mill run: tap dancing bird

I am of the school who believes that there is probably nothing more idiotic in life than 20,000 lousy birds crowded together in the branches outside your window, all of them hooting, whistling, screeching, and proclaiming the obvious. The obvious is that it is 5:15 a.m….”

 

by moritz thomsen

 

Ah, the little things in life.

At 5:15 each morning for the last month I have been awakened to the patter of little feet, the sound of marching, the quick pure footwork of Les Sylphides—in fact the whole repertoire of sounds and rhythms that can be made by feet. This entire performance is produced and directed by one neurotic little bird who has selected my tarpaper roof as his parade ground. Being inside the house listening to him as he makes his circles and figure-eights is like being inside a drum; every little footstep is amplified about 300 percent. By the time he gets ready for his finale, the death scene from “Three Penny Opera,” the whole house is humming and vibrating with the very pulse of life.

Now I am of the school who believes that there is probably nothing more idiotic in life than 20,000 lousy birds crowded together in the branches outside your window, all of them hooting, whistling, screeching, and proclaiming the obvious. The obvious is that it is 5:15 a.m. and that the sun is coming up, and that it’s time to crawl out of the sack and start digging out the hog pens. This situation is brutally apparent and it is highly irritating for these little birdbrains with their missionary zeal to be peering in the windows and telling you the same obvious thing over and over.

But my dancing bird is another story. Here’s a bird who thinks for himself. I have never seen this friend of mine except in my imagination, but I know exactly how he looks; he is a scruffy wizened little bird, undersized, near-sighted and probably afflicted with chronic hepatitis, but he has the biggest, most magnificent feet in the whole state—great shiny butter-colored feet that glisten in the early morning sunshine as though they had been freshly enameled.

And my bird, poor obsessed little creature, madly in love with these glistening, yellow claws, simply can’t tear his eyes away from the intricate dance steps that he performs each morning on my roof. He doesn’t sing, whistle, or hoot, but he croaks. Once about every 3 minutes a day an ecstatic croak erupts from deep within him. It is a croak of pure joy and it sounds like a stepped-on toad.

Now, actually, in my whole day probably nothing happens that is more casual and unimportant than this heel-and-toe artist soft-shoeing around on my roof. And yet I get a pleasure out of this event way out of proportion to its significance. Practically everything else that goes on around me is anticlimax. I lie in bed each morning in the semi-darkness, laughing, giggling, slapping my legs, and yelling “Ole!” and “Encore!” to my dancer.

I wanted to write an inspiring article celebrating the little things in life. The big things in life, like love, money, sex, nuclear fission, friendship, and the north wind, it seems to me, are all highly overrated; are all about equally compounded of pleasure and pain; and to get involved with them is to risk getting your back broken. I wanted to make a nice long list of all the little things in life that are made up of nothing but sheer pleasure, starting with my dancing bird, then moving on to those first life-giving cups of coffee, and going on from there.

But I have been sitting here now for 3 hours, sifting the brain, and nothing comes to mind. Carrying these notes to a logical conclusion would seem to indicate that, unless you have a tap dancing bird performing on your roof each morning, you have nothing and might as well put a bullet through your head. This may not be a bad idea, but it’s not exactly what I started out to say.

Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Three
October 2004

 

(illustration: marc covert)


After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991.  Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.

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