The Owls and Us

collage by author

It’s late fall and there are many things flying about
starlings tweedle and chirp from the telephone pole
where this morning as I am taking out the trash
I look up and see a great horned owl
silhouetted against the lightening sky.

I jump and run to get my husband
and he joins me on the cold brick of our front porch
It’s Tue, he says, and we both agree
this is the spirit of our cat, recently deceased.
How does the call go? he asks, sheepishly,
since all last autumn we walked
the streets and narrow alleys
of our neighborhood, calling for an owl
who would sometimes call back,
sometimes appear overhead on whisper white wings.

Last year we saw a couple nesting in the eucalyptus grove,
two dry-leaf colored lumps on one arching branch
and listened as they called to one another.

Once I was on the back deck crying
over some old wellspring of pain, and looked up
to see the cobalt sky, and the owl flying
across our yard from east to west.

Once we were lost driving back roads at dusk
sniping at each other in annoyance
and an owl swooped down like a blinding angel
across our windshield.

Once we were night walking
and you said it was an owl, but
I think it was a black-crowned heron
that erupted out of tree shadows
like the surprising strength of our grief
and knocked you to your knees.

Selection in Relation to Sex

photo by author

If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety exhibited by them in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. -Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

In a BBC special featuring
the mysterious mating dance
of birds of paradise,
tropical jewel-colored
birds that thrive
in the steaming jungles
of New Guinea and Australia,
David Attenborough narrates
the elaborate process
of sexual selection.

Here’s the black sicklebill
a sleek ebony bird, his yellow eye
piercing the camera
as he swings his wings
up over his head
in one smooth practiced motion.
He’s warming up, David explains,
before the camera draws back
and we can see the full spectacle
of this bird, his long jet tail
swooping away from his perch
on a broken tree branch
rising up from the trunk like a fountain.

Then, with a final flourish, where there was a bird
there is now a kite, a cobra’s floating hood.
He has pressed his wings together
above his head to form a tide, a fan,
a fish writhing and twisting in a stream
where there was a bird there is now
a fluttering ribbon of love.

He lowers his wings and is a bird again.

He repeats this ritual
on his chosen post
several times a day until
he attracts a mate. Not only that,
but he has practiced each element
of this intricate dance
day after day for years,
since before he even had
the right equipment.

Now he assembles and displays
all of his worldly knowledge
he demonstrates his glorious virility
he hopes to secure his legacy
he wants his dance to be danced
by each black sicklebill for generations.

Evolution dictates
that form precedes function
Darwin believed that
beauty itself
is appreciated,
the energy expended to rise with a flourish
to transform ourselves in the name of desire
to capture the eyes of our lover.
We must have beauty to survive.

Unlike those birds, you
do not have to wear a crown
of brightly colored feathers
or transform yourself into a fan or flower
for me to look your way.

Santa Cruz County Fair

photo by author

I

The sweet smell of short ribs
smacked sizzling on the grill
floats on the smoky air.
Screams and laughter
from the tilt a whirl
pulse against my skin.

A man with a guitar
stands by his gleaming pony.
His voice twangs
with a sound bright like
his white suit and hat
shining in the midday heat
the whole getup makes you say
look at that dude.

Look at that dude!
He glows with the energy of work
competing with crowds and corndogs
sweat drips from his temple
his pony is patient, standing
so still, with a back leg bent for relief.

At his feet are two boys
one wears a black cowboy hat
his mouth is little round O!
The singing guitar smiles at him
he is inside the music
behind the bristling white mustache
rising out and away
over plastic flags
that shiver and snap
in the sunshine air.

II

Dahlias debut like debutantes
a radio flyer overflows with daisies
and flat on a folding table
a double belt opens to reveal
pliers, scissors, shears, tools
taken up by a man with sure hands
who leans and looks at a bonsai.

This little tree is time made visible,
sacrificing bits and pieces of itself
to skilled and graceful hands
for centuries, in the name of beauty.

Two boys with camo hats
and socks and crocs
stand spellbound,
their little bodies
lean and tilt in unison
as the master craftsman
snips and ties the shrub
into submission.

III

A small girl points,
her saucer eyes brought on by a
huge chalky white chicken.
It is the most impressive hen
we’ve ever seen, all of us agree
strangers and families alike.

She sits at the head of a row of birds
who cluck with submission
at her ribbons, her sleek feathered breast.

In her eyes I see the sad glory shared
by only the finest specimens, those
who embody perfection.
She knows that she, and all this fluttering beauty,
may still die by the farmer’s hand someday.

IV

In the sunshine air
a contraption with hose-arms
and a steel reserve
starts with the kind of bang
reserved for firecrackers and car exhaust.
While most folks jump
and move a discreet distance away
from the rattling, sputtering
certainly unreliable monster
an ancient fellow
bent nearly double on his cane
in a plaid shirt and overalls
forever creased with dirt and grease
makes a beeline
as natural as molasses
to the clamoring machine.

His eyes are a child’s memory
of a barn that didn’t burn
or crops that were salvaged
by a steam-powered pump.

I think about the giant thresher
and how it must have consumed
more than just grain, how men
lost hands and fingers and worse
sweating over an implement
the size of a small apartment
until it creaked and groaned
its final grinding breath
and submitted to the shelter of this barn
with the memory of bright wheat
and the smell of iron and earth.

V

The giant pumpkins swell
like misplaced ottomans among the
sweetie pies and jack-be-littles.
I marvel that these misshapen gourds
are tended with such fervent love.

A tall man leans in
to conspire with my husband,
this is the best part, he says
this and the smell of apples
like being a kid again.
A quiet blanket of nostalgia
envelops us, we sense
the promises renewed
as each new crop is sown.

The sweetness
of these apples
is the heart of labor.
It is the urge
to till the fertile soil of our soul
until we bear some fruit
worthy of submission.

Dark Eyes

photo by author

You were dark eyes
dark hair and sweaters;
I don’t think we ever touched
even a casual embrace.
You were the first to see me
as I emerged, timid
in the light of teenage bonfires,
a coming of age that you saw
but I did not have the language to speak;
the earthly grounding to know this body.

Something was wrong, even then
this body of language an offering between us
if age had not been a consideration, well
things would be different now.

Or would they? You’re still dead.
Those demons weren’t just teenage angst
it was a darker grip
a wrenching from reality
into the place
from which no souls return.

We could not kiss
like mountains touching
firm together at the base
foundations, plates of earth

they shift and move
and like a glacier, melted
you were gone, as though
calm seas were all
there’d ever been.

We Turn Our Somber Faces Toward The Sun

Photo by author

In late September golden rays of sun
are warm against my skin; I turn to face
the source. Although my thoughts are somber
I am humbled by the lively beauty of the verdant
lime and emerald leaves. Foliage in the garden
is yet brightened by the glow of nature

in her glory. We are most ourselves in nature,
when we spend afternoons at leisure in the sun.
There is a sense of wonder in the garden–
a deep essential force floats beneath the face
of things, beneath the dark and verdant
soil where the earth is still. I am somber

at the thought of deep earth, as somber
as the thought of death, which is a part of nature.
As absolutely as the grass and trees are verdant
signs of life, so are the dying rays of sun
that any one of us may feel as we face
the twilight hours winding through a garden

that once held golden light. And if life is a garden,
the silent leaves and flowers, somber
in their quiet contemplation of the face
of things, see the many changes nature
in her cycle brings. They recognize the passing
patterns of the sun and come to love the verdant

moments that arrive! The bee is verdant
in its passion for the flower, as is the garden,
and in between the dappled leaves and sun
drenched petals, curled vines climb the somber
trunks of trees, and thrushes sigh. The nature
of all things is to die, and yet to face

this truth is strange, for every flower’s face–
now full of color, shining bright and verdant
in all the blazing fullness of its nature,
growing in the wild reaches of the garden–
will someday fade and wither to a shade so somber
one may wonder if it ever saw the sun.

We see ourselves in nature, and our vision is the face
of every flower shining in the sun. Our life is the verdant
renewing garden. Beneath us, the earth is still and somber.

Holographic Squirrels are Eternal

Salvador Dali's "Ten Recipes for Immortality"

Casting her as the star in his
voluntary program of desire
Gala swimming, smiling.
Gala, darling.

He wanted to consume her
to absorb her organism
each atom dissolved
and reassembled
on another plane
a fourth atmosphere
where infinite consciousness
takes the form of
an eternal holographic squirrel.

He has a paranoid passion
to reveal invisible truth
becoming everything and nothing at once.
To devour the known,
take in particles of perception,
and birth a nightmarish cousin.

Did he deliberately misunderstand
what we all know to be true?
The squirrel, flesh and bone,
scurrying, instinctual,
hoarding food to last the winter
acorns piling up
against starvation

steps through a portal
into another realm
rising through the ether
forming a staircase
to eternity.

In the nuclear age
we are all immortal.

-after Dali’s “Ten Recipes for Immortality”

Plot Twist: A Book Review of Lane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies”

collage by author

I did not want to like this book. I really did not want to like this book. 

When the TV series aired on HBO, I saw the commercial previews and promptly put the whole spectacle in a mental recycle bin labeled Bachelorette / Kardashian. I figured it would be pretty, pink, vacuous, and reinforce stereotypes about race, class, and gender that I wanted to neither encourage nor engage with.

At some point, however, I heard the book referred to as one of the great feminist stories of our time. A tale that could hold up and reflect the ideals of the #metoo movement. This intrigued me, and I decided to see if Lane Moriarty moved past Sophie Kinsella territory and invited intersectional feminism to the conversation. Could this novel include commentary about the complexity of womanhood today? One that brought multiple voices and perspectives to the table?

“The whole purpose of intersectional feminism is to listen to different kinds of feminists – not just ones like yourself.”

International Women’s Development Agency

At first, I felt my worst fears were confirmed. Not only were the main characters white, but they were also all rich as well. In fact, the only tension in character development seemed to be the strain between blue and white collar folks in the small coastal town where the novel is set (come to find out, the TV show is set in Monterey, California which is a stone’s throw from where I live in Santa Cruz). While this is a life situation I can identify with, I could not see how such a milquetoast tableau could support a tale about anything but white feminism.

But then the plot began to thicken like a good roux, darkening and deepening in complexity and flavor, and I was hooked.

To write more in detail would require spoilers, but the bottom line is that the near absence of race and class turns out to be crucial to the story. The narrative does eventually while weaving the plot threads together in the denouement, transcend the trappings of rich white society. As Kadia Blagrove wrote for Jezebel, 

“But in the end, Big Little Lies did a great job of making unlikely characters feel familiar by using their enormous wealth and status as a simple backdrop, rather than a focal point, to their internal lives.”

By removing most class and race differences between the main characters, Moriarty shows that the terrible events of the story could happen to anyone. Not just rich or poor, white or brown, suburban or urban. ANYONE. That forceful point, combined with a suspenseful plot and original narrative style that draws the reader in and makes it hard to put the book down, made this a five star read for me.

How Did I Get Here: A Book Review of Lisa Brennan-Job’s Memoir “Small Fry”

photo by author

Author: Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Publication Date: September 2018
Genre: Autobiography
(Audiobook format)

“What I wanted, what I felt owed, was some clear place in the hierarchy of those he loved.” 

In her well-written memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs jobs tells the story of growing up as Apple computer mogul Steve Jobs’ oldest daughter. Hers is a complicated tale of divorce, estrangement, and desperate attempts to gain the affection of an extremely confusing and complicated man — her father.

Brennan-Jobs is an excellent writer. Her prose is descriptive and compelling and draws the reader into a world of her memory. She strings together gorgeous vignettes, bringing her childhood growing up in the Bay area to vivid life. The challenge I found with the book is that Brennan-Jobs’ narrative does not draw the reader forward with much force or interest.

Fans who idolize Steve Jobs, perhaps already knowing that he was kind of jerk, will appreciate this glimpse into his life. For myself, a reader who is interested in memoir more than Macintosh, it was uncomfortable to see the cold, inconsistent relationship he had with his oldest child. Young Lisa’s interactions with her father are harsh and upsetting. The author is clear and concise about the way she hurt her mother trying to win her father’s approval. I admire her honest assessment of the complicated feelings and craving for acceptance and approval that motivated her as a child and teen growing up in such an unstable environment. That way a moody and distant Steve treats his daughter is both terrifying and fascinating, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of Lisa’s ultimate privilege that makes it difficult for the average reader to engage with her struggles.

Many of us have craved better clothes, a nicer car, and more of our parents’ love. The only thing that distinguishes our narrative from Lisa’s is that her father happens to be extremely famous and powerful. But throughout her story, Lisa fails to draw a strong connection between her experience and the experience of the outer world. The human element is overshadowed by the complicated decadence and idiosyncrasies of extreme success and wealth. The most interesting bit of her story some toward the end of her story as she muses on the connection between her father’s genius and his propensity to be cruel and cutting with the slightest provocation:

“When people speak and write about my fatehr;s meanness, they sometimes assume the meanness is linked the genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw his create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun.”

Overall, Small Fry contains some excellent descriptive prose and deserves consideration for that fact alone. Despite the rather flat narrative, the writing is descriptive and engaging. I should add did not like the narration of this audio book version, I felt the narrator had awkward intonation and paused at some strange time in certain sentences and parts of the story putting the emphasis in the wrong place. You may therefore enjoy reading the book more in the paper or eBook format.

Food Ritual: A Book Review of “The Eating Instinct” by Virginia Sole Smith

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Author: Virginia Sole-Smith
Publication Date: November 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction, Science, Food Culture

Health food. Junk food. Comfort food. Fast food. Whole food. 

America today is steeped in food culture, and eating has become a national obsession. Each of us possesses a particular set of eating habits that stem from a combination of nature and nurture. But for many folks, eating is a difficult and emotionally fraught necessity. You may be vegan, paleo, fast-food addicted, or a conflicted clean-eater. Yet, regardless of the factors that inform your food choices, have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “How did I learn to eat?” Virginia Sole-Smith’s book “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America” takes a fascinating deep dive into how Americans eat and the myriad of ways that modern life and culture impact our ability to simply nourish our bodies with food.

When her daughter is born with a medical condition that impacts her ability to eat like an “average” infant Sole-Smith is plunged into a nightmare world of hospitals, feeding tubes, and guilt that she cannot nourish her daughter in any traditional way. Forced to question the very concept of how to feed her child, and pummeled from every side by confusing and baffling information, Sole-Smith must consider the basic act of learning to eat in a completely new light. Teaching her daughter to eat opens up a journey to understand why our food culture has deviated so far from the seemingly simple model of eating when we are hungry, and stopping when we are full. 

Sole-Smith dedicates each chapter to a different eating behavior including extremely “picky” eaters, folks who have chosen weight loss surgery or those who are obsessed with eating only healthy, clean foods. Sole-Smith treats her interview subjects with compassion and respect. She is careful to not favor one way of eating over another and instead presents her interview findings in relation to a review of the current scientific literature. Most importantly, Sole-Smith asks important and revealing questions about where we are, how we got here and where we might go from here. What if we could approach eating differently?

“Without judgement. Without guilt. Without ranking picky eaters as somehow less that adventurous eaters, corner stores as less than farmers markets, meat eaters as less than vegetarians, fat as less than thin?” p.238

In her research, Sole-Smith begins to unravel some of the onion skin layers contained in the existing scientific landscape in regards to how we eat, and she does not shy away from the complexity or contradiction of the research. Her conclusions reveal a dense network of competing studies and recommendations. I particularly liked the discussion of “experts” in the area of wellness and nutrition. In dealing with a chapter about clean eating, Sole-Smith interviews a nutritionist, Christy, who discusses her own history of restrictive eating even while she was a practicing nutritionist. As Sole-Smith points out,

“Nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. And so we read more books, pin more blog posts, buy more products and sign up for more classes and consultations. And we don’t realize how many of the so-called experts guiding us through this new and constantly changing landscape are exactly where Christy once was– fighting their own battles with food.” p.43

This is an endlessly fascinating topic for me, as I have struggled with diet and body image issues from a young age. I was overweight, I lost a lot of weight. Some weight has come back. But regardless of any of my eating habits at any given time, there has always been the underlying question: why is eating so hard? Why must I spend so much emotional any intellectual energy thinking about what I’m going to consume to fuel my body?

But how do we learn honor our hunger? To eat to nourish our bodies instead of for a myriad of other reasons? Sole-Smith makes it clear that the answer is highly individual, and is tied to a complex array of issues that we must examine and consider for ourselves.

“Recognizing ourselves as capable eaters means identifying the factors that caused us to lose that identity in the first place– the particular mix of biology, psychology, socioeconomic positioning, and life experience that is different for everyone.” p. 239

I recommend this read for anyone who has ever had a challenging relationship with food, not as another set of recommendations for how to behave but as a tool for deeper understanding of why we struggle so much with food in the first place. I enjoyed how Sole-Smith synthesized the many ideas I have collected in my own research about eating and nutrition. After reading this book, I am one step closer to being able to throw away any diet, toss my scale, and accept and love my body (and myself) for what I can do and how I feel, instead of how I appear physically to the outside world. Overall, it seems that the key to a better relationship with food may be a kinder, more gentle relationship to ourselves.

The Character of Place: A Book Review of “The Printed Letter Bookshop” by Katherine Reay

image by author

“Blood might be thicker than water, but both were thinner than money.” Madeline, p.13

The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay is a compelling narrative about three women drawn together over the fate of a beloved local independent bookstore. The story is divided into chapters, each focusing on one of the three women: Madeline, Janet, or Claire. Each chapter is further divided into sections that are written from the point of view of each woman.

I enjoyed this book and found several elements that contributed to making it a solid read. Each woman has a distinct personality and a well-developed character. The author does an excellent job using intricate and key details such as clothing choices, hairstyles, or favorite foods to bring each character to life. One of the central themes of the book is community and how a community develops around place and location. There are many descriptions of locations, architecture, or interior design that illustrate and enhance this theme. When Madeline describes the partners at her law firm, for example, she does so by details their preferences in interior design style. And when the three women experience an anxious moment in the story, entering a familiar restaurant has a tangible effect on their well-being:

“they were assailed with the scents of truffles, olive oil, stew, wine, and spices upon pushing through Mirabella’s revolving door. Claire felt everything tight within her unwind. Janet’s and Madeline’s expressions implied the same was happening for them.” Claire, p. 85

Throughout the novel, the character development is enhanced by the places they inhabit. Perhaps this is because the bookshop itself – a central character in the community – plays such an integral role in the story.

Another central theme of the novel is how we experience challenging situations in life, primarily failure in all its various forms. There are many interesting twists and turns in the plot, enough to keep the reader guessing and to allow for many challenging situations for each character. In working through these problems, the women learn about themselves, their relationships, and the role of shame and forgiveness in dealing with the past. Ultimately, we are asked to consider not only what happens to us in life as a series of events, but the choices we make in response to these experiences.

“…it often isn’t the events that haunt us…it is the choices we make within those events we carry all our days.” Claire, p. 129

As a female reader in her 40s, I could identify with many aspects of the main character’s lives and this contributed to my enjoyment of the book. If you are an avid reader, you will enjoy the many references to classic books both old and new tucked throughout the story. The plot had me invested enough to come to tears at least once. Overall I would recommend as a pleasurable read with fun, dynamic characters and engaging descriptive writing that draws the reader into a story about how we deal with the very real ups and downs presented to us as we journey through life.