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Guillotining Scooby & Co.

On the way to World War Z, Andy and I get stuck behind a serial killer Aerostar, the distracted drivers of which are doing their best to sideline our Saturday afternoon.

Between my obscenities and gay hand gestures, Andy notices something.

Oh my god. I think there’s a bird in that van.”

“A bird? Driving it? What do you…”

That’s when I see the macaw’s head pop up between the front seats. The parrot pulls itself up the driver’s sleeve, resting on the bulky shoulder with a few bobs of its head. Firmly rested, it keeps bobbing.

“I think it’s regurgitating for them.”

What?

*Gay hand gesture*

“I think the macaw is trying to feed them. But at least they’re not accepting it.”

“Like, throwing up? You mean it’s feeding them…”

Nah. I’m sure they’re close to their parrot, but not that…”

The driver turns and accepts the cloyingly-sweet macaw’s offering.

And I nearly regurgitate a little myself. But as I choke down the stomach acid, I think about our family’s own little feathery lump of joy. And all of the wondrous treats he’s gifted us over his twenty-six years of life.

Twenty.

Six.

***

My gold Mercedes is totaled.

A door here, a tire there–all wrenched from the car body in the most ghastly fashion possible.

By the most vicious beak in Opelika.

I follow the trail from the kitchen to the beast’s lair. Scooby sits king-like atop his massive cage, looking out of the sunroom’s window bank. He looks down at me, his dinosaur eyes narrowing.

The beast.

Yeah, mothafucka, yeah, I destroyed your goddamned car! 

“I hate you!”

Inter-species sibling love at its finest.

***

Long before Scooby systematically destroyed many of my favorite Matchbox cars, his more sinister side manifested through my ad hoc rhinoplasty, which underscored the extent to which his tiny body pulsed with tornadic energy. Combine that with his narcissism, and the Mirarchi family had within its fold a sadistic megalomaniac flying amok.

Trifles didn’t entertain him. Pencils, Kleenex boxes, dog toys, jewelry, seed logs–all obliterated with little fanfare. He liked challenging, more difficult targets. Like that chirping, talking box we’d run to after the phone rang. Or the family Bible. Soon enough, he was victorious and thirsted for more.

Largely out of fear, we looked for scapegoats to satiate his needs. The dog was already terrified of him. We needed something slower, something trusting.

Then, Eureka! the solution fell into our laps: a nursing home wanted Dad to bring Scooby in for a Halloween party.

Not only do touchy-feely strangers make Scooby intensely uncomfortable, but droves of them would surely put him in his place–make him realize he’s no match for real people.

At least that’s how I viewed it.

So as Dad prepped Scooby, I watched mirthfully, thinking of the shell of a parrot he’d return as.

And return he did. Thirty minutes later.

But was that glee in his eyes? A slight, birdy chuckle?

No!

“You won’t believe this!” Dad, clearly disgusted, lays it out.

Apparently, after explaining the ground rules for interacting with Scooby, one elderly woman late to the festivities took a chance. And paid for it.

Removing his eye patch, all Dad can muster is “It all happened so fast.”

Blithely unaware and cooing Pretty bird, pretty bird, she’d extended her frail hand up to Scooby; and Dad saw her two seconds too late. Scooby, unintimidated and craving flesh, latched onto her finger like a bear trap on a rabbit’s head. With every one of her screams and jostles, I’m sure Scooby tightened his hold, even as Dad the Pirate tried to pry him off.

Scooby: 1. Humanity: 0.

***

Despite his less desirable qualities, Scooby has taught me that deadly things can come in all shapes, sizes, and feathered varieties–and that every living creature will demand that you respect it’s authority in some way or another. After all, it was just a blink of the cosmic eye that our avian brethren had scaly flesh and dinosaur brains.

Even still, I can be surprised.

Like the call I got a year ago.

“Laura was attacked by Benny today.”

What?! Who the hell is Benny?”

“The Vulture.”

“Clearly. But who is he?”

“Benny the Vulture. An actual vulture.”

Oh.”

“And watch your language.”

A wildlife educator, Laura had plenty of experience tackling impertinent birds and raptors. And it just so happened that Benny took a profound disliking to her early on, leaving her legs poked and chiseled by his beak.

But perhaps Benny sensed that the Mirarchi blood wasn’t clean of avian atrocities, and that it was up to him to right the wrongs of the past.

Like the Woodpecker Debacle of ’08.

October 19, 2008. The proverbial battle between Mirarchi and Bird reached its most intense extreme to date. The bird may have dealt the first, second, and third blows, but the fourth and final was dealt by Dad. 

A few days ago, after returning from errands, Dad heard Woody boring yet another gaping hole into the side of one of the porch columns, right next to a recently patched hole he’d stuffed a tree branch into, to both dissuade the bird and piss off the neighborhood association.

“I think we’ll decorate it for Christmas!”

But Woody had returned. And sat hanging from the column, looking into the eyes of his nemesis.

“I had that gun loaded for three weeks and knew the minute we moved the scaffolding to the side of the house that he’d come back!”

By the time Dad ran into the house, grabbed the gun, and returned to take out the target, Woody was gone. But each day, right as Dad would settle down, Woody would return.

“I’d no sooner sat down on the living room ottoman when that little bastard came back! But this time, I was ready.”

Shoeless, Dad tiptoed out to the porch. 

“When that little prick stuck his head right around the column, I blew him right off! He dropped like a rock. I didn’t care if anyone saw me blast’em!”

Once the echoes stopped reverberating off the neighboring houses, Dad admired his handiwork.

“I musta had that same look in my eye as the time I cut half the Christmas tree down with the chainsaw in the living room! But anyway, I bagged that bird in a Ziploc and taped the bag to the back door for your mom.”

***

Despite the tiffs between the avian and human members of our family–putting our scars and the now infamous Dad-Scooby decade-long feud aside–there’s still plenty of love threading us all together. Even if it’s of The Addams Family ilk–the macabre, slightly kidding way Dad jests about taking Scooby quail hunting, us eating peanut M&M’s in front of a deprived Scooby.

Still, there’s love.

There must be. Otherwise, my OCD-crazed ninth-grader self wouldn’t have worried so much that any one “S” overhanging my notebook paper’s bounding red lines would translate to Scooby’s head being lopped off guillotine-style.

I was looking out for him. In my own convoluted, magical thinking-like way.

After all, there’s a little sweetness nestled somewhere in that little bile-filled body of his that deserves to be celebrated. Because in his own birdbrain way, he cares about us, too.

Like the time Laura and I were staying home alone, and had stupidly left the front door open and the screened door closed. Since we weren’t supposed to answer the door, much less leave it wide open, we hid when a UPS carrier approached and called through the door. And out of nowhere, Scooby let loose a lascivious Yoo hooooo! from the back of the house that sent the young carrier bounding down the steps and to his truck. Victory.

That alone deserves a little respect.

***

The day after Woody’s demise, Dad set to patching the hole. But then saw something else: a series of smaller ones around Woody’s last stand. Pellet shot.

“Goddammit! Well, that bastard ain’t comin’ back!”

I imagine the front door being left slightly ajar. And, on hearing Dad shout, a quiet, contented chuckle filtering out from Scooby’s nook.

But he’s already here.

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A Strange New Nation

With pundits on both sides firing off on yesterday’s SCOTUS rulings on DOMA and Prop 8, my Facebook thread rightfully aflutter with glad tidings and celebratory photos, my phone buzzing with calls and texts from family and friends, and my heart pounding with exhilaration, I kept repeating something–a new mantra of sorts–I learned from Dame Judi Dench as her on-screen character Evelyn navigates a new life in India.

“Initially you’re overwhelmed. But gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Resist, and you’ll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side.”

And while Rachel Maddow likely won’t reference The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel anytime during her discussions about national LGBT rights versus state-centric LGBT rights, I find many of the characters’ quips about starting anew incredibly empowering. Because, like the retirees in their new environment, LGBT people have a new landscape opening up before their eyes.

It’s difficult to articulate the absolute importance of yesterday’s rulings, and the unexpected nature of it all–especially given the way the SCOTUS took a step back with their ruling on the Voting Rights Act. For many of us, it seems like a dream, while its reality leaves us in shock. So many activists–especially of the Stonewall-era–never thought they’d see such a day, experience this wave of change first-hand.

But as Evelyn so rightly alludes, resistance to the tide will only ensure a swift fall from grace. And I think Republicans are soaking wet and floundering. Because the rulings not only illustrate how grossly ineffective the Republicans’ egregious DOMA-defense expenditures have been, but they also reveal how archaic and anachronistic their conservative 1950’s-era perspectives of the sociopolitical and economic landscapes are today.

And while there is still plenty of work to do before the dissonance between the national and state definitions of marriage are reconciled and marriage equality spreads–including greater vigilance in southern states hard-hit by the Voting Rights Act ruling–it is a new day in this strange new nation.

With a legislative body whose anti-LGBT head has been lopped off–a welcomed decapitation.

Whose body is riding the wave into a brighter future.

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A Welcomed Palimpsest

The past year has taught me a lot about dealing with indescribable stress and frustration.

But in many ways, I’m grateful for it.

I’m not going to lie and write that I didn’t think that ye olde SCOTUS wouldn’t follow yesterday’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act with more driveling, archaic, nonsensical rulings today. I hoped I’d be able to strike through all of this. But that’s not the way things will go. Because today isn’t about the rulings or the SCOTUS or the White House or Congress.

Today is about the people you see every single day, and what they’re feeling. It’s about empathizing and cutting people a break, about letting them mourn in their own way, so that they can process everything that’s happened. Plenty of conservative pundits will say that liberals are bleeding out their little hearts. But this was a slight of epic proportions; one that’ll take some time to overcome. Because there’s a lot to bemoan, and not just the gutting of a crucial piece of civil rights legislation and the continued relegation of LGBT citizens to second-class status.

What’s most disturbing to me about all of this is that such critical issues were left up to nine people to decide. Not nine justices; nine people as fallible and biased as you and I, each of whom is charged with determining the course of American political history. And yet, some of them wield the power of their position to make a point–to cross the “T” and dot the “I” on their legacy, rather than the legacy of our country.

Thirteen other countries have recognized the importance of acknowledging each of their citizens, and extending to them the rights and privileges we in the US desire: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden. And, quite courageously, same-sex marriage is recognized by twelve states in the US–Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington–the District of Columbia, and five Native American tribes: Coquille Tribe of Oregon, the Suquamish tribe of Washington, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians of Michigan, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians of Michigan, and the Santa Ysabel Tribe of California. Do I believe it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage and LGBT rights issues are no longer viewed in such a…

We win!We win. America wins.

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If I was a White Supremacist-Misogynist-Classist

Dear SCOTUS:

I love saying your acronym, because it reminds me of scrotum–which is what our proud country is built upon! Because it takes real balls to stand up for what’s right–or is it reich? Oh, fiddlesticks–I forget how to spell it! Let me go ask my friend, Paula. Even if she’s a woman and clearly much more dense than I, a man.

But speaking of Paula, I’m sure I’m not the only one happy that she’s off the air. Not because of the black comments–especially since she’s just reminding us that it’s all about heritage, not hate, y’all. I’m glad because I was a little unsure about a woman being, you know, in the man’s realm–television. Which should always be tuned to Fox News.

Can I get an Amen?! Oh, thanks Scalia!

And Scalia, I have the utmost faith that you and your brethren will push the weaker sex back into the home, where they should always be knocked up (either by their loftly wedded husband or a rapist) and subjugated like a good 1950’s woman! Because it’s a man’s responsibility, and it’s up to him–and Him!–to speak for them. Plus, while the good wives are prepping dinner, they can take care of the darling Duggar-like clan they’ve spawned, because we know birth control is the devil and we’d rather see their lady parts fall out than take their personal health and safety into consideration. Plus, at home they’ll have time to watch their favorite shows and classic movies, especially that handsome man’s-man Rock Hudson.

Sure, he’s rumored to have been a homosexual, but that’s absurd! Those ninnies frolick around and decorate houses, and they certainly don’t look like him! Thank the Lord above that we can get away with denying them “civil rights”–like they can really be married. I mean, they don’t have the parts to, uh, make babies. Because that’s what a real marriage is: a penis and a vagina together forever. I tell ya, this whole business of recognizing those people and their deviant ways is a chip in our country’s armor. Before long, they’ll demand for us not to beat them straight. The nerve!

I mean, really. Between the homosexuals and the brown people, I’m at a loss. And don’t get me started on the handicapped and the environmentalists. To think that they feel that they’re entitled to the same things I have. And to access ramps everywhere? And a frack-free living? The audacity! Who in the hell will trim my lawn, or care for white children?

It’s the disintegration of society, that’s what it is! Pure anarchy!

But SCOTUS, with the trends you’ve made in the past, and with your news this morning about the Voting Rights Act, I have the utmost faith that you’ll return this country to its former glory, and will find a way to get that brown Muslim out of the White–I repeat, White–House.

Your humble straight white male minority constituent,

Bubba

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Right Side Up, Upside Down

We’re all in Monday mode. Some of us just need coffee to snap out of it. Or something stronger. Really, though, most just need a wake up call.

And I got mine this morning, when I read this article about the anniversary of a horrific event I had no knowledge of.

Forty years ago today, the UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans claimed the lives of 32 people who gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Thirty-two people.

Each of whom died brutally and, in death, was a punchline of bigoted disc jokey jokes. Out of hatred and embarrassment, some of their bodies were never claimed. Their lives were relegated to historical obscurity, their charred bodies to a potter’s field.

***

The murder of a single person is horrific, yet there’s the promise of justice, of some promise for balance–that the guilty party will be made to answer for their crime. But the “otherness” of those who perished in the UpStairs Lounge didn’t justify a thorough investigation. Their lives, their stories, their families, their friends, their contributions meant nothing to the law enforcement personnel who waded through the wreckage, who left the body of Rev. Bill Larson fused to iron window bars overnight.

Very little separates people who view those different from themselves in such a casual, dismissive way from people in swastika-adorned uniforms surveying a barbed wire enclosed camp. In the same disturbing ways, they justify their behavior. Because there has to be a scapegoat, right? And it can’t be us. So it has to be them.

But the alarming point is that many people choose to think this way–whether it’s some perverse malignancy of thought or contorted survival mechanism, they embrace it. They don’t ever think that the microscope can ever be turned on them–that they will one day find themselves the target, not the eye through the scope. Regardless of upbringing and education, nationality or creed, there’s always a tipping-point at which a person has to take a deep, hard look in the mirror and either register their reflection as that monster lurking within their consciousness, or an empathetic advocate.

And if you’re brave enough to become an advocate, to speak your mind, to defend those who ask for help, then you’re stronger than any adversary. Because strength isn’t measured by how many Molotov cocktails one can throw from afar, but by how many people you can help, to whom you can lend a hand.

By the number of people you can educate.

Because what can be said of us when we can go about our days unfazed by such horrific images? How can we buy clothes from retailers whose problematic, unethical employment practices force Bangladeshi garment factory workers to choose between their safety and their paychecks? Why has our moral compass become so terribly confused by cheap polyester and the “more is better” mentality?

Where has our goodness gone?

Goodness resides in education. It’s there, waiting to be unlocked and shared.

And has been, and will continue to be.

By Inez Warren, the mother of Eddie and Jim Warren–two gay brothers–who died in the blaze with her sons.

By pastors of the Metropolitan Community Church, one of whom died trying to rescue his partner, their bodies found clinging to one another.

By Rev. William Richardson, who held a prayer service for the dead and received a formal rebuke from the Episcopalian bishop and a flood of hate mail.

By my parents, whose strides to build and support an LGBT ministry with other advocates in the heart of the Deep South are awe-inspiring.

By my sister, who has always been my fiercest advocate.

By my friends and chosen family at the LGBT Center of Raleigh and across the country.

***

So as manifold reforms hinge upon the Supreme Court’s decisions this week, I cannot help but cast a retrospective glance, acknowledging the inherent strength and power that we possess to effect change.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s not couch our efforts in whether we “win” or “lose.” Because the world is a topsy-turvy place.

And, right side up or upside down, we’ll always have to clear a hurdle or two.

But it’s always easier when you have a team cheering for you.

A team you can count on.

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My South

It’s odd what little things claim the last bit of wherewithal I have not to crumple and cry over the shattered remains of a former life.

After all, it’s a doughnut shop, a cheap convenience store. But among the strewn cream-filled dough and dollar store merchandise, crafting supplies and thrift store clothes, is a bit of me–the late teen-early twenty-something me. So amid the wreckage I see a broken reflection, something alien and somehow familiar; something that raises the hairs on the back of my neck and whispers, “Remember me?”

And much more: places where lifelong friendships were born and nurtured from nascent beginnings, full of awkwardness and immaturity and fun; the long walks through neighborhoods and energy-fueled conversations etched into a historic landscape. Everything comfortably familiar I took for granted.

But I can only grasp at former landmarks–the pawn shop where I bought my first TV, the restaurant with the best hangover cure, the picturesque neighborhood of forties- and fifties- era cottages. All now reduced to splinters, pieces of broken lives–friends’ lives changed in moments, their voices echoing across static-laden telephone lines.

But then I have cause to breathe a sigh of relief–a luxury, really: Though drained and wrenched, they’ve made it. They’re not red X’s.

The landscape will always change. But I need friends to watch with me as it reforms, springs from its leveled state, and rises again–just like we did all those years ago: looking to the horizon of an unknown future, hoping for answers in the sunrise.

***

The Tuscaloosa tornado only took a few minutes to raze so much of what had been my home for four years–some of the most formative of my life. And I became acutely aware of how quickly so much could be ripped away to a soundtrack of reverberating tornado sirens, and the subsequent stale silence.

Evil is often guised as a fiery deity, a slithering reptile. But that evening, as I watched part of my past being obliterated, and wondering who among my friends was witnessing it firsthand, I felt that the vortex–an all-consuming monster–was close enough to evil incarnate. And when I was able to exhale, I became immensely protective of all that I identify as my South.

***

But my South isn’t as many things as it is. The Civil War never consumed front porch conversations, and Confederate flags didn’t wave from front yards dotted with rusted-out Fords. And the local ABC Store wasn’t the nexus for the incestuous relationships in which all southerners allegedly engage.

My South is a string of recollections and experiences–and each may be a little ahead or a little behind the curve, but still mine. And they all have the same base: the Alabama I experienced before I finally went through puberty; before I came out; before I knew anything of consequence; before I left it all. The Alabama between the bygone and the here and now.

The Opelika with the Walmart-Western Sizzlin’ hub near the interstate, before Opal knocked the “Western” clean off and it became “The Sizzlin’.” An Opelika with its intact mill village. The railroad town where O.B. Ennis and A&P were the go-to grocery stores before Kroger and Winn-Dixie got popular. The feed-and-seed store with the back room incubator that filled the warm air with newly-hatched chicks’ cheeps. Gorging on Tyler’s hamburgers, fries, and apple pies the first year we spent making a home out of the old clapboard house in the derelict historic district.

The old Mirarchi homestead.

It’s when we got too tired and covered in lead paint dust, and ventured downtown with ten dollars to entertain ourselves, starting with egg salad sandwiches and pickles at Haynies–a genuine soda fountain. How we’d let our feet dangle from the red vinyl swivel stools as we munched on the toasted bread slathered with silky egg salad. With the only noise being the buzz of a radio and the fans swirling overhead, watching the dills float around in the huge glass jar on the countertop.

Walking, contentedly full, to Southern Video–with its worn, velvet-lined floor–and renting the reliable standbys: The Witches or a Tell-Faire Peak Theatre rendition of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, and our favorite Nintendo game, Jackal. And then walk back–our parents unconcerned about a seven or eight block walk, unlike today. It was just a blink, not that long ago.

Hearing in sixth grade about Windows, and wondering what the hubbub could be about. Being part of a generation to play outside–using our imaginations like remote controls: a mud hole as a sea; plywood and blown-out tires as a fort in an azalea bush. Fourth of July, and the neighbors: young families with big dreams for the big houses falling apart around them–gathering in the graveled alley next to our house and setting up card-tables to feast on fried chicken, ambrosia salad, macaroni and cheese, paprika-laced deviled eggs, collard greens, potato salad, pies and cobblers.

The front porch–the columns, the cold floor beneath my feet, the balustrades salvaged from a demolished house, the porch swing and fan; how I’d curl up in the wicker settee with a bowl of ice-cream and glass of sweet tea just as the cicadas started screaming their heat songs.

Coming home after band practice to a Royal Doulton bowl full of lukewarm venison meatballs. The food, an Italian-Deep South blend: pigeons and polenta; collards and fried chicken; the discount bakery’s tandy cakes and apple pies; pasta fagioli and chipped beef; Mrs. Story’s hot dogs and The Dairy Barn’s milkshakes and Thomas Pharmacy’s peppermint sticks; pecan tassies and butter cookies; cornbread and pinto beans; venison and wild turkey; pizzelles and coffee.

The landscape: azaleas and spider lilies; irises and hydrangeas; pecans and oaks where old elms used to root; kudzu and English ivy; acubas and iron weed and camellias. The people: Miss Ruby watering her mint plants; childhood friends maiming bugs with magnifying glasses; Laura and me flipping through World Book encyclopedias–stopping on colorful images of dogs and horses–and watching Bonanza and American Gladiators while gorging on pigs-in-blankets and Kid Cuisines.

Everything else: antique shops and flea markets; turkey feathers and deer antlers; squirrel traps and garden snakes; a rattler’s warning in waist-high grass; wildflowers and mischief.

At the property.

Tracking time with hunting photographs: from when I’m just shy of antler tines, to shoulder-high; to a face smeared with blood, holding the deer myself. Felling trees and planting them, burning underbrush and pissing outside.

It’s the comforting sepia curling around the edges of these memories, creating a warmth I associate with home.

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Raptor Rehab

On my first trip to rehab, I knew I wouldn’t see the likes of Courtney Love or Lindsey Lohan.

But surely Tiger, the university’s Golden Eagle mascot, would be careening up and down the central hallway, all while attempting to hide the white powder beneath his beak, screeching, “What? I’M IN CONTROL!”

Instead, Dad, Laura, and I step down into a modestly-sized concrete-block building with a low ceiling.

Squawks, hoots, and screeches bellow from the surrounding rooms, filling the narrow hallway with an ear-splitting ruckus.

I cover my ears.

Dad disappears into a side room.

A nearby door flies open, and all I can see is an enormous Bald Eagle with one wing outstretched.

I stare, slack-jawed.

Its gloved keeper thwarts its escape, and it gives a gut-wrenching squawk, like those I’ve heard in the backgrounds of Dad’s westerns.

“It’s just like the eagle in The Rescuers Down Under!”

No one hears me. Nerd bullet dodged.

The keeper folds in the eagle’s free wing, enclosing its body with one arm, and holding closed its sharp beak with a thickly-gloved right hand.

Dad reappears with a tall, thin man whose head nearly touches the ceiling. Dad introduces him as Jeff, the center’s manager.

“So, whaddya think of that?” Jeff asks, pointing to the cantankerous eagle.

“It’s loud.”

“Yup. They can get pretty cranky. Y’all want to see more in the back?”

The hair on the back of my neck stands on end.

“You mean we’re going back there?” I ask, incredulous, pointing to the darkened end of the hallway.

“Sure are,” Dad responds. “That’s where I’m banding.”

My mental image of a cocaine-using Tiger is immediately replaced with one of a head-banging Screech Owl twirling a pair of drumsticks.

Laura and I walk after them.

But then my curiosity gets the better of me, and I start looking into the side rooms, each of which contains disfigured hawks, eagles, and owls.

I press my face against one of the viewing windows.

“She’s a permanent resident, can’t make it on her own,” Jeff says over my shoulder, noticing my detour.

We press on, turn a corner, and enter a large room lined with expansive cages containing all sorts of scaring looking creatures perched on wooden platforms. My stomach knots up the same way it does when I walk into a pet shop’s reptile room. And the evolutionarily-inculcated, visceral, creepy-crawly feeling that screams I shouldn’t be here washes over me.

My eyes dart from hooked beaks to razor-sharp talons. And I’m immediately disappointed with the lack of instrument-wielding raptor accompanists.

“Are you sure we’re safe? We’re not going to get attacked by these birds?”

Raptors. And, no, of course not. We’ve got all these folks to help us.” Dad motions to a few graduate students.

With that, Dad unpacks his case of metallic bands and Jeff tells us some of the residents’ back-stories: a Bald Eagle hit by a landing airplane; a Red-tailed Hawk that’d rammed into a truck’s windshield; a Screech Owl that’d wrapped itself around a power line.

But the raptors around us have been mending from gunshot wounds, and most of them are going to be released at the university’s fisheries this weekend.

Jeff asks if we’d like to come.

We look expectantly to Dad, who’s banding a rather unwieldy Sharp-shinned Hawk.

“Yeah, sure, that sounds good.”

A few more banded owls and hawks later, and we’re heading to lunch.

***

Munching on deliciously unhealthy chili dogs and spicy French fries, Dad gives us a little advice.

“When we go out to this release on Saturday, remember to listen to the raptor rehab folks, okay? You don’t want to mishandle a really pissed eagle and end up in hand-to-talon combat.”

I shift uneasily. This sounds a lot more dangerous than Jeff made it seem.

And here I’d envisioned pulling open a metal door on some transport cage and watching the eagle take off, just like the squirrels we’d trap in our yard and release into the woods.

Clearly, Dad doesn’t think this is such a big deal, seeing as how he and my mom rehabilitated an owl named Boobo, who’d lived with them in their trailer during graduate school.

Mom & Boobo the Owl

“So, we’re going to be holding those birds, er, raptors at the release?”

Laura rolls her eyes. “Get over it. Gah!”

I wipe chili off my face and glare at her. I can’t understand her blasé attitude about possibly being defaced by a surly Bald Eagle. Didn’t she see the damage wrought by sparrows in The Birds? And they didn’t even have talons!

Our parrot-sibling Scooby is the closest we’ve come to any creature of this magnitude. And he’s as angry as they come.

We both have scars to prove it.

***

Saturday arrives.

I’ve steeled my nerves to grapple with a feisty owl if the situation calls for it. But I won’t be crestfallen if I get an old, lethargic, tiny one.

We pull up to the fisheries and greet Jeff and a number of graduate students.

“Y’all ready for this?!” Jeff asks excitedly.

“Sure are!” Laura: calm and collected. Me: fronting and frantic.

Jeff briefly describes how to handle the raptors—how to throw them up, out, and away from us.

“You can’t be fearful.”

Right, I’m handling a huge descendant of something that tore people apart in Jurassic Park and I’m supposed to be fearless. Girl, please.

But then we start. A few graduate students release some hawks and a Golden Eagle. Then Mom and Dad each release an owl. Laura gets a hawk.

I’m up.

Jeff hands me a large, upside-down Barred Owl that resembles Archimedes from The Sword and the Stone. Even though she’ll only be in my life for a minute, I name her Barbara.

But instead of reciting some magical incantation or bestowing sagacious advice, Barbara swivels her head around, stares up at me, and lets out guttural clicks like the alien in Predator.

You can’t be fearful.

“But what if Bar- she falls into the pond and drowns?”

“Oh, don’t worry! In the ten years we’ve been doing this, nothing like that’s ever happened!”

Phew.

I shift Barbara into the release position, and throw her up and away from me.

“There she goes!” Jeff exclaims.

I burst with pride as she soars over the fisheries’ ponds.

Everyone smiles.

A few people clap.

But then she starts a rapid, downward glide.

No one says anything.

We just watch as if nothing’s changed. She descends closer and closer to the surface of the largest pond.

Maybe she’s going to catch a fish.

Two seconds later, I shatter the center’s impeccable release record.

She splashes into the middle of the pond, sending up a spray of greenish-brown water.

The crowd gasps.

Pandemonium ensues.

Goddammit, Barbara.

Trailed by my parents, the graduate students and Jeff dive in after the owl–keeping herself afloat with her outstretched wings, watching the frantic humans approach.

Laura and I stand on the bank, and I try to figure out how this happened.

Every other release has been fine. We’ve released dozens of squirrels. Nothing’s gone wrong. Well, except that squirrel that did a 180-degree turn, hurtling itself down a hill and into highway traffic. 

I guess every record gets broken.

Five minutes later, Jeff totes a soaked, dazed Barbara out of the water and sets her on a low-hanging pine tree branch. With her head completely dry and body slicked and dripping, she looks like a cartoon. But none of the sopping wet rescuers share my comical vision.

“Well, that was, uh, something,” Jeff says politely, wringing out his shirt.

He and Dad step aside and talk for a minute, and I get in the car with Mom and Laura.

***

When we get home, I go open Scooby’s cage.

He growls and charges, spraying kitty litter everywhere.

I snap. Literally.

Scooby stops mid-run. I lower my face to his, and peer into his little dinosaur eyes. He ruffles his feathers and shrieks.

“Bird, you don’t even know what I’m capable of.”

Just ask Barbara.

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Those Times I Left to Find Myself

We’ve all had moments where we’ve channeled Thelma & Louise.

Hit the road.

Left it all behind. (Except that Brad Pitt hitchhiker.)

Explored.

***

For years, I’d get into my car and drive for hours, taking along the only companion I’d wanted: a reliable, standard point-and-shoot camera.

We’d stop and go, stop and go. All the while poking my head and its lens into forgotten places in the hopes that I’d find a bit of myself reflected in what I’d captured with the press of a button.

And I did.

At first, I thought that the shots were just of buildings.

But years after they languished in an external hard drive, I saw them for what they truly were: self portraits.

Broken, Beautiful.

I wasn’t so much looking for old buildings, but part of myself. Something that may have been hanging on by a thread, or left to molder in darkness.

Bits and pieces from my past lives, all united by a common theme: decay, with a touch of sophistication, and plenty of room for improvement.

The conditioned traits I’d embodied but never really embraced.

Religion.

Absolution.

Balance.

Sideways.

The parts of myself that I tried to express and frame, but found extinguished and skewed at one time or another.

Warmth.

Fireplace Eyes.

Perspective.

Rotting Ionic.

Vitality.

Green Light.

***

Something about these broken, beautiful places drew me in, filled a void I’d let grow inside me. Perhaps, like puzzle pieces, random fragments of others’ experiences completed me.

Whether it was a gutted living room, or a little floral bouquet–last respects paid, left on a soon-to-be demolished window sill–I felt less like a disembodied part and more of a whole.

Shattered.

Last Respects.

It’s always odd to pinpoint what exactly inspires us to push forward and grow.

Sometimes it’s adrenaline pumping through our veins, or a slight, reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

Sometimes, though, it’s just us.

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Seasoning

Hunched over the cast iron skillet like a vulture over carrion, I deem Operation Frittata a success. Then slice off a slab of the eggy mixture, tossing it back and forth between my hands before demolishing it without the slightest degree of civility.

Operation Frittata is a success!

Once cooled, I carefully remove the rest of the impromptu dinner to the fridge, leaving the sturdy skillet caked with the browned, cheesy leavings. Still, the skillet exudes a bit of rude refinement–an oddly contradictory, apropos description that captures everything I love about cast iron.

And about most things in general.

Without allowing my analogy-oriented mind to deconstruct every little kitchen tool we have, I’ll just write that, like people, it takes a lot of work to season cast iron to perfection. And even then, constant maintenance to ensure it’s utility.

***

Whether it’s the pervasiveness of hipster trends, or the recession reminding us of the economic hurdles our country has had to clear, it seems that many of us–not just twenty- and thirty-somethings–are looking back a lot these days.

Some with nostalgia, some with hope.

It’s odd that we’d look back to decades filled with Depression-era hardship and Cold War-inspired paranoia and get all glazy-eyed and hopeful for the future. But it’s not that I have friends who long to build bomb shelters in their backyards, or collect twine for resale. It’s that so many of us are searching for comfort in things that have withstood the test of time, and have aged like a fine wine–the old, the worn, the refined.

A little wear gives us character.

Maybe even the ethics and morals some of us gleaned from our grandparents.

Perhaps we hope that, through osmosis, the Fiestaware teapot will pour out a few of life’s secrets with the Celestial Seasonings. (Not that I’m projecting.)

Pouring out dreams.

The vintage leather chair will cushion the blow of a failed interview, and its cracked arms will remind you, at exactly the perfect moment, that wear and tear is part of the process. (Really, I’m not projecting.)

Sit a spell.The Vornado fan won’t blow the proverbial shit your way, but will keep the breeze blowing, the air beneath your wings flowing. (Okay, I’m projecting.)

Don't blow the shi* it my way!

And sure, we don’t need things to remind us to harness our in-built tenacity, the drive to keep going.

Because that’s what movies are for! You know, those tried-and-true go-to flicks that remind you to put down the fork, step away from the frittata, and channel your inner innovator.

Julie & Julia is one of mine, even though I have to constantly remind myself that Amy Adams is a good actress–she just always gets cast as the woe-is-me-I-have-low-self-esteem character. (The real-life equivalent of me! Kidding. Sort of.). Plus, anything with Meryl (we’re on a first-name basis) lifts me up.

It’s not that the film leaves me in an ohmygawd, slack-jawed state. It’s that it makes attaining my writerly dreams seem possible. I know. I shouldn’t need a movie to remind me of that. But I think the reason why it resonates is because it’s illustrative of starting over later in life–both for Julie and Julia: two people who let life sidetrack them, but got back on course through sheer determination and lots of butter.

So maybe the root of why folks drowning in this economic cesspool are valuing vintage, antiquey things and historic spaces from our grandparents’ days is that we’re trying to channel that resolute drive, that entrenched stubbornness to not yield, to stay the course. To layer our lives and experiences with that same sense of accomplishment despite the country’s tenuous economic state and hyper-divisive political landscape.

Maybe my perspective’s skewed since several people, after chatting with me a bit, have told me I’m an “old soul.” That I frame things in a way that nods to the past. Regardless, I think there’s something more. Which shows that my inner-anthropologist will always be there–dissecting every experience, trying to distill out the greater meaning.

***

Coarse sea salt trickles out of the Fiestaware shaker and quietly ricochets inside the skillet, across its well-worn, carefully-curated sheen.

It makes me think of Norman. The phone rings.

It’s Norman.

“You know, I was just looking through my old recipes for cast iron cooking. And I figured he’d packed the pans and whatnot up in storage, or would dine out and not have need of such things.”

I smile, and laugh.

“Actually, I’m just prepping dinner now, using that big skillet you gave us. So they’re definitely not in storage. I love’em too much.”

Maybe it’s just the longevity of the things that make me appreciate them. Or their heft.

But I think it’s the stories they tell.

The lessons they embody.

The inner strengths they elicit from us, reminding us that we’re more than capable.

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As the Tank Turns

Days before Junior’s flight from justice, I sensed he and Wynnona weren’t on the best of terms. But never did I think he’d stoop this low.

Not until that fateful morning.

***

Incredulous, Laura and I stare at Junior’s empty cell, knowing his tiny, semi-gelatinous body is scurrying around the house.

“It’s only a matter of time before Tex finds him,” I mutter, redirecting my focus to the scene of the crime.

One cell over, Wynnona lingers.

Well, in a sense.

While crafting Junior’s escape narrative, I realize how much of a sadistic bastard he really is–how effectively he’d disguised his disturbing tendencies, even though we could, quite literally, see right through him.

“He must’ve scaled the wall somehow,” I mumble, stroking the nonexistent chin hair I won’t sprout until senior year of high school. “And then…this.”

I still can’t quite get over the sight.

Wynnona’s stumpy body drifts and thumps against her cell walls, ricocheting back and forth like a cadaverous Pong ball. What’s worse is that she knows she’s a Pong ball.

He’d left her alive, but snacked off her legs and remaining claw.

“That’s gross.” Laura scoffs, then turns and walks away.

I move closer, stooping and peering into the cloudy cell.

Bless your tiny heart.

Mercifully, Wynnona dies shortly thereafter.

And I escalate the charges against Junior from assault and cannibalism, to lobsterslaughter.

The hunt is on.

***

Two weeks prior, an eccentric great aunt had sent us our very own Freshwater Lobster Rehabilitation Kit.

My eyes stopped on the word “rehabilitation.”

Because the only “rehabilitation” I knew about involved Dad taking battered wild birds from neighbors who’d bring them up to the porch. And after he’d wave on the diligent do-gooders, more often than not, he’d perform a quick examination, sigh, put on his “fixing gloves,” and walk out to the backyard.

Our pet cemetery was enormous.

***

We’d ripped through the box, pulling out small plexiglass squares, a water pump, and a container generically labeled “Lobster Pellets”–feed that looked just like cockroach crap, and smelled like fish. Assured by the box’s instructions that we’d soon be receiving the actual lobsters, we’d set to task and completed the tri-level plexiglass structure with compartmentalized cells, the “Lobster Apartment Complex.”

Much to our parents’ chagrin, we’d placed it prominently on the kitchen counter, right in front of the prescription medications. I’m sure more than a few conversations between them ended with “The decongestant’s behind the damn lobster tower thing. Don’t mistake it for the Lobster Pellets again!”

Judging from each cell’s size, I’d assumed the lobsters had to be tiny. But a little part of me envisioned a thin, wary postal carrier wrestling a violently-shaking, hole-pocked package from the back of their USPS van up to our front door.

We’d open up the box and the lobsters would be large, unwieldy miscreants until we’d woo them with fishy pellets. And then I’d be able to use the yarn leashes I’d made to walk them up and down the sidewalk, answering passersby with a jaded, “Why, yes, this is one of my nine, yes, nine, lobsters. Oh, you don’t have one? Well, that’s unfortunate.”

Yes, the lobsters would be my key to stardom–to me ascending middle school’s social ladder. I could feel everyone’s envious gazes already.

But then, the package came: a plain, taped, run-of-the-mill brown box. No claws boring through the sides, no antennae swaying in the breeze. Laura and I unpacked the large Ziploc bag that had smaller, water-filled bags nested within it, each of which contained the half-inch lobsters.

Firmly stuck in a country music phase, we named them immediately: Junior, Wynnona, Teensie, Dot, Bessie, Flip, Dead-Head, Buzz, and Mischief.

***

Much to my dismay, the crustacean crew seemed innocuous enough—not the raucous bunch I’d hoped they’d be.

Little by little, though, we glimpsed their sordid dealings.

Like how Teensie, the runt, had become the others’ in-flight snack: her back half and one claw completely devoured. I’d guessed the culprits were those nearest a small cloud of stringy excrement.

But being the tenacious little crustacean she was, Teensie lasted through the night, almost as if she had something to prove to the others–no doubt raising her remaining claw in a show of defiance. We tore off a napkin corner, wrapped up her little body, poked a hole in ground, and raised a toothpick over the in-filled grave, with a white tape banner and Sharpie epitaph reading “Teensie.”

To say our hopes were undercut a bit by Teensie’s death the first night wouldn’t be too far from the truth. But we held fast to our shared goal of raising the rest to adulthood.

And, for a while, it seemed like they’d make it.

But then Bessie and Dot started acting lethargic; I tried to reason away their malaise–rationalize it as normal behavior. Because, compared to Flip, they were all lethargic.

Flip provided more entertainment than all the others combined. For most of the day, he’d crawl to the left side of his cell, touch his front legs to the side, flip backward twice, and land on the opposite side. Again. And again. And again.

Whenever I’d walk into the kitchen, I’d channel my best sitcom star voice and laugh, “Oh, that Flip,” expecting sudden, hysterical laughter from an unseen viewing audience.

After the first week, though, entries in our Lobster Log became increasingly macabre:

Feb. 28, 1994: Wynnona and Junior lost one pincher each. They haven’t grown a new pincher yet.

March 4, 1994: Mischief died today. We don’t know why.

March 7, 1994: We are sending the dead ones back to where they came from. And we are getting two more lobsters in place of the dead ones.

March 10, 1994: Today, Dot died.

March 19, 1994: Junior got into Wynnona’s cage and ate her pinchers and legs. After that, Junior got out of Wynnona’s cage, fell onto the floor, and our dog ate him.

Soon enough, we realized our goal of releasing fully-grown lobsters into a moss-lined, freshwater stream would never come to fruition.

But what devastated me more was that I’d never get to make anyone jealous of my lobsters–no walks down the street, no hushed, awestruck silences from my classmates as I walked into my science class, leashes in hand and lobsters in tow, slopping along the classroom carpeting.

***

With the lobster search eating away a precious Saturday, Laura and I give up early. By now, Junior’s either been surreptitiously destroyed by Tex or Scooby, or is gliding away in one of my Matchbox cars.

Weeks later, Mom finds Junior’s dried, desiccated corpse behind Tex’s bowl. With little fanfare, she sweeps him up with a whisk broom, dumping his dusty remains into the garbage can.

As I watch, a smile creeps across my face.

Wynnona would’ve appreciated that.

***

In the end, no stream is glutted with lobsters. No awards are given for lobster husbandry. No one achieves “popular prep” status.

Instead, our pet cemetery grows by nine small graves.

But that’s something, right?

We may not have ensured the lobsters’ survival, but we’ve still helped out in nine small ways.

A failed exercise? Methinks not.

Because, everything grows out of something. And we all need a little fertilizer to flourish.