This piece was written in Ithaca, in 2005, and is as accurate a phenomenological report of an actual mental response to real events as I am capable of. At the time I thought — and still do — that a very careful observation of your own thoughts as you react to sensory input is a very useful thing. Not quite meditation. Call it meditative observation. Stylistically, it is inspired by Camus.
From my window table on the second floor of the coffee shop, looking down at the Commons – the determinedly medieval, pedestrians-only town square of Ithaca – I saw the parrot arrive. It was large and a slightly dirty white. Its owner carefully set a chair on top of a table and the parrot hopped from his finger onto the back of the chair and perched there comfortably. I suppose the owner wanted to keep it out of the reach of any dogs. He gave it a quick second glance, and stepped inside a restaurant. The parrot ruffled its feathers a bit, looked around, preened a little (showing off some unexpected pink plumage on the back of its neck, hidden in the dirty white), and then settled down
The Ithaca Commons is a ring of shops and restaurants around an open courtyard, occupying the city block between Green and Seneca streets. The shops are an artfully arranged sequence of mildly unexpected experiences. Tacky used clothing and dollar stores sit next to upscale kitchen stores, craft shops, art galleries and expensive restaurants. The central promise of the Commons is that of the Spectacle. Street musicians, hippies meditatively kicking hackeysacks, the occasional juggler – they all make their appearance in the Commons. A visibly political Tibetan store and experiential restaurants such as the Moosewood and Just a Taste complete the tableau. The Commons is crafted for the American liberal, a cocoon that gently reinforces her self-image as a more evolved, aware, and thoughtful creature than her parochial suburban, beer-guzzling, football-fan cousin.
But in any world, the presence of a large, dirty-white parrot is a definite non sequitur. Wall Street, Hollywood, sell-out Suburbia (and Exurbia), Southern Baptist congregations and the liberal Ithaca Commons, are all equally at a loss to accommodate the parrot. The grab-bag of varied oppressed Others that mill about University towns, I suspect, would also be at a loss to handle the parrot. Those of us who claim to be governed by eclectic, deeply considered and original world views – and I count myself among these – are also forced to admit that for all our treasured iconoclasm, we cannot accommodate the parrot. We are therefore forced, out of sheer necessity, to look at it.
I am no deep observer of real life. When I work in public areas, it is for the steady supply of low-intensity human contact. The mass of unremarkable humanity does not register, except as a pleasant backdrop. Pretty girls, babies, dogs and notably ugly people do register, leaving a gentle and piquant trail of unexamined visual flavor. I am not a true people watcher.
I didn’t quite know what to do with a parrot though, so I was forced to look at it. It triggered no runaway train of thought, so for a while it was just me and the parrot, separated by a pane of glass, and about fifty yards. The impression of “parrot,” did not fade, get filtered away or get overwhelmed by free association. It lingered long enough that I began to watch. The parrot seemed happy. It sat there, awake, but not alert or wary. It looked straight ahead. Presumably it did not find the scene interesting enough to strain its neck.
I wonder how Hegel would have reacted to the parrot. Would it have triggered, through some improbable sequence of dominoes, a fresh insight concerning the Self and the Other? Would he have gazed inattentively at the parrot and chased gleefully after some new thought (“bird… freedom …”)? Would it be just another little nudge powering the inexorable progress of his snowballing philosophy of everything? Would it occur to him that whatever lofty abstractions it triggered, the parrot qua parrot would not make an appearance in the edifice he was building? Sadly, I must suspect that the thought would not have occurred to him.
To be fair, I must also suspect that the existentialists would have done no better, despite their protestations to the contrary. I must conclude that Camus would have looked at the parrot and instantly exulted, “There it is, the Absurd manifest!” The parrot would again have been lost, subsumed here by the Absurd. As far as the parrot is concerned, Camus and Hegel differ little.
The parrot, without its owner, was sitting there, qua parrot, indifferent to its impact on passersby. Most people looked at it. Some did a double take. One man stopped, turned to face it squarely and stared at it for a minute, as if waiting for it to acquire some significance. A decrepit old man in a wheelchair rolled by, glancing at it with a painfully slow motion, before letting his head sink again to his chest, weighed down, I suppose, by illness and unseen burdens. A black mother, pushing a stroller, walked by, glancing at the parrot without interest. I wonder why black registered.
A pretty girl in faded red pants stepped out of a shop, talking on a cell phone. She took in the parrot in the absent-mindedly, absorbed several network hops away. She exited my field of vision, stage right, but returned a few minutes later. This time she stopped and genuinely stared at the parrot before heading back into a shop.
A hippie, dread-locked and tie-dyed, stopped and grinned delightedly at it. There was no discernible transition from “see” to “grin,” and something about that bothered me. There was something scripted about the response; her engagement of the parrot was not authentic.
You know you have are a slave to the life of the mind if a phrase like “her engagement of the parrot was not authentic” crosses your mind quite naturally, and it takes you more than a minute to laugh.
But consider what it means if your response to the parrot is measured, seemingly scripted, or otherwise deliberate in any way. A mind with ‘parrot’ on it should not look like anything recognizable. A frown might mean you are trying to rapidly assimilate the parrot – but in that case, the process of assimilation, rather than the parrot itself, must be occupying your mind. You cannot, at the same time, think “parrot” and engage in the task of wrapping up the parrot in a bundle of associations and channeling it to the right areas of long-term memory. The hippie’s grin is equally symptomatic of a non-parrot awareness. The hippie is probably self-indulgently enjoying a validated feeling of “one must be one with nature” or something along those lines.
So an authentic engagement of the parrot must have an element of the unscripted in it. It can neither be deliberative, nor reactive. Furious and active thinking will not do. Nor the “Awww!” you might direct at a puppy. A puppy is a punch you can roll with.
Two moms with three babies wandered onto the scene. It being a nice day, the babies were visible, one squirming in the arms of its mother and the others poking their snouts out of the stroller. The mom carrying the baby stopped immediately upon spotting the parrot and approached it (she was the first to do so). As is the wont of moms, she immediately began trying to direct her infant’s attention to the parrot, shoving its face within a foot of the parrot. Mothers are too engaged in scripting the experiences of their babies to experience anything other than the baby themselves. The parrot obliged with a display of orange (I suspect it was stretching, disturbed from its contemplative reverie). The baby, however, seemed entirely uninterested in the parrot. Perhaps the parrot was unclear to its myopic eyes, or perhaps it was simply no more worthy of note than any of other exciting blobs of visual experience all around. At any rate, the mom stopped trying after a few moments, and the five of them rolled on.
The pretty girl in faded red pants was back. This time, she had two waitress friends along, and took a picture of the parrot with her cell phone. The three girls (the other two were rather dumpy looking, but I suppose it was the aprons) chattered for a bit and then stared at the parrot some more. Two more pretty girls walked past, and though the parrot clearly registered, walked past without a perceptible turning of their heads. Something about that worried me. They were of the indistinguishable dressed-in-season species of young college girl that swarm all over American university towns. These could have been either Ithaca College or Cornell; I can’t tell them apart. Two more of the breed walked by, again with the same non-reaction.
A black-guy-white-girl couple walked by. The girl turned to look at the bird as they walked past, while the guy looked at it very briefly. Shortly after, an absorbed black teenager walked by. She looked at it as she walked past, with no change in her expression. The parrot was clearly on Track Two. Track One continued thinking about whatever it was she was thinking about. I suppose ‘parrot’ might have consciously registered with her a few minutes later, but she did not walk by again. Something about black responses to the parrot was sticking in my mind. The owner came back out of the store, carrying a cup of coffee.
Now, a parrot is not an arresting sort of bird. It does not have the ostentation of the peacock, the imposing presence of the ostrich or the latent lethality of a falcon or hawk. Even in context, at a zoo, a typical white parrot is not remarkable in the company of its more gaudy relatives. Any of these more dramatic creatures would, I suppose, instantly draw a big gawking crowd, perhaps even calls to the police. Undivided attention, active curiosity and action would certainly be merited (“try to feed him some of your bagel”).
The parrot though, had neither the domesticated presence of a dog, nor the demanding presence of a truly unexpected creature. A dog elicits smiles, pats or studied avoidance, while an ostrich would certainly call for a cascade of conversation into activity, culminating in the arrival of a legitimate authority (though, I suppose, most communities would be hard pressed to generate a legitimate response to an ostrich. Cornell though, is an agricultural university, so I suppose eventually one of the many animal experts would arrive on the scene).
So a dog elicits a conventional ripple of cognitive activity as it progresses through the town square, soon displaced by other preoccupations. An ostrich presumably triggers a flurry deliberation, followed by actual activity. So what does the parrot cause, living as it does in the twilight zone between conventionally expected and actionably unexpected? You cannot have the comfort of either action or practiced thoughts, with a parrot in your field of view. Yet, the parrot is not a threat, so you clearly cannot panic or be overwhelmed. The parrot, I think lives in the realm of pure contemplation. The parrot is rare in adult life. For the child, everything is a parrot.
The return of the owner annoyed me briefly. With his return, the non sequitur instantly became an instance of the signature of the Commons: a spectacle. The owner was clearly used to handling his parrot. He had it hop on his hand again and swung it up and down. The parrot spread its wings and did various interesting things with its feathers which I do not have the vocabulary to describe. With the owner, the context of a small bubble-zoo had arrived. The owner chatted with the girl in faded red pants, who had come out again. Fewer adults stared. The ensemble was now clearly within the realm of the expected. Most people walked on without a glance, while some, emboldened by the new legitimacy of the situation, stopped and watched with interest. The owner tired of active display and set the parrot back on its perch, and turned his attention to the girl.
For a minute, I was sorry, but then a girl, about six years old, walked by with her mother. It was a classic little girl, in orange pants and ice cream cone. She stopped and stared at the bird very carefully. It was not a curious probing look, or the purposeful look that kids sometimes get when they are looking about for a way to play with a new object. This little girl did not look like she would be going home and looking up parrots on the Discovery channel website. She did not look like she was gathering up courage to pet it or imagining it in the role of a chase-able dog or cat. She was just looking at it. Clearly her powers of abstraction had yet to mature to the point where she could see the bubble circus.
A pair of middle-aged women stopped by the parrot. After an initial look at the parrot, they turned and started chatting with the owner. I expect the conversation began, “Does he talk?” or “Doesn’t he fly away?” Shortly after, I saw them wander off a little to the side, where there was a fountain. One woman took a picture of the other, standing next to the fountain, with a disposable camera. Local resident showing visiting Cousin Amy the town, I guessed. All is legitimate on a vacation, including a parrot.
I don’t think children are necessarily curious when presented with a new experience. The little girl presented a clearer display of authentic engagement of the parrot than all the adults. It was what I have been describing all along as a stare. But stare doesn’t quite cover it. “Stare” does not have the implicit cognitive content of the hippy’s “grin.” Happy, bemused, smiling, frowning, eager curiosity – these are visible manifestations of minds occupied by the workings of deliberative or reactive responses to the parrot. Parrot flits too quickly the face to be noticed, and is replaced by more normal cognitions.
So, here is a question: what is the expression on the face of a person who has authentically engaged a parrot? I must propose, in all seriousness, the ridiculous answer, “it looks like the face of a person who has seen a parrot.”
The people talking to the owner had left. He now sat reading a book, while the parrot ate seeds of some sort off the table. Three teenage skateboarders wandered to a spot about a dozen yards away. One of them nudged the others and pointed to the parrot. They looked at it in appreciation. It wasn’t quite clear what they were appreciating, but they clearly approved of the parrot. That made me happy.
Now, a large brood of little black children came by, herded by two young women who might have been nannies, I suppose. The black kids all stopped and stared intently at the parrot. The nannies chatted with the owner, who looked on approvingly at the children while he talked. The conversation looked left-brained from fifty feet away. Some tentative petting ensued. As the nannies led the children away, after allowing them a decent amount of time to engage the parrot, one little boy had to be dragged away; he managed to turn his head full circle, Exorcist style, to look at the bird.
Now, five young black men, perhaps eighteen to twenty, walked by. Theirs was clearly a presence to rival that of the parrot-owner duo as a spectacle. Their carefully layered oversized sports clothes and reversed baseball hats demanded attention. I suppose spectacles, be they man-parrots or a group of swaggering young black men, do not supply attention, but demand it. But you cannot really compete with a parrot. The parrot is entirely unaware that it is competing. The black group almost rolled past, but suddenly one of them stopped and turned around to look at the parrot. He looked like he’d suddenly reconsidered the studied indifference that I suppose was his response to competing spectacles. A visible recalibration of response played across his face, and suddenly, he was authentically engaging the parrot in a demanding, direct way. The other stopped and looked to. The first man then pulled out his cell phone, still staring at the parrot, and took a picture. He then briefly interrogated the owner about the parrot, and the group rolled on.
I wonder now, why are black responses to the parrot more noteworthy than generic white responses? And while I mull that, why have the responses of one other group – pretty young girls – stuck in my mind (besides the fact that I notice them more)?
Now, for an authentic engagement of the parrot, there must be parrot on your mind. Your face must look like the face of a person who has seen a parrot. This is not an ambiguous face, or a face marked visibly by the presence of other thoughts or a subtext. A parrot-mind may wrestle briefly with cell phone mind or preoccupied-with-race-and-oppression mind, but the outcome is all or nothing. There is no useful way a constantly active subtext of race can inform your engagement of a parrot.
I suppose I was looking for evidence that there is room in the black mind for at least a small period of unambiguous engagement with the parrot. If your preoccupation with race and injustice occupies you so completely that even the parrot cannot dislodge it, then it must be a sad life. In a very real sense, your mind is not free, and therefore neither are you, if there is not even temporary room for the parrot. The parrot can only occupy a free mind. To my list of profundities, I will add the following: a free mind is one which the parrot can occupy easily, and stay in as long as it chooses.
Now, the little black children engaged the parrot as completely as the little white girl. So if the little kids are born free and demonstrably remain free until at least age six, as demonstrated by the parrot, why and when do they choose to give away their freedom to a pre-occupation with the subtext of race, which makes those happy six-year-old faces sad? Or is it that the mist of preoccupation descends on them, whether they want it or not?
I suppose enough actual watching eventually teaches you to observe better. It suddenly occurred to me that the neck-language of parrot-engagement said a lot.
The clearest response is the snap, or double-take. It signals computation. A slight glance on the other hand, no different from the casual scanning of everyday scenery, with no special attention, must mean filtering. I refuse to believe that everybody has a nontrivial scripted response to parrot, so it must mean that the scripted response simply treats the parrot as noise to be filtered. In the casual glance, there is no parrot on the mind.
Now, a more complex response, one signalled by a snap, is one where there is a perceptible pause or break in stride, followed by a turning away. That is a response that is looking for an explanation. The sort of response that might be hooked by a lone parrot, but would ignore the contextually appropriate owned parrot. Most of the time, when we look for an explanation, we can only see an explanation. Sometimes, when the mind hiccups on the path to the explanation, we see the parrot.
Viktor Frankl said, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Self-improvement gurus like to use that quote to preach, but to me, it seems that this space is primarily interesting because the parrot can live there for a bit, so your mind can be parrot for a bit.
You might hesitate and never visit that space. You might react so fast you leave the space before it registers on your awareness. Or you might dwell there awhile.