The Lunch Box Oracle

If a kid’s lunch box reveals something about their future personality development, then for me, the writing was on the wall pretty early: I was gonna be an odd guy.

Back when I was young, lunch boxes were metal, rectangular containers, like miniature suitcases, usually with an accompanying thermos for a beverage. The paint used to decorate them was probably lead based and fully toxic, but they were cool, they were fun, and they were much sturdier than the old brown paper sack option.

Go on eBay and you can find classic, retro lunch boxes going for hundreds of dollars to grownups yearning to possess them, either for the sentimental value or to add to a collection of related memorabilia. It’s not often that I see children with the metal rectangular suitcase lunch boxes anymore – nowadays it seems everyone is going for the miniature thermal coolers or flexible nylon bags to take their lunches to school, complete with frozen ice packs and plastic bottles to hold the beverage. No themes, no characters, no imagination – but the Gogurt stays cold.

I remember having lunch box envy. Some kids had superheroes like Batman or Superman or The Incredible Hulk on theirs. Some kids had their favorite baseball or football teams on them. Some kids had them with cartoon characters or favorite TV shows. They might change each year, the kids coming to school in September with a new box bearing a different theme; and some kids just kept the same one year after year. They were a reflection of the kids’ interests, their hobbies, their characters.

I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but the lunch box I ended up with was adorned with images of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Kids actually saw me carrying my lunch in this.

As the youngest of four kids, I was the recipient of a lot of hand-me-down stuff – clothes, toys, butt-kickings…  But I honestly don’t remember any of my siblings ever using this lunch box. Which means I must have gotten it new. I have no memory of picking it out; I have no memory of requesting it. I didn’t even know who the hell Jonathan Livingston Seagull was. If I had a hand in selecting this lunch box, I’ve clearly blocked out the memory.

I remember seeing the paperback book when I was little. The book had a different design than the one on the lunchbox, and someone in my family had brought a copy of it into the house at some point. I knew nothing about the story, but at the time assumed it was a tale about certain sea birds. I had no interest in reading it, and in fact, did not read it at all until I was in my twenties – and then only because I realized I had no idea what the hell the book was about, and wanted to satisfy my curiosity about why on earth someone bought me that lunch box in the first place.

After reading it, I still didn’t know why I had that lunch box. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a straight story; it was more like a fable, in that it had a “message”. I thought the message was pretty lame at the time, but that is more a commentary on where I was, spiritually, than any slight against the book itself.

The book is about a seagull (named Jonathan, of course) that grows tired of conforming to the limitations of traditional seagull life – wanting to give up the daily food squabbles in favor of perfecting his flying skills. In return for his lack of conformity, he is booted out of his flock. He continues to pursue greater flight goals on his own, and is eventually introduced to a new society of gulls who take him to a higher plane of existence. He meets a wise seagull who becomes his teacher, and he learns the importance of being true to himself. His teacher’s last words to him are “keep working on love.” Jonathan finally comes to understand that the spirit cannot be free without the ability to forgive.

As I mentioned, when I first read the story I was appalled that I had been duped into reading what ended up being a story “with a message” – it felt like propaganda at the time. “Sentimental hogwash”, as old man Potter would have said. I was so defensive against anything remotely spiritual, likely because at the time I was spiritually bankrupt. But it was fairly easy to ridicule the novella – I mean, it was a story about birds seeking self-improvement, after all.

Of course, I now see that – however simplistic or banal the book might have been – the message it carried is universal. I get it today. It’s a message that could benefit anyone and everyone: forgiveness yields freedom.

But my inner child says “Come on, honestly – could a six year old be expected to get that? Who picked out this damn lunch box?” (Yes, my inner child casually swears a lot.)  “I want to know whose idea that was! Hey – I loved cartoons – where was my Scooby-Doo lunch box? How about a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner lunch box? Flintstones? Jetsons? Was anyone paying attention to what I was actually interested in? I just wanna know who picked Jonathan Freakin’ Livingston Seagull!” (Apparently, my inner child is also a bit of a punk.)

Given the lessons I’ve received in the last few years, and how they resonated with me – hit me at my core – it would seem that the instruction to “keep working on love” is a message I was meant to receive at some point during this lifetime. It just seems strange that the message would technically be conveyed to me through something as ridiculous as a child’s lunch box. I suppose it’s better than a Magic Eight Ball. I am reminded of another message that I’ve received very recently: “We don’t get to choose the messenger”.

Maybe it’s one of those “it wasn’t the lunch box that I wanted, but it was the lunch box I needed” scenarios. Perhaps nobody picked it. Perhaps it picked me. It seems kinda cool when I look at it that way.

A Scooby-Doo lunch box would have been a lot cooler, though. I’m just sayin’.

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Fowl Mood

The day had a ninja-sun overhead – the kind where you don’t see how hot it is until it’s too late and the sun is upon you, killing you mercilessly with silent efficiency. I had been grateful for the sunshine after the few days of cold, rainy weather earlier in the week, so it didn’t occur to me to check the forecast – or to even step outside to gauge just how hot it was getting at the time we left the house.

That is how I found myself at the Temecula Duck Pond on a Sunday afternoon, sweltering in the sun as the sweat poured down my face and the traffic screamed by, the drivers oblivious to the fact that I was melting, melting, oh what a world.

No, it wasn’t the hottest day on record, or even the hottest day within the past month. That’s not the point. The point is that I was out at a duck pond at the hottest part of the day, and all of the shade in this otherwise lovely little area was taken: occupied by the winged creatures we were there to see. Nearly every square foot of shade was taken by hordes of lazy birds that apparently didn’t realize they were perfectly equipped to float on the nice, cool water in front of them. Instead, they sat in the shade of every tree around the pond, leaving just one area free for our use.

We were there to feed these ducks. My daughter loves this park, and often when we go out to visit her grandmother, we will take some old bread to the park and feed them while my son climbs various trees. It’s usually a very peaceful and relaxing experience.

Today was different. We arrived loaded with stale bread and expectations that we would be revered as royalty by the grateful masses of ducks and geese and coots and whatever other birds were in residence. We brought a few snacks and beverages for a picnic, certain that this would be a lovely outing in nature on a beautiful October afternoon.  

Instead, we were met with oppressive heat and flocks of disinterested birds who could not have cared any less about us. The only park bench that was in the shade was occupied by some withered old ladies in track suits. All other benches were baking in the sun, and a stroll around the water soon showed us that every tree that provided shade was surrounded by birds resting on the grass. Dozens of feather balls sat immobile beneath the trees, little avian squatters that crowded the land that wasn’t being scorched by the sun. Sure, we could’ve driven the birds out of the spaces they occupied, running through the shade and causing them all to scatter in a flurry of wings and squawks – but who would want to spread a blanket amidst the feathers and other leavings of a bunch of fat city ducks? We walked on by and they cast a bored eye at me as we passed, as if to say, “That’s right, keep on walking, Breadman, nothin’ to see here.”

The only spot of grassy shade was in the very corner of the park, nearest the intersection of two major streets that drove away any hopes of a peaceful picnic. We might as well have spread a blanket out on a freeway overpass.  The pummeling heat made it look like an oasis, though, so I took it without hesitation and spread our blanket in the grass.

Not one to let me rest when I want to, my daughter immediately said, “C’mon, Dad, let’s feed the ducks!”

“Well, don’t you wanna have something to drink first?” I hinted, hoping that suggested thirst might buy me some time out of the sun. It worked, and we all sat down on the blanket.

After getting the snacks and drinks and cooler and family all settled on our little picnic carpet, I took my seat on the corner of the blanket – and immediately discovered that my spot was not actually protected by shade. I looked up and saw the sun shining through a wide gap in the branches of the tree overhead, right down into my face. I sighed, too hot and tired and annoyed to bother moving everything.

“Okay, let’s go feed the ducks,” I told my daughter, and we grabbed some bread and walked out to the water’s edge.

Normally, the ducks swarm the person bearing the bread, descending into an orgy of feathered mayhem as they fight and jockey for position to catch the crumbs flung at them from the land. Normally, I enjoy this activity. Normally, we are out of bread in minutes. Normally, it’s not hotter than the surface of the sun out there.

Today, the ducks didn’t care who we were or what we were offering. They were completely uninterested. We tossed bread out into the water, and the ducks just watched the pieces hit the surface and sink beneath it. Never did they speed to the piece of bread like they usually do. Not once did they fight over which bird would get the morsel of food. At no time did they display any hint of recognition they were being fed. They just floated there in a rain of dried bread and remained completely unphased.

A few took the food. If it didn’t land too far away from them and they didn’t have to exert too much effort to reach it, they’d stick their bills in the water and siphon up the soggy flap of dinner roll in front of them. But most couldn’t be bothered. More than one chunk of bread whacked a duck in the head. Many pieces fell on the backs of the birds and sat there like croutons until the bird moved. Most, however, just landed in the water and soaked it up, turning the dried hunks of bread into ghostly pieces of floating trash that, while biodegradable, looked like dead skin peeled off a sunburn. Our portion of the lake came to resemble a particularly unpleasant bowl of egg flower soup.

I’d eaten too many pancakes at breakfast that were sitting in my belly like a big ball of paste, the heat was making me miserable, and all I wanted to do was lie down in a cool room. The birds didn’t care we were there – why bother staying? I stuck it out as long as I could to allow the kids to get something out of the visit. I busied myself by wondering if anyone ever came here and poached these birds for their barbecue.

I don’t know how long we were there, but it felt like hours. We’d only touched a fraction of the bread we took, and only a few of our own snacks were eaten. Apparently we were as unenthusiastic about eating in the heat as the ducks were. Finally, we gathered up our stuff and headed for the car.

Walking to the parking lot, I saw another car pulling into a space across from ours. A family got out and started up the side walk to the little gate that surrounded the pond. One of them carried a plastic bread bag.

No wonder these birds didn’t eat anything. There is probably a non-stop conga line of bird watchers flowing into this park to dump their leftover bread into the gullets of these ungrateful creatures. I almost said something to the new arrivals heading in with their bread – to warn them that they were bound for disappointment – but I was hot and it would’ve taken too much energy.

In retrospect, I see that the resentment came from unfulfilled expectations – I expected to be adored by the birds, and they adored me not. I see now that it really was a perfectly fine afternoon. But I couldn’t see any of that until later. After a nap. An air conditioned nap.

two crows fly away

poised and alert, the crows look
at one another,
black wings restless and ready
to open
and fly from their place
on the fence post
overlooking the urban river bed
shiny and mirrored with green algae water
running to the sea.
the caw call from one
mimicked silently by the other
in preparation for flight.
obsidian wing glistens under
the setting sunlight,
shiny feathers like
midnight approaching.
one crow takes flight toward the sky
the other toward ground
in perfect unison,
growing farther apart as they soar
until the sky yields to the one true bird
and the reflected crow
vanishes
where the river runs dry,
the image evaporated,
there and gone.
heading toward mountains, one crow
diminishes from sight,
while two crows remain
fixed in memory
of the end of
a sunny day
with feathers on the wind.