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Month: February 2014

Why Parakeets Are Best Left Dead

Why Parakeets Are Best Left Dead

MillyWhiteBudgieCageSmallImageOriginally, my brother wanted a goat as a pet. But, our apartment manager didn’t allow goats. (a rule that doesn’t have to appear on your lease to be legally acknowledged – by the way) Though, I’d argue that when you’re talking about an apartment building located in the far-reaches of a tumbleweed town in eastern Washington, the management should be more flexible.

Regardless, Garth moved on, visited the local pet store and set his heart on taking home a budgie parakeet. He named the bird, Woodstock, after the little bird in Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip, Peanuts, Snoopy’s best friend.

Woodstock’s flying was an awkward mix of klutz and peril. He often smacked into trees or fluttered upside down, spun wildly and landed on the ground with stars and spirals drawn around his head. Garth’s bird was either an avid follower of the Peanuts comic strip or suffered brain damage as a chick in the egg, because he flew exactly the same way. That is, when he got the chance to spread his wings, which wasn’t very often.

Yes, because the dirty little secret about bird ownership is that it comes with a hefty side dish of guilt. When you purchase a wild animal with survival skills long ago scratched from the DNA, you’ve made a lifelong commitment to keep your pet from doing the main thing he was born to do, fly. He will live in a cage. With clipped wings. So he will never get away. Never. Because, the truth is, you haven’t purchased a bird, more like your own feathered prisoner. And that makes you his warden. In our case, that was Garth, Warden Garth.

Ninety-nine percent of Woodstock’s life was lived in a two foot by one foot cage. His sole companionship came from a mirror attached to the wall. The reflected Woodstock made the real bird bob his head up and down in a somewhat pornographic and disturbing way.  Besides eating and bobbing, Woodstock’s entertainment consisted of sharpening his beak across a large cuttle bone, and sitting on a wooden perch to crap on newspaper. Does this strike you as a terrific way to spend a life? Will I get a 3% cut of all the PETA donations inspired by this blog post? The answer to both questions is, probably not.

I think Garth sensed the emptiness of Woodstock’s life immediately, but I’ve always been slow on the uptake. On Saturday mornings, after ingesting a bowl of sugar-coated cereal and watching a few hours of Looney Tunes on television, I was happy. Something about the combination of the afterglow of Tweety cartoons and the crash from the sugar made me keenly aware of Woodstock’s imprisonment. I found myself begging Garth to let Woodstock free.

“Open his door. Let him fly.”

That’s all it took to encourage Garth, I suspect because he was already chanting the same thing in his head. He’d open the door and Woodstock remained on the perch. Garth would call his name, and Woodstock stayed on the perch. Finally, Garth would reach in and gently pry Woodstock’s curled nails from around the perch and release the bird into the living room.

I always hoped that Woodstock would circle above our heads in graceful loops to our cheers and whistles. This was never to be realized. Woodstock’s flying, if one could call it that, resembled the inky up and down readouts of the old fashioned EKG machines. It was all quick drops and high bursts. The bird sputtered up and down in the air, almost hitting the ceiling, nearly smacking the floor, creating spastic Vs in my mind until, wham! He slammed into a window or wall, lost a handful of feathers and then crawled up the drapes where his long nails got caught in the fabric. He jerked and bobbed frantically, losing more feathers, until he was freed by Garth’s gentle hands. It was unnerving, heartbreaking and horrifying. And somehow, which might explain a great deal about my inner-workings, within minutes of nestling Woodstock into his cage again, I forgot the trauma caused by letting him fly.

Well, we liked Woodstock, and because he was Garth’s, I assume Garth loved him. When we moved into our house, Woodstock came with us. He had a place of honor on the corner of Garth’s desk, next to a stack of books about Egypt, my brother’s latest fixation.

mount-st-helens-eruptionThen, on May 18th, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew her top. I don’t remember any house-shaking booms, but the sky outside became pocked with ash sacs. And poor Woodstock died of a little birdy heart attack during the eruption. We found him dead in his cage and left Garth to bury him or flush him however he saw fit. I was sad, but not sad enough to miss the birthday party Bobbie McPherson was hosting at Farrell’s.  Her mother had ordered the volcano ice cream sundae and I wanted my share.

May. Woodstock died in May. I don’t remember Garth mentioning the bird throughout the remainder of spring, or summer on our visit to California to see our father and other mom. He’d gotten heavy into Egyptians, created an immaculate black pyramid, and placed it in the bare spot on his desk that Woodstock’s cage once occupied. I thought maybe he put it there as a sort of memorial to his first pet. After that, I didn’t give another thought to the bird, his death, or Garth’s grieving. It just evaporated for me.

The summer we spent at Dad’s sped by, but at the end of August, it was time to return home to Mom and school. Before we arrived home, Mom changed our bedding, vacuumed our rooms and dusted. In order to clean Garth’s desk, she had to move the black pyramid. And when she lifted it up, she found Woodstock lying there. Woodstock. If anything could bring the bird back to life it would be a few months sitting underneath a pyramid, right? That’s what the Egyptians believed would happen, resurrection, new life.

Maybe Garth’s calculations were right, and Woodstock did rise from the dead. But, with no birdseed and water and mirror and cuttle bone and Garth after waking, maybe Woodstock decided that death was an improvement.

In death, Woodstock could soar like an eagle, avoid any obstacle and hold onto his feathers at last.

budgiesm

Writing My Reality: The Diversity in Four Rubbings

Writing My Reality: The Diversity in Four Rubbings

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A cultural collage by Jennifer L. Hotes

Okay, readers. I’m going to let you in on a little secret about literature. Despite what the fine print on the first page of every novel states, we authors write our reality. The lawyers insist that we say, “All characters and details are fictional. Any resemblance to real life is coincidental.” Baloney.

The truth is, writers stand in the shadows of every social function and absorb the details of you, your manner of speaking, the details of your conversation (yawn!) and what you wear. We are the great secret stealers and eternal detail absorbers. Basically, we’re the Bounty paper towels of society.

Four Rubbings is no different. I have the legalese in the front of the book, but the characters I created are a quilt sewn from the fat quarters of my life and memories. So, when one angry reader criticized Four Rubbings for showing diversity in an unrealistic and overly idealized way, I balked. Okay, the truth is I had a fit. I barked at the computer, stormed around the house, and scared the cats and kids. But, a day or two later, I contemplated the criticism. Had I presented the world in an overly idealized way through my cast of characters?

Two of the four teens in the book come from parents with different ethnicities – actually three, if you include the Aleutian background of one mother. Did I present familial diversity to promote ethnic tolerance in the world?

Well, let’s turn the microscope on my life, shall we? I live in the Seattle area. If my children were to attend their home school (literally, the one closest to our residence) then their classmates would be predominantly white, but would also include families that moved to the area from Japan, Russia, China, India, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Mexico, to name a few.  They live our reality.

Not bad, but they don’t attend their home schools. My daughters attend feeder schools for Microsoft, Expedia and Google families. The palette of skin colors and cultures their school populations include is vast. I once asked our principal how many languages the families at our school spoke, and she smiled in response. Maybe she was trying to count them in her head, but then she giggled, “Wow! There’s an amazing number.” They learn our reality.

Our local grocery stores include vast amounts of what was once known as ‘specialty food,’ but seen in this bulk, the phrase becomes an oxymoron.  Kosher. Indian. Italian. Hispanic. French. Japanese. Chinese. Korean. British. In our house, I’ve been blessed with kids that will try all types of food, but constants in my kitchen include edamame, tofu, Cajun gumbo, Chinese dim sum, Indian naan with chutney, British pies, French brie, and Italian anything.  They eat the same variety of foods at school and when we travel. They eat our reality.

My youngest daughter, Bryn, proudly announced to me yesterday that her friends all have beautiful and unusual names. They reflect the depth of culture and rich ethnicity of our reality. They speak our reality.

So, for those that criticize my portrayal of diversity in Four Rubbings, my heart breaks a little for you. I’m reminded of the time three decades ago when I graduated from high school. My grandmother had come to witness the graduation from Chicago, Illinois. She was gracious and kind when she met my handful of best friends. She really was sweet to them. On the drive to the airport for the return flight home she said to my mother, “That’s the closest I’ve ever stood to a black man.” My mother did a double-take.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Jennifer’s friends. When I met her friends, I realized that is the closest I’d ever been physically to people that weren’t white.” It wasn’t said with malice. She went on to say what lovely people my friends were. But, it was an innocent observation. So if your reality is as sheltered and homogenous as hers, today let me encourage you to change your reality.

If the people you spend the bulk of the day with look very similar to you, have similar backstories and childhood memories and share the same beliefs as you, change your reality. Don’t shun your old friends, I’m not asking for that sacrifice. Instead, venture out of your neighborhood to worship at a new house of God, eat at a new type of restaurant, go to a book signing in a different district of your city, rally for a political cause in the next town over, try an exercise program that reflects a different culture than your own.

Stretch. Stretch your boundaries. Stretch out your arms to embrace this beautiful melting pot. And for heaven’s sake, if you have the means, travel to new places.

I’d love the diversity reflected in my book and my life to be yours as well. It is my love-filled Valentine wish for your life.

 

 

To Hell with Stereotypes: Let’s Look Past Our Covers

To Hell with Stereotypes: Let’s Look Past Our Covers

Stereotypes. Dictionary.com defines a stereotype as, “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group.” Wikipedia mentions that stereotypes are snap judgements that lead us to look no further for the truth. Now, that sounds more to the point, doesn’t it?

headshot2We carry with us a multitude of stereotypes. Don’t believe me? Let’s do a little exercise. Here I am. Take a look at the picture. Now, make some guesses about me. What race am I? What’s my job? Am I married? Do I have kids? Am I rich or poor? Do I believe in God? Was I raised in a two-parent household? Did I attend private school? How white am I, really? Would I see you coming down the street and avert my eyes? Could you find anything in common with me?

Okay, now look closer. Let your eyes linger and I’ll tell you who I really am.

As a kid, I attended public school in rural Washington, Pasco School District(PSD) to be specific. If you’ve heard of it, that’s thanks to the race riots of the 1960s. But, what you may not know is that my father, Gary Riley, was brought into the district to restore peace to the only district in the state to have diversity. And my dad did restore peace. But, not without having crosses burned into our lawn, receiving death threats and other slights from the public. After that, we moved to California where my father took a position at a university and helped to create a nationally-adopted program called Upward Bound. Google it. Yeah, my dad did cool things, didn’t he?

I think the stress of living in a community that largely hated us took a toll on my parent’s already strained marriage. Even the move to sunny California couldn’t repair their broken marriage.  After the divorce, my mother moved us back to Pasco to teach kindergarten. We lived in a small apartment. We pinched pennies, eagerly taking the blocks of cheese offered to us by the government to make our food dollars stretch. We learned how to season the bland, gritty blocks into something palatable to fill our bellies.

Those pennies added up, though. The summer before I entered fourth grade, we moved into our own house, a house with a yard! The rest of my childhood was uneventful. I went to college, worked at a few companies and settled down in suburbia to raise two daughters. Most my days now are spent behind the wheel of a car, driving my kids to school and sports practices and music lessons. But, my girls fence, they don’t play soccer. And they’re mastering the drum set. You’d never guess either of those facts by looking at them.

totem blendOh, I forgot to talk about my cultural heritage. I’m a genetic mutt. Maybe all of us are, but speaking to my own personal background, I have some Polish, Irish, German, Scottish and allegedly, Nez Perce. My skin is olive-toned all year. My children have an even more interesting heritage. Their father was an Alaskan homesteader and his mother traced their family back to include a Crow relative and two relations that fought against one another during the American Revolution.

It’s not what you expected to hear after looking at my picture, was it? And, no doubt, your life and background is even more interesting and complex. The older I get, the more keenly I see that we all hold stories, filled with rich layers of substance and worth the telling.

In this age when derision and class warfare are the orders of the day, I refuse let our differences feed the fires of hatred. To me, they fuel the fires of curiosity and love. My challenge to you is to turn off the mainstream media for a week and look at the world through your own eyes, your own sharp mind. See what I see; people taking tender care of one another. It’s all around us if we choose to watch the world for goodness.

This week, as my youngest daughter and I stood amidst a crowd of 700,000-plus in downtown Seattle to celebrate our first Super Bowl victory, I smiled. All around us were people celebrating, laughing, and sharing in a victory. We were different colors and genders. Together, we were savoring this moment in time, but we were also making history. There were no arrests, or violent acts, or broken glass. We shared a piece of the sidewalk with strangers that became friends before the parade marched past. We were united in love – the love of a team, of a coach, of a city and of one another. It was such a powerful moment for my daughter to be a part of, swimming in a sea of humanity, and it was good.

I grew up in an era that coined the term, ‘color blind.’ They told us to be blind to color. And the phrase made me bristle. I can’t ignore you, in all your beauty and individuality. No way.

Let’s stay curious about one another, ask questions, explore and come to respect each other fully and completely. Let our differences be a conversation point, a bridge to help me understand you and vice versa. Because we are more than our covers, aren’t we? Much more.

Next week, look for my blog post about the cultural diversity of my city, Seattle, and how it’s reflected in the characters of Four Rubbings. Who knew writing my reality would cause such a stir with the readers?

Speaking of diverse viewpoints, here’s an interesting blogpost about the challenges our youngest generation faces, marriage equality. Regardless of your viewpoint on the matter, it’s worth a read and some serious contemplation. Thank you to John Wood for the blog.