Thursday, November 5, 2015

Feathers, Kids, and a Dose of Humility

Getting lost while driving in strange places is one of my biggest fears. Never mind that the strange place may be just the local hamlet of Kirkland; I could make a wrong turn and be unable to correct it quickly because of an angry driver tailgating me, and before you know it, I would be on The Highway With No Exits Until Bucktail, Nebraska!

So I wasn't sure I wanted to budge out of my house one Thursday evening a few weeks ago.

Plus, it was dark. And raining.

Nevertheless, I decided to shake off my slothfulness and actually drive somewhere after dinner, because it isn't every day that the author of one of your favorite books is speaking practically in your backyard, unless you happen to live next door to him or her and he or she is asking you to please come get your dog out of their chicken coop.

Reader, you will be glad to hear that I made it safely to my destination in Kirkland and even found parking. The event I attended was hosted by the Eastside Audubon Society and featured biologist Thor Hanson, author of the smashing book Feathers and the newly published The Triumph of Seeds.

Feathers is the kind of natural-history book I love best--one that sweeps together a multitude of fascinating facts as well as anecdotes and snippets of cultural as well as natural history and compels you with the same narrative drive that a good novel does. 

I pretty much expected that I'd learn more about feathers and possibly seeds that evening, which of course would've been wonderful, but just like the aforementioned Feathers, the author's discussion ranged across topics and lit on many subjects I hold dear: writing, kids, everyday wonders, and the instinctive affinity for the natural world that every child is born with and that can blossom or wither as the child grows.

I could natter on for ages about any of these topics but I'll stick with one of the anecdotes Hanson shared, a little story in which a child takes you down a peg or two without intending to do so and leaves you realizing that even if you think you're fairly humble, you're still capable of fluffing up your feathers and strutting a bit.

In the author's story, he was at a local shop in their very small town with his young son, where they ran into a little girl from their preschool. In the shop's window was a poster with the author's photo on it, announcing the date of an upcoming presentation. The little girl gawped at the author, looked at the poster, looked back at the author, then back at the poster, clearly linking the two and seemingly speechless. "Is that you?" she finally asked. Yes, came the reply. 

How could one not feel a bit chuffed at this bit of recognition? And then came the flattening reaction: the little girl studied the author, and then the photo, and finally asked, "Do you wear the same sweater every day?" 

(Note to self: borrow a sweater when the day comes that I actually get an author photo taken. And return it to the owner immediately.)

My dad had a similar experience once upon a time. He was an aeronautical engineer with many interests and loved nothing more than a wide-ranging conversation. One summer day, he was at a company picnic, and a little boy fell into chatting with him. Talk turned to jets and airplane design. Dad warmed to his topic as the boy stared at him, entranced. How wonderful to have such an appreciative audience! The boy was practically slack-jawed with fascination.

Then, without warning, the boy sped off and ran to his own father. He pointed back at my dad. "Papa! Papa!" he cried. "Look! Look! That man is all covered with little dots!"

It is quite true that auburn-haired Dad was liberally speckled with reddish freckles, which were on glorious display in short sleeves on that summer day. "Well," said Dad at this point, "that put me in my place."

Carol Burnett knew this feeling well; on her show back in the 1970s, she told a story about sitting on her young daughter's bed, talking to her earnestly--longer than she'd intended, as the child's rapt face and unblinking gaze encouraged her to continue. Satisfied, Burnett smiled lovingly at her daughter, waiting for a reaction. She didn't expect it to be the statement, "Wow. You sure have a lot of teeth."

I don't recall a time when anybody young or old hung on my every word, but there was a day when I gave a little presentation about writing books to a small group of kids in my daughter's elementary school.

Most of them were inattentive, but one boy was riveted. I turned the pages of one of my published books and warbled on about the writing of books for his benefit. When I asked if anyone had any questions, his hand shot up. That's when I learned the real source of his fascination: "How did you write all those words so perfectly in the book?" 

By which of course he didn't mean my deft word selection, but actually I would be very happy to see that as a review on Amazon. Hope is, after all, the thing with feathers.*

*A statement that I can no longer make without thinking of Woody Allen's reaction: “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not 'the thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”