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Gnatcatcher Fighting Himself

I’ve been obsessed with this nesting gnatcatcher that has declared war on himself in the side-yard. It’s said a good daily exercise is to look in the mirror and challenge yourself to say, ‘I love you.’ The gnatcatcher deplores his reflection—he finds it in the chrome hubcap of my car and expends way too much energy fighting it. I hear him tink-tink flurrying himself at the hubcap, striking the reflection with his bill and outstretched wings. He gets knocked backwards, does it again. Ruffles his feathers, then rears at his visage ten more times before letting up.

It used to be I did the same thing. “April,” TS Eliot said, “Is the cruelest month.” And I’m not inclined to disagree because April has historically been hard for me, but May always seemed the drop-weight of the calendar, a plunging anchor right about mid-year when the gray sets in in San Diego and when—during my Penguin Years—the lights would lower in an eventual return to Antarctic darkness.

I’m better now.

But it would get so that my blood would hurt mid-year, and I’d be spinning off into depression after the manic months of February and March. I’d look into the figurative hubcap and fight my own reflection. I’d go radio-static.

FB memories is an interesting tool for me to gauge my mental health. Like in Memento, where the protagonist would tattoo himself daily to remember his day, I write down my stories to placehold a time, to memorialize the days and months. I’m very purposeful on social media: all these stories, these songs, have reason behind them. And when the memories appear on FB, I quietly measure my mental health against old cycles. This may seem overthinking things, but it’s really a good tool concerning self-awareness. Sometimes I don’t know I’m manic until I’m in it; sometimes I don’t spot a depression looming until I see my annual tendency toward radio staticity.

But, again, I’m better. I’m not the gnatcatcher fighting his reflection, nor have April nor May been cruel to me. I currently revel in the light rain that accompanies my morning walks and remark the blooms, which are mine alone at 5 in the morning. I am serene. I am content. I am opposite the bird who sees himself and expresses his discontent. May this continue.

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Lent by God and Gardeners

On one of my walks this week, I saw an astroturf lawn being watered by a sprinkler, and briefly I thought I was in Los Angeles. AA Gill wrote that in LA, everything is “[l]ow creeping faux family friendly, built in a vernacular of amateur whim and sentimental detail, patched onto functional boxes with occasional touches of eccentricity.” He continues to say that “the major architectural direction is lent by God and gardeners”, and that “the overall sense is of hasty impermanence, a city thrown up on a whim while they thought of something serious to put in its place.”

But North Park is not Los Angeles. Excepting the sprinkler watering refined, green plastic (in actuality also watering a bed of blooming and triumphant agapanthas), North Park is more like Pasadena with its vintage Craftsman homes, gables, and porches.

I pause in front of poet Maggie Jaffe’s old house on Granada, the one that used to be hemmed in by deep hedgerows and planted with citrus. Many nights I spent there with sheafs of letters and poetry, itinerant scotch, and the company of compatriots, every room in the two story house lined with books, every room potential for a Mary Shelley-style soiree, writers retiring to individual spaces to pen their novels and craft their poems, inspired by bound novels and carefully selected furniture. Now the house is naked and without greenery, a seemingly disused basketball hoop perched on a dead lawn, a sign saying ‘in escrow.’ Memories.

There is a crow that rides the spokes of an abandoned bicycle, with a flutter of wings circuitously jumping the rear hub, centrifugal, turning circles on the wheel in corvid enjoyment while the city wakes up, a low sun reflecting off eastern clouds and turning the palms golden. The squirrels in urban rodent fashion trace the telephone wires with tails flicking; they grip the cables and chatter at every passerby, chastisement of the less arboreal. They are responsible for all the broken fruits on the pavement and somehow survive the buzzing power lines while practicing their thieveries, scrabbling from wire to tree, tree to wire and, with scratches of nails, bursting across the pavement in mad scrambles.

A woman in a blue parka walks a bloodhound who’s snuffling the pavement looking for urban truffles. His ears drag through puddles from the morning rain, nose working overtime in houndian fashion, eyes down , tail pumping happy else intrigued by the smells invigorated by the brief rainfall. “Good morning, Pupaloo,” I say because I say good morning to all the animals when I walk like some modern day St. Francis—the people too-because for us early-risers, there is something special about the dawn and why we’re awake when everyone else has yet to percolate their coffees and toast their bagels.

I recognize all the buses now as they vacuum up their early patrons, accordion buses with whooshes of air brakes to interrupt the cloisters of bus stop culture, disparate peoples surrounding benches and smoking their first cigarettes, drinking cuppas while they wait. Nomad Donuts where the patisseriers are rolling the first crullers, down to a sleeping Carnitas’ where I met my friend Sara with her culinary tattoos, where when I was down one day and where the sign proclaimed, ‘Sold Out’, I still got foie gras poutine and a smile.

Past Influx where Holly walks out and says, “Good Morning, Thom,” and she opens the Qwik Stop for me and I help her grab items from atop high shelves and unload groceries from her truck.

A sit outside of Alexander’s where they still feature the walnut gorgonzola pasta that Jenn and I shared on our first Valentine’s Day in North Park, pregnant with Cayden. The Lynhurst, the North Parker, Saguaro’s, Paesano’s, St. Pat’s and St. Luke’s in quick succession, Pigment with blades of mother-in-law tongue in the front window, the army surplus building, the bridal boutique and the Ray St. galleries. All these places, all the memories that I have—a decade’s worth—living in a city where I know everyone by name, my peripatetic wanderings past the edifices and storefronts, the gardens and gables. All this: my North Park, and—like the crow riding the spokes of the abandoned LimeBike—I turn circles in the morning, round and round the neighborhood enjoying enjoying my home.

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When a Bee Sees a Flower, Legs Ready

My order is wrong, but I don’t exactly mind. I always order the tonkatsu with double dumplings, which at this point is an extravagance for me. You work with animals long enough, you start residing in the right-hand section of the grocery store longer than you used to, actually remarking the leeks and the raddichio with a reverance once reserved for the particular marbling in a ribeye or cullotte. You start to understand sentience, and even as sentience is extended fastly to plants (!), it just feels better having flesh be something you scoop from an avocado. Julia is the night manager at the ramen house, and she tells the nearby server: “I was expecting the ruckus anarchism tonight.” In between slurps of noodles (down a few dumplings), I can’t help but quip, “Excuse me Julia, did you not notice my particular ruckusness? I’m currently ruining your establishment as we speak.” I’m sitting and enjoying the lava stone fires, and she laughs as I rearrange my chopsticks, my bookbag contents spread around me. I DID have two ladlings of ghost chile sauce in my bowl, so there’s some whiff of mischief. I work on the egg–it’s really sweet–and experienced in eggery, I know there has been some kitchen mischief as well. Trick#1: braise the egg in soy and brown sugar, crack the shell with back of a spoon mid-simmer, and let the egg absorb both salt and saccharine. Madhur Jaffery, who cooked James Beards’ hospice meals threw in rosemary as good and strange measure; also shiaoxing. Trick #2: slow-poach the egg in its shell–takes twenty minutes at sous-vide temp–then rest the egg in a marinade. Either way, you get an egg you won’t find at Denny’s. If you think about it, the drive-in, diner shit is a hundred years old; global cuisine is much older. Michael Pollan makes a point: eat Old World stuff. Tomatoes and olive oil, as example. Basis of Mediterranean food culture–the combination of ingredients are symbiotic, meaning one ingredient heightens the other in health benefit. It took a co-evolution of plants and people to figure this out, which is why Old World food is better.
I push aside my bowl–too much meat in it. I’m at a corner stool, and Julia is still floating around, tamping down the apparent ruckus that has yet to demonstrate itself. I ask for the check, and I thank her. “Hey–first full meal in a while.” She smiles, “You fasting?” I look down at myself, then back at her. “No,” I laugh. “It’s just been a rough week, so thank you. It’s actually been a fantastic day.” I draw from my reserves and from how I thoughtfully cook as a philosophical thing. “Julia I’m great,” I say. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I know that you are what you eat. The bill comes back, and it’s a fraction of what I owe. I tip big and duck away. Julia writes me a note on the receipt, which I tuck into my pocket, and I smile at her on the way out.
Tomatoes make EVOO healthier, vice versa. There is the mutualism of butterflies and plants. There is echanged acknowledgement, like when a bee sees a flower, legs ready.

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Duchenne Smile

“Oh, is this your bench?” she apologizes, and I poo-poo her.

“It’s not MY bench, perse, I just like to sit here. Please don’t leave on my account.” I thumb back to my right. “There’s also an Adirondack chair around the corner in the weeds where I can sit for a spell.”

She has dramatic eyes: orange and plumbago above a plain surgical mask. She is pretty, I can tell.

I pet her dog, which has the broad and intimidating head of a pittie, but is puppy-breathed sweet. Brindle with tail wagging.

“I’ve seen you,” she says.

“Oh yeah?”

“31st and Thorn, I think.”

“I’m all over this joint” I say, waving vaguely to the city, which I have fastly considered my home.

This is becoming more and more a thing: I get recognized for simply being the perambulist of Altadena, the outskirts of North Park. I have made so many instant friends, it’s crazy.

“What’s your name?”

“Pam.”

“Nice to meet you, Pam,” and we don’t shake hands because we’re mummified in masks and decorum., but she smiles.

A Duchenne smile has two components: a contraction of the zygomatic major muscle, which raises the corner of the mouth; and an elsewhere contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle, which results in crow’s feet.

Pam’s smile meets the Duchenne requisite: the orange and plumbago make a sunset out of her eyes. Though I can’t see her mouth, I know she’s grinning.

There’s an opposite, you know: the Pan Am smile, which involves the zygomatic muscles only. You know who showcases this grin? Beleagured flight attendants, threatened chimpanzees, and Botoxed out injectees.

A chalk drawing outside the Art Studio says: ‘What if six feet and a mask made us all closer?” I love this sentiment. There’s a certain kindness these days, more ‘hellos’ and waves. Duchennes smiles for days, which you can see above masks, smiles reaching the eyes.

We’re all in this together. May your smile crest the edge of your nosepiece, may it show in a twinkle of the eye. Blessings.

Nice to meet you, Pam.