the crows and the raptors (eagles, hawks, what have you), she didn’t think the eggs stood much of a chance.

No dogs allowed. If you look closely you can see her sitting in the Safe Zone.

No dogs allowed. If you look closely you can see her sitting in the Safe Zone.

On April 6th I found the nest surrounded by a neat rectangle of cones and tape. The mama bird, looking now a bit like an art exhibit, again dashed away shrieking to draw me off after she became convinced that lying still and quiet on the nest was not having the effect that she was hoping for. But she didn’t go far this time. She put on the same display and again got loud, but stayed close. I quickly turned to the nest to try to fire off a quick shot — four eggs now! — and when I did so she turned toward me and gave me a beak lashing. Really, she told me all about it. When I turned back to regard her she immediately turned away and started limping and fluttering again and her voice went weak and tremulous.

Four!

Four!

I turned to the nest again and took my shot, and she practically charged me. I half expected her to kick me in my toe. I took an out-of-focus shot of her reading me the Riot Act before she quickly turned away from me again to shiver and shriek her staccato plaint.

“Okay, sweetheart,” I said. “Okay, I’m goin’.” I didn’t want to cause her any more stress. It couldn’t be good for her.

Cue the Hitchcockian bird-attack music. She ran at me so fast I couldn't even focus.

Cue the Hitchcockian bird-attack music. She ran at me so fast I couldn’t even focus.

On April 9 as I was walking toward the little coned-off square it occurred to me I should probably name her, since she had become a little story for me, and the name Selma came to mind. But when I got closer I could see that the killdeer was not on her nest. I looked past the cones and found the nest empty. Absolutely empty. I wondered what this could mean. If there were broken eggs I would know that marauders had attacked before the chicks had hatched. If there were pieces of eggshell I would surmise that the chicks had hatched, although I would think it odd that they were gone. Maybe I would think they hatched and were plucked up immediately by predators, but I might also hope that Selma had marched them off to the safer area of vegetation beside the creek, even though it seemed that less-than-a-day-old chicks would not yet be able to waddle or even see.

But the total absence of the eggs pointed almost to removal by human hands. Or theft? Who would do that and why would they do it? It would certainly mean death to the chicks and eventually, rotten eggs that would be too smelly for an egg collection. Did they cook and eat them?

The site of probably tragedy.

The site of probably tragedy.

I saw the park worker some days later and asked if she knew what had happened. She said it was most likely seagulls or even the Canada geese that are hanging out at the park these days, even though there were no shell fragments. I was mildly crestfallen. I thought the mama bird was the bravest little life in the world, pretending to be wounded and putting herself in danger’s path in order to give her babies a chance at survival, and I was sad to think her nesting dreams had foundered. What would she do for the rest of the spring? Would she and her mate split up, turn to drink and gambling?

The woman said, however, that a few killdeer pairs were nesting “over in the boneyard”, a clearing in the woods where park employees dump old tree trunks that are in the way of paths or otherwise pose a danger — (most snags are left standing for habitat and after they fall are left lying for forest health), and that if I wanted to see more nests I should go there.

I did and I did. Just last week, I finally visited the boneyard and sure enough, the moment I walked into the clearing there were two killdeers trying to give me the runaround, one faking the broken wing and making a lot of noise. I thought I was smarter than they were and looked for their nest — carefully, look before each step! — in the area where I first spotted them, opposite from where they were trying to lead me. But it turns out that at least in this location they actually don’t spend much time at the nest. When I finally found it — by pretending to leave the clearing and then watching through my binoculars to see where one of them eventually went and settled down — it turned out to be well away from where I had first seen them. Canny buggers. There were four eggs, and these had a slightly different pattern from those in the first nest. They had more of the light-green hue, with larger but fewer dark speckles.

A new batch.

A new batch.

I’ve since learned that four is a plenary session for killdeer eggs, and once the fourth is laid the sitting starts in earnest, so this little quartet are on their way. I also read that killdeer chicks are precocial (yes, the word is related to “precocious”), meaning that they exhibit a high degree of independence very early. They can see when they’re born and walk almost immediately. Being hatched in unfeathered divots in parking lots and on open beaches, it makes sense that they would be up and about toot sweet, not waiting around the nest to have breakfast regurgitated at them (altricial) or be snatched up by a gull.

Sunlight and rain fall equally on the evil and the good, so the master said. Nor are there any guarantees for little birds using whatever wits their maker gave them to keep the tribe going, except that they shall not fall unregarded. But hope seems wondrously unteachable, both in birds and men. I returned again this week and the eggs were still there.

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Update 5/5/15: I only just published this post this morning, but already there is more to tell. During my lunch walk today I happened upon the park employee — she’s actually a volunteer — doing some work up ahead on the path, but some yards beyond where I would be turning off. I almost didn’t bother to take the extra steps and disturb her, but I figured she would be happy to know that I’d found one of the killdeer nests back in the boneyard. When I told her this she was thrilled and asked me again if I would point it out to her.

This time I didn’t hesitate, but hopped aboard as she shipped her tools and fired up the Gator. Her name is Pat, I learned after introducing myself, and she has been worried to pieces about those birds back in the boneyard. She hadn’t seen the nest, but she knew there must be at least one because of the presence and behavior of the adults, and that clearing is frequently subject to the ravages of tractors that the park employees use to push stumps and piles of brush and other deadfall around in it. Pat had prevailed upon the park administrators to impose a two-week moratorium on any tractor work back there, but in that time she had not been able to locate any nests and in fact the two weeks was up today. One of the park employees, says Pat, has found her eagerness to inconvenience park operations on behalf of a mob of little chirpers more than a little irritating (“he thinks I take it too far,” she said), and she had had to overcome loud objections in order to win the reprieve. My news today came just in time.

I don’t know what my fellow employees thought, several of whom were also out walking in pairs or singly, when they saw me with my blue Blunt umbrella riding shotgun on the state park’s maintenance vehicle next to a state park volunteer, but it didn’t matter.

“We’re on a quest, Matt,” said Pat, leaning over the wheel as if this would make the cart go faster.

“That’s right, Pat,” I returned, indulging in a wide grin.

In the boneyard. Volunteer Pat indicates the nest, near the end of the bleached branch that's sticking out of the ground.

In the boneyard. Volunteer Pat indicates the nest, near the end of the bleached branch that’s sticking out of the ground.

She stopped to grab a tall orange “cone” and throw it on the cart, for marking the nest. She said that now that the spot is identified, the employees can continue their work away from the nest and yet the eggs will be safe. (At least from humans. Predation is still a threat; a hawk circled over the boneyard as we set the cone near the nest.) It’s a comfort to me to know I’m not the only one who worries about the little things that don’t fit into this consumptive, twittering age’s idea of value. Is it just another one of the many eternal mysteries, then, that our Father in heaven simultaneously ordains by supreme fiat each avian death and seeds the breast of folks like Pat, and like me, with an impulse to strive beyond comfort and reason against that ordinance? And is that little ridiculous place in the human heart in fact the tiny nest of God’s own love?

Electric locomotive blood

My mother, waving a fork forlornly over her salad at a favorite spot in Issaquah where we go to lunch together every month, expresses frustration that no one in the family seems eager to receive things from her walls and shelves and cabinets, the things she has spent a lifetime collecting, by bequeathal or purchase, and now wishes to pass on to the next generation. They’re not only in her way since she and my father moved out of my childhood home in Bellevue to the smaller condo she now occupies, but they also threaten to be a burden to others (me, mostly) after she’s gone, l.m.s.l..

Finally, she’s just plain sad that no one wants to cherish these things. What will become of them — these platters and trivets and teacups and serving bowls and creamers that she has lovingly safeguarded against the ravages of time, pilferage, breakage? Her granddaughters, the ones close by here, are starting their own families now but for various reasons they don’t clamour for these objects.

One reason is that — as I keep hearing — “millennials” are not as possession-oriented to start with. Partly because they’re more nomadic, partly because the American Dream of home ownership seems to slip further beyond their grasp as the years go by, they feel neither the necessity nor the capacity to house loads of stuff that they don’t use often, exactly the kind of thing that middle-class homemakers of my mother’s generation loved to collect and display. Millennials are happy to rent flex- and zip- cars rather than deal with the insurance and maintenance and parking costs associated with what was once the first and most important status symbol in American society — owning a car. They pay for music as a service rather than buy CDs that then need to be both copied to mobile devices and stored somewhere, trusting, as I never could trust, that some server out there on the interwebs will keep track of their purchases and let them have that music again if they lose it.

Then there are style incompatibilities. My mother’s only daughter, my sister Jeni, went out of this life earlier than we expected, but Jeni was not very sentimental, and she was also blunt. There were a few things I think she had earmarked among my mother’s treasures that she would have taken had she lived longer, but for the most part she had her own style that was different. Jeni’s daughters mostly value a modern style, cleaner lines, more empty space, less clutter and less ornament, a style more suited to apartment living. One of them is a missionary in Africa, and she and her husband indeed live light on the earth.

While Mom sizes the situation up I nod sympathetically. Not empathetically but sympathetically, because I feel her pain. I’m a keeper. Despite great strides made by me in recent years in throwing things out, I still seem to find myself standing in piles of things that I can’t really use for anything but to which I am attached by a feeling that they have inherent value that is not utilitarian. The basement of my life continues to cough up useless but keepish items the way farmers’ fields grow stones. They just rise up with the freeze-thaw of life’s seasons, no matter how many wagon loads are carted away.

Scratch-built, hand-painted, unique in all the world. And about to be terminated.

Scratch-built, hand-painted, unique in all the world. And about to be terminated.

Another view. The middle section is precariously balanced on its paper-thin wheels.

Another view. The middle section is precariously balanced on its paper-thin wheels.

One such item is a tiny balsa-wood model of an electric locomotive that my Uncle Jim made from scratch and gave to his littlest brother, my dad. I don’t remember when Dad gave it to me or where he had stashed it all those years; maybe in his top dresser drawer, maybe in one of the many cluttered cabinets in his shop. I took it because he handed it to me, and because I liked the picture in my head of how delighted my dad, as a boy, would have been to have received this amazing piece of craftsmanship from his older brother. Jim was the first of six kids, and something like thirteen or fourteen years older than my dad, who was the last. Jim was the family hero; he went to sea in the Merchant Marine, and was the first to go to war. Looking at this little model, seeing the fine paint work and the individually applied rods and electric thingies and hand rails, and thinking that he made it for his kid brother Billy, just gives me a good feeling.

It sits on its own track and trestle, so it could in theory have been displayed at one time, but part of the trestle supports and many of its fine details were broken off during my dad’s tenure as its guardian, and in my own administration the whole middle section has come away from the end sections. It’s that brittle. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just a tiny, amazing piece of craft, unique in the entire universe.

And I don’t want it anymore.

But what to do with it? It has no monetary value and it’s unable to stand up in the slightest breeze. I guess the center could be glued back, but it would be a dodgy operation because the break from the tracks was not clean and all of it is so blasted delicate.

My daughters remember their Pop-Pop, my father, but Uncle Jim died long before they were born, so the thing has little inherent sentimental value for them. So there’s little reason to hang on to it for my offspring’s sake.

I was recently preparing a box to ship to my own little brother, Ben, containing one of his model railroad boxcars that somehow ended up in my stuff years ago when our parents were getting rid of the old train layout and boxing up our rolling stock for us. I’ve been meaning to send it to him for years. I boxed it up last week and included — very well padded in paper and styrofoam and several nested boxes — the little balsa model. In the little thought bubble above my head, Ben was opening it up with delight and saying “hey, this is so cool!” I had it all taped up and addressed to my brother in Alaska when the thought occurred to me, and I said aloud…”whoa, wait a sec. Am I just doing that thing?”

Angela laughed, recognizing a thing that happens in my family a lot, especially in recent years with so many people shucking the coil. She then summed the whole situation up brilliantly. “You cherish the thing, but you don’t want to be burdened with it anymore. You’d feel guilty getting rid of it, and you hope that someone else will cherish it. But you don’t want to risk asking them and having them say no. So you just send it. And then it’s their problem.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was doing that thing exactly. Even after the myriad times that Angela and I have laughed together and rolled our eyes after I’ve opened some package and found some thing returned to me that I had given (or sold) to someone decades ago — a drawing or painting, a poem or letter. “Thought you might want this back,” invariably goes the accompanying note. That’s part of our Particular Tribal Crazy. We view gifts in this bizarre way, so that when we’re done with something someone has given us we don’t feel free to just give it or throw it away. Gifts come with strings. They have to be returned to the giver when we’re done with it. But we don’t ask.

Years ago, when my Uncle Jim (the same uncle) and Aunt Evelyn downsized to a smaller house, they told me they had my painting for me to come and get when it was convenient for me.  The painting was a mammoth 2-foot by 4-foot oil on canvas I’d done as a teenager, when I took painting lessons in the basement of the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue. It was a copy of one of the translucent ocean wave paintings by an artist named Galen who was known for those kinds of seascapes. My uncle and aunt had commissioned me to make a painting, a large one for their large house, and I chose this amazing Galen wave and copied it fairly faithfully. That was what we did as students; the studio had lots of full-sized prints of paintings of various kinds, and we honed our craft by copying them when we weren’t painting something from a photograph. I was proud of the technical achievement — the skill it takes to faithfully reproduce some existing work — but it was the forger’s skill, and I began to see early on that I was not an artist myself but a technician. Consequently, I did not love the idea that this behemoth, for which I had been paid the fair sum of 200 American dollars decades ago and which I considered the rightful property of Others to dispense with as they saw fit, should land on my house in one of these “keep it in the family” lateral hand-backs.

The locomotive is smaller by orders of magnitude, but I realized I was pulling a F– Family Lateral on my kid brother. So I emailed him some photos of the little model and asked if he wanted it. Turns out, no, he too has no place nor need for such a thing, as impressed as he was by its unique craftsmanship. Softy that he is, he said send it if I must, but all he would do was take it to an antique shop — there’s only one in Fairbanks that he thinks would even consider taking it. I realized that this would only be a further attempt to free both of us from guilt, as they’d probably throw it away. It can’t have any monetary worth. So I told my brother that I would not send it, that I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it but its blood would be on my hands and no one else’s.

But without the option of a Lateral, I’m not sure I can part with it. I am not psychologically sound enough. It would be cool to have the space and display cabinetry to keep all these things forever, but it would be even better to be able to keep our parents and uncles and aunts and other family members forever — because that’s what the guilt is about. To throw the object away — an object unlike any other under the sun or beyond the stars, from an age before everything that we own sprang from a plastic mould; an object that houses and symbolizes the discipline, the artistry, the effort and time dedicated; embodies the love — well, it feels like we’re saying none of it mattered.

I know all of it did matter and matters still, historically forever. And I know that the object ultimately does not matter. It isn’t cruel or callous of me to throw the little engine away. It’s just a damn shame.

Birdbrain

bird (\ˈbərd\) v intr:  to observe or identify wild birds in their habitats”

–Merriam Webster

I’ve started to bird. That is, I’m becoming something of a birder. I strode out at lunchtime yesterday with my new given-to-me-by-my-wife-for-Christmas 10x Nikon binoculars in search of Grady, a great blue heron of my acquaintance who hangs out in the swampy bits of the state park across the street from where I work (lucky me, yeah?).

Grady a week or so ago.

Grady a week or so ago.

We’re all becoming birders at my house. Angela has fed hummingbirds for many winters, and we’ve gone through many different types of feeders as she’s learned more about what these feisty little ex-dinosaurs need. And we’ve hung suet cakes in feeder cages in the yard for years, too. But in recent months Angela has had me install hooks in the wooden joist supporting the balcony off of our kitchen, and she’s spent some time learning what kind of birds might come to the various feeders we’ve hung there.

Thus, for Christmas, I and the girls went to Wild Birds Unlimited up by Lake Forest Park and got Angela some suet cakes (one with real dead bugs in it!) and a sweet new suet cage, and a colorfully illustrated book about birds of Seattle and Puget Sound by Chris C. Fisher.

Hummingbird at our feeder. Look inside the feeder and you can see her translucent pink tongue emerging from her beak.

Hummingbird at our feeder. Look inside the feeder and you can see her translucent pink tongue emerging from her beak to lap at the elixir. Click the image to see it bigger.

I had intended — of course I would do this — I had intended to procure for her a vintage hardback copy of the mammoth and encyclopedic Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, which catalogs and illustrates in a stridently rigid style every bird known in this quadrant of the globe, in both sexes, but on Christmas Eve I couldn’t get into the bookshop on whose shelf I knew it to repose, and I’m glad. The thin paperback we got her instead restricted itself to the birds we are likely to actually see, and the book has hardly left Angela’s lap since she unwrapped it. She already used it to identify a visitor who came Sunday during a little afternoon hootenanny that we were having at our house and hung on the new feeder in the company of a merry mob of bushtits (we only figured out who the bushtits were a week or so ago, but we used the Internet for that) and in plain sight of all of our guests, who were all standing in the kitchen (that’s what guests do). He availed himself of some of the insect suet.

Bushtits always come to the suet feeder in bunches.

Bushtits always come to the suet feeder in bunches.

This turned out to be a kind of woodpecker, we now believe. I saw him while we were all talking and I thought “that looks like a chickadee, kinda, but not really — he’s more contrasty, and what’s that little glow of red on the top of his head?” But since Angela was looking right at him (so I thought) and wasn’t commenting, I said nothing at first, assuming it was just a chickadee after all. When I did mention the oddness of his red crown, everyone turned to look and he flew off, and it was clear then that he was no chickadee. At first consultation with the book, we thought it might have been a ruby-crowned kinglet, but we’ve agreed now that what we saw was most likely the male downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, (UPDATE: especially since he’s been back — see image below). The female of the species, alas, has no color on her crown.

Several days after I published this post we caught him red-handed (or red-headed, I should say) at the seed feeder. It's clear here that he's no chickadee, but he was backlit when we first saw him.

UPDATE: Several days after I published this post we caught the downy woodpecker red-handed (or red-headed, I should say) at the seed feeder.

We were all ecstatic to see a bird hanging on our balcony that none of us had ever seen before even though many of those present had grown up here. That experience sort of finalized a wish I’ve had lately that I were more familiar with my own habitat, not just its birds but its rocks, trees, fish and fauna, and especially the watersheds and drainages that support it all. Life in Puget Sound and the glacial till it rode in on, in other words.

Some years ago this same bee got in my bonnet, and I visited my friends at Island Books on Mercer Island, who I should not have been surprised to find actually had on the shelf a copy of Arthur Kruckeberg’s The Natural History of Puget Sound Country. I relieved them of it specifically so I could know everything about the region I was born in. The Georgia Basin, which includes all of the Puget Sound and the lion’s share of both the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, is a huge bowl overlapping the Canadian-American border and it contains many watersheds, including my “home shed”, the Cedar River. I started reading the book, but life happened and I got overwhelmed by something or other. Professor Kruckeberg, who taught a botany class I took at the University of Washington in my youth, is an engaging writer, and so I dragged out this doughty text again recently. I’m going through from the beginning, from preglacial times, to understand what’s around me and under my feet. Our new attention to our avian visitors fits right in with this plan.

This mallard hen and her beau-drake actually chased me, hoping for a handout.

This mallard hen and her beau-drake actually chased me, hoping for a handout.

I walked over to the park and checked in a reedy wet area in which Grady tends to stand knee deep at midday, usually motionless. I see other walkers walk right by him without even noticing him. I think it’s a male because he’s so large. Male and female great blue herons (Ardea herodias) look similar and can often only be distinguished by their size; the male is a little larger, and his beak is a little longer. (A little tuft at the back of his head, I’ve heard, may also be a male-only feature, and Grady seems to have this, though in the photo at top he’s wearing it in a long pony tail.) But they both have the same coloring, and until I see a mating pair side by side I’m really only guessing at gender.

Grady wasn’t there yesterday. My new binoculars hung disappointedly around my neck. He wasn’t there the day before either. I started walking toward a second, slightly more secluded area where I’ve seen a heron before and on the way, I noted Canada geese, a whole squadron of them standing in a grassy field near the lake, until someone’s dog ran up to them, at which point, because I was at that instant blocking their access to the lakeshore, they rose flapping noisily into the air and flew away honking.

Sketches.

I drew sketches of some of the ones I saw and wanted to look up in the book. One of them was the American coot, which I had incorrectly noted as a grebe.

I also saw coots by the scores, which turned out to be American coots; mallards aplenty; seagulls of some species; a kind of black-and-white duck that Angela’s book suggests was a bufflehead; and a murder of crows, plus some loner crows NOT in a murder. There was no heron in place #2, so I skibbled over to an even more remote corner where I go sometimes, a secluded beach along the mouth of the Issaquah Creek, which has plenty of marshy, heron-friendly habitat. I saw four mallards — two hens dozing and two drakes doting nearby — but I didn’t see any heron.

Not at first. Then I turned to look across the water toward a little grassy island and there he was.

Staring.

Right.

At.

Me.

Of course, when a heron stares at you it’s only with one eye, with its head turned to the side, because otherwise it can’t see you. So it actually looked like he was specifically NOT staring at me. But I knew he was watching my every move (that’s what herons do).

Easy to miss, but they don't miss us.

Easy to miss, but they don’t miss us.

I noted the time (that’s what birders do). It was 12:50. The heron was standing in a circular area where it seemed the grass or reeds had been mashed down. I know they make their nests in tall cottonwood trees not far off, so I was confused by what looked like a ground-nesting thing going on. And was this really Grady? Or was it Grady’s mate, or another male? I know that a lot of herons nest in this area so maybe it was half of another couple altogether. I watched through my binoculars for a minute or two, focusing on the bird’s big yellow eye, then departed. On the way back to the office, beside a branch of the creek, I encountered a gang of robins hopping around, and out of curiosity I stopped and put my field glasses to my eyes.

Normally I’d just say, yeah, robins and little sparrows and what, and keep walking. But I decided to pause and look, try to really see what I was seeing. There were indeed a dozen robins, spaced out to give each other plenty of elbow room (that’s what robins do), but there were also a mess of juncos, which I know by their black heads — I always called these chubby little twitterers ‘executioner birds’ because they look like they’re wearing a dark cowl — and these were all bunched together flapping and chattering in a kind of tumbling pile. Then there were two small, yellowish gray birds foraging just along the edge of some shrub canes; they had no bright markings but their bodies and wings seemed lightly streaked. And finally there was a single dark bird, thinner than a robin but otherwise about the same size, that had a black head and back, darker than the dark gray of a robin, and a bright orange breast and rump. It may also have had a bit of a comb at the back of his head, like a Steller’s jay. I have no idea what it was, though for some reason I imagined it as a kind of blackbird, and I could find neither this not-robin nor the yellow-grey birds in Angela’s book when I got home.

Home sapiens aviphila.

Red-chinned speckled birdwatcher (Homo sapiens aviphila, sometimes mistaken for Homo sapiens audiophila). F.d.: This photo is a reënactment.

Well, I need practice seeing what I’m seeing, but eleven bird species on a lunchtime walk is not a bad haul. I went back again today and found Grady standing in the exact same place and facing the same direction, as though he hadn’t moved, and I saw another one of those little black not-robin birds that I finally identified as a spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus), plus the male bufflehead again — I just like walking by and saying “hi Bufflehead!”. I even added a new species, the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), a startled-looking duckish party that has a crazy translucent crest on his head — really, the sunlight glows through it — and very bright stripes on his wings and chest. He was paddling around in the big creek, and I watched long enough to discover his mate, whom I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t been watching the male through the binoculars, so muted were her colors. She had the wacky hairdo, though, just like his only drab, and that look on her face as though she’d just been caught with her bill in the cookie jar.

Yep. Don’t mind me. I’m just birdin’ around. Birdin’ birdin’ birdin’.

When music condenses

Yesterday while I was driving around with my daughters doing some panic shopping for the double jeopardy of Jesus’ and Angela’s birthdays, which are just days apart, Emilia asked me how radio happens. Millie is lately very “sciency”, to quote the eleventh Dr. Who. So I told the girls about radio waves, how someone sitting in a radio station spins a record (yes, I know) and the radio station has a machine in it that makes the sound of the music go up to the top of a tower and then shoot out across the sky to our radio, and the radio is a machine that listens for that music and plays it when it hears it.

“The towers are called radio towers,” I said. “You’ve seen them on top of Queen Anne. Those three really tall red and white towers with the blinking red lights on the top? Those are radio towers sending out the music we hear.”

Millie is like Mara was at that age — she expressed no further interest in the topic. She was done with it, I thought, even before I finished talking.

Tonight as we drove home from Gramma’s house on Interstate 5, I pointed out the radio towers on Queen Anne, which are lit up with Christmas lights right now. These were visible out Mara’s side of the car, to our left as we headed north through downtown. I don’t know whether Millie saw those, but she saw something interesting to her a minute later when we crossed over what is known hereabouts as the “ship canal bridge”, from whose top deck automobile passengers (and drivers who are not paying attention to the traffic in front of them) can survey the campus of the University of Washington and the houseboat-deckled Portage Bay beside it.

“I think I see the music coming out,” came Emilia’s voice from the back seat.

Angela and I swiveled our heads this way and that to try to see what such an announcement could possibly mean (I was driving, yes, but there were few cars on the road because it is Christmas day). I figured she might be seeing more radio towers, but couldn’t think of any she might be looking at. I turned back (again, it’s a holiday) and saw that her face was turned toward the campus, the curve of her cheek lit softly by the lights of the University district.

“The steam!” cried discerning Mara. “She means the steam.”

I then saw that the old steam plant on campus, which has a tall chimney stack, had a red light on top of it, and a cloud of water vapor was condensing into steam as it spread out from the top of the stack, streetlit amber gray against the darker gray of night behind and above. Emilia had heard how it works. She had been told how to identify the towers. And there was the music coming out. It made perfect sense.

Things are sometimes not what they seem, and still exactly what we expect them to be. Merry Christmas if that’s what you’re having. If else, peace to you and yours.


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The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


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