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23 June 2013

Stories wih Birds

I'm jaded, and I know it.  I sometimes find myself not wanting to be around people. 

I like getting away to the woods, but being a city boy, that does not happen often.  Fortunately, my workplace is set between two parks, one with a creek.  We have lots of trees and lots of birds, and so for a few minutes a day, I walk over to one park, sit under a tree and enjoy the birds.

I have two favorite kinds of common birds.  Mockingbirds and Grackles.

They don't eat up people's gardens,
don't nest in corncribs,
they don't do one thing
but sing their hearts out for us.
That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

When I was eight years old, my father had a pool built in our backyard.  It was huge: forty feet long and twenty feet long, and just over eight feet deep.  It became my sanctuary for five months out of every year.  I would put on a stack of albums (we still used vinyl in those days), set the switches to the patio speakers, and then would float, swim, glide and dive for hours-- often with friends-- until dinner time.

I tan very easily and quickly, and I got very dark.  My father had Addison's Disease, and such deep tanning is a symptom (see pictures of John F. Kennedy, also an Addisonian, and note his constant tan) so the doctors periodically tested me for signs of having that disease, but I'm good.  I once heard my mother comment to her friend that I could "get a tan standing in front of an open refrigerator door."

My own version of that is, "Once we got the pool, I became the first person of color in our suburban neighborhood."

After dinner, I was usually back in the pool-- observing that silly "forty-five minute" rule my mother enforced upon us.  In the evenings, I usually had the pool and backyard to myself.  I suppose it was the summer of 1969 that I realized something wonderful about Mockingbirds and sunsets.

As the sun sets, Mockingbirds will find a high spot so that they can catch the last few rays of the sun, and once there, they will sing all the songs they have learned (and made up) into one long (fifteen minutes or so) beautiful song.  It was like a daily "mix-tape" being played out from the TV antenna on top of our chimney above our two-story house.  I suppose I had forgotten to turn the stereo on, or perhaps the family was watching TV in the den, but at any rate, one wonderful evening, I heard the Mockingbird.  I climbed up on a barely inflated raft and floated in the vesper light, looking up at that little grey bird with the white racing stripe on each wing, and marveled.

It was beautiful.  I took the Mockingbird sunset ritual to be my own, and stopped swimming to simply float each evening when the Mockingbird took his aerial stage.

If you live where Mockingbird are plentiful, you may know them for their aggressive defense of the nest if they have either eggs or young in them.  Have you ever had a Mockingbird swoop down at your head?  They will do it again and again if you are too near the tree where they have their nest.

I cannot remember whether it was my mother or her mother that once told me that the Mockingbirds are tying to get some of your hair with which to line their nests, but I do not think that is true.  They may pluck your hair as they swoop down on you, but that is to send you scurrying away, not for resources.

I have a few Mockingbirds that "know me."  At first, they would swoop down to warn me that I was trespassing.  But they have also seen me stop and sit down and watch them while listening to their songs, and then seen me get up and leave when they stop.  We watch each other, now, used to each other, and confident neither is a threat.  Last week, I was headed to my usual place-- a sidewalk under several old trees, and set down.  The Mockingbird in charge of patrolling that part of the sidewalk, flew past at a near, but not aggressive, distance and took a position facing me on a low branch about ten feet before me.

He (or she-- I cannot tell them apart) perched and looked down on me for a few moments.  I often speak to them when no one else is around, and said, "Well, good afternoon."  The bird watched me, and then looked around and tweeted.  It flew over to a cable holding up a backstop net behind the soccer field to keep errant balls from smacking pedestrians on the sidewalk.  Again, it turned to face me-- about ten feet away-- and began to sing.  The bird looked at me most of the time, and I sat there, sipping a Dr. Pepper and lit a cigar.

It was a wonderful performance, but they all are.  Was it really just for me?  I think so.  Here is why:

Wild crows can recognise individual human faces...

The article suggests other animals can do the same, and I know it is true.  My Mockingbird knew me.  And while the linked article is about holding grudges, it works the other way, too.  When I finish a loaf of bread,  I always bring the heels for the birds near where I work.  That is only about twice a month, but they know me, and some seem to even know my car.

Two years ago this October, I started work at the place between the parks.  It is a school associated with the Church.  There is no Church building, it is just a feeder for a prep school.  I am an ordained priest, but am not the Chaplain there.  Maybe I should be, but I took a job there which had nothing to do with the priesthood simply because I had been out in the world making a secular living for about eight years and a friend called me up one day about the job opening.

My friend is a beautiful woman in her late thirties, I think, and a extraordinarily talented singer-song-writer.  When I met her through mutual friends, I soon learned that she had been the lead vocalist for a popular Punk Rock band in Austin before I moved here.  I like music, and I like Punk Rock music, especially since I heard The Clash on Saturday Night Live.  But that has nothing to do about birds.

Here it is anyway (I cannot embed it here): The Clash, SNL appearance.

A Backstory

Austin is a music town, and many of my friends are musicians, song-writers, roadies, mixer/sound-check specialists (what do you call them?), and such.  I have another friend who was making really good money going to the various music festival in Austin, and around the country, driving bands and roadies from their hotels to the music venues and back again, plus being available to show them the town-- good places to eat and or drink-- particularly the local places and not one where tourists would interfere.  I asked a few question about hat work and filed that away as a possible means of making extra cash, since I still had a Commercial License (meaning that I can drive big vehicles with air-brakes, and even buses full of passengers) from a moonlighting job I took a dozen years ago.

Well, the big ACL (Austin City Limits) music festival was about to invade this mostly college-town and my singer-songwriter, one-time Punk Rocker friend happened to be making a living working for a temp agency, and put out the word on Facebook that she needed drivers.  I texted her that I had a CDL, and she got me a few "gigs," but not in the music industry.  It was kind of fun work for not much more than spare change, but I got to drive Cobras, Jaguars, and other really neat cars for a car auction company.

I had gotten to know my friend better by always attending any public performance she had.  She did not advertise to her friends, but I saw her several times a week at work, and always asked, so kept up with her shows.  She is terribly timid for a performer, and and so humble that she does not really believe that others are truly moved and awed by her music.  She was trying out some new pieces mixed with some older ones in one of  my favorite intimate music venues in town.  Most of the patrons are in bands and looking for songs to include in their own act, and sometimes looking for talent to join their acts.  I, however, went just because I got to hear great music no one else was hearing.

Image stolen from
Before she went on, she liked to sit, smoke and chatter at a quiet table out of the way, and I enjoyed that as much as the performances.  Once she is on stage, the music overwhelms with its power of notes and meaningful lyrics and people moving with the rhythm.   I like that my other talented friends advertise their shows, and so all of our mutual friends will move heaven and earth to be there.  We love to hear our friends perform, and love even more that fact that it has brought us all together for beer, conversation, and sometimes pool playing, afterwards.

But Dee, I will call her, found it easier to perform to really small crowds when she was solo and as a result, several bands cover her songs but she was less well known than her songs.  Once she was so lost in her own music that about five songs into an hour-long set she stopped and paused between songs and then admitted into the mic, "I have forgotten where I was."  The audience smiled and waited and then she horrified me by looking out where  I was seated in the back and saying my name and adding, "What have I not played?"

It is not like I was prepared for that.  I was lost in the music. too.  But grace intervened and I called back, something like, "One about rolling over, one about the desert, one about the superman--" 

"Yeah!  That's it.  Thanks!"  There was a lot of laughter at my stuttering surprise (and that I could answer!) as she launched into her next song.

That really doesn't have anything to do with birds, either, but it gets there; and I'm just telling a story here as it comes to me.

So, Dee and I get to know each other, and she knows I am a priest who went out of the Church to make my way in the world outside and finding it brutal and much different than I expected.  I used to live in that world, but I seem to have lost my ability to cope with it on its own terms.  One day...

One day, I get a text message from Dee saying, "Call me!  I have the perfect job for you."

The church school was looking for someone to drive their athletic teams to practices and competitions.  She knew it would be perfect because bus drivers make more than clergy (yeah, they really do) and because I would be in a church environment more or less separated from the ugly world outside.  She gave me a phone number and I called, made an appointment for that afternoon, and walked out of the interview with the job-- all in the same day.

So, I end up loving the place and the others who work there.  Driving is driving, and I work out character and plot developments in my mind while I drive.  I really do not like any children except for my own, so I ignore the teenagers on the bus, and engage my mind in driving while my subconscious works on dialogue.  It worked for me, and I would come home ready to write, where I also had another job that had nothing to do with writing.

After a year, the lady for whom I worked in my main job, died-- it was not a surprise, but it was awful none the less.  At the same time, as if on cue, my church-school driving job went from temporary to full time employee.

My hours began at 5:30 each morning, at which time I would begin preparing a bus for departure to pick up a few children at one campus and take them to the main campus.  Most people would never guess, but we do not just jump in a commercial vehicle and fire it up to drive off.  We pop the big hoods which swing forward to expose the huge diesel motor, climb up and check all the fluids, ensure the belts are in good shape, before we even start the motor.

"Spill your coffee?"  I may be asked.

"No, bus juice."

Then we wait until the motor's compressor charges up the air-brakes (twin tanks to 120 pounds each), check all of the gazillion lights and gauges inside and outside, check each tire, including the inner ones on the back, check leaf springs, air-lines, doors, windows, emergency exits, hatches, and fire extinguisher-- all to be entered into a report (log) which notes day, time, mileage and the results of the pre-trip inspection.  When we are done, and assuming nothing is wrong with the machine, we can release the brake and roll out.

At first, all of that took most of the time I had in the morning, but I got faster at it, and worked out a pattern that usually gave me at least fifteen to twenty minutes to get a cup of coffee and smoke a few puffs from a cigar.  That allowed for a private schedule change that was very important me.

You see, priests in my tradition follow a Benedictine rule of work, prayer and study.  You do all three each day if you can.  I start my day with a very formalized traditional thing called the "Office" which is also known as the "service of Morning Prayer."  There is also an Evening Prayer done at sunset each day.  Most people do not know priests do these, anymore than people know that professional drivers do what they do-- it just happens unseen.

I can usually do the Daily Office in about fifteen to twenty minutes and so, after preparing the bus, I sat down under the bus-yard's parking lot lamp and did my work of prayer.  I never counted (and I am not going to start now) but it is about twenty pages of prayer and scripture readings each morning.

But birds!  Where are the birds in this part of the story?

Okay, now I can get back to birds. 

While checking the outside of the vehicle, the back of the parking lot is lined with large old trees.  When I first started, every morning I would startle a dove that nested in one of those trees as I went around checking things in the dark with a flashlight.  That sudden movement over my head and rustling in the nest would startle me as well.  To solve this, I learned to cut my light and walk very quietly.  I do not think much about doves.  They are not very smart, and so have little, if any, character; but all the more reason to not scare one-- they have enough trouble remembering the breathe.

I would like to buy a clue, Pat.

As the days grew longer again, the sky was beginning to brighten as I sat there with cigar and coffee, cross-legged (they used to say, "Indian Style", but now people think it as the "Lotus position") doing my  other work-- my spiritual work.  By then, the only other sentient creatures aware of my presence were used to me.  All of them were birds.

By the time-change in the Spring, the birds were up and flitting about for breakfast while I prayed.  I speak while praying, usually, but in a soft and quiet voice.  I once heard it described as, "Just loud enough for the Angels to hear."  The birds heard me too, but they were not competing.  Grackles would walk around comically in the grass and on the asphalt and watch and listen to me.  Mockingbirds would fly about very quickly grabbing small insects in flight for themselves and their young.

But when I finished-- always when I finished-- the birds would begin their calls.  It did not matter where the Sun was in the sky, they did their business quietly until I finished.  I had become part of their morning ritual.

Likewise, when Christmas break had come (we had work to do-- we took down decorations at the school, changed air-filters in each of the classrooms, and such) I would still go out for morning coffee, cigar and prayer, but on the far side of campus from the buses and into the park across the street by the creek.  It was cold, but I was dressed for it.

Smart and polite company.

The second time I did this, I noticed about a dozen Grackles sitting on a power-line running parallel to the sidewalk I crossed on my way into the park.  They were all facing the rising Sun, up just high enough to be in the warming rays, and they were all watching me.  That amused me and I laughed, smiled, and spoke to them, "Good morning" as I passed beneath them.  I went down the hill because I could see a sunny spot between some trees where I could catch the warmth (such that it was) and see the water flowing.

I sat down (Yoga-like, Indian-style, cross-legged, or whatever-- it is just how I sit-- always have) and lit my cigar.  Immediately the twelve Grackles came swooping down the short hill and landed in a semi-circle in front of me.  They began hunting bugs in the grass, and making quiet sounds to one another.  I thought they wanted food and set my coffee down to show my hands were empty except for the cigar and said, "I have nothing for you."

I talk to inanimate objects as well.  For an example, and most recently, to my microwave oven.  When my coffee is reheated, it always plays the first three notes of the transitional part of the Blue Danube-- the notes that come right after the dramatic, Bum-bum-bum! and go Bah! Bah! Baaah!.  It is only one note, played three times, but it is the Blue Danube.  I often say, "Thank you" as I open the door and walk off with my coffee whistling the Blue Danube (which has nothing to do with birds). 

Which reminds me... At work we have an elevator which only services two floors.  The building only has two floors.    When I get on, and the door closes, I smirk and say, "Really?  You need me to push a button in case you might be confused?  Just go to the other floor.  How difficult is that?"  Despite my chastising condescension, the elevator waits until I push the correct button.  It is a silly game.  I don't like that elevator.  Anyway...

The Grackles stayed anyway (despite my not having any food for them-- in case you forgot where I was going), just hanging out with me as if I were one of their flock.  That was the first time, but it was an instant routine-- or ritual.  The birds would wait for me at the wire above sidewalk and then join me beside the creek.  It is impossible not to notice their company.  They did not get a thing out of it, but did it anyway.  Interesting.

Because I appreciated their company so much, it was when school started back up that I started binging my bread scraps every week and a half or so (I do not count pages of books and I do not track how long a loaf of bread lasts me) to the birds in the parking lot, but not by the creek because I didn't go there anymore.

They watched as I tore the bread into pieces small enough for them to handle and to fly while holding in their beaks, but all waited patiently until I was done, and then moved in, calmly, to get a piece.  I was with two other co-workers-- my favorites.  We were getting ready to take a bus in for its annual inspection and looking for anything that might need repair while it was in the shop.  They were already in the bus going through different parts of it, and when I finished distributing the bread I climbed in and took a seat midway down the aisle.

Just as one said, "I think the birds are happy with what you brought" a mid-sized Grackle came flying up to very window I was nearest and fluttered before the window like a hummingbird, looking at me.  It held that hover for as long as it could, struggling mightily, since, as a rule, Grackles do not hover; but this one did.

We all laughed and I said, "You're welcome" because there was no doubt in our minds why that bird had come to my window.

I'm a dog person really.  

I grew up with dogs.  My Dad was, thank God, a dog person of the first order.  My first dog I do not remember.  His name was Caboose, and he was a long-haired mutt of medium size.  Stories about me and that dog were told for years, and how sad I was when he "ran away" (parent code for "hit by a car and died"  at least I think.  My big brother, having read the first draft of this seemed crushed at my supposition.  I asked him to ask our Mom, but he insists on the "ran away" story, so we'll go with that ).

My Dad soon got us a new dog.  He got it for himself, but I was there the night he picked out Snicklefritz from the litter and was a delighted and utterly surprised four year old following the dachshund puppy down the sidewalk to our car.  Snick died when I was seventeen and my Dad and I took turns with the shovel and both cried (out of sight of Mom) as we stood there.  I had made the casket and Dad selected what else to put in it.  My brother was away in college.

When our Dad died almost three years ago (or is it four?), by brother said to me, "Snick and Dad are finally back together."  He is right.  I am sure of it.
This is not a bird,
but I had a dog like this one,
except my dog had a beer belly and his tail was always up.

When I went to college, a dog was out-of-the-question as they were not allowed where I lived and I really didn't have time to be the kind of dog owner I needed to be.  But I went to a big party where this parakeet was flying around freely in that large main room.  I was quite taken by this and ended up playing with it-- previously having no idea parakeets could be tame and playful.  The bird had many toys, and would play with them, or perch on my finger.

I knew that I needed a pet-- someone to excuse my tendency to talk to myself (and this was before I owned a microwave of my own) so I went to a pet store and picked out a baby parakeet.  I named him Blue Max (after the movie about the World War I flying medal of the same name) but called him Max for short.  Fortunately, he was blue in color, so the full name made since, and besides, I have always gone by my own middle name.  I suppose, had he been green or yellow, most of my friends who knew his full name would have privately held that Max was probably a bit melancholy, which was not like Max at all.

Besides avocado, Max had a bit of a gambling habit.

From day one, Max lived in a cage home which is where he slept (with a towel over it) and eat, and of course, where he pooped, but his cage door was always open, and he had free run of wherever I lived.  He flew from room to room, but once in the room where he wanted to be, he walked everywhere.  Like a dog, he celebrated when I would come home from work at night.  He would tweet while flying about the room excitedly and wait until I set down my briefcase and took my place on the couch.  Then he would fly to the back of the couch and hop up on my shoulder and tell me all about his day.

Some parakeets can talk, but Max was not like that.  He thought he talked and made talking-like sounds, but it was not words.  Not knowing that, he would make talk-like sounds into my ear for several minutes and then get lost in preening himself and the longish hair I wore behind my ears and sometimes fall asleep there.  He was probably tired from whatever he had been doing all day, which he tried to tell me about, but which I will never know.  It sounded exciting, so it probably was.

Summers, when I was home from school, my parents took a liking to Max.  My father had a ritual of fixing a heavily iced down Bourbon and Coke when he got home from work.  In my absence (I got home from work, last), Max had learned to greet my father much like he did me, but since my father had little hair, did not preen by father.  Instead, he explored this odd smelling drink in my father's hand.  He took a sip, and the rest is history.  I would arrive home to find my father greeting me but not my bird.  Max was too drunk to fly.  

Despite the drinking problem, Max was very well mannered unless I was serving guacamole.  The bird was nuts about avocado and nothing got between Max and his avocado.  I was home for Christmas break and the whole family was gathered for dinner.  They all liked Max, and he flew free in their home as well.  This is when we learned he was a junky.  The main course was probably brisket (I mean, we are Texans, after all) but we had guacamole on tostadas as the "salad."

Another birdless side-story, strikes me:  We ate a lot of brisket, and my mother made a great one.  I think it is when she went back to college for another degree that we started getting even more brisket, beginning on Sunday night, and then as left overs to reheat and sandwiches for the days following.  It was less work for her.  No one wanted to complain, but variety, not the brisekt, was lacking.

So, one Sunday night my brother leaned across the table to me and whispered, "On the first day of brisket."  I was not sure what he mant, but when dinner was served, he looked at me, counted down silently using his fingers and mouthing, "Three, Two, One"  and intoned (to the tune of the Twelve Days of Christmas), "On the first day of brisket..." My Dad had joined in and Dada and I paused after "my true love gave to me" but by brother had created a verse-- which I no longer can remember.  Okay, back to the bird.

The Guacamole Incident.

Max landed on my shoulder, as was typical, but marched purposely down my sleeve, over my plate and up to my wrist which was holding the tostada.  He then took a beak-full of guacamole before I could shoo him away.  When I did try to shoo him, he simply flutter to one of the other plates at table and landed smack in the middle of the guacamole.  We all had green parakeet tracks up and down our arms-- signs of a dangerous habit.

As one would expect, the addiction had a tragic end:  heart disease, doing tricks for avocado products, and such.

Years later, he was found cold and still in the bottom of his cage, green smears on his beloved mirror and avocado skins littering the floor.

I did have more dogs, but none of their stories involve birds. 

Again, my brother intervenes and wants me to include the story about how our dachshund allegedly ate our neighbor friend's chicken.  That chicken was our friend's pet and I felt terrible about it.  I hope they catch the dog who actually did it.  I have never felt comfortable with the suspicion placed, unjustly, on our sweet, feather-faced dog.

Well, at least that story had a bird in it, briefly; and even if it was fateful and tragical.  But, really, my brother is not normally such a buzz-kill.