Friday, December 30, 2011

A Catalog of Simple Wishes For The New Year


To enter each day expectant, and bow down to my dog with gratitude.

To leap and blow bubbles and reach instinctively for every bright, raging color in the crayon box.

To creep like an ecstatic cat burglar through every day and fling myself at the world.

To want more.

To whoop and bellow and grip the grass with my toes.

To look forward, and lunge.

To stomp through the calendar, oblivious, and to kill no clock that I don’t intend to eat with genuine relish.

To sense the planet moving beneath my feet, and to understand  that that motion represents both a state of urgency and an obligation.

To laugh until I cry uncle.

To want more.

To emerge from every dark place upright, unharmed, and blinking in the sunlight.

To imagine entire new constellations of planets, vast galaxies teeming with possibility.

To create a world of my own that allows me to live comfortably in the world I did not create.

To surround myself with the things I have saved from a lifetime of excavation and exploration, every one of which is a personal version of Proust’s madeleine.

To keep playing Twister with words until I find the right way to say the things I want and need to say.

To have pure, idiot wonder and faith in the limitless miracles of my body.

To want more.

To trust fully the things on which I can depend.

To be more dependable to the people on whom I depend.

To harbor none but exaggerated fears and the smallest of dissolving terrors.

To be hungry for nothing but something to eat.

To be forever trusting in the arms of mercy.

To get up when I fall.

To stand and run and never crawl again.

To recognize that I have been blessed beyond measure, and to accept my blessings as the expected, everyday miracles that they are.

To give thanks, nonetheless.

To want more.

To keep my heart open.

To listen.

To talk to strangers.

To stop what I’m doing –wherever I am—and take a good look around.

To reach out, to raise my voice.

To change my mind.

To know that I’ve done what I could.

To know that I want to do still more.

To settle down at the end of the day with good music and my inventory of pleasures and memories.

To give myself away until I’m empty and exhausted and left with nothing but the last radiant embers of satisfaction and contentment.

To believe that if this is it, it was not just enough, but more than enough.

To sleep and --not merely perchance-- to dream.

To have sweet dreams.

To want more.

To get up and try it all again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Watching The Dailies From A Railroad Trestle In Vermont



A creeping reel of film
stretched across the valley
between the shrouded hills,
a pastoral interlude before things
get lively and it heads through
town, the river both the film itself
and the screen on which it is projected.

Watching at dusk from the theater
of the trestle, the town huddled
on the banks shimmers across the screen.
The streetlamps, the slashing lights of
cars on the river road, the lights
in the windows of the hulking old
buildings, the steam from the paper mill.

Or at high noon, color and light
and evident shapes and motion,
floating clouds and a bright,
shattered sun transmuted time and
again in a quaking hall of mirrors.
Yet another dream shot for the ancient
cinematographer, the supreme panoramist.

He likes to keep his show rolling,
and loaded with literal sub-texts,
hidden backstories and tragic plot lines
stashed in the memory of moving water
and the murk beneath the surface.
A shame you can’t rewind the film
a hundred or even five hundred years.

If you wanted to, though, you could follow
its languid story all the way to its closing credits,
to the moon-tossed archives of the sea,
repository of a million dreams etched on
living water. This day will be there
soon, dissolving into fragments and,
finally, particles of pure and living light.

Sometimes, far out at sea, the ocean
will still screen jumbled festivals of the
old films it has acquired, and sailors
will be struck mute with wonder, forever
changed by they things they have seen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Gift That Sets The Stars Free


One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.

The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and  became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.

There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest. 

The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring. 

The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade. 

They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns. 

The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep. 

The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star!  Sweet dreams, my little wish.”

And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.

There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.

All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.

That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.

That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses. 

The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice.  Something happy.  A small, happy thing.

 And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.

And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch  to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.

On clear nights, as Beauteous Munch and his friend the clown tuckled up and drifted off to sleep, they would stare into the sky above them and watch with drowsy wonder as star after star tumbled through the darkness and somewhere, they knew, a wish had come true.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Your Lives In My Tiny Little Hands


This one guy, every couple weeks it's these amazing places you can't even believe, mountains, usually, and he's standing in water or strung up on a cliff and hanging from ropes. He'll bring in ten or twenty rolls of film at a time, and it's gotten so that I look forward to seeing him come through the door. You see the whole world, is how my boss put it when he was training me in. This job is a privilege, he'd say. These people are trusting us with their most private moments.

I've always been one of those guys who isn't much for going places --going places, actually, doesn't bother me; it's the being there that I have a problem with. But it is interesting for me to see these other places and to imagine, you know, my own versions of the stories these pictures might be trying to tell. One time this guy brought in a roll of film and it was nothing but pictures of dead cows --seven dead cows sprawled around in the dirt. There wasn't a single person in any of the photos, just the dead cows, and somebody had taken pink paint and outlined their bodies in the dirt, just like they'd been murdered in the movies.

Of course you get the pictures of women in bathing suits, and people on the toilet --I've seen hundreds of those-- and occasionally actual bare breasts or even some full frontal, although we're not supposed to develop anything that's "too far over the line," as my boss says. But I have to admit that in five years we've never refused to process a single roll of film that I'm aware of.

My own family never took photographs. I don't think I ever saw a camera in either of my parents' hands. These people would come around at school to take photos of the students and I remember bringing home a little packet of those every year but I'm not even sure what my mother would do with them. They didn't go up on the refrigerator like they did at other kids' houses, I know that much. My mother didn't put anything on the refrigerator.

I'm sure people would be horrified to think that we look through their photos, but they must know. It's human nature, my boss says. I think one thing that happens so often is that people will find an old roll of film still in a camera or laying around the house somewhere --in a kitchen drawer or in the glove compartment of their car-- and they'll have completely forgotten what's on there and curiosity gets the best of them so they bring them in to be developed. They bring them in because they want to know, and I think that's when you get some surprises.

People always ask, what's the strangest thing you've ever seen looking at all these photos day after day? And, to be honest with you, that's not an easy question to answer. I've seen so many strange and I guess disturbing things mixed in with the birthday parties and the picnics and parades. More than one person with a gun in their mouth. A dead dog laid out on a kitchen table with a flower in its teeth. This one guy we called the Sign Man, who would take photographs of himself holding hand-lettered signs that said things like, "Tammi, I am not a part of your experiment anymore," or "I am sick and tired of being taken apart by robots." Unsurprisingly, the Sign Man eventually turned in a roll of film with a photo of himself with a gun in his mouth.

I have seen so many babies being born that it is no longer even mysterious or interesting to me. I have seen a hundred families or more standing in front of Mount Rushmore or shaking Mickey Mouse's hand. Young couples in formal wear, of course, getting ready to go to a dance or get married. Little children crouched next to their beds with folded hands, saying their prayers. People in coffins and carnival rides and tombstones. Christmas trees, obviously, and kids sitting on Santa's lap. Lots of people in Halloween costumes. One I do remember in particular was a picture of a cross-eyed little kid with a snail creeping up his tongue. 

People also take a lot of pictures of food, color photos of turkeys and hams and Jello. You see everything, really, pretty much anything you could imagine.

Personally, I like the stuff in the margins, the mistakes and unintentional shots that show what goes on outside the world of what people think of as a picture. I like to study the people who are just standing in the background, looking puzzled and unaware. I couldn't tell you, really, what staring into those pictures makes me feel. Captured, I suppose, the way I feel when I stand far enough outside myself sometimes that I can see how small I am.

I always thought of photos as little trigger-finger wishes, I guess. You know, people press that button and they hope that something will come out that looks like how they want to remember the world and the time they spent living in it and trying to create moments that looked like pictures. Something they can look at and say, "See, here it was. What a grand life we had." Or maybe even, in some of the sadder cases, they want evidence that the nightmares and heartaches they endured were demonstrably real.

So often when people pick up their photographs they can't wait to see if they got what they wanted, and they'll stand right there at the counter and shuffle through them. I'm prepared to swear that the vast majority of these people look clearly disappointed. I've concluded that it must be hard to take a true picture, or at least a picture that captures what you thought --and hoped-- you'd seen, experienced, felt, or looked like or at in that one paralyzed instant. I suppose that's one reason why I've never felt inclined to even try. I'll think I'm seeing the world sometimes, and fear that a photograph would only confirm that I have never done anything but look at the wrong things or in the wrong places.

It's sad when people wish, my mother always said. She'd say, You pray that when you get to a ripe old age you can look back and count the number of really sad days on one hand. Maybe that's why she didn't like photos around, because they were like reminders of all the things that never quite managed to turn out the way she had hoped or planned.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From The Christmas Attic: The Scandal of Richard Kunkel's Pageant

A lot of folks around town thought there was something special about Richard Kunkel. Big things had been expected of the poor fellow since he was a lad. Certainly no one believed such a fine, bright boy would stick around a jerkwater village like ours for the rest of his life.

Many assumed Kunkel would join the military as had his father, and would rise quickly through the ranks and distinguish himself --and make our town proud-- through some act of heroism. Others thought certain he would become a professional singer. He had such a fine voice, and was always getting up to sing at parties, supper clubs, and special occasions around town. He knew all the songs from the Broadway shows.

As for myself, well, I taught the boy in school, and I thought certain Kunkel would find his place in the political arena. He was the shining star of our debate team, and had such a sharp, quick mind and a keen interest in all the big ideas. I always pictured him smiling and waving from the back of a train, on his way to Washington and waving goodbye to that little town of ours forever.

But, no, sir. It turns out our Richard Kunkel didn't have the ambition God gave a field mouse, and he never went anywhere. Turned down a scholarship to an excellent university out east to stick around and become one of those local "characters" every community seems to harbor against its will.

The fellow couldn't seem to hold a position to save his soul, and it was the death of his dear mother. It really was. After a time rumors began to circulate that Kunkel had a fondness for liquor and spent a good deal of time fleecing the old priests at St. Andrew's at the card table. He never married, and he did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at the Parish house. Heaven only knows what those fellows were up to over there, but they were known to be a group of beaten men who'd been sent to our community as some sort of punishment.

Still, at least on the surface, Richard Kunkel never did stop being the same friendly, outgoing, and curious fellow that the town had known as a boy. Always had a warm greeting and a kind word. He never amounted to a hill of beans, though, which saddened me. I liked to see our bright young people go out into the world to make something of themselves.

Then one year Richard Kunkel did an unusual and entirely unsuspected thing, a rather scandalous thing in our little scheme of things. Kunkel recruited some children from the church youth group and mounted a Christmas pageant from a play he had apparently written himself and based on some of the questionable stories regarding Saint Nicholas of Myra. In actuality this play had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas and focused on the legend of St. Nicholas's resurrection of three boys --Timothy, Mark, and John-- after they had allegedly been slaughtered, pickled, and sold as meat during a fourth-century famine.

This peculiar incident was described by Kunkel --and most clumsily enacted by his troupe of amateur players-- in obsessive and grotesque detail, complete with much shrieking, writhing, and the liberal spilling of false blood.

This inappropriate production was staged as a prelude to a chili dinner in the church basement --an annual event in the community-- and needless to say whatever point Kunkel was trying to make was entirely lost on the horrified spectators, many of whom were people with young children of their own who had come expecting some celebration of the season.

Kunkel --playing a filthy and half-dressed pawnbroker (St. Nicholas being the patron saint of this profession, or so Kunkel explained in the copiously annotated program notes)-- narrated the play with a disturbing and frequently incoherent zeal. Speculation that Kunkel might have been inebriated was fueled by the fact that his character was swilling from a large bottle of whiskey throughout the production.

A necessary prop, Kunkel later tried to explain, but there were few believers and the damage was done.

The entire cast did reappear on stage at the end, holding hands, to warble through a version of "O Holy Night," but most of them were covered with fake blood, and it was a bit too little, too late.

People should recognize the effect one untoward incident can have on a man's reputation in a small town. I'm not saying local scuttlebutt is always fair and square, but after Richard Kunkel's little lark at the church dinner people's attitudes about him changed. He'd been a bit of a disappointment to that point, to be sure, but this was something else entirely. Richard Kunkel went from a boy of failed promise to the sort of mystery nobody really wanted around. It's sad, but that's the way of the world.

I'm not necessarily going to suggest there was a connection, but Richard Kunkel's mother didn't make it through the winter following the Christmas debacle at St. Andrew's. She died at St. Mark's nursing home in early March. At her funeral the consensus was that her heart had just finally given out.

Kunkel kept a remarkably low profile in the aftermath of his disgrace, and then quietly left town a year or so later after being charged with stealing books from the library. I've heard through the gravevine that these days he's been working at an animal shelter over in Rochester, living with a group of retired priests, and in declining health.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk

There, there child. Come now. Every day can't be brass bands and beef steaks and roses.

Give me your hand. Let me hold it and trace with my fingers its rivers and roads and rivulets and cul-de-sacs.

Hold out hope, like a gift, an offering. Give it to me, or to others. Don't hold it so close. Just put it where it can be reached.

Tell me what you're going through, what's going on in that head of yours.

Lift up your head and let me see your eyes.

The mysteries don't scare me anymore. Someone once said that all silence is the recognition of a mystery, but I don't believe that anymore and I'm not sure I ever did. I think silence is many things (a sort of reading room or academy of mysteries, maybe), and many of them fine, but I don't think it's a recognition of a mystery. That's much too general. You might recognize a mystery in the loudest room or the most crowded street or in the face of a passing stranger or the furtive smile of someone you love.

When you do recognize a mystery, though --when you really recognize a mystery-- I believe you're compelled to address it, to try to speak its name and describe its features, to give it a face so that you will recognize and remember it until the end of your days. Because it's no small thing, the recognition of a mystery, even though it happens all the time and we may not even be properly aware of it. Still, I believe such recognition calls for some banging of pots and pans, some fireworks, some exultant noise.

Yes is not, of course, an obligation. It is a choice and the embrace of a privilege, and not everyone has even one honest yes in them. Some people are damaged and can manage only the sidestep, the Hollywood kiss, and the awkward embrace. Such people are only too unhappy, however unconsciously, to persist in the tragic human error of mistaking halfhearted attention and respiration and mere movement for some form of sufficient affirmation or commitment, and to mistake this false form of sufficient affirmation and commitment for genuine attention, engagement, and affection.

Joy is unmistakable, and cannot be faked. God knows, though, the world --and people--try to simulate it and manufacture it. More and more this ersatz version is what the world tries to sell us.

There, there child. Come now. Lift up your head and let me see your eyes. You aren't one of these people. You were born with a a capacity for real joy and a yes plumbed snugly behind your ribs. If your yes sometimes feels heavy and silent and still in your chest that is only because it is still looking for a bell tower in the world. Wait. Be patient. You'll one day again find a bright and worthy place to hang your heaviness, and when it starts to sway --and the clapper of your joy begins to swing in rhythm with it-- your bell will at last be heard, even if initially by only one other. And it will be answered, it will be joined.

Have you ever heard a bell ringing in a little valley town? It's a lovely sound, but there is something mournful about it as well. But two bells, or all the bells in the valley ringing together at once? That is something else entirely. That is the music the human heart was designed to make. That is the definition of a joyful noise.

Wait for that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The World Will Sound Like John Coltrane's "Alabama"

Most of the time I'm guessing.
I have heard the world sound like Charles Mingus.
I have seen buildings burn.
One summer everywhere I went
I saw houses on fire.
I always stop whatever I'm doing
to watch something burn.
This strikes me as a sacred obligation.

For thousands of years --I don't know,
maybe it wasn't thousands of years--
we wanted and worshiped fire
and now we pay people to fight it.
Always an elemental battle,
but fire wins even when it is defeated.
Maybe there is nothing we should think
harder about than a house or building
that has been consumed by fire in the
dead of winter, extinguished with hoses,
and the next day transformed
into a desolate palace of ice.

Difficult to decide, looking upon
such a scene, whether the world
will end in fire or ice, and since they are
equally devastating and beautiful it hardly
seems to matter. I know, though, that
I have looked into both, and seen the
obliteration of time, including mine.

In the spring the building will be
gone and there will be just a dirt
lot and at dusk the world will sound
like John Coltrane's "Alabama"
and the fire will once again
be quietly biding its time.

Nothing in nature waits
so patiently to be born
and then grows up to be
a warrior so quickly
and so unexpectedly.

(The photo above is copyright Chuck Holliday of The Laconia Citizen. I stumbled across it years ago, and have had it on my desktop ever since.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nice Day For That Sort Of Thing

I couldn't sleep last night, so early this morning I took my dog out for a walk through the early morning streets of my neighborhood. Over near the Pump N Munch we encountered an older fellow who was also taking a stroll.

The man looked both professorial and a bit shabby. He walked like a slow-motion speed skater --big, splayed-leg strides, slightly hunched, his hands clasped behind his back.

"Got to stay loose and keep the juices jangling," he said. "Nice day for that sort of thing."

I remarked that the only previous usage I'd ever heard of the phrase "keep the juices jangling" came from Satchel Paige.

"Of course, of course," the man said, nodding his head emphatically.

I hadn't seen this man around the neighborhood before. He sounded like a man who sat beside God's bed and read Him stories to help Him sleep. I've honestly never heard such a voice, and would use the word "mellifluous" to describe it if that word didn't remind me of an entirely bogus high school  English teacher with a ponytail. Now this, the man said, reaching down to scratch my dog's ears, is a fellow who has clearly done the Lord's work. His magnificent skull and the wonders it contains are purest perfection.


We chatted for quite some time, and every sentence he uttered seemed like a bright ribbon embroidered with words and slowly unfurling from his mouth and drifting away on the wind. I don't, unfortunately, remember much else he said, so dazzled was I by his voice, but every word seemed beautifully shaped and carefully chosen.

I didn't want to leave him. I should have invited him to my home and asked him to speak into a tape recorder, to intone a message of love and thanksgiving to my friends and family, something I could hide away for them to find after I am dead.

I did, though, eventually go on my plodding way. And I thought: wouldn't it be nice to have even a few of that man's lovely sentences in a jar of formaldehyde on my bedstand? Even now I am thinking about that idea, that image of those words floating beside me, undulating slowly like a school of languid, lullabying, glow-in-the-dark fish and keeping me company through the night.

Friday, November 18, 2011

That This Is This


The puzzle of texture, pattern, and repetition. The idiot wonder prompted by even the most prosaic mosaic or randomly occurring stain. Prompts, responses, and resolute silences from the interior continent. Sounds of no clear origin. Desires of no clear etc.

Desires. Desire.

The incomprehensibility of all transmission, whether of blood, belief, truth, or information.

The magic of a phonograph record, compact disc, or photograph.

The process of ruin and deterioration. Erosion, the real deal and the metaphor.

The slow dazzle of contentment.

The planet's tantrums and stoic productions.

The involuntary heresies of the hobbled heart.

The helpless disgrace of despair.

The missing things, the absence of, etc.

The tragedy of memory and forgetting.

The fact that even a telescope can't really find tomorrow, that even a microscope can't make sense of yesterday.

The blood-muddling transformations, defeats, and ecstasies possible in a single moment.

The strange human resistance to the merely practical.

The drab compromises and uneasy pacts.

The irresistible persuasion of percussion.

The takeaway prerogative of fate.

The way that water moves, travels, falls, settles, or sits still.

Some agreed upon sense in the second hand, that we pretend to recognize or understand time.

That we choose to believe this is all real.

That we choose to believe.

That some of us don't recognize that before we can know something we have to believe it.

That we reach out.

That we hold out hope.

That we pull away.

That we fall.

That we get back up.

That we go on.

That by tomorrow every single one of us might be gone forever, and in a hundred years the sound of our laughter, the touch of our hands, and the stories we paid for with our lives will be forgotten by every breathing thing still living.

That this is where we are: Here.

That this is who we are: Who?

That this is what we want: What?

That this is what we have: Now.

E...T...C.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Drowning Season

This was without question the lousiest job I ever had.

We were dealing with the worst flooding in over a hundred years, on ranch land that was flat as fuck and had just endured one of the snowiest winters on record. We worried about flooding every spring, and did everything we could to minimize the damage.

The problem was that we had two rivers coming together in the county --one of the sons of bitches making a dogleg right where it ran up against the other one-- and all manner of feeder streams and creeks. Every year it seemed like there was no telling how things were going to shake down or where all that water was going to end up, but this time it was clear we were in uncharted territory.

I was 22 years old and didn't know shit about how moving water worked, and the truth was I hadn't been anywhere or seen much of anything yet, but I knew for damn sure I'd never seen anything like this. I'd started working in high school for a rancher, the father of a girl I'd been dating since we were sophomores.

In this particular instance there'd been some sort of serious miscalculation, and the place where they stashed close to 300 cattle turned out to be exactly the wrong place. I never understood quite how it went wrong, or why, but it was a major fuck-up, and we needed to get every one of those cattle to the other side of a swollen, rapidly cresting river in a hurry.

This had all come up in a hurry, and in the early hours of the morning, and because we had so many guys working damage control elsewhere --and it was a huge ranch-- we went out in the dead of night with fewer than a dozen members of the crew. The water had already overrun the banks on the side of the river where the cattle were huddled, so horses were useless, or at least too risky.

We had two guys in motorboats, and another couple guys in a motorized raft, and they were over there battling the rushing water and trying to herd the cattle into the main channel of the river. Six of the more experienced hands were on horseback on the other shore, doing their damnedest to get a rope on anything they could and coax the cattle across and get them moving to drier ground once they'd struggled out of the water.

When the cattle were in the river, though, they were pretty much on their own. And once the guys in the boats had gotten some of them moving into the river, most of the others were pretty quick to follow. It's the way the animals were, the way they naturally reacted, and I don't imagine most of them had ever been harassed by boats.

It was raining like hell, and absolute chaos. I was the young guy, and I still didn't know much about either cows or horses. It turned out I never would. At any rate, they stationed me well up the bank on the safer shore, standing under a tarp with a video camera on a tripod. I was supposed to keep tabs --and a tally-- on the cows that didn't make it, the cows that were swept away or drowned.

I'd never seen a cow drown before, but by my count I saw 37 drown that day, and I'm sure I'll never again see anything like it. The damn things swam with just their heads extending above the rushing water, their eyes wide with obvious terror. They were just following the mass of bodies in front of them. And then one of those heads would go under, usually for just an instant, but that was all it took. I learned pretty quickly to be on the lookout for those instants, because almost immediately after their heads went under they would flip completely upside down in the river --their legs would actually bob above the surface for a moment-- and then they would either sink like a stone or get rolled away on the current.

After awhile that's all I could see; I was no longer even really aware of all the cattle that were thrashing in a panic up the muddy banks not thirty yards from where I stood. I was just locked in on the ones that weren't going to make it. Sometimes I watched them with the naked eye; other times I found myself taking refuge behind the camera's viewfinder.

This was years ago now, and I'm no longer working at the ranch, but it seems like every time it rains hard, and every spring when the rivers start to rise, I wake up from nightmares of drowning cattle, and all I see are those eyes, and then they're gone.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Perhaps I Should Be Reading Other Sorts Of Books

I honestly thought I had broken my heart. Really, it had hit me so hard and the pain had lingered for so long that I was convinced that something was literally injured inside of me. It felt like someone had beaten me with a baseball bat.

After a couple months the pain still hadn't gone away, so I went to see a doctor.

I tried to show him where it hurt --right where my ribs ended above my abdomen on the left side-- and when he probed the spot with his fingers it hurt so acutely that I let out an instinctive yelp.

What happened? he asked.

I read this book, I said.

The doctor raised his eyebrows and waited for some additional explanation.

I shrugged. It was by some South African writer, I said, and it felt like something broke inside me.

Did anything else happen around the time you read this book? he asked. Any falls? Any unusually strenuous activities?

I shook my head. I'm not a man who engages in strenuous activities. I hadn't yet begun to fall. There had just been the book.

Oddly, the doctor asked if I had wept while reading this book. I admitted I had.

Was it a particularly wrenching cry? he asked.

I said that it was not; it was a quiet cry.

When exactly did you first notice the pain? he asked.

The instant I closed the book, I said.

Did you close it forcefully? the doctor asked.

I replied that I could not recall having done so.

The doctor, I could see, plainly thought that I was crazy, but was nonetheless intent on doing his job as diligently as possible. He listened to my breathing with a stethoscope and thumped my back, which elicited more yelps.

May I ask, he said, what this book was about?

I don't really know, I said. I guess it was about a lonely, broken man and dying dogs.

Sounds cheery, the doctor said. Perhaps you should be reading other sorts of books.

He backed away and tucked his stethoscope into the pocket of his white jacket. I'm afraid, he said, that this sounds possibly pyschosomatic, but just to err on the side of caution let's send you down for some x-rays.

Later, after I had returned from the laboratory and was sitting again in the doctor's office, he bustled in, clipped two sheets of film to a light box above his desk, and said, I'm afraid we're missing something from your story. You have two broken ribs, and one of them is a pretty thorough job. A man doesn't break two ribs like this and have no recollection of how he came to do so.

He tapped his pen on his desk and stared at me in silence.

Honest to God, I said, I read a fucking book.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Off Season: Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me


When Ryerson pulled his Impala up to the gates of the cemetery it was after midnight. The place was locked up tight, and swirling snow and fog were blowing in off the lake.

It was a huge cemetery right in the middle of the city, a beautiful place for what it was, large and well-kept and overlooking the water. Ryerson remembered standing at the grave during the service and staring out across all those headstones at the sailboats that were gliding around out on the lake.

That had been late June, the week before the Fourth of July. It had been hot and clammy, and he'd felt badly hungover and queasy in one of his brother's old suits. Ryerson had thought hard and couldn't remember the last time he'd worn a suit.

There was a small gathering of people at the cemetery that day, and he had felt embarrassed and angered by the turnout. He was also puzzled by the fact that he didn't recognize a majority of the people, including a woman with two young girls. Probably, Ryerson assumed, the girls had been classmates of his daughter.

The lock on the cemetery gates was one of those security boxes with push buttons. There must have been some code. The walls on either side of the gate were high, and made of stone. He put the white stuffed bear he was holding in his arms on top of the Impala and tried to scrub the vomit from the front of his nylon parka with fistfuls of snow.

Ryerson returned to the car, turned off the lights, and sat there for a moment finishing a can of beer and listening to Ray Price.

Then, in a burst of inspiration that rose up from out of his mind's muddle, he eased the Impala up against the cemetery gate. Holding the bear in one hand, he managed to climb up onto the hood of the car. He tossed the bear over the gate and proceeded to scramble his way to the top, where there were sharp iron points that dug into his flesh. As Ryerson attempted to feel his way down the backside of the gate he lost his grip and fell halfway down to the pavement.

The cemetery was covered with deep snow. After tromping around for a time in what he thought was the general area he managed to locate the gravesite. His ex-wife’s parents had paid for the marker, and its plainness struck Ryerson as horribly inadequate.

He brushed the snow from the stone so he could see the terrible arithmetic and then stood there for a few moments until he realized that he didn't have anything to say. He propped the white bear up against a cement container of plastic flowers next to the marker and turned away.

When he reached the path and took one last backwards glance, the bear had already been entirely obscured by the fog and swirling snow.

After Ryerson left the cemetery he drove around for a couple hours, drinking the last of his beer and listening to music. The city seemed both abandoned and paralyzed. He eventually pulled off in a used car lot on Lake Street and sat there thinking for a time and then --unthinking, really-- shut off the ignition, stumbled out into the snow, and fished around in the trunk.

Just east of the freeway he found a Middle Eastern market that was still open. The place was empty with the exception of the two guys who were working; one guy was stocking shelves, the other was behind the counter.

Ryerson paced off a couple laps of the store before approaching the counter, where he removed his handgun from the pocket of his parka. He just stood there with the unloaded gun pointed at the ceiling, and there was a moment of awkward silence as he tried to remember how such things were done.

"Be a nice guy and empty the register and put the money in a bag," he finally said.

"What is this?" the counter guy said.

"A cry for help," Ryerson said.

The man bent slightly, his hands disappearing for an instant under the counter. When he stood back up he also had a gun, and he raised it --slowly and calmly, the store's video cameras would reveal-- and shot Ryerson squarely in the chest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unattributed Tribulation

From a series of journals recently acquired at an estate sale, and purporting --near as I can tell-- to be the notes for A Choir of Lions: The Untold War. Encompassing Nature, Metamorphosis, Static Coding, and Leisure a Thousand Times Interrupted by Disquiet in Its Myriad Disguises. Complete with Visual Explanations and Appendices on Traveling with Your Pet, Superior Fishing, and Unconventional English, as well as a Comprehensive Glossary for Pool Hustlers, Informed Digressions on Silent Film, Pharmacological Improvisation, the History of Imaginative Astronomy, and Diverse Other Subjects --"A Book, by McGill."

A trio of girls on a canoe adventure [sic]?

With what dissimulation I went to work!

Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? We are in an empire of laws, not of men, but to the best of my knowledge no one has yet to arrive at a satisfactory answer to that first question.

Where is the star of disaster I wished upon?

Every day is the Fourth of July to the slave of shooting stars.

Pull down the evening bars and shoo the flock away.

--But, sir, there is no flock....

Cronus is now well past his prime, but his appetites remain undiminished!

I do not believe there is a means of "infallibly discovering the heart of man."

Not even the heart of the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation?

No. A thousand times no.

Etaoin Shrdlu. Poco Tiempo!

The charm of the show to me is that no one pretends to understand even in a remote degree.

Not matter, but mind. Not things, but men.

Ourselves we worship, and have no son.

The orchestra has arrived. Stop your dancing.

I'm getting ahead of my story.

We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out.

Look, ma, no hands.

[See: Ferdinand LeMothe, pool shark]

I knew what I was doing. I have no regrets and under the same circumstances I would do it again.

Any gum, chum?

All the influences were lined up waiting for me like wolves. I was born, and they were there to devour me.

NO CHAOS DAMN IT!

How much trouble one scoundrel with an abacus and a telephone can cause.

Come sweet hope from they divine retreat come...

The silence of a purple star lights up a falling sky.

Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country is doing to you.

...the number and complexity of the objects he already knows have absorbed all his strength so that any further progress must be impossible.

But words plainly force and overrule the understanding and throw all into confusion...

Chub.

So many illustrious villains!

We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity for the sake of easy transport.

This seems to me a very feeble wow.

A father's no shield for his child.

Invisible fence: YES!

Well, bright boy, why don't you say something?

I GIVE YOU THE MAUSOLEUM OF ALL HOPE AND DESIRE!

The ditch is nearer.

Escanaba. The Hiawatha Motel. Dog-friendly Christians.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Man Who Wins The Dog Lottery Is A Lucky Man

Four years ago today a sickly, seven-month-old stray who had already spent three stints in his short life as a ward of the Humane Society took a chance on me.

He was severely malnourished, underweight, riddled with parasites, and missing a tooth. He was not an ideal candidate for adoption, I was told; he had been labeled a loud and destructive dog, an habitual runaway, and virtually untrainable.

I was blind to these accusations. I had been making regular trips to the shelter in the hopes of finding another Siberian Husky that might fill the hole left by my beloved Willis two months earlier, but from the instant I saw Wendell (that would become his name), standing at calm attention and intently watching me bounce a ball that left every other dog in the place either indifferent or in a frenzy, I knew that he was the one.

There was, however, a hold on him. He had just been picked up yet again, a street dog and a scavenger; he was also in very poor health, and his suitability for a "conventional adoption scenario" was being evaluated.

I visited him three straight days during this probationary period, and --other than the fact that he had clearly never been on a leash-- he was always attentive, affectionate, and a perfect gentleman. I also never heard him make a peep. When I mentioned this fact to the staff I was told that he was, without question, a barker, and one of the noisier dogs presently in the shelter's care.

I'm not entirely sure why (other than that first connection, which was probably enough), but after three days I took him home to share my life. It took less than 24 hours for me to realize that I had, once again, won the dog lottery.

Wendell has now been with me through thick (lots of thick) and thin (lots of thin). He has traveled all over the U.S. and Canada with me. For many months we were in the woods of Vermont and I never had a leash on him. Whenever I can get away with it, I allow him off leash, and he never strays far from my side. He has never barked in the house, has never destroyed a single one of my possessions, let alone any of his own toys or those he inherited from his predecessor. He never had to be house trained.

He has never disappointed me. Never. Not once. And he has endured with patience --and, sometimes, almost eerie attention-- my countless lonely late night monologues, stories, filibusters, lamentations, riddles, and bursts of random madness. I have read to him from Aristotle and Wittgenstein and countless other authors who were breaking my brain and making me feel stupid. People he had loved and depended on have disappeared from his life without a trace, but I have not disappeared from his life, and for long stretches during our time together I have desired very little other than to not disappear from his life.

Wendell has kept me going during times when I otherwise did not much feel like I wanted to keep going.

He is now a healthy, happy, adventurous, and astonishingly athletic dog. I haven't yet met anybody who appears to have any clear idea what sort of dog he is --almost everyone seems to have a different guess as to his jumble of breeds-- but I have never had any doubt that he is a guide dog, a service dog, and a first-rate companion dog. And at the bottom of every day --we both live on Hong Kong time-- I tuck him into his Garden of Sweet Dreamers and promise him that I will do everything in my power to be worthy of such a tremendous blessing and responsibility.

He still gets nervous on a certain type of concrete floor, and I have concluded that such cold, slippery surfaces must remind him of his days as a shelter inmate. He is, though, always lovely to me, and he inspires waves of almost unbearable tenderness every single day. Watching him run never fails to make me happy, and watching him sleep never fails to calm me.

I've honestly never known another breathing thing with such a lust for life.

Dozens of times a day I scratch him or hold him and say nothing but, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," or "Good boy, good boy, such a good boy." Time after time I assure him that we are together as long as we breathe, and longer if there's any sort of decent place beyond this one.

And every single night before I turn out the lights I tell him, without fail, "Sweet dreams, my beautiful boy, my precious pride and joy. Tomorrow we'll try like hell to make some new magic."

If this all seems utterly daft, so be it. I am blessed to have a dog, and if I did not have a dog --if I did not have this dog-- I would be a sad excuse for a human being.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Mongoose Vs. The Cobra

Every month or so I sit down and watch the Ma Lin/Wang Hao Gold Medal table tennis match from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

A couple years ago I paid $25 on eBay for a poor DVD bootleg of this match.

At the time of the Beijing Olympics I was entirely ignorant about table tennis, and had watched the competition with two questions foremost in my mind: "What sort of person devotes their life to table tennis?" And: "Where do these fellows get their flamboyant smocks and how can I build a collection of my own?"

To say that the Ma Lin/Wang Hao match changed my life is probably something of an overstatement, but I nonetheless can't deny that I harbor an unshakable and inexplicable obsession with this particular DVD.

I usually fast forward to the moment when, late in game one, Ma Lin takes a few steps back from the table and, smirking, fans himself dramatically with his paddle. At this point --in a match that was at the time heavily touted as "The Mongoose vs. The Cobra," the two monsters of the Chinese table tennis machine-- Ma, the older and more conservatively dressed of the two combatants, has game point on his paddle.

Wang, however, stages a couple of furious and inspired rallies, manages to battle back to 10-9, and Ma grimaces and takes a towel break.

The table looks impossibly small. It's almost as if they are playing table tennis on an air hockey table.

Towel break over, one of the television announcers observes that Wang, who with his foppishly highlighted pompadour and patterned gaudy brocaded gold-on-black smock looks like a Hong Kong action movie idol, "is definitely swimming against the tide now." There is no question that Ma has been playing with surgical precision, and he quickly finishes off game one with an 11-9 victory.

In game two, Wang again falls behind before mounting another stirring comeback. His rally falls short, however, when Ma crushes a vicious back-corner cross-spin return to finish off the stylish and feisty youngster. Ma, we are told, is the possessor of "the strongest and most feared forehand on the planet."

Wang,  finally getting into a groove with his signature Reverse Penhold Backhand, breezes to an 11-6 victory in game three, and the commentators note that the world's number one ranked player (and the sport's most flamboyant and bankable star) appears to be getting stronger as the match goes on. In game four he jumps out to a comfortable early lead only to choke it away down the stretch with flubbed shot after flubbed shot. As Ma eases into cruise control and pounces on his opponent's every mistake you can see in Wang's body language that he has lost his poise and is mentally tired. There is an almost cavalier insolence to the way he plays out the rest of the game, which Ma ultimately wins comfortably to take a three games-to-one lead.

By game five it looks like Wang has thrown in the towel, yet after Ma takes a 7-2 lead Wang makes one more aggressive and tactical charge and pulls to within 10-7. Ma, the consummate old pro, takes a strategic timeout, which effectively ices his younger opponent. As Ma clearly stalls and engages in a bit of dramatic grandstanding you can see that Wang is visibly rattled, and even seething. He mutters to himself, and paces like a panther. He shakes his hair violently, scowls, and appears to strum a few air guitar chords on his paddle. Upon resumption of the action, Wang manages one more brief rally before eventually falling 11-9 and surrendering the Gold Medal to Ma.

The commentary throughout the match is consistently wonderful and educational --we learn, for instance, that Chinese table tennis stars are inordinately pampered, are often notorious divas, and routinely have much publicized dalliances with pop stars, models, and actresses-- but there is one moment during the closing points of that final game that I find myself returning to again and again: "This would definitely be a disappointment for Wang," one of the commentators says, "but his place in Chinese table tennis is secure. The 24-year-old star is already a controversial legend in his native country, and last year he won a million-dollar casino match against Zhang Yan, an older star who was disgraced in table tennis's first doping scandal. Late in the decisive game of the match --which Wang won with ease-- he purportedly used a barber's mirror as a paddle, and paused between each point to admire himself in the mirror and make adjustments to his hair. Grandstanding, certainly, and some might say bush league, but, hey, he's still young and has brought a lot of energy to the sport." At which point the other commentator interjects, "In his defense we should probably point out that Wang comes from a long line of barbers, and he has often claimed that he played his first games with a barber's mirror."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Night Comes Down: Night Falls


Some nights you'd sit there tracking moonlight across the floor, or studying the garage roof next door as if it were a radar screen. Your mind on a very low flame, a few tired words alternately see-sawing in the silence or surfacing through the waves of static. You'd sit there barely conscious, but the moment you'd try to climb into bed and close your eyes the whole chorus would convene again with a vengeance. The woozy carnival of hypnagogia. Channel surfing long before the advent of cable television and remote control. So random, stuttering, and relentless was your consciousness in those hours that you would make an exercise of trying to isolate a particular fragment, and then attempt to concentrate your mind on the fragment's origin, trying to trace it back, if possible, to its original source. Sometimes it would be a line from a book or a television commercial, other times it might be something you'd overheard in school, or a snippet from a song or a random conversation. You would find yourself obsessing about an outrageous pair of shoes you had seen weeks earlier on a complete stranger in a grocery store.

Ultimately, towards dawn, you were always left with nothing but the barely-beating heart of the sleeping world. The ceaseless surf of even the smallest quiet town. The furnace. The pining of the clock. The world on the back burner, as close as the modern world comes to stasis: You were left with only you and what remained of the night, the retreating darkness, shadows receding on the walls, the cruel pinch of exhaustion, the terrible reality that you were going to have to sleepwalk through another lost day. What was that they were saying about what?

Eventually, every night you would reach a point where you could not fall asleep but you could nonetheless not be truly awake. You were reduced to fumbling around, grasping, in a dense and hazy subterranean no man's land, lost in the gauzy, impressionistic foothills of sleep. You would take a walk to try to resuscitate your sanity, to get clear thoughts moving again in your head. You moved in slow motion through a woozy, muslin-filtered border country, imagination and hallucination bleeding into reality. You heard what sounded like chanting. You heard the clanking of dog tags. You heard the distant tolling of a clock, and a burst of faint music sucked from a car window somewhere out in the town. You heard a baby crying, then someone laughing, retching, congested laughter. You heard a radio playing in a junkyard. You heard what sounded like a piano. You heard wind chimes twisting in a backyard somewhere. You heard the barking of a dog, answered by another, in the next block. You thought of the men across town, in the slaughterhouse, exhausted on their feet in the slippery dead mess, blood bubbled everywhere, the tangy reek of animals being broken down into meat. Some teacher would send you there from time to time to stand at the mouth of the tunnel that took the tired men to and from the slaughterhouse and out to their cars and trucks in the parking lot. You would stand there in the last of the darkness with a little collection can for UNICEF, and you would shake your can at the blood-soaked, broken-knuckled zombies as they plodded past, blank-faced and clutching their empty lunch pails, moving almost unconscious into the bruised light that was just then creeping into the eastern sky.

Somehow, though, you escaped and you got saved, and now Albert Ayler takes you across catwalks in your imagination, down fire escapes, and right out into a landscape that is both hallucination and reality, into a city that feels utterly paralyzed yet purrs the whole night through; through empty streets, past other half-dreaming houses where there are still signs of the half-life of the sleepless, glum lamplight and the blue wobble of TV screens in dark windows. You wander along a river humming with idling industry and the great under-throb of the city at three a.m., the sprawl of shadows, the litter and moonlight and longing and the great hold-out behind and beneath every heartbreak; the silence violated in myriad and mysterious ways and the compromised darkness; the way light launches little sneak attacks and cameo appearances even while a city sleeps, all the creeping, sleepless things, and still that doomed saxophone rising like a prayer somewhere in the night you can never entirely banish from your muddled brain, a wish at least, a promise, an apology, a stirring monologue, a beautiful loose thing traveling like a breathing kite from a small puddle of light cradling a park bench or an abandoned mattress.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Me When I Start Wondering About The Longest Utterance Ever Produced By A Parrot


Psittalinguistics: The Science of Talking Birds. This Being a Brief History of That Subject Along With Diverse Examples from the Archives of the Bergen Institute of Cultural Parrotology. (Third Revision of a Work in Progress.) Dedicated With Gratitude to Robert Burton.

A parrot, it has been alleged, was responsible for planting many of the more heinous perversions in the head of Tiberius, the most depraved of the Caesars, this after the bird had had read aloud to him (by a sociopathic dwarf tutor in the Caesar's employ) from an early and particularly pernicious primer in lechery. (See: A. Towson Dandridge, A Psychological Portrait of the Tyrants of Antiquity, Stanhope and Adelman, Manchester. 1949.)

We also learn, in Dr. Renata Steenblom's Unnatural Nature (University of Winnipeg, 1963), of a parrot that was allegedly capable of divining --and divulging at inopportune moments-- the innermost secrets of its mistress, including sexual fantasies of a shockingly explicit nature. The bird was notorious for regaling unsuspecting visitors with a tortuous impression of the poor woman's whinnying orgasm.

According to Fr. Xavier Empson's Curiosities of Catholicism and Marvels of Mariolotry (Eternal Image Press, Skokie, Illinois. 1957), there was, once upon a time, a parrot belonging to a tavern owner in a small village in Italy, and this bird was renowned for its ability to recite the Rosary (in Latin) in its entirety. One day, Empson recounts, the bird solemnly proclaimed, "It is the will of God, and I am but His humble servant," and promptly fell over dead.

From the pages of the children's magazine, Highlights, we learn of an unassuming insurance adjustor and confirmed bachelor in Dallas, Texas who purchased a blue-fronted parrot which, upon being installed in the man's home, was discovered to have committed a number of Faron Young songs to memory. The bird was capable of singing these songs in their entirety, and in a passable impersonation of the country legend's voice.

The annals of parrotology are full of similar wonders, from the ancient world to the modern. In a little known short story by the Russian writer, Gogol, a bird is called upon to testify in a court of law as a material witness to its master's infidelity.

There is an obscure novel, Lucifer's Bird, by a Depression-era Georgia writer by the name of Ernest Winter, which featured a talking parrot that was believed to be possessed by Satan. The bird's sinister commands and insinuations lead a God-fearing local deacon to engage in acts of depravity that shake a small southern town to its core. William Faulkner reportedly attempted a screenplay of this novel for Charles Laughton, but there is apparently no surviving evidence of this aborted project.

In the days before teleprompters, one often heard stories of Catskill comedians in their dotage who resorted to being fed their lines by parrots, which were perched on stage in full view of the audience. One such bird, Ezra, was said to be such a quick-witted master of improvisation that in time it became an actual and valued partner to the comedian Dickie Knickers. Before it eventually passed away from advanced years (the bird survived the old comedian by more than a decade), the parrot had established itself as a successful solo act --if something of a novelty-- in its own right.

The early blues musician Ishman Bracey is another performer who was alleged to have used a parrot as a prompt, often, some accounts allege, after Bracey had become so inebriated that he could no longer remember the words to his songs.

There was a minor dust-up in academia in the 1950s when a man named J. Richard Stevens published portions of his doctoral dissertation in a then reputable scholarly journal. Stevens' thesis, which was immediately and loudly discredited, was that a number of Emily Dickinson's poems had been almost literal transcriptions of the utterances of her beloved parrot, Desdemona.

In the early days of television, talking birds were often used to provide voiceover narration for cartoons, largely in an attempt to cut costs and circumvent union restrictions. The practice apparently continues --albeit somewhat clandestinely-- to this day, most prominently in the dubbing of low-budget animated films from Asia.

The debate over animal cognition, featuring Dr. Irene Pepperberg's famous gray parrot, Alex: Dr Pepperberg's pioneering studies with Alex proved conclusively that the prevailing and pejorative notion of a "bird brain," is grounded in ignorance. Many birds --parrots most particularly-- have very large brains indeed, and possess a cognitive sophistication that is as wondrous as it is little understood. Dr. Pepperberg's work with Alex is almost as important and influential as the better-known work on animal communication and referential speech that has been conducted on the great apes.

Alex's obituary from the New York Times.

The Yellow Naped parrot, the most virtuosic and versatile of the Amazonian talking parrots, can often master an impressive vocabulary of upwards of eight hundred words, and is also capable of singing, dancing, whistling, and doing uncanny impersonations of animals and household appliances.

Double Yellow Head parrots have long been recognized as accomplished opera singers, with extraordinary range. They are among the more excitable and motor-mouthed of talking birds. (See: Robert T. Nicolai, Caruso in a Cage: The Incredible True Story of Sergei, the World's Most Famous Singing Parrot, Bristol House, 1983.)

Budgerigars have been known to have vocabularies in excess of one thousand words. One such parrot, Victor, purportedly demonstrated that birds are capable of engaging in actual conversation, and was alleged to be an influential teacher and mentor to many other birds. Victor, according to its owner, presided over a de facto academy for talking birds, and a lexicon of the parrot's impressive vocabulary, along with an archive of its recordings, can be found on the Internet.

N'Kisi, a New York parrot with an almost 600-word vocabulary and psychic abilities, is purportedly capable of reading the thoughts of visitors.


There have been innumerable documented cases of talking parrots thwarting robberies, as well as engaging in espionage. 

Pretty much unrelated, but I want one: Nothing talks louder than a bird pistol, even if, strictly speaking, it does not utter a word.

Bryce Hunt, a PhD student at New York University, is compiling an exhaustive, annotated collection of talking bird samples and other recorded utterances in popular music, with an emphasis on hip hop. Hunt has been promising for six months to send me a copy of his findings to date, but I have yet to receive this research. I can attest, however, that in December of last year --in the young man's Brooklyn apartment-- I reviewed a sample introduction to Hunt's thesis and found its scholarship impressive.

Other literary examples:

Eudora Welty's, The Shoe Bird

Excerpt from John Skelton's 16th century poem, "Speke Parrot,"

Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple." (See also: Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot)

Somewhere in the works of Balzac (and I have thus far been unable to find the source of this story, although I maintain a clear memory of it nonetheless) there is a parrot that recites "The Lord's Prayer."

There is also, of course, the foul-mouthed parrot in Errol Stanley Garner's, The Case of the Perjured Parrot.

More recently: Joe Coomer's The Loop, which features a home invasion by an elderly parrot given to cryptic utterances.

“In the seventh century, Shui Shi Tu Jing published the Book of Hydraulic Elegancies. Indeed, one continually finds descriptions of such technological wonders as mechanical flying doves, dancing apes, and talking parrots in the literatures of Islamic nations, India, China, and Greece. In fourteenth century Florence, it was none other than Filippo Brunelleschi who designed a mechanical stage to bring Paradise to life.”

--Oliver Grau, "History of Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and Rejecting the Body."
“This defect or imperfection that stands in the way of man's communicating with animals, why isn't it as much our fault as theirs? For we don't understand them any more than they understand us.”
--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“Yet the animals are not incapable of being taught also in our way. Blackbirds, ravens, magpies, and parrots we teach to speak; and that facility with which we see them rendering their voice and breath so supple and manageable for us, to form and constrain it to a certain number of letters and syllables, testifies that they have an inward power of reason which makes them so teachable and determined to learn.”

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“This story of the magpie, for which we have Plutarch himself as sponsor, is strange. She was in a barber's shop in Rome, and did wonders in imitating with her voice all that she heard. One day it happened that certain trumpeters stopped and blew a long time in front of this shop. After that and all the next day here was this magpie pensive, mute, and melancholy, at which everyone marveled, and thought that the sound of the trumpets had stunned and deafened her, and that her voice had been snuffed out together with her hearing. But they found in the end that it was a profound study and a withdrawal within herself, while her mind was practicing and preparing her voice to represent the sound of these trumpets; so that the first voice she used was that one, expressing perfectly their runs, pitches, and variations; and for this new acquirement she abandoned and scorned all she had learned to say before."

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“An old Danish shipowner sat and thought of his young days and of how he had, when he was sixteen years old, spent a night in a brothel in Singapore. He had come in there with the sailors of his father's ship, and he had sat and talked with an old Chinese woman. When she heard that he was a native of a distant country she brought out an old parrot, that belonged to her. Long, long ago, she told him, the parrot had been given to her by a highborn English lover of her youth. The boy thought that the bird must then be a hundred years old. It could say various sentences in the languages of the world, picked up in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the house. But one phrase the old China-woman's lover had taught it before he sent it to her, and that she did not understand, neither had any visitor ever been able to tell her what it meant. So now for many years she had given up asking. But if the boy came from far away perhaps it was his language, and he could interpret the phrase to her.


"The boy had been deeply, strangely moved at the suggestion. When he looked at the parrot, and thought that he might hear Danish from that terrible beak, he very nearly ran out of the house. He stayed on only to do the old Chinese woman a service. But when she made the parrot speak its sentence, it turned out to be classic Greek. The bird spoke its words very slowly, and the boy knew enough Greek to recognize it; it was a verse from Sappho:


"The moon has sunk and the Pleiads,

And midnight is gone,

And the hours are passing, passing,

And I lie alone.


"The old woman, when he translated the lines to her, smacked her lips and rolled her small slanting eyes. She asked him to say it again, and nodded her head.”

--Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa