[Cold pillows. Striped socks. Fog.]
We passed through a murmuration of starlings, yesterday.
We were shuttling from house to car, quickly, late, and I wanted badly to ignore the weird hum in my eardrums. The air was heavy, with chatter, vibration, quiet, pervasive, very Dolby surround-sound. I glanced up, scanned the street, saw nothing out of place, same old cars, thresholds, houses. Almost.
[People who explain sock puppets in 3:28 minutes. In language a kid can understand. Even grown ones.]
I turned to get into the driver's seat, stole a second glance, saw an altered reality. There, on my neighbor's same old lawn, sat a carpet of birds. Hundreds. Thousands. Absolutely still, every last one. I stopped in my tracks, eyes wide, not breathing—waiting, I think, to see who would blink first. Like I was in some MMOSC (Massive Multiplayer Offline Staring Contest). Which seemed preferable, on balance, to some old Hitchcock film.
[Ghouls who do math. Bark love notes.]
As I stood there, amazed, at attention, I noticed their numbers were the least of it. I noticed that if I zoomed in on one bird, there stood an identical model, exactly four inches to his left. And another, four inches to his right. And to the North and South, two others, four inches from tail and beak, respectively. That this pattern repeated itself endlessly, like plastic pegs on a Perler bead board. Perfectly spaced. Perfectly matched. Perfectly still. So still, I had all but not noticed a thousand birds, twenty yards over, upholstering the lawn.
Whereupon, it dawned on me...
Across the street? Same story.
One house down? Ditto.
I scanned the neighborhood. I realized every lawn, tree, porch and house for half a long block had sprouted wings. Starlings, like stubble, stippled every last inch. Legion doesn't even begin to describe it.
[Flowers over the kitchen sink. November Sundays that reach into the fifties. Encouraging me finally to break down bean poles. And us to rake leaves. And them to play Ten Things, one last round before winter hits.]
It was, as they say, something. And it seemed a fitting end paren to Thanksgiving. I'm only okay at Thanksgiving, at properly appreciating The Big Blessings. I've never been good at performing on demand—most shed pounds pre-wedding; I gained 15—and our national gratitude fest is no different. It's a good exercise. I'm down with it. And I'm deeply, wildly grateful for the nowhere-close-to Givens. Clean water. Good air. Sound roof and walls. Health, family, friends, food, indoor plumbing. And, to quote my kids at dinner last Monday, for "gravity, the Big Bang, and Mamo, because without them we wouldn't be here." Absolutely. In theory.
[Vocabulary lessons taught by friends. Butter faces, sculpted by the same. Friends who fly thirteen hours, each way. And kindly bring along a Zoë-age niece.]
In daily practice? Oof. Tricky. I get distracted. The nitty-gritty elbows in. Traffic jams. Drains jam. Jam doesn't set. Plans upend. Sleep plays hard to get. Cars, furnaces, spirits, bones break. Health is most easily admired in absentia. Spam galore necessitates comment authentication. (Ugh. Sorry.) Twelve gorgeous gallons of turkey stock are lost. After chilling on the deck. With a loose lid. (Double ugh.) And these are only iceberg tips.
[Flowers as grand in their dotage as glory. Soft gray days. Libraries.]
Appropriate awe overwhelms. Gratitude, writ large, falls by the wayside. I postpone proper appreciation for later, which is about as useful as pocketing snowballs for summer. Much as I mean to, I forget to give thanks for staying put on this planet without tent stakes or tethers. I'm gravity complacent. There, I've said it. You?
[The indulgence and spectacle of forty candles on a cake. Kids who still ask to help with the holiday brussels. Even if they politely decline the eating of them.]
In practice, I'm better at small gratitudes, miniscule instances of actual thanks-giving. The weird wonderfulness of one 1:3:15 pine block, en masse. The intricacies of spent bean vines. Particularly excellent first cups of coffee. Those elfin moments, quick, quiet, both, whose rewards bear no relationship to their effort. [Crumbs. Crusts. Scraps, buried in the brackets of a day.] Apples, very much like these, these, and these, tweaked to become something else entirely.
I realize they look like simple sautéed apples. Actually, they are simple sautéed apples. Tart peeled apples, cooked fast and hot in a knob of butter, with a flick of sugar to catch and caramelize at the edges. But this particular iteration involves an accretion of details that delights me no end. They're cut small, into rough 1/2" cubes, which means more caramelized edge per square inch. Small also equals several bits per bite, which means spoon instead of fork food, which means bowl instead of plate food, which if you answer to Molly, means a wide grin.
What's more? Their small size means they cook in ten minutes, quick enough for a Tuesday morning. And—and I can't yet get over this part—in exactly the same time as old-fashioned oats. Call it coincidence. Feels to me like fate. Especially after dipping into a bowl of both.
[Mary Pope Osborne. Series get no respect, and Jack and Annie follow a formula, yes, but hello? Siblings? Adventure? History? Mystery? 40+ titles to tease a young reader along? Awesome.]
They look a bit jewelled, ambered, transparent, with flavor that puts their looks to shame. Toothsome in places, tender all around, with a complex sweetness, fruit-simple and sugar-burnt, they turn three ingredients into extravagance. Henry likes them piled atop oatmeal. Smart boy. I like a mountain heaped high in a bowl, capped with Megan's buttermilk or whole greek yogurt, muscovado, toasted walnuts. They're right at home tucked in a waffle's plaid, or anchoring a crêpe, or solo on a spoon. They would likely make styrofoam go down easy. They are like that. Like Kaplas. Versatile, wonderful.
[Pear trees, the last of the last leaves to go. The word murmuration. The mystery of it.]
Oh, and those starlings? We startled them. Slowly, carefully, to majestic end. The road we drove ran right through their ranks, and as we inched along, they astounded. Scattered, swooped, dove, pirouetted, landed. Over and over and over again. It felt like we'd walked onto a Sophie Windsor Clive set. A small-scale version. With fewer picturesque waves. And no canoe. And more asphalt. But magic enough for an ordinary Monday. Joy disproportionate to the work of walking out the door.
Caramelized Apples for Oats, Waffles, Yogurt, Spoons
2 large, tart apples (Pink Ladies are lovely)
1 tablespoon salted butter
1-2 teaspoons sugar
Peel apples, then slice the four "cheeks" from the core. Flat side down, cut each "cheek" into several 1/2" slices, then turn crosswise, and make perpindicular slices, to yield 1/2" bites. Repeat with second apple.
Heat butter in a large skillet, preferably non-stick, over medium-high heat. Add chopped apples and sugar to melted butter, toss briefly to coat apples, then let sit undisturbed, 3-5 minutes, until undersides look like fall leaves, gold to bronze. Toss gently (I use a silicone spatula for this), aiming to flip most over, and let cook for another undisturbed 3-4 minutes. If at any point apples threaten to scorch, turn heat down slightly. On my stove, I find a fairly hottish medium yields the best results, with insides just tender with a memory of toothsome, and outsides gorgeously caramelized. Adjust your stove to suit. Total cooking time will be 8-10 minutes.
Remove from pan, and eat immediately, atop oatmeal, under yogurt, over waffles, as is.