Death, Dining & SexThursday, November 25, 2010
He told me a story one day that has stayed with me since and is part of the inspiration for today’s blog post. The Colonel (as I called him) was on patrol with some Montagnards when in a small clearing in the jungle they had to stop because of an arresting sight. Under a tree there was a man on top of a woman (she was on her knees and elbows, he in dog position). He was doing what men will often do, while the woman was coolly munching on an apple.
What amazed the Colonel more than anything was, “Alex apples are not the usual staples in the Laotian highlands.”
In 1976 my wife and two daughters were living in a townhouse on Springer Avenue in Burnaby. What was pleasant about the place (Rosemary hated it because we had no garden) was the fact that there were many children and there was a safe and common play area that was far from any car traffic. Ale and Hilary had friends. In the afternoon they might disappear but they often would return to tell us, “Moira ( a friend of my oldest, Ale) is having dinner so they sent us home.” I thought this odd and whenever my daughter’s friends were playing in our home and when it was near supper we always invited them to stay. I found this custom odd and just as odd as a frequent invitation for after-dinner-drinks. Since I was still not a Canadian citizen I liked to make fun of Rosemary’s Canadian cohorts. To be fair, Rosemary who hails from New Dublin, Ontario found the after-dinner-drink invitations odd, too.
Since those dinner incidents in Burnaby I have made it a habit to watch Vancouverites eat and I always get the impression (a feeling?) that I am looking into a very private moment as they chomp on their Big Mac.
This thing about dinner is further reinforced when you bring into the equation the phone call. More often than not, my caller will start with, “I am not calling at a bad time, am I? You are not yet eating, are you?” A few times I have answered, “No, I am not eating but I happen to be having sex with my wife.” The silence on the other side of the conversation is often deafening.
I have a friend (an ex friend in fact) who repeatedly would say to me, when I would call for a phone chat, that they were about to have supper. I noticed (I can be dense) that I would call at 3, 4, 5, 6,7,8 and it was always suppertime. I got the message and never called again.
I would seem then (and this must be obvious to all) that eating and having sex are two very private human activities.
When I told my friend Ian Bateson earlier today while having lunch on Robson he objected. “Alex what is really private is to defecate.” Having surprised once a female associate editor at Vancouver Magazine sitting on that place where the king is always alone, I agreed but explained that eating and defecating where quite similar.
But I thought of that one time (one that embarrasses me every time I think about it) sometime around 1973 when I was driving in the always bumper to bumper freeway called the Periférico in Mexico City to my job as a Spanish teacher at the Universidad Iberoamericana. I was concentrating on picking my nose when the car that was slowly but never quite overtaking me on one side honked and there were two men in the front. Both were making like they were picking their nose and then pointing at me and laughing. For miles and miles traffic was the same and these guy were there laughing at me, and I could not get away.
Besides sex and eating there is one more activity that is most private. Some years ago I was driving on a back alley between Manitoba and Quebec (near 1st Avenue). As I approached the busy intersection with Quebec I saw something that made me stop. A gull was thrashing its wings by a wall. I may have been hit by a car or was simply dying of disease or old age. I watch fascinated as it moved its wings and it opened its beak. It was so sad and I felt the loneliness of the bird.
In our Buenos Aires garden in the late 40s I often found little birds that had fallen from their nests. I did not know better so I would pick them up and put them in a little box with some rags and I would attempt to feed the birds milk with a medicine dropper. Invariably the little birds died but not before they would open and close their beaks and flutter their little wings.
As soon as I was old enough (8) to make a slingshot from a bicycle tire inner tube I killed my first bird after repeated attempts. The bird was not quite dead and I felt very sorry for what I had done. I buried it with ceremony and vowed never to kill a creature again.
It was when I was a little older that I went to Corrientes (a province in North Eastern Argentina) with my mother, cousin Wenceslao and my Uncle Tony. We stayed at a large estancia that was the property of Uncle Tony’s wife’s aunt. Uncle Tony would take us to the semi-jungle that was populated by hundreds and hundreds of beautiful green parrots. Uncle Tony said they were a plague and with his .22 rifle he would shoot hundreds of them in my presence. Somehow I was not too affected. My doubts at his cruelty began a few years later.
A year later my parents sent me to a summer camp in the Province of La Pampa. We rode horses and galloped after the South American rhea that we called an avestruz and the gauchos a ñandú. The son of the owner of the estancia was young and we all worshiped him. He would take us into the Pampa and with his .22 pistol he would shoot three or four birds (his choice of bird was indiscriminate, perhaps random). He taught us how to remove their feathers and clean their insided. He would then put the birds in a pot and cook them with some polenta. He called his stew, polenta de pajarito (or little bird polenta). I don’t recall any negative ideas on this except that I remember most distinctly that owl meat is tough.
In and around 1989 when we were sort of established in our new home on Athlone Street both Rosemary and I were still amateur gardeners. I was furious to see squirrels eating the bulbs that Rosemary had planted. I went to Three Vets and purchased an air pistol modeled to look like a .357 magnum. The gun came with a short barrel and a long one.
I would then open the kitchen door overlooking the back garden and squirrels would scurry to safety much in the same way as turning on the lights at night in a kitchen in Veracruz where the surrogate squirrels are cockroaches.
I felt that if I took potshots at the squirrels without my glasses I was giving the varmints a sporting chance. But inevitably I did hit one. It leaped into the air when I hit it and plummeted to the ground. I went to where it was and, birdlike it was opening and closing its mouth. I felt sad and ashamed. I buried the little animal with ceremony after the coup de grâce in the head.
When Hilary, my youngest daughter found about my squirrel assassination she told me that if I did it again she would report me to the SPCA.
Yesterday while writing on this monitor I hear a loud thump on the big window that is behind the monitor and overlooks the garden. Was somebody throwing a snow ball? I looked and found a little bird on the overhand. It was still moving. It was so sad and yes so private. Somehow I was intruding as I could not help it in any way (no gun for the coup de grâce as someone broke in to the house years ago and stole my gun). This morning the bird was gone. I wonder if by some miracle it survived the collision.
I wonder if when we eat and when we have sex, if those acts are so private and in many ways similar to death itself.
The funny thing is that I miss when Rosemary’s mother was alive and Rosemary would go back east to visit. I would cook a big steak (no potatoes, no greens, just the steak) and read at the table (what a luxury!) while going at the steak with gusto. And when the steak was gone, I would raise the plate to my mouth and lick all the good stuff. Some things are better done alone.
I have watched my mother die. I buried my father with money that a policeman found in his pocket. I have watched many different animals die. But, what is it about birds that is so especially sad?