Titans of Florida

Thank you for your patience. Among other projects (my own and for clients), I’ve been working on a series of essays about birds—some long, some short. I want to send most of them to magazines for publication, and I’ll post others here as well.

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Titans of Florida

“The scariest predators here aren’t the alligators—it’s the birds,” says the guide in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, gesturing toward a great egret standing in the shallows.

The bird’s gaze penetrates the water, and its long white neck undulates from side to side as the muscles coil. The head darts down and emerges with a seatrout skewered on the sharp, yellow bill. The bird tosses the fish into the air and swallows it whole, the lump inching down its quivering neck.

The guide explains that wading birds eat several fish per day, with the blue herons having a strike success rate of 70%. “Imagine what it would be like if they were bigger!” he says with a laugh. With a guttural croak, the egret spreads its wings and flies off.

The birds used to be bigger.

When the Isthmus of Panama formed at least 2.8 million years ago, connecting North and South America, eight-foot-tall, flightless “terror birds” marched north, probably following their prey (they may have come even before the land bridge was formed, via small islands). Titanis walleri settled in Florida, sharing its previously unchallenged position at the top of the food chain with wolves and saber-toothed cats.

Finding itself suddenly in shadow, a small mammal would have looked up to see a colossal form towering above it, with a long neck ending in a 20 inch skull with a massive hooked beak. Instinct would prompt the mammal to run, but to no avail—terror birds could run up to 30 or 40 miles per hour. The bird would strike, severing the animal’s spinal cord or crushing the brain stem, and feast on the paralyzed mammal.

No one knows for sure what led to the terror birds’ demise, but it probably involved a combination of several factors, including competition with other predators, habitat loss, and climate change.

The egret lands on a sandbar and looks around with a self-satisfied air, its rippling reflection stretched before it. To the fish and frogs, the terror bird lives on.

* Egret image courtesy of Skeeze on Pixabay.

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Three Elections

I hope you all are having a great start of the year. I haven’t posted in a while. I have been working on a few research-heavy essays that I hope to finish soon. (One involved a heavy stack of books from the library.) I plan to publish at least one of them elsewhere, but I may post another here. For now, here is something I wrote on November 2nd, 2018.

Photo/map is courtesy of Grist: https://grist.org/article/we-broke-down-what-climate-change-will-do-region-by-region/

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Three Elections

Deadlines loom, but my attention and my mouse stray to Facebook, searching for event updates and political news. I fear going to bed on election night with the feeling that I didn’t do my part in preventing this cancer, this madness, from growing. I have scrolled past canvassing events, citing other commitments and activities with my daughter as an excuse, when the real reason is fear and the feeling that no one wants me showing up on their doorstep. Instead, I’ve spent weeks signing and posting petitions and sharing “Andrew Gillum for Governor” ads on Facebook.

Today is Friday, four days before the 2018 midterm election. I have just forwarded my signed nonpartisan agreement to be a poll monitor. Yesterday, I attended an online training and printed out the materials. I wait for the organizer to assign me a time and place. In the grand scheme of things, it is nothing.

I voted for Andrew Gillum in the primaries without expecting him to win. Everyone assumed Gwen Graham, a competent but non-progressive former congresswoman, would be the Democratic candidate. I was okay with that. But when Gillum surged ahead in the polls that night, I felt as if Bernie had beaten Hillary. Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, had openly challenged the NRA and was fighting for universal health care.

His Republican opponent associates with racists, parades his wife and kids in Trump-toadying ads, and votes in ways that do not match his rhetoric. Having no platform of his own, he resorts to trash-talking Gillum and hoping Trump’s support will save him. Unfortunately, it may work.

Right now, they are pretty much tied.

Social media teems with support and hate for both. DeSantis supporters accuse Gillum of being a socialist and a thief. Commenters tell each other to take their meds, get their heads out of the sand (or another location), or go stuff themselves. Each side considers the other un-American. I rub my temples, heat up a third coffee, and attempt to write.

In five days, it will all be over. No more ads. No more signs. Fewer emails and requests for money. Who will win? Across the country, Republicans are suppressing votes. Will discrimination triumph? If the Democrats win, will hate crimes increase or decrease? Will the militias across the country start a civil war?

Two years ago, I went to bed believing that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election. Because I was living in Prague, the votes would not all be in until morning, and there was no reason for me to stay up. At 4:00 a.m., after waking up from nightmares several times, I decided to turn on the computer.

It was after 10:00 p.m. back home in Florida, and the votes for the western states were still being counted. My stomach turned when I saw the map. Florida had gone red by a tiny margin. They had chosen hate, misogyny, and complete instability, if not insanity. I grew sicker by the minute as more results came in, adding more and more red to the map. When the awful truth became apparent, I composed a Facebook post in which I expressed my intention to wallow for a few days and then bury myself in my work, my books, and my family during the upcoming administration.

I did not stick to that resolution. How could I? News of hate crimes, broken international relations, and our new president’s general incompetence filled my news feed. Our nation needed all of us.

Eight years before that, I stifled a cheer as Barack Obama won the 2008 election. I had admired him as a Chicago senator and eagerly supported his campaign. Though many were disappointed in the results, I sensed an overall air of optimism. Some people who had voted for McCain still saw Obama’s win as a positive step forward for the country, especially in regards to race. If we have a Black president, racism must be over, right? Of course, this did not turn out to be the case.

Obama’s inauguration day was a ray of light in a dark period of my life. Though I later disagreed with many of his policies, for that moment, everything was right. Optimism about the future reigned.

In less than a month, I would be on a plane to Europe, and I would stay there for both of Obama’s terms.

Lilac Season

Thanksgiving is coming up, so it seems a fitting time to post this tribute to my grandmother.

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Lilac Season

I was worried the cold would kill them this year, but they’re blooming—light purple, white, pink, with a fragrance you can smell from across the street. Lilacs are a highlight of the year for me, not only because I love their smell and promise of warmer weather ahead, but because these lilacs remind me of the ones that grew behind my grandma’s house. I have never seen any others like them—one tree bore the usual light purple flowers, but the other two had dark purple and fuchsia. I used to clip a sprig of each color and stick them in a vase for the house.

My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy, but her co-workers at the justice building and the police department called her Dot. I can still see “DOT,” cross-stitched on plastic canvas in pink and white yarn. I have a mental image of her desk covered with cross-stitched accessories: the pen holder, tissue box cover, name plate. Cigarette ends stained with dark rose lipstick. Back home, her Siamese cat, Tai, who didn’t like anyone but Grandma. Chrysanthemums and peony bushes lining the driveway. The familiar smell as I entered her house from the garage. Tai’s blue eyes glowering at me from under the couch. The bay window crowded with plants. The 100-watt smile of Aunt Pauline, Grandma’s older sister, who had moved in with her.

Grandma didn’t like to cook. Instead, she took me to Arby’s on Monday evenings for dinner, and we would talk about school, friends, and whatever was going on in our lives. Thanksgiving dinner was an exception—then she went all out. Gradually, she allowed me to help and taught me how to make the deviled eggs and cranberry relish and to cut radishes into roses. After doing my part of the cooking, it was best for me to stay out of the way. One year, Grandma’s partner gave me a photo of his childhood farmhouse and asked me to do a pencil drawing of it for him. He later gave it back to me, framed, and I won a blue ribbon for it at the county fair.

I remember Grandma when I sew because she taught me how to make the finishing knots. “Hide a knot like it’s a secret,” she said. Besides sewing, she used to cross-stitch, knit, and crochet.

One day when I was fifteen, Grandma had an aneurism. She was in a coma for a couple of days, during which I visited her in the hospital, told her I loved her, and begged her to be okay. It didn’t help, and she passed away. It was a huge shock for me because she was only sixty-two years old and I never had a chance to say goodbye. For years after that, every time I got a migraine I was terrified of dying in the same way. As I grieved, I struggled to remember what she had told me about sad tears and happy tears before her own mother’s funeral.

Several years earlier, Grandma and Aunt Pauline had started a recipe box for me—a small plastic box full of index cards on which they wrote some family recipes, including the cranberry relish and deviled eggs. I continued to make the deviled eggs each year for Thanksgiving and other family gatherings, following the recipe by memory—or so I thought—and they became my specialty. Imagine my surprise when I reread Grandma’s recipe and discovered that my recipe had evolved over the years into something completely different from hers. And I felt extremely guilty for thinking that my own recipe was better.

I miss Grandma and wish I could talk to her. But now that it’s lilac season once again, I can smell the flowers and let all the memories flow through me, proving she’s still here and always will be.

The Offering

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The Offering

Eveline ran a hand over Javier’s forehead and kissed his cheek. She lay her head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of the machines doing their job. It wasn’t enough. Without a new heart, her best friend would die within two days.

“I feel like a vulture,” Javier had told her the previous evening, shortly before slipping into a coma. “You know, waiting for someone to die.” He slid yet another card out of its green envelope, opened it, and set it on the bedside table next to the others, which proclaimed “Get Well Soon” and “Happy 2024!” in bright letters.

“People die, especially now. It happens. At least you’re at the top of the waiting list.”

Javier had looked at her and raised one eyebrow in that way, which always made her catch her breath. He had a sixth sense for bullshit and always saw through her fake optimism.

Eveline sighed, raised her head from Javier’s chest, and stepped back. The room swirled and she collapsed into the chair behind her as her legs turned to jelly. Black spots grew and changed shape, her stomach clenched, and buzzing filled her ears. Gripping the armrests with ice-cold hands, she closed her eyes and shook her head, gasping for breath. Eveline couldn’t ignore these symptoms any longer—time for an IBT. She slowly rose and headed for the lab, supporting herself against the wall in the hallway.

“Are you all right, Dr. Collins?” The receptionist hurried from behind her desk to help.

Eveline forced a smile. “I’m fine. I just need some sleep. It was a long night.”

The receptionist nodded, her eyes radiating sympathy behind her glasses.

The hospital staff was used to seeing Eveline there on her days off. Javier had been assigned to Dr. Jones instead of her, and Eveline was glad for that. Her professionalism had its limits.

Eveline pushed open the door to the main lab and looked around, thanking the stars for the budget cuts that had emptied the hospital’s labs of employees. She could probably roll a whole cabinet out the door without anyone noticing. Until she got to the armed guards lurking outside the building, at least. She punched in the combination to the large safe that held the IBTs and various antidotes. The orderly stacks of blue and white tests filled the bottom half of the safe, and Eveline pocketed one.

She ducked into a changing room and pricked her finger. Despite the civil and world wars, the slew of new diseases resulting from chemical warfare, and the famine of 2019, which together had killed three quarters of the US population, education in science, the humanities, and philosophy continued underground. And despite the medieval quality of mainstream scientific education and the breakdown of the economy after the cutting of ties with Europe, dissident scientists had persisted and, with limited funding, created the Ishikawa-Barnes Test, a device that could diagnose nearly anything with one drop of blood. For many diseases, especially the newly engineered strains, the test could instantly estimate how much time you had—it usually wasn’t much. And against all odds, these tests were still available if you knew the right people.

The test beeped, and Eveline clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a shriek. She knew what the diagnosis meant—five injections of Solatriole within two hours or death, which would probably come by midnight according to the orange numbers flashing on the tiny LED screen. The PEP—Pharmaceutical Engineering Patriots—had concocted this disease in 2021 to covertly attack the Chinese, whom the regime referred to as “allies.” It targeted the central nervous system and shut it down within five to seven days. There was a vaccine, of course, but Eveline was allergic to it. She had taken the test just in time.

She rushed upstairs, holding the handrail to steady her shaking legs. She tore the foil off the syringe of antidote, aimed it at a vein—and froze. What if she didn’t take it? A curious impulse once informed her that she was a match for Javier—and this disease would not touch her heart. Hands trembling, she lowered the syringe and sank to the floor, sobs racking her body. She rolled onto her back and sucked in a breath, willing herself to focus. She wouldn’t have much time to decide.

Eveline rested her hand on her heart, feeling its rapid but strong beat. Her fingers brushed against something metallic. Her mother’s locket. She grasped it tightly as she thought about her family. Her father’s plane was shot down in combat. His death left her mother unable to afford chemo—this was before Eveline had graduated medical school—and she soon joined her husband. An anti-gay mob in white sheets had lynched her only brother. Eveline could still feel the sweaty hands of the men who held her down and forced her to watch. Her brother choked and clawed at the rope while laughter echoed around him. Javier was the only human being she had left, and losing him would finish her.

She stood, pressing herself against the wall as the circles danced before her eyes again. The episode past, Eveline descended the stairs. There would be paperwork to fill out.

At 11:30 p.m., Eveline sat on the cot next to Javier’s bed and used her remaining energy to detach Javier’s monitor and clip it onto herself. Tears slid down her face. She should have told him years ago . . . There was no time for regrets. Eveline caressed Javier’s cheek and kissed his lips before lying down.

Images chased one another behind her eyelids as she floated into oblivion: Javier and Eveline laughing over bad coffee, dancing at a Botanical Dregs concert, feeding the swans at her childhood home.

The images darkened and dissolved as the monitor let out a shrill whine.

Bus #149

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Bus #149

You lean out into the road as far as you dare. No bus in sight. You stamp your feet to keep warm as you contemplate the frosted pines across the street. Straining your eyes for movement, you spy a lone female blackbird plucking and swallowing berries from a hawthorn—you know she’s a female because she’s brown—and smile despite the worry that you will arrive late to your office in central Prague.

To your left, others wait for the bus, each a meter apart as usual. You’ve never understood this—they will all have to move forward when the bus comes. You are standing exactly where you know the back door will open. Brakes squeak as the bus materializes. Thanks to your foresight, you are first at the back door, and you hop into your favorite seat—just above the tire. It is too high for elderly or disabled people, so you probably won’t have to give it up. Plus, there’s a barrier behind you.

You pull out a book to avoid seeing the gum-chewing man across the aisle. His eager mastication makes you both anxious and queasy, and you imagine that one of your uncle’s cows has stood up on two legs, put on a pair of jeans and a stupid, poofy coat, and decided to take a bus tour. The book doesn’t help because you can still hear him. You raise your head and give him a pointed look. The offender stares back in glassy-eyed oblivion. You consider switching places, but sloth and stubbornness glue your butt to the seat.

You close your eyes and whisper, “I feel powerful, capable, confident, energetic, and on top of the world.” You repeat it three times. Your crunchy, yoga-teaching friend swears by it.

A mechanized female voice announces this stop and the next: “Koleje Strahov. Příští zastávka, Malovanka.”

A herd of college students swarm the bus and you thank the universe that you have a seat. Not only do you not have to stand, but neither will you be bumped by backpacks, purses, and other people’s rear ends. You press against the fogged-up window to avoid the teenage man-spreader with dog breath who has taken the next seat.

“Malovanka. Příští zastávka, Pod Královkou.”

The gum-smacker ambles off the bus to his urban pasture. Not that it matters much now, with the students telling inappropriate accounts of their weekend activities at top volume, listening to techno music on poor-quality earbuds, and munching on baguettes.

“Prašný most. Příští zastávka, Vítězné náměstí.”

You abandon your book to admire the castle. You always make sure you look at the castle when going this way. You reflect on how lucky you are to live in a place with a castle. Your high school boyfriend is probably playing video games in his mom’s basement at this moment, and the girls who called you “teacher’s pet” are working at Walmart—not that there’s anything wrong with working at Walmart, you check yourself, but you’d much rather share the bus with gum-smackers, chip-crunchers, and man-spreaders while you gaze at a gothic castle.

Photo from http://www.autobusy.org/linky/149.php

The Nightingales of Wilde and Hafez

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Oscar Wilde had the collected works of Hafez in his prison library. Hafez, the fourteenth-century Persian poet who wrote ghazals about ecstasy, faith, and love, whether carnal or spiritual. But what did Wilde learn from Hafez?

In “The Rose and the Nightingale,” Wilde tells the story of a philosophy student who wants to give his beloved a red rose, but there are no red roses in his garden. The nightingale begs a tree to give the student a rose, but the tree replies that there is only one way it can produce a red rose: the nightingale must sing all night with her breast against a thorn so that her blood flows into the tree. Ultimately, her sacrifice is in vain. The beloved spurns the gift. The student, who was never a true lover, tosses the rose into the street. The only lover in the story was the nightingale, and she is now dead.

Wilde must have come across numerous references to nightingales and roses in Hafez’s poetry. In Persian tradition, the nightingale takes the rose as his beloved and sings to her. In Farid ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, the nightingale initially refuses to leave his rose to seek the Simorgh. A ghazal in Hafez’s Divan begins with a nightingale nourishing a rose with his blood (though this poem’s translation says “his,” the Persian pronoun has no gender). Other ghazals by Hafez portray the nightingale as the quintessential lover. Did Wilde, like so many others, weep at these verses?

The beloved of the nightingale is not named in Wilde’s story; we know only that she sings of love. She wrongly assumes the student has the same capacity for love that she does. For her, love is more important than life, and she gives her life so that the student’s love can be fulfilled. It is a mercy that she never learns that her sacrifice was in vain. Wilde’s nightingale story, while exquisite, is cynical compared to those of Hafez. That could have been the result of persecution in his life or his sardonic personality.

A subspecies of nightingale that is common in Iran is called Luscinia megarhynchos hafizi. Were these birds named after the poet who described them with such love and delicacy? (I have not found the answer so far, but I hope to one day.) This subspecies is also called Luscinia megarhynchos golzii. Gol is the Persian word for flower or, more specifically, rose. Just a coincidence, or are lover and beloved united at last?

Braided Essay (Still Unnamed)

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I’ve been working on a rather long braided essay, the pieces of which are tied together by the topic of music. I won’t post much of it here because I want to publish it elsewhere, but I wanted to provide a taste: here are a few paragraphs from two different sections of the essay.

(From a section set in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Behind me, a woman fills her bottle from a spout on the stone-roofed fountain. Closer to the Adriatic Sea, Mostar is hotter than Sarajevo and the fresh, cool water, available to everyone, is most appreciated. Next to the fountain stand medieval tombstones, some with round turbans carved onto them. The dead are never far. Flashes of hot pink, orange, and red billow behind the tombstones, next to the mausoleum. The souvenir shop sells pictures, tapestries, and clothing, including belly-dancing costumes—evidently for tourists who assume that every country with Muslims also has belly dancers.

(From a section set in Córdoba, Spain)

The smooth claws of a curious pigeon grip my hand as I gaze on the earth-colored and white walls below. Water cascades down the fountain, joining the bubbling pool with a crash. The wind picks up and a stream of water splashes onto the concrete, spraying my face; the pigeon flies away. I stand and look around. Palms and orange trees line the streets and courtyards.

Walking through the streets, I see, smell, and hear the traces of Ziryab, the architect of Andalusian culture. Sweet-smelling cafes and restaurants where meals begin with soup. Honeyed desserts of walnuts and sesame. A couple playing chess by a reflecting pool.