Saturday, November 14, 2009

Just say no, just beat it, tear down this wall

Friday, November 13, 2009

We get letters

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Words to live by

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Feathered friends

I was sad to learn one of my stepmother's parrots died. And surprised -- these animals have human-like lifespans, and this one was only in his 20s.

Living with tropical birds has its ups and downs. I know. My stepmother has kept two, three, four of them since I was a kid. They are very pretty, and their mimicry is striking. But they also can be plain noisy, and I'm a guy who likes his quiet. They also can be temperamental and suspicious. I always wanted at least one of the birds to like me and sit on my shoulder, but they mostly cowered from me and, if I got closer, bit.

The mimicry of parrots can be so funny, though -- funny because pointed mimicry is always funny and uncanny. We laugh at Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin partly because the jokes are good, but especially because the imitation is so keenly observed. So when a bird talks and sings and whistles like a person -- or like a garbled, Auto-Tune imitation of a person -- we can't help but laugh with delight. It's really remarkable, miraculous. I was always struck by the fact that when we had a guest in the house and that person spoke, the birds would get very quiet. They were listening and learning. The birds are always listening.

Indeed, tropical birds will surprise you with their listening. You can teach them phrases, of course, through sheer repetition. But the birds also pick up tics and habits, things you say all the time that you don't even know you're saying, household sounds so familiar you've ceased to consciously hear them.

Tropical birds are like fun house mirrors in that regard. One of the birds picked up my dad's habit of regularly clearing his throat. Another mimicked the low, vaguely wary way Dad answers the phone. All the birds repeated our names over and over, because people in families say each others' names all the time. I think all the birds could whistle the "Andy Griffith Show" theme song because, well, ours was a Griffith-loving family. We watched that show all the time.

What most unnerves me is to visit home now and hear one of my stepmother's birds making a sound from the house we moved out of 20 years ago. We had a phone that rang with a distinctive electronic warble. A bird still mimics it. We had a sliding glass door that probably needed oiling and made an odd little chirp when opened. A bird still mimics it.

I remember that house. So do the birds.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oh by golly

Got my first sustained exposure to Christmas music this year thanks to the radio at Pizza di Roma. The selection: Burl Ives, "Holly Jolly Christmas."

I recognized the song immediately from the 12-string-guitar riffing. A fine tune and a good solid start to the Season of Being Overwhelmed. Ives' Red Scare-era entanglement with HUAC was -- well, it was what it was. Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Two tribes

The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago today. I was a college freshman. I didn't contemplate foreign affairs much in those days. What I mostly knew about was Cold War paranoia as filtered through 1980s pop culture -- the TV movie The Day After and songs like Sting's "The Russians" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes," whose video memorably featured Western and Eastern bloc leaders slugging it out in a ring.

So I knew what happened Nov. 9, 1989 was important, but from my teenage perspective it just seemed another in a series of disruptive events that year, including the protests and massacres in Beijing and, well, me finishing high school and starting college. Would you believe the wall's demise even made me think of that October's earthquake-disrupted World Series? Weird stuff happening this fall, I remember thinking. The earliest incidents of the post-Cold War era played out as I made my way through college, and perhaps it was my expanded perspective, college-induced, that made me better grasp the importance of subsequent events like the reunification of Germany, the Croatian and Bosnian wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the importance of the 1989 event was brought home to me a bit in French class the next morning. My teacher was from Romania, and I suspect she experienced the Cold War in ways even more intense than MTV. She tried to get us students talking about the Berlin happenings in French. "C'est très excitant, non?" she asked. But our French was limited, and we didn't have much to add.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

He's a ranter

Bill Maher on "Loveline" with Adam Carolla and Drew Pinsky, March 26, 2001, is fabulous. Questions from callers about drugs, sexual harassment and bullying (Columbine was a recent memory then) are occasions for Maher to go off on one tirade after another. Here as always I enjoy Maher's tirades, and they're more entertaining than the mopey callers.