Pet Portrait

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A dear friend commissioned me to paint this 5×7 portrait of his beloved spaniel. I began to love this dog as I rendered his image, which is something that happens every time I paint: with care and focus comes love. Instead of taking payment, I asked my friend to make a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute. In this way we all win. I am eager to do more of these portraits, each one a small contribution to the healing of this world.

Perfect Polly

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The other day, surfing Amazon, I came across Perfect Polly, a plastic bird that’s been around for a while. Polly is still selling well, rated #220 in Doll playsets. For $12.99 you can buy a pet 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 dumbfounded me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags. Silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra, make-up, hair dye, plastic surgery, plastic fingernails–it’s as if we are trying to keep up with the androids we are building to take our places.

Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people 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 losing significance.

Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are no different in molecular structure than the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make certain foods taste better, which is helpful considering how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the aged to eat properly. 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 be invaluable, 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 leap up with a click of the remote. They look real, though I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you first have to forgive it.

From its packaging and appearance, one might assume that Perfect Polly is intended for children. It isn’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?

Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly and comedians have done some hilarious spoofs. Nonetheless, this bird has a large and earnest following. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, dutifully sharing Polly’s pros and cons with the rest of their ilk.

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 as long as we’re churning out legions of Barbie dolls and Lego sets, we might as well leave room for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely and bewildered. Maybe the parakeet trade will subside. If we’re going to keep birds in cages, isn’t Perfect Polly the perfect choice?

 

Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

Cat Editors

A big thank you to my human editor Midge Raymond for kindly inviting me to participate in her “Cat Editors” column. Here is the latest post, featuring me and Tango.

Please look for Midge’s new book, My Last Continent, coming from Scribner in June 2016.

 

 

“Greyhound” in The Bosque Beast

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My deep thanks to editor Keiko Ohnuma for publishing this excerpt of my story “Greyhound” in the latest edition of The Bosque Beast, a journal dedicated to bringing awareness to the plight of animals. “Greyhound” is included in the story collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press. I am proud to have my work recognized by people who care so deeply about animals and the beautiful, fragile world we live in.