Tag Archives: Family

The Habit of Return

The multiple life stages of butterflies were strangely upsetting to me as a boy. Their transformations were supposed to inspire wonder, and the eruption of the adult butterfly from the pupa, I was told, represented Christ’s resurrection. But the caterpillar, the pupa, and the imago (adult) seemed to have nothing to do with each other. How could they be one creature? The thought of myself undergoing a similar metamorphosis was alarming. Dewy-winged and unrecognizable, as I emerged from my chrysalis, would I remember the fat and happy days of my caterpillarhood? Would I be a stranger to myself?

My family and I recently visited a monarch butterfly wintering site on the California coast near Santa Cruz. I had been before but not paid much attention. I knew already that monarchs were migratory. They’re as large as certain birds, so they might as well act like them. What I did not understand until this visit, and what no bird (I think) can match, is that they accomplish their migration cycle over the course of four successive generations. The individual butterflies leaving the eucalyptus grove in early spring do not return. It is their great-grandchildren that return instead. No one has successfully explained how this happens.

There are various theories, of course. Is it possible that monarchs pass down a genetic memory of the landscape, an inherited mental map of rivers and hills and mountain ranges that need to be followed or crossed? Perhaps, instead, they leave chemical markers in attractive spots to reassure their offspring that they’re headed in the right direction. Or do they steer themselves by the stars or by the angle of the setting and rising sun? It may be that monarchs, like certain birds, navigate by reference to unseen currents in the earth’s magnetic field.

Whatever the mechanism of their return, the migration plays out like this: Generation 4 (let’s start here) emerges from a state of active diapause in early spring when the duration of daylight exceeds 11 hours and the temperature is pleasant. They mate and move northeastward, laying eggs in milkweed patches of California’s inland valleys. After progressing through the larval and pupal stages and becoming butterflies themselves, these monarchs (Generation 1) migrate over the crest of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin. As the year progresses, Generations 2 and 3 follow the pattern of Generation 1, moving deeper into the continent, as far as the Rocky Mountains and eastern British Columbia.

This is where our next Generation 4 is born in the early fall, but this fourth generation differs from its parents. Rather than having a total lifespan of 6-8 weeks, these will live for 6-8 months. And rather than make the return to the Pacific coast by generational stages, these will make the whole trip (more than a thousand miles) at one go. Somehow they will find the groves of eucalyptus and Monterey pine that their great-grandparents had once known. Gathered together in colonies of thousands, in a diapausal state (chaste but not inactive), they will live off their lipid reserves until spring and love and the thirst for travel return.

Thinking of the monarchs, it occurs to me that there are two habits of long standing which guide how humans perceive other animals. The first is to ascribe human qualities to the animal in question – to see ourselves in them. The second is to match animal behaviors with behaviors somehow parallel in humans – to see them in ourselves. These are natural urges, I think, sometimes enlightening, and maybe unavoidable. Science, by contrast, wants to see the natural world objectively, as if the thing doing the seeing weren’t human at all but a disembodied eye – the eye, curiously, of scientific impossibility, perhaps the eye of God. But outward properties and symbolic suggestions are hard for us to disentangle.

It may be, of course, that a butterfly is only ever a butterfly. Faith sees Christ in the insect. As a boy of twelve I found the insect in myself, or feared that I might: a chrysalis suspended between the two apparently irreconcilable worlds of childhood and adulthood. I don’t know what to do with these analogues, but I do not want to let go of them. My children today make the same journey my grandparents made. When I look closely enough, with a certain eye, I discover miracles of return in all things. Like the butterflies, we endure our cramped transformations and do not cease to be ourselves.

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Me and Lizzy

Great Grandma Koboldt and Me

I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.

What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.

Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.

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The Heart of the Matter

Nature in us is a “riddling distemper,” writes John Donne. “We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work: but in a minute a cannon batters all.” I read these words, from Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, while sitting in my younger brother’s book-lined home office near Atlanta, earlier this month. I had flown out from San Francisco on the emergent occasion of his heart attack at age thirty-eight.

All his life my brother excelled at everything he set himself to. It was no great surprise, perhaps, that he would take up the family curse with zeal. Grandpa had waited till fifty for his first heart attack. Dad had waited till forty-nine. My brother’s first was no small affair but, being young, and with the aid of a well-positioned stent, he was soon home again with his wife and two girls. Now we sat together in his office, my brother working at the computer, myself leafing through his books, for all the world as if nothing untoward had happened.

The surreality of my few days in Georgia was not softened by the shock of summer greenery or the alien chirr of the cicadas at night or the unfamiliar birds diving between the boughs. Five hours of flight over lofty sierras, desert moonscapes, and among the towering thunderheads that march above the humid South had proven, if there were any doubt, that it was all one continent. But in its outward details it could hardly feel more different from July in coastal California.

The world that we carry within us may also become suddenly strange. “Is this the honor which man hath by being a little world,” asks Donne, “that he hath these earthquakes in himself, sudden shakings; these lightnings, sudden flashings; these thunders, sudden noises; these eclipses, sudden offuscations [sic] and darkening of his senses; these blazing stars, sudden fiery exhalations; these rivers of blood, sudden red waters?”

I find it hard to believe in a heart attack at age thirty-eight. And yet it happened. My turn will probably come. The cardiologists say that given our genetic history a vegan diet is the best bet. But, cosmically speaking, all prevention is temporary. Everything happens eventually. I can’t help feeling that our true predicament is one of metaphor rather than medicine, that all sickness is somehow spiritual. I understand how plaque ruptures occur. I know what myocardial infarction means. I brush these things aside and persist in asking, “but what is wrong with our heart?”


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The Woods

Sunol Wilderness landscape, California

It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.

It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.

This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.

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The New Year on Foot

We survived the holidays after all. There was family galore and friends and no end of gift giving or of food. The boy got the secondhand Italian accordion he desperately wanted. The girl got the metal detector she is sure will make her rich. Despite the cold snap of two weeks before, we had nothing over the holidays but clear skies and sunshine. It felt like a very early spring.

On New Year’s Eve my daughter wasn’t feeling well so we stayed home and played chess and read books and watched Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. On New Year’s Day we packed up the car and drove to the coast. As the bird flies our destination was maybe twenty miles away, directly west. But automobiles do not fly and the winding highway over the Santa Cruz Mountains runs to nearly fifty miles.

The coast at Pescadero is one of my favorite places. It’s never crowded, unless it’s crowded with birds. The warm sun and chilly Pacific welcomed us back without a second thought.

The beach at Pescadero, California.

The girl went to work with her metal detector but only found a few scraps of tin foil. Soon she and her brother were building driftwood forts instead. We had an outdoor lunch of bread and cheese, almonds, apples, and chocolate. Walking the shore, we found numbers of mussels and other shells, and the remains of innumerable crabs of all sizes that had washed up the beach with the tide.

Crab shell at Pescadero Beach, Northern California.

At Pescadero you get two days out for the price of one. When you’re tired of the gulls and shorebirds at the beach you can walk inland along sand trails to Pescadero Marsh, a state wildlife preserve. In order to get there you must first pass under the weathered concrete bridge where Highway 1 spans the lagoon.

Highway 1 bridge over Pescadero lagoon.

Hiking the marsh with a pair of binoculars you will spot all kinds of birds, waterfowl and shorebirds as well as passerines and raptors. Even in the supposed depth of winter here in Northern California, there are always birds singing.

You could almost imagine that the landscape is untouched, it feels so wild. But the massive grove of Australian eucalyptus on the north side of the marsh was planted there more than a hundred years ago. The South African ice plant (Hottentot fig), which turns orange this time of year, was probably introduced more recently, to keep the dunes in check. Both are considered “invasive species” and unwelcome now, but the birds and deer aren’t xenophobes, and neither am I.

Hiking the marsh at Pescadero, California.

The wind kicked up. It got cold and it was time to leave. The traffic through the town of Half Moon Bay and over the pass back into the more populous lowlands of San Francisco Bay was just horrible. The prospect of returning to work after a break of more than ten days was no less so.

“Just a shack on a hill nearby here, with a fireplace and a little garden,” I told my wife. “And room for plenty of books, of course. That’s all we need. We could retire and walk around every day and never have to see or talk to other people. I don’t think we’d ever get tired of it.”


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A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Antique stereocard image of Santa captured by children, 1897

The holidays are piled up at the end of the year like an obstacle course with a high potential for causing injury, and I approach them as such. When January 2 comes around and I discover that we’ve survived them all relatively intact, I cross myself and breathe the proverbial sigh.

Here in the United States, the whole mess begins with Halloween. This year, thankfully, no one was lost in the corn maze or sliced off a finger while carving pumpkins, and no one bit into a razor blade hidden within a looted chocolate. I remember how terrified I was of this happening to me circa 1979.

It wasn’t long after this past Halloween, however, that I was hit from behind while driving to work. I escaped injury and any liability for the accident but my little commuter-mobile went into the shop for more than a week and over $3,500 in repairs.

This year we celebrated Thanksgiving at our home with my parents and my sister and her family. It was crowded but warm. The bird was roasted to perfection and everything was going along like a holiday card until my daughter decided to chip her (permanent) front tooth on, of all things, a bongo drum. There were tears, tears, tears, but after a few days and a trip to the dentist all was well again.

During this quiet but vaguely threatening lull that separates Thanksgiving from Christmas, we’ve so far been spared any really horrible disasters. My son did frighten himself into a two-day bout of insomnia by reading Hound of the Baskervilles, and the cat has launched an encore performance of her role as vomit-artist. But we got the tree into the house and decorated it without incident.

If our luck holds, we’ll pass under the razor wire of Christmas Eve with nothing more than a few scratches and emerge a week later from New Year’s Day with little worse than a headache. At any rate, I’m signing off for the remainder of 2013. I’ll be back again in January, if I’m still living.

Thanks for reading, and happy holidays.

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Phoebe Furbright – Chapter One

I’ve provisionally finished the chapter book I was writing for my daughter and will finally read it with her this weekend. She’s thrilled. Hopefully she’ll still be thrilled when we’re done. The project has taken me three months and quite a few cups of coffee, working at it two nights per week between 9pm and 2am. The manuscript clocks in at just fewer than 18,000 words and I feel pretty good about it.

As mentioned before, my daughter wanted a book about cats, so that’s what I’ve given her. Phoebe Furbright is the story a girl cat who wants to be an ornithologist and who, accompanied by her brother, launches a research expedition in a homemade hot air balloon.

I don’t know if the story will have much appeal beyond its specially intended audience, but I know what my own children like in a book. They like to laugh. They like adventure and suspense. They like to catch references and inside jokes. They like books that challenge their vocabulary and treat them like “miniature adults.” They do not like to be talked down to by their reading materials.

Among the chief joys of raising children is reading children’s books. My personal favorites include The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, James Marshall’s George and Martha books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series. I’m an equally great admirer of William Steig (Doctor De Soto, Svlvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island especially) and Bernard Waber (for Lyle the Crocodile and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson).

I don’t expect that Phoebe Furbright will ever find its way into any pantheon of children’s literature, but I do think it’s fun. And since I’ve got nothing better to post here today I’m going to share the first chapter. The story opens with a dinner table conversation:

Our heroine divulges her eccentric professional
ambitions over dinner and Father delivers a misbegotten
lecture on the subject of ‘True Cat Nature.’

Phoebe Furbright’s father said that it was uncatlike to study birds rather than hunt and kill them. They were sitting at the dinner table over steaming plates of poached herring in wine sauce: Father, Mother, her brother Alexander, and Phoebe herself, who had just informed them that she would be an ornithologist when she grew up.

“Birds,” Father said in the voice he always used when he wanted Phoebe to get over some silly notion of hers and be realistic for once in her life, “are for hunting. It’s simply not cat nature to study birds. It’s cat nature to stalk and to strike! Anyone would tell you the same, Phoebe. Why it’s preposterous, really! The very idea of a feline ornithologist!”

“But you work at an office,” said Phoebe, who was a slim gray tabby with big yellow eyes, “and we buy all our food at the grocery store like other civilized cats. We’re not tigers or leopards. When was the last time you went hunting, Father?”

“Why – I’ve been hunting plenty of times… Plenty!” he said, frowning. “But that’s irrelevant… It’s the principle of the thing! The hunter’s instinct is a part of the feline soul! A cat is meant to be fierce.”

Father went on to tell Phoebe and Alexander – for the hundredth time – about the day that True Cat Nature was once and for all revealed to him.  It was winter and he was walking round the block near his office, in deep contemplation of some intractable business problem, when he looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the leafless branch of a tree that had recently been planted by the city authorities. His life changed forever.

“Why, I got an itchy feeling all over,” he said, “and before I knew it I was snarling like a savage! I crouched down on all fours with my ears turned back. I was actually stalking the thing! I lunged at it – and missed, unfortunately… But what a thrill! I didn’t give a fig what the other toms walking by in their suits and ties thought of me. Civilization has its limits. You can only hold down cat nature so long before it comes yowling back. That’s what I say!”

Phoebe pursed her lips. She loved her father very much. He was a good fellow, hard-working, and he provided well for the family. But she wasn’t sure she agreed with his philosophy on this particular point.

Mother explained, with a wink, that Father clung to this sense of essential wildness because it made him feel less constrained by work, marriage, parenthood, and cat society in general. Deep down, Father simply knew that he was a bird killer – even if he had never actually killed a bird before – and the thought made him feel warm and comfortable inside. “It reconciles him to civilized life,” she said.

Father knew when he was being teased, of course. Not that he minded much when Mother teased him, but he batted the air in her direction as if she were nothing but a bit of string dangling there.

“Now, now, beloved spouse,” said Mother, patting Father on the head and emitting a soothing purr. “You are a wonderful tom and the love of my lives, with more than your share of excellent qualities, but you know very well that you are no Uncle Jackson-Harris.”


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