It's been a very David Sedaris kind of day with a sprinkling of Fred Rogers - interesting combination, don't you think? Everything I've started has gotten interrupted, tossed by the wayside, kicked to the recycling bin or erased from the hard drive I jokingly refer to as my "mind". I think I need more RAM and apparently my mind is of a brand that just isn't compatible with anything on the shelf of Best Buy or Circuit City. Maybe I'm generic? Oh gosh, I hope not.
Of course, there is a bit of history surrounding the aviary and our propensity for keeping all manner of animals, domestic, exotic or otherwise. Nothing is ever completely simple in my world. Sometimes I wonder if that's by design or dumb luck.
In August 2000, we relocated from Amarillo, Texas to Wilmington, NC. In addition to our two dogs including Cassie, Freeway, four cats (Sylvester, Princess, Felix and Tabitha, we also moved a few additional creatures. In my best Dave Barry voice, I am not making this up. I was there, it happened, here's what I saw at the revolution: We successfully managed to move a pair of veiled chameleons, a 12 inch bearded dragon, a juvenile sulcata tortoise, one ball python, one corn snake, one king (not to be confused with coral) snake, one utterly disgusting gopher snake, one dumpy tree frog, and the requisite crickets and a few feeder mice (but no partridges in any pear trees), because with this motorized noah's ark, we were looking at a 3 day road trip from Amarillo to Wilmington.
Now I don't mean to take exception with the folks at "Mapquest", but I think it was a tad bit further than 1,526 miles and I know for certain that their estimated driving time of 24 hours and 38 minutes did NOT take into consideration a few things; We got lost - several times in many major cities and it almost always involved I-40 and beltways. Also, one Mom and two kids can consume a LOT of iced tea on a cross-country trip in August and when you take in that much liquid well, you know the rest of THAT story. We had to make a few stops along the way. We were either heading for drive-throughs to buy more iced tea or heading for establishments with public rest rooms to get rid of it.
Large dogs also have to stop now and again and stretch their limbs, so we tried to incorporate that into our other non-scheduled stops. As for the cats, my vet was kind enough to supply tranquilizers and I only got bit twice dispensing them. No, to answer the question you must be wondering, I did NOT take the animal tranquilizers...and I only considered it a half-dozen times at most.
Imagine this scene: At the end of everyday, having put in an average of 500 miles, we would choose a hotel along the interstate. We aren't talking four-star Four Seasons, but something decent with a minimum of cockroaches although, come to think of it, we could have just used those for reptile food. Many exotic reptiles love to eat things that are interactive and fresh. It's the same for snakes, and I'm ashamed to admit that I love watching it.
I would park the car in the lot of a potential source of lodging, way out of sight of the desk clerk, walk into the lobby and with my best smile I would ask if they had any rooms available? If I got past that question, I would crank up my smile a little wider and casually inquire if they accepted pets? Sometimes there was a moment or two of hesitation on the part of the innkeeper, but more times than not, I got a "Yes, sure. What is it, a little dog?". Not wanting to outright lie, I would just passively nod my head and smile and sign on the dotted line and get out of the lobby before said innkeeper would wonder why I looked so shell-shocked and change his/her mind.
They had no idea. If they had only known...
Under the cover of darkness, Katie, Justin and I would make several trips to the car, which was by now parked as close to trees and obscured as much as possible, and commence unloading just about everything. The finicky, but beautiful, Veiled Chameleons required a heat source at night for digestion, as did the bearded dragon and a few other things. Of course, the crickets had to come in because the reps were hungry! The dogs happily, exuberantly jumped out of the car and the cats, well, the cats were always last because as soon as we released them in the room, things got a little crazy. Cats get a little high-strung after being cooped up in a kennel for any period longer than, oh, say ten minutes. The feline mood after 10 plus hours in a car? Exponentially worse. If looks could kill, the three of us would have never made it out of Amarillo alive.
In the mornings, usually between 8 and 9 o'clock, the same scene was repeated, only in reverse but with the cats going in first because they are lightning fast and I am sure they spent each night trying to plot a collective escape. Cats are very clever. They also tend to hold a grudge.
One incident that lingers in my mind when I think back to the insanity of moving so many animals so many miles, happened around 8:30 AM in rush hour traffic on the part of I-40 that goes straight through downtown Memphis. We had spent the night in West Memphis, Arkansas, and within minutes we were crossing the Mississippi River. Things were going well and happily my daughter was driving because the combination of traffic, big cities, long bridges and 18 wheelers buzzing by at an incredible rate of speed, usually inspires a panic attack and I just didn't have the time to schedule one. My daughter, however, has no fear when it comes to stressful driving situations and she handles it like a pro.
In fact, there are very few things Katie is afraid of, but that morning, as she (wo)manned the wheel of our Chrysler through downtown Memphis, Tennessee, I remembered one thing she was deathly afraid of and it was a fear that we shared, though my case was of a much milder variety, and it had nothing to do with some ghost of Elvis floating around Graceland.
Gopher snakes have the uncanny ability to do a "dead-on" impression of a rattle snake. They shake their tales in rapid motion, hiss, and even but their heads against the tank in a coiled up position as if affecting a strike. Couple that with their all-around rather nasty disposition and it's hard to have warm feelings about these cold-blooded critters. I never cared for them, but my son was bent on buying one a few months previously and, as often is the case, against my better judgment, I relented. It wasn't a good move.
As we were motoring down the highway, Katie keenly concentrating on traffic flow and lane changes, I heard something pop and looked back to see that the cage containing the gopher snake had moved a few inches and the lid had been knocked off just enough to allow the evil thing to slither around the car. Realizing the snake was fearless, and taking into consideration that my daughter and I were not, my most primary fear was that Katie would become hysterical and we would wind up with the dubious distinction of becoming the most exotic mix of road kill that Tennessee had ever witnessed. I don't mind being a trailblazer, but even I have limits.
What to do? I wasn't exactly at ease with the situation and in addition to fearing Katie's reaction should the snake come crawling up front toward the driver, I worried that it might decide to pay a visit to one of the cat kennels and, somehow, I just didn't think this would be a very good thing. Even a doped up cat would probably get a little crazy should a snake decide to strike. Cats are just funny that way.
"Katie, do you mind if we take the next exit? I think I need to go...go...get some decent coffee. This stuff is sludge!".
My request was met with a lot of eye rolling.
"Mom, we just got in the car. You can wait. Let's just through Memphis and I'm sure there will be a place to get you a fresh cup of coffee."
"Katie, I really need the coffee bad and I need it now. Please? Could you just take the next exit? I'm not asking for a lot here.", I said, pleading and hoping I wouldn't have to give her more information than she could safely process and still drive a car.
"Fine! Fine. We are NEVER going to get to Wilmington at this rate. WhatEVER!", spoken as only a 17 year old female can.
For a few seconds, I wondered if she and I were extras in some out-take of "Freaky Friday" and had done a role reversal. Was SHE now the Mom and I was the annoying daughter? I was asking my daughter for permission to pull off and get a decent cup of coffee? Hello? Did she NOT know who I was? I'm the MOM! For a couple of minutes I was suddenly annoyed that I had to beg one of my kids for coffee. How many times had I stopped when THEY needed something to drink or eat or they just couldn't hold it one more tenth of a mile? Talk about selective amnesia. Had I denied one of THEIR requests, those kids would have been on THEIR cell phones to DSS so fast I wouldn't have seen them taken away.
But wait, we had a "situation" on our hands with the potential for loss of life and it was my mission to see to it that it wasn't human (Katie: heart attack) OR feline (who knows but it would have been ugly). Reluctantly, she took the next exit and mumbled a little more about how I needed to cut back on the fluids, as she pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald's.
As soon as she put the car in "park", I told her to exit the vehicle NOW and, in retrospect, I really wasn't very calm about it. As soon as I made sure we were out and the snake was still in, I told her that the gopher snake was on the loose and was probably in a very bad mood. Shrieks! Screams! More shrieks! A little mild profanity. She sometimes has a bit of a potty mouth. Probably her upbringing.
I then pulled out my cell phone and called my son, who was riding in my parents van a few miles behind us, and told him to tell Pops which exit to take and to get where we were - STAT. I was informed that I had interrupted his Gameboy session, but after filling him in on the emergency, he "got it".
"Is it OK? You didn't kill it did you??"
What about me? What about his sister. What about his cats?
By the time my parents van pulled up, Katie was still pacing around the car saying, "Why didn't you tell me??!! I can't believe you didn't tell me.". Duh. She was shaking. Why did she for one-second think she could handle a moving vehicle with the full knowledge that a very mean reptile was playing hide and seek in the car?
Within minutes, Justin had the snake back in it's cage and securely fastened and no cats were harmed in the process. He just shook his head at Katie's histrionics and my irritation. What was the big deal, he wondered? It's just a non-poisonous snake. It's not like we'd die or anything, even if it had mistaken us for a R.O.U.S. (rodent of unusual size).
Actually, it really did happen that way. I could only shake my head and for a few weeks after we safely arrived at our new home, as my wonderful, new neighbors would ask me how the trip back East was, I thought better of telling them exactly how things went down. I wondered if these new potential friends would think I was eccentric, quirky or just plain, garden variety insane. Realizing that sometimes first impressions do matter, I would simply smile and say, "Oh, it was fine. Great. You know, kind of long, but no problems. " Who would believe it? I lived it and I didn't believe it.
Right about now, you might be asking yourself, "So what does any of that have to do with an aviary?".
It's a legitimate question, but I have a logical answer. It would take a person far more daring than me to try and move about 25 finches 1600 (or 1526 if you choose to believe Mapquest), miles. Every now and then, even I know my limits. We had the whole food chain thing going on as it was. Can you imagine how much chaos a loose finch could unleash (pun intended) in a car loaded down with dogs, cats, reptiles, amphibians, mice and crickets and 3 humans? I just couldn't go there.
Before leaving Amarillo, I gave our finch inventory and all of the accompanying equipment to Texotic Pets.
Aviary Abberations and Finch Fantasies...
But I missed it. I always missed it. There's something fascinating about watching the whole life cycle of a species of bird, from introduction, coupling up, territorial disputes, nest building, egg sitting, more territorial disputes, cooperative, tag-team parenting, flying lessons and watching it start all over again. Finches are amazing parents, both genders, and you can learn a lot about life watching a Finch Family. There are lessons involving so many things that trip many of my species up, such as companionship, devotion, loyalty, shared responsibilities, nurturing, tending the home fires and, perhaps the most challenging issue for me at the present time, the manner in which they prepare their young fledglings to leave home. I have probably struggled with the "letting go" part, the most. I find it's way far more tricky than the being born phase. Of course, that's the big secret they don't share with you in Lamaze Class. They don't even begin to scratch the surface.
Of course, if any of us knew, would we really sign on for this angst?
I knew I needed more finch lessons.
Enter Christmas 2004, dateline: Wilmington, NC.
I have a very sweet and wonderful friend named Dan. A few days before Christmas, he and I were hanging out in the open loft area outside the door of my home office. One of the features of this room is a large cut-out area that overlooks the downstairs living room. The opening, measuring approximately 96 inches wide and 40 inches tall, featured wooden bars spaced at 3 inch intervals. It gave the loft a very airy feeling but, otherwise, it wasn't all that much to look at. The downstairs living room didn't look all that different from the second floor and the view would hardly qualify as a kodak photo spot.
I was a little puzzled as I caught my friend measuring and remeasuring the opening. When I asked him what he was doing, he just shrugged and said he wondered how a shade or glass would look in place of the bars. He mentioned that it would cut down on the noise drifting upstairs from the living room and kitchen, where the TV always seems to be turned on, even if no one is in there watching it. I have no idea why that is. I never watch TV. Somehow though, that kitchen TV broadcasts annoying dribble at any given hour of the day. I wonder if it has an "off" switch. Were it up to me, this house wouldn't have a TV and, save for the occasional DVD or hurricane season updates from The Weather Channel, and the daily dose of "The Andy Griffith Show", I'd never miss it. Plus, if anyone is in the kitchen or living room and chatting, forget about anything resembling privacy. With the tile on the floor and the high ceilings, there are scant areas for a private conversation in this house. It echoes. Maybe other people keep the TV on to cover up their super-private talks about things I am probably better off not hearing about in the first place. I have no idea. I only live here.
I didn't really give Dan's (stranger than usual) behavior with regard to his measurement taking any further thought. He's really tall (6'2"), very handsome and extremely patient (he is my friend, after all), and I just figured everyone (yes, even me!) has idiosyncrasies and perhaps taking rogue measurements is one of Dan's. He's got so many nice traits going for him that I have decided to allow him to have a few odd habits. The rest of his strange tics and mannerisms? That's a whole OTHER post.
Christmas Morning, my family, animals and some wonderful friends shared the day with me. My friend, Mitch, dropped by late morning with a very decadent, calorie-laden dessert and, as always, it was wonderful to see him...especially seeing him carrying a really rich confection. I'd still think he's special even if he didn't bake, but it just doesn't hurt anything that he does.
Soon enough it was time for dinner and we were blessed and most pleased to have Dan and his Mom, Peggy, join my family for Christmas Dinner. As usual, my Mom out did herself. She's a great cook but you just do NOT go near any kitchen she happens to be working in because you will be in the way. It doesn't matter where you are standing, what you are holding or the direction you may be looking, even if it's out the window, you will be in her way. Period.
After dinner, it was time for more gift unwrapping and though this wasn't an extravagant Christmas in terms of tangible presents, it was very rich in feeling and I adored every person sitting in my living room and was happy to be sharing this special day with each of them. In fact, this Christmas was so frugal that it provided, as so many things in my life do, fine "Single...With Children" column fodder and I wrote about it, of course. That's what I do.
Everyone seemed pleased and the presents, though sparse, were very well received. And normal. That is, until I opened the gift bag I received from Dan. It was a shiny black gift bag, very UN-Christmasy and the component of an inside joke having to do with me possessing a few Scrooge-like tendencies, which I think is completely overblown but, you know, people will think what they will. However, it got even more weird when I examined the contents of this suspect black bag, but first -
TRUE CONFESSIONS ALERT! I have to admit to something I don't normally reveal. I love all things dental. I'm not sure where this comes from, maybe from spending years of my childhood situated in a dental chair because my teeth were a veritable mess. I had extractions, fillings, crowns, braces, more extractions, 2 retainers because my dog chewed up one of them, and I got to know my family's dentist very well. For years, I was pretty sure he must be a not-so-distant relative that we simply had to pay to spend time with. I never really minded the procedures and I developed this fondness for things like gritty toothpaste, all manner of tooth-whitening solutions, pastes, gels, white strips, and instruments! Oh my gosh, one of the happiest days of my life was when I finally decided to go a little crazy and make the calculated and much anticipated purchase of an ELITE Sonicare. Who could possibly forget a day like that? I've even had a friend give me a portable and electric flosser as a gift, and I couldn't have been more excited. OK, so it's probably not in the middle of the normal spectrum, but what is normal anyway and do we really want to go there? It's normal for me and that's enough.
Back to they mysterious black bag. In it were such items as my favorite, most grittiest toothpaste - very similar to the kind I fell in love with in France, - my favorite color of Listerine, TWO Elite Sonicare heads, Purell (because I love the way it's cold, the scent and the way it evaporates almost instantly), a really unattractive pin that I would never wear in a million years, Benadryl (4 cats, 2 dogs - I have at least six allergies), and last, but not least, GUMMI BEARS. The really good kind made with real fruit juice. Dan went all out and clearly put a lot of thought and consideration into my Christmas present. It was definitely a Walgreens Christmas.
I guess it was kind of weird, at that.
As I was pilfering through my gift bag of eccentric presents, I felt everyone's eyes upon me. I think they were waiting for some kind of negative reaction, but if they were looking to me for a sign of unhappiness, they were completely out of luck. I was the proud owner of two brand new Sonicare heads. Merry Christmas to me!
My Dad suddenly popped up and asked me if I would go look at something with him in another room. How odd. In the middle of company my Dad decides I need to go look at something on a computer with him. I am followed by Peggy and Katie. What exactly were we going to see? The three of them seemed a bit nervous and I wondered why my Dad's usually impeccable manners had taken flight. Turns out he wanted to show me an old photo of the aviary that my son and I had built in Amarillo. OK. And????
About five minutes later my son walked in and said Dan needed to see me out on the patio by the pool. What is up with everyone requiring my attention for basically no sensible reason? I just shook my head and walked toward the back and then...I stopped. When I glanced toward the living room, there it was. I had told Dan about the aviary that Justin and I had built and that it had been the subject of the second newspaper column I had ever written way back in July 2000. I might have mentioned that I missed it, because I did. I missed the life. The soft melodic sounds that finches make. The rustling of feathers. The frenzied preparation when eggs are ready to be laid and the urgent, albeit hushed, tones of babies demanding to be fed.
You can't watch a Finch Family and not be impressed with the focus and single-mindedness they bring to all aspects of taking care of a clutch of fledglings. It makes you smile and if you are the tiniest bit human with a shred of a functioning, metaphorical heart, you feel warmth. You feel a sense of awe. Sometimes, you feel jealous because finches don't file for divorce, as far as I know. They stick it out and it stays. There's no visible bickering and if they disagree, they are admirably discreet. I'm fairly sure the kids are protected and for some reason, I feel safe as well. Watching a Finch Family makes me feel two things; first of all, I feel envy because I always thought my kids would be raised in the familial atmosphere those baby birds enjoy. Secondly, for whatever reason, I feel hope. Somewhere in my heart I can't help but think if these birds have it worked out, maybe, just maybe, there's hope for the rest of us. I can't be sure, but that's what I feel and hope, regardless of the source, is never a thing to be discounted. Come to think of it, wasn't it Emily Dickinson who wrote, so many years ago,
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me."