Category Archives: Cast of Characters

Birds of a feather

(you talking about us?)
This is really embarrassing. No, no, not the part about not updating- that’s old news. No, the embarrassing thing is this: for all the time I spend with birds, feeding birds, handling birds, watching birds and teaching others about birds, I am afraid of birders. I am intimidated by them and I feel foolish around them. Seriously, birders terrify me. My stereotype of them is that they are a peculiarly obsessive, competitive, geeky type. They tend to be know-it-alls and in the race to lengthen their precious (and often fictitious) life lists, they’ll either hallucinate or outright fabricate the sighting of a Green Violetear or an Eared Quetzal. “Right there! It’s there, on the third branch from the left fork of that Quercus, between 2 and 3 o’clock! There! I don’t know why you don’t see it!”  all in the loud, excited and yet simultaneously hushed tones of golf announcers. And, to be honest, then I think, “you’re Quercus!” and make a plan of escape. It’s particularly scary that there are now so damned many of us them. Reports are that there are somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 bird watchers in North America, all clomping about in meadow and wood with way too much expensive gear. In addition to making up stories about birds they haven’t really seen, birders like to argue about the best binoculars, the best camera equipment and the best bird guides. Peterson is obsolete, Sibley is yesterday’s news; the field guide du jour is The Crossley ID. It’s mostly written in code, which suits birders just fine.

So why is it so embarrassing that I embrace such a, shall we say, catty view of birders? It’s because I’ve invested considerable effort and self-promotion in joining this particular group of odd ducks. Not just a flock of birders, no, it’s THE FLOCK of birders. A collective of bird watchers with members the likes of  Julie Zickafoose, Murr Brewster, Laura Hardy and Susan Kailholz-Williams and my friend, Jane Blumenthal, aka Wren. This flock of birders heads off each year to the best birding convocations and migrations to be led by prominent ornithologists such as Rudy Gelis, Bill Thompson, the Hershbergers (imagine a marriage of professional birders!) and Jeffrey Gordon. The Flock spends a week doing all those birdy things and then they write about it until the next get together. For the first six months they post photos and reports about the wonder of it all and for the next six months they write about how desperate they are to get together to do it again. And, if you follow any of them in their blogs or on Facebook, soon all you want out of your remaining years is to be one of them. A member of The Flock.(friend, Cathy, took these photos on Wildlife Weekend when I was giving a little owl talk.)

Say hello to the newest member. Blind in one eye, I line up the edge of my binoculars against the bridge of my nose and look through one eyepiece. Slightly dyslexic, I’m usually looking at the other left tree branch. As I try to focus my camera shot I end up losing the whole tree, let alone the bird. I’m allergic to the sun. And the greatest aberration? Brace yourselves. I don’t carry a life list. It’s true. I have one but I no longer carry it or even keep it current. Oh, I have Audubon Society pins for 100, 200, 300, 400 birds. I gave a Nene some water from my bottle on the peak of Mt Haleakala and I really saw a Forked Tailed Canivet Emerald Hummingbird on Roatan. But somewhere along the way I lost interest in all that competition, in the paraphernalia, the gear, the strained neck at the end of the day and I decided I was just going to watch what comes my way. What flutters into my field of vision, narrow as it is. Now, when I want to look at birds, I wear my big sun hat, take my modestly good point and shoot camera, sans tripod and extra lens and my adequate not-too-heavy binoculars. I’m happy if I get to see a good-looking or interesting bird but I’m equally happy seeing snakes and lizards and wildflowers and fish- hey! that reminds me! I need to pack my fly rod!

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird . . . So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Richard P. Feynman

If the physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics can get off the bird naming thing, then so can I. Ha!

Here’s the thing. As a member of The Flock I have a moral obligation to post blog updates about the next great birding adventure: The New River Birding and Nature Festival. This is coming up soon, the first week of May, in New River (naturally), West Virginia.

So. All kidding aside? I can barely wait for this trip. I am so anxious to shed my winter lethargy and be one with Spring I can’t contain myself. For 5 days I get to wander and hike this fantastically beautiful part of the country, around the gorge, along the river and on the front porch. I keep reading my daily trip descriptions; they have names like Kanawha Falls to Burnwood, Birding By Boat, Muddlety Strips and yes! Birding By Butt! (I believe that is the one that fits into my philosophy of letting the birds come to me.) I smile every time I think about meeting this new gaggle of geese who will be my bunkmates and as we exchange notes, phone numbers, suggested snack lists-well, I realize that I’m probably guilty of wildly stereotyping birders. I’ll definitely keep you posted on that, promise, cross my heart, with blurry photos of unidentifiable birds.

For now, just click and look at the photos and read all about it. You’ll want to go, too. I think you still can, you know. I think there are still a few spaces available. I mean, you can’t be a member of The Flock or anything- too late for that this year. That requires some maneuvering but who’s to say that if you come this year you might not graduate to The Flock by next year? Just be sure to have the Crossley ID visible in your pack at all times.

Here’s a little video I took today of a youngster I’ve been watching. 

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Down by the dock of the bay

Our company left today- not really company, more like family. They didn’t want to go and we didn’t want them to leave but it’s back to snow, doctors and work for them. The week was wonderful. Much as I dislike the expression, I would say that some parts of it were down right magical.

(I get up every day and throw on whatever is close at hand and brush my teeth. Juanita, on the premise of “look good, feel better” looks lovely no matter how crummy she feels. Lexi says she is the most beautiful mommy in the world.)

(Lexi had an appointment at the Bibbidy Boppity Boutique. Being transformed into a princess is serious business.)

(Okay. It’s magical.)

For the rest, it was time spent relaxing, having some heart-to-hearts, sharing the love and living in the moment. Bittersweet time. At night, after it was quiet and dark, Rich and I would talk about what wonderful parents Chris and Juanita are, how delightfully charming and smart and quick Alexis is. She certainly is the center of their universe, rightly so, and impossibly easy to spoil because she is so polite, well-disciplined and exceptionally adaptive and well behaved. Always the conversation ended with big sighs and sadness that Juanita has to go through this. Chris wears a bracelet that says, “Save the ta-tas” and I want one. I want Juanita’s ta-tas to be saved more than anything.


Coming off the visit, Rich and I have been sort of listlessly spending the day working at business, laundry, things set aside for a few days. We took a break a bit ago to wander down to the bayou to see if the manatee were at the wall but they were still out a ways; we could see them breaching the surface but the tide was still a bit low. While we were looking for them I spotted this: the sad demise of my regular friend. For four years, this little green heron has been perched, without fail, on a dock rail close to the water, picking off the little minnows for dinner.  It looked as though he had been fish hooked with some line dragging around his neck. Very very irksome. I was ready to go at that point, all grumpy and sad, but then Rich spotted another familiar feathered friend, this Yellow Crowned Night Heron. Closer inspection says he may not be the same one I saw last year because I think this is a youngster, but I’m not sure.

Thinking about birds reminds me of my most recent felting folly. For whatever reason I thought I might felt some bird houses. Laugh. It’s okay. Rich says it looks like a Jimmy Durante muppet. I’m going to cheer myself up by working on a magpie palace tonight.

When You Wish Upon a Star

Tonight, I plan to step outside and once again, make a wish on the first bright star I see. Tonight it’s likely to be Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, the lion. Today we have company coming. This is a much-anticipated visit. In fact, we’ve been working on this for a couple of years now. Juanita and Chris and their five-year old, Alexis are coming for the week. They are, in many ways, family to us.

Juanita was born on a reservation in Northern Michigan and her single mom struggled with many of the issues of reservation life. She and her siblings were eventually split up and put into foster care; she came to live with her aunt and uncle and they had the good sense to get some help for Juana and that’s how she came into my life. At some point our relationship transcended a purely therapist/patient one and when there was a period during her adolescence when things got understandably tangled and tough, she came and lived with our family for a couple of years. During that period she was in high school and she met Chris. Although I had to toss him out after sneaking in the bedroom window, they became classic high school sweethearts and have been together ever since. They married but Alexis was more than a few years in coming and she has always been the apple of everyone’s eye. She was born the day after Rich’s father died and we viewed her arrival as one of those great gifts in the cycle of life. She has had a crush on Daniel since day one; at one point she had plans on marrying him despite the 25 year age difference.

During her first year, Juanita was diagnosed with breast cancer. I won’t go on at length here but she has been through all of the possible miserable treatments, done every 3-mile Relay for Life, supported other cancer patients endlessly and always, she and Chris have had great adventures and made wonderful memories for Alexis, sandwiched in between. Because they are the sort of people who give so generously of their own energy and time and spirit they have a wonderful community of family and friends and more than once I have thought how amazingly successful a life Juanita has made, coming so far from life in a car on a reservation. They have been able to travel to see our mutual friends in Napa Valley, they go to Red Wings games, they take annual family reunion vacations in upper Michigan. 

We thought that Juanita was in remission but this year her cancer has come back with a vengeance and it has now metastasized to her bones, her spine. Now she is fighting to be in that very tiny percentage of women who survive. Chris is an arborist and with the Michigan economy, work has been tenuous. That’s also a job that has some seasonal aspects; this winter he has been plowing, plowing, plowing. While he works tirelessly, Juanita has been getting constant heavy doses of infused chemotherapy. Alexis spends her mornings with mom and afternoons in kindergarten.

One of the things that they have very much wanted to do as a family is to take Alexis to Disney World. While Disney is not my current idea of the perfect destination, I do remember clearly the excitement of taking Dan and Abby and seeing the magic through their eyes. It’s a Small World After All is still burned into my brain, along with Daniel pulling out half my hair as he screamed in the car behind me on Space Mountain. Disney is a magical place for small children and five is the perfect age and now, for Juanita and Chris, it’s the time. This is a trip that couldn’t be postponed.

In addition to wondering at the quality of the lives they live, I have also wondered more than once why life should be so hard for such good people. Because I am not so sturdy in my faith, it is extremely hard for me to turn it all over and stop raging against their circumstances. Juanita has a very strong faith and it sustains her now. She is supported by an amazing network in their friendships and in their church family. When we put our heads together with our California friends and reached out with just a simple request the response was overwhelming. Between us all, we’ve gotten the airline tickets, resort, unlimited Disney passes and all of their expenses for a great weeks vacation. It’s been no small feat coordinating with the airline 3 donated tickets from 3 different frequent flyer accounts, making arrangements for accessibility at Disney (not as easy as you might think), figuring out details around getting through TSA, letters from doctors, and arranging parking permits but it’s all fallen into place. You, everyone who reached out, did good! and if all of the people who have supported this trip knew how grateful we are…well, thank you everyone.

They arrive here in a couple of hours and will spend two days soaking up some sun and resting up for the big adventure and then on Saturday they’ll drive over to Orlando and spend three nights exploring Disney, SeaWorld, Universal- they can do as much or as little as they like. Then it’s back here for a little more quiet family time, a beach walk, some fresh crab.

For us, this week means an opportunity to spend some quality porch time with this family that we love. Alexis sees Daniel in Ann Arbor (they go regularly to hear him make music) but Grandma Vicki hasn’t laid hands on her for too long. I am eager to feed them (except Juana craves Malto Meal with brown sugar. Do you think I can find Malto Meal anywhere down here??? Arrghhh.) and show them the manatee and let Alexis get eyeball to eyeball with a little screech owl. For them, this week represents a week away from hospitals and doctors and drugs. A week off from work and out of the end of a long cold winter. Most of all, it will be a week to make memories.

(I got this picture mail a bit ago so I know they are at the airport and on their way!)

Some folks’ lives roll easy as a breeze
Drifting through a summer night
Heading for a sunny day
But most folks’ lives, oh they stumble
Lord they fall
Through no fault of their own
Most folks never catch their stars

(Paul Simon)

Apology to my daughter on her birthday

It wasn’t that long ago that my daughter was one of the founding members of  “Daughters Against Mothers On Facebook.” Both of my children have, on occasion,  been less than pleased to show up in my postings and blog over the years; Dan will just blatantly delete my comments and Abby has often called, starting the conversation with “MAAOOOMMM! The blog!!!!”

Two days ago I find this on my FB page:

NO BIRTHDAY BLOG POSTTTT!!!!!????? ARE YOU MAD AT ME?

Hmmm. Well, anyone who has been around here for long knows how I feel about this child because I have, in fact, posted about her on every birthday and often in between. I usually preface the millanteria with disclaimers about her alien status, how she was switched in the nursery, so forth and so on. Because to me, she is frankly and delightfully remarkable in a way that has no genetic resemblance; although in recent years, many people have commented that we bear a close physical similarity, I still don’t see it.

So you already know that she was a chess champion at an early age, a master diver, a daredevil, a bold and curious child, multilingually fluent and that she is now working away on her doctoral degree at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. You know that she was truant her entire senior year of high school, that she dyed her hair Bozo the Clown red and then glued it into dread locks, that she jello wrestled for laundry money as a college freshman. Together, we kayaked the Inside Passage, hiked through the rain forest of Nevis, scuba dove in Honduras, zip-lined in Costa Rica. And I could still go on and on.

Instead, I’ve decided to make this birthday post an apology. At 25, she is old enough that I can admit my failures and she will take them in stride, rather than read them as a reminder of the times her mother was a total flop. I hope. So, here goes.

Dear Abby,

I would like to apologize to you for the following ways in which I failed you as a mother, along with all the other ways that aren’t noted here.

1) I’m sorry that I dressed you up like a doll, a character out of a Merchant Ivory production, a color coordinated fool.

I now realize that, in the end it caused you to dress like this:

and submit my name as a candidate for What Not To Wear.

2) I’m sorry that I forbid you to sell magazine subscriptions in middle school to anyone but your Grandma and Grandpa.

3) I’m sorry that when you subsequently had your name drawn from a fishbowl and won a prize for selling one subscription that I screamed at the school principal for giving you a five pound Hershey Bar.

4) I’m really sorry that I said your teeth were fine and you couldn’t have braces. I did it both because of financial pressures and because I was too busy to be bothered with orthodontic appointments. I know that you really wanted them and that you have always held this against me. If you still want them when you are thirty I will pay for them. I’ve started saving.

5) I’m sorry that I wrote letters to the editor of The Ann Arbor News about the idiotic sex education program that caused your teachers to talk and cause you still further embarrassment among your friends. I thought that instead of teaching about “outercourse” they should be teaching about relationships, but I now realize that didn’t warrant sarcasm and inflammatory remarks about the Board of Education that would come back to bite you in the derriere.

6) I’m sorry that I called Maggie Klein’s mother and said that I thought all of you girls were running a small pot business out of her house. Even though you were.

7) I apologize for repeatedly referring to your first serious boyfriend as “The Putz”, making fun of his smiley face boxers that I could see because his pants were always falling down and that I would tell him you weren’t home when he called. I’m glad that, even as a happily married woman, you are still FB friends with The Putz.

8 ) I’m sorry I conned you into attending a parochial college for a semester as a form of rehabilitation for generally miscreant behavior between the ages of 15-18. It was a crummy experience for you and you were the very best student in Ancient Greek, acing all the exams, even if that pastor flunked you for poor attendance.

9) I am truly sorry that we spent so much of your college savings on one semester of private parochial college that you had to pay your own way through your last two years of undergraduate school.

10) I’m sorry that I couldn’t shut up at your interview at Reed College and wouldn’t stop telling the admissions officer what an incredibly good fit you were for their program. I’m glad you didn’t apply there. Along with that, I apologize for all the times I’ve embarrassed you by bragging about you in public and I’ll try to stop, someday.

11) More than anything, I am sorry for anything bad I ever said about your father, true or mostly not, because he was and is a great dad and children should never be caught in the middle of divorce conflict, even though they always are. Fortunately, even back then you had the good sense to think for yourself.

The other things- not teaching you how to apply makeup, not letting you have clothes with AF logos on them, finally, one time, swatting your bottom for running naked across the street to the park, repeatedly, to swing tummy down on the bucket swings- well, I’m not so sorry. Most of all, I am so very proud and happy that, despite the ways that I flubbed up, you have turned out so perfectly, quirkily, uniquely, wonderfully you. ¡Feliz cumpleaños!, Abigail!