Monthly Archives: July 2013

Beauty, Out and About

Some beautiful things, right outside my door. I feel grateful, and happy for such lusciousness. Other than that, I don’t have much to say about them, they speak for themselves.

Clockwise from the upper left:

limelight hydrangea, sedum, cherry tomato, (ambitious) daphne, cucumber tendril

yellow jacket, unknown, cherry tomato, cherry tomatoes, unknown

day lilly, cherry tomato, day lilly, dragon fly

hosta, dragon fly, sweet william

And oh my heavens, just now, this little thing. On the wall, on my screen, nearly down the vent, on my hand, out the door. How did it get in the house!

sweet little frog

Backyard Drama, Broken Homes, and Beginning Again


Several weeks ago, Jack and I were drinking our morning drinking on the deck and listening. Jack is a fabulous ambient listener, and a good noter. I frequently complain that my kids don’t listen to me, but really, they listen just fine, and choose to behave differently than I’ve requested. I know this because they laugh at me while they’re not doing whatever I asked. Maybe, if instead of every time I said “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “You’re not doing what I want!” I would start to sound as ridiculous to myself as I probably do to them. An experiment, to try.

But on this particular morning, Jack and I are simpatico. We are listening to all the sounds and saying what they are: air conditioning unit (dragon), truck (truck), siren (fire truck), plane (plane), crickets (I don’t here crickets, oh yes, now I do. Crickets.), what’s that? (cicada), birds (birds). Lots of birds. In particular, a very upset robin.

What is that?
A robin. It sounds very angry. That’s how they sound when they’re upset. It’s probably mad about a predator. Maybe a cat.

A shrill yeep, and then the lower-toned stutter that sounds like skipping friction, like rubber soles on a high-gloss floor.

I look up at the sugar maple, to my right, where they have a nest. Nothing much is going on, although I can’t see the nest directly from the deck, only from below. Jack and I continue to talk, and listen, and talk. It’s not until he moves from his chair, that I understand what all the fuss is about. Through the railing, I see something small and brown in the lawn, moving just a little bit. A fledgling. I hear the robin to my left. It’s on my neighbor’s fence – it drops down to the lawn, fretting and clucking, flies off, then down by the baby, and back to the fence again.

What was a mildly unpleasant background noise is now a drama of the highest order. Has this bird left the nest too soon? Did it fall? It’s clear across the yard from the nest – how did it get all the way over there? Did it come from another nest? Is it supposed to happen this way? Seemingly not, given how upset the mother is. It’s so vulnerable, it will surely get eaten by a neighborhood cat. Perhaps we should go get it. Perhaps that is a terrible idea. What do I know about raising robins? As I play out the logistics of bug finding and feeding, I decide my loving care is unlikely to improve the chances of this little bird surviving. I wish the mother robin would stop making such a racket – it’s drawing a lot of attention. Wouldn’t quieting down be much more helpful to her offspring?

I am totally sucked in. I keep watching, sure that any second, I will see the slinking, long-haired end of this little one creep into the yard, or perhaps, just blaze from behind the flower garden. Instead, I see the mother bring the fledgling something to eat. This is good. It has not been abandoned, it’s being taken care of. I definitely do not need to rescue it. Now, if only the mother would just stop making so much noise.

We eat breakfast. We go inside. We get ready to go out for the day. I walk across the driveway to check if it’s there. It is. It’s moved a little, so it’s probably not injured. I don’t get too close. I’m worried I’ll leave a smell and the mother will stop feeding it. I remember being told this as a kid, that birds will abandon their young if they’re touched by humans. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t want to get too close. I get the kids all packed in the car, and take one final look. Still there, still alive.

As I drive away, I know I will probably not know what happens to this robin. When I get home it is gone. I don’t see any feathers. Maybe it flew. Maybe it was carried off. I don’t know. Statistically, it probably died – only 25% of fledglings make it through the summer. Nature took its course, and it was a proper course, however it ended. But I can’t help myself – I hope that it spread its wings and flew.

A week or so later, I am in the back yard and I see the arresting blue of robin’s-egg-blue.

Look Colin. Look. It’s an egg from the nest. Look how beautiful it is.
Golden, tacky yolk rests in the cone of the egg. It’s beautiful. I feel sad.
Oh. And here is part of the nest.
A thick, curved shelf of tawny, white-pine needles. Oh no.
Something must have gotten into the nest.
I look up. Unwound plastic bobs in the breeze. Ragged edges press into twigs and bits, like a seamstress lipping a mouthful of pins.
Oh, look. Here are more shells. Something got into the nest.
What did?
I don’t know. Maybe a cat, or a raccoon.

What kind of animal wrecks a nest for eggs? I’m not sure.

We scoop up the chunk of needles, and the shells, and place them in the shade of some hosta leaves along the fence.

Last week, Jack and I were on the deck again. It rained hard overnight. I am sitting without a cushion, on the rubbery, white plastic slats of the chair. Jack is sitting on a towel on the cushion. The air is very still. I am watching the leaves on the oak trees at the back of the yard not move at all. Sunlight shines at just the right angle to reveal a large spider web between two leafless branch tips, about a foot apart. It looks like the branches are not healthy, but they’ve made perfect loom for weaving a web.

The leaves rustle. A robin has landed in the oak on the left. Another one lands, above it. They fly off again. And back. This time, I think the female has a stick in her mouth. It’s hard to see. They are very busy on a morning where most everything else is quietly absorbing. Back again, this time with an unmistakable bundle of grass in her beak. She disappears behind the leaves, tiny bits of scrap float down to the lawn. I am suddenly awestruck by the complexity of this task, and capability of this little engineer. Finding and assembling every fiber of the structure, one mouthful at a time. Shaping it with a beak and a wing. Choosing the right blend of materials for structural integrity. Reinforcing it with worm castings (just finding them seems impossible). Lining it with soft grass for warmth and comfort. She is common, and exquisitely skilled. I am humbled by this little mother, with fire in her breast and knowing in her bones. It is time. I know how. I will do each part, not because I was told, not because I think so, but because it is the way. It is the way of my existence.

Digital Bleed

phone charger in a box of bandages

The Friday before Fourth of July week, I am in the city, with no particular plans, and no technology to assist me with my own life. I recently gave up my smartphone, and have been seeing what life is like without it.

What’s most interesting about this experiment (almost three weeks now) is how much I’ve learned from the experience of absence. We usually seek improvement on the assumption whatever we have is deficient, not that it’s too much. Our first instinct is towards abundance, rather than reduction. Aside from our cultural obsession with efficiency, we rarely consider elimination as a path to improvement. Why is this?

Living without a smartphone has been like entering another communication class. I’ve dropped outside of the tools, patterns, and expectations now common in my peer group: A friend of mine is several hours late to visit, I finally call her, slightly worried, and she says: I’ve been in terrible traffic, didn’t you get my texts? I miss my train, and now will be home several hours later than I planned. I want to let Brendan know this, but have no phone to call him. I find a payphone (a payphone!), which I think is a delightful novelty. Even more amazing, I have quarters with me. As I dial, I realize I know exactly three phone numbers, four if you count my childhood number for a house now inhabited by people I don’t know. Without technology to store, query, and display on demand, I have to be responsible for details of my life that I had become transparent to me. I have to remember more things, like what time the train leaves, and to check my watch.

All that pocketed availability, kept me slightly separate, slightly suspended from my physical, present, reality. The divide is so subtle, I could only see it once it wasn’t in front of me any more. As our technology gets more luscious – more vivid, more social, more soothing – we soften into it. As it becomes more ubiquitous, we forget what life was like without it – we forget that there even is a “without it”.

So I’m in town, and I decide to stop by the Pearson offices where I used to work and still have some friends, one or more of whom, I am hoping to coax into having some fun with me. I suddenly remember that the building is “secure” – the lobby will have a clerk, watching for the swipe of a digital key card. I do not have a digital key card. I do not have an appointment. I do not have a phone to call, or email, or text my friends, and circumvent the system. It occurs to me for the first time, that all that security isn’t to keep dangerous people out, it’s to keep non-dangerous people in. Digital bleeds both ways. It’s a seeping, creeping, invisible gas that wafts between the bricks and glass, and puts us back in touch with the people we willing lock ourselves away from, nearly every day of the week. It’s a tugging, hugging vacuum that bends us away from the people right in front of us who want and deserve our attention. In a meeting, on walk, out for drinks, in the kitchen, on the road, at the playground.

I meander through Boston common and the public garden. I consider trying to sneak in, verses following the rules. I decide to follow the rules because I think that will actually be a lot more interesting than gliding by. I’m giddy by the time I arrive. There’s a man at the desk in the lobby.

Good morning.
I’m here to visit someone at Pearson. I don’t have an appointment, so I’m hoping you can help me get in touch with her.
Who are you here to see?
Beth Porter. Can you call and see if she’s available?
Do you work here?
No, but I used. You could just let me go up, and I can track her down. Whatever is easier.
I can’t let you do that.
He reaches for the phone, then stops and looks at me. The fastest thing would be for you to call her.
I don’t have a phone, smiling broadly.
He stars at me, nonplussed. If I had said: I don’t have a phone at the moment, because I threw it at a brain-eating zombie who was chasing me through the common, I think he would have been less surprised.
Isn’t that amazing? I say.
Yes. It is.
After another moment,Do you have a license?
Yes! Yes, I do have one of those.

I’m giggling now. I hand him my license. He looks at it. He looks at me. He rolls his chair over to his computer and types something.
Ok, there you are.
I realize he’s looking at my old employee profile, and I’m surprised that I’m still in the security system.
Why don’t you just let me go up?
I can’t do that.
What do you think would happen? Are you worried I’ll do something?
It’s against the rules. I don’t make the decisions.

I shrug, smile.
He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He says my name. He says Beth’s name. He hangs up. I stand. He sits.
What happens now?
They come and arrest you. I’m sorry, I’m just doing my job.
I smile. I love this guy.
Take this, just in case, and he hands me a guest pass ID to stick on my shirt. Ninth floor.
Thank you. As I head towards the elevators, he says something back, but I don’t hear it clearly. It sounds like Good tidings.

On the ninth floor, there is another man at a desk. He has a pad of paper next to him. My name is written on it. Beth’s name is written on it. He tells me Beth was not at her desk. Would I like him to send her an email? I consider this. I have no way to get the response unless I wait. I don’t have anything urgent to do. Beth is almost never at her desk, and when she is, she is often on the phone. I figure the chances are high, that if she is working, she will see an email quickly. Yes, sure, thank you.

He tells me it’s very quiet in the office today. I have forgotten it’s the Friday before a holiday week. I try to convince him to let me in. He won’t. He tells me it’s against the rules. He could lose his job. I have a nice face, and he doesn’t think I would do anything, but he could get in trouble just the same. I’m disappointed. There is a new, open layout that I’m told everyone hates, because there is no privacy and all the executives are working right next to everyone else. This doesn’t seem like it would be too big of a problem, because in my experience, startups are the only companies where the executives are in the office much. I have no way to know if the people that work there really hate this arrangement, because the only people I’ve talked to about it are people, like me, who don’t work there any more. I want to see what it’s like.

Beth is not responding, so I ask him to call some other people. He’s very obliging. It starts to feel like a game. Leslie, voice mail. Daphne, voice mail. Bob, strait to voice mail. No wait, let me try his other phone, voice mail. I remember that Beth, Leslie and Daphne all have summer homes. I don’t know if Bob has a summer home or not, but I’ve been told he has a new girlfriend, which is probably even more enticing than a vacation home. My friends don’t need rescuing. They aren’t locked up. They’re out in the world, and I wonder in which direction they’re bleeding, or if they’ve pressed and held, to stop the flow.