‘who will survive in america?’

A Disclaimer: I started writing this piece a little more than a year ago. Over the next month, I’ll be publishing this essay in progress in parts. You, fair internets, are part of my creative process. There’s a much longer project I’m embarking on, and this essay in progress figures prominently. Thanks for reading.  -S.

March 2011

Dead birds.

Thousands of them. Real and imagined, suddenly appear from nowhere. At least to me. My iPod shuffled to a haunting tome in Nina’s brittle contra-alto, ‘Why you wanna fly, blackbird? You ain’t ever gonna fly.’ I clicked a link of short essay of images from the Gulf:

The timing of these two moments did not suggest coincidence. Later, I observed a quiet invasion on the A Train to Manhattan. To my left, a five year old boy’s attention fixed on a small screen. To my right, a forty five year old man methodically slid his index and thumb across a device. Their faces were aglow in part by the blue white light and the satisfaction at destroying something. I didn’t get it. Soon, I discovered the game everywhere.

By the end of 2010, Angry Birds had been downloaded 50 million times. At a 99cents per download, Rovio Corporation, the small Finnish company who created the mobile app with just $100,000 yielded a return of $8 million. I don’t think I’ve ever considered birds angry. What would birds have to be angry about anyway?

I played it once. It’s a simple slingshot game. Three little birds pummel digital wooden and stone structures to retrieve eggs stolen by evil pigs. And if I’m to be honest, there’s something quite gratifying about aiming a thing at a target and hitting it. It’s rote and it’s calming. Anxiety runs pretty is high these days. I’m not sure that I’m good at anything. I can do many things well, but what have I exactly? I’m still struggling with that answer. Yet, this Angry Birds app is the truth. I can advance to higher levels and achieve precision with just two fingers and lord over my opponent. A wooden wall, a house of cards constructed by evil pigs. The metaphor isn’t concealed here. David versus Goliath. People versus the Corporation. Could my bird pummel a brick wall? Will I ever fly again?

I found the observation of this academic curious:

Rovio made a smart choice in making the birds angry, said Jesse Schell, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies game design and entertainment technology. “You can smash them into things and it’s O.K.,” he said. “Imagine if they were cute little birds. It might be kind of funny on some level, but most people would probably be a little repulsed.”

Just imagine…

New Years Day 2011 announced more dead birds. In Beebe, Arkansas, five thousands of red winged blackbirds fell from the sky dead. In Faenza, Italy thousands of turtledoves fell dead on New Years. Perhaps I could take comfort in this trickster coincidence. However, I find no comfort in that logic game. No one wants to panic.

In the spring of 2002, there were dead sparrows all over my neighborhood in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. At least twice a week on my way to work I’d near trip over the delicate rot of a broken bird. The fires around ground zero stopped only a couple months before. I told myself that these two events bear no connection. Sometimes coincidence is simply coincidence.


As the ballet and film reach its tragic conclusion, we watch the white swan fall to her death. It is revealed that Nina Sayers, the swan queen has a self-inflicted abdominal wound. The artistic director of the ballet company is distraught.

‘Nina, what did you do to yourself?’
‘Nothing. It was perfect.’

The film opens with our hero speeding along a country road until he collides with a fireball. It is later revealed to us that it’s a bird, not just any bird; it’s the mythological phoenix. He tries to engage the Phoenix in his world presented in stark extremes – the very beautiful, opulent, and abundant — yet at its core lives a rot. In the critical dinner party scene, the hero and the Phoenix are surrounded by extremely beautiful people in a spare and ugly space. A single comment affronts the hero. Wordlessly, he leaves the table, walks to a piano and plays a single solitary note. Ballerinas emerge like a flock of birds, their movements transform from grotesque to elegant poses.

His song is vulgar and perverse; the music is mournful and melodic. It is a cautionary. ‘So gifted at finding what I don’t like the most.’

‘You rip the wings off the phoenix and they turn to stone!’ It is the first time the phoenix in human form speaks. The dialogue and acting is cringe inducing, however the truth of the sentiment wasn’t lost on me. She had a point. Moments earlier, platters of every species of birds were served to guests. The phoenix distraught upon seeing her kindred being served for her to eat, responds in horror.

In July 2010, 400 geese from Prospect Park were euthanized. It is a term we employ in civilized society A more polite way of saying killed. My discovery of this news in a bar one Sunday afternoon, the local paper headline read ‘They Had To Die.’

We are later told that the birds were gassed as effort to mitigate air quality for planes.

By May, weeks after the Deep Water Horizon explosion that left 13 dead, we learn that the estimates of damage were grossly underrepresented. Spill became an inadequate description for what was underway. My astrologer friend joked, ‘I knew this pluto retrograde cycle would be profound, but this is quite something.’ I’m not sure if I knew what he meant.

In Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted and grounding steel birds for two weeks.

Canaries were kept in cages in mines to warn miners of air quality. If the bird fell dead, the workers had to evacuate immediately. Last April, the earth swallowed 27 men in two separate mine collapses in Kentucky and West Virginia. The practice of keeping canaries in the mine had long gone the way of the dodo.

Birds have a place in the pantheon of world myths. They represent a host of messengers between the extraordinary and the ordinary, the divine and the mundane, creation and destruction, life and death. They are symbols of transcendence.

America’s own emblem is the bald eagle. It was officially adopted as the national emblem in 1787. At the time, it was believed to be the only bird of its kind that existed on the continent. A committee had been formed in 1782 that included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. The committee concluded that the drawing of the bald eagle, holding an olive branch in one talon and 13 arrows in the another with the phrase E. Plubris Unum to be the newly formed nation.

The selection of the eagle was met with some controversy. Ben Franklin dissented against the committee’s choice, vehemently criticized in a letter to his daughter in 1784:

‘He is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest. . . of America.. . . For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.’

My iPod on shuffle has a wicked sense of humor.

Every touch
Of every scene
As beautifully broken
As a bird without wings

Birds are on the brain. Geese, Sparrows, Blackbirds, Pelicans, Swans, Eagles, Phoenix. A film exploring the delicate line between dreams realized and nightmare. An album and an art film pushing the threadbare boundary between the sacred and the profane. America’s witching hour of creation and destruction. What out of this primordial deep wants to be born?