Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This Cougar Bites

I object to the whole cultural notion of cougars. What do we call men that hunt younger women? We call them powerful and lucky. Courtney Cox might have made a savvy business decision by staring in the new series "Cougar," but she has set back by several decades a woman's right to equality and fair treatment. The cougar is yet another label to define a woman and to cast her in an unflattering light if she dares to choose a mate not suited to her age. Who makes such decisions? How do such notions become reified and universalized in the collective culture?

I don't understand it. If a woman is hot, she's hot. Why the need for the label? I think I know. Women must be contained and defined in order to mitigate, to make acceptable and safe, their sexuality. Women of "a certain age" are more powerful, and therefore more threatening, to men who seek young things without experience, money, education or clout. Inventing a label for women who refuse to engage in culturally appropriate behavior by pairing off with a man her age or (preferably) older creates a sense of mastery over her: I invent a category for you and define its parameters; therefore, I control you and strip you of your power, your sexuality.

I am willing to bet anyone who cares that this new show will not reveal Cox as a strong, independent and in control woman who makes sexual choices without shame or self criticism. Watch and see--I am sure we will see a woman riven by insecurities and self doubt, questioning her every move in the erotic jungles of contemporary America.

I wish for better for us as women, especially as women who are leaving behind one stage of adulthood for another. As sexual creatures, we continue to evolve and become more and more in tune with our erotic selves (don't laugh or gag, it's true)as we age. Yet, this is viewed by the popular press and by most young adults as vaguely disgusting and unsavory. How sad that we are so terrified of age and mortality that we have to vilify and deride those that are lucky enough to be healthy and active long past youth. We are ALL headed in the same direction; one would think our values and our beliefs would gradually change as the population ages. Even poor Angelina Jolie has started--at the age of 34--to be cast in the 'has-been' hottie light. My God!!! Are we really that shallow?

There is no way to conclude this other than to say I would like to do my part to change the prevailing cultural myths and misconceptions. I just don't know how, other than to fight the good fight in my classroom, in my blogs, and with those I care about. I must thank my husband, finally, for never considering me as anything other than desirable. He doesn't care what the calendar says. He just likes my ripped up jeans and my feline spirit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My Stress Management Coach Says I Need to Journal

Fine. I'm "journaling". Since when did that become a verb? Write it out, says the professional in such things. She also told me to buy a doll with blond hair and pretend that it's me as a child. Then, I'm supposed to 'mother' it with all the care, love and attention I didn't receive when I was wee. My mom did a damn fine job, thank you, so I'm not buying the little blond doll. That's about as ridiculous as beating my ex-husband with a whiffle bat, another gem from couples therapy back in the day. In retrospect, I should have beaten the crap out of him. It was the last chance I had, as it turns out.

So, in the interest of organizing my "journaling", I will divide into categories the things that destabilize my mental health (in no particular order):

1. Discovering that all the comforters and sheets on the beds in my sister's new house are covered in blood and mucous from the meth-fueled contractor they hired, who set himself on fire and ran down the street screaming, recreating a scene in "Apocalypse Now". I threw out those comforters for her, but I almost gagged in the process.

2. Realizing that my amazing and terribly cute nephew will forget me in a few days, since he is in San Francisco and I'm not.

3. Watching my poor kid grieve the loss of her best friend (she didn't die, she moved to Texas . . . although some would say it's kind of the same thing).

4. Realizing that I am essentially trapped in the same routines that sap my energy and my will to do anything important. Thinking that perhaps time speeds up when you wander around in circles, and that there is less and less time the older you get.

5. Lamenting that my husband and I are not always seeing the world the same way; wondering if that means I have to attempt to see the world through his little, round glasses.

6. Facing the fact that when I teach Spanish 3, I am so tense that I wake up at 2:00 AM with the world's most ferocious headache . . . and add to that the most heinous of all indignities . . .

7. Waking up with hot flashes. Yes, I'm effing menopausal. I NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS THOUGHT THIS WOULD HAPPEN TO ME. Yet, it's happening. HRT is not even effective against the tidal wave of weird hormonal demons unleashed upon my body and psyche. I'M TOO YOUNG FOR THIS. TOO YOUNG, damn it.

8. Realizing that I'm not too young for this. My body has decided that it's time to move on to a new stage. No more "maybe babies", fantasy twins, or anything else requiring fertility. I haven't even begun to deal with this. I can't even discuss this anymore.

9. Understanding that things are changing: the kid is really growing up, I'm now a cougar, and my family is in as much turmoil now as we were 20 years ago. The things that needed to change, didn't. The things that should have stayed the same, changed.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Be Free, Little Bird

Gracie flew into our lives in March, 2007. She flew out yesterday, after 2 years and 5 months with us.

Ty found Gracie perched on a branch by the trash can. She stepped onto his finger and into our hearts. For awhile. I remember falling in love with Gracie. Ty was driving us to Idyllwild, and Gracie was cuddled up next to my neck. She was making soft, clicking sounds like she always does when she is sleepy. She was warm and soft and amazing, this little bird falling asleep on my shoulder, pressing into me for warmth and comfort. "I love Gracie," I declared, and I started to cry. I realized that I loved something I had never loved before, a member of a species that I had only watched in the past, never touched. Birds were rather distant before Gracie; members of a foreign country or an alien race. They were cool to look at, but I had no real connection to them. And then, this green-cheeked conure changed all that and made birds intensely personal, connected to me in such an intimate way that I never recovered from the shock of holding a bird in my hand, this warm, feathered soul who communicated in ways no cat or dog ever could.

By the time I had fallen in love, Ty and Imanya were long over their warm feelings for Gracie. She is a difficult bird. She bit every single person who ever met her, except for my friend Grant (Grant has secret bird powers, so his case is an exception to the rule). It wasn't just a nibble either: Gracie bit with conviction. Ty's loving, affectionate relationship with Gracie finally ended the night that she was struggling to snag one of his grapes off the bunch, was thwarted, and bit him on the nipple. Hard. One would think that she was quite aware of her actions, since she had picked the most sensitive part she could to make her point. After that, Gracie was my bird alone. Imanya no longer was willing to hold her after a series of painful bites to her neck. No one could blame them for their decision; indeed, I was the one who received the most criticism for not finding her a new home . . . but I couldn't, because I had fallen in love and wasn't able to understand Gracie with logic or reason.

Gracie has been labelled spoiled, tyrranical, willful and nasty. She is probably all of those things, but those are human categories of understanding. Somehow, I learned Gracie's language. I never fully figured out the reasons behind her biting, but most of the time it was clear: she wanted something she couldn't have, she resented spending too much time in her cage, she was thirsty or hungry or she simply wanted to be left alone. For the last several months, Gracie and I had honored our relationship: I tried to read her needs, and she didn't bite me with conviction. I loved her, and she loved me. It was simple, and I thought it was working.

I didn't want to clip her wings. It was hard enough to see her cling to the bars of her cage, desperate to get out, when I had to leave the house or wanted to take a nap. I thought allowing Gracie to keep her wings was a kind of trade-off: since I have to keep you in a cage, I won't also remove the last vestiges of your wild nature. I should have seen the warning signs. Over the last couple of weeks, Gracie was starting to test her wings. She flew a circuit in the house before landing on the sofa. She flew around the den a couple of times before landing on me again. Last Friday, she had taken off--startled by construction across the street--to our pine tree by the laundry room. It took over an hour to coax her onto her green sleeve (Gracie's bed) and back down to my shoulder. Ty rescued her that day, a testament of his love for me. No matter how damaged his relationship to Gracie, he was bound and determined to get her back for me. But Gracie was anxious. She seemed more and more willing to take off, startling at noises and other birds in a way she hadn't before.

Finally, yesterday, I made the fatal mistake of walking on the deck with her. I was thinking I could fill the finch feeder quickly and get back inside before Gracie had any time to react. A jackhammer shattered the calm, morning air. Gracie took off, panicked, and hit the window. She spun in a circle and landed on the closest eucalyptus. Ty tried the sleeve at the end of the fishing pole trick, but the fishing pole came apart, leaving the sleeve useless on the tree. Gracie tried to fly back to me, but couldn't or wouldn't make the first jump. She could only fly when startled. She leaned in towards me, walking to the nearest branch, slipping, panicking, reversing direction, trying again. This went on for hours. I had to leave. Before I left, though, I asked for divine guidance. Either Divine Guidance was not on my side, or I had misinterpreted the message. I grabbed the hose and sprayed her, hoping to soak her and cause her to fall from the tree. She simply flew off to a more distant tree, angry that I had treated her poorly.

I came back from work multiple times to try to encourage her to fly to me. She leaned in, attempted to reach me, stumbled, backed up. The last time I came home from work, she was high up in yet a more distant eucalyptus, impossible to reach. I enlisted the neighbors' help and even called three fire stations for help. "Let me get this straight," said a firefighter from Calabasas, "you want me to rescue a bird who is stuck in a tree." "Yes, please." "How did she get to the tree?" "Well, she flew there . . . " "So, ma'am, if she flew there, she's not stuck."

I had no answer for that. I tried to explain that she could only fly when startled, that she didn't know how to fly down, only up and across, but the firefighter was not impressed. I apologized for wasting his time. In the effort to rescue my bird, I made yet another fatal mistake. I showed up at my in-laws' for dinner like usual, as if this were an ordinary Thursday. While I was eating, Gracie was preparing for yet another flight. By the time I arrived at the tree where she was last seen, she had taken off. A neighbor informed us that he heard her down another street just an hour ago. Ty and I started our Gracie rounds, hoping to find her and bring her home before night extinguished the last light of dusk. He whistled from the car, and I called out her name from the passenger side. Up on one street, we both heard her. We jumped out and called, but nothing. She had responded, but she didn't continue to respond. She was out there, somewhere.

We had to give up and come home. We put her cage outside, foolishly thinking she would want to return to it. I spend the night crying and calling out to her at odd hours. This morning, it seemed that every bird that flew by was Gracie. None of them were. There was no characteristic Gracie scream from the hills. I drove back to the street where I last heard her, but between the garbage trucks and the gardeners with blowers, there was no way to hear her. I thought I could make out the sound of her call, but by then my mind was playing tricks on me. I think I hear her everywhere, all those little noises she makes--loud and soft--that are her language.

Gracie is not dead. She is out there somewhere in the treetops. I only cry today when I think that she is hungry and thirsty, and can't find her way home. I wonder if she wants to come home; it appears that she doesn't, that she loves me but needs to be free. I understand that. I know how her incarceration hurt both of us. I hated to see her staring out the window from her sleeve, listening to all the birds that never knew a cage. I also knew that when I held her in my hand and petted that tiny, green head, she blinked softly and made those little noises because she loved me. Not in a human way, but in her way. It was amazing. She was a whole lesson in love and understanding. She opened up the world to me.

I don't know how to understand what has happened. Is my little bird alone, hungry, thirsty and tired, unable to come back to me? Or, is my little bird free to follow her nature? Is she a survivor? Does she need me? If she is hungry and tired, I can't feed her or put her to bed. If she needs me, I can't hold her. I want to think that this is simply the next, natural step in our relationship: we had our time together, and now she has to move on. I will never know, not unless she returns to our home. Even then, I may never know.

I suspect that none of us will ever see her again. I may hear her from time to time, calling out from the tree tops. I won't know if she is calling to me, or to the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can only offer her my hands, so empty now. I can't offer her the trees, the wind, the sky, and the company of other wild things. To be human is to feel alone. I can only wish better for her.

The Affair

This morning, Ty and I had to talk about yesterday. I had walked into the California Pet Center and headed straight for three green-cheeked conures. One was still a baby. I put out my finger, and she delicately climbed aboard. She looked at me and blinked. Uh oh, here we go again . . . my heart burst with incipient love, and my head sounded an emergency alert. I called Ty. I told him to come to the pet store immediately. I was about to bring home Pepita. "No way," he said, and repeated 112 times just in case it didn't sink in the first time. We could not discuss it later. "I will never, EVER, have another bird." I was hurt and beweildered. Pepita was different. She was hand-raised from a chick, and she didn't scream or bite. She could make up for Gracie's bad behavior; she could unite the family, proving that not all conures are bent on destroying marriages.

Fast forward to this morning. After a rough night, Ty and I were sitting outside and I was preparing to upbraid him for losing his cool at Scrabble. "Let's talk about Gracie," he said, voice rising. "You had an affair for two years and five months. Do you have any idea how that feels?" My mouth hung open like I had been struck by idiocy. He made his case for the affair analogy. It made sense. I catered to Gracie's every whim. I lavished affection on her, leaving Ty bereft on the couch. Gracie was my constant companion, and if anyone came near me, especially Ty, she would lunge. I belonged to Gracie; I was her mate. I didn't realize it, but with hindsight I see that it's true. She had effectively pushed Ty aside in order to monopolize my time and my affection. She accomplished her goal without me ever fully understanding it.

"I hated that bird. Imanya hated that bird. She was obnoxious, nasty and divisive." Ty poured out his true feelings for Gracie, and I realized to what extent I had used Gracie to keep some emotional distance in my marriage. Do all bird lovers do this? I wonder. Do pets become an excuse to keep intimacy at bay, because it's easier to love an animal than a human? Perhaps.

My grief is now tempered by the reality of how Gracie's presence affected my husband. Now I'm not so sure what I would do if she flew back. I would take her in, but we'd have to come to a new understanding. I'm not her mate. I need to think about why I was so willing to allow her to believe it.

Kirsten A. Thorne

Rescuing Gracie

The phone call came yesterday. "I don't think this is your bird. She doesn't have tail feathers. The vet I took her to said she's not even a conure." Not a conure? Somehow, this didn't seem right to me. I needed to see this bird. I knew it was Gracie. "You're going to be disappointed," stated a woman's voice with a Romanian accent, or something similar. I told her that I needed to see that bird regardless of what she thought. I wrestled the address from her. This wasn't going to be easy. I grabbed Imanya and off we ran, racing to Campo and Medina, getting lost, backtracking, finally locating the driveway.

This lady had parrots in a cage outside, and she seemed very suspicious and evasive as soon as she saw us. She repeated the "it's not a conure" refrain, but she allowed us into the kitchen. There she was; it was Gracie. She peeped in recognition and clung to the bars of the tiny cage. I let her out, and she immediately cuddled up to my neck and made all of those little noises that form her language. Imanya smiled. "That's definitely Gracie, " she said, and I thought "case closed." But no. It was not going to be that easy. "All those birds cuddle like that. They're famous for that" (all CONURES are famous for that, I thought, but I kept it to myself). She proceeded to show me how much Gracie loved her, and was rewarded by a hard bite to the hand. Gracie proceeded to kiss me. The Bird Lady then grabbed Gracie and attempted to show me that she never had tail feathers, so she was NOT my bird, and not a conure. There was nothing to say except, "I don't know why Gracie lost her tail feathers, but that's our bird." The Bird Lady insisted on showing me a REAL conure, the one she kept in a cage with a huge Amazonian parrot. The "real" conure was another variety, a sun conure, and he was bald from plucking out his own feathers. He looked miserable.

This dance went on for awhile, both of us repeating the same lines. Finally, I started to cry. I don't like crying in front of strangers, but it was becoming clear that this woman was not going to return Gracie to us. Although I was crying, I did manage to bring up the fact that I was the daughter in law of the Valley's biggest lawyer. That seemed to soften her stance somewhat. Finally, I convinced her to relinquish Gracie. I hid her under my Pierce jacket and ran for the car like a madwoman, followed by Imanya. The Bird Lady was still talking to me, handing me bird newsletters and wanting to continue our bizarre interaction, but we took off down the hill with Gracie on my shoulder and safely arrived home. Gracie was returned to her huge cage by the window, and I took off for lunch.

Gracie is not quite the same. Her voice is crackly, and her tail feathers are entirely gone. Ty clipped her wings after a wobbly and dangerous flight around the living room. She looks ridiculous and very small without the glory of those crimson feathers. She loses her balance when she tries to eat toast from her perch, and she almost drowns when taking a bath. Her dignity has taken a huge hit. She's alive, however, and slowly readjusting along with the rest of us. Even Ty, who had made his position clear, seems genuinely relieved to have her home. Perhaps it's because she looks so terribly pathetic, but he almost appears to like her. As for me, I'm still in shock at her return. I had said my goodbyes to her, believing that she was truly gone. I was attempting to make peace with the new reality, but hurting terribly and not sleeping well. I thought I was supposed to accept "the facts," and instead Gracie and I get a second chance. How often does that happen? It seems like a crazy and undeserved present.

I prayed so hard for Gracie's return, crying until I felt like my heart would explode. All the while I never believed she would be found; it seemed too much to ask, a tiny detail that shouldn't matter in such a huge sea of human and animal misery out there. Why should I be allowed to have my bird with me again when other people pray for much more serious matters and feel ignored? I have no answers for that. There are no answers. The entire experience has changed me. While I was searching for her, the family united in the quest, selflessly working for her return even when their feelings for Gracie were either ambivalent or negative. We walked together all over our neighborhood, building up our muscles and noticing the fantastic variety of bird and animal life all around us. I started getting up at 7 AM and walking the streets, calling for Gracie, and noticing how beautiful the world is at that hour. I met so many neighbors on this journey; I felt for the first time a sense of community as I put up fliers and called out to my bird. I was quickly known as the "Gracie lady," and dog walkers would ask about my search.

Gracie's disappearance was the reason that Ty and I sat down and had a true heart-to-heart talk about our marriage and our feelings for each other. As it turns out, we learned that we loved each other more than we ever even suspected. That one conversation created an even more intense intimacy between us and cleared up some false assumptions we had carried around about our mate.

Our little bird's absence created a community in our neighborhood and brought our little family together in a common goal. The challenge now is remember the lessons of Gracie's vacation: we can't give up, ever, when we love someone. We can't forget how important we are to each other, how much we really do love each other in good times and bad. We must strive to connect ourselves to our community and to each other and combat our tendencies to isolate ourselves. As I said in a previous post, Gracie opened up the universe to me. Even in her absence, she continued to do so.

Thank you.