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BIRDBRAINS

Thanks to the Indian, I mean Native American summer, we’ve enjoyed until this recent freeze, my husband and I, both nature lovers, and our two neighbors, Debbie and Lon, decided to partake in our last attempt at a water sport on the East End of Long Island.

First, let me tell you a little about this middle-aged kayaking crew: Debbie, of a soft-spoken and fastidious nature, has told us numerous times of her experience when she was a little girl going down the fire escape at school during a fire drill, and a bird flew by and got stuck in her long hair. Ever since that traumatic experience, she’s been phobic about birds. Understandable.

Her husband, Lon, 6’2,” of superior intelligence, and a very successful businessman of his own financial service company, challenges himself yearly to running marathons and scaling mountains like Kilimanjaro. But, on this one lovely Sunday afternoon, the end of Autumn, Lon did not come to the table — unless of course he had been served bird under sauce and a sprig of parsley. Yep, this was a first — the overachiever exposed his shortcoming.

After a hectic workweek, we started to unwind, as we paddled along the river, not making a sound, until eagle-eyed Lon spotted something far away in the water, and asked in a flat tone, “What’s that duck got in its mouth?” None of us could tell from the distance, so I paddled over at top speed, and saw the large bird was in distress. When I got closer, I yelled back to the others. “This is no duck!”

“What is it?” they shouted back.

“It’s a cormorant.”

A cormorant is a big long-necked black bird, larger than a seagull, smaller than a goose, with an extensive bill. This bird has a wing span of 52 inches, and is known for diving totally under the water to retrieve fish. In fact, back in the old days, fisherman used to tie a leash around its neck, throw it off the boat, pull it back up and yank that darn fish right out of the cormorant’s mouth for themselves.

I tried not to think about its history, as I got close enough to see the distress the poor animal was in. I started to cry for help. “Somebody, help! The bird’s drowning!”

My husband, Bruce, somewhat apprehensive, is used to my animal rescue stories, and knew I was getting extremely upset and slowly started rowing over to me. “Calm down. Calm down.”

The bird was on its side, swimming in circles, trying to get away from me, and I couldn’t keep up. I got close enough to see a nest of fishing line tangled over him, stuck in his mouth, wrapped around his entire body, and under his wings and legs. The others caught up to where I was, well not quite where I was . . . in case it turned out to be the Loch Ness Monster, I suppose. Debbie and Bruce asked me too many questions as I was trying to close in on the cormorant. Lon, Mr. CEO, looked quite relaxed in his kayak, leaning back, arms crossed behind his neck, observing the birdbrains. I looked at him and contemplated the length of my oar.

The cormorant was getting more frightened by the minute, and dived completely under the dark water. I became hysterical, “This is it! He’s drowned! Oh my God!”

Finally, Debbie and Bruce paddled up next to me. Sure, now that they thought the bird was gone. Surprised the heck out of all of us when the bird indiscriminately Popped up out of the water. We rowed over to it again, not the most proficient kayakers in the East, I might add, and surrounded the powerless fowl. (Speaking of fowl, I had a few choice words for Lon, who had lit up a cigar, musing, probably about mutual funds. He may has well have been sitting in his Brooke’s Brother’s suit with suspenders.)

The rest of us worked like a team, moving our fine-feathered friend with our oars, like a hockey puck, as it intermittently went under and popped up like a jack-in-the-box, surprising us each time until we got near the shore, our goal. We had no control over our direction, and submitted to doing the limbo under a broken dock. I had to do something fast or we’d lose him, and would have to start all over again. I was not a happy lark at this point, but I went for it — tugged on the fishing line stuck in the bird’s mouth, lifted the bird up into the air, swung it over toward me, and plopped it onto my lap in the tipsy kayak.

The bird honked and I screamed. Short-winded, I yelled at Bruce to go to the closest house where we had pulled the boat onto shore in someone’s backyard. I told him to return with two things: Scissors and gloves. We watched him knocking at the back sliding glass door, but no one was home. He yelled over to us, “I’ll keep going from house to house until I get help.” He ran, barefoot; the disheveled Swamp Jew, we called him.

Time was going by slowly, and he wasn’t returning. The heavy wet bird, still on my lap, was breathing fast until he stopped long enough to turn his long neck to look at me, and attack. It was at this point that I took note of his unusually pointy beak, you know the ones you see in National Geographic used to spear fish. The bird pecked my legs, relentlessly, and commercials of restless leg syndrome came to mind. I started fighting with him, “I’m trying to help you, you stupid Cuckoo!”

Debbie clumsily got out of her kayak, and ran over to a backyard barn. She disappeared into the splintery door frame. She quickly reappeared, and in her hand, she held something up to us, glinting in the sun. A pair of scissors. She looked angelic, holding the greatest invention of mankind. I was overcome with emotion.

Lon commented, “Look at that, Bruce has been gone for 20 minutes on a scavenger hunt, and Debbie finds scissors in two seconds.” His laugh is deep.

“Shut up, Lon,” I said, holding the cormorant’s beak together with my hand, so he’ll stop jabbing at me. The bird and I are both crying again. My friend rises to the occasion, faces her nightmare head on, and reaches under the bird’s body, while I’m holding it in mid-air. We were relieved not to find it stuck with a fish hook. Debbie tediously cut the tangled wire, bit by bit, forgetting her phobia under great pressure. “Eeew, I can feel its skin,” she shrieked.

Lon laughs even harder at us. As I slipped the bird back into the water, I flipped Lon, the bird, so to speak. In the distance we hear chatter growing louder, and see Bruce returning with a garden glove on one hand, and a scissor in the other. His white shirt and shorts, dirty and wet. He was limping, his feet bleeding, and a middle-aged woman was on his tail. They asked eagerly, “How’s the bird?” The woman told us that she was sitting on her rocker on her front porch relaxing in the sunshine, when this strange man (Bruce, of course) ran right past her, up to her front door, and started banging. “I was frightened of him,” she told us. (Very understandable.) “He looked like he’d just been through hell. He was out of breath, asking me for scissors and a glove. I thought he was a crazy person. He was yelling something like, ‘The duck, the duck,’ (he forgot it was called a “cormorant.”) ‘We’ve gotta help the big duck!'”

As the woman was telling us the story, we all turned to the commotion coming from the water. Lon had capsized. Justice served. And in the background, we saw Mr. Cormorant clapping his beautiful wings in utter joy.

On to the next season . . . and heaven and nature sing.

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Linda Ronstadt – Singer/Songwriter

An interview with the energetic, Linda Ronstadt, also known as the Queen of Rock, and unprecedented as a singer, songwriter, musician, record producer and actress can leave you breathless. Born in 1946, and mother of a grown daughter and son, Ronstadt has triumphed as one of the top-selling female vocalists of the late 1970s, with numerous smash hits expanding over four decades.

Raised on a ranch outside Tucson, Arizona, with two brothers and one sister, Linda spoke of how music kept the family together. Her father strummed his guitar to his traditional Mexican roots, while her mother played the piano and exposed them to a variety of music.

“I think I was only two when I made up my first song,” she mused. “I remember we all used to sing on car trips, songs like “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” one of the regional farm songs my Mom knew from Michigan. All my cousins sang, too, in fact, my grandfather was the band leader of a brass oompah band. You couldn’t go very far without hearing some kind of Ronstadt.

“In first grade, we were made to sing hymns, and I would really sing while everyone else was sort of mumbling.” She laughed. “I attended a strict Catholic school, and when the nuns floated by, I didn’t realize they had bodies; they were so terrifying. Today they would be in jail for child abuse.

“I was an early reader and wanted everyone to just leave me alone, sitting quietly in the corner with my head down. I was so glad to get out of there, but by then, the damage was done. It made me more rebellious.”

“Aside from my family, some of my early influences were country star, Hank Williams, and Lola Beltran, who was revered in Mexico. I based my style rhythmically on what she did, so it was hard for me to understand some American rhythms at first.”

“Tucson had been an unusually musical community, particularly when there wasn’t much radio and television, so we had to make our own music, and then when we moved out of the 50s into the 60s, dad would take us to see someone perform, but it wasn’t exactly the “hottest” act. At the age of 17, the pop and folk music I really admired was going on in either Newport Folk Festival or Berkeley – you know, the really cool stuff – and the first person I saw was Ry Cooder with Taj Mahal at the Ashgrove in a band called The Rising Sun, and I went, ‘oooh, they’ve got some hot players over here in California,’ so I wanted to stay.

“All of American culture was focused through the lens of Los Angeles at that point, which was sometimes distorted, but you had to come to LA to make your bones, musically.”

While a student at Arizona State University, Ronstadt met a local musician, Bob Kimmel, and left home for LA with a few dollars tucked inside the pocket of her blue jeans, along with dreams of a musical career. There, the two met up with guitarist/songwriter, Kenny Edwards, and called themselves the Stone Poneys, and produced their self-titled debut folk album in 1967, and released two more albums, including top 20 hit “Different Drum,” written by Michael Nesmith of The Monkees.

After turning out three albums, the trio split, and Ronstadt began her solo career in 1968, a blend of Country and Rock, with her first solo album, “Hand Sown Home Grown,” helping to define the LA music scene in the early 70s with mellow-rock California sounds, and also collaborated with other musicians and songwriters, such as The Eagles, and Neil Young.

“The Eagles were assembled by my manager, John Boylan because he knew Randy Meisner, the original bass player, and I knew Bernie Leaden and Glenn Frey, and together we discovered Don Henley at the Troubadour, and we put all these people together to form a band for me when we were on the road, and then Glenn and Don started writing together and they got the chance to play their own stuff on stage, so it was mutually beneficial.”

“I opened for Neil Young and toured with him for a long time, and watched every single show (I don’t know that I’ve ever done that since), but he was so amazing and mesmerizing, and still one of my favorite musicians, and has one of the most unusual singing voices.”

In 1974 when Heart Like A Wheel sold over two million copies with the hit “You’re No Good and “When Will I Be Loved, “reached number one and sold over two million copies, Ronstadt was officially crowned a “Superstar.” Dubbed with that title, and simultaneously suffering from acute stage fright, she went on the road in an effort to connect to her fans.

When asked about her timid reputation, she said, “It’s against animal nature to have other animals staring at you.” She paused. “Because in the animal world, when they stare at you for a long long time, they want to EAT you!”

Many of Ronstadt’s hit records have been covers of other hits, including Buddy Holly’s, “That’ll Be The Day,” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” raggae Jimmy Cliff’s, “Many Rivers To Cross,” The Rolling Stone’s, “Tumbling Dice,” and Warren Zevon’s, “Poor, Poor Pitiful me.”

Courageously, the ever-changing, yet consistent crystal clear voice of Linda Ronstadt has crossed all genres, including Country, Rock, Latin American, R & B, Big Band, Jazz, Contemporary Pop, Children’s Music, Opera, Cajun…and has received multi-platinum albums, an Emmy Award, a Tony-Award Nomination, and has recorded over 30 studio albums and sold a million records of six consecutive rock albums in the mid 70s.

During the interview, I pondered the real Linda Ronstadt, what’s behind those dark eyes – “So, you’ve always been so, ummm, diverse. Is that your persona, too – WHO are you?”

“Oh, my eclecticism,” she giggled, as she looked around her small flat in San Franciso — “Well, on the floor is a Navajo rug, and over there is an English needlepoint, and well, in design, when I like something, I have to have it, and in terms of music, too, especially when it’s footed in some kind of tradition.”

When Ronstadt had met manager, Peter Asher (formerly of the British pop duo, Peter and Gordon) her popularity soared. Yet, with her modest demeanor, perhaps attributed to her upbringing in the Southwest, the popular artist has left the media somewhat curious, especially while romantically involved with diverse men, from actors and athletes to musicians and politicians; she was once displayed on the cover of Time when she kept company of companion California governor, Jerry Brown.

Ultimately, once coined as a rocker chick and sex symbol, she has managed to keep her private life, private, but claims she was political in the turbulent 60s and again now. “We have to get rid of this government and replace it with an intelligent one before it destroys the United States,” she said.

In the 80s, the singer took an extremely sharp turn, as she ventured acting on Broadway, playing the role of Mabel in the opera The Pirates of Penzance (and later the film), and La Boheme which appealed to a different audience and led to working with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra who conducted her 1983 collection of pop standards, “What’s New,” “Lush Life” (1984), Sentimental Reasons (1986).

“The morning I woke up and knew Nelson Riddle was coming over to work with me and I was going to record songs I had been passionate about, was probably the most exciting day of my musical career.

“Those are the songs I’ll be doing in concert in Westhampton during the first half of the show, and the hits I’ve had during the 70s, 80s, and 90’s, for the second half, like a review of 20th century pop music.”

At the end of 1986, she returned to the contemporary sound, and recorded “Somewhere Out There” with artist James Ingram, and in 1987 returned to her country roots when she recorded the platinum Trio album with Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris (still a close friend), a ten year project in the making; and of course, Cry Like A Rainstorm, which includes the four duets with the silky voice of New Orleans’ Aaron Neville.

In the 90s, Ronstadt returned to traditional Mexican and Spanish music, including a tribute album to her father, Mas Canciones; back to pop with 1994’s “Winter Light,” a Holiday album, another collection of standards, “Hummin’ To Myself” in 2004, and Adieu False Heart, a collaboration with Ann Savoy (Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band) in 2006. Ronstadt consistently topped the charts as a leading female vocalist of the rock era, and a favorite to many baby boomers (including myself.) In fact, after all these years I’ve kept an image of this iconic artist with stick legs wearing hot pants and roller skates. I wondered if it was only in my imagination. I had to ask:

“OH, she wailed, “Yes, it is an album cover. The reason for that is my friend, Nicolette Larson, another singer and close friend of mine, who used to skate with me in Venice, got bored during photo sessions while they changed film or whatever, so since we wanted to learn how to turn around on our skates and stuff like that, a photographer snatched a shot of me skating down the hallway under the florescent lights, and that ended up on the cover.”

After the interview, I went up into my attic, and rooted through old cardboard boxes, until I found the 30-year old album, “Living in the USA.” And there she was, all right – free skating down a long hall, holding herself up by the walls. And lucky for us, she’ll be rollin’ right into the Hamptons on the 17th of August… Can’t wait to see her – “She’s so good, she’s so good, baby she’s sooo good!”

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BUCKLE UP!

“This is gonna be a trip you’ll never forget!” my husband said. Unfortunately, these were his only words of wisdom for the next 3,000 miles. I winced, telling my own kids to listen to their father and get into the vehicular trap — the upgraded Audi Quattro SUV. Seems like yesterday when I was a kid, entrapped in our ’56 yellow station wagon we called “The Lemon,” and endured those “heart to heart” talks during the dreaded family vacation road trip.

Not much has changed. In a way, it’s still the same “Dad” behind the wheel with that Willie Nelsonesque sparkle in his eye whenever he heads out on the road like one of the Highwaymen. The more lost we get, the more he seems to enjoy the trip. It has nothing to do with where we’re going, as long as we’re going somewhere.

My husband reminds everyone for the kazillionth time — “Yeah, back in the 60s, I went cross-country five times in my camper that I named Wally . . . did I ever tell you that?”

We look at one another, then at the retired hippie, imagining his days when he was trying to find himself. It’s a shame, ’cause he’s been working nonstop ever since to pay for all the accumulated stuff — now that he’s found out who he is.

I, the mother of offspring often wonder why we we’re held hostage to his personal quest to find the grungiest tooth-pickin’ truck stop in the United States. It’s always the same, everyone anxiously waddles back to the car, cranky and bloated, and then we drive until exhaustion, as we pass one threatening motel after another.

Our American Princess daughter has tears in her eyes, as her younger brother remains oblivious. I’ll be darned if I could figure out which is worse — the car entrapment or the motel entrapment. The accommodations all look the same — the flashing signs: Color TV and Air-Conditioning, $29.95.

“Hold on,” Dad yelps with excitement. “It’ll be worth the wait — we have reservations at a lodge by the Grand Canyon.”

“Oh my God,” the Princess blurts out as she enters one of the lodges cabins. “This is what we’ve been holding out for? It smells like something died in here!”

From then on, we were coined with new names: Prudent and Prissy stay in one cabin, while our adventurous male counterparts stay in another. There’s something about the dark wood; makes you feel like you’re still outdoors. At nightfall the temperature drops to 100 degrees. The Princess takes it upon herself to call the front desk. “Excuse me, concierge?” she says, with the most polite New York accent she can muster, “but it seems our air-conditioning is not working.”

“Well,” the woman on the other end of the line snorts, that’s because you don’t have an air-conditioner.”

After days of driving and singing campfire songs like “Dum dum dada dada, dum dum dada dada . . . and after days of driving, we succumb to delerium. “One more dusty trail, and I’m gonna kill something,” our teenage Princess cries, while examining her manicure. “I need a shower so bad, these flies buzzin’ around my head won’t even land.”

But, Dad, the optimist, sits behind the wheel, pondering what could possibly be beyond the next bend. It’s another day of family closeness, and Dad has this need to prove himself. One day he has to show off his adventurous side. “We got lucky,” he announces. “I just got the last of the canoes, this side of the Mississippi.”

“That thing’s at least 100 feet long!” the Princess cries again. Of course the wonder boat capsizes in the muddiest of waters, leaving our foursome sloshing away below circling buzzards.

Yep, Dad certainly did prove something, and the following day, he wants to prove his dexterous side. After waiting for him in the parking lot of a ranch, he finally exits the stables with extra exuberance in his step. We have a bad hunch.

“Don’t tell me,” the Princess said. “You got the last of the horses, this side of the *%#@*%$ River . . .”

The young fellow, who actually wears a cowboy hat, walks the four horses to each of us, one at a time: Sunshine, Sweet Cakes, Old Chum, and Lightnin’. And it sure does run like its name, with poor dad’s dexterous arms clinging around its neck. Lightnin’ ignores the “No-U-Turns” sign and bolts clear around the lake with unyielding determination, back to the stables to eat its dinner which was awaitin.’ Regretfully, we failed to warn the cowhand about Dad’s finicky back.

Sometimes I think my father and my husband are the same man. No wonder television has often portrayed the father-figure as the bumbling idiot. Yet somehow, after passing years, and having grown children, I realize that father may have known best, after all — because after putting up with all the moaning and groaning, Dads somehow know that their kids will wear perpetual grins on their faces from having been “on the road” as family.

While cleaning out the attic, recently, I found some old photos of our vacations, and I did a double-take at one snapshot in particular. It’s the one with my fashion plate of a daughter standing on the edge of a rock at the Grand Canyon wearing a white suede cowboy hat and a red bandana with a short denim skirt. Then I look at her feet. Funny, I don’t recall her hiking three miles in those six-inch open-toed silver metallic platform shoes which have also been packed away under cardboard boxes with the rest of our memories ingrained in our souls . . . thanks to dear ol’ Dad.