When I was a child, my family had a quaint, old-fashioned custom. We used to watch TV together. Really. All of us in the same room watching the same show.
All right, so maybe this was a matter of necessity. After all, we had only one television set (and even that was a black-and-white one until I was twelve years old). But truly, in my memory at least, there were many more programs that were meant for multiple generations to enjoy together. Some of our favorites were The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and The Wonderful World of Disney.
These shows not only brought exotic wildlife into our living room, but they helped us see the connections between our species and the fish and animals we learned about. It wasn't hard to anthropomorphize (one of my all-time favorite SAT words) when we saw a group of monkeys playing in a tree, a mother mountain lion with her cubs, or a family of dolphins swimming in synchronicity.
On our family's trip to Maine this week, I had an opportunity to project human feelings and relationships onto a couple of members of the local fauna. One thing that I've learned writing Lovin' the Alien for the past six months is that the experience of mothering a tween is not unique to my country or culture. Turns out, other species may be in a position to relate as well.
We were sitting on our balcony overlooking Boothbay Harbor, enjoying breakfast and looking through some guidebooks. There were two gulls on the rocks below us. One was the epitome of a picture-perfect seagull: crisp white breast, light grey wings, black tail. The other was about the same size, but scruffy, mottled grey and light brown. I pointed them out to my tween daughter.
"You see those birds?" I asked, "They are the same species even though they look so different now. The younger one will look like the mother when she gets older."
My daughter gave me a somewhat condescending look and the quickest of nods. She immediately went back to her book.
My husband was more impressed. "Really?" he asked.
"That's right," I smiled with self-satisfaction. You see, I know many things my spouse doesn't. But, usually my proprietary knowledge centers around the suffragist movement, classic Broadway musicals or 19th century English literature. It is very very very rare that I pull out a factoid about nature. However, my first professional job, thanks to (or perhaps I should say, in spite of) a promising academic career at a prestigious university, was writing the backs of paperback books. One of these was the Peterson Guide to Birds of North America.
I continued, "Seagulls take a couple of years to grow those distinct white, grey and black feathers. That's how you can tell which ones are immature."
Just then, the two gulls began to squawk at each other. Since I was already on my nature-girl roll, I decided to translate aloud.
Mother Gull: (short squawk) Act your age. Stand up straight.
(In truth, the younger gull was slouching.)
Tween Gull: (longer squawk) Why are you always on my case? You just don't get it. You're ruining my life.
Mother Gull: (short squawk) Don't take that tone with me young lady.
Tween Gull: (sequence of several long squawks) Y'know, I'm not a kid anymore. The other seagulls don't have to stand up straight. Or make their bed. Or have their laptops off by 8 pm. You're RUINING my life!
By now, my husband was laughing and throwing in the odd additional bit of dialogue.
My daughter shot us a look of pathetic disgust and went inside to browse the pictures on her phone (happily for us — sadly for her — there was no cell service where we were staying).
Mother Gull: (medium squawk) You still don't appreciate me after all the things I do for you?
Tween Gull: (long squawk) This vacation sucks! I can't believe my phone doesn't work here! I can't believe I can't text anybody for three whole days! This is so-o-o-o-o boring! You just don't get it. YOU'RE RUINING MY LIFE!!!!!
At this point, the younger seagull was hopping back and forth and shrieking. It was truly a tantrum of terrific proportions (and one that would have made any self-respecting human tween proud). The mother gull was walking away from her offspring, but turned for one more squawk. I translated.
Mother Gull: I'm out of here. Just see how well you and your father do when I get my own apartment in New York!
"New York?" choked my husband and daughter (from inside) in unison.
"Hey, I'm just telling you what she said," I shrugged innocently.
With a final squawk, the two gulls flew off more or less together. I chuckled and went back to my guidebook until I realized that my daughter was standing in the doorway.
She looked at us and shook her head. "You really crack yourselves up, don't you," she observed disdainfully.
Yep, sometimes we still do.