My Bird Problem
For a long time, back in the eighties, my wife and I lived on our own little planet. We spent thrilling, superhuman amounts of time by ourselves.
In our first two apartments, in Boston, we were so absorbed in each other that we got along with exactly one good friend, our college classmate Ekström, and when we finally moved to Queens, Ekström moved to Manhattan, thereby sparing us the need to find a different friend.
Early in our marriage, when my old German instructor Weber asked me what the two of us were doing for a social life, I said we didn't have one. "That's sweet for a year," Weber said. "Two years at the most." His certainty offended me. It struck me as extremely condescending, and I never spoke to him again.
None of the doom criers among our relatives and former friends, none of these brow-furrowing emotional climatologists, seemed to recognize the special resourcefulness of our union. To prove them wrong, we made our aloneness work for four years, for five years, for six years; and then, when the domestic atmosphere really did begin to overheat, we fled from New York to a Spanish village where we didn't know anybody and the villagers hardly even spoke Spanish. We were like those habit-bound peoples in Jared Diamond's Collapse who respond to an ecosystem's degradation by redoubling their demands on it—medieval Greenlanders, prehistoric Easter Islanders, contemporary SUV buyers. Whatever reserves the two of us still had when we arrived in Spain were burned up in seven months of isolation.
Returning to Queens, we could no longer stand to be together for more than a few weeks, couldn't stand to see each other so unhappy, without running somewhere else. We reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain. I wrote poisonous jeremiads to family members who I felt had slighted my wife; she presented me with handwritten fifteen-and twenty-page analyses of our condition; I was putting away a bottle of Maalox every week. It was clear to me that something was terribly wrong. And what was wrong, I decided, was modern industrialized society's assault on the environment.
In the early years, I'd been too poor to care about the environment. My first car in Massachusetts was a vinyl-top '72 Nova that needed a tailwind to achieve ten miles a gallon and whose exhaust was boeuf bourguignon—like in its richness and complexity. After the Nova died, we got a Malibu wagon whose ridiculous four-barrel carburetor ($800) needed replacing and whose catalytic converter ($350) had had its guts scraped out to ease the flow of gases. Polluting the air a little less would have cost us two or three months' living expenses. The Malibu practically knew its own way to the crooked garage where we bought our annual smog-inspection sticker.