Monday, October 29, 2007

Better than the Aviary

I wrote this column with one of the local Pittsburgh newspapers in mind, but since they didn’t pick it up, I post it here.

It was a typically humid summer afternoon in Pittsburgh, a few days after my twenty-sixth birthday, and I had birds on the brain. Not the ordinary robins and sparrows, or even the vibrant cardinals and blue jays I grew up watching in the backyard of my parents’ house, but something much bigger, fiercer, and more striking.

For the past few years, my father has been observing a family of hawks that moved into the neighborhood, first nesting in the hundred-foot oaks in the backyard, then relocating to other spots, expanding their territory, but still appearing almost daily in the foliage or sky immediately surrounding my childhood home.

Watching these birds has become a favorite pastime for my dad, right up there with “Seinfeld” reruns or a day on the links. On Fathers’ Day a few years ago, we gave him a pair of binoculars that he keeps by a window on the porch, brandishing them whenever he wants to get a closer look at a full-grown hawk in flight, or a fledgling going about the grisly business of picking apart some unfortunate, furry thing in its talons. While the latter scene is far too gruesome for my mom to watch comfortably, my dad takes it in with a naturalist’s awe. When I visit, I can’t help but share his enthusiasm.

On this particular day, I had already caught a good glimpse of two hawks. I had watched through my dad’s binoculars as a young hawk, perched on a thick limb, was pestered and screeched at by a group of smaller birds. Soon one of the parents, sensing something amiss, had swooped into view, landing majestically on a nearby branch and scattering the birds by its mere presence. Now, a few hours later, I was strolling through the yard again, hoping for more.

What I got was as strange as it was satisfying. I had wandered to the edge of the grass, where a thin wood separates my parents’ backyard from their neighbors’ property. Having seen no feathery action in the trees, I was about to put my birdwatching on hiatus for the day when I heard a light rustling. Out from behind a pile of old bricks, just a few feet from where I stood, something hopped into sight. It was a hawk. I could tell by the mottled white and brown of its feathers that it was a young bird. A fledgling. Not in the trees or the sky but on the ground, standing there, in a bed of green ivy.

The hawk raised its wings, striking a pose similar to that of the bald eagle on a dollar bill. Except that instead of looking sideways, the hawk was staring right at me. If it was threatened, it was also eerily cool and composed, ready to act.

My first instinct was to duck behind a nearby tree. I did this, slowly. Then my eyes turned to the canopy above. I was suddenly seized by an irrational fear that the hawk’s next of kin had gathered in the trees and were about to stage an aerial attack on my head. But everything above seemed quiet, so I turned back to my original subject. I wondered what its curved beak and talons might do, in a moment of avian panic, to my twenty-six-year-old face. I decided I would be better off without this information.

Then I thought of my dad. He had to see this. I yelled up to the house, hoping the noise wouldn’t spook the hawk, and soon my dad came hurrying across the yard with my uncle and sister in tow.

The hawk seemed unfazed by the new onlookers. My uncle was bold enough to approach it, getting as close as a foot or two away. It spread its wings farther, puffed its chest a bit more, but didn’t move from the ivy. After this, questions arose. Why wasn’t the hawk flying away? Was it sick or injured? But despite our concerns, what we felt most in those moments was wonder, the thrill of being near to something wild and alive that would normally require a good hiding spot, binoculars or a cage to observe close up. And this encounter wasn’t happening on a wildlife preserve, or even on a hike through the park. It was happening in the backyard.

As it turned out, the hawk wasn’t hurt. We decided to leave it alone for a while, and when I returned only minutes later it had disappeared.

Describing the experience to my relatives that night, I couldn’t help thinking it was a fitting end to my birthday visit, something my dad and I would recall with eagerness, and a reminder of the simple, outdoorsy marvels that are so easy to miss or forget about as we move into adulthood.

But even more than that, the encounter seemed to sum up two worlds that for a moment were on the verge of coming together: the young hawk watching from the shallow woods, and all of us bewildered humans, only a few feet away, staring back from the edge of a crisp, manicured lawn.


Monday, October 01, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies

Over the past year or so, I’ve become what you might call a collector of strange and untimely afflictions. Unlike most hobbyists, however, who engage in knitting or stamp collecting because they enjoy it, and unlike hypochondriacs, who are crazy, I have very little desire to collect germs, illnesses, or physical injuries of any kind.

Strangely enough, my complete lack of interest in collecting infirmities has done nothing to diminish the ease and frequency with which I collect them.

Last September, I came down with a case of shingles. This is a viral outbreak that is normally reserved for the weakened immune systems of enfeebled senior citizens. I was twenty-five. For a collector of rare coins, this would be like acquiring a special limited-edition nickel forty years before it was minted. Except that rather than having a piece of futuristic currency, I had a contagious rash that could infect anyone who hadn't been exposed to chickenpox. (Shingles, apparently, is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, which goes dormant in our nerve cells and can be reactivated later in life by fatigue or stress.) So, to reduce my risk of contaminating the local population of toddlers, I spent a week leading a hermetical lifestyle in the dark grotto known as my apartment.

It was several months later that I fell victim to the Amoeba Scare of 2007. I was working in the sunny storefront of a local bakery one morning when I noticed that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The sunlight pouring through the large windows seemed to be issuing not from one, but from several dozen fiery suns that had secretly conspired to beam their energy directly to my retinas. What was more, my eyes seemed to be filled with an irritating grainy substance, such as sand, rock salt or cayenne pepper. After being excused from work by my boss, I promptly called my mother, who informed me of a recently recalled brand of contact lens solution which, naturally, I was still using. The solution had been found to trap bacteria around the eye and was linked to cases of Acanthamoeba keratitis, a serious and potentially blinding infection caused by a water-borne amoeba. I imagined hundreds of microscopic organisms slowly ingesting my eyeballs via the process of phagocytosis. That seems about right, I thought.

On the way to the optometrist, I did my best to come to terms with my imminent blindness. I thought of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, but soon realized that I had no rhythm and couldn't play any instruments. Then I thought of Helen Keller, which helped a little. When I arrived, I explained to the optometrist that contact lenses had ruined my life and that tiny amoebas were ravaging my eyes with their filthy pseudopods. As it turned out, my exam was amoeba-free, but I did have a severe case of conjunctivitis. My corneas were involved, the doctor told me. If by “involved” you mean my corneas feel like I just performed an eye rinse with jalapeño juice, I’m with you, I said. She prescribed some medicated eye drops and sent me on my way, to endure another week of quarantine in my apartment.

A few days later, I decided to take a break from watching bad romantic comedies through my spotty, mucus-blurred vision and attempt to do something useful. Ever the overachiever, I settled upon the task of hauling several bins of children’s books down three flights of stairs to the driveway, where I would load them into the car of my girlfriend, a kindergarten teacher. One of these bins she had warned me about: it was giant, made of orange plastic, and if it hadn’t been filled to the brim with beginning reading materials, might have comfortably accommodated a small group of beginning readers. Spurred on by my new role as a champion of literacy, however, I ignored any concern for my own wellbeing, hefted the orange monstrosity and wrestled it to the pavement below. Later, I discovered I’d been rewarded for my Herculean efforts with an umbilical hernia.

The umbilical hernia, I learned, is a protrusion of the intestine or other tissue through a weakness in the abdominal wall, causing a small bulge in the area of the navel. It usually presents itself after some kind of intense physical exertion, such as carrying large plastic bins of children’s literature. It’s also common in babies, a fact that I’ve been trying not to take personally. Though usually painless, hernias cannot heal themselves and have to be surgically corrected. Since I don’t foresee having time for outpatient surgery in the near future, I’ll likely be sporting my umbilical hernia for quite a while. However, if the popularity of navel piercings is any indication, I can consider myself lucky to have been stricken with what is obviously the most fashionable of all hernias.

In the wake of the hernia, several weeks passed without incident. I started to wonder if my days of collecting maladies had come to an end. But then, while working at an outdoor farmers’ market on a ninety-degree day with one thousand percent humidity, I succumbed to what I'm fairly sure was heat exhaustion. My symptoms that afternoon included a high fever, extreme sluggishness, and a greater than normal intolerance for the film “Moulin Rouge”, which I was moved to criticize harshly in a public setting. With a steady intake of water, the application of a cold compress and a day’s worth of bed rest, I was able to suppress the fever, but my distaste for Ewan McGregor’s singing voice persists.

When someone with a history of good health finds himself consistently injured or under the weather, two psychological explanations, equally extreme, present themselves:

1.) The Mortality Complex (i.e. My body is falling apart). Inner monologue: “Well, body, we’ve had a good run. Remember the time we received the award for perfect attendance at fifth grade graduation? And what about that six-minute mile we clocked in gym class senior year? Those were the days. I’m sorry for all the sitcom reruns, caffeine binges and plates of fish and chips over the years. Who knows, maybe with a little cardio and a steady regimen of vitamins, we can begin to patch things up.”

2.) The Job Complex (i.e. There is a God, after all – it’s just too bad He hates me). Inner monologue: “Hi God. I must admit I had my doubts about you before you started smiting my body to punish me for my sins. I’m sorry for doing whatever I did to invoke your wrath. I promise to be more righteous in the future. But hey, while I'm getting my spiritual act together, do you think it might be possible to take the divine retribution down a notch? I know it's not my place to question the Creator, who laid the foundations of the earth etc., but I really could use a break from all this atonement. What do you say? Tell you what: if I don't throw my back out, break any bones or contract an infectious disease this month, I'll go ahead and take that as a yes.”

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