About Birds


Dead Birds

The spring here in New York City has been a seriously odd one: Odd because it was so cold, too dry, and then too wet, for so long; then the winds shifted and I went, quite literally, from wearing flannel pajamas to bed one night to wearing a tee shirt and turning on a fan the next night. And it’s been hot and humid ever since.

It’s been “seriously” odd because on sidewalks in Queens I’ve been seeing small blobs of what looks like flesh, and it wasn’t until I came home a few weeks ago to see such a blob on my own stoop, a curve of flesh with a bright yellow point on it, that I inspected closely enough to see the shape of a bird embryo. My friend Ryan remarked the other day that he’d never seen so many dead baby birds in New York in the 20 years he’s lived here. Neither have I.

Birds are consuming the attention of lots of my friends this spring. My super, Hasan, was hauling up the trash last week, and I saw him trying to catch something—which turned out to be a mostly-flightless baby bird. He’d been keeping an eye on two of them, trapped down there, and he was torn: He realized they were probably safer down there in the trash alley than out in the open, but also they needed water and food, and he grinned because they are so cute, but he also didn’t want to step on them. (And you might think: “It’s a couple of birds. Who cares?” If you thought that, why are you reading this? Go vote for Trump and watch the whole human story go up in YU-uuge showgirl plumes. You disgust me. I say that with love.) Hasan put out water and and I contributed crumbs, but in the end they didn’t make it. He told me yesterday he found both of them dead. “I think it’s pesticides,” he said; Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” 2016.

The nest under neighbor Bob’s AC, Sunnyside, Queens

Signs of life: In a lump of an excuse for a spruce tree in front of my co-op, a Hispanic woman on my block pointed out the “bird that always sits in that tree”. I was out watering the flowers I’ve begun planting in an earnest garden attempt, for the second year, and she complimented my colors (it’s wildly life-affirming to see even the toughest looking New Yorker, and anyone of every imaginable background, have his eye caught by blooms in dirt). I realized this was the same mourning dove, or partner (because they mate for life), I’d seen pecking among the marigolds the week before. “There must be a nest,” I said, and maybe it’s a trend; a co-worker had recently posted her own mourning dove colony from her Long Island porch. I hope they make it, these babies. Hasan hopes no one smacks the tree—easy reach from the sidewalk; and you wonder why the doves landed here rather than behind the tree—I guess to face the sunshine. I put out a planter base and keep it filled with water. I hope I’m helping. Poor things—they’ve probably been breeding here for years and my expanded garden has encroached on their peaceable kingdom; or else mourning doves prefer to breed around people who tend gardens so they feel safe—perhaps human activity keeps squirrels and other birds at bay. (In my youth, we had a pair near my parents’ side garden for years; I suppose I could research these birds’ habits. I probably won’t. It’s the American in me.)

As a hopeful contrast to the bird deaths or worrying about their survival, I like to check on my friend David’s Facebook page, where he shares his daily photographs of his Vermont aviary—the wild visitors to his garden, a habitat complete with heated birdbath. I have the rather unimaginative habit of anthropomorphizing the portraits. It’s the actress and mime in me. I told David I’d like to do a series of essays called “Man Kinds: An Aviary,” and he gave me his kind consent. I haven’t gotten around to it, dwelling as I have been on birds dying no doubt because of human poisons. The birds seem to deserve better than to be compared to human types, better than to be labeled by my own limited worldview, to say nothing of limited talent.

Not to be a narcissistic asshole, but in former years I thought of myself as imaginative; creative; even, on occasion, artistic. I seemed to have unlimited faculties, deep memory, living equally, powerfully, in the present, past, and into the future. My mind, like the birds in fountain frolic, seemed to be in continuous motion, or majestic pause, or profound repose. Present. But lately my brain feels less like a marvelous engine of the gods and more akin to the dead embryos splayed on the sidewalks of Queens.

Kiss me, I’m poisoned.


Silent Spring Redux

Mourning dove, first sighting, Sunnyside, Queens

What dominates your memory? Yards, food, couches, jobs, relatives, relationships, clothes, games, birds? Is it jagged? Spotty? Light like a balloon? Weighted by cement blocks of regret? A long line of losses? A fabulous ride with a Bond-style soundtrack in the background? Up until around my 52nd birthday, my life felt like a steady continuum, a nice little chug, you know, interrupted by mental breakdowns. Like everyone. This continuum/eruption pattern has ever been centered on, as for anyone, the places I’ve lived and the things I created there, jobs I’ve had, and the people I knew and cared about there. I used to could (I love that expression) remember with equal vividness living in my childhood home, my college dwellings, my first-job apartment, houses in rural Virginia, and my New York City apartments. I also remembered with equal vividness my friends’ homes around the country, from childhood and adulthood visits; relatives’ homes in extended visits to Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, North Carolina, and California; hotel rooms and campsites from various vacations. Schools, applications, interviews, degrees, theaters, deadlines, papers, rehearsals, votes, getting my truck inspected over 17 years—all tossed in the bowl of my brain like a delicious crisp salad, dressed lightly but with tang.

What has happened since turning 52 (this past month—I know, monumental reflection attends this writing) is that my memory has begun to slant and obscure—not from a disease, but from aging out of the past. I mean the past has begun to feel far away for the first time, veiled in sepia tulle in parts, the way I picture my parents’ childhoods during the Depression. The moment of the turning, or my awareness of it: Yesterday my old friend Rick wrote me that “it’s finally happening,” and his mother “is moving out of her home.” This news hit hard for a number of reasons—partly to do with circumstances and partly to do with the wording, and it’s in words that I really live. The circumstances: The reason for the move is that Rick’s father and a true friend to me died quite unexpectedly last August, and ever since, the question has been what his mother, Jane, would do, or rather what Rick and his sister would do with their mom, as we say now of the aged. And I don’t mean to sound flip—it was the first thing I thought of, and my wording, and she isn’t my mother. I and my friends are of the age that, if our parents are still living and not yet infirm, we have to think about this. Nearly all of my friends, come to think of it, are way past the thinking stage.

And not to turn this into a linguistic exercise, for my feelings about this are anything but a game, but I’m trying to trace my thinking about how the wording of Rick’s quite simple message seemed to melt my brain:

  1. “it’s finally happening”: “it”= what? Everything we dread: The eventual death of his mother on the heels of his father, the end of childhood, the abandonment of him and his sister to the winds; “finally happening”= inevitably, the thing that can no longer be put off or denied, the movement toward eternity, is coming to pass.
  2. “is moving out of her home” = “her home” is what hit me—“her”—the land where Jane’s house is that used to be the Family Farm; and it was a farm for three generations; but piece by piece by piece, by cousins and the kids, the farm was sold to developers, with some pieces taken by eminent domain for a road-widening project (for eleven years I rented a beloved little sharecropper’s house on this parcel); it was a farm where Rick and his sister Susan used to invite all their suburban friends for popcorn parties in the basement and jeep rides out to the cemetery in the woods on Halloween nights; where for all of Rick’s childhood was a goat pen and for the last 25 years a Christmas tree farm; and it hit me that since their marriages and children, it hasn’t been “their” home—the home of my friends Rick and Susan—not for a long time; and since the death of their father it hasn’t been “their” home, meaning the home of Jane and her husband Jerry, my friends’ father. It’s been Jane’s alone.
  3. And I felt that awful sting behind my eyes as my mind’s eye photograph of the farm and our youthful times there went slant, viewed as through a funnel. It freaked me out: In that moment, this part of my life became, officially “the past.” This is the first time in my life I was conscious of a huge swath of my life losing its presence in my mind. A boundary shifted.

Have you experienced that? Weird, isn’t it?

Blue Birds Return to Virginia

A few years before I left the house on Spriggs Road, my corner of the old farm, the blue bird house on the edge of the woods, across the fallow field that was my back yard, was finally occupied. Blue birds had become nearly extinct in Virginia, as invasive bird body snatchers threatened their survival. But one spring, I saw them—a pair—using the house. And it filled a girl with hope.

More hope: Each fall, the great migration brought the biggest murder of crows you ever saw, a veritable slaughter of wings, landing on the land all around the house to feed and rest before heading off again. It was thrilling.

And always the geese, the same flight, the same pattern, until one fall, when I saw geese flying around and around, crying out in calls that began to sound desperate. I went outside, and it seemed the arrow of geese was becoming tired, even frantic, and it hit me: I knew geese flew by topographical map, and not far down the road a swath of trees had been cut down that summer for a drainage project and new sewer line. I knew the pond they wanted, and they were about 200 yards away: I found myself waving like mad, pointing to the farm across the road. “Go! Go! You are so CLOSE!!!” Eventually they landed, and I’m sure I had not a goddamned thing to do with it.

Goose Family, Syosset, Long Island industrial park. Surely there was a farm here once.

And now the farms all around that place are nothing but housing developments. God knows where the geese have gone, or the crows, or the blue birds.

I moved to New York.

But birds keep following me. Because it’s all about me. What I mean is—wherever you are, the birds got there first, and whenever you’re feeling lonely or in need of perspective, you can go watch birds. They just don’t get dull. It’s a mystery. For instance, I’ve got two whatever-the-hell-they’re-called sparrow-type things who fight most every morning around 8 AM by my air conditioner; I hope that’s a good thing. There’s a regular conclave atop the 15’ chain-link fence that separates our co-op (very like a coop) from the playground.

It’s the aviary of actual birds that matters. I’ve lost interest in comparing human types to the birds in David’s gorgeous photos. There are too many of us, anyway. Childless and in peri-menopause, I often think the very best gift I’ve given to humanity is no more of me. (Whatever ills the humans do, the birds show the symptoms if not at first, then at near-last, it seems, and either way it’s bad.) And if I’m lucky, no one will have to figure out what to do with me when my time comes. I just need a working rocker under a tree, a warm blanket, and a box of wine, until I turn into a tree myself. A wobbly tree.

In the meantime, I’ll keep up the bird watch. Much love to all those who are losing links in their chains of life. Look up, though. I see a bird.

Mourning dove in Sunnyside, Queens

All photos by Miss O’, 2016

Bucking the System

Recently, in honor of Black History Month, one of my former students posted an essay on “buck breaking.” I had never heard of that. Here is research I found, oral histories of former slaves recorded at the time of the WPA in 1937. The pieces require real concentration, as the chronicler honored the dialect of each speaker, but the stories are horrifying and make for utterly necessary reading.

AMERICA: As Miss O’ used to point out to the white students who would ask (and ask and ask and ask) why 1) blacks just don’t “get over it”; and 2) why we don’t have a WHITE History Month–I could only point out that we had 350 years of slavery, and (today) only 50 years of civil rights; the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed in MY lifetime. But I didn’t know the half of it: THIS is the history of slavery that needs to be taught in every high school. 

For your further edification, in case you missed it in your history classes, I am including photos and engravings I found on Google Images which further show the history of abuses chronicled at the time of slavery.

  1. This was the photo which appeared in a newspaper to galvanize the Abolitionist Movement in this country:1095374

Prior to the publication of this story, Americans at the time of the Civil War had no notion of the cruelties. These weren’t even the beginning of them–the accounts of sodomy (a white slave owner in front of his male slave’s family, to “break” his spirit) and rape, to say nothing of a white master standing over an unwilling “buck” and female slave to “breed” them. How does one recover from 7 or 8 or 9 GENERATIONS of this treatment in this country? HOW?


2. Slaveowners “broke” “bucks” in any number of ways–torturing strong black men into “complying” with the “system”.


Did that look familiar? It should:


3. And white slave owners forced other slaves to do the breaking for them:


A friend of Miss O’s maintains to this day: “Lisa, slaves were lucky. How would they give up that way of life? They were nothing, and we took care of them.” And Miss O’ throws up a little in her mouth. Too many Southern whites (and other whites) feel this way–they dehumanize blacks and know nothing of the true history of slavery. Even in colleges and universities–particularly Southern ones–professors preach the old story of “states’ rights”, stating that the real cause of the Civil War was about state autonomy, though the South surely couldn’t have cared less about the North’s rights to house free men and women who made it North.

4. The above reasoning for the war’s cause is, frankly, BULLSHIT. The war was about slavery–the human rights abuses and the economic stranglehold the South held because of “free labor,” in the form of slaves. I hope that American schools today are teaching this, or will change if they have not already–to teach the truth of this horrifying practice of slavery as it really was, and then to acknowledge the PTSD suffered for generations. The police forces need this education, as do our politicians. ALL of us need this education, as ugly as it is–and at its ugliest.


It’s Black History Month. (And if for even a fleeting second you thought, “Why isn’t there a WHITE History Month, you need to read this piece more than anyone else. And also the ones I’m linking to below.)

Here’s a current piece that reflects the legacy of slavery, for as you ought to know, 42% of Black men are incarcerated, many for life. Read and contemplate, from The Guardian:

Albert Woodfox released from jail after 43 years in solitary confinement

From the article:

“Woodfox, who was kept in solitary following the 1972 murder of a prison guard for which he has always professed his innocence, marked his 69th birthday on Friday by being released from West Feliciana parish detention center. It was a bittersweet birthday present: the prisoner finally escaped a form of captivity that has widely been denounced as torture, and that has deprived him of all meaningful human contact for more than four decades.”

It’s worth noting:

“His murder conviction was twice overturned – once in 1992 on grounds that he had received ineffective defense representation, and again in 2008 because of racial discrimination in setting up the grand jury that indicted him. Last year, Louisiana announced it would put him through a third trial despite the fact that all the key witnesses to the killing have since died. Woodfox’s lawyers argued the lack of witnesses would render such a retrial a legal mockery.”

That’s right: TWICE overturned. Because white-owned and operated prisons don’t give two shits about justice, fairness, or following the law when it comes to Blacks. They don’t traditionally see Blacks as people. I say that with love, though Whites make it really hard.

So if you are a White person reading this, and especially if you count yourself among the  White people who have been outraged by the very existence of #blacklivesmatter; or are incensed that Black people are upset about the murders of other black people at the hands of cops, just because they wouldn’t “comply”; or who agree that the police should never indicted (unless the cop is Asian) for such murders; and who cannot understand why Black people don’t get that Trayvon Martin was killed rightly for being male, black, young, and wearing a hoodie; and who think that Tamir Rice deserved to get shot dead for playing in a park with a BB gun, without warning, and in an open-carry state; and who found yourselves baffled or “turned off” by the brilliant Kendrick Lamar’s shattering performance at the Grammys–read every single thing I shared in this little post.

And then:

Watch Kendrick Lamar Own the Grammys With a Stellar Performance Honoring Trayvon Martin

Again. And again. And again. Until you are sobbing like the ignorant White person you have been all these years.


Miss O’s friend Sylvia saw a sign on a college campus:  “Yes, all lives matter – so if your black brother feels his doesn’t, help him carry his sign.” This is your Miss O’ saying, “Make an effort.” For America.

Here’s to Black History Month.


With all this in mind, the contributions of Black artists to American and world culture are all the more extraordinary. For Black History Month, I would also like to honor poet Nikki Giovanni. Back in the summer 1987, just after my extra year at Virginia Tech for student teaching and education classes, and before becoming a teacher, I was recruited to do a couple of stand-up comedy routines to introduce sessions at a national Women’s Symposium held on the campus. Ms. Giovanni was the featured poet. I didn’t care much for poetry–maybe because I was limited, but I rarely understood a poem without help–but I decided to go. I sat in front of Nikki Giovanni, who directed her poems to three people, mainly: all the black woman poems were delivered to a young black woman behind me; the black man poems to a young black man to my right; and all the creative/lonely woman poems were directed to me, my eyes. She read “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” to my face, and she opened something in me–she opened all poetry for me. And that fall (I think it was), she began teaching at Virginia Tech, and is still there today. (Her poem in honor of the massacre, delivered to a stadium, helped heal the campus.) Thank you, Nikki Giovanni.

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day  (thanks to the the Tumblr “A Poem a Day” for posting)