Monday, March 23, 2009

Two in the Bush

I like to run, even when dogs and the police aren’t involved. A few years ago I trained for a marathon. On the big day, however, I only ran half the distance. Running a half marathon is like being pregnant with twins but only giving birth to one baby. It's both painful and rewarding . . . and when you finish, you always wonder if you should have pushed harder.

I watch the sidewalk when I run. Even on the prettiest spring days I ignore the sky and search the ground, hoping some other runner might have dropped his second wind. Once, during the final push of a 10 mile trot, I was counting cracks when a flash of movement caught my eye.

did I just see a *breathe* over near the *breathe* is that a . . .

I looked up from the sidewalk to see a small spark of a bird dart out of a ditch and fly a few feet from my sweating face.

This wouldn’t have been noteworthy except for one small detail – the bird’s color. Instead of camouflaging its feathers to blend with a earth toned environment, the bird was bright green, like a crayon or piece of construction paper. Crossing the street, its wings flashed neon in a cardboard world.

Of course, I hold no prejudice against green birds. I believe all of God’s creatures should be proud of their heritage and display their colors without fear of drawing undue attention to themselves. It’s just that in most neighborhoods outside the Amazon, birds tend to be less flashy. Less exotic. Less green.

In Nashville, where I was running, we had many lovely blue birds, brown birds, red birds, and gray birds. We even enjoyed a few spectacular yellow finches. The only place in the Music City where you might find green birds, however, was at the zoo and on the Discovery Channel.

That’s why it was surprising, as I ran up a hill and into what I feared might be the beginning of cardiac arrest, when a wad of emerald feathers flashed across the sidewalk and into the great suburban wild of Nashville. I was certain the bird – a small fist-sized parrot – must have been an illusion, a figment of my sweating imagination. Had I suddenly tasted pennies or felt a tingling sensation in my left arm, the hallucination would have made much more sense and I might have expected to turn the corner and find myself running into a warm, white light.

But instead of a glowing end to my suffering, all I saw on the street was a rust red pick-up truck approaching on my right.

When you’re running and a truck passes going the opposite direction, you don’t have long to look through the windshield. Dolly Parton could drive past and you probably wouldn’t notice. But because the rust red truck was moving slower than it should have been, I had a few extra seconds to see the driver. Sitting behind the wheel was a sixty year old man, rough and unshaven, with gray hair, a red shirt, and a large green parrot perched on his right shoulder – the second parrot I had seen in the past two minutes.

With the exception of Jimmy Buffet – who lived in Nashville before he moved to Margaritaville – men in the Music City don’t generally wear parrots to work. In fact, the average Nashvillian knows as much about parrots as he does about recording contracts. Both are rumored to be real, but few have seen either in person.

After ten feet of careful consideration, I decided that the pirate trucker must have been driving through my neighborhood not because he wanted to spoil and plunder, but because he had a pet problem. It’s only a hunch based on unbelievable coincidence, but I think the pirate was the proud owner of not one, but two parrots - one lost, the other riding shotgun on his shoulder.

The parrot in the truck wasn’t simply along for the ride, tagging along to tell stories when the eight-track went out. It was being used as a zoological GPS to find the lost bird that crossed my path only moments before. The pick up pirate must have hoped that if birds of a feather really do flock together, he might be able to use this instinct to his advantage.

(I think it’s worth questioning whether a grown man should really trust directions squawked by an animal that has a vocabulary of only eight words, three of which are “cracker” and “pretty bird.” Personally, I wouldn’t. Of course, I don’t usually talk to anything that doesn’t have two external ears.)

It will forever remain a mystery as to why the little green spark flew away from home. Maybe he was tired of being served corn-nuts and Budweiser for breakfast. And while I will probably never know if the pick-up pirate was ultimately successful in his quest for the lost bird, I continue to be impressed by his effort. Finding a lost pet is never easy. At least when rounding up a runaway dog or searching for a lost cat, your pet’s hiding places are limited geographically by things like fences and streats. And gravity.

But when tracking a runaway parrot, there’s a tremendous amount of up to consider. The bird might be enjoying a bath in your neighbor’s backyard, or he might be eating french-fries with the parking-lot pigeons at Sonic. Or, if it hasn’t been fond of your brand of crackers, your bird might be on his way back to South America to teach a flock of its Brazilian cousins how to read the sports page in English. The sky is literally the limit.

As I rounded the corner, I glanced back to see the pirate’s truck turn left into a neighborhood filled with towering oaks and bushy maples. The Captain and his parrot sailed into the suburban jungle and I never saw them again. But on sunny days when the sidewalk calls, I still lace up my shoes and run. And I still sometimes wonder if the little green bird ever found its way home.


As a child I went through a stage of wanting to keep a bird as a pet. I was told, however, that it is both inhumane and inconvenient to keep a bird in a cage. Birds are born to fly free and cages are meant for naughty children who disobey their parents. Plus, depending on your political bias and opinion of the popular media, newspapers are intended to be read, not pooped upon. That’s why, in the redneck south, birds aren’t pets. Birds are target practice. Or dinner. Or both.

In Asian cultures a proverb says love is like a bird in a cage. If you love something, you set it free. If it comes back to you, it is yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

In the Christian tradition, the bird is replaced with a sheep. The sheep is free to wander off – which it does – and is lost in the wilderness. Fortunately, in the traditional story, the shepherd is smarter than Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep and didn’t know where to find them. The shepherd knows his sheep and is convinced they are worth more than grilled kabobs and warm winter sweaters . . . so he leaves his flock to rescue the one who is lost.

And when he finds it, he joyfully carries it home where his friends and neighbors rejoice because the lost sheep is found.

During this season of Lent, I celebrate the shepherd Jesus. I am thankful that he is wise enough to know that love isn’t like a bird in a cage. If something you love runs away, you go after it no matter the cost.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

One in the Hand

Some people approach the new year like they approach a swimming pool in the spring, before the sun has really had time to share himself with the water. They step up to January first cautiously, poke one toe into the wintry water, and then decide that the only way they’ll survive the shock of a New Year is to dive head first into the deep. And so they take a breath and plunge into the New Year by making resolutions to change. To lose 100 pounds. To pay off all the credit cards. To learn Portuguese and read A Tale of Two Cities.

But what is it about the midnight between this year and the next that makes people decide they should make life altering resolutions? Why must we celebrate a new calendar year by buying a membership to a gym we’ll never use or spending ten torturous days dropping a smoking habit that we’ll be forced to find again in February? Why do we start our year with a maddening sprint when the finish line is still a long 365 days away? It just doesn’t make sense.

That’s why, when the New Year says jump, I don’t ask how high. I ask for how long and set the bar accordingly low. If I’m really going to commit an entire year to doing something that’s so unpleasant it requires a resolution, I at least want to know that I’m capable of finishing what I start. I like to set my New Year up for success by making bite sized changes that are small and easy to swallow.

For example:

One year I resolved to make my bed every morning. After 365 days of straightening my sheets, I finally realized how much more inviting it is to sleep in a bed that looks like it got dressed-up for the evening than it is to crawl into one that seems to have just wrestled a small goat. I liked the change so much I’ve made my bed every day since. Success.

The next year I committed that I would always hang my keys on the hook next to the front door instead of keeping them between the couch cushions or under my bed. I find that I’m much more punctual now and tend to swear less in the mornings. Success.

One year I told myself that I’d floss regularly. For the first three weeks of January I ate an unusual amount of corn-on-the-cob just to start the habit. This strategy met with mixed results. Literally.

I enjoy my manageable resolutions so much that several years ago I challenged myself to train for a marathon.

Three days a week I stretched my legs and laced my shoes, preparing my body to run its way through dehydration and heart attack. As anyone who has followed in these footsteps knows, whenever you attempt to run any mile number greater than your shoe size, death always feels approximately one breath away.

Although running carries with it both positive and excruciating side effects, it really is a wonderful way to learn your neighborhood. When you run, not only do you burn calories and exercise your heart, but you also see a snapshot of the people who share your sidewalk and your mailman.

For example:

When I ran the ten mile loop around and through my Nashville neighborhood, I often passed a thirteen year-old boy at the corner of mile three. I saw him only on colder days, but I think the boy wore his hood pulled up more for attitude than for warmth. He never smiled, and I learned that I shouldn’t either. Instead, when we meet on the sidewalk, we frowned coolly at each other and raised our chins in a sort of cranial wave. I assumed this meant hello, but considering the neighborhood it might have also been the boy’s way of telling me his pockets were filled with smokeable plants that he was “holding for a friend.”

If the boy’s nod was some sort of subtle sales pitch, I hope he takes a marketing class when/if he gets to High School. The boy obviously has no idea of how to recognize his target consumer. Trying to sell weed to jogger is like trying to sell a bikini to a nun . . . in December.

I also occasionally saw a man I called “Cross Country.” When he ran, Cross Country looked as if he was concentrating, like his mind was thinking about things like form and balance and breathing, like his brain had to focus to control his body. Until I began training for the marathon, I had no idea running was so complicated. I thought it was simply an evolution of walking that we all learned when we were toddlers and our cholesterol had not yet awoken.

When he jogged past me, Cross Country never nodded to acknowledge that we were both sweating through the same sadistic ritual. He ran in his own world, and no one else was invited. Cross Country wore special shirts that were loose and synthetic and probably designed to recycle his sweat and prevent dehydration. Not me. I wore pre-stained shirts bought from the bargain bin at Goodwill. They were 100% cotton and advertised everything from credit cards to Christian camps. They also retained water like a pregnant woman.

Some people like to run with partners or groups so they can encourage each other along the way. But what is there to say while you’re running except “help,” “oh God,” and “glycerine”? When I run, I don’t want to be encouraged. I want to be alone. Sometimes I don’t even listen to music. Although I like the distraction of music, I get mad at the singers for breathing so easily.

Once, however, I was running up the hill that marked mile eight when I passed a fellow jogger who smiled and shouted “That’s right! Good job!” as he reached out his hand and gave me five. At the time I was so busy needing something actual like oxygen that I didn’t feel the need for something abstract like five. To my surprise, however, an encouraging slap from a stranger was exactly what I needed to finish the last two miles. When I collapsed exhausted in front of my house, I repeated his words “That’s Right” and “Good Job” just before I threw-up.

Then, one afternoon, just after I passed the hooded boy and shortly before my encounter with Cross Country, my heart and iPod were each thumping their own separate rhythms when a homeless man stepped into the sidewalk fifty feet in front of me. The man looked confused and unsteady, like someone who has just rolled out of bed and is still uncertain of how to start his day.

In my mind, I called him Oscar.

I gave the homeless man this name not because of his unusual aroma or wild, discolored hair. I didn’t call him Oscar because he was green or because I had ever seen him associate with a Cookie Monster, Big Bird, or Mr. Snuffleupagus. In fact, I don’t think there was a Sesame Street anywhere near my house. I called the man Oscar because of his unpleasant personality and half-empty attitude.

Oscar was a grouch.

After climbing over the curb and into my path, Oscar stood in the sidewalk silently watching the cars pass. He looked left. He looked right. And when Oscar finally turned toward me, made eye contact, and raised his right hand, I smiled, preparing to wave and say hello as we passed, pleased that I was making a new friend.

It soon became clear, however, that Oscar wasn’t interested in becoming friends. If he had been, his raised hand would have been opened in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood. But it wasn’t. His hand was almost entirely closed. Except for one lone finger.

Fortunately, since the middle finger is the tallest of all the fingers, it can be most easily seen from the farthest away. Even at fifty feet I knew exactly what Oscar was trying to say, and it wasn’t hello.

(As a child, I often played checkers with my grandfather. We called him Granddaddy Jack, but I’m not sure why. His first name was Harvey and his second name was Lee. We called him Jack because that’s how he was known to everyone in the small town of Trenton, Tennessee where he lived - but I don’t think anyone in Trenton knew why he was called Jack either.

I liked to play checkers with my Granddaddy Jack because he had style. When we sat down to play, Grandaddy Jack didn’t move the checker with his pointer finger like I did. Instead, he always used his long middle finger . . . his “bad finger” . . . the finger tough kids on the playground used when they were angry . . . the finger that got you sent to your room without any dinner if you used it while you were shouting at your sister. Granddaddy Jack was a deacon in his church and a man of great integrity. He never got in trouble on the playground and probably had no idea why I giggled every time he moved his checker.)

Oscar began his unfriendly gesture when we were still a staggering fifty feet apart. As I ran toward him, the grouch and I stared at each other for every bit as long as it has taken you to read this story. I’m not a very fast runner. And for each of those seventy-five awkward steps, Oscar’s finger stood in its lonely salute as a testimony to his feelings for me. He and his finger hated me for fifty feet. It was like watching a Peter Jackson movie or reading Tolstoy or listing to Queen’s almost six minute Bohemian Rhapsody. Oscar’s grouchy middle finger took a simple message and turned it into an epic statement.

I would like to think that Oscar was like my Granddaddy Jack and was simply using his middle finger for some innocent and utilitarian purpose. Maybe he was checking the wind or letting his nail polish dry. But I don’t think so. Oscar didn’t seem like the nail polish type.

But because I try to see the best in other people, I choose to believe that when Oscar raised his finger that day, he had the best of intentions. He probably meant to give me five and simply forgot the other four. I understand. I’m not very good at math either.

That’s why, when we passed, I decided that Oscar didn’t need something actual like income. He needed something abstract like encouragement. And so, instead of ignoring him or saying something unkind and trotting by in a sweaty blur, I acknowledged Oscar’s finger with a smile, gave him five, and cheerfully said “That’s Right! Good Job!”

And then I finished my last mile, happy to be a bright spot in someone’s day.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Slippery Squirrels

I'm not sure why my mom hates squirrels, but I think it started with popcorn.

In an age before coaxial cable wired HBO and Showtime directly into televisions across the United Sates, the first VCRs found their way into suburban living rooms when I was in elementary school. Prior to the VCR, if you wanted to watch a movie you were forced to either see it in the theater or wait ten years until a highly edited version was shown on one of the three network channels your family’s television was able to tune-in. The houses of my childhood looked like giant bricked insects with aluminum antenna mounted on their backs. TV Guide was much thinner.

The idea of preserving video on cassette tape revolutionized the free time of an already television addicted generation. The new VCR recorded our favorite shows and gave children the freedom to go to the bathroom sometime other than during commercial breaks. It allowed us to pause, rewind, and skip the boring parts of programs we taped while we watched the Cosbys settle this week’s crisis or the Miami Vice keep Florida crime free. The VCR helped us memorize favorite jokes and imitate the characters who were live on Saturday night. It let us watch any movie any time we wanted to. It did for cinema what reruns had already done for television. It gave us a second chance.

I’m convinced that both the newly invented VCR and its accomplice, the video rental store, were also ultimately responsible for the great squirrel invasion of 1986.

One particularly warm summer night my parents piled my sister and I into the family station wagon and drove us to the new local video store to see what blockbusters it might offer as entertainment for the evening. As always, the choices were so overwhelming that Kathy and I argued over what we would watch. I wanted to rent an action move. She wanted a drama. I wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. It wasn’t until we remembered that a boy named Ferris Bueller had recently narrated an entire movie about how to take the perfect day off that we reached a compromise: I would rent the movie about the kid who knew karate, my sister would watch Molly Ringwald blow out her sixteen candles, and we would both enjoy learning from Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane the fine art of skipping school.

After a night of watching movies and popping popcorn, Kathy and I were cleaning the living room when my mom noticed a few handfuls of popcorn left in the bottom of the bowl. Before we could put the uneaten corn in the trash she said, “instead of throwing that popcorn out, you guys should toss it in the backyard for the birds to eat. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

At the time, the idea of throwing leftover food in the backyard for birds to eat seemed both indecent and exotic. My family usually put its leftovers either in Tupperware or in the trash. We never threw them in the yard. But since Jesus didn’t seem to get too upset when his five thousand friends left a bit of stale bread littering a rural hillside, we decided that tossing a few kernels of popcorn in the backyard might not be such a bad idea after all.

Feeding the birds with our table scraps quickly became a game for my sister and I. For several weeks after the first popcorn feeding, when my mom baked biscuits or made cornbread for dinner, Kathy and I fought for who would win the right to crumble and scatter the uneaten bread across the yard. Although the project was really less about feeding hungry animals than it was about making our backyard look cheerful and charitable, the birds loved our homemade treats, and we were convinced they loved us for providing them. Our backyard soon became a bird buffet with loyal customers ranging from blue jays and cardinals to robins and redbirds.

We eventually graduated from feeding the birds discarded popcorn and biscuits to using an actual birdfeeder. Our first one looked like a little pine house on a pole. Its clear plexiglass sides let potential diners see what kind of seed we were serving for dinner, and we soon found the birds were just as happy with convenience food as they had been with home cooking.

The cardinals enjoyed a diet rich in sunflower seeds while the doves and finches ate lots of wheat. Thistle seed was a favorite of the goldfinches. The mockingbirds, blue birds, robins, and woodpeckers enjoyed dried fruit in the feeder. For the sparrows, we bought lots of millet. When you consider their diet, it’s really not surprising that birds have become infamous for giving a sh** where others dare not.

Although our intent had always been to feed the birds, squirrels apparently enjoy bird seed as much as birds do. And since birds tend to be fairly messy eaters, they usually supplied the squirrels in our yard with a fairly constant rain of castoff sunflower seeds and millet to supplement the thousands of acorns already littering our yard.

I would like to think that that most creatures who can’t enjoy the luxury of large franchised supermarkets would be content with free food raining from the sky. Our squirrels, however, were smart enough to understand that the shower of seed raining from above was coming from somewhere other than heaven, and they wanted to know where that somewhere was. When the first squirrel championed an expedition up the birdfeeder pole and found a small wooden house full of food at its summit, he knew his days of foraging and hoarding were over.

In the frenzied seconds that followed, the air in our backyard grew thick with fur and flying seed. Until I witnessed the squirrel’s appalling table manners, I never imagined that animals could binge eat. It was a Jenny Craig nightmare. In less than a minute, a single squirrel emptied our entire birdfeeder of its contents. While some of the seed must have found its way into the squirrel’s small mouth, most of it flew like Cookie Monster crumbs across the yard and was quickly collected by the squirrel’s waiting (and grateful) friends.

My mother was mortified. After months of enabling the birds with a steady diet of ever-available seed, she was convinced they would no longer be able to survive in the worm-eating world. Thanks to the selfish squirrels, she said, our backyard birds were going to bed hungry.

And so began our quest to protect the birds and keep the squirrels out of our birdfeeder.

Plan A:

Our first anti-squirrel experiment involved a cone that was attached midway up the birdfeeder pole with its open side down. The cone made our birdfeeder look like a skinny one-legged girl wearing an aluminum dress. In theory, the hungry squirrels would climb half-way up the pole, reach a dead end, turn around, and give up. Unfortunately, our squirrels either didn’t think the birdfeeder’s new outfit made it look like an underfed supermodel, or they were terribly immodest. Not only did the squirrels continue to climb up the birdfeeder’s one long leg, but they also found a way past her shiny aluminum skirt and into her feed box, where they eagerly scattered their seed.

Who could blame us for our outrage?

Plan B:

Because, as natural climbers, the squirrels would always find a way up the birdfeeder pole, the next logical solution was to eliminate the pole altogether. If the birdfeeder could somehow be suspended in midair, the squirrels would be forced to wait for evolution to grant them the gift of flight before they could steal our seed. And since evolution is notoriously slow, hanging the birdfeeder above the ground seemed like a marvelous idea.

After three trips up a stepladder, a tightrope of clothesline cord was strung between two trees with the birdfeeder dangling from its middle. Unwilling to wait for wings, however, the squirrels decided to attack from the trees. Two hours after we hung the birdfeeder, a squadron of squirrels dove from the branches, landing on the birdfeeder’s roof and swinging it until every seed had been thrown from its hold. The troops waiting below devoured the seed in moments, eating it off the ground and picking crumbs from each other’s fur.

Until that spring, I never considered that birdseed is actual seed, but it is. And like all seed, it grows. April showers usually bring May flowers, but by June our yard grew more than daisies and tulips. Thanks to the squirrels and their seed scattering, the spring rain of 1986 transformed our backyard into a half acre of suburban farmland.

While our neighbors’ yards grew dandelions, ours sprouted sunflowers. While other neighborhood dads tried to keep their crab grass under control, mine fought a backyard full of summer wheat. And as the squirrels continued to sow their seed, I became increasingly aware that I had somehow transitioned from mowing the yard every Saturday to harvesting it.

Plan C:

My Uncle Frankie, the Peter Pan of our clan, devised a plan to eliminate our squirrel problem that involved a five gallon tub of Crisco and a pair of latex gloves.

Although we should have known better than to play along with whatever Neverland game my uncle’s imagination had invented, we didn’t. Instead, we followed Uncle Frankie’s advice and smeared handfuls of shortening along the length of our birdfeeder pole.

Uncle Frankie claimed that this homemade slippery pole would make it impossible for squirrels to climb all the way to the birdfeeder above. They might make it half-way, but the combined forces of gravity and whipped vegetable fat would ensure the birdseed’s safety. He personally guaranteed that the Crisco pole could be conquered by not even the most persistent squirrel. Climbing it would be impossible, like climbing a stick of butter.

Uncle Frankie was right. The Crisco pole was an unparalleled success and as entertaining as it was effective. A few ambitious squirrels made impressive attempts at climbing the greased pole, but after four lubricated feet their exhausted arms lost their grip and they inevitably slid slowly back down like small, greasy firemen.

(The whole scene was reminiscent of that torturous day in jr. high gym class when the girls were moved to one end of the gym to play kick-ball while the guys were herded to the opposite corner and told to climb a giant rope hanging from the rafters. For some unknown reason, gym teachers always wanted us to climb the rope, as if this was a life-skill that boys were required to master before adulthood. Didn’t our gym teachers understand that most modern buildings are equipped with both stairs and elevators? Unless your career goals include becoming a pirate, I could never think of a single job that would require a grown man to climb a rope on his way to the office. And yet, they still made us climb.)

After several unsuccessful hours trying to pillage the birdfeeder, the poor squirrels sat at the bottom of the pole, spent and frustrated, licking the Crisco off their paws. Since squirrels generally survive on nuts, berries and the occasional high fiber-bug, their small bodies aren’t accustomed to an un-cut Crisco diet. And so, thanks to both my Uncle Frankie’s brilliant plan and my family’s blind obedience, our yard was quickly filled with the fattest squirrels ever seen in the wild.

At the end of a long day of pole climbing, when the greasy squirrels finally summoned enough energy to drag themselves back home, tree branches creaked and groaned under their pot-bellied weight. The summer was particularly harsh as several of the cat-sized squirrels baked to a golden greasy brown in the hot August sun.


More than two decades have passed since the great squirrel invasion of 1986, and its final moments have been lost to memory. All we know for sure is that what began with the Hansel-and-Gretel-like innocence of children dropping crumbs in their backyard quickly degenerated into a Crisco-covered mess.

Family lore doesn’t record who finally won the battle or how. But as we laugh over the story during countless Thanksgiving dinners, my mother continues to defend her actions. She says she simply hoped that if we put the food just out of the squirrels’ reach for long enough, maybe they’d get frustrated – maybe they’d give up and go away.

Not long after our backyard conflict was resolved, a more significant family battle began that eventually caused my parents to divorce each other and re-marry other people. When I was a senior in high-school my mom met and married a wonderful man named Bob and together they moved into a home that wasn’t haunted with memories of slippery squirrels and starving birds. The hummingbird feeders that now hang in their kitchen window are filled with sugar water. While these feeders attract the occasional winged insect, they are never fought over by anything larger than a bumble-bee.

Unfortunately, at her new house my mom is now doing battle with another rodent foe. A family of chipmunks has invaded the yard and is threatening my mother’s sanity. She and Bob have approached this new challenge with very different strategies. Bob is a kind and gentle man who has attempted to re-habilitate the chipmunks in an unsuccessful catch-and-release program. My mother prefers a more aggressive approach. She wants to adopt a hungry cat.

My Uncle Frankie has a brilliant solution to the chipmunk problem that involves steel wool and peanut butter, but we don’t listen to him much anymore.