Archive for May, 2014

Interference

May 6, 2014

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We told the swans not to build their nest there. Seriously? We said. You really want to be this close to the parking lot, right off the foot path? You think this is a nice place to start your family, this corner of the harbor where all the trash washes up – food wrappers, water bottles, soda cans? Not my idea of a birthing center. But would they listen?

Sure enough, the next time we walked to the park in the village, the nest was done. The pen was sitting on top, and the cob was tucking a few last reeds into the side. We kept our son’s dog back, so the swans wouldn’t freak out. But we worried that not everyone would be as careful.

The town had stretched an official-looking fence between the nest and the path. But they didn’t include a sign warning against feeding wild water birds.

 

On Sunday, I took a friend to visit the swans. The pen was settled down for the count  — a blob of white feathers, a curve of neck, head hidden under a wing. A pair of mallards and half a dozen Canada geese were hanging out nearby. No sign of the cob.

“See? She’s sitting on her eggs,” a man was telling his little girl. “Want to feed her? She needs food, because she has to sit on her eggs.”

He tossed a slice of bread – not a torn-off crumb, but a whole, hulking slice – over the fence. It hit the bottom of the nest. The pen raised her head, looked around and reached for the bread. Too far.

“Too bad,” the man said.

A mallard swam over and waddled up the side of the nest, coming after the bread. The pen raised her neck as high as it would stretch and opened her beak.

“Did you hear anything?” My friend asked. I hadn’t. But it seemed clear that she was calling for her mate.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Off getting a beer,” my friend said.

Meanwhile, the man tossed over another slice, missed again, and ended up feeding the mallard again.

“Darn,” he said, and threw another slide, this time hitting the swan. She grabbed the bread in her beak , tipped her head back, and swallowed. We could see the bulge moving down the length of her neck.

Enough already, I thought.

But the guy wasn’t done. We watched him throw in slice after slice.  Mostly he missed, but sometimes he didn’t. With each toss of bread, more Canada geese and ducks moved in, and the pen grew increasingly disturbed. We kept waiting for the man to stop throwing bread, or for the cob to show up and and chase the other birds away.

When we left, the man was still throwing bread, and the cob was still a no-show.

Idiots, I thought.

 

As we were walking away, my friend mentioned something she’d read about economic development – how often our attempts to fix a problem end up making it worse. She was thinking the same thing as me, of course – that the man’s hapless attempt to help the swan was actually endangering her eggs.

Later, when I told the story to my husband, I said, “We didn’t say anything to the man.”

That was the first it occurred to me that we might have done something other than just watch. And judge.

 

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We Need Diverse Books Because…

May 3, 2014

There’s a campaign happening online to push for more diversity in children’s books.  Children’s authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and so on are posting  pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “We need diverse books because [fill in the blank.]”

It’s an issue I believe in, and one I think about a lot when I write. But I missed the memo about the campaign. I guess I’m not in the right social media circles. Also, I don’t do Tumblr. And anyway, I’m not much for taking selfies.

But then I was browsing through the children’s department at my local public library today, and I came across Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean.

Big Snow is about David, who can’t wait for it to snow. His mother tries to distract him with one indoor activity after another. But everything David does reminds him of snow, and he can’t stop checking the weather until the storm he’s been waiting for finally arrives. The story is lively, warm, and universal. The text is perfectly structured, with illustrations that alternate between cozy indoor scenes and zoomed-out double spreads that show the progressive  tableaux of David’s neighborhood as the day darkens and the snow falls, accumulates, and drifts.

The pictures are packed full of fun details to discover, from the bird feeder blowing in the wind and the snow-plow clearing the road to the darkening sky and the rising snow drifts. But what I’m interested here are two details that have nothing to do with meteorology.

The first, and much more obvious, detail is the color David and his parents’ skin – medium brown. (Their hair is black and curly.)

The second detail I didn’t even notice until I’d gone through the book a couple of times. It’s the menorah in David’s next-door neighbors’ window.  (It remains unlit until the final spread, when keen-eyed readers will learn that it’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. And there’s a Christmas tree inside David’s house, by the way.)

But wait. This is a book about snow, not religion or race. Why throw in those extraneous details?  Because not every kid is white and not every kid is Christian (or non-disabled, or growing up in a household headed two biological, heterosexual parents).

We need diverse books because kids who don’t fit the dominant demographic need to see characters like themselves. And because kids who do fit the dominant demographic to see characters unlike themselves.

It’s important to have books that explicitly address famous African-Americans, say, or Jewish holidays, or other topics that specifically focus on experiences that makes different kinds of people different. But it’s also important to have books that show people who don’t fit the dominant demographic living ordinary, everyday lives. Because guess what? Jews and blacks and people who use wheelchairs or are adopted or have two dads spend most of their time living ordinary, everyday lives.  And kids need books that show just how every-day and ordinary that is.

Neighbors

May 1, 2014

 

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I used to pass the house that used to be here several mornings a week, driving to and from the gym.

I like to take the scenic route, a tree-lined suburban parkway that curves beside the bay. The houses are substantial, the lawns and gardens well-kept.

Except for the house that used to be here.

I noticed it right away, the first year we lived here. Three stories. Yellow vinyl siding. Attached, two-car garage. Fenced-in yard.

It was a house that had started out very much like its neighbors, but it had fallen on hard times. The lawn was never cut. The cars in the driveway were rusty. The chairs set outside were indoor chairs.

I started watching for it, gathering whatever clues I could catch at 35 mph. I wondered about the people who lived there. I only saw them once, sitting out front on those indoor chairs. I want to say two men and a woman, maybe in their late twenties or early thirties. But I might be remembering wrong. I do know, for sure, that the day I saw them sitting out there was the first time I saw that a Confederate flag they had tacked to the vinyl siding, between the living room windows.

The next time I drove by, I saw that the attic windows were masked with what looked like metallic foil. One of the windows was outfitted with a make-shift vent, sort of like a clothes-dryer vent. But sort of not. I had to wonder what they were cooking up there.

The fire happened not long after that. It didn’t burn the house down, but it did melt the vinyl siding. I want to say the worst damage was on in the attic but I might be making that up to fit my theory. I want to say there was police tape. But I could be making that up, too. It’s been five years, maybe six, and I’ve had other things on my mind.

I do remember that plywood replaced the broken windows, and that a series of official notices came and went from the front door. At least a year after the fire, the garage doors were replaced with heavy metal plates that looked like they were meant to secure a vault.

Driving by, I was glad I didn’t live next door and across the street. I thought about police investigations. Insurance claims. Estate settlements. A tangle of bureaucratic procedure keeping the house in a state of suspended animation, with no end in sight.

And then, the other day, it ended.

I missed the actual demolition, but I did see a shovel scooping cement rubble into an enormous dumpster. Today, all that remained was the garage floor, the garage foundation walls, and five concrete steps.

I wonder who owned the place before life there fell apart. I wonder about the people were who put up the Confederate flag. What was going on in the attic? How did the fire start? Where is everyone now – Locked up? Dead? Baking designer cupcakes for the princess-pink bakery that just opened in Pawtuxet Village?

I could ask the lady at the post office or the guy who cuts my hair. This is the sort of place where people know, and talk. But I’m afraid that the answers they’ll tell me won’t be nearly as intriguing as the ones I’m imagining.