Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bye Bye Birdie

I don't want a bird. I think they're nasty, dirty, creepy, difficult pets. (Unless you have one, in which case, I'm sure it's lovely and probably not especially diseased at all). It's the sort of thing you expect to have some control over -- which pets live with you and which don't -- but that's not always the way.

As we're in the process of transitioning an elderly relative into a residential, long-term care facility, the constant conversation has centered around "What will become of Baby?" She loves that bird, and while I really, really think the elderly should be allowed to take their pets with them to the old folks home, it isn't the way the world works (maybe it is at the high-end places, but this is merely a mid-range facility -- where, my guess is, the goal is to let you die in a clean bed, but nothing much more luxurious or extravagant than that).

So, in the last week, my Mom has decided that Baby will come to live with them. I protested heartily. She has lung disease and is oxygen-dependent, and while I don't know much about birds, I am positive they are not for people with compromised immune systems and pulmonary ailments. When I conveyed all this concern to her, her response was, "Bullshit. I'm going to keep him on the back porch."

This sounded like a much, much worse plan. I might not like birds, but come ON.

"Mom!" I said, "Baby will die on the back porch. It's a hundred degrees out there in the shade!"

"You kids worry too much about nothing," was her answer. "It's screened in."

In the last couple decades of her life, my grandmother had a myna bird. It was a gift from my Uncle Bobby and Aunt Margie. I don't remember the details or circumstances of how he came to live with my grandmother, but he must have been more of a hand-me-down than a present, because the bird had been with them long enough to have adopted my Aunt Margie's voice, expressions, and manner of speaking.

Whenever anyone came in the front door, he'd shout, "Hell-OOOooooo FELLaaaa," and then he'd cackle as if this was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. The unnerving part was that it was my Aunt Margie's very distinctive laugh. Then he'd bark like a dachshund.

He had another few stock phrases (I don't know how gifted myna birds are supposed to be), but the main one was, "Stop it Big Dog! Stop! Stop!" Big Dog was the name of a long succession of miniature dachshunds that belonged to Uncle Bobby. (Or as we call them in my family, Dash Hounds.) I think there were four or five of them, but they weren't even named according to their sequence (Big Dog 2, or Big Dog Four). One would die, and then another one would turn up, and he would henceforth be known as Big Dog, with no memory or acknowledgment of the ones who came before him. I imagine "Stop it Big Dog!" was a constant expression in their house, but I mostly remember my very large, barrel-chested, gravel-voiced Uncle tipping him on his back and cradling him like a baby, while laughing and growling, "Bite Easy, BigDog! Bite easy!" as the dog pawed the air impotently and gnawed bad-naturedly on his giant fist.

I always thought that my uncle's Joe Cocker-like voice would've been far more amusing coming from a bird, but for whatever reason, he used my aunt's voice instead. I assume they only have so much range.

Uncle Bobby was a truck driver, and each of these dogs would be his faithful cab companion. On his travels, he smoked and collected pipes (which smelled fantastic and permeated the whole house whenever he visited), and the one I remember best had an ivory bowl carved into the shape of a naked mermaid, the kind you'd see on the prow of a ship. My grandmother did not approve of it. She didn't much care for the dogs either -- or any kind of pet -- so how we ended up with these people's bird, I'm really not sure. Pets are a fairly unsentimental commodity on a farm -- one she had little patience for -- but she was genuinely fond of that bird. (Their sons had a brief and disastrous history with spider monkeys for awhile, and thank God we didn't inherit those. The monkeys were followed by a series of temperamental Afghan hounds.)

When the bird arrived, his name was Bill, but he couldn't keep that name because he shared it with my youngest uncle who'd died tragically in his 30s (oddly, no reminders of him were allowed in the house at all; I guess it was just too sad), so the bird became Little Joe. Or L'il Joe. No one really called him that though. No one really called him anything.

At night time his cage was covered with a king-size orange sheet from Sears, but if the grownups were out of the house, he spent considerably longer periods of time under it. "Goooood NIGHT, Nasty Bird," I'd say as the sheet came billowing down around his cage and  I flipped on the TV, then flopped down on the sofa for Days of Our Lives.

"Hellloooooooo Fella!" he'd respond optimistically.


They Might Be Giants
Mom Talk Pretty One Day

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mom Talk Pretty One Day

"I went to France the following summer knowing only the word for 'bottleneck.' I said 'bottleneck' at the airport, 'bottleneck' on the train to Normandy...I'd hoped the language might come on its own, the way it comes to babies, but people don't talk to foreigners the way they talk to babies. They don't hypnotize you with bright objects and repeat the same words over and over..."
--David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

My Mom is not my friend on facebook. She doesn't use it enough for us to actually communicate with it, so instead, she calls once a week or so, and fills me in on The Family in the 60 second version. The conversation rarely lasts longer than that, because as she puts it matter-of-factly, "I DON'T WANT TO USE UP MY MINUTES!" (What if someone better called and she'd wasted a conversation on me?) She'd never call me on her land line because "it's long distance!"  This way, I only get the Readers' Digest version of what's going on with my relatives. Most updates include some variation on "she's out of her mind," followed by stern instructions: "don't you EVER let me get like that." (Uhhhhh. Might need more specific instruction than that.)

On Mother's Day, I went with her to visit one of our elderly cousins, and innocently observed with mild, but cheerful surprise on the walk out to the car, "she seemed pretty sharp." The answer was, "That just shows what you know. She sits in that chair all day and talks to that damn bird. She won't read a book. She never even turns on the television." (She did talk to the bird the whole time we were there, but if talking to pets was the criteria for institutionalization, I would barely know anyone this side of the walls.)

After Mother's Day, I posted a few pictures from the day on her facebook page, which was followed by texts to me from my cousins wondering why my Mom won't be their friend, or why she never answers their messages.

I waded back into her account with the idea of responding to everyone, and as I roamed around, I was actually impressed to discover she has obviously been putting some effort into it. Everything about social media that I think of as second nature, I remind myself is a foreign language to most of her generation. (There's no room for Smug here: the first computer I ever touched was a Radio Shack TRS-80 that someone had handed down to the nuns, and I could never even figure out how to turn it on. Many years later, I was the first person in my office to insist this email thing was "a mess" that would "never catch on," and everybody better just stick to turning in their work to me on DISKS the way God intended).

I was proud of all her hard work, but the net results would be the same if you found me trying to translate a french newspaper on facebook; it's a strange, hybrid, baby-speak that sounds absolutely nothing like her.

I can see that she is trying to communicate with her friends via her wall, with brief missives like these:

"ok. ken. i'am here."


"i just wanted to see if i am getting anywhere with this silly thing. been sitting here for hours." This statement  is inexplicably linked to a youtube clip of  Jimmy Kimmel, Guilty Dog.

Then there is a post from me, "Hi Janet, Mom can't seem to figure out her facebook. She's doing great -- we just had a big dinner. "

Below that, she has written a note, "i am in town and trying to find a way onto my page but it keeps eluding me so at ten twenty i am going to bed!!! one day i will throw it out the window. if i happen to email you, hi! hope you are well!" This is paired with a link to google's page for "suggestions on navigation errors." 

Then she posts an answer to my cousin Marie's question as to how she was doing. "in town again. not too much longer to go. good. getting very tired. what is a thumbnail? i don't have one i guess. the computer says so anyway. GOODNIGHT WHOEVER YOU ARE!!!"

An earlier statement reads, "i am alive and well. i am not trying to ignore anyone just do not know what i am doing. keep trying. i'll figure it out someday." This is linked to a google search of, which turns up all the people on facebook with the same name as her.

The last time I clicked to open her gmail for her, it inexplicably opened up into the email account for a strange name and a person I didn't know. "Mom, who is Mark?" Mark is a man they go to church with. "Why is his email on this laptop." She didn't know. As I clicked around, she eventually remembered that he had been trying to help her open her facebook one day after mass. My eventual conclusion was that he had, at some point, opened his email on her machine and inadvertently saved his password there. After logging out of his account, I asked her if she had accidentally been reading his email.

"Oh sure," she said, shamelessly. "I read it all."

Didn't she notice none of it was intended for her?

"Well, yeah. It was mostly these love letters back and forth between him and Annie."

Didn't she consider this an incredible invasion of privacy?

"Nahhhh. He's married to her now."

I asked her last night if she'd seen any of my brother's emailed pictures from his last trip. She hadn't, because she said, "my email won't open anymore. But Mark and Annie's popped up on there the other night, so I've just been reading theirs instead."

Prodded as to how she managed to consistently load their email, instead of her own, she answered, nonplussed, "I don't know. I guess I'm a hacker. Isn't that what you kids call it?"

At least my parents will never be one of those scandalous couples who ends up on Dr. Phil because they reunited with their high school sweethearts on facebook. Any hot senior singles with mischief on their minds are going to have to come right to the front door and knock on it. (They don't know how to check their voicemail either.)

It reminds me very much of David Sedaris's french class where everyone had to explain Easter to non-Americans: "He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two...morsels of....lumber..."

Sounds about right.


Mom's Parting Shots
Bed, Bath, and Beyond the Circle