Tag Archives: Children

Phoebe Furbright, Ornithologist

My seven-year-old daughter recently asked me to write her a story, the only stipulation being that it should involve cats. Cats mean a lot to her. I’ve already mentioned her hand-made field guide to cats in the neighborhood, with illustrations, written descriptions, and names that she’s assigned to each.

One day last week she was struggling on her roller skates. Her brother gave her some grief about it and she began to cry. Curiously, while crying, her skating technique improved. When she stopped crying I pointed this out and told her she ought to think of something sad again. “Think of baby kittens,” I said, “with tears running down their cheeks.”

This is how fathers come to be despised by their children. After twenty seconds of shocked silence, the proverbial floodgates opened and she was bawling so hard she could barely stand, much less skate. I assured her that cats don’t really cry the way people do. “It’s just so sad!” she said. “The poor kittens!”

I’m trying now to repair this trauma by writing the requested story, which is quickly turning into a chapter book. My heroine, Phoebe Furbright, is a young cat with a socially unacceptable career goal: to become an ornithologist. Her father, despite the fact that he works in an office and has never so much as scratched a bird in his life, believes her aspirations contrary to cat nature. Birds, he says, are not for studying, but for stalking and killing!

And so on. This is fun writing. After recently finishing my novel and getting no response from the agents I’ve queried so far, I was feeling down and wondering if fiction just wasn’t my bag. In fact, I don’t read much fiction these days, which is perhaps awkward for an aspiring novelist.

If I had my education to do all over again, I suppose I would study biology in college rather than English and philosophy. Then I would do a graduate degree in ornithology, with the goal of working, say, for the National Park Service. Add books, of course, and I think it would be a fine life.

My daughter is discovering an interest in birds. For years now my son has wanted to be a herpetologist, in order to study venomous snakes and Galapagos tortoises – and he’d convinced his sister that she should do the same. But she recently had a close encounter with a hawk that’s made her reconsider. I wasn’t there when she saw it, but she wrote me the following report:

“We saw a hawk right up close and I walked under it and it looked straight down at me. After a while it flew away. Things I noted about the hawk: A white speckled front coat. Big yellow eyes. Long brownish red wings. A curved yellow beak!”

Patrick Kurp recently directed his readers to a Theodore Dalrymple essay about owls – or, rather, about a book about owls. Dalrymple writes that prior to reading this book he had forgotten that owl pellets were produced by regurgitation. He describes memories of dissecting owl pellets in school. I seem to have the same memories, though I can’t place the year or classroom in which this might have occurred. Perhaps I was at camp.

Dalrymple writes that a pair of tawny owls like to vociferate on summer nights from a tree near his home in France. “I never tire of listening to them,” he says. “I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me.” Personally, I can’t imagine hearing owls nearby and not immediately running out to locate their nest and get a look at them.

A short walk from where my parents live there’s a nest of great horned owls. My father, anyway, claims to have seen two of them. Whenever I visit there’s only one. It likes to sit in the crook of a branch about thirty feet up, just below the nest. We spy on it awhile with our binoculars, and the owl watches us too. Then I hunt up owl pellets in the grass below to see what it’s been eating.

I’m curently reading Washington Irving’s A History of New York, a book which a month ago I didn’t know existed, but which I’ll never again be able to live without. It’s the best, funniest thing I’ve read all year, downright Shandean, and I’ll be recommending it to all my friends. Irving does, however, rather unfairly (I think) malign owls.

“There are two opposite ways by which some men get into notice,” Irving reports, “one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts – by the other many a vacant dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom.”

I don’t expect this is very fair to owls, but it’s certainly possible (for all I know) that they are relative dunderpates when compared, say, to corvids. It’s a question, perhaps, for Phoebe Furbright to look into.

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A Domestic Bestiary

First there is the TABBY, seventeen years old, spry but of poor temper. She will tolerate petting for only a moment, then it’s nature red in tooth and claw. She has a restroom all her own while the four human residents of the house must share one between them. She eats nuggets of dry cat food one at a time, fishing them out of a bowl with her paw. After several minutes she will vomit up the mess and eat it a second time. She is a connoisseur of banana and cantaloupe, and of whistling.

Until recently, six EARTHWORMS lived in a styrofoam bowl kept in the refrigerator. This past week they moved to large plastic water bottle filled with alternating layers of soil and sand and capped off with wilting lettuce. Their life and habits will be studied by the children who have, so far, named only one of them (“Wormy”).

Since time immemorial, the daughter of the house has kept SNAILS. We have two of them now and neither one cares for arugula. One of our former snails managed to escape from his jar. He made a slow-motion midnight dash across the countertop undetected and was never seen again.

The occasional HOUSEFLY slips in the front door for the purpose of keeping yours truly from sleep until I’ve risen in my pajamas to stalk the intruder with bow and lantern. After a half-hour of desperate combat, by a lucky shot with a rubber band, the infiltrator is blasted to fragments. The smudge of his spent biography is wiped from the wall without remorse.

In the kitchen is a mason jar of very small GUPPIES. These are pretty fish with nervous manners. They sparkle somewhat in the afternoon light and move by a strange choreography: keeping still for a moment, making a quarter turn, keeping still, turning, etc. If they are worried, they’re right to be. These guppies are maintained in our home only to serve as food for

The baby GARTER SNAKE recently purchased for my son, which is proving itself as poor a sport as the household cat. Garter snakes, we were told at the pet shop, do not bite. This is a lie. “Edward Shoelace” hadn’t been at home with us for fifteen minutes when he bit my daughter hard enough to draw blood. Half the day and all night long, the little snake buries himself in the dirt of his terrarium.

Finally, on the windowsill by the record player we have a colony of SEA MONKEYS (which is a heraldic name for brine shrimp). These live in a state of utter savagery and dissolution, constantly engaged in acts of cannibalism and incest. Their colony was founded a year ago and untold generations have come and gone. The population fluctuates between two and eight adults. Children are hard to count since they’re so small on hatching and are generally eaten by their parents. The few that make it to adulthood are the most depraved and enter wholeheartedly into perpetual sexual congress with their siblings and feasting after the style of Kronos.

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Defeated by Televangelism

It would surprise anyone that met him in the street, because he doesn’t look the part, but my father-in-law is a television evangelist. The man’s enthusiasm for video entertainment is so great – he considers it so necessary to his own beatitude – that he can’t imagine others don’t feel the same need for it in their heart of hearts. Now, the fact is that my wife and I have been a great disappointment to him in this regard. We neither subscribe to cable nor use a dish. What’s worse, when the nation’s broadcasters  switched their signals from analog to digital a couple years ago, we never bothered to get a converter box. We tossed out the rabbit-ears and let our home and ourselves – and our children – lapse blithely into a state of unregenerate Cimmerian darkness.

In my father-in-law’s eyes, this was intolerable. Our salvation was at stake. Twice he invaded our home (where we still kept a television) to install digital converters and antennae. Twice we graciously returned them, ostensibly because the reception was spotty or because we didn’t want the massive electric antlers on such prominent display. This past weekend, however, the wily apostle out-foxed us. While my wife was at the grocery store and I was sick in bed, he sneaked over and, to our children’s great delight, installed a high-end digital antenna that fits discretely behind the screen and guarantees us thirty or so different broadcast channels. At least half of them are in Chinese or Spanish, with another quarter in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi or Bengali. But it still makes a domestic revolution.

I wasn’t always such a doubter. Like my wife, I was raised in the faith. In my childhood home the television was switched on practically all the time. It slept when we slept and woke when we woke and was by far the most voluble and conversationally reliable member of the family. I don’t regret it. What would any late-‘70s/early-‘80s childhood be without afternoon reruns of Andy Griffith, My Three Sons, I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, The Brady Bunch, and Gilligan’s Island? What kind of miserable degenerate would I be today if it weren’t for Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Three’s Company, Donohue, Geraldo, Silver Spoons, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Solid Gold, Alf, or (glory of glories) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?

A few years ago I might have summoned enough righteous bluster to refuse the gifts my father-in-law is hell-bent on bestowing, but the fact is that my Luddism these days is more a matter of habit than principle. Let us have a little of the old leaven, I say. As for the children, we’ve restricted screen-time up till now and can still do so. We’ll stick, for the most part, to PBS and reruns.  Some of the old shows are still on. Just the other night our kids decided they’d never seen anything as wonderful as a 1970s episode of Lawrence Welk: the ladies in their confectionary makeup and Day-Glo dresses, the men with permed hair and painted-on smiles. So let the children praise their grandfather as a savior bringing fire from heaven. Like Julian the Apostate on his imperial deathbed, I concede with a shrug: ‘Galilean, thou hast conquered.’


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Marginalia, no.167

How long do Sea-Monkeys live? Thanks to new computer-driven processing technologies and ultra-pure, non-toxic chemicals, twice as many Sea-Monkeys instantly hatch, grow larger, and live longer than ever before.

~ The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys® brochure

Sales Tip #72: Don’t answer direct questions about Sea-Monkey death. ‘Well, Junior, like the globe itself, the happy plastic aquarium is, of course, a graveyard. But modern science allows you to enjoy it longer than your grandparents ever did.’


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Marginalia, no.161

I always feel like saying to music: ‘It isn’t true! You lie!’

~ Jules Renard, Journal

My seven-year-old son tells me: ‘Esther brought her violin to school and played some Bach, but she pronounced it “batch,” and it was so beautiful I wanted to cry.’ Who was this Esther, I asked, his girlfriend? ‘I don’t want to dance with her by light of the moon or anything,’ he said, ‘but if we got married I could listen to her play “batch” all the time.’  …I wonder if there isn’t an exception, after all, to Neil Young’s golden saying that ‘only love can break your heart.’


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Marginalia, no.130

BOWESS, or BOWET, in falconry, a young hawk, when she draws anything out of her nest, and covets to clamber on the boughs.

~ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771 ed.

At bedtime my four-year-old daughter likes to pretend that she’s a painted bunting named Rose.  She makes her bed a nest, wraps herself round in sheets, and stretches a thin baby blanket over her shoulders for wings.  I’ll hear a thumping sound from her room and come in to find that she’s kicked all the stuffed animals from her perch and climbed up the headboard to leap squawking through the air.

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Obligatory Christmas Post, 2009

When we brought last year’s fir tree into the house the kids leapt into a spontaneous heathenish dance around it, stomping, clapping and hooting with abandon.  Watching them, though it doesn’t snow here, I smelt snow; and though we have no fireplace, I smelt fire.  All at once I was very old and very young and I could have sworn the living room was lit only by moon and stars.  It was a significant moment – but whether honoring of pagan survivals or the Incarnation, I wasn’t sure.

This year the children found their moment at the St Lucy’s tree lot.  It was dark and raining but the fenced off square was strung with lights.  Their mother picked out a tree while I kept them from trouble.  My son marched stiffly for the taller stands deep in the makeshift woods.  My daughter in her red lumberjack’s hat fled giggling through spruces and pines.  I walked between the trees calling out for them, thrilled at the scratching needles on the backs of my hands and the sharp smell of sap and the rain running down my neck.

Certain years, when I was a boy, we would drive on Christmas Eve to Yosemite Valley, which is nearly deserted in winter.  We would crunch through snow up a trail to stare at waterfalls frozen to thousand-foot cliffs like the long hoary beard of Father Christmas.

Other years, we would drive to my maternal grandparents’ home near San Luis Obispo.  My tall jovial grandfather would play Johnny Cash records and burn sanded bowling pins in the fireplace.  Christmas dinner stretched on forever.  Seated at the table with the adults, a surplus of holiday delicacies at hand, I could only think impatiently of the enjoyment of new toys.  The moment of the feast would spread out to fill the whole night, the whole house, and all the hills and shores and days and weeks in every direction.  What was I now? I wondered.  Was I an old man yet, like grandpa?  Or was I still a boy?


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