Wednesday, February 23, 2011

two words

Today I took the children out for lunch. We had a lovely time together for once (usually at least one of the three of us is cranky). Towards the end of lunch I made up a game. I made the children look away, and I tore a paper napkin in half. On each half I wrote a word, a word describing each child. I put the pieces of napkin away and set the children to guessing. "It's a word I use, a word that describes you. Something I say to you."

Lola cocked her head to the side and said, "Two words that describe us? 'Caring' and 'shy.'"

Iris burst out laughing. I said incredulously, "When has anyone ever described the two of you as 'caring' and 'shy'?"

(The words I had written down were "whackjob" and "loon").

Friday, February 18, 2011

the dark that lurks in the hearts of children and an interesting job opportunity

Lola, who just finished reading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", remarked out of the blue to me the other day, "The sorting hat would put Iris in Slytherin."

I thought that was a bit rich coming from a child who is scheming to put together a criminal gang. Lola has become obsessed with security cameras. Wherever we go, she locates the security cameras and points them out to me. In a local business she became excited, blurting out, "Cut cords! Cut cords!" when it looked like a security camera had already conveniently been disabled.

Lola feels that she has a natural affinity for finding all the security cameras. Now "I need a kleptomaniac", she says frankly. "A kleptomaniac will be used to stealing things." Lola used to think she needed an extra gang member, "someone to figure out what they do with the security cameras", but I explained that in most places the cameras just record what they see. Lola had imagined there was always a person somewhere, or at the least a computer, concentrating on the live feeds, and she thought she needed a gang member to deal with that person. She was relieved to hear that the cameras aren't normally attended and that she didn't need to hire some muscle. "Now I just need a kleptomaniac," she said wistfully.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Henry's outing

The other day the children and I were making a fuss over Frowst, our most glamorous cat, as is our wont. Frowst spends most of his time outdoors (a petcam we fastened to his collar revealed that he spends much of his life lying in the crawlspace under our house, broken up by occasional bursts of energy spent climbing various trees), and when he comes inside, he likes a good meal and a good petting. Because he is so beautiful, a luxurious-furred black animal with a regal bearing, we are more than happy to oblige. The one naysayer is the Sober Husband.

"I don't see why you guys make such a big deal out of Frowst," he said critically.

"He's so beautiful!" we chimed.

"I think Henry is more perfect looking."

"He loves to be petted so much."

"If I even touch Henry, she sticks to me like glue. She craves attention."

Spurred by the accusation that she might not appreciate Henry enough, eight year-old Lola spoke up. "I love Henry, too! Don't you remember that tantrum I threw when Henry was going to spend the night out?" She spoke with pride, as though a good tantrum were a thing of beauty to be marveled at. Of course we remembered, although not with that same admiration and pride.

Recently some friends of ours who live nearby and know of my proclivity for rodents had an issue with mice. They were working at keeping all food secured and at sealing up all entry points, but those are difficult tasks in a large, older home where a baby lives, a baby who drops Cheerios with abandon. I suggested predator urine crystals, which scare off any prey animal and are non-toxic. I also said that getting a cat wasn't necessarily going to fix things, particularly as we've had cats who loved to catch mice and then release them in our bedroom in the middle of the night to showcase their hunting skills. (Once I had a wild mouse in our bedroom for three days before I managed to catch him and release him, and there was a particularly horrible night involving a partially paralyzed mouse dragging itself along our floor. The cat responsible for this had gone downstairs for some cat chow, satisfied with a good night's work). Oddly enough getting a pet rat is a much better mouse deterrent, as mice are rightfully afraid of rats and will stay away from territory which has been claimed by a rat. All the time I had pet rats, I had no mice, even though our old neighborhood was heavily populated with both mice and wild rats.

But of course getting a pet rat is a big step, and a much lesser commitment would be a loaner cat. I offered the services of Henry as a deterrent for a few days. Henry was the logical choice as the children refused to let Frowst go anywhere, and our other cat, Al, is frankly incompetent as a cat. We brought Henry over with some food and a litter box, and Lola fretted as Henry settled in. Henry paced about and let out some yowls, but she seemed to be settling in and she definitely had a strong interest in the air vents which were the suspected mouse entry point. I kept reassuring Lola that Henry leads a dull life and needs some adventure, a little shaking up, but Lola was fretful. Then the Sober Husband suggested closing the glass door leading to the deck, worried that Henry was going to harm the screen. As Iris held Henry, our friend opened the screen door in order to close the glass door, and Henry was off like a shot. She exploded out of Iris's hands, across the deck, and down the stairs at the back. I followed her down three flights of stairs, calling her, and Lola was on my heels, crying hysterically.

"Lola! I'm not going to be able to hear Henry with your crying," I said. "Go get your father!" But Henry was not to be found on any of the levels of the decks or in the fenced yard. I could see a place in the high fence where Henry could easily have gone into the next yard, and from there, over the neighbor's lower fence. I called Henry, but with no luck. Lola's sobs were deafening.

The Sober Husband proposed setting up camp right there in our friend's yard (I felt terrible for our friend, having all this melodrama breaking out), but I wanted to go back home and look for Henry on the way. "Henry will be disoriented, she's never been this far from home," the Sober Husband said direly. Lola screamed even more hysterically. I glared at the Sober Husband and said, "Lola, Henry's going to be fine. She'll run downhill and find her way back home." "Henry's never been to this block before; I can't imagine she'll find her way," said the Sober Husband darkly. I shot him another glare. "One of us will need to spend the night outside with cat treats," the Sober Husband continued, as Lola sobbed, crying, "Henry! Henry!" through thick tears

Back at home, I hushed Lola. Iris and I thought we heard Henry's collar jingling. Sure enough, when we called, Henry slowly came out from the backyard and stood at the steps to our house, the picture of affronted indignation. Clearly Henry felt betrayed, and she did not want to go near us or go into the house. I scooped her up and carried her inside, where she settled down on a chair and began an extended, ostentatious grooming, restoring her fur to order after her ordeal while ignoring all of us pointedly. By the next day, Henry and Lola were both back to normal, Lola left only with the triumphant memory of her epic fussing and Henry with more inscrutable memories.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

underachieving parrots

There are two parrots who live here: one very intense double yellow-headed Amazon, a relic from the time when I used to spend a lot of my time working with birds at a wildlife hospital for aquatic birds, where the head of the clinic dabbled in parrot rescue on the side, and a ditzy African grey named Pigwidgeon.

The African grey is the only pet we have who is not supposed to be defective or secondhand; we picked her out as a baby from a bird store. She was an expensive present to me when the Sober Husband and I worked out some problems we'd been having, and she's supposed to be a top-of-the-line parrot, smart, handfed as a baby, and carefully raised.

Meanwhile the Amazon parrot was a lost bird we adopted after her original owners never claimed her. She had an infection when I got her, and she seemed to have been fed exclusively junk food by her prior owners, refusing to eat any fruits or vegetables but perking up dramatically if a bag of chips rustled nearby. She was about four years old when we got her, and she's as mean as a snake to everyone but the Sober Husband, whom she loves with a deep passion. Last year when I severely sprained my ankle and had to use crutches, the green bird saw her chance to finish me off. More than once she leaped off her cage to attack me, me screaming, "Get it off me, get it off me" as I tried to shake the vicious bird off while balancing on my crutches. Originally the Amazon parrot was named Zoe, but after we got Piggle, everyone stopped using that name. Now she's called "the green bird", and even she's taken to saying that. "Green bird, green bird," she remarks.

Part of why we picked out an African grey for the second parrot was because those birds are famous for their wit and conversation. We had seen the videotapes of Alex, the world-famous African grey who challenged scientists' conception of intelligence in animal species. I'd read about parrots who tattled on their cagemates. The children and I were excited to get such a smart bird and couldn't wait until she'd talk.

Two years later we're still waiting. Evidently we picked out the one African grey who was as dumb as a stump. Poor Piggle makes horrible noises which sound like a smoke detector going off, whistles, and screams, but she can't speak. There are plenty of other signs of a disturbing lack of reason as well. Pigwidgeon has a phobia of sticks and objects which resemble sticks. Ladders are also terrifying to her, causing her to scream and collapse in her cage when they are carried nearby. The other day we had an appraiser in as part of refinancing our house, a rather innocuous fellow, and Pigwidgeon somehow found him terrifying and nearly deafened us all with her screams of terror and frenzied thrashing.

She's a sweet bird in her own way, one who loves to be with me and the children and who enjoys grooming us. She's a very companionable creature who likes to sleep on the headboard of our bed. But at a time in her life when she should be learning new words and building a vocabulary, she's resolutely limited to harsh squawks and screams. I am quite defensive when people ask how many words she knows and when they look at me as though I must be mistaken when I say she can't talk, because "everyone knows African greys are the smartest birds there are." "Well, it's like humans," I try to explain. "You can have an Einstein, and you can have an idiot. This bird is an idiot." The children sadly remark, "Pigwidgeon is not as smart as the green bird. Why is the green bird smarter than Pigwidegeon?"

Yesterday the green bird was in a rare chatty mood, and we ended up having a long conversation. "Lola? Lola?" she asked.

"Lola's at school." She asked for the Sober Husband in the same way, and I informed her that he was at work.

"Pretty bird? Pretty bird?"

"Yes, you are pretty birds."

"Green bird. Green bird."

"Yes, you are a green bird."

"Hello? How you doing?"

"Fine! Good morning! How are you doing?" I said politely.

"Lola? Lola?"

This went on for half an hour, this rather stilted exchange of ideas on the riveting subjects of Lola's whereabouts and the greenness and attractiveness of the bird. Meanwhile my bird, Pigwidgeon, was agog. She concentrated and quivered, fascinated. But still she didn't try to talk.

Meanwhile the Sober Husband has upped the ante. He has become convinced that our birds should learn songs. Alex, the counting and reasoning lab parrot, is no longer the role model our birds are compared to. Instead, it's the Heavy Metal Parrot:
"Maybe if we play that song, 'Let The Bodies Hit The Floor', all day, the parrots will learn it," he said enthusiastically.

I snorted. "Good luck with that. I've been trying to teach them to say 'good morning' for two years now."