Monday, October 17, 2011


My family had lots of pets when I was growing up.  There were occasional cats, turtles, and a couple of periods of experimenting with keeping cheap pet-store-goldfish alive.  Mostly there were dogs.  There was always more than one and they were always a pain in the ass.

We started with a golden retriever named Jack.  My mom bought him as a puppy for my dad at a time when we didn't have any other pets.  I remember when she brought him home and we all wanted to play with him and he just wanted to sleep in my Dad's lap.  Jack was a smart dog.  He behaved and figured out what we wanted even though we never really trained him.  Unfortunately, he was my dad's dog and even though my dad always said he was the family dog, we were jealous and each wanted a pet of our own.  Pretty soon my brother had a chocolate lab puppy.  He was responsible enough and took better care of her than I might have.  But she developed a skin condition and incredible stinking sores.  The constant irritation made her ornery and she snapped at us all the time.  Then my sister got a long haired golden retriever who she named Sunny and also suffered from a foul smelling condition that had to do with never getting a bath.  And then for no clear reason, my mom got a dog.  A border collie named Sally that went crazy for lack of a job to do and turned our house into a kind of kennel for the insane.

They never came when we called them, they chewed up and peed on every piece of furniture we had, they gnawed holes in the carpets which they preferred pooping on over any other thing in the world, they barked at anyone who came to the door including us, and they stank.  The stink was the worst.  It got into everything, including our clothes and hair so that we couldn't get away from it.  We couldn't even keep it washed off ourselves because it was in the towels.

Still, Jack was a good companion and smarter than the others.  One summer he tried to domesticate a turtle of his own.  My mother told me that when she let Jack out into the back yard to pee he would search everywhere until he found his turtle.  I didn't believe her.  But I watched and she was telling the truth.  He would find it and pick it up before he would do his business.  No matter how long he had been waiting to be let out, he would find his turtle first.  He would walk around the yard holding it proudly in his mouth until we made him to come back in the house.

Jack never tried to bring the turtle inside, each time he would carefully set his turtle in the same spot by the back door.  While he was trapped in the house he would watch out the big glass patio door and sometime whine as his turtle tried to make it out of the yard.  But Jack would be let out again before the turtle could get far enough away and would return it to the spot by the back door.  Toward the end of the summer the turtle made it.  I was the one who let Jack out the first time the it wasn't there.  Before he even sniffed the ground he seemed to know the turtle was gone.  He was upset and ran all over the yard, whimpering, plunging his head into piles of dead leaves and digging little holes in random places that must have smelled like his turtle had stopped there.

I felt bad for Jack.  But I didn't think much of it.  The turtle had to move on eventually and it wasn't fair to keep him trapped in the yard.  I felt worse when, over the next week or so, Jack kept looking for the turtle.  He would forget about going to the bathroom altogether and we'd have to leave him out there searching for his turtle until he could't hold it anymore.

Jack was kind of old when he adopted the turtle.  Maybe eight or nine.  He died a year or two later.  I felt bad about that too.  But he had a long decline and I had moved away to college.  Really I was more surprised to see that he was still around the times when I came home.  I didn't have to see it.  I knew it was coming and when it did I wasn't surprised.  I didn't really have a chance to miss him because I was so busy.  And I was happy to have my own place that didn't smell like several dogs.

When my wife, Linda, moved out of her family home her apartment felt too lonely.  She wanted a pet but  didn't want to keep up with a dog and I'm allergic to cats.  She tried gold fish.  As fish are wont to do, they all died.  Black Eyed Pete had a black eye and died of some kind of fungus.  Elbert bloated with gas, spent his life trying to swim down to the other fish and seemed to have died of exhaustion.  Florence, known to her friends as Flo died of Black Eyed Pete's fungus.  I don't remember anything about Marmalade and Frith but they probably went the same way.  The last one was Spike who was beautiful except for a ragged dorsal fin that reminded us of a Gremlin.  All of her fins eventually dissolved for mysterious reasons and her little orange torpedo body was the last one we found floating at the top of the tank.  Linda gave up on the fish and thought about birds.  She had a pair of cockatiels when she was young and they were almost as easy as fish but without the high attrition rate.  A little bird song would cheer the place up.

About the time I moved to Birmingham to be closer to Linda, she bought a love bird from a breeder the next town over and named him Peekay.  He was just old enough to be on his own but definitely still a baby.  He ate huge amounts and liked to nuzzle into the crook of my neck while we took naps on the couch.  We took a lot of naps for the couple of weeks that I was new in town and looking for work.  When I found a job and got my own apartment, Peekay seemed to get lonely and we talked about getting him a friend.

Peekay's breeder, wasn't expecting chicks anytime soon.  We had to look for someone else.  Eventually Linda found another breeder in another town farther away.  She normally sold her birds at a huge weekend flea market called Trade Days, and she had a lot of birds.  Linda read online that breeding a lot of birds for profit wasn't a good sign and you ought to find a bird somewhere else.  It's like a puppy mill and you're likely to get a pet with a similar bunch of problems.  But she couldn't find another bird breeder and Peekay was rarely singing at all any more.  So, we made an appointment, just to go see.

We met Mr. Turlis in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly.  He took a big swig out of a mason jar with something floating in it and asked us if we wanted anything from the store.  We  waited outside while he went in to buy cigarettes and some salve.  His son and his dog chattered at us until he came back and we followed him for several miles to his trailer in the woods.  Inside it was full of a haze of cigarette smoke. (You'll remember that they used to put canaries in coal mines as a kind of living air quality meter because their respiratory systems are so sensitive.) In the front room there were maybe twenty bird cages stacked all over the furniture, in corners and on the television. There were six or seven baby birds in each one.   I could hear the racket of about a thousand birds in the back room.

Mrs. Turlis was pale, coughed a lot and never got up from her seat.  She told us about how she had been in the hospital with cancer and the doctors didn't know if she would get past it or not.  But then her husband brought her a love bird.  Mr. Turlis lit cigarettes for both of them and started letting birds out of cages.  About ten baby birds huddled together on the floor and a little green and yellow one, smaller than the rest, kept trying to keep in the center.  Linda said Ooooo he's a snuggler.  Mr. Turlis started telling me about clipping wings and how to stop any bleeding with a little flour if I cut the wrong ones.  

On the way home we talked about names and by the time his name was Tully Linda's car smelled like an ashtray.  The next day we gave Tully a bath and the water brought out another pretty bad stink.  When he dried off he still smelled like smoke.  It took about three weeks for the smell to go away and for a long time we still smelled it when he had a bath.

Peekay seemed to be happy to have Tully to talk to.  He cheered up and gained a little weight.  He talked more and more (lovebirds don't really sing), played with his toys, and he started to have a morning chatter time when would flap his wings and get things off his chest.  Tully would join in after a while and then they would talk back and forth for a couple hours.  They were both still young and when I took naps I would let them out and they would climb inside my shirt to nap in the warmth.  When Linda wasn't home she would leave NPR on for the them to listen to.  Both of them chirped conversation back at the radio and when the Olympics were in Beijing Tully seemed to relate to Chinese and would help interview them as long as they were on.  He loved to talk and he loved singers and especially Aretha Franklin.  He would be asleep with his face hunkered down into his chest but he would still peep along when one of her songs came on the radio.

Peekay was an early bird.  He would already be up and talking to himself in the dark under the blanket that covers their cages no matter how early we got up to uncover them.  Tully was a night owl and a hedonist.  We would  put Peekay to bed and Tully would stay up as long as we were up.  One day I uncovered the birds a little early because Peekay was chirping under the blanket.  Tully came out of his sleeping spot, yelled at me, dumped one of his food bowls onto the floor and went back to bed.

Tully grew up and got bigger than Peekay.  He got fat.  He slept late and he ate all day except for when he was focused on talking to the radio or napping next to Linda's neck and under her hair.  Even though he was bigger than Peekay, he still seemed to think he was a runt and he'd let Peekay chase him around.  Lovebirds can be territorial and Peekay was pretty sure that the apartment was his.  This seemed to be fine with Tully except that Peekay would sometimes climb over to Tully's cage and make a demonstration of rattling the toys or rustling around in the food trays.

Tully loved to eat.  When you let him out of his cage he would be happy to see you and give a little hello peep.  But if you put him down next to anything edible he would squawk a loud kind of birdie YeeHaw! and tackle it.  He would dive face first into a plate of seeds knocking half of them out across the room and then lay down on what was left while he ate as much as he could and talked to himself about how lucky he was with his mouth full.  If you put your hand anywhere near the food he would honk and go after it like an angry snapping turtle. (The birds bit us all the time but in a nippy little trying things out kind of way.)  Even if we handed him food he would act like we had stolen it from him in the first place and snatch it away.

Six or eight months went by and then Peekay went into Tully's cage and probably tried to get into his food.  We heard some angry chatter and fluttering but when we looked they were only eyeing each other but, Tully was holding his wing out to one side.  He had a three-quarter inch gash on his shoulder.  This is a five inch bird.  Linda took him to the emergency vet and he got a local anesthetic, stitches, antibiotics and had to stay overnight in an incubator.  When he came home he had three big stitches and a big bald spot around his wound.  His antibiotics made him kinda drunk.  We had to take all of the perches and toys out of his cage so there wouldn't be anything for him to climb up and fall off of and then put a towel in the bottom for a pad because he was stumbling and falling constantly anyway.

When Linda came home from work he had pulled his stitches out and ripped off the scab.  I guess his instinct was to keep the wound clean but it got him sent him back to the vet for more shots, a cream to keep the wound from scabbing and itching, more stitches, and a cone to keep him from pulling them out.

Tully worked his beak under the cone and within a few hours he had chewed his cone into a jagged plastic ring that could have cut into his neck.  We had to take that off of him and try giving him a sedative to keep him from cleaning his wound.  A drunk pet is a truly sad thing.  They don't know what's going on and they struggle to do anything.  Tully would stretch and stand up as tall as he could as if there were a branch just out of reach and then he'd wobble and fall over into his water dish and get it all up his nose.  It made Linda cry to hear his little beak smacking into things and she couldn't stay in the room with him.

Peekay either knew he was in trouble or he could tell that something was seriously wrong with Tully.  He kept quiet for a few days.  And he started taking care of Tully after that, regurgitating food too him so he would have enough to eat.

Tully never really got over that injury.  The wound healed but by that time he had become obsessed with pruning the feathers around it.  He quit eating and spent all of his energy on arranging and pulling them out.  Eventually he was bare on his chest and shoulders.  He started stinking again, went back to being a runt, got sick all of the time, and making a lot of trips to the vet.  Linda has a real soft spot for anyone or anything that needs help.  She got more and more attached to him and tried everything the vet could think of to make him better.  He was always on some kind of medication.  Some vets thought a sedative would calm him down and we went back to drunk Tully who couldn't stand up but still found a way to pull feathers.  He spent months on children's Benadryl.  He got infections and we had capture him and force him to take oral antibiotics from a syringe.  He hated it and he would squawk and fight and spit it out.  After it was over and I put down the syringe Peekay would go over and attack it for picking on his friend.

Birds, especially vulnerable little ones, mask their sicknesses and fluff up their feathers so they look healthy.  Tully could't really pull that off.  He always looked like a wreck and eventually he was going to the vet once or twice a week.  And then he tried to pull a blood feather that must have broken off near the base.  Blood feathers have an artery and a vein in their quill.  If they get pulled out it's usually not so bad but if they get broken off a bird can bleed to death in a few minutes.  I found him with his face and one side covered in blood frantically trying to get the rest of the quill out and already looking woozy.  Linda got him to the vet in time and he had to stay in an incubator overnight again.  This time with an oxygen feed because he had lost so much blood.

That was the beginning of the end.  On his next visit the vet told Linda there wasn't much more anybody could do for the little bird.  He lived for a couple more weeks before I came home and found him lying face down in his cage.  He was still alive and I called Linda to say she should hurry home because he wasn't going to make it.  She had worked so hard for him and I wanted her to see him one more time.  I held him and talked to him while he struggled to breathe breaths that came slower and slower.  His head rolled around in my hand and I rubbed his belly as if that were going to make any difference to the pain he must have been in.  In a couple of minutes I could barely tell that he was breathing at all and then he took a big gasp, exhaled a bubble of blood, and went limp.

There was nothing fair about Tully's little life, even if he brought some of it on himself, he never really had a chance.  He only got about six good months out of a three year life that should have been fifteen.  He was a happy little guy born in a shit place that made him weak and spent almost all of his time suffering.  I miss him all the time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

First Epiphany

First Epiphany

When I was an undergrad earning a minor in painting I took a particular interest in Mark Rothko’s work.  The University of Alabama is in the country and getting to galleries and museums to see artworks in person wasn’t easy.  We learned about art world through words, photographs, and bi-weekly slide lectures.  Most of the painting I was able to see in person was representational.  And it was all small, paintings that fit in homes and offices and looked nice with the couch, sculptures that looked nice on a mantle.  I was bored with these and wanted something new.  The books I was reading gave abstraction an air of novelty and power.  It could really make you feel something.    

Critics and historians described abstraction as explorations of the compositional potential of color and form on the human psyche.  Talking about his paintings, Rothko said, “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.”  He said he wanted his work to be a “replenishing resource for an era of spiritual void.”  I have been an atheist my entire life and had watched the Baptists I grew up around having intense spiritual experiences that I couldn’t relate to.  Being baptized, crying, fainting.  Those experiences looked deep and meaningful, profound.  [[tell us more about that, earlier!]]I wanted those experiences.

I had my first chance to see some of Mark Rothko’s paintings when I was twenty-two.  After graduating from college I moved to Oxford, England.  I found out that the Tate Modern had a large portion one of the last groups of paintings Rothko made before he died.  His Seagram Murals had been commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in a then new building.  They were some of the largest paintings Rothko had ever made and he had worked on them for months.  I took a day off of work and bought a bus ticket to London. 

After my art history and studio art courses I knew how to look at a painting.  And I knew that photographs cannot adequately convey the direct experience of viewing a work of art.  In the first place the colors are always at least a little off.  And it’s just about impossible to convey any idea about what’s happening on the surface on the work leaving the viewer with all sorts of questions.  How thick is the paint?  What are the brush strokes like?  What colors were laid down first?  What are those shapes that seem to be visible under the top layers of paint?  Or are they faint colors laid on top?  These questions and many more challenge anyone who tries to look at a reproduction of a piece of art.  You're not looking at the work, you're looking at a photograph.  We're left to rely on someone else's words in the hope of understanding the work in some way.

The main problem is is scale.  Especially scale.  Rothko’s paintings are huge.  In books I had seen studio shots of the artist too high on a ladder stretching to reach upper areas of his large canvases.  A painting like that would take up your entire field of view.  It is impossible to even begin to describe the experience of standing in front of a painting like that.  If the person you’re describing the painting to has seen similar work before, they may be able to develop some vague sense of what the work is like.  But for a person who has never had an experience like that, too much is left to the imagination.  It might be argued that this must be like staring at a wall of the same color.  But it’s not.  It cannot be because the wall has not been painted with the intention of creating an emotionally moving experience for the viewer.  You cannot imagine the work of a master at the height of his abilities engulfing your field of vision and overwhelming you.  This was the experience I wanted.  I had to get in front of one of those paintings. 

When I arrived in London I went straight to the Tate, straight to the information desk for a map, and then straight to the third floor to the Rothkos.  On the third floor I had to walk past a few large paintings to get to Rothko’s Seagrams paintings.  To the left was a very large canvas painted by the impressionist painter Claude Monet.  This was one of his famous Water-lillies paintings of which he had made many.  I knew Monet from reproductions; framed prints in offices, cheap posters for sale in the student center, the same cheap posters for sale in museum gift shops, Art History slide lectures, and just about every book on Modern painting.  This painting was huge.  Ten years later I have still only seen one larger painting.  I never imagined that anything by Monet would have been so big.  And it was beautiful.  But all impressionist paintings are beautiful, that’s why people like them.  Plus this was a representational painting.  I was into abstraction.  So, I walked around the corner to the Rothkos. 

The Tate has installed the Seagrams paintings their own room, which I guess might be about twenty by thirty feet.  This is a good size for them and creates a more intimate viewing experience separate from the museum traffic.  I walked into the room.  Awesome, I thought, This is awesome.  Here were the paintings that I had waited years to see.    

I took in the whole group at first.  I sat on a bench and just looked around.  Then I got up and walked around the room, up close to the work, looking into their surfaces.  The brushstrokes were mostly worked over and smoothed.  The layers of colors had the feeling of veils hanging in front of me.  There is no illusion of any sort, the surface of the painting is obviously a surface.  At the same time it seemed that there was more behind the surface.  It felt deep.  I backed up just far enough that a single painting took up my field of view.  I took it in, I breathed it in and I tried my best to clear my mind. 

Nothing happened.  Or the things I expected to happen didn’t happen.  Instead I had the experience of standing before large rectangles with blurry squares painted onto them.  I couldn’t clear my mind.  I tried for a while with these paintings that I had waited so long to see.  I tried to make it work.  I spent maybe forty-five minutes trying to make it work.  I couldn’t forget the Monet. 

So, a painting of a pond with water lilies floating on it called me back into the traffic of the museum corridor where it hung.  I didn’t walk up to it to look at the surface.  I sat on the bench in front of it.  I didn’t look, I glowered at it.  Why are you bothering me?  Go away.  I decided to sit in front of it until it until my mind got tired of it and let it go.  I didn’t think about really looking at it and into it the way I had the Rothko.  It’s a pond, mostly purple with a lot of greenish gold, yellow, and a few splotches of crimson defining the flowers.  I sat in front of it for a very long time.  The painting wouldn’t leave me alone.  It wouldn’t let me go.  

Slowly, it beat my stubborn opposition.  I saw light bouncing off of the lilies and the surface of the pond.  I saw the light move.  Monet had observed this light and had painted it repeatedly combining the various instants to create an image of the passage of time.  The painting surrounded me.  Shifts in color and blurred edges made it difficult to focus.  I stopped trying.  Bold, candy colors vibrated in the space between me and the canvas.  I saw changing patters of light and had a feeling somewhere in-between a distant sound and a low rumble.