Friday, September 27, 2013

The Pigeon Wars

I was standing outside with one of my students, just before the start of a class. It was beautiful and warm, so we decided to stay outside to do our thing. We were talking and watching the pigeons line up and drop down like little parachuters to eat the rice I put out for them. Malarepa (aka Ralph, the white pigeon) fascinates everyone. There is something very unique about him. Partially it is his pure coloring, a part of it is his size and the presence of the orange bands on his legs (he fled his former occupation as a wedding celebrant to come live in the mills) and a part of it is it is so very obvious that he was raised by humans in the way he interacts with whoever is there.

I know I shouldn’t, but I play favorites. He knows this and makes a production out of walking right up to me, knowing I will flick a little rice down on the side for him and him alone. Ralph had a little issue when he moved in that the other pigeons didn’t quite know what to think of him, and he didn’t know quite what to think of himself. It was mating season and although he is a pigeon, he is a very different type of pigeon. I watched him awkwardly try the male mating behavior of the other rock pigeons, then switch for a week to the female behavior. While he didn’t succeed with mating this year, he has found companionship with a young female late in the season. It is sweet to watch.

My student and I were just talking about things that made had no sense or order other than watching the pigeons line up and watch us someone brought them up. A man came driving down the street in a rough looking white minivan and paused at the turn.

“I can get you a BB gun!” He points at the 60 or so pigeons lined up evenly on the roof.
“That’s OK, I feed them!”
“Goddamnit. You’re why there is pigeon shit everywhere!”
“No, there is pigeon shit everywhere because you have pigeons.”

He roars off, mouth set, snow-white Abraham Lincoln beard thrust out over his chest. I have not made a friend.

There is a saying that if you feed a bird, you go to heaven. That is a part of the reason I feed the birds. I also feed them because it is simple. I feed the pigeons rice; they play in the air in front of me. It is a fair trade. I have learned a lot about birds since I started all this. Many of the members are scientists and birders and they have shared what they know about their behavior and communities. Birds are amazing communal creatures who value individual life.

I once saw a group of turtle doves surround one of their own, who had been badly injured in a fight with a Cooper’s hawk, and walk the dove to the center of the food I had set out so it could eat while they guarded it. When the hawk returned, they all fought him. Two doves died, but not the injured one.

In the Dunnell location, we have a hawk too. It is a red tailed hawk, a much more benign predator than the Cooper’s hawk. That once used to swoop at me as I went up and down the street and landed so close once, I could see his pupils. The Dunnell hawk has no chance with these birds. There is a lone crow that acts as an early warning system, but otherwise never interacts with the birds. The crow has never even eaten anything that I put out. Although it has come over to eye me and learn my face.

Someone recently asked me how many pets I have and I said, “A cat, two fish, and a small flock of a hundred and fifty or so birds.” I had fretted at Main Street about the move, wondering who would feed the birds when I was gone. I had a strong flock there too that would show up at their set times, just like this flock, and want their food. The Main Street flock was even picky.

What I learned is that I don’t have a flock. They have me. When I am not there to feed them, they go elsewhere. It is a happy incidence when I come out and feed them regularly, but they do not depend on it. I, on the other hand, and quite dependent on them (and Ralph) to lift my day.

There is another reason I feed the birds. I am wondering if I should tell it to that man, or let him discover it himself. Feeding the birds is good business sense.

Many of our classes are outdoors. Right out front of Dunnell. Many of the people who come here drive nice cars.

There isn’t any pigeon poop anywhere to be seen and no one has ever had any on their cars.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Alphonse & Marie: A Meditation on Confirmation

The Mad Kitten has company, Alphonse and Marie. It started with Alphonse.

This is Alphonse.

He was a solution to a Feng Shui problem in which I needed a little water and a little life in the main room. There he is. He has issues. No one told me that gold fish can have such issues. One morning, while meditating, we thought he was dying because he was floating at the top of the tank. I almost flushed him, but decided to Google him instead. Turns out, fancy goldfish such as these are mightily prone to constipation. It interferes with their swim bladders and they will either get stuck at the top or stuck at the bottom of the tank if I don’t mind how much I feed them and they don’t get enough fiber. I cooked sweet peas and mashed them up and fed them to him for weeks until I found the little shrimp treats and this goldfish food that sinks like little pebbles to solve the problem.

Alphonse was an only fish. Everything I read told me that goldfish are natural loners (although they can school) because nature takes care of their own. Goldfish are so nasty, stinky, poop producing machines that if they were prone to wanting friends, the species wouldn’t survive because they would be easy to find from the nastiness. Good for me. Not so good for bored Alphonse.

I contemplated teaching him how to play soccer (r2fishschool, I am not kidding). But someone pointed out that if I taught him how to play soccer and he liked it, what would happen if I got too busy to play with him? Now, I would have a fish that knew he was bored.

Enter Marie.
This is Marie.

Marie is another type of fancy goldfish, a black moor. I did not intend to buy Marie but while in the pet store picking up a vacuum cleaner for Alphonse (no, he doesn’t use it); there was Marie, by herself, on sale and looking like the poster child for hyperactivity. I saw morose Alphonse floating in his corner in my mind’s eye and took Marie home.

My neighbor was a bit concerned when he saw me get off my bicycle and take the fish out of my bag.

“Why did you take your fish for a bike ride?”
“I didn’t take the fish for a ride, I was bringing her home. “ 

I almost added ‘from a sleepover at a friend’s house,' but decided not to mess with his sense of reality.

Marie loves Alphonse. She is too small for the tank and gets blown around by the current of the filter and discovered that if she tucks herself into the Alphonse’s fantail, she can swim with ease. She annoys the bejesus out of him. Wherever Alphonse is, Marie is under or over him. If he tries to pull his corner morosity, she circles his head until he snaps and chases her around.

It was Marie, when the two of them manage to cloud the tank so much you couldn’t see them, who stayed right by Alphonse as he was slowly being poisoned by their mutual ammonia. I tried everything and then did what made sense (and you are not supposed to do) and yanked both of them out of the tank and cleaned out the whole thing. 100% water change. It’s supposed to be too stressful for fish. But my fish are tough. They ride bicycles in rain storms.

The Mad Kitten couldn’t give two shakes about the fish. The only time she expressed any connection to the tank was when I first got Marie and was so taken with the antics of both of them together when they got treats that I made the mistake of not worshipping Mad Kitten first when I came in. The look of horror on her face. She finally went up and looked into the tank. Still no interests on her part, but both Alphonse and Marie definitely have an instinctual fear of cats.

There is a peculiar sense of connection/disconnection when one lives with animals of any type. It is a hard thing not to project our feelings and interpretations onto their actions, but once you have lived with one long enough – you can definitely recognize where we share the same reactions and actions. It’s like being around babies, we make them into who we are and then wonder why we grow up to be adults who feel like we don’t know who we are or are place in the world. Our general unwillingness to not be in control or the decision makes, the be all and end all of the definition of meaning and purpose in life – means we anthropomorphize everything else for our convenience. It serves as a form of confirmation bias and has shaped everything from our faith to science to relationships.

I remember the crushing moment when I discovered that it wasn’t that I somehow influenced the mad kitten to express her pacifist tendencies, but her nature that was causing her to get so bent out of shape about killing things. She made a habit, when we lived in the cave and she could go outside, of catching things without harming them and bringing them into the house to me. I thought it was to play, for company maybe. In reality, in her understanding of the world, I am not the be all and end all provider and safety point – I am a moron who does not know how to hunt and feed myself. So she, in cat style, was doing what you do to teach kittens how to live.

The funny thing is that we think animals are so easy to understand and people are hard. Think about that. If people are of our same species and have much the same basic issues of general life, and if you add in that we share a base type of language structure and mind – who should be harder for us to understand?

Perhaps it is more a case of being unwilling to recognize and understand how we are similar and what we share with others as it would reveal what our true natures are. Much better to fill in the blank using an animal who neither shares our bodily systems or means of survival, much less native language to provide self confirmation of the type of person we are or are not.

Part of living, of coming alive, of leaving suffering behind is to learn to stop trying to prove that you are what you want to be, and to begin to live within reality. Reality starts with species and extends outward. If you would like proof of that, look to the nest, womb, egg – this is always where life begins, within the hyper reality of the limitations and needs of the species. From this beginning, one can begin to discover what it means to fulfill a role in existence that is necessary, while the individual is not. It can be freeing, if you dare to give up a few fantasies. But it can also provide an extremely unique form of suffering as well.

The fish are calling for treats, it is that time.
The mad kitten has suddenly appeared to drape herself over my arms and purr madly away (while watching the fish).

What is each aware of?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

No Left. No Right.

In many of the meditative moving arts, one of the hardest things to teach a Westerner is to give up their idea of “left and right.” We love “left and right.” It puts our world in order. We have even assigned whole moral judgments of good and bad to the leftness and rightness of things. When you begin to work the concepts of balance and harmony, you can’t hold on to this kind of separation.

What is one side becomes the other as the flow balance and intent shifts. If one side is firm, the other is soft. If what is hard is above, then what is yielding is below. If the green of the dragon’s back is seen, the white belly of the tiger is exposed too. The idea of balance only being possible if the separate states are both always in harmonious contrast and in constant movement. If I am sitting in absolute silence and stillness to meditate with all of my being calmed, it is the universe that becomes the balance and I am in harmony. It is a metaphor that every movement practice teaches.

Oddly enough, the thing that enabled me to go beyond the mere theory of all this and into being able to move with this balancing flow had nothing to do with a movement practice, it had to do with the cat. The mad kitten who roams the halls, Buddha belly swinging side to side, a portable altar in and of herself that people shower with offerings. She is…well compensated for her presence on Earth. I have understood through her company why it is said they are the only venerated animal for they are the last incarnation of a soul before it departs for the pure land. They have got it right and they are here enjoying life unless suffering is inflicted upon them.

I have had her as my constant companion for years. I am always looking for new ways of understanding her. It is one thing to live in happy habit with someone, it is another to live in habit with a creature that is so very different from you and doesn’t share a language. It is almost like we have an easy truce, she puts up with me for appropriate gift amounts and in return, I am allowed to project on her all my various interpretations of the leftness and rightness of her being.

It was my dog who taught me the value of animal behavioral research. I am still not sure why, but I had picked up a book on dog psychology by a researcher and learned a few things about how to relate to him. It changed our relationship quite a bit. He relaxed and became less my projected companion then a dog. I can’t judge if he was happy or not, but I can judge that he began to show more playful behavior and less behavior of fear (which we often interpret as affectionate behavior from a dog).

I tend to get up early in the morning, like very early – around 2am or so, to start my day. I also have a tendency to let myself follow trains of inquiry until about 4am when I have to pull my act together and get a little more productive. One of the trains I have been on is about cat behavior. In particular, following several articles about ways we interact with cats that well and truly either make them fearful or keep them on a defensive edge.

I was a little surprised to find out some things about eye contact and marking behavior. Some I knew, but I had assigned them different types of meaning. There were two that really struck me and I have been working on changing my behavior towards the mad kitten and the results have been…illuminating.

The two behaviors are:
  1. Eye contact is aggressive, if you make eye contact with a cat you have to break it up by doing an exaggerated blink periodically to communicate that you are not behaving in an aggressive way toward them.
  2. When a cat rolls over and exposes their belly, it is a form of expressed vulnerability that is not about submission, but is a desire for affirmation of connectednedness and bonding. When a cat exposes their belly, they don’t want it rubbed. They want the back of their head rubbed. It communicates that you are bypassing their vulnerable parts and stroking their head and sides of their face to mark them as being a part of your group. It is a very reassuring and confirming act.

So for about eight weeks, I have been careful to blink my eyes in this ridiculous and exaggerated manner when playing with the mad kitten and to rub her head whenever she throws herself down and exposes her belly.

This week…she suddenly blinked back at me. It was shockingly noticeable. It occurred on the same day she suddenly decided she neither had to hide from nor greet guests, but could stay asleep if she wanted. She also has become radically more playful and willing to play by herself when I am around. It is this subtle shift in our relationship together where it feels less like we have this close, emotional bond (my projection) and more like we are beginning to live in harmony as two very separate but dependent beings.

It lacks the…self-satisfactory feeling of believing the cat is hanging on my every mood and loving me unconditionally. It gives me pause to realize how I had been inadvertently behaving in a hostile way towards her, but it has revealed another depth to the concept of balance. If what is hard is presented, respond to what is yielding. If what is soft is given, support what is firm. In this way we create a space for all of the being to exist without a preferential state that demands they remain out of balance. When you give up your projections and desires for how you wish the world to be, you free yourself and everything else to breathe.

Green Dragon, White Tiger. When I teach people Chen Tai Chi, those directions make sense to them rather than “stepping to the left, or move your right arm” because everything is circular, everything flows and nothing ever remains the same.

But oh yes,
There is a constant in the middle,

But that is a door to an entirely separate (but harmonious) part of the universe itself.