Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Little Bodies

We lived in a one story squared off 60s style house with orange and brown scroll-patterned linoleum in the kitchen and orange and yellow shag carpeting in the rest of the house. By the time I have any memory of the house the shag carpeting was only left in one small closet, the rest replaced by a short blue sea. The linoleum, however, stayed for as long as we did.

Both the dining area and the TV room had large, floor to ceiling picture windows, walls that no bird ever saw. Every time a bird hit, we’d rush outside to see if it had survived. It was a clear sign that spring had arrived whenever we started finding a larger number of robins, rather than chickadees, lying stunned and prone in the flower beds. If the birds were alive we would pick them up carefully, tucking their scratchy little feet between our hands and then holding them up, like we were cupping water to drink. The birds’ quick hearts fluttered, their small dark eyes darting back and forth, the birds were so soft and fragile, like precious babies. We were big and clumsy and could hurt them, so we had to be extra careful to be nice, to hold them for only a few moments, to pet them softly, and ultimately to set them carefully in the hedge so that when the bird was ready, it would fly away on its own.

Rufous feeding
If the bird was dead, then it belonged to my father. We held no birdie burials at my house. Instead, dad would go back in and get a sandwich bag, wrap the bird up in its clear shroud, and deliver it to our birdie morgue: the freezer. There was nothing strange to us about the fact that there was a little pile of bird corpses in between the Eggos box and the ice trays. After my first year of college I was speaking to a friend about our college entrance essays, she had written hers about how her father stored birds in their freezer. Her father was also a biologist. Clearly though, she had been much more aware of herself than I had, because it wasn’t until she told me about her essay that I realized that maybe people would view that as strange behavior.

Not too long ago I dropped by my parents house after work.

“If you’re getting a glass of wine will you get me one? It’s in the freezer,” my mom asked.  Next to the bottle of chardonnay, was a little body bag.

“Did you guys have a bird hit the window?”

“It’s one of the humming birds!” my dad said, “do you want to see it?”


In their new house they also have picture windows, but these are on a second story, so the only birds that come close are those drawn in by my father’s hummingbird feeders.

“I feel a little guilty,” he said.

It was beautiful, but strange to see a hummingbird so still. My father was particularly excited that its tongue was extended out of its bill, like a stamen left after the flower petals had been stripped away. He explained to me about the coloring of the males versus the females, that this was a male.

As they feed from his feeder, they flash in the sun like gaudy living gems. Now on the dining room table it was like seeing the gimmick behind a magic trick.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Yesterday I went hunting with my dad and his friend Billy. It was only a day hunt, and like the last two day hunts I’ve done with my dad, we did not shoot any deer. But this time I felt more confident. I knew what deer sign looked like and I called it out more than either my dad or Billy. At one point I even got the feeling that I was literally tracking a deer. We were following a deer trail through the dense blueberries and devil’s club and every once and a while I’d lose the faint indications, and then as if I was lead purely by some unconscious sense, I would choose a direction. And low and behold, there the tracks would be.

0630 in the woods.
We pushed our way through the brush at the base of Mt. Jumbo to a bowl on the back side. In the bowl we found a large muskeg, in fall golds and reds. We had hit the trail by 0545, and after our hard work in the woods we were all ready for a nap. So we found a hillock and laid down. I curled up with my rifle by my side and my backpack under my head. I’m not a napper, but the warm fall sun did the trick and all three of us zonked out for an hour. It was strange to wake to a gun at my side.

I’m not a gun person. I own a gun, a Ruger .308 with a synthetic stock that my dad bought for me. It’s a small, light rifle, about as much as I would probably feel comfortable handling in the woods. I use it in the fall to go hunting with my dad and take it to the rifle range a couple of times before that to make sure I’m shooting okay. When he first got the gun for me, my father also bought himself a .450 handgun for bear protection. We went out to the range together and he insisted that I learn how to shoot the handgun. He wanted me to know what to do if I ever needed to use it. So I put up my hands, and aimed. But the gun was heavy, and I could feel my hands shaking.

“Don’t lean back so far,” he said, and tried to push me closer.
“I’m not!”
“You’re leaning back too far, you’ll never get a good shot.”

I clearly did not want to be anywhere near that gun. I don’t like handguns. Even though my dad bought it for bear protection, there is something just plain wrong with a handgun. It feels like an instrument only meant to hurt other people. A rifle or a shotgun is meant for hunting, yes they’re used to kill people, but that doesn’t feel like their main purpose.

This spring I was on an all women’s trap shooting team at the Juneau Gun Club. Before we started it had been about 10 years since I’d last shot a shotgun. It was fun, like a real video game, with the clay pigeons exploding midair in miniature orange fireworks.  At a roller derby practice I mentioned something to Jeanne, our captain, about trap shooting and how she should do it. Jeanne is a ER nurse and was in the army before coming to Juneau. She told me that she could never think of guns involved in anything fun, that she would never be able to see a gun as anything other than how they had been used in Iraq.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Seed/Root

Last week my best friend from college came to visit, one Ms. Lynn J. Vollbrecht. She currently lives in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town we went to school in, 2,000 miles away from Juneau. She came back to Juneau with me the summer after we graduated and spent nine months here. Since then she’s come back to visit us each year for a week. This means that the bulk of our friendship is maintained by phone and by the letters she sends Andrew and I.

During her visit we had a couple of those conversations that people in love always seem to have, conversations about how much they love each other, what kind of love they have, how wonderful love is, and yadda yadda yadda. The kinds of conversations that make you feel like you’re going to burst from how full of affection you are. But we also spent time talking about the nature of friendship.

I’ve been thinking more about this. Not just about friendship, but the nature of human relationships on a grand scale. What is it that I value in other people, what is the seed of the belief that a person is a good person. Is it love? Humor? Thoughtfulness? Respect?

Last night, getting into bed, I figured it out.

em•pa•thy – noun

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

It seems to me that there is no greater natural emotional response to the world. And how deep that response is! Even going back to our earliest days on this planet, there is no way that we could’ve survived without empathy. I’m going deer hunting this weekend and I know that all of my energy will be focused on empathizing with my prey. All my stillness and focus directed towards one purpose, the reaching out of my self towards that animal, the attempt to see the forest as a deer would, listen as a deer would, walk as a deer would.

I believe that every person’s best self evolves from the ability to empathize, and it’s not something that requires money, or education, or anything other than the desire to reach out to another person or thing.

But, the flipside, is that I find it almost impossible to understand (or empathize) with people who don’t or can’t empathize with others. That kind of existence seems like it would be very lonely, surface, and dark. And I imagine that this inability to bend, to attempt to extend yourself, must be the root of all horrors. I’ve been reading some accounts of soldiers with PTSD and part of that pain seems to come from the attempt, and failure, to suppress empathy in an environment in which to empathize means to fail at your purpose.

I believe that we all have a natural desire to empathize, and call me a hopeless optimist, but I think this is why I’ve always believed that people are naturally-deep-down good.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Words v. Numbers

 "Additionally, a derivative may have complex aspects that require the auditor to have special knowledge to evaluate the measurement and disclosure of the derivative in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.  For example, features embedded in contracts or agreements may require separate accounting as a derivative, and complex pricing structures may increase the complexity of the assumptions used in estimating the fair value of a derivative."

A week ago I finished editing 200 pages of a manual that contained nothing but sentences similar to the above.  I had two weeks to complete this project.

I spent hours and hours staring at these words.  Words that were no longer words.  Words that dreamt of being numbers.  At least numbers have the pure pleasure of being unadulterated signifiers.  There was no joy in these words, they existed only to point towards specific concepts.  The sentences, paragraphs, and chapters circled around and around each idea, like sharks around a bloody hunk of meat, all purpose, all force.

My job was to make sure that the sentences and paragraphs all fit within generally accepted standards of English grammar.  I dutifully marked it all up, debating each word, reading paragraphs and sentences over and over again.  "Does this sentence make sense?  Do these words make sense?  What is it talking about?  Is this a phrase that is common in auditing procedures?"  Sometimes when I went over my edits with a manager she would shrug and say "nobody is going to read this.  It doesn't really matter."

I've only ever had one other experience in my life when English sounded so completely foreign to me, and in that instance I was 14 and playing pool with two Scottish boys in a hostel in Northeast Scotland.

My goal this fall is to finish the novel that's been bumping around my head for the last several years.  While I edited the manual at work, I spent my evenings at home on my own writing.  I've always wanted to write a fairytale.  So I wrote a fairytale for a chapter.

What a pleasure to write living words instead of dead signifiers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Change of Routine

I went to work an hour and a half early the other day. This meant that I walked down my street at the quiet time of 6:20am. I wasn’t thinking much about anything, until I noticed who was walking in front of me.

It was the woman who lives in the white house on the corner.

Little Edie in front of Grey Gardens
Her house has boarded up windows. It also had peeling paint until earlier this summer when one of her nephews painted it the color nude pantyhose. I don’t know the woman’s name, but I can spot her a mile away. She dresses in layers of lace, flowered patterns, sparkles, and fake fur. She’s like the Little Edie of Juneau. Even though there’s something totally off-kilter about the way she dresses, her outfits are invariably bright, fun, and strangely beautiful. On summer mornings, when I’m up extra early to drive Andrew or my parents to the airport at 5am, I see her out in her small overgrown yard, cutting the grass with a steak knife. She grabs a fistful, pulls it up like you would someone’s hair, and then saws through. I always wave and say good-morning and she always waves back.

Other days, we’ll come out of the house and look across the street to find that she’s set up a tea-party on her lawn. She brings out all kinds of things: pots, fake flowers, buckets, rolling office chairs, stuffed animals, and arranges them in a semi-circle as if she’s had all sorts of company while we’ve slept (although I’ve never seen anyone at her house besides the young man who painted it). The tea-party will sit on her lawn for the day, or even two, and then just as mysteriously disappear. It’s rare that I see her out during the daylight hours.

So, to suddenly find myself walking behind her into town was a surprise. Where was she going at 6:20am? Was she just going for a walk? Was she going to pick something up? To meet someone? Does she do this every morning?

I passed only two other people. I caught myself studying them, inspecting their clothes, their faces, the directions they were walking. What were they doing?

A slight shift in my routine had suddenly revealed to me an entirely new set of questions.

What else am I missing?