Syd drove two hours looking for a hawk. They finally found one, sitting in a tree across from a barn. Hawks stay in the same spot for hours, waiting for prey. This one pounced on the trap before they could step back, so hungry it lost its bearings and caught a foot in a loop of wire. They put the huge hood over its head, bound its feet and drove for another hour with it in her lap, tiny heart thudding against her fingers. They were trying to find something better, in which case they would turn him loose, but it was a bad day for hawks, so they finally settled on him, mangey and starved, ulcers on both legs. The trainer pulled up to a local bakery and came back with donuts, which she didn’t take. Her hands crawled with parasites. When they got back to the house and took his hood off, he studied them, eyes darting from one to the other, but in ten minutes he took the quail right out of her hand. The trainer said he was probably sick. There was a chance he could die.

They looped leather around his ankles, attached a leash, taught him with more quail how to fly and come back. A week after they caught him, they let him fly free. As long as she kept him hungry, he would come, loop once or twice, land on her leather wrist, give her the back of his head, a gesture of submission. She never let herself think they were connected– her detachment makes her a good birder, even at thirteen. She sorts and processes efficiently, careful with details: the length of a crest, the color and curl of a claw. They studied each other the same way, girl and hawk, dispassionate appraisals, making deals: back in ten minutes, half a quail. Back in five, the whole thing. At night he slept in a plywood box with metal bars on the window. The trainer called it a muse. He stayed patiently, not making a sound, the coop next to him filled with gossipy, rustling chickens, loose feathers furring the ramp, the doorframe, the roof. He waited for her after school like a dog, perched on the post at the end of the driveway. She walked back to the house with him on her wrist. Every night she powdered him to get rid of the parasites, dipped his foot in iodine to keep the ulcers from getting infected.

The plan was never to keep him. Just to learn how to handle a bird. After five months she started weaning him, gave him more quail than he could eat every day, stopped touching him, cut his leads. You need to leave them wild, so they don’t fly up to people and scare them, get themselves killed. He went wild faster than the trainer expected, plump and vigorous, more wary each time she came to the muse. They drove him back to the field where they found him and let him loose. He rose on a few strong pumps, disappeared over the tree-line as if he had never known her. That night at the dinner table she asked for seconds. You would think she had never known him either, except that she could tell you, if you asked, how long he was with her: five months, a week and two days.

He smokes too much dope. He knows this, each time the burn hits the back of his throat he tells himself this has got to stop, and then the floating starts, all the edges of the world get softer, and he forgets, again, the list of things he should be doing instead. He vaguely remembers the time before he started, a time when he would wake up in the middle of the night, sliced by something cold and sharp— the idea that he might have gotten poisoned by the old taco he ate just before going to bed, or that the ticking he heard was somebody in the house, or an electrical wire shorting out, a spark, smoke, everything about to go up in flames. Back then he would wake up tired, if he ever went back to sleep, which wasn’t clear, was he sleeping, or just counting until time blurred into something droning and dark. When he came into the kitchen, bumping into things, not remembering where he put his history textbook, or even if he had history that day, his mother would say, touching his cheek, “you always look so happy.” He saw himself once, reflected in the glass door of the microwave, a stupid half-smile on his face. He did look happy, which was a joke, really, too bad she couldn’t see into his head.

How many joints? One a day, minimum, if there’s a party, more. It didn’t seem like much until some girl asked him straight up, really, how much, and he said thirty a month. He rounded down, and still her eyes got wide. He had to get a job to keep up with his habit. Walked into the corner store and signed up to work, three afternoons a week. His parents talk about the job at dinner parties. He heard them once, calling him a go-getter. His father said I didn’t have his drive, that’s for sure.

What’s on the list? Get into college, number one. He’s not even sure what college means, more parties, more dope, not having to smoke in the park. The advice column his mother left on his bed said “find your passion.” So that’s on the list. The cheerful article pointed out you can start looking as early as fourteen. The sooner the better. Practice guitar, then, that should go on the list, because his twelve year old dream, musician, is starting to fade. The other day his father said “I always wanted to play the bass–” and shuffled off, stooped and gray, to take care of some house project, clean the gutters, replace the steps. Also on the list: make a list. Stick to the list. Do your homework. Exercise more. Eat healthy food. Don’t screw up. Don’t get old.

It’s not just a joint. Every single joint is different, each one brings a slightly different high, the surge of hope, the adrenaline rush, the sleepy peace of a sweet dream. They’re like blind boxes, you never know until you touch the flame to the tip what adventure will unfurl with the wooly smoke. You get better at it, he wants to say, at letting go, holding yourself in that delicate place between exertion and inertia. If you push too hard, you crush it, if you don’t stay alert, the whole thing sails off without you, like a good idea you forgot to write down. He knows how to catch the first surge and then float, like Aladdin, watching the subtle changes in space and time, kinks and ruffles most people never notice. He knows now that time isn’t what it appears to be, that it doesn’t unfold neatly, in an orderly fashion, one minute after another, until the end.

I had that feeling again, of being both intimidated and stifled by the plethora of people out there, pitching tents on the Internet. A crowded, clamoring forum, everybody listing accomplishments, outlining projects, trying to seem more successful than they actually are. The most popular bloggers have a similar bio: some failure led to a great success, the writer (consultant, motivational speaker, life coach) reinvented, baptized by fires of defeat. A more likely truth: we are not always improved. There are short straws and long straws and we will draw some of each, and some people will draw more of one than the other, not always because they deserve it. There’s failure—I tried to be a professional athlete and didn’t have enough talent; I wanted to write but lacked drive. And there’s bad luck— I wanted a happy marriage but never met anybody; I wanted a long life but got sick. It’s hard to talk about defeat, especially in the can-do cyber-universe. Every narrative is subtly framed as a step in the direction of eventual triumph. A consoling template until we meet a road block that won’t be moved, or until the road dwindles to a path, and then a trail, and then disappears. How do we talk about loss? How do we talk about aging? How can we talk frankly and truthfully about life without talking about death?

In her acceptance speech, the woman at the awards ceremony said her child once asked when she was going to learn how to cook. Her answer was never. The audience laughed appreciatively. I sat, cringing. I taught myself to cook. On purpose. Not because I like to cook, but because I have children. Which is why I will never win an award for anything.

You don’t get a lifetime achievement award for baking bread. People eat it, but it doesn’t make very good conversation.