Perfect Polly

108107133687712The other day, flipping through TV channels, I came across an ad for a plastic bird: Perfect Polly. For $14.99 you can buy a bird that needs nothing from you but a pair of AAA batteries. No food or water, no fresh cage liners, no veterinary visits, no attention at all. Motion-activated, it will sing a small variety of songs when you come close, and its head will turn this way and that; even the tail twitches. Doubtless the next version of Perfect Polly—maybe they’ll call it Perfected Polly—will have additional pleasing features. Maybe the wings will flap; maybe the feet will move sideways an inch or two. Maybe it will sneeze, a symptom you can happily ignore.

I don’t know why this product stunned me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags, silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra. Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people, day and night, into its fairy-tale casinos. We eat fake food, wear fake leather, play fake games, and we do these things without a thought. Artifice is so ingrained in our culture that the dividing line is no longer clear. What we see, we eventually accept.

Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are not molecularly different from the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make good things taste better, which is pretty significant when you consider how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the elderly to gag down anything. Fake plants are also useful. People who habitually kill their houseplants do less damage with facsimiles, while saving a lot of money. Fake fur preserves wildlife, and plastic surgery can have far-reaching benefits, particularly for those who, on account of tragedy, actually need it. As for electric fireplaces, they’re pretty nifty. I bought one years ago. No smoke to bother my lungs or the neighborhood, and after a hard day, that silent fire behind the glass is soothing. The flames look real, but I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you have to forgive it.

When I was younger, I loved those vintage beer signs, the ones with rippling turquoise water, sometimes a moving boat. As a child I adored snow-globes and imagined myself living inside them, skating and twirling forever. Children exist in worlds they create. Walt Disney, who understood this, built them a kingdom, a place where their dreams could come true. When I  saw the ad for Perfect Polly, I assumed the product was for children. It wasn’t. Perfect Polly is not a toy, it is an alternative, a pet for people who don’t want pets.

There is a popular peanut butter with a label that boasts, No Stirring! How lazy have we become that stirring is so taxing? This is what came to mind when I saw the ad for Perfect Polly. Putting out pellets, a dish of water—that’s work? Pulling out the soiled cage liner and putting in a fresh one—that’s work? Shouldn’t there be at least some satisfaction in cleaning a bird cage, in bringing comfort to another creature?

Practicalities aside, what about interaction? Don’t we acquire pets so that we can bond with them: look into their eyes, scratch their necks, stroke their feathers—what about all that?

Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly—comedians like Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres have done hilarious spoofs. Surprisingly, the gadget is selling. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, as if the rest of us are waiting to read them, as if the purchase of a $14.99 plastic bird warrants research. Perfect Polly is so ripe for satires that at first I avoided writing about it, doubting there was anything left to say.

It’s a niche market for sure. I picture three groups. One, the novelty buyers, folks who will purchase anything for a laugh. Two, there must be people who buy it for their children, hoping their kids will be find some amusement in a bogus bird, that their interest will last longer than the time it takes them to open the box. Then there is a third category, the elderly or mentally challenged, whose limitations have rendered them quiescent, compliant, accepting. Impairments such as blurred vision can actually be a help here, making the bird appear real. These people can scarcely manage their own needs, let alone a parakeet’s, and so they must be happy to adopt one that comes without conditions. To them, Perfect Polly is a wonder, something small and pretty that sings when they come in the room and quiets down when they leave.

God knows the world does not need another piece of plastic junk, but if we’re going to keep churning out legions of Barbie dolls, might there be some room left for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely? I know I love my electric fireplace.

What Cats Do In Private

One evening I went downstairs, snapped on the overhead light and surprised my cat. There he was, amusing himself on the clothes rack. Do you have any photos of your own cats having fun? Please share!


To Alice Munro

Recently a friend commented on a story from my collection. She told me how much she despised one of the characters (an attractive, unscrupulous woman), and then she proposed alternate outcomes for her. Had I considered doing this with her instead of that? Was I going to write another story about her? Maybe next time she could be overweight, deep in debt—in trouble with the feds! In other words: What Happens Next?

I am often surprised by how invested people can be in the stories they read, how unwilling they are to let go of them. When I told my friend that I had no plans to continue this story line, that when I was done with a story, I was done with it, her face fell. “Maybe you will,” she said, “later.” I smiled and said, “You never know.”

Rousing this degree of interest is of course a good thing, indicating that I did my job as a writer. Still, I wish she had said something about the style of the story. Was it a smooth read? Did she have any favorite passages or images? Had I chosen the best point of view? Did she notice the alliteration? Was the dialogue convincing? Was the setting real?

As I writer I notice all these things when I read. I can tell right away if an author has labored hard, or if he has taken short cuts. If the sentences aren’t clean, if the images aren’t striking, if the writing does not make me pause, think and admire, I probably won’t be finishing the book. Life is short. I want to read the sort of stories that make me wish I had written them, like the carefully crafted work of Alice Munro.

Readers are travelers; books are vehicles. Unless they are writers themselves, most readers don’t seem to care much about how the vehicle works, the machinery behind the journey. Imperfections, even outright errors, are forgiven, if they are noticed at all, so long as pace is maintained. While they may enjoy the passing scenery, what readers want most is to get where they’re going. If the destination pleases them, they will want to go back, hang out with the same characters, see what new trouble they can get into, learn what happens next.

The Da Vinci Code. Harry Potter. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fifty Shades of Grey. These are wildly popular rides, and I respect the authors. A gift to the masses is no small thing.

Blockbusters like these are what makes the latest literary news such a nice surprise. It was Alice Munro who just received the Nobel Prize, and not for crowd-pleasing novels, but for her unstinting effort in the improbable short story genre. Cheers to you, Alice, for giving the world your very best again and again, for writing against the grain and from the heart. That’s showing them.


Carte Blanche

Thank you for alerting us to this.

Walking with the Alligators


A Right Whale mother and Calf


With this most recent  seal of approval, the US Navy is now  free to deafen, maim and murder sea life in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

They have been given Carte Blanche.

The might of our Military will now be allowed to forge ahead full steam,  knowing well the consequences of their actions and leaving  little doubt that in this country at least,  the hammer will now be allowed to fall on those least able to protest.

The Navy’s war on whales  has been waging for years now and groups from all parts of the world have lent their voices in support for  them and other at-risk sea life,  who are being harmed by these reckless and cruel actions.

Time and time again, US Courts have taken the side of the Navy,  to the great peril of all ocean dwelling animals.

Along our Florida Coast,  the Right Whale  who comes…

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