The Left Wing of a Chickadee

There is much to love about the snow–tracks to follow across a clean landscape, the crisp cold that comes with the season, the romance of a day free from work to sip something hot and read a book… But it is the quiet that is most appealing to me. And there is no better time for quiet than early morning darkness. I miss these things when not on the farm but fortunately, this Saturday morning, I am on the farm!

I was thinking of these two things–quiet and darkness–at 6:00 this morning, as I awaited, ironically, first light that would not come for another hour. Some mornings I will set out before light, but not today. On this morning, I wanted light. After missing so much activity during the dark hours, I relish a fresh coat of snow to reveal the movements of deer, fox, possum, raccoon, and whomever else is making the rounds while I sleep.

When 7:00 came, and the light was just beginning to emerge, I turned on the radio to keep me company as I chose my layers for a chilly morning. Before long, I was back in bed, half dressed, and sitting up, listening. I should have known better than to trust NPR at that hour on a Saturday. The Living On Earth broadcast always finds a way to pique my interest, but this morning they seemed to be listening in on my very thoughts when they began a segment on darkness. And this as I watched the morning creep softly through the trees to the farm through my bedroom window.

Things were neither dark nor quiet when finally I set out around 8:00, first to the mailbox, then around the perimeter of the property. Overnight, a strong wind had swept in on the heels of the storm that blanketed us in snow, and frozen trees bowed and creaked under it’s force. Hands buried in the pockets of my down sweater, a cup of coffee and a pancake were sounding better and better, and I cut around the near side of the pond to shorten my route.

A handful of small birds fled to the shadows beneath the pussy willow where I had no chance of making their acquaintance. A less timid chickadee crossed my path, landing briefly in the maple tree, before moving on to the vineyard. As she took flight, another movement in the tree caught my eye. Clearly not a bird, but the size of a chickadee, something fluttered in the wind. My only thought was that a piece of plastic must have snagged on a twig as it made its way to the Pacific Ocean where, as I understand it, plastic bags choose to retire.

Exposing my hands to the cold, I lifted the camera to my eye for a closer look. I was right about three things: it was the size of a chickadee, it was snagged on a twig, and it was fluttering. It was not plastic. A chickadee had somehow managed to get a primary flight feather stuck between two small twigs and had bent the shaft nearly to the point of breaking. Wing outstretched, the little bird was struggling to free itself, and clearly nervous about the attention I was giving her.

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I snapped a couple of quick photos without taking the time to think about exposure or composition, then ran to the house for gloves and a ladder. With that, I should be able to reach a large limb below the chickadee, and from their, I should be able to free her. Not knowing the extend of damage to her wing, or whether or not she would be able to fly, I grabbed a second scarf to wrap her in, in case I needed to take her back to the house with me, then ran, ladder in hand, back to the maple.

As I approached, a chickadee took flight from a limb ten feet from the stuck bird. I wondered if this was a companion come back to check on her, but further investigation suggested that it might have been the stuck bird, herself, as there was no sign of bird or feather where she had been entrapped. Relieved, I returned the ladder and continued my walk.

DSC_0814The thermometer on the barn read 20 degrees, and snow was blowing in my face as I made my way along the creek. In the woods, cardinals stood out against a stark backdrop. A thrush flushed downstream and I tucked into the lee of a large poplar to wait for it to move again. My focus on the smaller bird, left me completely unaware of a much larger bird between us, and I startled when the red-shouldered hawk took off from the near bank of the creek and escaped past me by only a few feet. I tried to settle in and wait for the thrush to move, but the woods-bending wind swirling around the tree suggested I move on.

As I had been all along, I scanned the snow for tracks, but between the heavy wind and the lightness of the snow, whomever was about in the darkness had left no discernible evidence for me to follow, so I headed for the house and pancakes.

I suspect the snow will still be around tomorrow morning, and with any luck perhaps the wind will have moved on. If so, perhaps I will not turn on the radio, will get out a little earlier, and will enjoy some dark quiet Sunday morning. As for the rest of this morning, I plan on a cup of coffee, a pancake, and some feeder watching–keeping my eye out for a certain little chickadee with an odd left wing who will have no idea of my plan to save her.

Kings, Queens, Popes, and Jesters

We have all heard that George Washington was offered the position of king, and turned it down. Of course historians debunk this notion as flatly as the idea that the young George “could not tell a lie,” and confessed to chopping down a cherry tree.
And who doesn’t remember Camelot? I wasn’t born until 1967, and yet the images and rhetoric from the Kennedy presidency have been so prevalent in print, film, and text over nearly 50 years that I feel like I remember the actual events.

We are fascinated by the idea of royalty. By holding on to Washington’s myth, he somehow becomes much larger, grander, wiser to us. The same goes for Kennedy. When his widow Jacqueline described her husbands years in the White House as being a period of hope and optimism–an American Camelot, the media jumped on it and we embraced it, and as a result Kennedy’s legend has become…well, just that, legend.

It is not hard to see how easily that happens. We want to believe in people at their unbelievable best. Want a Moses to part the water, a King Arthur to rule benevolently, a Robin Hood to take care of the poor.

Problem is that such extreme greatness never seems to happen in our lifetimes or even in the verifiable past. So many of our religious leaders have affairs, or abuse children. we have seen not-for-profit charities being dishonest in their financial dealings. And don’t even get me started about our presidents.

But Americans have never given up on having our own royalty, so in the absence of the leader or hero to crown, we must look elsewhere for our kings and queens. Because with royalty comes wealth, we have a tendency to confuse the two, mistaking wealth for royalty, but wealth, even when coupled with humanitarianism doesn’t seem to be enough.

If it were, we would be crowning Kings Ted Turner, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who remain largely above the tabloid fray and try to use their wealth to better our world. Or, if royalty were more about power than benevolence, we need look no farther than the largest corporations–Walmart, Exxon, Chevron and the like, but again, the American people don’t view them in that light. Nobody wants to put a crown on the head of Exxon’s Director Michael J. Boskin. Who even knows his name?

No, American’s don’t look for power, kindness, or morality in the ones on whom we place our crowns. Money seems to be important to us, but when it comes to granting royal status, we tend to turn away from the more kingly traits and place the castle jewels on the jesters.

Just yesterday I heard a reference on a popular NPR radio show to  “American Royals, the Kardashians.” When Glamour Magazine polled it’s readers as to whom they consider America’s royal couple, along with the names Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and Beyonce and Jay-Z. And a recent poll by Public Policy Polling recently declared Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers King of Wisconsin. I don’t know which is more frightening, that a quarterback would be crowned king or that time and money were spent determining which quarterback should wear the crown.

I could go on and on with my list, but I think you get the point. Americans want to be entertained, and we worship those who entertain us best. We would sooner crown a jester in all his pomp, buffoonery, and scandal than a wise, benevolent, even altruistic leader, which brings me to the clown who got me thinking about all this.

On Christmas Eve in his homily, Pope Benedict XVI came down on the commercialization of Christmas and suggested to his followers to “ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season.” Later in his address, he spoke of the barn in Bethlehem believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and of the entrance to the chapel on the site with an opening merely one and a half meters high. He suggested that this small opening–much smaller than the original–was “above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.”

I couldn’t help but ponder such words from a man whose house and real estate value over 900 million dollars, who rides around in a specially-designed one-of-a-kind car, whose wardrobe eclipses those of Elton John and Elvis, and who appears to his followers from a high balcony overlooking a massive courtyard.

It all seems a bit hypocritical to me, but it also fits the American model of royalty. He is wealthy beyond belief, his business is riddled with sexual scandal and coverups, he dresses like Liberace, claims a special relationship with God, all the while espousing the nature of Jesus–a man with no business, no house, no money, by all accounts morally pure, and who preached that his followers could do greater things than him.

It makes perfect sense then that royalty-loving Americans would be big fans of the Pope. He brings it all to the table. Step aside Kim Kardashian. To the sidelines Aaron Rodgers. By American standards, Pope Benedict is more king-worthy than either of you. And he has one more qualification–birthright. I’m pretty certain that Brad and Angelina’s parents weren’t royal, and there is no guarantee their children will amount to anything, but this pope, the last pope, and the next pope will certainly come from the same Vatican fraternity–the college of cardinals.

Makes me wonder…if the Vatican sold all its holdings, and the pope were left  with one humble outfit, a single pair of sandals, and a bowl, would anybody care what he has to say?

What Jim needs…

I really enjoy telling people that I don’t have Internet access at home. I think the only thing I enjoy sharing more than that is the absence of a television in my house. I don’t have a home phone, either. In fact, there are no communication lines coming into my house.

What joy!

You’d think I had just delivered my first born or hit a hole-in-one or something, to hear the pride in my voice when I make these claims.

“I can always go to the coffeehouse down the street if I need to check my email or do some research,” I say. “I don’t need the Internet. Not me. Life is too short to spend online. I’d rather go for a walk, read a book, work in the yard, and besides, I have NPR for news.”

It must be nauseating to my friends.

Often, I detect my self-righteousness and try to temper it with, “Of course, the real reason I don’t have Internet or television is because I know I can’t trust myself to stay off either of them…”

Ooh, that’s a good one…and mostly true!

What I sometimes fail to mention are the eight wireless signals I can get from my from porch—three of them lacking password protection and two strong enough to pick up from my dining room table most of the time.

So, while I don’t pay for Internet at home, I do get Internet at home. Even without the internet at my fingertips, when I’m trying to work at home, I get distracted by everything from the piano to the dishes, from watching the birds at the feeder to doing the laundry, from carving a spoon to playing a solo game of Scrabble.

This morning, thanks to the free signal, it’s Face Book that has my attention. Yesterday, I created my first Face Book Event. I invited a hundred people. Almost immediately someone confirmed plans to attend. Then four people declined. Seven more said “Maybe.” One more promised to come. It’s amazing how, suddenly, I needed to know who’s coming, who isn’t, how many haven’t responded or said “maybe.” I checked, rechecked, checked again. Oh yeah, I thought, this is why I shouldn’t have television or Internet. Recognizing the masturbatory folly of my attention, I tried to refocus on my work. Then I heard that familiar tone—I got an email.

I have to check it. It’s from my Face Book page. While I’m here, I should check that event again. Someone might have responded to my invitation. Oh, while I’m here, I’d better check online for those canoe parts. I need to get them ordered this month so I can get them on the March delivery. I wonder if it’s my turn on that online Scrabble game… Oh look, there’s a gold finch at the feeder. What was that game Ginnie posted on Face Book… Ah yes, “Ginnie needs…” That’s a good one. I have to try that. Let’s see…I just type into Google “jim needs…” 

1. Jim needs to Google “Jim needs”
2. Jim needs a kidney.
3. Jim needs a Laundry Delivery.
4. Jim needs a new Grinder.
5. Jim needs Tommy Guns.
6. Jim needs help with a little fact checking.
7. Jim needs his profile on Classmates.com.
8. Jim needs Salvation.
9. Jim needs a Mac.
10. Jim needs your help!

Yep, I was right, there’s no mention in the top ten for Internet access or television. There’s that tone again. Better check it… Hmm… Helen in Ireland can’t make it to the event. That’s too bad, but I understand… I need to re-fill the feeder. Those pesky house sparrows are voracious! I wonder if I could net them and re-locate them somewhere in Georgia… What was I writing about? Oh, another email. Is it time for lunch yet? Good thing I don’t have Internet access at home. Otherwise, I’d never get anything done. Is it time for lunch yet? I need another cup of coffee. I wonder if the new episode of House is on Hulu yet…

Will that be Tall or Grande?

For many the traveler (and perhaps even more so for the traveling artist or entertainer) an important role is played on the road by coffee—that friend that wakes us in the morning, keeps us alert behind the wheel, picks us up for the next gig, keeps us going. And while I don’t drink it in the hours immediately preceding a gig, any other time coffee provides that combination of stimulant and old familiar friend for me in much the same way that public radio and spring creeks ground me, pick me up and pique my creative sensibilities anywhere I go.

 As important as the drink is in my travels, the coffeehouse serves an equally significant function.  A perennial source of artistic energy, caffeine and wireless internet, the coffeehouse de jour, like the trout stream and the NPR station, grounds me, calms me, focuses me and keeps me in touch.

When time allows, I love seeking out the local coffeehouses.  There, the internet is usually free, the clientele predictably free-thinking, the music usually independent, and the coffee beans are rarely over roasted.  There, I feel at home.

But let’s face it, there isn’t always time to do the research and driving to find that oasis. Often, the local house is on the other side of town—out of the way and inaccessible in the time available. 

Enter Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks.  I don’t drink their coffee.  It is always way over-roasted for my taste.  I don’t understand their menu board and they don’t understand what it means when I order anything in the “regular” size.  They ask if I want a grande, which sounds really big, but then a tall sounds even bigger and I have no clue what venti means.  Their tea wears labels such as zen and calm and when asked,  they are all green.  Unless they are chamomile, in which case they smell alarmingly like mint.  But the cake is usually good, the chai is predictably sweet and the chairs are always comfortable.  Unfortunately, the internet comes at a cost – $9.99 for twenty-four consecutive hours.  In other words, Ten bucks for twenty minutes – usually all the time I need to check email and send a response or two. 

I have been to two Starbucks in the last two days.  The first one, a suburban strip mall joint, played reggae so loud that I couldn’t concentrate.  I asked them to turn it down and they very quickly and politely obliged, but just as quickly the volume of the baristas increased so that I was hearing the sexual exploits, preferences and wishes of the teenaged staff over the music complete with the most colorful of language bandied about as if they were in their parent’s basement drinking cheap beer.  Looks were shared among the customers and several got up and left.  I stuck it out but was not very productive.

The next day I visited a smaller, urban ‘bucks.  It was morning rush hour and there was a line of professionals being hustled efficiently through the assembly line by a young woman who knew half of them by name and knew the preferred drinks of half of those.  When I reached the counter, I was unsure of what drink I wanted.  Definitely no caffeine.  I scanned the board several times for tea offerings before finally spying a row of boxes behind the barista.  I had to lean over the counter in order to read the labels.

“What do you want, Honey?”

“What is Zen?”

“Green tea.”

“Envy?”

“Green tea.”

“China Green Tips?”

“Green Tea.”

“Om?”

“Green Tea.  Which one do you want, Honey?”

“Do you have Sencha?”

“No, Honey.  We have Envy, Zen, Om…”

“That’s Ok.  How about Chamomile?”

“What size?”

I held up my cup.

“One bag or two, Honey?  People are waiting.”

“Make it two.”

She pulled two bags from a box labeled “Calm,” dropped them into my cup, and added steaming water.  As she handed it to me, the aromas of apple and mint found their way to my nose.  I sensed no chamomile, but I didn’t question it. People were waiting, after all.

“Thanks, Honey,” I said, but she didn’t hear.  She had already moved on to the next one.

“What can I get you, Honey?”

I left the shop and headed down the street to the festival.  It was raining and cool and the warm travel mug felt good in my hand.  Comforting.  Grounding, even.