Is it suicidal to wish you were suicidal?

I’ve been feeling a lot of that lately: not wanting to die, exactly, but kind of wanting to want to die. It’s the feeling that everything about being alive is getting nearer and nearer to unbearable, and if I were suicidal I would have a way out, but I’m still too scared of death to think of it as a real option.

I’ve heard an analogy that suicide after a grueling struggle against depression is like jumping out the twentieth-floor window of a burning building. If so, the way I feel now is like being in a burning building but not being able to jump out.

And yet I’m one of the luckiest people in this country. I’m white. I’m married to someone of a different sex. I have a job that pays enough to live on and provides health insurance, and, for the moment, I’m healthy enough that I could probably survive a long time without much medical help.

And yet I’m scared. The way the country is going right now is going to affect all of us, eventually, even the most privileged.

I have very bad anxiety at the best of times. My mind is horribly drawn to thoughts about apocalyptic disasters, and this election… has not helped. Even if the new president manages not to start a nuclear war, we are entering a time of severe climate change, no matter what we do. (And, the way things are going, we’ll probably end up doing the worst stuff we can.)

Eventually the only way to be safe will be to live far north and inland, in a home built to be exceptionally resistant to extreme storms. Probably an underground bunker, or at least a hobbit-hole. Monolithic domes would be a good place to start.

If the world had any sense, we would already be busy with the project of creating climate-change-resistant homes for everyone, since we were past the point of no return on global warming a long time ago. But no, half the country is denying there’s even a problem, and the other half is still trying to stop what can’t be stopped and ignoring the need to deal with its results. There aren’t even any houses on the market that won’t leak when it rains, let alone ones that’ll keep you alive in a tornado or hurricane or weather too hot to survive above ground. So the only way to safety is to build your own.

And I can’t afford that. Most people can’t. And with the government stuffed full of Republicans, that isn’t going to change– the standard GOP plan is the worst kind of wealth redistribution, upward, from everyone who isn’t a millionaire into the pockets of everyone who already is.

A few other things that are messing up my life right now:

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This is my left leg. The bruises are from blood clots in the surface veins. It’s getting better. A while ago, practically any leg movement hurt.

I don’t know if this happened because my pharmacy job requires standing on my feet for 8 hours a day with only one break, but it sure made that job harder once this started. It started twice, first in my calf, then that got better and then it came back in my thigh. I used up all my time off when it was in my calf. I had to work when it was in my thigh. I hope it doesn’t come back a third time before the year ends.

The blood clots aren’t the dangerous kind that can break off and go to the lungs or heart or brain. Those are the ones in deep veins. I know these aren’t that kind, because I got an ultrasound. I got the bill for it a few days ago. It’s over $800 and my insurance barely covered anything. I have to call the insurance company to ask why, but I know that call would take longer than a lunch break, so I can’t call them until I have a weekday off, which is 10 days from now.

If I get pain in my leg again, I probably won’t get another ultrasound. I hope that time it won’t be the deep vein kind of clot. I don’t think it will be, but you never know.

I’m lucky I have a job that has insurance. If I lose the job and there’s no Affordable Care Act, if I can be denied insurance for preexisting conditions, or if all the available insurance is too expensive for someone without a freaking job, a bad blood clot could kill me.

I don’t know if the Affordable Care Act is actually going to be gutted or destroyed. It’s possible that Trump’s actions as president aren’t going to be quite as awful as the persona he projected while campaigning. But I know that Congress is full of Republicans who want to destroy the ACA, and between them, Trump, and Pence, I can’t imagine anything good happening for people who need health care.

I have a coworker who hates universal health care because of how much it costs taxpayers. I said taxes are better than people dying. She said “People never die from not having insurance– the doctor HAS to treat you.”

I didn’t argue because I didn’t have the energy. But of course hospitals can turn you away for not having insurance, my dear coworker, as long as you’re not dying right this minute. And for godsakes, you work in a freaking pharmacy; you know perfectly well that the way the doctor treats you is prescribing medicine, and the way you get the medicine is going to the pharmacy, and remember what happens to people who come to the pharmacy without insurance or money? They don’t get their medicine, even if it’s blood thinners to keep their clots from killing them.

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This is my bird, Sirius the Starling. He talks and sings and I trained him to play a little toy piano. He takes the most enthusiastic baths and then cuddles against my neck for hours. He is the smartest and sweetest bird you ever met and he loves me so much that he saves me from reading the comments on news articles by landing on my hand and pecking at my scrolling finger. He sometimes sleeps on my arm so long that he leaves little footprints.

If we have to move to another country we might not be able to bring him. Keeping starlings as pets is legal where we live, but their status as an invasive species makes things complicated when it comes to moving.

He started self-harming lately. Scratching at his face until the skin was bare, and then scratching until it bled. Scratch the wrong feather and it can bleed an awful lot. We improvised a cone for his neck. He would get his lower beak stuck in the neck hole trying to pry his way out. I would leave him home alone because I had to go to work, and I’d be on the edge of a panic attack all day. Even worse than the thought of coming home to find him dead was the thought of coming home to find him so badly injured that I’d know he wouldn’t survive, and then having to decide what to do.

He’s getting better now, but for a while we thought we couldn’t handle it. If his problem comes back I don’t know what we’ll do. We can’t stay home all day. It’s hard enough to find people who know how to care for a pet starling, let alone people who would adopt one who has to be watched every moment.

But being able to have a pet at all is a privilege. And I’m still one of the most privileged people in this nation. Some people might not even get to keep their children in the next four years, if all the gay marriages are annulled. As much as I panic about the stresses of my life, I have to keep reminding myself that others have it far worse.

I’m also lucky enough that I’ve been able to build a 401k. It has quite a bit of money in it. Not enough to cash out and build a house or move to Canada, but a good start for eventual retirement.

My pharmacy was recently bought by another company. And now we each have to go through the process of rolling over our 401ks from the old company to the new one. For months, we weren’t even able to access our 401k to add money or even see how much was in it. Now they have finally sent us a form for the rollover.

The form requires us to write in the account number and the amount of money in the account. We have no way to get those things, so I called the number on the form that says “call if you have any questions.” I called and got an answering machine and left a message. It’s been several days and I have not heard back.

I have less than 60 days to figure this out. I don’t know what happens if I don’t, but I think they would automatically send me a check for the amount of my 401k, minus an enormous amount in taxes. I don’t want that to happen.
But no matter what happens, I’m going to lose a lot of the money anyway, because the economy is going to see some hard times.

So, I’m frustrated, to the point that it physically hurts. I’m scared, to the point that I’ve had hyperventilating anxiety attacks at work. I have wished that I wished I were dead. And I’m not anywhere near being the worst off in this country.

Don’t say everything’s going to be okay. Everyone is going to feel the effects of this.

Dreams for the future

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starly11h

Here is one of my current fantasies, which I’m writing down mostly so I’ll be able to remember every detail of it years from now, if the time ever actually comes when I can put it into action.

Basically, John is hoping that someday he can get a comfortably-paying job that lets him work from home, and in the fields he’s studying, that’s somewhat a possibility. And we may soon be in a position to put a lot of money in savings (if we can sell the condo before another dismal housing market crash happens…) Anyway, we have a dream about what we’ll do if we, somehow, manage to become totally financially stable.

It involves buying a piece of not-very-developed land, not too far outside a city somewhere, and setting it up with wind and solar power, and a fair chunk of space to grow our own food… living somewhat off the grid.

And we would make part of it into some sort of attraction for local people. We got the idea from this awesome hobby-farm/petting-zoo/mini-golf-course near Minneapolis:

http://bigstoneminigolf.com/ (warning: horrendous flash site, with embedded music and everything. But great place to go in person.)

John and I have somewhat different dreams after that point. John wants to have a horse. I’m fine with pretty much anything as long as we can have wind and solar power AND a Monolithic Dome Home. I am praying that Monolithic is still in business by the time we can afford one, because these ultra-energy-efficient, ultra-long-lasting, friggin-tornado-proof miracles are an absolute object of worship for me.

http://www.monolithic.org/

Anyway, the following is what I fantasized about today. I thought of it because of our amazing pet, Sirius the Starling:

http://www.erikahammerschmidt.com/2014/06/15/a-year-of-sirius-marley-black-starlings-in-review/

…and how, even though he is a totally ordinary bird by ecological standards, one of the most common, overpopulated pest species on our continent, visitors to our home STILL act as if they are witnessing some amazing zoological wonder whenever they get to see him and hold him.

Granted, he IS pretty awesome. He can sing. And talk.

And play the piano.

So the feeling is somewhat justified.

But anyway, I was thinking about how even a common bird, or other small animal, can be a kind of wondrous and fascinating thing, to people who aren’t used to seeing any animal besides a dog or cat up close.

And I got the idea for the Bird Garden.

I want to have two Monolithic Domes.

One, we will live in.

The other will be a shelter for “pest birds,” the invasive bird species that aren’t protected by law, that most states allow people to kill, capture, and keep as pets, but that wildlife shelters often won’t take.

Common starlings. House sparrows. Rock pigeons. If you find one orphaned or injured, bring it to us. If you must have a nest of them removed from your property, give us the babies instead of destroying them.

We won’t breed them or release them. (We couldn’t, anyway. Most birds raised by humans consider themselves humans, and don’t even want to fly away and live as birds, or mate with their own kind.) They will live out their lives in the Bird Dome, an educational and entertaining attraction.

It will have a tiled floor, several big windows (with shutters in case of bad storms) and plant-friendly electric lighting as well. It will be FULL of potted plants. Everything from flowers and vegetables to trees, as long as they’re bird-safe. And statues and sculptures and fountains. It will be like an enchanted fairyland.

Except the fairies will be birds.

There will be plenty of hiding places for them in case they want to be alone, but if they want company (probably human company, since they’ll be mostly human-raised and human-imprinted) I will spend virtually all my time in there. If I can’t, I will hire people to spend time with them when I can’t be there.

And whoever is there looking after them, will also get to be a tour guide. People from the city who want the experience of being surrounded by tame birds, they can come visit any time, for a tiny entry fee and hand-stamp that lets them stay all day.

They can buy baskets of food to let the birds eat out of their hands. They can peruse my gift shop where I’ll sell all the random crafts I make, as well as any bird-related stuff I can think of. They leave with warm feelings in their hearts, and lots of newly-learned facts about birds that I will have shoved into their heads.

And maybe we’ll have other animals living in the Bird Garden as well… rats? guinea pigs? lizards? Anything that’s fairly easy to care for, fairly friendly, and not very capable of harming a human. I’d have to figure it out. (The Big Stone petting-zoo/mini-golf-course has goats and horses and stuff, and I wonder how they do it without too many instances of customers getting bitten or kicked and suing them. I’m gonna inundate them with emails of praise and advice-seeking, if I can brave their awful website.)

So, that’s my fantasy. I know it will cost money and might never make money, and it would be lots of work, and there would be legal things as well as logistical things I’d have to figure out. But, for the moment, I’m finding it incredibly fun to dream about.

Review of Arbico Organics

So, from time to time I review things on this site. Sometimes books, sometimes programs. Today, it’s bugs.

Full disclosure this time does not require saying that the producer of the bugs has promised me anything in exchange for this review, because it hasn’t. I chose to write this on my own, because this company can always use more business, and I like it so much that I really, really want it to stick around.

The website Arbico Organics came to my attention when I was searching online for treats for my pet starling, Sirius. For those who aren’t already aware, a starling is a mostly insectivorous bird in the wild. As pets, they can live quite well on a diet of dog food and poultry mash, but Siri’s favorite treats included dried mealworms and crickets from the pet store.

However, these posed a few problems. He liked to eat a LOT of them, especially when I was training him to do tricks like playing the piano. And despite being insects, dried crickets and mealworms are not actually healthy snacks for a bird. They are mostly fat and indigestible chitin. Eating a whole lot of them is very unhealthy.

In addition, a 1.7-ounce jar of them at the pet store was in the $8- $10 range, usually the upper end of that range. At the rate he went through them, they were simply not worth the cost.

So I went looking for a healthier and cheaper starling snack. I focused on professional suppliers instead of trying to catch my own bugs to feed him, because wild bugs can carry various pesticides and parasites, and besides, I didn’t have the time to go catching that many.

Eventually, I found Arbico Organics’ Fly Delight.

This was a bag of dried, dead houseflies. And it seemed to be my wish come true. On their feeder insect page, Arbico Organics claimed that their pet treats “provide a natural varied diet that is easily digestible, and will not cause problems associated with chitinous, exoskeletal materials.” They carried no crickets or mealworms, but lots of flies, which have a thinner and softer exoskeleton. And they appeared to be raised in a pretty safe environment, unlikely to be infected with any diseases. Looked like a healthy snack to me.

The Fly Delight cost $6.50 for 0.20 ounces… more money per ounce than the mealworms or crickets I’d been buying. But in bulk, it was different. A 1-pound bag was $34, plus enough shipping to add up to $45.97. If I were to buy enough pet-store jars of crickets or mealworms to make up a pound, that would be nine or ten jars at over $8 apiece, for a total well over $70, and probably in the $80 to $90 range if I weren’t lowballing the prices. The Fly Delight was not only healthier, but close to half the price if I bought enough at once.

So I did, and when it arrived, I was impressed at the size of the bag. I’d had no idea that a pound of dead flies took up so much space! By volume, I was getting quite a lot for my money. This was going to last me a very, very long time.

I was also surprised that the text on the bag recommended refrigerating them. I wasn’t sure why; dried flies would probably be fine on the shelf, as long as it wasn’t too hot or humid. But just to be safe, I put them in a big container and stuck it in the back of the fridge, saving a handful of them in a small jar to keep close at hand.

Sirius loves them! In fact, at first he loved them so much that he wouldn’t even do tricks while I was holding them, because he couldn’t tear himself away from standing right next to them and staring directly at them! Eventually, he got used to them enough that I could use them as training treats, but he still counts them among his favorite things ever. As a starling snack, they are an absolute success.

While researching Arbico Organics, I found out that most of its business is not related to pet treats, but rather live bugs used in biological warfare against garden pests! They sell ladybugs, lacewings, nematodes, and lots of other beneficial organisms that eat things you don’t want to have on your plants.

This was of interest to me, because my windowsill garden was suffering from a bad spider-mite infestation. I could hardly get any beans out of my bean vines before the spider mites ate them alive, and my tomato plants would barely live to maturity at all. I had tried cleaning the leaves with a spray bottle of water, and another spray bottle with some soap and rosemary oil, but it was having limited success, and with Siri’s delicate avian respiratory system I didn’t want to spray harsher chemicals indoors.

I was quite interested in the Neoseiulus Californicus mites, which not only eat spider mites, but can survive during shortages of spider mites by eating other small arthropods and even pollen. They cost more than other spider-mite predators, but they seemed worth it because they wouldn’t immediately starve to death after they ate most of the spider mites, so they could potentially keep the scourge under control for a very long time.

Still, I was hesitant to spend $82.06, including the required overnight shipping for live organisms, when we were not in the greatest financial situation.

I bemoaned the whole thing to Sibre Collard, who surprised me with a wonderful offer. He hadn’t been sure what to get me for my birthday or Christmas, and seeing that it was about halfway between the two, he offered to buy them for me as a combined two-occasion gift.

You know someone is an amazing friend when he can grasp the weird fact that I would consider 1,000 live bugs to be a really good present.

1,000 was the smallest quantity they came in, and the site said “Use 1,000 per 4,500 sq. ft. of infested area,” so it was ridiculous overkill for a small garden like mine. I really should have shared them with other gardeners. But, alas, they had to be released within 18 hours of arrival, and I didn’t know anyone else who needed spider-mite predators and could pick them up within that time frame.

They arrived in a tiny jar inside a box mostly full of packing foam and cold-packs. The jar contained some grainy material like ground-up corncobs, but the mites seemed to be mostly crawling on the inside of the jar and its lid. They were barely visible to the naked eye, a lot smaller than my spider mites. I wondered if they’d actually be able to kill them, but the website said they preyed mostly on the larvae and eggs, so I figured it could work.

I sprinkled the grainy stuff in various spots on leaves and soil throughout my window garden, and set the jar and lid next to a plant in hopes that the mites would crawl off the jar into the right places. I pulled up all the plants that were too badly mite-eaten, but I left enough spider-mite-infested areas to make sure the new mites would be able to find food quickly and keep their population going.

After a few days, I didn’t see any more of them in or around the jar, so I guessed they were finding their way into the places where the spider mites were living. I couldn’t really see them on any of the leaves, but I knew they were hard to see, so I just waited and hoped they were doing their job.

Four weeks later, I’m very impressed! My garden’s growing well. The new bean vines I planted to replace the mite-eaten ones are flourishing without a single visible mite on them– the first time in months that I’ve been able to grow bean plants this far without them getting spider-mite-infested! I see an occasional spider mite on leaves of the tomato plants, but they’re not numerous enough to impede the plants’ growth. These mite predators really do their job!

I don’t know yet how long this will last. Maybe these lovely new mites will die of overpopulation in my little garden; maybe they’ll eat everything they can eat and run out of food. Maybe the humidity and temperature aren’t ideal for them and they’ll die from that. Who knows. If none of them survive, then maybe someday my spider-mite problem will come back. But still, I have plenty of hope.

So, all in all, I highly recommend Arbico Organics! The refrigeration requirement on the Fly Delight was a surprise that I wish they’d mentioned on the site, but that’s a small issue. I wish they sold the mite predators in a wider variety of quantities, but the 1,000-count jar certainly did the trick, and if you don’t want to buy that many, you can pool funds with other gardeners and share them if you’re better-prepared than I was.

Again, here are the links:

Arbico Organics

Feeder insect page

Fly Delight

Neoseiulus Californicus mites

Arbico Organics. Whether you’re feeding an insectivorous critter or growing veggies in your window, this site has what you’re looking for. High-quality, high-quantity BUGS.

Notebook Lifehack

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Input:

scissors

small binder clips

paperboard or slightly firm paper junk mail

printer fails (badly printed pages, wrong pages printed, etc, as long as they have one blank side)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Output:

removed handles for binder clips (can throw out, or save for when the notebook is full and you want to reuse them)

cool handmade recycled notebooks for homework, sketching, grocery lists, etc.

Yay!

A year of Sirius Marley Black: Starlings in review

Several months after our parrot Rain Man went to his new home, the mixture of sadness and relief turned into empty nest syndrome. I had expected that I would want to adopt a new pet someday, and after all that time I was finally starting to feel ready.

I knew we had to choose carefully. I still felt guilty that we had given up our previous pet, even though his life and ours had become irreconcilable and he was undoubtedly happier with his new family. I knew how much of an upheaval it is for an animal to move from one home to another, and I wouldn’t wish it on any creature. I wanted my next pet to be for life. I wanted a bird– birds are what I relate to– but it couldn’t be a bird with the same needs Rain Man had.

John’s parental instinct, like mine, is focused mostly on pet birds, but he didn’t feel as strong a need for a bird in the house as I did. Nevertheless, around the time I felt ready, he agreed he was ready too.

Secretly, I had wanted a starling for a long time. It wasn’t a secret from John, but I didn’t discuss it with a lot of people at the time, because starlings are such unpopular creatures, and almost no one I knew would consider one as a pet.

From childhood, I’d been aware that they are kept as pets sometimes. One of my favorite books as a kid was “Arnie the Darling Starling”– which, despite having a title like a children’s book, is actually a pet memoir like “Oogy” or “Marley and Me.” I grew up knowing that starlings can do quite well in captivity, and that they can learn to talk like parrots, and become very affectionate with their human adopters. I knew that in the wild they’re considered horrible pests, and so there is no law against taking them from the wild and keeping them, as there is for protected bird species.

Early in our relationship, back in 2005 when our pet was the dear departed Popcorn the cockatiel, John and I once found an injured starling on the sidewalk. It was disoriented and moving slowly enough for us to pick it up, despite having no visible wounds. There had just been a storm. John hypothesized that the bird had landed on a wet, insufficiently insulated power line and gotten a bad shock.

The poor thing didn’t live long, but in the few hours it was with us, we went online and found a starling Yahoogroup… enough for us to learn that there were lots of others who had taken in starlings, and places where people shared information and resources on how to care for them. I remembered that, even though adopting a starling wasn’t a practical option for us until much later.

And last year, it became real.

Times had changed a bit. The starling Yahoogroup no longer came up when I searched for starlings online. But there was a website, www.starlingtalk.com, with a message board for starling discussions. There was a recommended diet, comprised of dog food, poultry mash, and powdered egg. There were guidelines on what sort of cages and toys a starling needed.

And there was a board for people to post if they wanted to adopt a starling, or give one up for adoption.

Unlike parrot-owners, starling-owners are mostly people who found a mysterious baby bird, managed to keep it alive, and then were surprised and delighted to find that the grown-up bird could talk, made a pretty awesome pet, and didn’t want to be released into the wild. Starling-owners usually stumble into the whole thing without asking for it, but they are, for the most part, a happy and unregretful bunch.

With good reason. Starlings are friendly, funny, loving, talkative, easy and cheap to care for, and so little that they couldn’t hurt you even if they wanted to.

On the message board there were some people looking to rehome their starlings, but they tended to get adopted quite fast. The balance between people trying to give up a bird and people trying to adopt one was much more equal than it was on parrot forums. And, of the few who wanted to give one up, I didn’t see any who were rejecting their bird because they couldn’t get along with it.

Other birds not getting along with it– that wasn’t unheard of. When someone finally contacted me about my wish to adopt a starling, the bird she offered was a four-year-old male who was up for adoption because he fought with one of his cage-mates.

Marley, as he was called, had fallen from the nest as a baby and been raised by a wildlife rehabber. She had intended to release him, and avoided petting and cuddling him as a baby, for fear it would cause him to bond with humans instead of his own species. But, cuddling or no cuddling, he bonded with her anyway. When it came time to release him, he refused to go.

So for three years or so, he was her pet, along with another starling she’d raised, named Thurston. But she became unable to care for them, for health reasons of some kind. He and his cage-mate were taken in by another woman who was seeking a companion for the starling she had.

Thurston was a good friend for her bird. Marley wasn’t. He and the stranger attacked each other again and again, pecking and plucking out each other’s feathers. Marley was the main aggressor. His face developed a few bare patches, but in this picture, he’s clearly thinking, “You should see the other bird.” From what I’m told, that one’s face became almost completely bald.

After a year of this, I got an email from his adoptive family.

I had prepared for this like crazy. Before I even knew when or from whom I was going to adopt a starling, I had stocked up on dog food, chicken food, egg powder, applesauce and dried mealworms to feed him, and all the recommended elements of an avian first aid kit. After two failed attempts at buying a suitable cage and one failed attempt at making one, I had managed to put together a pretty good aviary out of chicken wire, latchable dog doors, natural branch perches from a nearby park, and the frame from an old folding wardrobe.

I had even picked a name already. In fact, I’d picked the name years ago, around July of 2010 when John and I were dreaming pipe dreams of moving to Tower, Minnesota and starting an art gallery. I had imagined the focal point of the gallery being a huge aviary with talking starlings in it. They would all be named after stars: Alpha Centauri, Arcturus and Sirius (Alfie, Arkie and Siri for short).

By this time, I had settled on the name “Sirius” for the one starling I could realistically have. Since our Tower fantasy, “Siri” had become an even more fitting nickname for a talking bird, with the 2011 launch of the iPhone 4S. Besides, it was the year of my 32nd birthday, which is 100,000 in binary. The starling I adopted was going to be my extra-special gift for this mathematically significant birthday… and Sirius is a binary star system.

My eagerness was overwhelming at this point. I’d been disappointed once already, when someone in another state had thought she would be able to send a friend to bring me a young bird she’d rescued, but the travel plans fell through and I never heard from her again.

And I was disappointed a few more times as we tried to figure out a date for Marley’s adoption. But after two or three rain checks, a woman and two young girls finally showed up at my door, with a frantic little bird scurrying around inside a tiny carrier.

I believe this was the first photo I ever took of him. With effort, we had just relocated the panicked little creature from his carrier into the big cage I’d built for him, and he was perched on one of the branches near the top, getting his bearings.

That was how he entered my life, a nervous and disoriented little thing with bald patches on his face, a funny upward-curling feather under his chin, and chunky overgrown scales on his feet. Sirius Marley Black.

The lady who gave him to me said that he didn’t adapt well to new things. Perhaps he hadn’t, in her experience. She also said that his previous owner had considered him a not-very-tame bird, but with her, he had opened up and was happy to follow people around and perch on them. Perhaps his personality depends on his environment.

With me, he seemed to adapt just fine. Within an hour of entering his new cage, he took a blueberry from me as I shoved it through the chicken wire. Soon he was eating his ground-up dog-and-chicken-food mix from the bowl, sipping his water, and sampling his applesauce.

Starlings are extremely social. In the wild, they live in enormous flocks called “murmurations,” which move like living clouds. Look it up; there are videos online, and they’re amazing to watch.

Sometimes I feel sad that Sirius will never get to be part of one of those. But he doesn’t want to; he was raised by humans, and feels that we are his flock.

A starling in captivity is kind of like a human in modern society. Humans, too, are a very social species by nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent nearly all their time in each other’s company. But in modern times, humans often live lives where we spend most of the day alone, or at a job where we do mostly-solitary work. It’s unnatural, but we get by. We live for the time when we get off work, and spend the evenings and weekends with people we care about.

Sirius has adapted to a similar life. When we’re away, he keeps himself entertained by singing, playing with the toys in his cage, and listening to music I leave on for him. But when we get home, he’s always happy to see us.

Within a few days after his adoption, he was tame enough to perch on us and all our friends. Starlings aren’t cuddly, but they’re very friendly. One day four of us played a game around the dining room table, all wearing safari hats so he wouldn’t poo on our heads and get his feet tangled in our hair. He happily jumped from hat to hat all evening. Heads are a starling’s favorite perch.

Some starlings will sit on someone’s head and act as if they’re taking a bath in the hair. Sirius doesn’t do this, but water baths are one of his favorite things ever.

I made a bathtub for his cage out of a big plastic pitcher with a hole cut in it, so he wouldn’t get water everywhere when bathing. He uses it often, but he prefers the bath bowl we keep in the shower.

A starling bathing is amazing to watch. It’s a blur of fluttering and splashing, faster than a human could ever move– kind of like a dog that shakes itself after a bath, except the starling is doing it to get wet, not dry. In the absence of barriers, a person ten feet away could feel water drops from it.

And just as quickly as it began, it’s suddenly over, and zoom! The starling is done bathing, and rockets from the bath bowl across the room to another perch. Usually he’ll make several flights from place to place immediately after his bath, all with the same sort of frenetic, hyperactive too-fast zooming motion– maybe as part of his effort to dry himself off. He’s on the cage! He’s on my head! He’s on the cage again– now he’s on the door!

Hyperactive, inquisitive, curious– that’s my Siri. When he’s not flying crazily around, he’s poking his face into everything, looking for treasure or bugs or whatever. If I’m lying in bed watching a movie, he’ll come and crawl all over me, poking his beak at my clothing. He’s even tried to look down John’s pants.

Starlings love to pry things open with their beaks. Folds in clothing, spaces between your fingers, your mouth (especially when you’re eating), any small crevice they can find. His favorite toy now is an Advent calendar I got him during the Christmas season. I hide small treats in the pockets, and he happily goes around poking and prying in each one.

Like most starlings, he doesn’t like being touched. He’ll cuddle on his own terms: perched on my shoulder, snuggling against my neck, playing with my hair, just as long as he’s in control and no hands get anywhere near him.

Only rarely will he let me pet him without complaint:

He doesn’t always hate hands, mind you; he’ll play with them if he is the one doing all the playing. One of his sweetest expressions of affection is to land on my hand while I’m working at the computer, and start poking at my fingers. Sometimes he saves me from wasting my whole day on the internet; sometimes he just messes up my typing.

Poke a finger at him and he’ll make the most hilarious sounds of starling rage. A weird thing about starlings: they don’t express anger with instinctive sounds natural to their species. They almost always seem to use mimicked sounds. I heard of one person whose starling would make an angry parrot sound she’d learned from the other pets, whenever a finger was poked at her. I heard of another starling who would say the words “I’ve got a question!” when its nails were being trimmed.

As winter approached, Siri’s new plumage came in, and his face was no longer bald. His feet have also become healthier, having shed the overgrown scales with the help of aloe gel rubbed on his toes every day. God, does he hate when we do that! He forgives us afterwards with a grace that Rain Man could never approach– but when we’re doing it, he’s a noise-box of angry and adorable protests.

Sirius doesn’t have many words to say, and the ones he says are mumbled baby-talk. He says things that sound vaguely like “Hello,” “Hi sweetheart,” “Pretty bird,” “Birdy,” “Crackers,” and something that might be “Pretty Chester.”

We have no idea who Chester is, if anyone. He might have made it up, out of sounds from other words. He does love to rearrange sounds. Sometimes his “Pretty Chester” sounds more like “Poor Chester,” sometimes like “Peaches,” sometimes like “Purchase,” sometimes just the word “chess” amid a bunch of mumbling.

A starling song has some instinctive starling noises in it, mixed with sounds the bird learned from various things in its environment. When Sirius sings, it’s a fantastic medley of chatters, whistles, clicks, shrieks, melodic bubbling-water sounds, a phone ring, a dog whine, and some yapping and growling like a little dog that’s having a lot of fun playing tug-o-war. Plus a few “Chesters” thrown in here and there.

And, singing or talking, and especially when scolding us for poking a finger in his face, his little pointy wide-open beak is one of the funniest-looking things ever.

If I eat in front of him, he shows an almost hilarious level of greed, zooming to my shoulder and shoving his beak in my mouth to try and get my food. Some foods he acually seems to prefer when they’re in my mouth. He’ll try to eat anything if he sees me eating it; I have to have my non-bird-safe snacks in a different room.

The starling forum recommends a certain diet for adult birds, but it can be varied depending on people’s needs. Some feed their starlings the dog food and chicken feed in one bowl, and chopped hard-boiled eggs in another. Some put water in the mix because their birds won’t eat it dry. But this is the recipe I use:

2 cups dry dog food. (The protein amount should be in the 25-32% range, and the fat should be in the 10-14% range. Make sure the first ingredient is some type of meat. Poultry is fine; a starling is no more related to a chicken or turkey than you are to a cow or pig.)

1/2 cup chicken feed (the pellets for egg-laying hens, often called “layer mash”– not the medicated mash for chicks. Yes, starlings can eat chicken food even though they’re not closely related to chickens.)

2 tablespoons powdered egg (available in large cans; I use the Honeyville brand. Yes, they’re chicken eggs; see above.)

Mix all ingredients together, and blend to a powder in food processor.

Every day, feed two tablespoons of the dry mix in one bowl, two tablespoons of unsweetened applesauce in a separate bowl, and about 2/3 cup of water in a third.

Treats can include bugs, bits of cornbread, chopped nuts, and especially blueberries– which Sirius attacks and tears to pieces with a frightening level of energy.

That’s the icing on the cake of starling-parenthood joy– how sustainable it is. A bag of dog food, a bag of layer mash and a jar of powdered egg will feed a starling for a long, long time, saving money and minimizing any effects that pet-food production has on the environment. Starling droppings aren’t messy and smelly like dog poop; they dissolve almost instantly in water. I use polar-fleece fabric as a cage liner and machine-wash it. But using your junk mail is fine too; it’s free and biodegradable.

Dried crickets and mealworms from a pet shop make good treats, but your free and plentiful household bugs can serve the same purpose. In the wild, starlings eat mostly bugs. (Just avoid any bright-colored ones, which are often poisonous. And stay away from worms and caterpillars; they’re the most common things for parasites to lay eggs in. Small moths and beetles are usually fine.)

Even the procurement of the starling itself is earth-friendly. Starlings aren’t bred in buildings that draw power, produce waste, and affect the ecosystem around them. They’re bred by their parents in nests in the trees. And most starling-keepers don’t even upset the parent birds by taking in the baby, because it’s usually one that the parents rejected anyway.

Nature can be cruel. In wild bird nests, the smallest and weakest babies are often pushed out, because birds can’t afford to expend the effort of feeding unless the offspring shows great promise of survival. Sometimes it’s the parents who eject the unwanted baby, sometimes it’s the siblings, but almost always it will be pushed out again if someone tries to return it. (This is probably the origin of the myth that birds will reject any nestling that’s been touched by humans.)

But even if taking in a starling did reduce wild starling populations, it wouldn’t be any kind of ecological disaster, because starlings are not in the least bit threatened. They are a plentiful bird, living on small amounts of plentiful and easy-to-obtain necessities. It’s almost ridiculous how small the carbon footprint of a pet starling is.

On Youtube, there are starling-haters who go around posting trollish comments on any cute videos of pet starlings. Things like “I’d shoot it if I ever saw it,” and “Starlings are rats with wings.”

They’re picking the wrong target. Pet starlings are harmless. Fine, so they think wild starlings are a menace to the ecosystem… well, so are humans. Anything they accuse starlings of doing, humans do a hundred times worse. How would you like it if that tired old science-fiction trope played out in your home: an alien appears, recites a list of atrocities committed by humans, and threatens to execute you for the crimes of your species?

Hey, Youtube trolls threatening to shoot someone’s cute pet starling– you are that alien. Our pet starlings don’t threaten native birds or eat farmers’ crops, any more than you personally have committed genocide. In fact, you should thank us for keeping a starling out of the wild, where you think it will do so much horrible damage.

He likes it better here anyway.

How I backed up my personality on paper

(Updated with the more recent version of the project. I redesigned the books to be prettier, fit better in the box, and hold more data.)

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A recent art project, of sorts. My attempt to cope with fears: the fear of death, the fear of societal collapse. My fantasy that my personality could somehow survive both my death and the downfall of civilization.

In an apocalypse, digital media are of questionable use. I toyed with the idea of microfiches for a while, but then realized that paper, kept in a safe place, can last just as long. Lulu.com prints on acid-free paper, and can print very, very small.

*****

Text of the back of the book:

I am Erika Hammerschmidt. I am an author, artist and speaker from Minnesota. I am terrified of dying, but far more terrified of being forgotten. Being forgotten is true death, the death not just of the body but of the information that makes up the personality.

The information that makes up a human personality is more bountiful and complex than any book can hold, but this is my best try. This is my novels, my poems, my private emails, my art, my journals. It is my secret perversions, my selfies, my websites, my handmade jewelry, my travel snapshots, my diaries, my childhood scrivenings. Please let me live.

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My one regret: I didn’t spend enough time working

They say that people never die wishing they had worked more.

But I’m pretty sure that if I died now, that would be my one big regret. I fully expect to die someday wishing I’d worked more.

Not at my job, necessarily, but at writing, participating in events, talking to people, making connections. Perhaps even if I worked harder at my paying job, earned more money, earned promotions, that would have contributed something to my life’s goal.

My life’s goal is to make my way into a position where I have the influence to help fix the greatest problems in the world.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.