With all that stuff gone global and viral in ways that are the opposite of good, I’ve been thinking a lot about birds. I like birds. Well, not all birds. I don’t care much for pigeons. Can’t really say why. Nothing personal. I’ve never had a pigeon incident. And to be clear, I don’t hate the pigeons. I just don’t care for them. I’m what you might call pigeon neutral. If you really want to go there. I don’t recommend it. I think that’s enough about the pigeons. Otherwise, I like birds. They’re cute, birds. They chirp. And they fly. Wings and feathers. What a revolution. Or rotation. Or...flap. What a flap.
Now, the ostrich doesn’t fly, but it’s still a bird, and it can run 40 miles an hour. Usain Bolt tops out at 27 miles an hour. Just saying. The fastest man on earth cannot outrun the ostrich, which speaks very highly of the ostrich. Look, I don’t want to sour the mood, but let’s be real about this: in the race between Usain Bolt and an ostrich, Usain takes the silver medal. The ostrich reminds the humans that we have limitations. I think that’s all I want to say about the ostrich right now. Reserving some time to revisit the ostrich thing, if opportunity presents itself, but not right now.
Right now, it’s all this thinking about birds. It started the other night. I was sleeping with the back door open. The weather was balanced right between my keeping the door open and turning on the air conditioner. So, yes: a pivotal moment for me. I really didn’t want to turn the air on because then it’s on for the rest of the season, and ConEd wins. In this case, I am Usain Bolt and ConEd is the ostrich. My other dilemma was that the wind might pick up in the middle of the night while I was sleeping and blow The Thing into my room and get me sick. This was how I fell asleep that night. It wasn’t optimal. That’s me: trying to be woke inside a bad dream.
I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a bird chirping. There were the occasional other sounds: the leaves rustling like a convention of peaches on a velvet chalkboard, a car clearing its throat along the expressway. But the constant was this one bird, chirping. I want to say that it was a warbler—not because I could identify it as a warbler. I know nothing about birds. I just like the sound of “warbler.” It’s like getting a reward for pronouncing a word with a mouthful of marbles. This warbler had a portfolio, a live demo tape of staccatos and trills, rat-a-tat-tats and slow four-fours, woodpecker-at-work impersonations and the undecipherable avian Morse code, some odd gurgling and a one-two repetition of thirds that sounded like a cry for the Heimlich maneuver. I pictured performing the Heimlich on this warbler, crushing and killing the bird as the worm flew from its beak, dazed and confused but alive, determined to dig deeper next time into the earth. Sometimes I don’t sleep so well.
I thought about birds in flight and how easy it must have been for Isaac Newton to watch a bird flapping wings and come up with his third law. No, I thought, that would have been too easy. I decided that Newton discovered his third law while he was constipated and had no prune juice within reach or within miles or—where was he from, England?—kilometers. But I don’t know if they had the metric system back then. So, let’s just say Newton had no prune juice within a furlong. There’s Newton, on the toilet, constipated, no prune juice within a furlong, and that’s when he comes up with his third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
A flap of wings. You push down, you fly. Remarkable. What a flap.
My grandfather died when I was living in California. I flew to Kansas City and entered that bubble of loss and grief, and then I flew back to Oakland, stretching that bubble until it popped somewhere over Utah. I had work to do. I was determined to thrust myself into employment and responsibility. I worked in a typewriter store in Berkeley. My main contribution to the enterprise was ribbon replenishment. I loved that job. The boss’s last name was one swapped vowel away from the word “weird.” Two weeks a year, every year for twenty years, the boss and his wife made pilgrimage to the same timeshare in Hawaii for their vacation; they left for that year’s big-kahuna getaway just after I returned from my grandfather’s funeral.
The extra responsibility would do me good, I thought. But it did me no good. The bubble that had popped over Utah reformed over the typewriter store in Berkeley. All those people needing ribbons, repairs, and idle chitchat took me away from thinking about my grandfather. At the end of the day, it was my job not to forget but to remember and honor. At the end of this particular day, I was frazzled. I knew what I had to do. In the exotic calculus of my wounded thought process, I needed to not think about my grandfather on my terms, not the terms of the randomness of customers. I decided to go to the movies.
Here’s the complication. Store closed at six. Cleaning up took me to 6:15. Movie started at 6:30. I didn’t have enough money in my wallet for movie and popcorn and a soda. In my grief, I needed all three of those to honor my grandfather. And in my grief, I couldn’t be late for the previews. The movie theater was a five-minute walk. The bank’s ATM was a ten-minute walk. You do the math. I borrowed a twenty-dollar bill from the safe at the typewriter store, fully intending to replenish it first thing the next morning. I’m not a thief. And it wasn’t like the safe said to me, “Sorry for your loss; here, take a twenty, go to the movies, have a popcorn and a soda, on the house.” Birds in Brooklyn might call out for the Heimlich maneuver, but safes do not communicate with me.
I went to the movies. I have no memory of what I saw that night, no idea if the popcorn was good. All I can say about the experience is that it made perfect sense to honor the memory of my grandfather by not thinking about him for two hours. Then I went to the bank. The sun had set, and the evening California light show—all mangos and lilacs, pomegranates and bananas—had ended. I was at the ATM, transacting, when the bird dove, grabbed my hair, squawked, gave a tug, and then flew off into the night.
My grandfather had been a polar bear of a man, two hundred sixty pounds, all gained and maintained from a healthy and constant flow of samples through his work in the wholesale food business. I don’t know how big this bird was. Smaller than a pterodactyl, larger than a hummingbird, definitely nowhere near two hundred and sixty pounds of polar man-bear. And it was one bird, not an angry demented flock of them terrorizing Tippi Hedren in a Hitchcock movie. And yet, I remain convinced this bird was my grandfather, telling me in the strongest man-bird admonishment possible that I shouldn’t have taken that twenty from the safe.
The power of the bird. It still surprises me, this intersection of family loss and that bird. They’re older than us, you know. My little backyard warbler is a direct descendant of the mighty and ferocious pre-historic predatory bird with teeth like saw blades and claws like daggers. Today: not so much a scaled version but a sleeker, more compact, more modern evolutionary uptick. Maybe it’s the prey that got smaller. Like a man at his ATM, meeting not his maker but his grandfather one last time.
After college, I moved to Israel for a year. I lived in Nahlaot, this gloriously crumbling neighborhood in Jerusalem. My downstairs neighbor was an 85 year-old woman named Yaffa. She gave me handfuls of sunflower seeds she salted and dried on a blanket in the courtyard, where she sat most days, shooing the birds away with a towel and her cane. She often cried herself to sleep at night. Over time, her crying became a lullaby for my own sleep. Not all lullabies are happy things.
One morning after my breakfast and walk, I sat on a bench and watched some birds pecking away the edibles from the stone patch in front of me. In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me: in all my twenty-one years of life, a bird had never once shat on me. And three seconds later, a bird shat on me—a glop of wet white and grey bird shit, right on my shoulder. I think magic is all around us.
I’d like to say a word about our president. I take no pleasure in what I’m about to say. I’ve sighed unpleasantly, like a purging mental belch of bad thoughts, more these past four years than in all my previous years combined, and I attribute most of that to letting the words and misdeeds of the leader of the free world get under my skin. In the context of birds, his microphone of choice—the tweet—is perfect. To say that his tweet storms are a warbled mess of chirping chicanery and snake oil does a disservice to the nobility of real warblers and snake oil.
I’m not vindictive by nature. But when I say that I want to learn from history—a grandfatherly reprimand through that avatar bird, and a bird crapping on me right after I conjured the notion, there in the otherwise holy city of Jerusalem—when I want to apply those lessons from my history toward a better future, I picture applying Newton’s third law by doing to our president what that bird in Jerusalem did to me. I haven’t worked out any of the details yet. Like how to frame this as anything other than vindictive. Or whether to try this as a human or as a bird. Though the bird would seem to have some logistical advantages.
The world seems like it switched from 33 to 78 rpm, and I’m trying to learn a faster foxtrot, but it’s making me dizzy. So, sometimes I pause. I say kaddish for the people who do not go so gently, and have to do it alone. That is, I pause to honor the memory of people I never knew. I’m not a masochist. I don’t do it every day, or every week. It’s unscheduled. So many gone now. Still, and erratically, I’ll find myself in one of these moments, and I think I understand Leonard Cohen when he sings, “I was tumbled up with them in formless circumstance.”
I’m not very good at this conjuring and communing. I think part of it is an ethereal reality check. I don’t get out much these days, so I’ll grab a ticket to ride whenever and however I can. Since the weather’s turned, I also find myself leaning on the birds. Warbling, ready to flap and fly and weave through the folly and the sloth and the beauty and the hope, all of it stitched and frayed and patched. And if I tell you that I don’t know whether I’m writing about me or the birds right now, well, would it really make a difference?