overheard: pho & apples

#6 pink sidewalk triangle

1. On TriMet Bus Line 33-McLoughlin:

recovering-addict guy: "Have you ever had pho? It's so good."
recovering-addict girl: "No. But I've had do-re-mi. . . . Ha-ha-ha!"

2. In the Safeway produce section, female college student to friend:

"I'm so over apples. Apples. Boring."

Golden Delicious apples in bowl


late summer

school courtyard garden, St. Johns

This whole between-season fall thing makes me restless. The light shortens. Dry leaves crumple underfoot. Memories assault.

Last weekend was still hot. Nature whispered, Enjoy it while it lasts. But I didn't enjoy it enough, didn't take advantage, no bike ride, no picnic, no feet dangling in the river above the toxic algae bloom—yet another regret. Then a storm blew in this week, previewing the long, cold, wet months ahead. So now I'm wearing boots again, and it's still too warm for boots but too cold for sandals. High heels aren't made for walking. And I still own nothing in between. (Isn't that a symbol of something?)

Random thoughts flit past like doomed monarchs, possibilities on wing. Go teach in Turkey? Move back to California where the sun actually shines beyond July and August and half of June and September? Sign myself up for the four-to-seven sequestered years of a likely fruitless Ph.D.? Anything but this limbo of mental pacing. Nine months of gray drizzle ahead, the horror! But Confucius whispers, "Wherever you go, there you are." My little gray cloud followed me halfway around the world before. It would find me in Turkey or Timbuktu.

And then I read an Oregonian article citing a New York Times article claiming Portland's in a pocket of grace from global warming, its population likely doubling in size in the not-so-distant future as an escape hatch for climate refugees from southern California, the Southwest, and the East Coast. And that is exactly why I moved seven years ago from the Bay Area up here to The Land of the Perpetual Gray Skies. I've long seen what's coming, maybe because I was reared steeped in Mormon End-Times prophecies (which is why they call themselves "Latter-Day Saints"). I'm an early climate-change refugee. I must keep reminding myself of this, like a mantra: Portland has rain. We will have water. Be grateful. (Prepare for earthquakes.)

But when the sun comes out, those rare days confetti-ed throughout the year and the two or three precious months of summer when everything green glows in gold light—how lovely, this place.


multigrain banana bread

multigrain banana bread in thrifted clay Copco loaf pan

When woken up at 7:30 AM on the third Saturday in a row by the sound of the earth movers next door, you can either pull a pillow over your head and fume or get up and start cooking brunch. I had four extra-ripe bananas needing processing and a huge potato a friend had given me, so I made a baked omelet and a loaf of banana bread, while listening to my favorite French jazz station. Baking sweet bread with the windows closed on a hot late-summer day is at least better than the alternative (doing nothing, going hungry, letting fruit flies feast on the bananas).

This is my family's banana bread recipe passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me but originating from the now-defunct Windham County Hotel and Jail in Newfane, Vermont. One blogger, Lisa of Aunt Lil's Kitchen, found it in a vintage recipe book from the 1950's but says the finished product tastes like baking soda. My own criticism of the bread is that the crumb tends to be a bit gummy. But I like its history and simplicity and that if I happen to find myself with a few overripe bananas, I always have the other ingredients on hand. Plus, it only requires about half the oil or butter of typical sweet breads—though admittedly I tend to spread butter on the end product, which I don't need to do with my well oiled zucchini bread.

mixed whole-wheat, soy, brown rice, & buckwheat flours for banana bread

Since I snapped a (rather dark) shot of the recipe card itself (see below), I'm not going to type it up again here. But I do adapt the recipe by using whole-wheat pastry flour instead of white flour—which may account for some of the gummy-ness. For this particular batch, I mixed whole-wheat flour, soy flour, brown rice flour, and buckwheat flour since they've been sitting in canning jars in my freezer for a couple of years now and need to be cleared out. I also used four bananas in this one (because I had four) and always use unprocessed (Turbinado/raw) sugar. Sweet bread recipes are generally pretty forgiving. (Do note that if using a clay loaf pan, the baking time extends by at least 15 minutes. Keep checking every five minutes or so until the knife or toothpick comes out clean from the center. Baking time will, of course, shorten if making mini-loaves or muffins.)

Windham County Hotel & Jail Banana Bread recipe

Do you have a better banana bread recipe? This one from Martha Stewart, which I haven't tried yet, has great reviews but requires sour cream, as well as creaming the butter and sugar, making it less simple than the Windham recipe, which only needs light stirring. In researching, I also found a blogger, Christine of Apartment 46, who claims she has a banana bread better than Martha Stewart's; funnily enough, her recipe is quite similar to the Windham County Hotel/Jail recipe, only with a little more sugar, a lot more salt, less flour, and no dissolution of the baking soda in water. Anybody care to weigh in?

The real point of all this? If you find yourself stuck with a few saggy brown bananas, great! They're sweeter that way. Now go make some banana bread.


bad English

Gigi Aveda Salon & Spa board offering "Chair Message [sic]," May 2014, Portland (iPhone photo) 

As a default educator with two near-useless English degrees, I get righteously pissed when I come across American business signs conveying ungrammatical or misspelled English. It's one thing to see such things in foreign lands—that's to be expected. It's even funny. Garbled written English provided lots of laughs in my two years spent teaching in Korea post-college. But in an English-speaking country? Give me a break. Or rather, give some poor English major a proofreading job. The rest of us shouldn't have to suffer for those who slept through high school English class and still never read anything other than Facebook and phone texts.

Portland Fleet Week 2014 sidewalk signboard: "Pedestrians Have Right Away [sic]" (iPhone photo)

Portland restaurant sign: "International Deserts [sic] & Drinks"

And if the entrepreneur's some hardworking nonnative-English-speaking immigrant just trying to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the American Dream, all the more reason for said business owner to find an American willing to do some editing pre-signage. Just make sure he or she was an English major. (Don't worry. You can throw a rock in any city and hit one. Hint: She's usually myopic and carrying a library book.)


urban growth is messy

front-row seat: Jefferson West demolition, September 7, 2014

The other day, I returned to my previous residence for the first time in over a year to pick up a package a friend had accidentally mailed to my old address. In our digital negotiations, my former roommate hadn't mentioned what was happening next door. The charming bungalow the former neighbors had sold off to escape the gray rain by moving to perpetually sunny, snowy Bend, home of larger, cheaper housing in the Central Oregon high-desert, is now hoisted up into the air, the brick-red-painted siding that so nicely contrasted on the color wheel with the surrounding verdure peeled off and the painstakingly landscaped, hand- and drip-watered flower and vegetable gardens all ripped up. I remembered hearing the new buyer would be earthquake retrofitting. (So this is what a neighborhood retrofit looks like.) That means if I'd stayed at the gray house in Brooklyn instead of moving downtown last summer, I would still be living next door to a hot mess.

(Is the universe trying to tell me something? Is this some sign I'm not reading correctly? Maybe "the big one" really is coming and all who don't retrofit their old pre-code buildings will soon be lying broken and bloody in a pile of bricks and lath like those poor baby pigeons. In other words, if living in this apartment, or anything like it, when the overdue massive earthquake hits the strangely quiet Cascadia Subduction Zone, I'll most likely end up dead.)

Brooklyn reconstruction, September 10th, 2014 (iPhone photo)

When I snapped a phone shot to share this construction irony with a friend, the head contractor hustled over and asked if I had any problem with what they were doing. I laughed and explained I used to live next door and now happened to be living aside a major demolition-construction site downtown. Defensively proactive, he said something about "social media these days" and that since Portland is "the third most moved-to city in the country" (according to whom?), there's going to be "a lot of construction." Kudos to a better economy, I suppose. But I just read an Oregonian article this week saying Portland has finally dropped in the rankings of most popular cities to move to, with more people moving out than in over the summer moving season, the article's commenters mostly saying, "Well, yeah—because there are no jobs."

desiccated pigeon nestling on tottering roof, September 12th, 2014

wall removal, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

Some of my ancestors moved to the Oregon Territory in the mid-1800's, including one of the first hops growers in the Willamette Valley. Others moseyed West over the years from the East Coast where one pigtailed dude in stockings, according to family lore (because Mormons like genealogy), once owned the land the White House now stands on. These progenitors lived in Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Montana, California, and Oregon, moving around a lot, back and forth in their wooden wagons, from territory to state to state, presumably discontented. (See where I get it from?) There were even quite a few divorces in the family tree, women with a gaggle of children, pre-birth control, cutting off ne'er-do-well husbands (I'm picturing dead tree limbs), back when divorce was rare and shocking and women had few ways to earn money—basically farming, teaching, shop owning, or prostitution. A couple of these progenitors married into the family were even reputed natives who had arrived tens of thousands of years before. That all means I have a right, as much as any mostly-white person can say she has a right to the New World, to live on the West Coast.

machine biting a wall, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

falling wall, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

Absher construction worker operating a CAT 336E, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

I already got booted by cost-of-living out of California, my birthplace, where I'd otherwise still be, while my hometown in the Southern Oregon high desert has basically become an overpriced retirement community with its economy propped up by service-industry and health care jobs, its farmers fighting for water rights against environmentalists who stand on behalf of sucker fish and salmon and the larger ecosystem, and its drought-ridden forests surrounding the Klamath Basin burning up like so many giant campfires. (And sorry, but the environmentalists need to win because nobody should be farming industrial quantities of potatoes and alfalfa in a cold desert, even if their forebears had been doing so for a century, as subsidized by the Feds. Folks, if the Bureau of Reclamation wants to "reclaim" land, that means it was never meant for such a purpose, and troubles lie ahead. Go read Cadillac Desert.)

tearing down an alley wall, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

concrete chunk in machine maw, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

tearing out the veins, Jefferson West, September 12th, 2014

But rents keep rising on the desirable West Coast, reflected by all the new high-density condo and apartment complexes sprouting up across the urban landscape like glass weeds. Though I've been keeping all but the bathroom window closed during the day (in summer, yeah—thanks, Absher!), the deconstruction dust has been piling up on all the sills and even in the clawfoot tub. Plus, I've been awakened before 7:30 AM the last couple Saturdays (which means they're behind schedule since they're only "occasionally" supposed to be working on the weekend) by the grinding, crashing, whining, back-up-beeping sounds of the earth movers next door as they sort building debris into piles, stacking concrete chunks next to fractured old-growth timbers beside long bent fingers of rebar and hunks of miscellaneous metal, their tracks crushing the broken lath underneath into tinder, their hydraulic maws opening and dropping the sorted mess into truck beds that haul it off once the chain-link gates have been opened. This hundred-year-old building I'm in shudders at times in sympathy, enough that my hanging fruit basket sways in the kitchen without a breeze. This is progress? Where to next, Canada?


blue life

pigeon feather in bus bench, Portland, June 2014

This summer, I opened a letter from my mother, and a newspaper clipping fell out. (How quaint does that sound?) My hometown paper had reported the local Friends of the Library honoring my first-grade teacher for 35 years of volunteer service. And the kicker? Mrs. Sharp is 94 years old, pictured with her two children (probably in their 60's) and looking just as I remember her: tall, with short wavy red hair and an amused smile. In the photo she looks alert, active, and healthy. In contrast, my own grandparents died in their late 70's or early 80's, one with Alzheimer's, one (a diabetic) from a stroke, and the two lifelong smokers from heart-and-lung disease. My longest-lived great-grandparent, a church-going Mormon who'd grown up on a farm in Colorado and spent her life cooking and cleaning for a large family, who never learned to drive and walked up and down a steep hill into her early 80's to buy groceries and then often fell asleep in front of afternoon soap operas in an otherwise quiet house, died two days before her 94th birthday but had been in diapers with dementia in a foster-care facility for years prior. None of that is how I want to end life. And since it seems less and less likely that I'll ever be able to retire, all the more reason to actively pursue good health now.

newspaper clipping

Two authors read recently offer important insights on healthy living and argue for societal-level change. The first book is Dan Buettner's Blue Zones, mentioned on the blog way back here (which means I've been mulling over these themes for months). Buettner, a National Geographic writer-explorer, put together teams of demographers and other specialists on aging and researched global pockets of longevity in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaría, Greece; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; and, perhaps most surprisingly, Loma Linda, California, in the U.S. (home base of the Seventh-Day Adventists). What they found was that the centenarians in each distinct, far-flung community lived a holistic set of practices enabling them to exercise naturally, sleep well, eat a plant-based diet, and enjoy the mutual support of a close circle of friends, family, and neighbors that allowed them to socialize and de-stress daily, while regularly accessing spirituality and sustaining a sense of purpose. Incredibly, twin studies prove genes only factor about 25% in longevity, lifestyle practices the rest. Buettner's goal is to proselytize modifying the 75% under human control—which could save billions in health costs and improve quality of life for millions of people.

vintage globe

However, the reading-between-the-lines conclusions drawn from Buettner's reported Blue Zone research were that the oldest healthy people in the world tend to be bean-eating extroverted traditionalists with supportive children who live in mild, warm, sunny, typically hilly climes with vegetable and herb gardens to tend and thus plenty of regular outdoor activity, who have few stressors (including no bosses), little, if any, technology, few possessions, and who meet together daily to drink and laugh with peers, enjoying a breezy communal life full of hard physical work in societies with minimal wealth disparities (meaning everyone in the community is fairly poor but can meet basic needs and also help each other out). Being a childless teetotaler introvert who works and commutes long hours at a (surprisingly) stressful job for inadequate pay in an overpriced overcast American city, who has no chance for weekday napping, no garden anymore, and few friends, half of whom live in different states and even countries, I'm pretty much screwed, unless I make some major changes. The Blue Zones Web site offers a Vitality Compass that predicts individual longevity based on current habits, but so far, I've been afraid to take the quiz.

Buettner's team compiled "Nine Lessons," or commonalities shared between the disparate Blue Zones cultures:

Move Naturally: Choose inconvenience, meaning less automation and more walking, especially stair-and-hill climbing, biking, gardening, house cleaning, yoga, swimming—any regular activity but especially what's personally enjoyable and done with friends, foregoing forced exercise like gym-going or running unless the person happens to like running or working out at a gym.

Eat Less: Eat on small plates till 80% full, with no second helpings or between-meal snacking, with food bought in smaller packages, chewing slowly and mindfully while seated, eating communally with others, and with the smallest meal of the day being in the early evening.

Eat Plants: Consume four-to-six vegetable servings daily, with meat limited to no more than twice weekly and instead eating lots of legumes and nuts, as well as largely homegrown or locally grown food.

espaliered fruit tree, Irvington Neighborhood, Portland

Drink Red Wine: Buy quality, darkest red, e.g., Cannonau, and enjoy a daily Happy Hour time with friends or a partner, limited to one or two glasses a day.

Find a Life Purpose: Have a reason to get up in the morning, to feel needed and useful, continually learning new things and having new experiences to keep the mind sharp, e.g., a new language, instrument, hobby, etc.

De-stress Daily: Slow down, meditate, nap, and reduce media's "aural clutter" to quiet the mind and protect the heart.

church magnolias, Portland, spring 2014

Share a Spiritual Community: Worship within some kind of religious community at least once a month, if not weekly, while becoming more involved, e.g., in a choir or leading a group.

Prioritize Family: Spend more time with family—children, spouse, parents—aided by living in a smaller dwelling and creating enduring family rituals.

NE 7th Avenue condos, Portland, June 2014

Build Social Support: Tend a large social network with a trusted inner circle, "be[ing] likeable" (to draw others), and carving out daily time with the inner circle for simple meals, walks, and other enjoyable mundane activities.

What's essential about all the Blue Zones, says Buettner, is that they each exist as an ecosystem, with all parts crucial for the functioning of the whole, like an interconnected web: if any one thread breaks, the entire system is compromised. That said, to emulate Blue Zone lifestyles, Buettner recommends making the easiest changes first and then building on that foundation. How effective, though, can individual changes be without the support of the larger society—the ecosystem? For instance, consider Denmark.

Director Park scene, Portland, summer 2014

Brigid Schulte in her recent book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, details the current state of American quality of life issues, claiming Americans gain "ideal worker" status from nonstop busyness in contrast to citizens of countries like Denmark who gain status from leisure pursuits. The American bourgeois compete over who's most busy, who works the longest hours, who takes the least vacation time, whose kids attend the most extracurricular activities, who gets the least sleep, and so on, while the Danish take the opposite approach to life, enjoying widespread, enriching adult education classes, taking six weeks of paid vacation time a year as their due (on top of 12 public holidays), splitting a whole year of parental leave paid at 80-100% of salary, and as a culture producing the lowest gender gap in the "second shift" (i.e., working women's traditional second job of unpaid domestic and childcare work) in the entire world, all while cultivating the coziness of hygge.

No wonder Denmark and other countries with wide and deep social safety nets consistently rank high in United Nations' surveys of top "happiest countries," while the U.S. keeps dropping in rank because of increasing income inequality. And how telling—of what Schulte calls a "human rights" problem rather than merely a "mommy issue"—that Americans seem to need articles like Apartment Therapy's recent post titled "How to Really Enjoy a Day Off," an apparently unnatural and emotionally ambivalent context.

I-405 evening traffic, Portland, Oregon, April 2014

Schulte cites a range of recent research showing today's "knowledge workers" only have about six good hours of brain work in them per day, and that the best work gets done in no more than 90-minute chunks of focused concentration with significant physical breaks between sessions, allowing the brain time to "rewire." (For a real-life case study, consider Finland's methods of classroom lessons combined with 15-minute breaks per hour while producing stellar educational results.) Schulte says the long-established American norm of 40-plus-hours a week of office face-time, regardless of actual production, equaling good worker status needs revolution, that people can indeed "work smarter" and be as or more productive in fewer hours, thereby reducing turnover and health costs from the stress of overwork while simultaneously increasing employee health and creativity as well as company profits. Danish employees, for example, Schulte says, don't waste time at the water cooler or on Facebook but instead concentrate on actual work to finish up and leave by the late afternoon to go pick up their kids from day care.

Schulte also argues for changes in "family" policies to better match the Scandinavians, meaning more paid leave, shorter and more flexible hours, decent part-time jobs with benefits, and quality, affordable day care. She discusses research similar to Blue Zone findings that claims people need a "sense of purpose" at work, as well as personal time to "do nothing," to play and create, meditate, try new things, simplify to-do lists, be present and grateful, and regularly engage in states of flow—all of which is nearly impossible to fit into a day when running on a hamster wheel.

empty park chairs on a Sunday morning, Pearl District, Portland, May 2014

I have no desire to become a centenarian, and the statistics wouldn't be in my favor, in any case. But I would like to be healthy and happy as I age. Martin Smith in the recent Frontline documentary, "The Retirement Gamble," reports that retirement is no longer even an option for many Americans in the post-baby-boomer generations (and even for many baby boomers themselves), after the virtual elimination of pensions in favor of risky and less productive 401K's. That means staying healthy when old is even more of a necessity than ever before for Americans lacking the vast social safety nets of Social Democratic Europe or even Canada. So that's what an individualistic society founded on maxims of Every man for himself and Pull yourself up by your bootstraps will get you: imagine an old man or woman trying to walk along a high wire with no net underneath—now there's a cultural recipe for disaster. It makes me wish my great-grandmother's ancestors had stayed in Denmark, rather than joining up with the Mormons and immigrating West back in the mid-1800's.

overpass graffiti, I-405, Portland, April 2014

The facts are out there, the fountain of youth only a distracting chimera, while the reality—inevitable aging with its wrinkles and gray hair and creaky joints and hardening arteries (if lucky)—no more and no less than a complex, interwoven fabric of daily acts and communal choices. For healthy aging to matter at all for more than a few isolated cases, the community, more than the individual, must choose holistic health, creating a supportive ecosystem for members to thrive within. Instead of 40-plus-hour workweeks, why not 20, as Bertrand Russell argued in his 1932 essay, "In Praise of Idleness"? Instead of cars, why not more bikes and walkable neighborhoods? Instead of steak and hamburgers, why not more lentil salads and hummus? Instead of the fascist-sounding Department of Homeland Security, where's our Department of Napping, Ministry of Gardening, Commission on Small-Plate Eating, Bureau of Biking, Army Corps of Red Wine, Administration of Meditation, and Advisory Council on Beans? As philosophically polarized (red state, blue state) Americans steeped in the stressful, competitive Kool-Aid of technological progress, industrial development, consumerism, and lion-on-top individual success, will we ever as a group choose, like Denmark, simpler living—to resist the racing corporate current, to slow down, seek purpose, gather with loved ones, have more fun, learn new skills, find our feet again, feel more breezes, smell more roses—or plan to watch in diapers while spooning Jell-O the flickering screen images of (ir)reality television?


weekend thrifting (nesting)

thrifted: black handmade bowl, hand-printed linen tea towels

Is it sacrilege for a work-'til-you-drop American to say that she lives, not for her wage-slave job paying the bills, but for the weekend when the time is her own? Yet, in the irony of the flow state, weekend time moves at a different speed than weekday time; it doesn't just sift through an hourglass but actually evaporates: Where did the weekend go? How is it Sunday night already? Someone told me once, "Nobody likes their job." If more or less true, how tragic is that?

Kay Dee Handprints label on vintage linen tea towel

In searching for a couple of thin tension rods for additional privacy curtain panels for the bedroom and bathroom, I did a little more thrifting than usual this weekend and managed to come home with one tension rod (bathroom window, check); yet another storage basket for the main-room metro shelving unit (large, rectangular, and in good condition = hard to find); a pair of buttery-soft black leather Cole Haan platform sandals that wear like slippers ($2, Teen Challenge sale); a large clear acrylic tray to corral coffee table objects; a medium-sized black-glazed bowl, handmade by somebody named Larry in October 1987; a like-new vintage hardcover copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd edition; and two never-used vintage linen tea towels hand-printed in Rhode Island by Kay Dee (50 cents each). Seasonal transitions can be hard—the daytime heat still like summer, the changing light and chill at night more like fall. I seem to be nesting again.

moonrise over Clackamas riverbank brush

What's your favorite way to fill a late-summer weekend?


an unnatural disaster (a pigeon story)

Jefferson West, early demolition stages

Each evening last week, after arriving home from work, I'd spy on the progress of the demolition of Jefferson West. The workers had already gone home, leaving only their CAT 336E (hybrid hydraulic excavator) frozen in place, waiting for the next day to claw apart more walls. What remained were the open faces of former apartments, plumbing pipes sticking out of walls, toilets and stoves tipped on their sides, broken lath sticking up out the rubble like spears. Now I have a better image of what the aftermath of a bombing or massive earthquake looks like. In late summer with the windows still open, the air in my apartment now smells like fresh wood overlaid with chemicals, slightly acrid, full of substances I can't name. I figure I'm breathing toxins formerly hidden within those exposed walls and broken rooms. But this story's not about me, the bystander. It's about a family of pigeons.

two pigeon nestlings, Jefferson West alley, August 25th, 2014

two pigeon nestlings (August 25th, 2014)

pigeon nestlings, feeding (August 25th, 2014)

mother pigeon, tending young (August 25th, 2014)

It wasn't true, what I said before, that the pigeons would be fine. The mother pigeon had been nesting, sitting in the alley nest alongside the giant rusty pipe for long periods each day, watching me with one eye. And then mere days before the demolition started, I began hearing cheeps and seeing two little fuzzy heads poking out from under their gray mother. Zoomed in with my telephoto lens, I watched the babies nodding in their nests as they waited for her to return, their necks unsturdy, their heads fuzzy, their big eyes blinking. The parents would flutter back in the evening to tend them, warm them, feed them. (What do pigeons regurgitate, McDonald's fries, dropped sandwich bread?) I knew what was coming. They didn't. As the demolition destruction moved closer to the nest, evenings I stood at the window as the mother eyed me, hearing the repeated clicking of my shutter, and whispered I was sorry, so sorry.

shattered window, Jefferson West, August 28th, 2014 (the day before)

balcony scene August 28th (the day before)

Friday, when I returned home, I teared up when I walked across the street and saw the pigeons' wall and their big rusty pipe vanished as in a magic trick, another whole top section of the building down. I stopped beside the alley and saw that some of the rubble had tumbled over the remaining concrete wall on the west side and now lay against the tall windowless wall of the opposite building in the narrow alley (narrower on that side of the alley but which doesn't help to allay fears, despite the contractor telling me they'd be putting up "a screen" when they got closer to our building). I was already crying as I climbed the stairs, unlocked my front door, dropped my bag, walked into the kitchen, and pulled back the curtain.

new view of the West Hills, August 29th, 2014

Sunlight. There were new shadows and light rays in the kitchen and a view of the West Hills, as well as a new-to-me traffic signal, new buildings, new neighbors—but I was focusing on what wasn't framed by the window, or rather, what was there but newly configured. The big rusty pipe shaft lay dented in the alley below and horizontally in pieces along the balcony amid concrete rubble and long shards of window glass glowing in the evening light.

father pigeon, landing

dead nestling on window glass shards

But even as I was taking in the new background, I was focusing on a pigeon walking back and forth along an intact concrete ledge along the alley, its neck and body darting back and forth, up and down. And as I scanned the scene, tears running, I saw a small pile of feathers to the left of the pigeon and what looked like a skinned head, red. Flies crawled over the still body. I sobbed, never thinking I would be eyewitness to the death, only assuming the knowledge of an absence, presumed death, rather than its proof. The adult pigeon didn't seem to see or take notice of the dead baby but rather seemed to be searching for something—its nest, its home, its young, its known world. And then there were two pigeons making the same movements, their bodies giving all signs of a search. They would walk back and forth, heads looking down into the alley and then up and around, and then they would fly up and off, only to land back at the same place within a few minutes—over and over.

pigeon parents searching for nestling

pigeon parents scoping alleyway below

pigeons seeking nestling

pigeon parents, listening

mother pigeon in flight

Watching for an hour and a half, I began to see that the speckled pigeon with the fatter neck who was searching more aggressively, more actively, who would flutter and fly more often was the father, while the pigeon who seemed more befuddled with the stripes around her lower feathers was the mother, recognized from her nest.

father pigeon in flight

And then it got worse. The pigeons, as I said, seemed to be searching for something. I had thought it was just their trying to reconcile past with present. We are told, despite the evidence from crows and parrots, that birds like pigeons aren't smart. We call someone a dodo or bird-brained as pejoratives. What if we're wrong?

father pigeon, mid-flight

pigeon mother searching in rubble

Only after a long while at the window did I begin to hear the faint cheeping, which wasn't coming from the small pile of fluffy feathers the flies were after. The other baby was alive, but even its parents couldn't tell where the sound was coming from amid all the rubble. What I couldn't see were any signs of the nest, no twigs, no long strands of pigeon poop glued onto vegetable matter. I had supposed the nest must have dropped down into the alley. But then I noticed the pigeons had begun zeroing in on one corner of the balcony courtyard which was blocked from sight by a piece of galvanized metal. They had found the crying baby down there but couldn't seem to get to it, though they moved closer each time they came back from their rounds of pacing, fluttering, and flying off.

pigeon parents finding second nestling alive

Finally, I saw the father swoop down behind the piece of metal. Soon after, I stopped hearing any cheeping, and around that time, I noticed the pigeons had stopped coming back. Surely with all the glass, concrete, brick, metal, and wood lying strewn about in pieces, the live baby must have been fatally wounded, but if miraculously not, it would have died from exposure and shock. Or, I wondered, could the father have pecked it to death to put it out of its misery? Who knows what pigeons are capable of, other than this witnessed proof of avian maternal and paternal instincts in the face of highly localized catastrophe?

smoker neighbor (fellow witness)

Though I had been sobbing over a family of pigeons loud enough for my neighbors to hear, I didn't care. However, I found I wasn't the only person watching, for at one point in this small private tragedy, I started to see something light-colored, possibly popcorn, being tossed from below up towards the ledge where the pigeons were standing, over and over, though most of the pieces fell into the alley. And then I realized I wasn't the only witness, for my downstairs neighbor who smokes against the rules at his kitchen window must spend more time at the window than I do; so he, too, must have watched the pigeons on their nest, evening upon evening. I suppose we all have our own ways of expressing sympathy: sobbing at a window while documenting with a camera or tossing up caramel corn to birds who have just lost their young at human hands (or rather, hydraulic robot hands).

I would have stayed watching longer, but I had a houseguest coming and still needed to clean my floors and eat dinner, though I was no longer hungry. My tears dried. Life moves along.

bird (pigeon) on wire

While cleaning, I took my one small rug out to the fire escape for shaking and happened to look up. Two pigeons—my pigeons—were up on the roof of my building, watching over the scene. Crows paced even higher on the roof of the building opposite. I'd never thought much before about urban bird hierarchies. Would crows eat dead pigeon meat? Do pigeons hold wakes? As I cleaned house and tried to process what I'd seen, I'd keep returning to the window as dusk fell, as night fell, until I could see nothing. And though I kept returning to the window whenever home over the holiday weekend, over which I attended a wedding in the rain, I never witnessed the pigeons landing near the dead nestlings again until two days later, when I saw the mother pigeon standing still on the ledge, staring in the direction of the first dead baby, immobile, searching for nothing. And then she flew off.

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