Robbins vs. robins: who built it better?

In the backyard of my now-former house, two robins have been building a nest for weeks. Every time I walked outside and interrupted their artistry, they’d stare at me with a beak full of twigs, standing on one leg, like I had caught them in the middle of cheating, and we’d stare at each other for minutes, me hoping they would continue building, them hoping I would please leave. Eventually, they’d fly off, leaving their nest unfinished.

For weeks I climbed up the side fence to poke my head and see if there were eggs in their ever-growing nest. But it was always empty. I worried I had taken away their dreams. What’s worse than an empty nest? The nest that doesn’t have a chance to empty? The nest of unfulfilled dreams? I told them, “I’m a Robbins. You are robins. We’ll get along, I promise.” But they didn’t believe me. They believed I was too dangerous a presence for their future children. They kept building the nest surreptitiously, slowly, yet refused to lay any eggs. 

Seth and I moved into an apartment building on Wednesday. We live on the eighth floor now. Everything is different up here. Light is everywhere. And where does the rain go? Somehow it rains sideways yet never into our open windows, which let in the sounds of birds, car honks, partiers, and a white noise of wind. I’ve never lived so high. I’ve never lived above the second floor. The sky opens up. We watched storms come in that first night and we could see the whole shelf cloud. When the rain burst, we could see different layers of rain: in front of us, sideways to the left; behind that, slow vertical striations that moved slowly right; and beyond, a coming light. We have bay windows, and when I look at the bricks of the next wall over, I wonder how the hell they hold us up. The bricks are not perfectly aligned. There are jagged inconsistencies. But inside, everything feels stable. 

Moving into a new apartment brings about a whole new world of design possibilities, which itself brings a new set of insecurities. How will our design stack up with that of our friends? I have the same furniture I’ve had since first moving to DC, when I picked up arbitrary wooden pieces off Craigslist. Over the years I’ve accumulated various items from friends here and there. None of it matches. Would a few pillows and a new rug pull it together? 

While packing and unpacking and dreaming of decorating the new apartment, I listened to Panic! At The Disco’s first album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. The music isn’t very good, but it tweaks my nostalgia strings, and on relistening to their first album over and over (the only way a teenage girl listens to anything), I realized that the music is at least … interesting. The instrumentation is exciting (their hit single begins with a cello plucking tango), the words are fun to yell (tell me a better phrase than “we’re just a wet dream for your webzine”), and the lyrics themselves beckon a closer look. When I was young, my key takeaways were: sexy sex, wet dreams, and the groomsbride is a SHHHHHHH. But the album in its entirety is an interesting meditation on performance, poise, and self-composure. It was an era when “poser” was the worst dig, yet the lyrics revered “poise,” while the album was embued with self-knowing artifice: Theatrical costumery is present on the album cover and in every music video, and the songs are meta-contemplations on the act of performance itself (the album list begins with “introduction” and has an “intermission,” while some songs break the fourth wall and announce that the singer is a narrator of a story, etc). 

The song lyrics tackle artifice from many angles. Veneration —

I chime in with a

“Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?”

No, it’s much better to face these kinds of things

With a sense of poise and rationality

(The song, I Write Sins Not Tragedies, is about how a cheating groom should hide his infidelities — but on the other hand, once the secret’s out, the marriage is saved, because it will never happen)

Derision — 

What a wonderful caricature of intimacy

(The song, Build God Then We’ll Talk, has a music video is about a pornographic mime couple who cheat on each other by mime-sexing with nonexistent people, but lyrics about a Catholic girl sleeping with a lawyer for a job, and ends up pregnant — an act of that, while it began as a farce, potentially results in a bond with a forthcoming child)

Cynical esteem — 

Have some composure

And where is your posture?

(The song, Time to Dance, is about a vanity during a gun shooting scene from the book Invisible Monsters — it begins, sarcastically, “she’s not bleeding on the ballroom floor just for the attention”)

Light-hearted ridicule with a tinge of jealousy — 

The strip joint veteran sits two away 

Smirking between 

Dignified sips of his dignified 

Peach and lime daiquiri.

That last one, But It’s Better If You Do, was written by teenagers about teenagers who sneak into a burlesque bar, but not because they want to, only because Isn’t this exactly where you’d like me? — the need to do dangerous things to impress others — later to claim that I may have faked it, and I wouldn’t be caught dead into this place — admission of the truth. In their fake version of the burlesque bar, do all the dignified patrons drink peach and lime daiquiris, or just the one? There are many layers here. I could keep going but… I won’t.

“Composure” is an interesting word. It tends to mean self-restraint or self-control. Yet its root word, “compose,” seems the opposite: to create. Creation with restraint. Creation with control. What’s the difference between being a poser and having poise? According to Panic!, not much — and that’s okay, I think, as long as it comes with self-awareness.

The place in which we live must be filled with things. The choice is what those things are. Every object is an act of composure. Am I the kind of person who puts a grandfather clock near the window? Yes. Am I the kind of person who can occupy this sun-filled apartment with plants? I wish, but no, I kill plants. Which photos go where, and which books should be on prominent display? There are little choices of placement, but the bigger choices as well, the ones that go back years, back to when Seth and I took those photos while walking around downtown, back to when I decided to teach Seth how to use a DSLR, back to when I first decided to start taking photos myself, one of the many avenues I’ve explored to find permanence — yet all these choices seemed like little ones at the time. 

The focus of my attention in this new apartment has been the bay windows. The bay windows are why we’re here. The decorations in front of them don’t matter as much — they matter a little, but only insomuch as they draw eyes to the windows. To look out at the sky, to feel like we’re part of a big world, in our own private space, this feels essential. There’s that tension again: openness and restraint. Privacy in the expanse. 

In the old house, I had a nice spot for reflection. It was the brick driveway that led to a stand of bamboo in the alley. I was able to go outside, stretch, and look at birds. But it wasn’t safe. Even standing in front of my apartment at eight am on a weekday morning, there was always the knowledge that it could never be perfectly safe. It was an alley, and I was alone, and to be alone in public is to be in danger. 

Is all safety artificial? I live in a tall building made of bricks that eventually could collapse. I live in a city prone to deadly heat waves and storms. Anything could happen. But when I stand in front of my bay windows, it’s easy to forget. Real or unreal, I’ve created a space where I can find the quiet place in my mind where ‘anything could happen’ only means good things. Where the world opens up and at the same time is quiet enough to hear myself think. 

Seth and I returned to the old house in the alley on Saturday for a final cleanup. I climbed up the side of the fence so I could peer into the nest to see if there were any eggs yet. But on my way up, I saw a tail sticking out. A robin lay there. In the two days since we’d moved out, the robins had finally moved in. 

A Robbins departs, a robin returns, and each of us has found our private place. 


A robin’s nest:

A Robbins’ nest:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s