Friday, November 28, 2008

The Bittern in the Baltimore Aquarium

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we went with Alex and his delightful girlfriend Kristen to the Baltimore Aquarium. I had not been there for a number of years, so I was glad for the excuse. Happily we didn't encounter too many school groups, and at points we even had exhibits to ourselves.

I was pleased that the aquarium has been so well maintained in recent years; I was also delighted to see some new exhibits, such as the recreation of Australian wetland habitats. We marveled at the birds and monkeys and oohed appropriately at the more cuddly creatures (not tarantulas, which always make me shiver).

We were especially bemused, however, at a bittern (see photo) who had positioned himself strategically along a walkway so humans could pet him. At first, we worried he might be ill; after all, wild birds rarely offer themselves up for voluntary cuddling. We also fretted that he might contract some virus from all those human hands or that some perverse soul might seize the opportunity to harm him. Rod informed a guard of our concerns which, it appears, were for naught. The story is this: Mr. Bittern, at some point in his captivity, decided that he liked the companionship of humans more than birds. He took up residence along the walkways, perching on ledges where human hands could easily reach down and smooth his feathers. Repeatedly his keepers moved him to remote locales within the aviary, only to be defeated by Mr. Bittern's stubborn refusal to dwell among his mates. Finally, the aquarium capitulated, permitting this gregarious avian to socialize with humans but ensuring his safety through carefully positioned security cameras.

I watched Mr. Bittern teach his admiring throng the proper way to pet him: between the wings, on the shoulders. He particularly liked a gentle stroking motion. Any hand that attempted to get near his face or neck was met with a steely glare and a sharp peck. "Yes, you can pet me," he seemed to say, "but only on my terms." Mr. Bittern was the topping on an already swell day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Maggie: Resquiat in Pacem

I am woefully behind in my blogs, having taken a long break from writing. In part the silence was due to design issues with my book: irritable and frustrated at the fruitless results, I just didn't have it in me to write in the evenings. Happily, those issues are now resolved, but the decline and inevitable death of our beloved Maggie also made it difficult to write.

It is almost impossible to talk about the demise of a pet without sounding self-indulgent. Undoubtedly one should be redirecting the time and money lavished on a pet to charities and worthy causes. For those of us who love animals, though, the prospect of a life without canine or feline or even equine companionship is unfathomable. Maggie brought us great joy and, admittedly, many moments of frustration. She was not the easiest dog in the world, but I suspect that she will prove the most memorable, the one I will think of when I am facing my own end.

I am attaching a picture of Maggie to this post that captures her very best qualities: fearlessness, curiosity, and joie de vivre. She loved sailing with Rod, and I recall many times watching her with admiration and affection as she stood on the bow of our sailboat, chest puffed out bravely and face into the wind. Even storms and high winds couldn't dampen her enthusiasm. Once we were attempting a very rough crossing from Knapp's Narrows back to Herrington Harbour, where we used to keep our sailboat. The skies opened and water pelted down, while waves washed over the bow. Maggie, cold and damp, stayed close to my feet in the cockpit but never once complained or showed fear. She was that kind of dog.

It's been three weeks, but we continue to miss Maggie horribly. Sometimes I think I glimpse her shape when I look up suddenly from my laptop or a book--only to be heartbroken when I remember she is indeed gone. Eventually we will get another dog, but now we are mourning, the very least we can do to honor this creature who gave us so much and who loved Rod with the sort of devotion we humans can rarely muster.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wishful Drinking

It was with some trepidation that I went back in September to see Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking, her one-woman show. I'm not much for memoirs, especially those of the "Mommy Dearest" or "kiss and tell" mode. Fisher, though, acquitted herself well for the most part. She knows how to play to an audience, and she uses irony, self-deprecation, and caustic one-liners to prevent the material from descending into maudlin self-pity. Some sections are very funny indeed, such as her attempt to reconstruct a "Hollywood Family Tree" that rivals the Houses of York and Lancaster. The stories about George Lucas and the filming of Star Wars were true crowd pleasers. I liked too her humorous and surprisingly generous assessment of her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, even though their parenting skills were clearly paltry at best.

I was less entertained by the long, long account of shock therapy treatment. Fisher has battled addiction, depression, and various demons since adolescence, and while I felt compassion for her plight, I also experienced some discomfort with the florid details. Perhaps this unease arises from my own upbringing, with the concomitant insistence that one doesn't air dirty laundry--especially not with strangers--an attitude that seems nothing short of antediluvian these days.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, as I listened to Fisher recount the pills, booze, blackouts, and binges, if a little reticence might not be in order. What purpose do these sorts of revelations serve? Are we supposed to celebrate Fisher as a survivor (to use that popular term)? By her own admission, she consistently exercised poor judgment; what, then, is to admire--that she managed evade death or derangement despite her frequent attempts at self-annihilation? This hardly seems heroic to me, especially given Fisher's extraordinarily privileged upbringing and subsequent opportunities. Alternatively, Fisher could be attempting to shock us with her oftentimes hilarious but nonetheless disconcerting story of despair and degradation, but in this age of "misery memoirs," with their accompanying tales of domestic horror, her narrative is hardly singular. The final and most disturbing possibility is that Fisher's revelations function as a kind of therapy, a way for her to exorcise demons. If so, I'm not sure the audience is proving sufficiently palliative. At points during the performance, my friend and I found ourselves wondering if Fisher was, well, drunk or stoned (not to put a fine point on it). She slurred words, forgot anecdotes, and didn't seem entirely in control, which in turn made us even more uncomfortable.

As we left the theatre, I reflected (yet again) on why I so dislike and rarely attend this kind of theatre: I want live performance to rock my world. I want to be enthralled, challenged, enraged, provoked, even pushed around a bit. I'll happily settle for the pure entertainment of slick plots, great show tunes, and snappy dialogue. But I don't want to walk out feeling as though I've just been through a live, slightly upmarket version of what I can see on nearly any major television network.