Odd Birds

Odd Birds

by Ian Harding

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250117137
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 439,882
Product dimensions: 5.11(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Born in Heidelberg, Germany, to a US military family, Ian Harding discovered acting at a young age. He attended Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating to pursue acting and writing. He is best known for his role as Ezra Fitz on Freeform's (formerly known as ABC Family) Pretty Little Liars, for which he has won seven Teen Choice awards. Ian is passionate about birding and nature, and he tries to spend as much time outdoors as humanly possible.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

FAMILY CARDINALS

When I was a kid, my mom told me to keep an eye out for cardinals whenever I went out to play in the woods behind our house.

"They look out for us," she told me. "So we need to look out for them, too."

Cardinals hold a very special place in my family, and much of our family folklore centers around them. I'm reminded of this whenever I go back to Maryland to visit my mom — you can't find cardinals in Los Angeles, they don't make it this far west.

My mom keeps porcelain statuettes of them on shelves and tabletops around the house. She has cardinal coffee mugs, picture frames decorated with cardinals, even cardinal-themed oven mitts. At Christmas, cardinal ornaments overwhelm the tree.

They brighten up her house in much the same way the real birds can appear as a bloom of crimson on a snowy winter's day.

* * *

My mom inherited her name, Mary, from her mother, and her love of cardinals from her father, John Collins.

Grandpa John served in the army during World War II. He received a Purple Heart and Silver Star for storming a fortified hillside to hurl a grenade into a Nazi pillbox. After the war, he returned to Virginia, where he met his wife, Mary, and started a family.

John and Mary were Irish Catholic, and they brought their children up in the Church. The family always had a particular fondness for saints and guardian angels. They were always looking for symbols of their faith in their lives — signs of divine presence in the world around them.

Grandpa John was also an amateur naturalist and a history buff, and he loved the cardinal because it was the state bird of Virginia — never mind the fact that it's also the state bird of five other states. He would always point the birds out to his kids when they appeared in the yard. At some point, my mom and her siblings came to believe that cardinals were the guardian angels of the Collins family.

I never met my grandmother Mary. She died of pancreatic cancer when my mom was eleven years old.

According to my mom, the week after her mother's funeral, a female cardinal flew up and perched right outside the dining room while the family was eating breakfast. The bird seemed to be peering in through the window, watching over my mom and her siblings as they ate. My grandfather noticed, and as he pointed the bird out to his kids, it began to sing — its syrupy call inserting itself into the conversation like my grandmother used to do.

Eventually, my grandfather remarried. His new wife, Alice, was squat in appearance and cranky in demeanor. She took on the job of parenting my mother and her siblings as best she could.

So now there was Grandpa John and Grandma Alice in the house — and a cardinal that acted suspiciously like Grandma Mary living in the backyard.

Fast-forward a few decades. I was in elementary school. Grandpa John got sick. Mom, being a nurse, could tell that he wasn't going to get better.

A few days after Grandpa John died, a pair of cardinals showed up at the feeder we had hanging in our backyard.

We'd often hear them calling before they appeared. They'd come in from the forest to the bushes at the edge of the lawn and survey the house. Then, in stuttered flight, they'd swoop across the yard. The cardinals would take turns at the feeder, one perching to eat while the other hopped around the ground below.

My mom liked to believe — we all liked to believe — that it was Grandpa John and Grandma Mary, reunited as cardinals in the afterlife.

Grandma Alice never remarried, and became less cranky with age. I loved spending time with her, and we used to sit and talk for hours. Actually, let me rephrase that: I would talk for hours, and she would smile and nod. She said she didn't believe in hearing aids, and I don't think she could hear a word I said.

Halfway through my freshman year of college, Grandma Alice passed away.

Back home in Virginia, the same pair of cardinals that had appeared when Grandpa John died was still coming around — they were still regulars at the feeder. Or at least we thought they were the same birds. The male had an especially dark mask, and the female's crest was a bright red — brighter than I'd seen on other birds.

The morning after Alice's funeral — as we were standing in the kitchen trying to figure out what to do with all the leftover food from the memorial reception — a new cardinal appeared. It was another female, and it sat at the feeder alongside the original pair.

This bird was different from the others. She was squat and a little drab, and even appeared cranky, becoming aggressive with birds twice her size when they came too close to her food.

So, naturally, we concluded, these cardinals were Grandpa John, Grandma Mary, and Grandma Alice.

It was fun to imagine that our loved ones had embodied birds so they could come back and look after us. But we never took the cardinal symbolism that seriously. I'm not a superstitious person, and for my sister and me, the cardinals were just a coincidence: coincidences happen.

* * *

If you pressed me, though, I do have a cardinal story of my own.

It was the winter before I graduated from college. I was driving back to Pittsburgh from Virginia, where I'd spent the holidays with my family. The whole world was gray outside, and it was beginning to snow.

Despite the weather, I was booking it back to the 'Burgh. I was making my way up a long hill when a glint of red came out of the trees along the highway. I could just make out the cardinal through the snow, flapping its way across the road in front of my car.

I slowed and changed lanes to avoid hitting the bird, and as I did, the back tire of an eighteen-wheeler directly in front of me blew out. The truck swerved violently into the other lane, right where I'd been seconds before. If I hadn't hit the brakes to avoid that cardinal, the truck would've crushed me.

A few years later I mentioned what had happened to my mom. She just smiled and nodded. "These things happen," she said.

* * *

When I was in elementary school, my mom got sick. Really sick. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. She went to a bunch of different specialists, but they all struggled to diagnose her illness. In the meantime, she was told to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

She spent weeks in bed, exhausted. Moving hurt. Talking hurt. She would break out in rashes whenever she went out in the sun. And then the rash would be replaced by a fever and her joints would swell up. More doctors' appointments, spinal taps, and blood tests all came back inconclusive. At one point she was diagnosed with meningitis, only to have the diagnosis reversed a week later.

We didn't know it yet, but my mom had lupus.

Lupus is a difficult disease to diagnose — and is done so mostly by process of elimination. And, even after it is diagnosed, there still isn't a cure.

When my mom found out she had lupus, little was known about the disease. She was told that the remainder of her shortened life — perhaps only another ten years — would consist of rapid and violent swings of health, and constant joint and intestinal pain.

Instead of resigning herself to her diagnosis, she decided to fight back on all fronts. She proceeded to eat cleaner than a triathlete, tried every immunosuppressive drug on the market, and prayed harder than the pope.

Since her diagnosis more than twenty years ago, my mom's dietary and healthcare choices seem to have been working. To this day, she has remained in reasonably good health.

But lupus is still an insidious disease. At times it acts as though it has a mind of its own.

I went home for Christmas several years ago to spend the holidays with my mom and her sister, Julie. There was a bunch of family in town, and it was lovely to all be together. Christmas is my mom's favorite holiday, so we all went to bed early on Christmas Eve. Everyone wanted the next day to arrive as soon as possible.

Early the next morning, Aunt Jules shook me awake — it was still dark outside.

"There's something wrong with your mom," she said.

I ran to my mom's room and found her sitting up in bed, thumbing her rosary with one hand and taking her blood pressure with the other.

She looked up at me, her body shaking. "It feels like I'm having a heart attack." Her breathing was shallow, forced. "But it isn't a damn heart attack," she said.

My mom worked as a cardiac nurse practitioner for several years — she knew all the signs. And she was right: it wasn't a heart attack. She was having a lupus flare. A bad one.

The paramedics arrived quickly — wearing Santa hats — and they lifted her out of bed and carried her down the stairs.

We spent Christmas morning in the hospital with her, while the doctors ran a battery of tests to see what might have triggered the flare. By that afternoon, she said she was feeling well enough to go home, so they gave her some pain medication and released her.

My mom's recovery over the next few days was painful and slow. She seemed older, frailer than I'd seen her before. I asked if she wanted me to delay my flight back to Los Angeles, but she insisted that I shouldn't change anything on her behalf.

On the morning of my departure, I went for a run to clear my head. When I got back to the house, I heard laughter coming from upstairs. At first I thought it might be Aunt Jules, but my mom's guffaw is unmistakable.

I went upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door.

"Come in," she said. Her voice sounded warmer, stronger.

I stepped into the room to find her rolled onto her side in bed, looking out the window. She waved me over. I sat down on the edge of the bed and we both looked out.

There they were: the three cardinals, Grandpa John, Grandma Mary, and cranky Grandma Alice. They were all perched in the branches of a tree that brushed up against the side of the house.

Grandpa John's mouth was slightly ajar as he looked back and forth between his two cardinal mates. He rubbed his beak against the branch he was perched on.

"You know, cardinals mate for life," I said. "Three isn't a normal number for birds."

My mom nodded.

"So … do you think Grandpa John's a polygamist now?"

She laughed. She turned back to me, smiling. She looked healthier, happier, and at least momentarily without pain.

Grandma Mary flew out of sight, around the corner of the house, followed closely by the other two.

We watched them fly off. "That never gets old," my mom said.

I nodded.

She rolled to her other side slowly, then let her head sink into the pillow. As she closed her eyes, she said, "You know, maybe we should change up the birdseed out there. Alice is looking a little chunky."

CHAPTER 2

REDISCOVERING BIRDS

I've played a handful of different roles in my relatively short career as an actor. I've been a French aristocrat, a jellyfish, a heroin-addicted pornographer, a Roman centurion, a cat burglar, Pfizer trainee #1. At a summer theater program, I once played a pair of haunted cowboy boots.

Most of all, though, I've enjoyed getting to play America's most beloved pedophile.

The role of Ezra Fitz — despite the creep factor and the obvious ethical issues of dating a minor who happens to be one of my students — has been an incredible learning experience. I've played the part for seven years now, longer than any other role I've had, and I've grown substantially as an actor and as a person during my time as Ezra.

The first few seasons were a wild ride. I strapped in and hoped to God that I wouldn't fall off. The show turned out to be a hit — I was even getting recognized on the street. The whole experience was exciting and surreal, and every day was something new. I felt like I'd really made it.

But, as with everything, after a few seasons, the newness began to fade a little. I love my castmates and the crew — they are some of my favorite people on earth — but there were days on set when I counted down the hours until I could clock out and head home to see my girlfriend and play with my dogs. There were days when the job felt like a have-to instead of a get-to.

I knew I was in danger of becoming jaded. I was beginning to act like what Dustin Diamond might have called a "douche nozzle." I knew that I needed to shake the feeling off posthaste or I was going to start losing friends.

Nobody wants to hang out with a douche nozzle.

* * *

It was winter. Or the Los Angeles version of winter, elsewhere called "autumn." We were on break from filming, and I was going on a ski trip — a welcome chance to duck out of town for a few days and clear my head.

Every year since we graduated, a big group of my college friends and I have rented a cabin up in Big Bear Lake, a small town in the mountains about two hours northeast of LA. I studied acting at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and I'm still close with a lot of my classmates. It's a tight-knit group, and the annual ski trip is a lot like a mafia summit — except instead of checking on business and figuring out whose kneecaps to break, the major goals are skiing and inebriation.

That year, we'd rented a cabin that could comfortably sleep six. There were two dozen of us, but we'd all gone to school together, so we were used to sharing beds.

The real problem was that it was only mid-December. We'd scheduled the trip a bit early that year, thinking nothing of the suspiciously low rental prices. There wasn't much snow yet. In fact, I'm pretty sure the only powder on the mountain was man-made. There were just two runs open in the entire resort: a bunny run for beginners, and a longer, intermediate-level blue.

The first day, we said screw it and decided to ski anyway. It was shorts and T-shirt weather on the mountain, not a cloud in the sky. The snow was the consistency of a Slurpee.

My friend Jack had never skied before, so I skied down the bunny slope with him a few times to help him with the basics. He got the hang of it pretty quickly, and after four or five times down, Jack decided he wanted to try his luck on the more difficult blue.

About a hundred yards into the run, Jack skidded over a rough patch of snow and went down. Hard. He reached out to catch himself and broke his arm — really shattered it.

I was above him on the mountain and didn't see him wipe out. I came around a bend to find several of my Carnegie compatriots huddled around him. At first I thought he was more shaken than hurt. But then Jack lifted his arm — it was bent at an unnatural angle: something was very wrong.

Jack had to be taken down the mountain in a paramedic snowmobile, and then we drove him to the emergency room in town.

In the ER, an unhygienically musky doctor came up to us. "What seems to be the problem here? Got a hurt arm?" he asked.

Before Jack could respond, the doctor reached out, grabbed his arm, and gave it a hard squeeze, shaking it up and down. Jack screamed and jerked his arm back. The doctor whistled. "That's definitely broken," he said.

"Yeah, you think?" Jack spat back.

For future reference: people with broken arms don't like having them squeezed and shaken. Just so you know.

Eventually a different doctor splinted Jack's arm and loaded him up with enough pain meds to knock out a small elephant. I offered to drive him back to LA, but Jack was a total champ and said he wanted to stay the rest of the weekend with us.

Unsurprisingly, the next morning nobody felt like skiing.

While we all tried to figure out what to do, my buddies Nick and Frank, both from New Jersey, both of Italian descent, made us all a massive breakfast. Nick and Frank are always the chefs on these trips. They never ski. They just come to hang out, drink, and cook, like the Italian grandmothers they secretly are.

My girlfriend Sophia and I loaded up our plates with eggs and pancakes and Italian sausages, and sat down at the breakfast table to feast.

Sophia and I have been together for six years, the longest I've been with anyone. We went to college together but didn't start dating until we'd both moved to Los Angeles. She has the looks of Audrey Hepburn and the comedic timing of Buster Keaton. She's also an exceptional photographer and artist.

One of our group, a friend from Carnegie we all call Wiggy, shuffled into the kitchen, half asleep, carrying an electric guitar and an amp. He was wearing boxers and an American flag T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He grunted good morning to no one in particular and sat down on top of the table. He leaned over to plug in the amp and then proceeded to strum out a series of death metal arpeggios.

I reached over and unplugged the amp. Wiggy continued to play as if nothing had changed.

After breakfast, I took a couple of people into town to the grocery store. We needed to stock up on provisions since we weren't going back out on the slopes. Mostly I think we were getting beer for a little day drinking. Maybe marshmallows and chocolate bars for s'mores.

On the drive to town, I started feeling irritable. The weekend was beginning to seem like a total waste. It wasn't my friends' fault. It was me.

I'd been craving activity — something to take my mind off everything. Instead, I found myself once again worrying about my work and the ever-lengthening to-do list I'd left back in Los Angeles.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Odd Birds"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Ian Harding.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Bridge to Nowhere 3

1 Family Cardinals 17

2 Rediscovering Birds 25

3 H Is for Mr. Hawkins 41

4 My Inner Animal 53

5 Coming to Los Angeles (Twice) 67

6 Lucy Goosey 71

7 Il Buio Oltre la Siepe 85

8 Death and Loons 91

9 Spring Migration 101

10 Put Your Best Feather Forward 121

11 Rehab 127

12 Life in the Wings 137

13 No More Duck for Bailey 147

14 How to Look Sexy on Camera 157

15 The Birds and the Bees 163

16 Fifty Shades of Thanksgiving 173

17 The California Condor 185

18 Not That Kind of Bird 209

19 'Splores with Keegan 217

20 And All the Birds at Sea 235

Acknowledgments 253

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Odd Birds (Signed Book) 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Kerstin725 6 months ago
I literally read this in two days during a recent Fall cold snap. Very hard to put down. It is lovely, honest, peaceful, funny and inspiring. In a world that is often loud, pretentious, and egocentric, it is truly refreshing to read a quality memoir. If you are a lover of the Arts and nature, you will appreciate this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The thing that really drew me to this book was the birds. I am not a die-hard fan of Pretty Little Liars, but I really do like the show, but I didn't pick this out because of the show. I really want to read more nature writing and this sounded interesting. I am so glad I gave it a read. I laughed multiple times, but there were also tender moments. It felt like I was listening to a friend. I can see myself re-reading this multiple times, which doesn't happen often with memoirs.
bookwarm101 More than 1 year ago
Very creative and enlightening look into his life