Crazy bird

Oh, of all the madness in the world — and there does seem to be a plethora of it — I find myself compelled to share a bit more. But there’s a difference. I care not to waste more emotional energy on the chaotic state of our democracy nor on our loose-cannon president; I wish not to dwell another second on the butchery in the world masquerading as religious integrity. For a change, I wish to tell the story of another form of nuttiness, much maligned and so rarely given any press time, and that is the kind of craziness that first astonishes, then exasperates and finally, inevitably, amuses. This is the tale of a crazy bird.

The first thing we noticed was the odd, oily smudge on the living room window. As if a painter had dabbed his brush in bacon grease and then swirled it on the glass in vaguely concentric circles. A little Windex, and it was cleaned off. Done. We thought. We were wrong. For virtually the next moment, there was kamikaze robin diving repeatedly into the window. Amazing to watch. He flew into the window from a nearby yew time and after time.

One sage naturalist opined that the bird was defending its nest — it is, after all springtime and it was completely within the realm of possibility that he had a nest in aforementioned yew. Seeing his own reflection in our window, he was fighting off a rival. OK. That was one idea. But, let’s face it, a mullioned old Nantucket window does not lend itself to reflection.

First, we cut back the yew branches that were brushing against the house. The idea was to make it harder for him to see his reflection, if he actually did. No joy. He just flew a little farther to bang in to the window. Not once but over and over. Like a robin on a suicide mission. Then, we wondered if what he saw and worried was a potential nest disturber was the carved wooden shorebird on the windowsill of said window. We removed the carving. That did it! Well, that did it for a day or so. And then the bang, bang, banging began again.

The robin and his busy disturbance began at first light, so the thumping is what woke us up. But we were wrong again to surmise that his knocking at our window was confined to the dawn hours. Later on, perhaps as he became more emboldened or perhaps more desperate or perhaps when his brain was even further scrambled by repeated self-concussing, he could show up and begin flying into the window at any old time. What we did not take into consideration was that our crazy robin might be taking pleasure in disturbing our peace.

That idea crossed my mind when he stopped flying into the living room window and shifted his deranged attention to our first-floor bedroom window — of course, beginning his assaults as morning light broke — on the opposite side of the house. Tap, tap, pause, taptaptap. More effective than any alarm clock.

This morning, we had the bright idea to cut a piece of aluminum foil into vertical strips and hang one from each of the two windows downstairs. Peace achieved! We thought we’d outfoxed the foxy bird. Until the taptaptapping started up again — this time, at the upstairs bedroom window.

We know our robin. He hops around the front and backyard, fat and happy and seemingly sane, if sanity is something that can every actually be applied to a bird. He does not look mad. He looks like a robin going about his robin-like activities. But we clever humans with big brains are held curiously hostage by this nutty bird.

Must go. He’s at it again. Ramming his handsome head into the window. If only one of these times he’d knock some sense into himself!

— Belle Songer

The magic of ‘Marjorie’

William Shakespeare had it wrong about names. Maybe a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet but some names claim themselves with their very own brand of distinction. The magic of ‘Marjorie’ comes to mind.

Four generations of Marjories grace our family. My mother, about whom I will speak in a minute; her niece, my cousin, who was a renegade bohemian who ran off with and eventually married her UC-Berkeley professor in the extremely Ozzie and Harriet 50s; my own niece and my mother’s granddaughter  whose praises I am about to sing; and the youngest, a soon-to-matriculate freshman at Kalamazoo College who won the coveted Heyl Scholarship there in math and science awarded to students with tops scores and a desire to pursue “chemistry-related disciplines at Yale” as a post-grad.

Last Friday, my niece Marjorie McAfee was nominated for an Emmy for co-producing an MSNBC documentary in 2015 called ‘On the Brink,’ about the future for autistic young adults about to transition from graduation to whatever society holds for them. She spent three years following families with autistic children about to age out of the system, each confronting the abyss their children face thereafter. It was a labor of love. It was also a labor of pure professionalism.

The fact that NBC let her go just before she completed that project and that she fought her way back as a freelancer to finish it shows both her grit and her commitment to her work. The fact that UC-Berekeley School of Journalism turned her down twice before she was finally accepted and that she kept her eye on that prize until, on  the third application, she got in, is indicative of a Marjorie-ism: Marjories don’t take no for an answer. She completed ‘On the Brink’ before taking the job she holds now at ABC’s Nightline. She’s covering the Republican and Democratic conventions this week and last. My big brother’s baby girl.

Only recently did this Marjorie become aware of the fact that journalism runs, not just in the family, but straight down the female line. The first Marjorie, my mother, graduated from Bethany College in 1933 with a pre-med degree. She also had the greatest grasp of the English language of anyone, laymen or college prof, I’ve ever encountered. But she was a woman of a certain class and condition that did not encourage working outside the home unless she was widowed or a spinster. When she married my father, a gentleman of some means, any dream she may have had of a professional life evaporated before the social conventions of her day. Instead, she became a mother of four, a role for which she was not naturally suited, and eventually did acceptable volunteer work once her children were grown, working in a United Nations gift shop, for the Welcome Wagon or in a thrift shop owned by a friend.

But she also had a secret aspiration. She loved to write. I would not learn this until after her death when I read through the 1,300 letters she left behind. Among them were the occasional essay and short story but I also discovered there a nugget of news which rang with poignancy when I came across it. At the time of my birth, nearly eight years after my closest sibling, she was writing not one, but two, different newspaper columns in Pittsburgh, where they lived. She thought with all her children of school age, she could get some of her life back; that she could re-invent herself in the image of her earlier dreams. Finding herself pregnant again ended all that. She confided in her letters to her sister that she felt compelled to give the columns up, to devote herself once again strictly to the duties of motherhood.

She was the first of the women journalists in our family. As the next wanna-be writer in our line, I was the last to know her secret. Not once in all the conversations about me wanting to grow up to be a writer did she ever let on that she had once shared that selfsame dream. That she had had to abdicate her budding foray into the profession because I was on the way. Not a drop of resentment, not a hint of envy, nothing but a mother’s encouragement to be whatever I wanted to be. She lived to see my ambition become by-lines in countless newspapers and magazines and to see me receive a regional Sigma Delta Chi award for best magazine feature writing presented to me by a personal hero, NBC’s then-anchor David Brinkley. That story, by the way, was on teenaged suicide. But she did not live to see the newspaper I founded and published on Nantucket for the best part of 20 years, the Nantucket Map and Legend.

This Marjorie, Marjorie the First, spawned both the aptitude in science Marjorie the Fourth is getting ready to explore in college as well as the bug for journalism that goaded me and Marjorie the Third into the professions we now dedicate ourselves to. I think of my mother now, and how proud she would be of her Emmy-nominated granddaughter who is also every bit as proficient as a mother of two. I think, too, what a phenom she would have been in the working world of women had she lived today. And a happier mother, no doubt, too.

— Belle Songer

Big fish

You can call me Marlin. Yes, I just saw Finding Dory. I unabashedly admit I am a fan of Pixar and all things undersea. But I’m not referring to the clownfish in that flick. In this musing, I’m conjuring the billfish.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Nantucket is such a powerful force in my life. Like so many, I came here as a child, got the bug, came back and stayed. That might account for some of its pull, the nostalgia — memories of my pet seagull Chris, scalloping with the Orange Street octogenarians, opening a catch with my parents and their Sewickley cronies, raising not one, not two but three dogs here, morphing from a green kid into a working professional on this tiny patch of sand.

Of course, there’s the island’s singular beauty. Even in winter when the world here is simply grey. Sky, shingles, pavement, the cold metallic sea. Even in March when the damp and constant wind are bone-eating, and everything is grey, including the mood of most. But the soul cannot feast on scenery alone. So, what is it about Nantucket?

It’s been a niggling question over the last few days — why my heart is so firmly planted here. Then it dawned on me. Nantucket opened up a stream of opportunities for me, each  worthy of a lifetime’s occupation for those lucky enough to pursue just one and collectively, a tapas bar of experiences that this particular individual lucked into sampling. Just by being young and ambitious and a castaway.

Consider: on Nantucket, I have tried my hand at professional scalloping, both in the shanty and on the boat;  and cleaned the houses of the outrageously rich. I got my start in newspaper work stringing for the Cape Cod Times and then became news director of Channel 3, the local cable TV company, serving as the nightly news anchor. When I needed a job, I could create one — the Nantucket Writers’ Workshop, say, or the newspaper I founded and ran for nearly 20 years. Nantucket also was fodder for my freelancing career, giving me bylines in The New York Times, Boston Magazine and who knows how many other outlets. My hankering to get my feet wet in book writing was jump-started here too, when I stumbled into editing,then revising Building With Nantucket in Mind. Plays I wrote in my spare time found a home and production at the Theatre Workshop, for whom I later worked as artistic director. Once I was even hired to be a wedding photographer.

Each could have been a career in and of itself; each sustaining for an adult lifetime. Take the cable TV job for instance. In the real world, the entertainment industry is a union-driven field. In my two or three years at Channel 3, I leapt to the top of the profession as anchor, delivering the news every night (even if one viewer wrote in and complained that I had marbles in my mouth). Not only did I not have to slog up the ladder, corporate or union, I could cross lines unimaginable elsewhere. I learned how to handle myself in front of and behind the camera; I learned the sound board and all the technical facets of television broadcasting. Even the administrative tasks were not out of bounds. At a small station 30 miles out to sea, we all did everything. All four of us.Where else could I have done all this?

To recognize that on this little island I have worked in television, publishing, journalism, theater, education, photography, commercial fishing and done my share of menial labor is to contemplate a life so rich in diversity and so impossible almost anyplace else, especially for a woman of my era, I have to smile. I needed to recognize this gift Nantucket has given me or die an ingrate. That’s what happened this week: the ding-dong moment.

It goes without saying that I never earned any money. Money simply was never the point. Experience was. And I got it. Lots and lots of it. So now I get it.  Nantucket is a little pond and I got to swim around in it like a marlin. I could be embarrassed to confess as much. But I’m not. There’s a lot to be said for owning what you are.

— Belle Songer


Happy trance

I want someone to do to me what I do to lobsters.

Years ago a young friend named Rachel came to visit me on Nantucket with her brother and her parents. She was about 12 and a budding greenie, though I doubt if she knew it then. Because it was Nantucket and because it was New England, a lobster dinner was a required activity. Rachel looked at the squirming creatures, claws banded, fate sealed, as they scrambled helplessly to free themselves from the kitchen sink. At one point she made the crucial connection between the steaming pot on the stove and the five crustaceans. Her eyes grew wide. The color drained from her face. ‘NO!’ she would have screamed if she had not been well brought up and if she were not also cowed by adults she barely knew. Instead, she swallowed hard and turned away. The line was drawn in the sand: she was not about to watch as we sacrificed them to the boiling water; she was not about to eat the poor little animals she had practically named and adopted in her mind.

Why does my Headspace app fail to hold my attention? Why can a room full of college students fall under the sway of hypnosis, all except one, me? Why am I rejected for biofeedback and other homeopathic stress management techniques? How is it I can rewrite my dreams if I don’t like the direction their taking? Or even go back a night or two later and pick up where I left off if the dream interrupted was an especially compelling one?

I believe the answer is that I have a love affair with consciousness. Since I was a squirt, I hated to think I was missing something. So acute was this malady that it did not matter how excruciatingly boring the ‘something’ was. When I had to go to bed and my older siblings didn’t, I would wait up until they came in and settled down for the night. When a lack of a ready sitter forced my parents to take me along to one of their endless bridge games, even then, when sleep would have been a reprieve, I refused to nod off. To this day I recall how painful the struggle was to keep my eyes open, my head falling off my neck, then jerking upright, only to loll again the moment I let down my guard. Sleep, the enemy. Sleep, the oasis.

Which brings me back to lobsters. We had lobsters for dinner tonight and I demonstrated to some Down Easterners, believe it or not, how to tranquilize the critters, manage their pre-pot stress and reduce their execution anxiety.IMG_1709


In other words, put them in a happy trance, one that is said to damp down the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. That nervous system is not called sympathetic for nothing. It’s what operates the flight/flight response in all organisms; it’s what shoots adrenaline into the blood which, in the case of lobsters, is believed to toughen the meat. Ergo, a relaxed lobsters is a calm lobster, and a calm lobster is a tender one.

So, I’ve been doing this as a kind of dinner party sideshow for years. Do I believe it? Let’s just say I reserve judgment. My young friend Rachel didn’t buy it, not for one second. Our guests this evening did not weigh in with an opinion but they were duly impressed by a counter-full of lobsters in the “Claw Position” (sounds like a yoga pose, doesn’t it?)  and were not shy in their compliments to the chef.

What I can tell you is that this insomniac would welcome such a happy trance. Especially one that lasts seven or eight hours at a stretch. Perfect prep for a swan dive into the roiling pot of everyday adult life.

— Belle Songer




Dueling angels

Seven hundred fried twenty-somethings staggered off the Nantucket ferry onto the dock in Hyannis yesterday. Fried in every imaginable way. I wanted to hand out sunscreen, an urge that reminded me I’ve grown into my mother.  But it was too late anyway. They were crisped. Red racing stripes running down downy white legs, across the back of necks and making provocative arrows pointing alluring toward cleavage.

They were also fried in another colloquial sense. It was the end of Figawi Weekend, known alternately as Memorial Day Weekend, an event that once-upon-a-time was supposed to be about a sailboat race from Hyannis to Nantucket, a fact lost long ago. The atmospheric ‘fog’ in Figawi (as in ‘where the f__k ah we?’) morphed into a well marinated kind of fog before the first sailor found (bumped into?) Straight Wharf. It’s a party. It’s a brawl. The only thing these legions of foot soldiers on the battlefield of youth were memorializing was the grey cells they’d sacrificed on their parade route from bar to bar.

This year Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, two chiseled specimens of the male species who are icons of the Patriots football team were so out of control at Cisco Brewery, they drew a crowd. The proprietors, being no fools, began to sell tickets to this celeb mayhem. The boys became the entertainment. The word from my spy is that they ran up a $3600 bar bill which said proprietor, being no fool as I’ve mentioned, forgave. After all, you cannot buy that kind of publicity if you own a brew pub. Mentioned on the evening news, as they were. To the boys’ credit, they left the barman a $1000 tip. But was this appreciation for taking over his job and opening the taps? Or do they even remember doing it? It’s a toss up. Or maybe, since today is opening day of football practice, I should say it’s a coin toss. Or maybe, when Coach Belichick is through with them, their little gluts shining as red and sore as those sunburns, we could call it a spanking.

Which brings me back to the beginning and all those baked babes coming off the boat. The matronly angel that hovers permanently by my right ear, feeling smug and judgmental, despairs for their skin and their grey matter and the unruly behavior they visited on Nantucketers well into the wee hours this past weekend. But, TinkerBelle, that mischief maker, who is always buzzing my left ear, sees things differently. She is the patron saint of youth and lost boys. And she is always reining that matronly old buzzard back into line.

“I’ll take a Gronk six pack any day,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “Better youth and beauty, bad judgment and bad hangovers ,than the slippery slope of the moral high ground.”

Yeah, baby. That’s my Tink.

— Belle Songer