Below the Beltway

Bad parroting skills: Gene confronts a beast ... and his mortality

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, August 15, 2010

If you love animals, as I do, then you know that the joy of having pets is tempered only by the sad knowledge that you will someday have to grieve for them. That's bad, but as I recently realized, there's something worse.

I came to this conclusion when I suddenly realized that Olive, Pickles and Pancho, my three new housemates who, combined, weigh about as much as a cantaloupe, are going to outlive me. Olive and Pickles have leathery, wrinkled skin and move with all the speed and grace of a United States postal clerk going to fetch a package from the back room. But these facts are deceptive. Olive and Pickles are only 5 years old. They are turtles. In size, shape and intellect, they resemble rocks. They will probably waddle through another 35 years; actuarial science confirms that I, most likely, will not.

And though he is already 23, Pancho the parrot is -- forgive the mixed metaphor -- still a spring chicken. He may outlive my children.

Now, there are two ways a person can process such a slap-to-the-forehead revelation. He can warmly embrace it, taking comfort in being part of the beauty of nature's infinite cycles of life and love. Or he can be me, and surrender to leprous self-pity.

I feel old. I feel older than the pope's grandpa. I feel older than someone named "Ebenezer." I feel older than the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, whose job description is to be old. I feel older than Abe Vigoda looks. I feel older than Eugénie Blanchard, 114, the oldest person in the world until she dies, at which point I will feel older than Eunice Sanborn, who is five months younger than Blanchard and next in line.

I tried to take solace from the wonderful innocence of the pets themselves. That's when Pancho bit me.

He's been biting me, or trying to bite me, ever since he arrived a few days ago. Pancho was given to me by Vincent, a reader who knew I have an affection for parrots, and who informed me that since he got a new job, he could no longer care for his bird as well as he would like.

Vincent arrived at my house with the bird and a big box of toys and a huge, expensive cage, all of which he gave me for free. In retrospect, this fact probably should have raised a red flag; also, the fact that after Vincent set up Pancho in my dining room, he beatit out of the house really fast, like an arsonist who has just lit the fuse.

Vincent warned me that Pancho likes men better than women. While this may be true, it turns out to be like trying to make a meaningful distinction between Hitler's relative affection for Jews or Gypsies.

I don't want to suggest that having Pancho around is just about cowering in terror of his razor-sharp beak. It also is about trying to live with his deafening shriek, which sounds like what you might hear in a delivery room if a woman were giving birth to a rocking chair. Pancho shrieks like this whenever he is angry, which happens with some frequency, such as every time I dare to leave the room.

Pancho is here on a tryout basis, and he appears to be doing his best to get back to Vincent, which would be a shame. Because I now realize there's a silver lining to Pancho's longevity. Sure, he's going to outlive me, but that would give me a certain power over my children, a reason for them to be nice to me in my old age. I write the will; I decide to which kid I flip the bird.

E-mail Gene at

© 2010 The Washington Post Company