Feeder Tales, Part 1: For a Junco

It has been a very long time coming, but it is good to finally begin writing a blog post again. Surely, most readers of this blog have moved on after being starved of updates for months on end. If you, dear reader (old or new), find your way to Mirkwood, allow me at least to provide an original — and completely true — excuse.

Much has happened in the eight months since the last post was written. I said goodbye to my beloved Cambridge, and moved back to California. P flew to Cambridge to help me pack, and we crossed the country by train, marveling at the changing landscape. Soon after reaching San Francisco, we launched into the insanity of looking for — and moving into — a different apartment. And then, before we had begun to ease into domesticity, P and I both started new jobs in a hectic Bay Area summer. Visits from the parents followed, and work-related travel and a couple of tooth surgeries for me and a bicycle accident for P, so that there was little energy left to read or to blog. There are some captivating books waiting to be read at home, but this post is not about my reading. It is about our shared experience of installing and maintaining a bird feeder.

A couple of years earlier, P had purchased a lovely bird feeder, made of cedar wood and shaped like a gazebo. She had also bought some birdseed that was especially suited to songbirds. When I visited California, we would talk of hanging it up and attracting birds. However, when you visit each other only for short periods, and several months of yearning, planning and conversation has to be compressed into a weekend reunion, other things must take precedence over the installation of bird feeders. So, P’s feeder sat empty on her patio, gathering dust, raindrops and fall leaves, a forlorn reminder of the way we had lived for so long, three-thousand miles apart. When we finally moved in together, I guiltily moved the feeder from the old apartment to the new one and there, as a mute witness to our suddenly busy life together, it again sat unused beside our plants for a long time. It would take a little junco to change all that.

On one of our rare quiet weekends this year, we were standing inside the house, looking out together, when an Oregon junco flew onto the patio and started pecking it’s way around the plants. It went this way and that, until, after a few random-seeming darts, it found the dusty feeder and began to investigate. Owing either to the experience of past feeders, or to a mysterious avian instinct, the bird gave the gazebo a thorough once-over, pecking occasionally but, of course, finding no birdseed in answer. This melted P’s heart and a decision was made then and there: The feeder had to go up and fulfill its intended purpose. Plans were hatched; locations were scouted; the feeder was washed and dried; birdseed was poured, and a custom wire was cut and crimped in the span of a single afternoon. We settled on a spot in the patio that was close to trees, a deciduous tree that looks like a paper birch and two redwoods, which would provide songbirds with a hideout to which they could hastily return in order to stay safe from predators. We anticipated (rightly, as it turned out), that the birds would make a mess below the feeder, so a tarp was placed underneath to collect stray seed and bird droppings. Then we waited.

Nobody came on the first day. Or the second. On the third day, some chickadees on the birch tree discovered the hanging feeder, did some acrobatics on the wires and helped themselves to a few seeds. True to their gregarious nature, they bustled about making tiny, frequent calls, drawing the attention of house finches and juncos. Tentatively first, then with some regularity, until a week later, the birds were coming in droves. And in the midst of a  damp, cold, rainy season the like of which California has not seen in a long time, they still keep coming. Our casual observations of birds frolicking at a feeder provide instant amazement and present opportunities to learn about avian life. Over time, however, the two of us have come to realize that there is also something more: As the birds come and go with the seasons, they quietly remind us that we are, finally, experiencing a continuum in time. Together. It took us a while.

[I intend to write more about the feeder, alternating between posts about the species of birds that grace it, and posts about the complications that arise from having a feeder in an apartment dwelling. This may turn out to be interesting.]

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Thorns

“The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”

Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds.

 

A Rough History of Disbelief

I’ve wanted to write this post for several years, ever since I watched a BBC documentary titled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief. It was presented as a quiet, sometimes autobiographical, and decidedly old-fashioned video essay narrated by the disarming and wonderful Jonathan Miller.

The 3-hour series steers clear of the sensationalism that spoils many modern programs and debates on atheism. Instead, it charts the history of atheism over the past two thousand years, touching upon its primary proponents and highlighting some of their prominent scholarly works. The slow and calm nature of the film – and indeed the fact that many portions of it are put forth unadorned with rationalizations and inviting considerate, non-inflammatory debate – is quite an achievement given the sensitive nature of its subject.

My track record at convincing people to watch 3 hours of anything, let alone a documentary on atheism, would be classified (rather too charitably) as “not good”. Still, for those with the time and the interest, I’m linking to its three parts below:

  1. Shadows of Doubt
  2. Noughts and Crosses
  3. The Final Hour

Peloton

The women’s CAT 3 amateur races are on today at Boston’s City Hall. Within the first few laps, valiant stragglers are left behind and then disqualified; the cutoff times are too brutal for a lay rider to contemplate. Soon a peloton forms; a single tight accretion circling fast around City Hall. As the laps count down, I begin to see the effort in the sculpted thighs and tightening jaws.

Three laps to go: There are signs of a strategic sprint. A rider breaks away as the rest of the peloton tries to compensate, their eyes show murderous intention, some bare their teeth. The effort, as it turns out, is too much too soon; she cannot keep up the sprint, and slowly but surely, the peloton bears down on her like a wolf pack, swallows her into its uncompromising depths. This is Call of the Wild on a human scale.

And like the primordial opportunists that survived and propagated their seed through the ages, someone else has been biding her time. At 1 lap to go, she summons a reserve of energy from who knows where, and launches into an incredible sprint that will seal the race; this stunning apparition of mind, flesh, bone and carbon blitzes the finish line, her back wheel about 3 feet ahead of the peloton.

I feel my hair standing on end. These are supposed to be amateur riders, but their speed boggles the mind. Tomorrow, I will face my own challenge, which appears so much smaller than the ridiculous physical feats that I have just seen. I have to ride 50 miles inside 5 hours, probably in the rain. With a little bit of shame, but a lot of inspiration, I pick up my registration package with the race still buzzing in my head.

The bib number I receive is 4057. In my head, I compulsively divide it by 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, … it is a disease. The number turns out to be a prime, quite in line with the sense of desperate, angry isolation that has crept upon me and grown during the past year. I wonder if this bodes well for the ride tomorrow.

Taxicab Proselytization

“You’ve driven me before.”

“Really?”

That was how it began, one of those chance conversations with a taxi driver who definitely had driven me to the airport before. Yes, Cambridge is small enough for that to happen. I remembered less of his face than the constant murmuring and  the distinctive style of driving that consisted of lurching forward, or to the left or  right, treating the vehicle less like a car than a primitive bludgeon poking at a mob closing in on all sides. Cab drivers often offer surprising information about the taxi business in Boston and Cambridge, and sometimes they talk about their lives outside the taxi, but this one took a strange turn.

“What did we talk about?”, said he.

“We didn’t talk much actually, There was a traffic jam that day on the pike”. It was true, and I remembered the lurching, the murmuring, the cursing.

“I usually talk about what I’m learning and studying.” He began.

“Well, what are you studying?” I became interested. Eager young cab drivers can, to your surprise, tune out the mind-numbing cacophony that is a Boston traffic jam, and talk enthusiastically about vocational courses they are taking in community colleges; their plans to attend university or to send their kids to one. They speak with feeling about living double lives, studying in the evening or night classes so that they and their families – often composed of hardworking immigrants – can have a more comfortable existence in a new country. But, this was not one of those conversations.

“I study the Bible. The world is changing. It’s not natural … weather like this in December? … but it’s all in the prophecy. Here, take this. It’s all in there.” he said, handing me a booklet. It was thin and orange, with a sketch of a beautiful young woman with a rapturous expression on her face. This was the November edition of The Watchtower, a periodical published by Jehovah’s Witness. Inside, there were articles which spoke of how one’s life will improve immeasurably, and how the meaning of life will become self-evident, if only one became a member of the church. None of us are rational all of the time, but our sense of rationality asserts itself in the presence of what we consider irrational. While leafing through the pages, I began instinctively fisking the articles; nearly every sentence appeared to justify itself not on logic or evidence but based solely on its occurrence in the Bible.

Growing up in a country like India that is simultaneously secular and religious,  one becomes aware of the tension between the political need to be secular and the citizens’ attraction to particular religions. For the most part, the country is peaceful when it comes to religious differences; religious customs and traditions stay within families, fortified by marriages within particular castes, pickling over the generations. The public space is dominated more by people’s concerns with opportunities for livelihood and the scourge of systemic corruption than with fighting for religious primacy. Politicians and mobsters, however, know this tension all too well, and the most cynical of them keep it carefully sheathed in their holster of tricks until the time is right, exploiting it when the opportunity presents itself. These are what led to the shameful and religious massacres related to Babri Masjid in 1992-93 or Godhra in 2002. At these times, many people abandoned the secular ideals of the country’s founders. Many of our comfortable living rooms — insulated from the pogroms and horrific deaths in Ayodhya or Gujarat — became venues for expressions of repressed religious exclusivism. Wives would listen to their husbands blithely pontificating over their umpteenth unproductive cup of tea with friends, and then their children would echo those pontifications the next day at lunch break.

My childhood years remained sheltered from religious or political strife as a result of the parents’ choice of the cities in which we lived in the period from 1978 through 1999. We were fortunate to be far away from the flashpoints, and religious diversity was a more or less normal fact of my life, as it is for many Indians. For a time, I attended a school run by Catholic missionaries near the town’s railway station – an area of working-class residents with a higher concentration of Christians and Muslims than one is likely to find in most of India. Thus, friends and teachers hailed from families that practiced rituals of different religions, and partaking in the customs and celebrations from outside the Hindu religion was natural; this illusion of normalcy became apparent only after the fact, when we moved to more homogenous communities.

For better or worse, though I believed in God as a child, I do not recall thinking too carefully about my particular religious identity, nor can I recall a single experience of being in the presence of overt evangelism by a Muslim or a Christian. When I was a little older, I remember visiting Bombay for exams; There, my father showed me the traces of burnt walls and destroyed houses – after-effects of the 1993 riots. Eventually, I would read about the heavy-handedness of the Shiv Sena in the name of the Marathi identity. To my surprise, many discussions in college revealed that classmates relished taking sides; some even proclaimed the legitimacy of religious rioting — a phenomenon that I now attribute more to the overheard conversations of their elders who sat in the aforementioned comfortable living rooms, than to independent thinking. For my part, I doubt that I was thinking independently either, but the specter of violent death associated with these riots poisoned my mind against religious jingoism. This did not have much to do with a logical or rational rejection of religiosity; that would come later.

In the United States, fortunately, religious strife has been largely absent for a long time. Evangelism abounds, but it is not too threatening. Peaceful conversions happen all the time, such as in weddings. This probably causes some friction within families, and at the political fringes, but in the most difficult of times, the country appears to be remarkably resilient to religious upheaval. Having never witnessed evangelism before, my first experience of it was quite educational – it happened when I was a graduate student and was living near a Mormon Church. Many of us remember being approached by two exceptionally well-dressed and equally well-mannered male members of the Mormon Church asking you politely if you were interested in a conversation about God. One eventually loses count of the leaflets received on casual strolls to the supermarket or to the subway station, pointing us to a nearby church and its free sessions. As a commuting cyclist in Cambridge, you sometimes return to your parked bicycle to find a granola bar perched on the saddle, and a discreet note with information about a nearby church. Bizarrely, even though Hindus do not have an obligation to evangelize, many students on US college campuses have been offered a free Bhagvadgita or Isopanishad by the Institute of Krishna Consciousness.

In this latest episode of proselytization, the fault was primarily mine. I had begun the conversation; the cab driver merely took the chance offered him. A prospective convert was in the back seat, and the medicine would have to be administered before Logan airport came into view. It became immediately clear what the intent of ensuing conversation was, but sitting in the car weaving through the tunnels of the Big Dig, I could not have guessed the method that would be employed to convince me of the omniscience of God and the plans He has for us: Arithmetic. It involved the calculator app on an iphone.

“See, Revelation tells us that a year is 360 days. Seven years is how much?”, and he began doing the multiplication on his phone.

I was slow on the uptake, and puzzled because I didn’t know where 360 or 7 came from, so before I could multiply, he was flashing “2520” at me as we took the exit into Logan.

“Then we remove 607 years for Jerusalem”, said he, referring — as I later found out — to the year 607 BC when Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jerusalem was destroyed. The subtraction done, he pushed the phone backwards towards me, but then took it back and looked quizzically at the number 1913, wondering whether he had made a mistake.

“Oh,” he said suddenly, “and we add one for Jesus”. As far as I can tell, he was adjusting for the transition from BC to AD, but I could be wrong. Then, satisfied with the answer, he proudly displayed “1914” to me, and asked triumphantly, “Do you know what happened in 1914?”

“Yes”, said I, intrigued and eager-to-please, “The First World War began?”. All those history lessons about Ferdinand and Sophie came back to me.

He gave me a strange look, and I couldn’t tell if he was irritated. But, we were at Terminal C already and I was not to  discover if my answer was correct or not. I hastily gave him the voucher, packed the Watchtower booklet into my laptop case, and went to the back of the car to retrieve my suitcase.

“Pay attention”, he said as he handed me the suitcase from the boot, “The prophecy says that the UN will destroy all the world’s religions and try to unite all the people of the world, and (paraphrased) that will be when God will act.”  I was, at this point, utterly bamboozled by the mention of the United Nations and its connection to Armageddon. I said something silly: “Alright. I’ll keep my eyes open,” and entered the terminal. Only afterward did I realize that, in my state of amazed puzzlement, I forgot to ask him when this world-changing event was supposed to take place.