A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, April 20, 2012

Honk, honk

“Yerba Wubba Zrrrrble Uggugg!”
I hear the distinctively incoherent call as I jog along the muddy verge.  It’s springtime, and a common migratory species is once again rolling down its truck windows and exercising its vocal cords.  That’s right -- the Drive-By Warblers are back.
April offers lots of other signs of springtime, of course.  Slush and gravel whisper invitingly to small people in big boots.  Puddles large enough to be given names lurk along roadsides.  The cranes have returned to Creamer’s Field.  The swans are here, and so are the geese, the newborn reindeer and the adorably homely baby muskoxen. Flocks of bikers, their spandex plumage lurid in the sunlight, have repopulated the routes that were my private terrain in black January.  Family birthdays are gathering on the horizon, chirping “six, six!” and honking “forty!” These are iconic harbingers of the season – but so are the Warblers. 
Warblers are not just a Fairbanks phenomenon, of course.  In fact, they seem to be a species with a vast range, inhabiting every continent I’ve visited. While emphatic, their comments have almost always been obtuse.  I figure that the participants in this warm-season sport must have been cutting class on the day that the Doppler Effect was discussed in high school physics, and are thus blissfully unaware of the distortion of their voice effected by the motion of their 1989 Ford pickup, not to mention the masking effects of an elderly muffler.   They may also have missed out on the finer points of elocution and grammar.   
In years past, out-of-truck pronouncements unsettled me.  They undermined my need to be invisible, and augmented my hefty burden of insecurities. I’ve been walking, biking and jogging around -- in several states and nations -- ever since I was a kid.  To varying degrees, my non-motorized habits have been considered unusual, quirky, and downright weird.  Although I’ve always preferred to imagine that I’m utterly unremarkable while undertaking these perambulations, it’s hard to maintain that pretense while getting hollered at from a moving vehicle. 
Even when I couldn’t hear what was said, correct interpretation of the commentary always seemed like a lose-lose bet.  Option #1 was that these unknown males were making fun of me.  Maybe they were telling me that my butt looked vast and jiggly, or that my running style was reminiscent of Daffy Duck.  Maybe they thought that my speed was more glacial than their great-grandma’s, or that my bike helmet was the dweebiest thing they’d ever seen, and was buckled crooked besides.  My own imagination provided dozens of possibilities for humiliation.  Option #2 was even worse.  Maybe these guys were objectifying me, to the tune of, “A female!  In shorts!  With arms and legs in what appear to be roughly the correct numbers!  Woohoo, let’s engage in reproductive behavior immediately!”   Objectification, my angry-white-female self told me, was socially depressing, slightly threatening, and embarrassing in its own way.  In any case, whatever the options, humiliation was always on the menu.
I encountered my first Warbler a quarter century ago. I was biking back from the beach with my friend Mia, shorts pulled on over our damp bathing suits.  We were 14.  I had yet to hit puberty, and was such a blissfully clueless late bloomer that I turned to Mia in confusion and asked why some grown-up was offering up loud garbled pronouncements.  She rolled her eyes.  “Because we’re girls,” she said.  I blanched.  Because, you know, ick.
Ten years later, I was living in rural Jamaica, where it’s always the warm season, and where a young white woman on a bicycle is about as unnoticeable as a firecracker in an elevator.  No one had a truck, so as soon as my brain could parse Jamaican Patois, I understood the comments.  The many, many, many comments.  Every day.  For two years.  Options 1 and 2 were both employed, with myriad creative embellishments. My skin got thicker.  Not thick enough, but thicker.
Nevertheless, I never stopped walking, biking and jogging.  I do it because it’s a cheap and convenient form of transportation; because it’s often my sole source of exercise; and because it’s an excellent way to multi-task – I’m commuting, saving gas, saving money, trying to save the planet, and saving myself from cabin-fever in one easy maneuver. 
Fast-forward another fifteen years.  Some things are the same: it’s April, and the local truck windows are starting to roll down once again.  I still run, walk, and bike all over the place.   I still look like Daffy Duck, and I still can’t get my bike helmet to sit completely symmetrically.  On the other hand, a lot has changed.  I’m a professor – with, you know, an advanced degree and a career and everything.  I’m also a mom, and there’s often a kid-trailer or a tag-along bike clamped onto my own set of wheels.  Thus, when I met the first Warbler of the 2012 season, I was on my way from work – my I-have-a-doctorate mad-scientist job – and was heading over to pick up my kids from kindergarten.  And I was running, because, as mentioned, I’m a bit strange.
“Yerba Wubba Zrrrrble Uggugg!” shouted the guy riding shotgun.  I had no idea what he’d said, or which option it fell under.  That part was normal.  But then I realized that the game pieces had shifted.  Option #1, The Insult, now seemed to have a slightly new translation in my mind.  It sounded something like, “I am a pasty-faced under-employed young man who feels a peculiar need to shout rude things at almost-40-year-old professors.”  Option #2, The Come-On, now meant, “I am an awkward, incipiently paunchy 22-year-old who feels that he’d really like to sleep with some random almost-40 mom who is about to pick up her twin kindergarteners.”
This year, the season’s first Warbler didn’t leave me feeling irritated, vulnerable, or over-aware of my goofy, jiggling running style.  Instead, it left me laughing. 
Maybe laughter wasn’t the correct response.  I suppose I could get worried about my impending birthday.  I could develop a sudden urge to buy a red sports car, wear polyester pantsuits, or pen mournful existential poetry.  I could stock up on wrinkle cream and hair dyes and worry about my over-ripe ovaries. But, then again -- nope.  I’m not going there.  I wasted too much time in my pre-forty years feeling insecure.  It was supremely unhelpful.  Laughter is way more fun.
I think I have another ten years or so before I’m officially a crone, but I’ve already decided that I want to pick and choose the aspects of crone-ness that I embrace.  I think I’ll go with the part that allows me to wear odd hats, champion unpopular opinions, and laugh at things that I’m not supposed to laugh at.  I want to dispense wisdom on the rare occasions that anyone asks for it, and know how to shut up when they don’t. 
And of course I will continue to walk, bike, and run all over town in every season – and enjoy it. I’m already enjoying spring.  And I think I’m going to enjoy this birthday, too.

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