« entomology == etymology | Main | Neat app for pesky windows product key »

real-time collaborative problem solving

I left work early to have time to walk along the ocean while the sun was still up. As I walked south along the sea wall, the pier eclipsed the sun. I saw a seagull limping oddly at the beach at the foot of the pier. I thought it was just injured, until I saw the straight, thin lines extending in the air from the bird up to the pier. Fishermen stood sillhouetted against the sky. A woman walking the other direction paused and said to me, "It's a shame. The bird's got a hook caught in it. It's a death sentence." I realized a boy was climbing down the seawall to free the bird, which was almost as big as he was. After watching for a minute, I said, "I'm going down there." The woman standing next to me said, "I would but I'm wearing leather clogs." I looked at her in a tidy corduroy blazer and slacks, then down at my sneakers, bought for $150 back when I thought I could afford such things, but now much worse for the wear. "Don't ruin your shoes," I said to her. "Can you do it, just you and the boy?" she asked. "We can do it. You don't have to come.""Hold on, kiddo, we're coming down there," she called to the boy, who had backed the gull against the pier's rusted metal base.

When I got to him he said to me, "I don't want to touch her." I didn't, either. I felt vulnerable and soft, could imagine the frightened bird squirming in my arms, scratching me, wings beating in my face, more horror. The woman with me said, "Don't cut the line. If you cut the line, the hook will stay in it, and it'll be a death sentence." In the back of my mind I thought about this: is a fishhook stuck in a gullwing a death sentence? Not necessarily, but maybe; it depends on where we cut the line and whether the hook had punctured her skin. The bird was actually caught in two lines. I pulled on one of them, felt the flexing fishing pole it was attached to, and called out for slack. We would need slack to do anything at all for the bird; if we cut the line while it was under tension, we'd have no control over the fragment attached to the bird. I held onto the line a few feet from the bird, reached out to gather up the other line and take the tension off the bird, and paused to consider the technical questions.

At this point the mood changed. The older woman began to harangue the men on the pier for a knife. Yes, harangue. I couldn't understand what the men were saying; they were just shadows against the bright sky. A woman wearing fleece and sunglasses leaned over the railing of the pier and called down, "don't cut the line. we're going to get scissors." I thought that scissors sounded great, but I didn't want to wait some unknown amount of time for scissors to appear. I decided to see if my keys could cut one of the lines. The woman beside me kept issuing instructions, but I honestly wasn't listening. I think a few times she said, watch out for the water, meaning that a wave was coming in. I mumbled, "that doesn't matter," not selflessly, but just wanting to ellide the problem of paying attention to the surf. There seemed to be an argument about how best to proceed. The serrations on my keys couldn't fray the nylon line; in the back of my mind I realized, this is why one should always carry a knife. I longed for my leatherman. "Don't leave the hook in!" the two women called out. "You've got to get the hook out!" Then their chorus changed. "He says his girl is coming down," one of them announced, and indeed I saw a young woman begin to pick her way down the rocks. The coming of the girl seemed to be considered by the men on the pier to be a complete and perfect solution; I was curious as to how she was going to fix the situation. Perhaps she was carrying scissors or a knife.

While she climbed down the rocks, another shouted conversation emerged; the woman on the beach with me was sarcastically repeating the fishermen's claim that the bird got stuck in the line all the time. "Yeah, right, he gets stuck in the line all the time!" she mocked. I didn't understand this, either. The same bird? What on earth was she talking about? I think what the fishermen meant is that a seagull stuck in their lines is not such a rare occurrence and not a cause for panic.

Indeed, the young woman knew exactly what to do. She used a rag she was carrying to cover and then wrap the bird's head; the bird stopped flapping. Now we had a topology problem, not a wildlife problem. This, I knew how to cope with. I passed the two lines, which I still held, to the older woman. "Take this" I said. "Hold this." Apparently my keys were in my hand, too, because she took those first. "Take the lines." I pressed them into her hands. I needed her to keep the lines slack, and I needed both my hands free. Then the girl and I knelt beside eachother in the sand and tracked the lines around the body, untangled the lines from the birds legs. To slide it underneath her, I pulled the line into the wet sand. I still didn't want to touch her much, but the girl held the bird's head in the rag and deftly extended its wings. Almost without words, we unwound loop after loop. She could tell that I didn't want to touch the bird much, so she did, gesturing with her chin and eyes at the next knot we should tackle. Two, three, six times the line was looped around the bird. The woman on the beach behind the girl and I asked, "should I hold her down? should I pick her up so you can get around her?" "No," I mumbled again, as the girl and I passed the tangles, bird, and sand back and forth between us.

Finally the line was almost free, disappearing into the bird's wing in the large flight feathers at what would have been her elbow. In my head I was picturing a bat skeleton, because I know bats better than I know birds. The hook might have been sunk into the flesh of her wing, or the line might be simply looped around the bone. Here again I didn't know how to proceed; I didn't know the shape of the hook, or how big it was, and I was not going to poke my finger into the squirming feathers to find out. I was definitely not willing to cut my hand on the hook in blind exploration, so again, I paused to consider the technical issues. I briefly imagined a cut finger infected with bird germs, which reinforced my desire not to find the hook by touch. The fishermen's daughter saw to the heart of it, though; the lines entered the wing feathers in two places. The hook was a few feet up the line, already controlled by the other woman holding the lines for slack. She held the wing open while I loosened the loop and finally freed the wing. I think there was another pause then; the girl gestured that I should step back, and she stepped back, and released the bird and the hood, at once. The bird flew away; I did not see it go.

I didn't know what to say to the girl who had held the bird and extended its wing. She had been so skillful and fearless. The bird would not have been freed if not for her. For just a moment I saw her skin glow in the red sunlight, saw her hair in the wind, saw her eyes shining; she climbed up the rocks and was gone.

The older woman in the clogs and corduroy was still talking; I began to understand that this adventure was part of a long narrative for her, of a small town homeowner resentful at the men who came daily to her neighborhood to fish from the pier. "They didn't want us to cut the line because they were so concerned with their precious fishing line." This was ridiculous; I pictured in my head spool after spool of fishing line on a rack in a store, and knew that a few meters of line would cost only pennies. "That's why they wouldn't give us a knife," she continued. "They were going to let it die." And then, strangest of all, she said, "I was saying 'don't cut the line' because I wanted you to cut it closer to her body so you could take the hook out. I didn't mean you should leave the line in her." In the same breath that she justified the instructions she had issued, she criticized the fishermen's motives for advocating the very same plan. She cared about the bird, in a save-the-wholes kind of way, but she had no immediate solutions to help it. She made plans and gave instructions, while actually doing nothing, until a task was literally thrust into her hands. When it was over she couldn't say, well done, or I'm so glad the bird is free; instead she went immediately to criticizing others. I asked her, "Do you see the bird? Did it fly away all right?" "Yes," she said. "I saw it leave." I found my footing atop the seawall and walked away, dirty hands, sand in my shoes, feeling for once my body as a useful physical implement and not simply a container for my soul.

Reader Comments (1)

this is a great story. fyi.

12.16.2007 at 07:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>