The animal-hoarder of 1930’s Vienna: A review of “King Solomon’s Ring”

I’ve just finished reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,” a naturalist’s account of his life with a ridiculous number of not-so-domestic animals. It was recommended to me by a guest at a speech, because I had mentioned during the speech that we had just adopted a pet starling. So, of course, I went into this reading experience with the expectation that starlings would be a main feature of the book.

In that respect, I was disappointed, but overall the book has been more fun than I could have imagined.

It was published in 1952, and describes events from much earlier, most of which took place in Europe before World War II. Lorenz was an Englishman living in Austria (having lived in Austria for a semester myself, the setting as well as the subject matter was of interest to me). He, and his wife and children, lived in a house that also contained dogs, mongooses, monkeys, apes, parrots, jackdaws, geese, lemurs, hamsters, water-shrews, crows, an eagle, and any number of other bizarre animals– mostly not even kept in cages, or if they had cages, they were allowed outside of them most of the time. Lorenz saw his pets as both companions and research subjects; he let them run free partly because he valued their happiness, and partly because he felt he could observe their behavior more naturally that way.

In both the body of the book and the foreword by another author, Konrad’s wife is described as saintly for putting up with all this. She’s quoted as saying that she managed to tolerate it because she spent more time at her job than at home. But, as another married woman with a fascination for nature and the bizarre, I find myself wondering. Did she put up with it because of a sense of wifely duty? Or did she actually, deep down, enjoy living in a zoo– as I might– but feel hesitant to say so in a day and age when no “proper” woman would feel anything but disgust for such a situation?

In the present day and age– and in the USA– such a situation, of course, wouldn’t even be tolerated by law enforcement. Native birds can’t legally be taken from their nests as Lorenz described (though non-native birds like starlings are fair game) and there are very few places to live where you could keep a pet ape or mongoose without some sort of special permit. From his account it seems that his animals were happy, but I can still imagine modern neighbors rushing to call animal control (not to mention child protection services– according to his narrative, sometimes the only safe place for a child in his house was inside a large cage.)

But his stories of animal behavior are still delightful to read, if one makes allowances for the time he lived in, and the different values of that time.

He gives a fascinating account of the territorial behavior of sticklebacks and cichlids in his aquariums, making the reader see more depth and complexity in these little fish than previously imagined. His story of keeping water-shrews is hilarious, this time not because of the animals’ complexity, but because of how simple their minds are, and how absolutely baffled they find themselves when an obstacle in their cage is moved.

For a scientist of his time period, I find his view of animals surprisingly balanced between the extremes of anthropomorphizing them and reducing them to thoughtless and unfeeling automatons. He recognizes that, being distantly related to us, they have many of the same basic drives and instincts as humans, and probably feel similar emotions, but he also frequently reminds the reader that the animals come at things from their own perspective, which is often totally unlike the human perspective.

There certainly are times when I suspect he’s jumping to conclusions in his interpretation of his pets’ behavior. It’s easy to be wrong about the motives for an action, even the action of a close human friend or relative, let alone the action of a creature physically and mentally very unlike us and living a completely different sort of life. He makes the best guesses he can about why his animals do what they do, but his observations are inevitably somewhat hampered by his own attachment to them and the not-quite-natural environment in which he’s observing them.

He’s also, of course, a product of his time when it comes to errors in the biological sciences. He devotes an entire chapter to the differences in personality and temperament between the breeds of dogs descended from wolves and the breeds descended from jackals– which looks pretty ridiculous to someone reading in an era when all the genetic evidence indicates that dogs are 100% descended from wolves and none of them have any jackal blood.

Still, for his era, he’s very advanced in his understanding of animal behavior, and even when he might be wrong, his accounts are still a lot of fun to read. I only wish he had written more about starlings.

His mentions of starlings are confined to a few paragraphs, in which he recommends them as an easy-to-raise pet for the inexperienced keeper of animals, and describes their infancy, rate of growth, and the diet they should be fed in captivity. He only briefly mentions that they can be affectionate and learn to mimic words.

In the little he says about them, I can see tons of things that would outrage my friends on the Starlingtalk.com forum. The foods he advocates have virtually no overlap with what present-day starling-keepers consider a healthy diet, and he actually recommends taking infant birds from their nests to raise them, which is heavily frowned-on among the starling-lovers I’ve met online.

But for me personally, the biggest disappointment was that he didn’t include any actual stories of life with a starling. He makes it known that he raised them, but sadly, he gives no specific examples. His accounts of the antics of his other pets are so delightful that I think I would have loved some funny tales of the things his starlings learned to say, the mischief they made playing with jewelry and the like, or any of the other silly things that they must have done, if my own pet starling is at all typical of the species.

He does make up for it, though, by giving many pages to the lives of his colony of jackdaws. They’re not starlings, but they are similar birds, being very social, very affectionate and able to mimic speech. The hierarchy, social rules and interactions within his jackdaw society are utterly fascinating and lovingly described, reminding me a lot of the descriptions of raven society in the more recent book “Ravens in Winter.”

Even though starlings were somewhat neglected in his narrative, I’ve found that a side effect of reading Lorenz’s prose is a tendency to observe my own pet as he would. Whole paragraphs of Lorenzian naturalist description pop into my head from time to time as I watch Sirius the starling, and I find myself wording my own my observations in a 1950’s English scientist’s writing style:

“On the whole, Sirius prefers for his sustenance such foods that are white or very light-coloured, or black or very dark-coloured, and regards with suspicion any proffered fruit of a brighter orange or red hue; this, I believe, owing to the proclivity of the starling for feeding primarily upon insects in the wild, and his instinctive knowledge that the insects upon which a wild starling may most safely feast are those of dark colouration, such as the ants and house-flies, and the black beetles which are ever present in a garden, as well as those of light colouration, as the larvae of such beetles, and fly-maggots– the species that bear patches of bright colour most often doing so to signal to their enemies that they are venomous, or at the very least, foul-tasting.”

SpringCon again!

This year, for the second time, I am participating in Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

I’ll have several of my self-published books available for sale, including the big Abby and Norma collection:

and all the cheap little Abby and Norma Minibooks:

I’ll also have some Abby and Norma merchandise and some jewelry for sale!

I will be sharing a table with Aaron Poliwoda, a local comic artist with whom I’ve collaborated on a few projects.

Getting there isn’t too hard. From most places in the Twin Cities, you can get to downtown Minneapolis by bus. Once you are there, this is the route you take.

The rest of the route, from downtown to the fairgrounds, is only one bus: the 3B.

This is where you catch it:

It goes like this:

and you get off when you see this:

and then you just walk through the State Fairgrounds until you see this building:

Have $10 with you for the fee to get in, plus enough more to shop for cool comic-related stuff! There are lots of awesome vendors at this thing.

Enjoy, and I hope to see you there!

Neurosis, math, grammar, empathy, and the transformative power of love

Falling in love can change a person in so many ways.

I’m not just talking about how you become a different person when you’re falling in love and your levels of bonding hormones are all over the charts. That’s a whole issue of its own, with its own set of relationship problems. (Ever think, “He’s not the man I fell in love with anymore,” or “We got married and then he changed everything about himself”? Maybe he just changed back into the person he was before he fell in love… and for that matter, so did you. Oxytocin and the other mating hormones that run rampant at the beginning of a romance are powerful mind-altering chemicals; the mind you fell in love with was probably under the influence.)

No, what I’m talking about is the change that happens over the course of a long, happy relationship. It can be slow, or fast, changing speed and intensity over time, but it’s always there, the way two trees growing close together change their shapes to adapt to one another’s presence.

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

More freaky coincidences, and the meaning of art

Either I’m the master of dumb luck, or my subconscious is a much more thoughtful artist than I am.

Maybe someday my subconscious will be revered as a great painter. Perhaps, years from now, the seemingly nonsensical system that decides which paintings are “great” will somehow latch onto my acrylic-on-canvas dabblings and the meanings that my subconscious inserted so insidiously into them.

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

Jeopardy and mountain bears: Coincidences are everywhere!


In all the years since that happened, we’ve never figured out a connection that could explain why David and I thought of Alex Trebek at the same moment. Most likely, it’s because the whole thing was a freaky, weird, one-in-a-million coincidence.

And freaky, weird, one-in-a-million coincidences happen all the time. You have millions and millions of experiences every day, tiny ones, big ones, overlapping with each other, noticed and unnoticed. Statistically, one-in-a-million events should be occurring multiple times daily. In fact, if you think about it, everything that ever happens to you has a vanishingly tiny chance of happening exactly the way it happens. And yet it does.

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

Cybermoths and phallic Daleks: My complex love of puns


What I mean is that I’m not an indiscriminate pun-lover. I am a pun connoisseur, a pun gourmet. I love puns passionately, but I have standards.

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

I am not the archetypal author: Why “in character” has no meaning


I realized that, if I had written about this experience and included it as a scene in one of my works of fiction, many readers would accuse me of “inconsistency” and “not staying in character.”

As a real, non-fictional person, of course, I don’t have the concept of “in character.” I’m not any of the fictional archetypes– not even the more complex archetypes, since none of them are as complex as a human being. Whatever rules I come up with to describe my behavior, there are always exceptions, and even I can’t always define where and what those exceptions are going to be.

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

New blogging schedule: let’s see how long I can keep this up!

Lately I’ve been getting lots of inspiration to write about my insights and thoughts.

So much, in fact, that I’m going to try and update my blog every week, on Sunday, with some new and profound exploration of life.

So if you’re going to start following this blog, now is the time. There’s an RSS link in the tabs at the top.

Enjoy.

I helped write one of the best books of the year, apparently

This is How You Die, the collection that published one of my stories, has been listed on the AV Club’s best books list! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

The Second Mango, by Shira Glassman: A Book Review

Full disclosure: I didn’t receive any gifts in exchange for writing this review. However, the author is a dear friend of mine, and she and I were sharing and proofreading each other’s writing back when we were college kids, so I can’t promise a purely objective review. I will do my best to be honest, though, and I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t like the book!

“The Second Mango,” by Shira Glassman, is a fantasy story about (as the author says) “a gay woman, a straight woman, and a dragon.” The gay woman, Shulamit, is the young queen of Perach. The straight woman, Rivka, is a warrior from another nation. The dragon is a shape-shifter that can be either dragon or horse, and provides transportation as the two women travel together, seeking a potential sweetheart for the lonely Shulamit.

The account of their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to the passions in each of their pasts: Rivka’s star-crossed love for her late mentor Isaac, whose vow of chastity prevented anything from happening even before she lost him… and Shulamit’s long-ago romance with the palace cook Aviva, who nursed her through sickness, won her heart, and then left. Despite their differences, Shula and Riv find they have an uncommon amount in common.

The story, however, steers clear of the expected tropes. This is not a tale of a lesbian convincing a straight woman to explore gay love; the plot goes in another direction, which I think turns out to be far more satisfying. Things work out in a way that I never saw coming, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.

There were some aspects of the surprise ending that seemed perhaps too convenient, but then, this is a world of magic and mysticism, where it’s easy to imagine a kindly personification of Fate smiling on the heroines. They certainly deserve it; I liked them both from the beginning.

I also loved the characters of Isaac and Aviva in the flashbacks. Rivka and Isaac have a very entertaining rapport, and Aviva’s voice is adorable, constantly finding weird and random ways to describe things. (I guess this is one more thing Shira Glassman and I have in common. I too have a weakness for bizarre speech patterns, although Draz’s speech in my book “Kea’s Flight” is a different brand of weirdness.)

The approach to social issues is also very fresh and original. Shulamit is wealthy and sheltered, Rivka is a skilled warrior who supports herself. Shulamit is a lesbian in a country where such things are barely talked about; Rivka belongs to the expected sexual orientation. Rivka grew up shamed for being born out of wedlock, and never got to know her father; Shulamit grew up with a loving father but then lost him in a tragic accident. Their struggles are different, but the story never implies that one struggles more than the other, or that one’s concerns are more valid.

It also breaks many rules about what character traits are “supposed” to go together. The lesbian loves pretty dresses and jewelry; the straight woman carries a sword and dresses in men’s armor. The seasoned warrior is a virgin; the sweet and sheltered princess has experience with physical intimacy. Both are far more complex than the archetypes of fairy tales.

Shulamit’s complexity contains a few more interesting factors. She is a bit of a geek and bookworm, with great talent for figuring out puzzles. And, unlike any other heroine I’ve seen in an adventure novel, she suffers from debilitating allergies: some foods are indigestible to her and make her violently ill.

Having a somewhat sensitive digestive system myself, I was initially concerned that the book would contain some distasteful scenes. Such issues hit close to home for me, and I can get very uncomfortable reading about them. But I needn’t have worried. By the time the story happens, Shulamit has gotten very good at managing her condition. Though her need to avoid certain foods becomes very relevant to the plot in some places, the worst events are all in the past, and are mentioned quite discreetly.

And I have to admit it’s wonderful to see a heroine with a disability, even one that’s considered “mild,” such as food sensitivities. As a girl who grew up diagnosed with various mild disorders, I had a shortage of relatable role models in popular culture.

No Disney princess even wears glasses, not even the book-loving Belle. Little girls with less-than-perfect vision learn early that they have to get contacts or eye surgery if they want to dress up convincingly as their fairy tale heroines. Girls with allergies must similarly feel that there’s no one in the world who has faced the same troubles and succeeded in life.

Shulamit breaks with tradition here, and unlike heroines “cursed” with a disability, like Disney’s mute Little Mermaid, Shulamit doesn’t need to break her curse to have a happy ending.

The title, “The Second Mango,” reminds me of the struggling author in Agatha Christie’s “Mystery of the Spanish Shawl,” who was writing a story titled “The Second Cucumber” just because he thought the words sounded interesting. I imagine Shira Glassman having similar inspiration. The title is certainly intriguing, and while it does tie in to a market-shopping scene that forms a significant point in the development of the heroines’ friendship, it feels as if the story was built more around the title than vice versa. But then, the book is partly about playful words and food metaphors, so it doesn’t seem so out of place.

Yes, this is the author’s first novel, and in some ways the writing shows this. But it also shows a creative and clever mind, and a skill for delicately beautiful descriptions of food, flowers and nature, which often have a charming old-fashioned feel that hearkens back to the prose of Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery. And, as someone who has been allowed a sneak preview of the sequel, I can say with certainty that this new author is getting better and better.

“The Second Mango” is available from Prizm Books.