self portrait

Watching the Birds With the King of Clickbait

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Corbis

This week, the Cut reflects on self-reflection with a series of stories devoted to the art of memoir. 

There’s a certain precedent for calling him “the man” or “the writer.” Those were the epithets his girlfriend chose when she wrote up their first risky and daring attempts to have sex for Granta (the essay, entitled “Envy,” was excerpted online in The Guardian). But that was 15 years ago. I’ll call him “Clickbait.”

I was offered this assignment by Mikki Halpin. In the interest of editorial transparency, I should indicate that she is legally my mother, having been my roommate both at Choate and during our years abroad on a Nobel Fellowship. (You don’t know about the Nobel Fellowships? You wouldn’t.)

In real life, Mikki is a fellow traveler of 20 years’ standing. We both worked on zines back when they involved glue sticks and postage stamps. (Her paid circulation ran to 300 times mine.) In her career as an editor she started giving me online writing gigs while Generation Innernet [sic] was still chewing on its Tamagotchi. (I mean people who grew up with the web and think it’s part of their heads like the cerebellum.)

Always one step ahead, she prompted me to write about a memorable day that ideally might involve bird-watching with a certain person. I can’t say no to her.

“Bird-watching with [Clickbait]” has become a euphemism for — something, I’m not sure what; in any case, it is an activity that many people, especially aspiring writers, express a desire to perform, whether or not they like him or his work.

Many are those who have already done it. Clickbait notoriously spends his life straddling the fence between boundless ambition and postmodern solipsism, and he can be relied on to say just about anything — a loose cannon on the gun deck of literature — while he’d really rather not.

Bird-watching allows him to concede journalists hefty chunks of time while giving them essentially nothing at all. Five hours pass in his presence, and bewildered reporters wander away thinking, I came here with the petty, prying notion of finding out whether he has one-night stands on the road; I left with the prothonotary warbler, and I am a richer and a better person for this involuntary exchange of priorities. (For the record, it’s pronounced pro-THON-a-tary.)

I don’t know why they fall for it. Would they go putting with a famous golfer, or watch a famous programmer code? They must imagine that birding involves standing around chatting while rare species cycle through their behaviors on heavy rotation 20 feet away.

It can be like that. Central Park during Warbler Week (May 7–14) is definitely like that. The popular birding location where I met Clickbait for the first time, Moss Landing (between Santa Cruz and Monterey, California), certainly seems like that if you’re used to Europe.

It was January 16, 2013. When Clickbait pulled up in his Mini (you know what they say — big car, small etc.), I bounced to him with unfeigned glee, saying I absolutely could not believe what a wonderful place Moss Landing is! The closest I had ever been to anything resembling a ruddy duck before was about 300 yards. Now I was close enough to see my reflection in its kind, intelligent eyes and sense its tender affection for me.

Clickbait had his scope along, and I jumped for joy. For lack of interesting (by his standards) birds, we turned it on some nearby sea otters. You could just about see their fleas. We admired a vagrant sandhill crane. Then he said it was time to hit the MoonGlow Dairy — a working farm a little ways up Elkhorn Slough, whose owner likes birds enough to let cattle excrement gather in monstrous, reeking lagoons.

It wasn’t quite the fun fair Moss Landing was. The afternoon light tinted beige birds yellow, leading to painful misidentifications. Then some blackbirds, which may or may not have been rare and special, kept flying away from us straight into the setting sun, so that we nearly waded into a big pile of dead cows.

Clickbait stood there looking at them. I turned and ran.

While I drove my rental car from the dairy back to the Mini, we at last got into a hairy topic. I described how a friend of mine had been severely traumatized by a late miscarriage that his spouse equivalent seemed to have encouraged by refusing to seek medical attention.

“So what?” Clickbait said. “She wanted an abortion, and she got it.” He didn’t even look at me. He didn’t consider my shocking tale of near-infanticide — I thought it rivaled Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness — worthy of comment!

I think Mikki will appreciate how hard it is for women to be feminists in a clinch, especially around strangers. Where babies are concerned, we like to come across as big saps. Clickbait trounced my lame feminism and ground it in the dirt. To punish him, I started driving a little too slow.

“Speed up,” he said. I did, and we arrived back in Moss Landing in time for sunset.

And there, on a dune overlooking the Pacific, he said two memorable things. (1) Sometimes there are so many sooty shearwaters over the ocean that they partially obscure the sun. (2) The editors he had queried about publishing my first novel were well into their sixth month of silence, and I might be better off approaching small presses without his help.

The look that passed between us then was warm, almost intimate. We were partners in failure. Clickbait has no trouble getting a byline. But as long as he wants more than to see his name in print, he will always know the pain of rejection.

In lieu of payment for this story, $500 has been donated to the American Bird Conservancy.

Watching the Birds With the King of Clickbait