Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

About 10 years ago, a few days before Xmas, I spotted one of these birds right outside of Marshall Fields downtown,on top of a mailbox. The birders reading this will shake their heads. This bird at that time would have no business being there,or damn near anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. I was astonished. It could not be a mistake; no other bird looks like this one. I looked around and realized, I had nobody to tell. Cell phones (or at least mine)didn’t have cameras yet. So I just stared at it.

People shoving by me in the bustle of Xmas shopping. . .there was a guy dressed like a Dickens elf pimping hot chestnuts about 20 feet away, and this bird. . .staring around. I wanted to be able to stop the whole city in its tracks and point him out; shout at the top of my lungs, “There is a snow bunting in the middle of downtown Chicago! This is really fucking RARE! Christ, go buy a lottery ticket. This is a sign!!!”
Still, nobody knew it, except me and the bird. And not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of that bird. That maybe it is my grandmother. . .a visitation of sorts, or my father, or the many dead friends, or more likely, just a lost bird that crossed paths with the right guy who needed to be reminded of life’s magic and circumstance. What Paul Auster once called, “The Music of Chance.”

Maybe it was that.

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Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago Sapsucker

Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago SapsuckerThere was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.

In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.

There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.

Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own.  This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”

A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.

What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.

Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.

This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #33: The Assassin Bird

Assassin Bird

The shrike is a badass It is practically a bird of prey. If you are a mouse, or a grasshopper, or a katydid, and the shrike sees you?

Well, god forgot you, my friend.

Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lunch Drawing #32: Yellow Bird at a Carnival of Last Chances

Lunch Drawing #32 Yellow Bird at a Carnival of Last Chances

Not long ago I watched the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, which chronicled the careers, fates, and unrealized dreams of the amazing women who gave rock and roll its most defining sounds, from Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” to Merry Clayton’s bewitching and hair-raising turn in “Gimme Shelter” which, for me, was the bell tolling for the 1960’s and the generation of love. After that, it was Nixon’s America.

This film is an invaluable document that draws the line between a performer and a singer, as well as the razor-thin line between success and failure, and damned little of it has much to do with talent, and everything to do with desire and the vagaries of chance.

This is a funny word. . .”chance.”

My father used to tell me that gambling had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with chance. After seeing this remarkable film, I now know what he means.

Watching Lisa Fischer coax the sound of a Sting song out of the ether and her own spiritual connection to sound, I realize she is a truly spiritual conduit to every sound she has ever heard, and can channel them at will. She is an artist. Sting is a performer and, taking nothing away from him, he IS talented. But Ms. Fischer is the keeper of a gift, and to watch her sing in this film is astonishing. There are not words that adequately define her instrument.

Sting is a star, but the thing I remember about him is that his songs function as a vessel for towering voice of Lisa Fischer.

This one is for her, and all of those remarkable women.

Published in: on January 17, 2014 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lunch Drawing #31: The Ice-Man’s Bird

The Ice Man's Bird

There is a silhouette of a woman in each of these drawings. That woman is my grandmother who, every morning, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and put jelly on them. She would then dice them up and toss them out the back door for the birds. When I asked her why she was giving our bread to the birds she would hold a finger up to her lips and tell me, “Listen. . .”

When I did, I heard blackbirds, mourning doves, warblers, finches,and sparrows.  My grandmother, Mae, would look down at me and tell me, “For a piece of bread, you can hear God sing.”

Some stories write themselves.

Published in: on January 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lunch Drawing #30: The Winter Lark

Lunch Drawing #30: Winter LarkWhen kids are in high school, doodles usually adorn every surface of their textbooks; at least they did on mine. I loved scribbling on the back of my tablet, or in the margins of my history book, or just on loose leaf and in notebooks. Anything was better than listening to the teacher and taking notes on whatever bullshit they were going on about.

What I’ve most enjoyed about making the “Lunch Drawings” is just how much they remind me of those drawings I made trying to escape the mind-numbing and mundane crap they tried to teach me in school. With very few exceptions, my teachers talked like a roll of toilet paper. One bloodless, colorless theory after the next, until I had annihilation fantasies about blowing up my high school. The history I was taught was a lie. The math, I can do with a calculator. The English lit was the boring shit only Catholic schools would teach.

I went to a high school with no windows. At least in grade school, I could look outside at the birds. This became my great escape, and when I drew them, it became even better.

Often the drawings wound up situated in the middle of the crazed and vulgar doodles that I made. I didn’t realize it was my subconscious telling me to broom the rest of this shit and just go somewhere and draw.  Eventually I got it. Drawing birds and naked girls became my passport to what the nuns used to call, “Tony World.” I liked it there.

I could do whatever the fuck I wanted there. When I was drawing, nothing that the teachers, cops, or other pain-in-the-ass authority figures had to say meant dick. It was all a blur and I learned how to shut out the noise, and listen to the music in my head.

Published in: on January 5, 2014 at 12:57 am  Comments (1)  
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