Oscars 2016: Leo’s growing pains

What creates buzz?

Lord knows critics and moviegoers aren’t lemmings. They don’t submit to a showing once browbeaten by word on the street or Internet that a movie is worth their precious time and greenback. Right?

Then again, we’re human, so a little FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) pressure must be at play. So-and-so, whose opinion I trust, says it was good. And in the run-up to the Academy Awards coronation, we dutifully do our homework (or, in my case, legwork), because Oscar wins mean nothing without having sampled the winners.

796468df-9f1c-4b1c-b6df-92bf943c29b5Unless you’re of the camp that Oscar wins mean nothing, period. Art for art’s sake. That there shouldn’t be big Hollywood players and “A list” actors at all — those who achieve such labels based on their Bank-Ability.

Glorify instead the workhorses of the industry. Noses down, sculpting art in remote places and private spaces, in a vacuum, where fame and fortune need not apply. Sewing costumes, tweaking scripts, risking hypothermia and eating raw bison liver …

Poor, poor, poor Leo. A true survivor, he is. Having survived … his entire career without an Oscar!

So let’s give it to him. He’s earned it. That’s what the buzz says. At first it was all Eddie Redmayne, his second-straight shot at the gold for inhabiting the underrepresented: the disabled genius, the transgender pioneer. A contortionist chameleon, he is. Where did he come from? Give it up for Eddie!


20160223_100635Then in the last stretch, after umpteen profile pieces, such as the one in today’s WaPo Style section, the world concedes. The ripples of praise gather into a roaring tide, and Leo is “lionized.” You must admit, photos of his innocent Growing Pains self compared with that untouchable Revenant greasy mane give off a Simba-turned-Mufasa vibe. Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba! The Oscar King. (Slaying the Redmayne — get it? red mane?!)

My eldest daughter, a proud member of the LGBT community, explains it as politics. Redmayne didn’t have the strength of the transgender community behind him, so that star faded. No matter how brilliant his acting was, he couldn’t get the votes; people are pissed, or not ready for this combination of factors, this constellation. Whereas in Leo’s case, it’s past time to acknowledge his gifts. Whether or not he went to such lengths to top himself in acting feats over a storied career, we now bow to him, as a tree bough against a biting wind.

Then we are decided? Better get on board, because it’s happening. Like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the momentum has taken on a life of its own.

So if you want a piece of Leo, put your little checkmark by his name so you can be on the winning team. Do it, and fait accompli.

Lord knows he deserves it. Into your hands, we commend Leo’s survivalist’s spirit.

(Do you like me now? You like me! You really like me!!!)

 

Movie memes: Cross-pollination of mainstream flicks


First things first. I share Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee’s consternation over this year’s #OscarsSoWhite snub. Seems to be a pattern. A baffling black-white one.

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Will Smith in “Concussion,” proof Hollywood is not an even playing field

And I was so looking forward to seeing Concussion, certain that Will Smith would be nominated for his transformation into a serious Nigerian. The trailer alone — that small furrow of his brow — seemed award-winning. Nothing’s stopping me from seeing the movie still … except time. Can’t possibly cram it in this month if I don’t hafta. This controversy puts the “cuss” in Concussion. On MLK Day, no less.

Four days since nominations were announced, my movie-viewing score stands at 8/37+0/15, or 22%. In the past few days, I rewatched Spotlight and Steve Jobs (to share the experience with my parents) and picked up Brooklyn, The Big Short, The Danish Girl and Room.

Besides acting inequities and lily-white actors, other patterns are popping up from film to film.

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Comedian Amy Poehler voices the Joy character, who goes through a roller coaster of emotions, in “Inside Out.”

For instance, the name Joy. Not a common female name, yet three honored movies feature Joy protagonists: Inside Out, Joy, obs, and Room. In the latter two, Joy seems ironically named, as neither character is particularly joyful, though I have yet to experience Joy.

In Inside Out, Sadness plays a vital supporting role to Joy — brings to mind Stevie Wonder’s hit Joy Inside My Tears. The Disney/Pixar animated feature is  a teaching tool to help kids name and access their emotions and realize there is no joy without sadness.

Speaking of kids, another echo is the 5-year-old‘s perspective, from Jack in Room and when we first meet Lisa in Steve Jobs. Also, remember when Lisa weaves through the puffy-cloud racks of tutus backstage at one of her dad’s dog-and-pony shows? That dreamy indoor landscape is echoed by a tutu array at Ulla’s humble theater in The Danish Girl. I’ve looked at tutus from both sides now.

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The spotlight is on gender-identity and sexual-abuse issues in “The Danish Girl” and “Spotlight,” respectively.

Another theme/meme, this time between The Danish Girl and Brooklyn: Lili (Eddie Redmayne) finally blooms, abandoning the painter she was and finding frilly work as a sales counter girl, gossipy and giggly with the other gals, selling perfume … same as Irish immigrant Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), eventually a no-nonsense accountant who first struggles to fit in through a department store job, selling nylons and such — nylons! Lili’s gateway drug! Eventually both fair-skinned lasses feel comfortable in their own skins, but they’re like sisters on the journey. Ellis hardly speaks and Lili mostly whispers.

Then there’s the iPodThe Big Short opens with narrator Ryan Gosling introducing us to banking ghoul Lewis Ranieri: “You might not know who he is,” he drones, “but he changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.” Hey! Point for an African-American icon! A historical montage flashes past, with images of — hello! — the first Macintosh, which is a co-star of Steve Jobs; the first iMac, also making a cameo in Steve Jobs; and a haunting image of the WTC twin towers with a large bird (is it a plane?) dodging past.

No spoilers here, but the dawning of the iPod in Steve Jobs was an emotional peak for me. The device did, in fact, transform my life. Seems poignant, with 2015’s streaming music wars all but killing our beloved iPod. And though the twin towers are but a footnote both in The Big Short and Spotlight, they register melancholy whenever glimpsed.

Visual and thematic cross-references like these, themes and memes, likely jump out only to Oscar marathoners — proof there’s nothing new under the sun, nor the Klieg lights, in the same awards season. It takes cluster viewing to suss out creative parallels.

Can one get a concussion from watching too many movies too fast?

Hey, you, Apple: I’m getting off-a your cloud

Feeling an impending darkness over all this cloud business.

Feeling an impending darkness over all this cloud business.

Apple is in 700 billionth heaven. But all I see are clouds ahead.

On Tuesday, the visionary tech leader broke through the market ticker tape to become the first American company valued at $700 billion or more — $710.7 billion, precisely, nearly double the worth of the next-closest contender, ExxonMobil, trailing at $385.4 billion.

On one hand, I’m proud, because I picked Apple eons ago — back in the naïve Nineties — to win the war over Microsoft. I’d always been a Mac-head: I bought in to the original Macintosh toaster; my 20GB click-wheel iPod was an answer to a prayer; and the iPhone is more than my personal assistant — we’re attached at the hip.

Still, I have a nit to pick.

Over the holidays, I decided to upgrade my decade-old, dual-core PowerMac G5 with a sleeker, faster machine. I had been feeling a bit caged in, still running Tiger OS on the beast.

hqdefaultI hadn’t kept pace with the leopards and other big-cat platforms because, despite my tech prowess, I guess people of a certain stripe have a hard time changing their spots.

I’m certainly not one to put the drag on the sails of technology. After all, I was an early adopter of the Super Betamax, lugging that wonder machine into my college dorm long before there was a Blockbuster on every corner. And it was only last year I tossed my combo clock-radio-rotary phone, which worked fine but was crowding out my iPhone, iPad and Kindle Paperwhite on the nightstand.

You get my drift.

So I was stunned to discover, having missed a few R&D cycles, that the new MacBook Pro laptop I brought home had no disk drive. Where were they hiding it this time? I mused. I felt like someone on “Star Trek” encountering a new life form, pressing everywhere for a hidden button, using crude sensors and probes. After a few days with it, fussing and fuming over the insistent logon for “the cloud” — we just weren’t bonding — I decided to return it in favor of a 27-inch iMac. Again, the internal disk drive was missing, but I figured a desktop would better support an external burner, three external drives, the VCR and my assorted cameras and peripherals.

Truly, I’m the one feeling peripheral, thanks to Apple’s grand designs.

My hobby is videography, so my primary aim in getting a new workstation was to produce DVDs or Blu-rays — not illegally, but as a service to clients, theater people, family and friends.

Yet here was Tim Cook declaring: no more disks, or even discs. Such technology is going the way of the dinosaur, just like credit cards (Apple Pay) timepieces (Apple Watch) and passwords (Apple’s TouchID). Your 3,000-plus CD collection? Toast. Let it go. Want to share your stuff? Introducing Apple’s virtual theater, where the world theoretically could have access – it’s all already in the public domain, even before you and your copyright expire. Plus, extra virtual space is going to cost you. Oh, and you’ll need a compressor to even upload or transfer, conveniently available for another coupla hundred at the Apple Store.

I’m certainly anti-clutter and pro-decluttering. That’s why my vinyl collection is stored off-site in a storage unit — outta sight, outta mind, outta pocket. Each month another $200; I keep repurchasing my stuff.

I’m all for keeping things “safe” — yet, thanks to whistle-blowers and alarming data breaches, it’s no secret there are no true hacker-free zones online.

I'm hungry not for more technological support but respect.

I’m hungry not for more technological support but respect.

My beef is: How does Apple get off thinking it can reprogram ME? Is this monolithic corporation Big Brother in a palatable disguise?

The erosion of my confidence in Apple — maybe technology in general — started with iTunes and the proliferation of MP3s over albums. In sync with its logo, Apple took a bite out of music quality, as MP3s merely “sample” sound, using a compression algorithm roughly one-eleventh the size of the original audio source. I never could abide those musical “dropouts” in MP3s, the tinny, tiny experience.

Now the heirs to Steve Jobs are applying more “Air” pressure to turn my personal data or creative handiwork into vapor. I resent anyone making that decision for me, and I refuse to pay twice for what I buy – first for “fair use” privileges that aren’t fair, and then for storage in a place where I can’t keep tabs on it.

Problem is, someone else sure would be keeping tabs on the data I access, filing my tastes and marketing more “items like that.” In Apple’s all-white, ethereal Zen puffy-cloud world — less hardware, more software — nothing feels like ownership anymore. I happen to find my peace in alphabetizing my discs and admiring the cache of colorful spines.

Not to mention, I hear horror tales about syncing and compounding (confounding!) digital clutter and incompatibility between “the cloud” and various programs, like QuickBooks. Although technology moves quickly, troubleshooting is never quick. And because there are competing clouds, with all-consumer-ing interests, no single omnipotent tech force is looking out for us.

Like leprechauns bowling in the sky, there’s bound to be a major cloud battle someday or unnatural data disaster, then poof! All the precious … up in smoke.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: I’ve looked at the cloud from both sides now, and I really don’t like clouds – at all.

Don’t mean to rain on your parade, Apple — but this cloud thing is where I get off.

One with the universe

10447027_10152514467382803_4815241321848240349_nNeil deGrasse Tyson is quixotic, hypnotic and “cosmotic,” a word he coined Tuesday night in D.C., at an event in which we breathed the same air and released a mix of carbon dioxide and hors d’oeuvres vapor directly into each other’s faces.

Gasp.

To say I was “starstruck” to shake this brilliant man’s hand and get a hug is an astronomical understatement. See, he makes you want to reach beyond the ordinary, he does.

I had helped work on a Cosmos-themed USA TODAY tab, in collaboration with National Geographic, and, given that my compatriot Jon Briggs and I talk about little else but black holes at the office, I was able to ditch one night for the privilege to attend, with Briggsy, the screening of the final episode of the show that picked up where Carl Sagan left off 34 years ago.

We didn’t arrive on time, but what’s a few minutes late to an astrophysicist?

In fact, our tardiness offered us prime real estate, as The Man of the Hour was edging toward the door as we darkened the threshold. Other groupies were lined up on the other side of a table, but we stepped promptly into his sphere, the back of his tailored suit much smaller than I expected. He turned and flashed that rock-star “Hello!” And then three kids materialized to steal his attention — which was cool, because what is deGrasse Tyson if not a teacher and mentor? He chatted up these three young boys (one not too young, as he tipped back a wine glass), asking them about their interests, their running times (deGrasse Tyson ran a 4:18 mile in his day), testing their reflexes … whatever it took to connect. He obviously is, and should be, their hero.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

He gets noticeably more animated — even more than the cartoons used in the Seth MacFarlane-produced miniseries — with impressionable younguns around. Hands down, the best part of the Q&A afterward was when a young girl asked him why solar flares occur.

His answer, here, gets progressively exciting.

‘Rendering It Aglow …

My own short Q&A with him rendered me aglow. For our picture together, he firmly grasped my shoulder, I wrapped my arm across his expansive back, and it was good. In fact, I was sweating when it was over, and I needed a cold beer to dab my brow and flesh with.

He wasn’t drinking beer, only wine. We chuckled about my ditching work (sincerest apologies to my co-workers). I shared that the series was “science porn” for me, as I watch it over and over — he raised both bushy eyebrows at that as I rendered him somewhat speechless. I also said I liked his dazzling tie and asked who designed it. Jerry Garcia? He gave me that curled-lip, bemused look, as if …

I overheard him discussing his interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and how whatever he said will be automatically “liberalized” — dGT loves coining words. He shies away from the icy political poles, displaying the perfect equanimity of a scientist.

Briggs was prepared to ask what was with all the SUV commercials on a show with the obvious agenda to battle climate change, but while I was busy being starstruck he was uncharacteristically struck dumb.

I managed one utterance of some substance: whether there would be more Cosmos — please? — or was it going to be like Carl Sagan’s series, kinda one and done. I think I said, “So … this is it, there won’t be any more, say it isn’t so… ” He first wanted me to clarify whether that was a statement or a question. Cute! When I phrased it properly as a question, he began, “I have never been much of a woman, but I imagine that after one gives birth that is not the best time to ask whether she’s ready to have another. Let’s just let it breathe a little and have its impact. … So this is hardly the right time to address that question.” He wasn’t stern or angry, just clear: He wasn’t out to one-up Sagan, and he never set out to be a TV star, plus the seven years it took him away from his family was exhausting.

He later rephrased that response in the general Q&A, and I wondered if I’d helped prep him or whether this was one of his “stock quotes.”

Either way, I relished staring into his knowing orbs, admiring his congenial way with each admirer and sensing how time stretches in his presence. Because this man is present.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer MitchellCannold.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer Mitchell Cannold. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Sagan’s widow, the lovely and poetic Ann Druyan, who writes the show and is its true nucleus, said: “Carl is one of those people whose absence is more powerful than most people’s presence.”

But deGrasse Tyson? HERE, HEAR. Present … and doing great work to resuscitate our curiosity about the world around us.

During the Q&A session, he revealed fun facts about the show’s production. Example: Although many of the nifty shots were filmed on location — he did tour the White Cliffs of Dover — the film crew opted not to shoot in Manhattan. So this Bronx native had to be green-screened in New York City. (Oh, and some of those Ship of the Imagination shots were green-screened, too — you read it here first.)

DeGrasse Tyson spoke eloquently about humanity’s fear of aliens, saying that if any extraterrestrials contacted us they would likely be in possession of some superior technology because they managed to traverse this great distance — something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. In every encounter between a population with better technology and one less advanced, though, as we’re well familiar, things don’t turn out as well for those with the lesser technology. We might expect to be enslaved, prodded, brains sucked out or worse.

He warned, though: Don’t project the hate that we know and apply to the unfamiliar in our own world onto them. Man’s inhumanity to man — fear of “others” — this is something we’d be advised to evolve far beyond, and fast. An advanced species, one hopes, would find our foul treatment of each other just as foreign as the most educated among us should.

This man may be the future face of education. Imagine his enthusiasm in a classroom, electrifying kids’ imaginations. We have the technology: Let’s hologram him in, if we can’t just clone him.

More clips from the Q&A (before my “lesser technology” died):

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses failure in the educational sense.

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to a question from the very D.C. crowd about whether he has a 2016 campaign in his future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson comments on whether his “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” has gotten him any closer to answering the age-old Q: “Why are we here?”

I think of my dad, who turns 90 next month and is legally blind. His love of stargazing taught us kids to look to the stars — not meaning celebrities — to corral our dreams, both personal and universal. Though his physical eyes can no longer harness the starlight to see, his inner light still shines. (A peek at my dad’s new blog on the universe, here.)

I’ll bet dGT is a fantastic dad, too.

Pique your curiosity. Catch the finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey yourself next Sunday night (June 8) on Fox or Monday night on NatGeo Channel (June 9). Watch it with a parent, a child, a sibling, friend or stranger — it’s the kind of entertainment that connects us. All 13 episodes will be available for purchase, appropriately, in time for Father’s Day.

A lesser birder’s first hard-core birding trip

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We were warned that birders were notoriously on time — that “on time” for them could mean up to an hour early. So naturally on Day One of our birding expedition in coastal Texas at the height of spring migration, my daughter and I nearly missed a 6:15 a.m. departure to Kingsville.

We wouldn’t make that mistake again.

As we strolled through the Omni lobby, admiring ourselves in new, starched floppy hats and flak vests, we hit George Armistead, American Birding Association’s membership director, nearly head-on. He had that caffeine-glazed, camp-counselor, coxswain aura about him: “Your van is leaving! I was just about to call you.” Then, in an aside to the finger-thrumming clipboard sentry: “The Byrnes are here and accounted for.”

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Gotta like-a Leica’s Jeff Bouton. (Photo courtesy of his website)

Tardiness proved advantageous. There was room for only one more to be stuffed into the government-issue white van, where each binocular-draped occupant was intently scoping us out. I was directed to ride in the “VIP” minivan — along with supernatural birding guide Jeff Bouton of Leica, local expert Larry and a spry, chipper 70-something birder from Quebec City, Richard Jones. His other hobby: tending roses.

My eyes aren’t the best, admittedly. Larry’s a bit hard of hearing. Richard? A hoot. As beastie birder Bouton, while driving 60 mph, identifies unheard-of birds darting across predawn skies or perched inconspicuously — the rest of us craning our necks for a great-tailed grackle or a mourning dove— our VIP van gets redubbed “The Short Bus.”

Our new pal Richard Jones

Our new pal Richard Jones, a retired university professor whose specialty was Canadian history. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Richard had already been birding for a week in Texas and tells of a chiggers assault at King Ranch. Despite stuffing his cuffs into his boots and stretching woolen socks over his calves and coating himself in bug spray like a basted chicken, he sustained 100-plus bites. Some, on his belly, are half-dollar-sized. He applied the standard birder remedy: dried, clear nail polish, intended to suffocate any clingy or burrowing mite. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t make it a habit!” Jones joshes. Bouton mutters: “And I thought the French were progressive …”

Now thoroughly spooked about bugs, I regret packing only a non-DEET eco-spray, a blend of cloves, cinnamon, peppermint and prayer. I am lovingly mocked.

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Some of our mottled krewe. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Within 70 minutes, we reach our first birding hotspot, a remote road across from a few houses backing to an inlet. Dogs bark, but we hardly notice over the babble of avian delights.

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Jen Brumfield in the field (Photo courtesy of her website)

The guide from the other van is a brawny woman dressed like a rapper, with hipster glasses, a black skull cap (it’s 90 degrees), black Eagle Outfitter-style safari shirt and caramel cargo pants. She’s also toting a scope and tripod near as tall as she is. Her voice is husky and certain. She wastes no time plucking species IDs out of thin air. “Brown-crested flycatcher, on the wire … Bewick’s wren, about to pop up … female painted bunting, on the fence … there’s the male … orchard oriole, 2 o’clock … dickcissel flying over … green jay in the mesquite … I hear a bobwhite, in the distance.”

She’s Jen Brumfield of Cleveland, a naturalist dynamo, who has already clinched — read “annihilated” — two Big Year records for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and raised its profile on the birding map. Jen has a knack for finding birds in strange places, such as the rare brown pelican hanging around Cleveland last summer. Her “Pelly” has its own Facebook page; officials made souvenir T-shirts of it; a local brewery is soon coming out with a tribute, Wandering Pelican Black Lager. Jen picked up Ohio’s first neotropic cormorant just days ago. This is the woman about to show me a treasure trove of birds. I ask her how long she’s been birding. Since age 2.

The bobwhite she pinpoints in a certain clump of grass 200 yards away. “It’s getting closer, moving toward us.” She impersonates the call. Her bird call repertoire is extraordinary.

The bobwhite is getting about as excited as I am. Closer and closer … and then BIG movement. A Cooper’s hawk railroads across the field, bangs into a fence and excavates the bobwhite from her happy place. Amid mournful groans, Jen notes the plump game bird was a female. She puts her scary-real bird calls on hiatus for the day.

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Birding behind a Mexican restaurant. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Meanwhile, my daughter and I are wearing so much gear, we feel like Navy SEALs. We move in formation with the group from hotspot to hotspot, from amber waves of grain, from sea to shining mudflat.

I rack up 157 life birds over four days, starting with the pair of brown boobies hanging out just outside the hotel near the break wall for the week, which George Armistead showed us through a scope as soon as we deposited our suitcases. Among other species that worm their way into my heart: the crested caracara, the hooded oriole, the inca dove.

I lack sophisticated photographic equipment, but here are a few shots I took using an iPhone and/or basic camera.

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Least sandpiper. Or pectoral sandpiper. I forget which. Can only tell when they’re side by side. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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A juvenile summer tanager. I think. Help me out here, peeps (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, terns do it. And  so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, bees do it. And so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

A male indigo bunting dines with a female ... something ... at the orange cafe. Photo by Terry Byrne

A male indigo bunting dines with a female … oriole? something … at the orange bistro. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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The pied-bill grebe I nicknamed “Nessie.” (Photo by Terry Byrne)

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala are.

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala roam. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

At King Ranch the third day, we enter a whole ‘nother world that feels more like Texas than J.R.’s empire. It’s eco-tourism nirvana, and larger than Rhode Island (poor R.I., always getting compared to breadbaskets). Cruising the ranch’s Norias Division, we marvel at unusual mammals alongside avian awes: nilgai (a spooky blue-hued cross between a deer and a cow, but not really, which is indigenous to India), javelina (feisty wild boar), hordes of white-tailed deer and a feral population of East African impala. We also spy roadrunners — but no coyotes, tumbleweeds nor IEDs marked “Acme.”

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Jim distracts some of King Ranch’s owners, who sneak up on us unexpectedly. At right is Calvin Rees, who can hardly go a day without photographing birds. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

King Ranch is home to 330 nesting pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls, accounting for 95% of the species’ North American population, explains our cowboy guide, Jim. He won’t guarantee the bird, but we end up seeing two, and I practice digiscoping — in layman’s terms, that’s taking a photo by mating one’s iPhone with a high-powered scope, aligning a pinprick of light with a pinhead lens, and crossing your digits. It’s an art, as demonstrated by Sharon “BirdChick.com” Stiteler the previous night over chow. I try. I keep my day job.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl, a target bird for my daughter, who lured it in by wearing her craft beer pygmy-owl shirt that day. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

I also manage to avoid bug bites but pick up one or two non-lodged ticks and enough plant life to seed a greenhouse. Matt Fraker, an XXXtreme birder-adventurer with sculpted back muscles, manages to pick up his 700th ABA life bird, a Botteri’s sparrow, posing in the prairie grass like something biblical.

That night is our one free night, with no seminars, presentations or potato dinner, so my daughter and I scope out a few local dives, bird a bit on our own and wind up at the hotel bar on the 20th floor.

After several sleep-deprived nights and craft brews, we get tipsy and decide to go rogue, conspiring to skip our planned field trip the next morning.

Matt's Botteri's sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Matt’s Botteri’s sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Just as I’m composing an e-mailed excuse to George, he appears before me, like Jiminy Cricket or a wagging-fingered, haloed angel on my shoulder.

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here to celebrate their life birds! Matt buys us all a round of top-shelf Don Julio’s tequila rocks to toast that little sparrow in the grass who remains clueless to the consummate joy it gave us hominids.

Birders perched on the bar. That's Matt, between my daughter and, far right. (Photo by bartender)

Birders perched on the bar. That’s Matt, between my daughter and me, far right. (Photo by multitasking bartender)

Matt also happens to have the next day “free” (no scheduled tours, but of course he’ll go birding) and offers to let us sleep in, until 6:30, and take us on a private tour of Choke Canyon to pick up a few straggler species we need. For me, that would be a pyrrhuloxia, which looks a lot like a diseased cardinal.

Matt Fraker, a manic birder.

Matt Fraker, manic master birder. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But instead of sleeping in, I wake with a start at 3 a.m., with visions of 127 Hours in my head. What if Matt is a serial killer who uses inexperienced birders to attract black vultures to his canyon lair? Why is it called “Choke” Canyon, anyway? Will we even have a cell signal out there? Am I a bad mother?

Matt point out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Matt points out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Corpus Christi’s Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But Matt, like all of the other birders at the ABA annual conference, proves cool and trustworthy. Instead of trucking out to Choke Canyon, he decides to take us to a closer, richer hotspot: Blucher Park, where we pick up nine warblers, watch a great kiskadee devour a songbird and a snake, and track a chuck-will’s-widow like Native Americans until it encircles us in awkward flight like a bat out of hell.

The chuck-will's widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

The chuck-will’s widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

We also run into many birders we know — new friends, old souls —  because by now we are a tight group of kindred spirits.

There’s Curtis, the recent widower who spent more than a decade living the gypsy-RV life with his bird-loving wife. He also happens to be related by marriage to someone I work with and is among the few who speak of things other than birds, from Shakespeare to sunsets.

And Peggy from Minnesota, never married, no children, finally retired and taking flight to see the world, connecting the dots of a life well-lived one small wonder at a time.

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Classy, cagey Eugenia doesn’t say much but reminds my daughter of Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Katharine Hepburn; when she speaks, prepare to be zinged. Friendly Raj is one of three physicians who hang together like a fraternity while looking out for the group’s welfare, making sure we stay hydrated. The couple from the Pacific Northwest seems a bit jaded, loath to glimpse yet another yellow-headed blackbird … until that magical Botteri’s sparrow pops their cherry and they light up like Christmas.

Daughter Cassy in her yellow birding hat and full eye makeup.

Daughter Cassy in her UV-blocking yellow birding hat and eye plumage. (Selfie by Cassy Byrne)

A May-December couple from Michigan share their own brand of heartache in a candid moment; the woman represents the only other ginger besides my daughter and puts her at ease about birding in full eye makeup. One of the Margarets is petite, pert and full of pronouncements with her encyclopedic knowledge, then turns out to be the first cousin of another friend at work. Another Margaret, from Oklahoma, is stunned to discover that Calvin attended her high school and knew her brother.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

It’s a small birding world, with boundless discoveries. And we have much to learn from these mostly tireless retirees — far beyond distinguishing the sound of a song sparrow from that of a Bewick’s wren.

Often when I meet someone who knows a birder, they describe them as being “big into birding.”

Yeah. I get it. Big Years. Big Days. Biggest Weeks.

There’s no other way to go about birding but in a big way.

That's me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

That’s me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

When an actor’s true character is revealed

1391380866_philip-seymour-hoffman-greatest-roles_1Character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s currency was storytelling. And yesterday, his untimely death at age 46, in an apparent heroin overdose, was the big story.

My phone on a faraway table glissandoed with the news alert one nanosecond after I hit the button on my latest post about the upcoming Oscars. My mind, bloated with movie scenes, was taking stock of the days I have left to soak up every stellar performance, each gripping tale … each grip and best boy … before the envelopes get unsealed In a month, the judgments served. So my husband helpfully grabbed my phone to bring it to me … and, without further explanation, moaned, “Nooooooooo!” He wouldn’t (couldn’t?) tell me, I had to read it for myself, and then he proceeded to his basement lair to binge on Hoffman movie clips. My daughter’s reaction an hour later, posted on Facebook, was similar: “No no no no no!” which she apparently deleted and edited down (Take 2?) to one, economic “NO!”

Hoffman as Rusty in 1999's "Flawless." A flawless performance, and the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie I felt I had to own.

Hoffman as Rusty in 1999’s “Flawless.” A flawless performance, and the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie I felt I had to own.

I’m pretty confident that NO was the whole world’s first reaction; like Whos trapped on this spinny blue-green ball, our collective resistance hurtled us off balance, thrusting through space, aching for something to bang into. Hoffman was one of those actors whose name would prompt the same response from everyone and anyone: “Oh, he’s my favorite!” “I love him!” I never met anyone who did not admire his work, whose body didn’t go limp with respect, recalling him as De Niro’s drag-queen voice teacher, Rusty, in Flawless (my absolute favorite role of his); or as a self-righteous bully in Doubt in which he defended his long-fought reputation; or as scrappy music journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. On and on.

esq-09-exclusive-sundance-portraits-philip-seymour-hoffmanWhat do you suppose went through Hoffman’s mind as he was lying on that bathroom floor fading to black? I am not judging; just morbidly curious. Did he know he was leaving behind legions of mourners? Was he rehearsing some lines in his head? His latest movie role, or how he might explain this away at the hospital or on 60 Minutes? Or was his mind nowhere as he tried to elevate himself above the pain of being human, of knowing and feeling too much? Was that his secret — the key to being a character chameleon?

We all have to die, and the beauty of Hoffman’s life is that he left behind oodles of clips and insights into human character. We all related to him, and now some of this flawless actor’s flaws are exposed. I mourn with the rest of the world.

I couldn’t easily get to sleep last night, though, and it had nothing to do with Hoffman. It was all about that other character, Woody Allen.

bee2d12c-1378-4515-8cbd-ef0d22df2589_AP080518047180_65Also in the news yesterday was the story that Allen’s adopted daughter had finally come forward to relate, in her own words, what life was like growing up around the highly revered film star. I read her letter to The New York Times. It sickened me. As the parent of a sexual abuse victim who spent years bottled up, I found her words somehow rang true.

We’ve learned, again and again, that a celebrity’s stature does not insulate them from horrible character flaws. Flaws?! Sometimes sadistic aberrations.

So while everyone else was combing YouTube for Hoffman clips, I began reviewing Allen’s “genius.” In her open public letter, Dylan Farrow challenged us to name our favorite Woody Allen movie. Suddenly I found I couldn’t even smile watching the ejaculation scene from 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask):

During Allen’s period of alleged perversion, this is the list of works that came out, leading up to the 1992 “trains in the attic” horror story:

1988: Another Woman
1989: New York Stories (segment “Oedipus Wrecks”)
1989: Crimes and Misdemeanors
1989: Somebody or The Rise and Fall of Philosophy (Short) (story “Mr Big”)
1990: Alice
1991: Shadows and Fog
1992: Husbands and Wives

woodyWhile others dissect the scourge of addiction, that seductress that snatched one of the planet’s greatest acting talents before we were ready, I can’t help but plumb the psyche of a mouse of a man, Mr. Big Shot, who perhaps after 22 years thinks he can get away with a heinous crime of nature. I hope there’s some serious detective out there somewhere doing the same.

I know, innocent until proven guilty. But let’s all just take a deep collective breath and try to accept that celebrities — actors — are masters at hiding their true issues. With them, we can be guilty of suspending our disbelief far too long.

And please, stop gaslighting children. She was a child of 7!!! when she first told her story to those around her. And these things always take years to come to light. Innocent until proven sex toys. The emperor is wearing no clothes, and is potentially pummeling the soul of a child in the attic.

I want to scream: NOOOOOOOOOOO! for her.

I don’t mean to defame a comic genius here. But “de-faming” him — stripping him of his position as idol, superstar, mentor, even feminist, Diane Keaton — may shortly prove in order. Then who will be in mourning? What would become of his art?

I’ve always known we must separate the art from the artist. A friend reminds me: “Think of all the terrors and narcissi who’ve created great works.”

But, ugh, what a gruesome Hollywood story in the making. Everything we always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

A married woman by any other name …

pwreminderIt occurs to me: Submitting one’s “mother’s maiden name” is often a key identifier for banks and password-reminder prompts  to prove you are who you are. It’s also a key means by which to have your identity stolen.

And isn’t that what happens, to a degree, when a woman surrenders her maiden name upon marriage? Giving up one’s maiden name is like having part of her identity stolen. 

It’s as if she folds her youth into her panties drawer, puts a ring — and a girdle — on it, and becomes someone else.

Such a patriarchal, medieval custom! (Did women even change their names in the Middle Ages?)

Mom gives up her "Gorbea" -- as well as her piece of cake!

My mom gives up her “Gorbea” — and, below, her piece of cake!

Wedding cake bites copy (2)I recently joined a group on Facebook composed mostly of strangers who share my mother’s maiden name, Gorbea. (Darn. Now it’s public.) After just a few days of sharing photos and stories, we’re establishing quick family bonds — like cyanoacrylate instant adhesives — as we discover there’s a trait that seems to run in the Gorbea clan, particularly among the men: abandonment.

“Abandon” is an interesting word. To love someone with abandon means to give it your all. Probably the easiest means of conceiving a child, too. Yet “abandonment” can be grounds for legal action. And in some families, like ours, abandonment seems an even greater temptation than forbidden fruit.

In my mom’s case, she surrendered not only her family name but the Hispanic custom of “piling on” to retain her birth name at the end. As more Latinos assimilate into the U.S.,  we’ll see more and more truncation of our traditions.

I did some research and, interestingly, in those places where sharia law exists, women do not customarily surrender their birth names — although they may give up most of their civil rights. According to Wikipedia:

In most Arabic-speaking countries, women keep their full birth and family names and do not change their family names to their husbands’ family names. This is also common practice for Muslim women around the world, except for South Asian Muslim women, who take a double name or adopt their husband’s. In some Middle Eastern marriages, however, the wife adopts the husband’s surname (especially in Christian households).

A marrying woman also retains her given name in Cambodia, China … well, daggone. I thought we were so progressive here in the Western Hemisphere. Or should I say “bloody hell” — because we can trace this custom primarily to the English — that empire that tried taking over the world. Today’s U.S. marriage rites  pretty much stem from the contractual ceremonies of the Middle Ages.

As far as I know, I have no direct English ancestry — close enough, though, in Scotland and Ireland. There’s also a mix of the Basque region of Spain and some indigent island Indians. Where we come from surely gets muddied, with all of this name-changing.

Oh. Is that the point? To cover our tracks? (It sure makes it harder for ex-beaus to trace our movements, even on Facebook.)

On my wedding day. Our infant daughter was an attendant.

On my wedding day. Our infant daughter was an attendant.

There’s something beautifully symbolic about adopting a family name as part of a lifelong love pledge. Sometimes the man gives it up, sometimes the woman. Some marrieds add a caboose connected by hyphens.

Personally, I like the trend of smushing names together, as did the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. His surname was Villar, but when he married Corina Raigosa they created their new surname, “Villaraigosa.” Rolls right off the tongue. Similarly, The New York Times correspondent Jodi Wilgoren and playwright Gary Ruderman had a smash with “Rudoren” upon coupling.

The Gorbea family coat of arms, reportedly the original heirloom found in the home of a Gorbea in the Basque Country of northern Spain.

The Gorbea family coat of arms, reportedly the original heirloom found in the home of a Gorbea in the Basque Country of northern Spain.

Imagine the genealogist’s nightmare sorting things out if we all did that. My surname might then have become “Davidea” or “Gorbison.” Then my daughters’, maybe “Byrgorbison” or “Davideane.” The options are endless, just like the recombination of chromosomes when we reproduce. Smush, smush.

Women’s movements have had limited success changing name-changing customs. According to a 2011 report in “The Huffington Post”:

The practice of women keeping their last names, first introduced in the U.S. by suffragette Lucy Stone in the 1850s, adopted by members of the Lucy Stone League in the 1920s and popularized during the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 1970s, peaked in the 1990s at 23 percent. By the 2000s, only 18 percent of women were keeping their names, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. Now, according to TheKnot, it’s at just 8 percent.

It makes me laugh that we call out chauvinists as “medieval” when the modern wedding ceremony is relatively unchanged since the Middle Ages. That section about “if anyone here knows why these two should not wed to please come forward …”? It has to do with consanguinity — being too closely related by blood (another research job for the genealogists) — or having killed someone, or being unfaithful or non-virginal or impotent. Nuptials were even originally performed in a bedroom, not a church.

Talk about medieval. Or … perhaps, progressive?

My one consolation: Although I tucked away my identity as Terry Davidson many moons ago, “Davidson,” along with my mitochondrial DNA, lives on each time my daughters fill out the blanks for “mother’s maiden name.”

Hi, Mom.

5 ways poetry doth rock

Clostridium-difficile_456pxA friend this week shared a poem as her Facebook status, resolved that 2014 would be the Year of Viral Poetry. The game went: “Like” it and she would assign you a poet. Thus tagged, you must plunge into this master’s work, like unstopping a brain clog — getting down and dirty, because contemporary poetry has fewer rules than the augured couplets of ninth-grade Honors English. Next, share your wonder by pasting in a poem as your status. So non-status-quo!

Then, as others glom onto you with “Like” petals, you’ll divine, assign, entwine, and this rivulet of streaming consciousness become a swollen wave to displace the dreariness of insipid trumpery.

That was the plan.

c-diff-photo-300x225.jpgSo I dove, cannonballed, belly-flopped into the source material, hoping to dislodge a pearl from the sandy, stingy depths of complacency. But that poem seemed just words randomized, a word cloud, a fluffed pillow of broken dreams, alphabet soup. This poem didn’t speak to me. Another poem sabotaged itself with quirk. The famous series — mere postcards to a celebrity. I rifled, like a picky eater with a shellfish allergy, through the digital poem links, downloaded mp3’d poems, YouTubed and buzz-fed for a Great Poem, one that itself might be shared exponentially. The more I typed “poem” the more it didn’t look write [sic]. A tiny voice started whining: How did she get to be an acclaimed poet? Who is she to pout and ponder? What makes these word choices arranged this way art, and others but utterances? And isn’t “WordPress” so aptly named — we’re all just slaving in a word mill of meaninglessness, churn, churn, churn.

light-virus-1I begrudgingly posted one — of course about death, too obvious — stating I didn’t really like this one, but it’s published, it must be worthy … and waited for the thunderous clap of “Likes” and my turn to pick a pack of poetic, pickled, plucking peckers. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … Hello? … … … … … … … … … Is this thing on? … … … … … … … Turned out my friend had assigned me one of her poetry teachers, ouch, and I had probably offended everyone in the room.

Tonal2

The word cloud I created from the poem I chose to post, “Tonal,” by Julia Bloch.

‘Course I think that I’m halfway smart and thoroughly understood this poem. Then my friend analyzed the poem … and in the process psychoanalyzed me. She showed me I had been applying my editing skills, and a poem is not necessarily built to withstand the acid tests. I had been reading it wrong, trying to sniff out the person behind the pen, legitimize her, case some logic or crack some code. Worse, I had been reading just the words.

Here is what I discovered about poetry through this fanciful Facebook exercise:

1. There is no “About Me” in poetry.

What was all that we learned in school about the id, the ego and the super-ego? Well, writers have ego. Writers-editors, super-ego. But the poet knows only the id, and that’s not spelled “I-D,” as in construct a Gravatar and share a little something about yourself in three pithy sentences. The poet dissolves amid the fluid exchange of lucidity.

2. Poems have an “interiority” complex.

This goal of “going viral” with a poem? Ridiculous. It’s already viral in the smallest and largest (universal) sense of the word. It connects like a unicellular predator inside of you and eats at you and decimates your defenses. You can’t put the experience “out there.” It’s like “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” both outlandish and “right here.” It is of creation. A fabrication of the fabric of life. So there’s little point in sharing. That would be redundant.

3. To appreciate poetry, you must reject authority.

As puzzling as a poem might be, and as clever as you think you are in unlocking its meaning, there is no answer sheet. As my friend pointed out, “Is the poet the ultimate authority of her work? I think not.” You aren’t, either, because the next time you attend to it, it may strike you differently.

4. There’s death in every poem.

Writing may bring some immortality, but an immortal poem confronts death as the life-affirming force it is. What is life but the absence of death? When we write poetry, we are, in the most reductionist sense, tangling with mortal measures — and that’s why I’m writing this at 3 a.m., praying someone will hear, or care.

5. We are all poets.

What’s really happening on Twitter, Facebook and the “Like”? A percolation of delineated and concentrated thought that congeals — like the creation of a Facebook status or that guy’s blog post, “Marriage Is Not for Me,” going viral — it was really his headline that did it. Yes, a certain twist on words, or something that connects, strums, makes inner music that others dance to. Our accidental choices mixed with nail-biting deliberations produce a form of condensed poetry, every time. We blindly follow the rules while cloyingly obliterating them. Technology is the platform for us to rise to the next stage, to one-up ourselves, but we stay above it, hovering, waiting for that next burst of creativity or clarity.

And that’s why I sat agape watching this commercial the other night, pondering: Is 2014 indeed the Year of Viral Poetry? “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” — Walt Whitman, taking flight on an iPad Air.

Powerful play, Apple.

Oh, and jk about the “5 ways.” There are hundreds more, but I’m clearly no authority.

Defeated by the war on poverty

The big story in the big media today is assessing where America stands 50 years since LBJ issued a battle cry against poverty.

LBJ signs the Medicare law in 1965.

LBJ signs Medicare into law in 1965.

His State of the Union Address on Jan. 8, 1964, helped establish the Economic Opportunity Act, the Office of Economic Opportunity, food stamps, Job Corps, Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare and a slew of programs aimed at bridging the wealth gap. Not socialism, just a healthy dose of social consciousness.

How are we doing? The prosperity in this country is ridiculous. Yet so many of us get shortchanged that even our perceptions are skewed. We literally don’t know what we’re missing.

The bottom line: America is bottom-heavy, and I don’t mean our obesity crisis. This is not just about the suffering poor, but the nouveau impoverishment of the rest of us. You’ve heard it all before: The middle class is being squeezed, as all of the wealth is concentrated at the top. Still, most of us have no idea how much disparity exists.

As legislators split and pull hairs over what makes a fair minimum wage, check out the hair-raising reality exposing the imbalance. This went viral, but not everyone is down with the sick facts. In the past 20-30 years, during the prolonged war on poverty, the top 1% went from bringing home 9% of the income to 24% and holding 40% of the nation’s $54 trillion booty. What does that look like?

Watch this and weep.

No matter how many federal initiatives or programs get thrown in as filler, the wealth gap seems to be widening, not closing. I wouldn’t be surprised if those of us paying the highest tax ratio end up depending on the very programs they fund to survive. That’s called “implosion.”

Forbes recently asked: “Could America’s wealth gap lead to a revolt?” It’s certainly revolting.

The nearly 7-minute video on YouTube I just shared has “only” 13,819,456 views (out of 317 million Americans, and three of those views are mine). So I know not all of you have seen it. Well, all six of MY readers have seen it … Meanwhile, the “Best VINES of September 2013 Compilation!” — a 10-minute video that includes 100-plus short-attention-span, dumb-ass VINE videos — has 34,878,552 views. Maybe that tells part of the story.

Hey, I’m not opposed to VINE videos or creative expression. One of those views is mine. There are even people who make money from such endeavors, getting sponsors, hoping somehow to strike it rich. Sadly, artists are rarely rich, although they’re the ones who most enrich our existence.

And sure, the people making up the bottom of the barrel or the middle chunk of society aren’t the same year to year. We have folks moving up and down the ladder all the time, trading places, falling off.

But that ladder leads into the stratosphere where, as the chart shows, nine out of 10 have lost sight of reality based on a false “ideal” — not a New Deal, but a Bum Deal.

You can keep your war on poverty. America’s wars cost too dearly. I’ll wait for the rebellion.

bread_line_1937

A bread line in 1937.

A mother’s undying devotion

photo

2013 photo by Terry Byrne

For two years, someone has kept fresh flowers and memories alive on a patch of median on busy Pickett Road in Fairfax, Va. Until this weekend, I had no clue on Earth who.

As I motored northbound, I spied her with a jug of nutrient-laced water and fresh white roses and carnations. I did a U-turn, hoping to find a place to park so maybe we could chat.

Wasn’t sure what I planned to say. Certainly not “Happy Mother’s Day” … but I needed to tell her that, even without knowing a single detail of her story, I had reflected almost daily on that makeshift memorial she lovingly tended … and on life’s tenuous tether … and on a mother’s unmatched devotion. For I had no doubt it was a mother placing the blossoms there, fresh ones every few days, as she projected to the world her indefatigable love for her child while embracing passersby with a radiant hope for safety along a surprisingly hazardous stretch of suburban road.

Capture

Managed to snap this quick photo of the mysterious flower-and-water bearer — didn’t care about holding up traffic. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

Sure enough, her son Marvin had been driving southbound in a black 1997 Ford Explorer, possibly too fast, at 1:30 a.m. May 23, 2011 — nearly two years to the day — when he hit the curb, then a tree, causing the SUV to flip, ejecting him. His younger brother was in the car and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Marvin, 24, was pronounced dead at the scene.

I know that spot in the road, where surveyors seemingly skewed the lanes just enough so that the curb jumps out at you. Coming home at night, given my failing eyesight, I sometimes have to swerve to miss that curb, even while going the posted 30-mph speed limit. It’s a speed trap, too — goes from 35 mph to 30 mph. Most cars travel 45 mph to 50 mph.

Marvin and his brother were nearly home. Just a quarter-mile more, and it would have been their turn at Mathy Drive, into the apartments on Persimmon. Instead, a miscalculation, and the light that brightened her life for two dozen years, her firstborn, burned out in a flash.

Marvin

The May 2011 accident scene. Photo by Jummy Olabanji, WJLA

It’s not exactly legal to garden on public property; then there’s Marvin’s dad, patiently waiting in the car across the street, idling illegally in a towable space. But no one disturbs the peaceful scene. This part of Fairfax doesn’t see many traffic fatalities, and maybe local cops remember that awful night, when they had to close down that section of Pickett Road until 7:35 a.m. Perhaps they just agree to look the other way. Word has it Fairfax City was facing a lawsuit over the accident, as the trees were planted in the median in violation of VDOT and NHTC regulations.

Before Marvin died, the most recent traffic fatality in Fairfax had been Dec. 8, 2009, on Blake Lane (US 9), at two minutes after midnight, involving a driver and a pedestrian. There is no makeshift memorial marking that spot.

How did I gather facts beyond what I witnessed and documented? Google. She didn’t tell me. I had to dig. Along with news stories I pulled up about the crash were racist comments, blind and false claims about the Jimenez Centellas family being illegals. Trolls attacking them mercilessly, thoughtlessly.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped cold. Notice the beautiful dove drawn in the center, and the Christmas ornament still hanging on the side. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

I wonder how many motorists zoom by thoughtlessly, oblivious to this reminder of this family’s ever-fresh wound.

One thing for sure: There’s nothing more American than building makeshift memorials. From the Vietnam Memorial (The Wall on the Mall), which pretty much institutionalized the practice of propping up teddy bears and pinning notes, to the more recent Boston Marathon attack, which turned busy city streets into a battlefield, cascading tragedies have breathed new life into local Hallmark and Party City economies.

What might be considered litter or vandalism elsewhere is allowed on America’s forlorn streets. Maybe even expected. Evidence of pilgrims claiming sacred ground, marking territory, conquering grief.

The couple were polite and trusting when I approached them in the parking lot. They lowered their windows, smiled, answered my few questions, accepted my condolences. Perhaps they first thought I was issuing a warning about trespassing.

Or maybe they felt, having lost their beloved child in the blink of an eye in a place they thought he was safe, that they had nothing left to lose.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

5 ways modern technology steals our humanity

Let’s start with the obvious.

1. Automatic flush toilets (and soap dispensers)

Yeah, that's EXACTLY what I was thinking about the misdirected shots of soap.

Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking about those shots of foam.

Not everyone overflows with creativity, but one masterpiece (‘fess up) that anyone is proud to admire is that morning dump. Don’t mean to be crude. Part of the enjoyment of “going,” though, has gotta be reviewing where you’ve gone.

Pooh on automatic flush toilets for stealing our glances. Meaning: Neither my doctor nor my mother gets the information they need at routine check-ups. You have to be gymnastic and quick on the uptake, or downtake, as it were.

It’s even more annoying when just a shift in your seat prompts a premature flush (some toilet designs double as bidets, in those cases). I’m left feeling: What?! Am I invisible here?!

The automatic flush also trains people not to flush; when suddenly encountering the rare hand crank, they then neglect to clean up their business, which is just wrong and leaves the next person thinking: “Animal!”

Automatic soap dispensers (also known as “hands-free” — ah, the irony!) are simply toying with us. It’s like the bully at recess who takes your cap and won’t give it back, raising it higher and higher … we keep swiping in the air — c’mere sensor … where are ya’? … ahhh, gotcha! … oh, crap, on my sleeve. Embarrassing. You end up talking to the sink, or yourself, or worse — some waiting stranger not in the mood for discourse who might decide to just leave without washing her hands.

2. The DVR

Sure it was a marvel when it first came out. Just like in the Seventies, when VCRs were replicated everywhere and, upon receiving the monthly cable movie guide, I would start with the A’s, cross-reference each movie airing against my AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies of All-Time tome (a book) and then set the must-sees to record so I could knock them off my bucket list then transfer them WITHOUT COMMERCIALS to a pristine tape to keep FOR ALL TIME (until the tapes disintegrated, which they now have done) and decorate each tape spine and load them into the bookshelf sorted alphabetically and by genre to admire.

I’m sure you all can relate. A very human thing to do.

Looking forward to the next time Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take their synchronized vacations so I can catch up.

Looking forward to the next time Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take their synchronized vacations so I can catch up.

Problem with the DVR: You can’t see or touch your stash. And you can’t possibly “save until I delete” all of it. You must constantly choose what to part with, or set it to “save until space is needed,” in which case things get recorded over each other that you never even see, and before you know it, you are missing “American Idol” Season 12 Audition No. 3, or the entire week of Feb. 18 Daily Shows and Colbert Reports. You just can’t see it all. I repeat: You can’t see it all.

Moral: If you don’t have time to watch a show in the first place, chances are you don’t have time to watch the accumulation of shows you’ve missed, unless you sentence yourself to sucking up all of your “free time” with “West Wing” marathons and “Game of Thrones” binges, in which case … you are left with no worthwhile life with which to live.

3. Speech-to-text tools

Yay, now everyone on the street can hear your texts!

Yay, now everyone on the street can hear your texts.

Rewind to when predictive text was new and we were all carrying those phones with the alphabet clustered by threes on the number pad keys. That design dates to the mid-20th century when people memorized phone number exchanges by province (like the old Glenn Miller hit “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” or the Liz Taylor movie “Butterfield-8”), giving rise to the 1960s touch-tone phone. We bravely attempted to tap out texts based on this arcane schematic, which never would have been designed this way if They could have seen the future and spaced out the most frequently used letters more logically. And we would hit the wrong keys and have predictive text predict the wrong words. This also emitted big chuckles and sometimes, yeah, we sent it with the typos because we knew the recipient would be perplexed — superfunny.

Speaking into a phone to coax it to text seems even funnier, not only due to the warped results but the image of everyone talking into their wrists like special agents … then raising voices louder when it doesn’t work. WHY NOT JUST CALL THE PERSON INSTEAD?!?!?!? ‘Nuff said.

4. Keyless entry

Feeling password strong!

Feeling password strong.

This includes push-button car ignition devices and such. If, eventually, no one carries keys, what clue will we have that we are experiencing “senior moments”? The “where are my keys?” routine is eliminated. Instead it’s “What was my password?” repeated 50 billion times across America every nanosecond. Or “Can I have your digits?” in the case of a car-jacking and other crime.

What’s funny is that with an average 2,738 passwords per person per lifetime that we are forced to recall, we end up keeping the passwords mostly from ourselves. Reset, reset, reset, reset, reset ….

Remember in preschool when the password was simply: “Please!”?

5. Drones

Drones really bug me. They make me miss the bees.

Drones really bug me.

This inhumane advance is possibly the most devastating strike against humanity. We live in an age when video games have gotten too real and virtual reality stands in for actual reality.

Whether spying or killing, drones are the height of impersonal.

And with them, all of the apocalyptic artificial-intelligence specters and sci-fi plots about the robots we create turning on us and imprisoning us are finally coming true. We are the drones, and we’re the ones pushing the red buttons, mostly because it’s easy and makes us callous … and I’m not talking just our fingertips.

Enough with droning on already.

A bad week in April

TitanicLifeRaftOur family’s favorite tragedy has always been the sinking of the Titanic — maybe because it never touched our lives yet summed up the immensity of human ambition and error, hope and calamity. There’s something haunting about the fantastical image of rich men at the helm of society clutching the rails or smoking cigars and clinking glasses while draining the ship’s bourbon and going down with the ship, honorably, as the band played on. While not a realistic image, it’s a stirring one that levels the injustices of a stratified society where third-class “second-class” citizens, mostly immigrants, stowed in the hull like cargo were, the fable goes, trapped by locked gates and an every-man-for-himself attitude. Doesn’t quite jibe with the “women and children first” directive of every ship’s captain.

Yet the romanticizing of tragedy, the “what would you do?” unknowns of facing a similar life-or-death situation, imagining that feeling of powerlessness while still summoning the will to live and a balance of compassion for your fellow humans who happen to be in the same boat as you … namely, Mothership Earth … heady, heady stuff.

We all know how the story ends, for any one of us: We die. And we won’t be here 100 years from now to read what history might say about us or our era. And yet, while here, we wake every day with some unseen directive, striving to make our mark on the callous measure of time, balancing some level of compassion for our fellow passengers.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Tax Day, the day we are reminded there is no free ride, when we all pay our share in return for what we expect to be a civilized society with a reasonable safety net. The Titanic’s doom wasn’t the first disaster to occur in the third week in April, but certainly one of the most notable. And although April 15 didn’t become the nation’s iconic tax-filing deadline until 1955, bad stuff, terroristic stuff, has increasingly been happening during the week bracketed by Tax Day through April 20, which is that ubiquitous “4/20” date that somehow celebrates the stoning of America, a holiday for hedonist potheads.

After a week like this past week, in which the Boston Marathon bombing and cascading events held us all hostage to the news from April 15 through April 19 — also the day Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, my employer, died — a journalist such as myself, OK, myself, is forced to take stock.

Consider the havoc and gloom:

  • April 15, 1865: President Lincoln dies after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the night before
  • April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech massacre
  • April 17, 2013: West, Texas, fertilizer plant fire and explosion, leveling town
  • April 18, 1983: U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut
  • April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing of federal building
  • April 19, 1993: Deadly finale to Waco, Texas, siege (Branch Davidian fire)
  • April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
  • April 20, 2010: Start of the BP oil spill caused by explosion that terrorized the Gulf region

Just a random collection of dates and news events, perhaps. One could compile a list of good and bad milestones, no doubt, for any week of the year, And yet these were all stories with “legs,” as we say in the biz … stories that stretch across time and grow exponentially in significance. Like the Boston Marathon attack, which I’ll propose tackily and tactlessly, forgive me, is a story with legs about heroic athletic achievement by runners and everyday heroes, as much as traumatic amputations, shattered lives and a severed sense of security. So many of us have “running a marathon” on our bucket lists, yet no one imagines any fatal risk involved. Like the Titanic, this tragedy is also a tale of immigrants. Unlike the hundreds who perished in the frigid Atlantic in 1912, these were two wayward immigrants, neither one a life preserver but hell-bent destroyers who exacted revenge on their adopted country, one cowering cowardly in a dry-docked boat in Watertown, ironic twist. A “fluid” situation, the newscasters said all week, that in the end wasn’t. But not since 9/11 have we, as a nation, felt more vulnerable. And mortal.

Here I add one more tragedy to the bulleted April list, because personal tragedy, we know, is universal: My daughter was raped April 18, 2009. My beautiful, powerful daughter. The attack thrust her and our family into a period of gloom and loss of security from which we are still fighting to recover, which makes this past week all the more horrible to review.

As they say, it’s not what happens in our lives but how we react to what happens that matters. Our response. Our emergency response. Our resilience. Except, of course, from death, which is the only thing from which resistance is futile.

So, while we can, let’s postpone the inevitable. Let us live. Let us imagine better tomorrows. Here, in the third week of April, amid the rekindling of spring, the promised resurrection of slumbering crocuses and cicadas, we are reminded that, among all of the germs out there, the germ of hope and endurance can truly reign supreme. It’s what motivates most immigrants to this country, where many of us live only by accident of birth, and what makes each of us free to be our own ambassadors of peace. From hell on Earth to hell-on-wheels.

conflagration-jim-finch“Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

Just as easily it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found.

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

Go on and make a joyful sound!

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive

And the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

But you’ll never know.”

— The immortal words of Jackson Browne, from “For a Dancer,” which is quite possibly my favorite song of all time. He wrote it for a friend who died in a fire, a friend who had been sitting in a sauna in a house that burned down and was unaware what was happening — out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.

Just a little blog post to accompany your lighting-up 4/20 celebrations. And now, I’m gonna catch up on some rejuvenating sleep.