I’ve been struggling with working on my “Sabbatical” series. That particular entry is important to me, but admittedly a little dry. Rather than force myself through the piece right now, I’m taking a diversion. I’m writing about fluff.
I’ve known “Gonzo” in three contexts in my life. Everyone knows the blue/purple muppet that has a DSM-V diagnosable fetish about chickens. Let’s take a big detour for Gonzo #2.
It was December 1998. I had just visited Sonia in California and formally met her parents for the first time. On my agenda when I got off the plane in St. Louis were two things. 1. Buy an engagement ring for Sonia. 2. Get all four of my wisdom teeth (which were impacted) removed. Yay on item #1. Boo on item #2.
I went looking for engagement rings on a Saturday, and purchased one at a local jeweler on a Sunday. I was to return in one week to take it home. Great! I’m all set to have my jaw cracked open tomorrow.
I won’t go into huge details about what oral surgery was like. I do remember the anesthesia cocktail running into my IV. I remember the nurse saying, “Goodnight, Jason!” This was followed by a feeling of being sucked out of my chair and onto the ceiling. Since I’ve never done drugs, my response before I went under was “COOOOOL!!” (This was much like how I tried to laugh when I went under for my upper endoscopy in 2014. With the mask I had on, I felt like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. I was laughing as I went under). When I woke up in the recovery area, I started talking very loudly about the oral surgeon’s receding hairline. My mom tried to shut me up, but it didn’t matter. The surgeon was standing right behind her (Again, after my upper endoscopy I started yelling “It’s like Silence of the Lambs!!!!” I’m just not going to be appreciated in my own time).
When my mom drove us home, she was to pick up my opiate pain medication at the pharmacy. She left me in the car and went in to get my medications. My mother explicitly instructed me, “DON’T LEAVE THE CAR.” Being a comedian, I thought to myself that it would be hilarious if my mom came back to the car and I wasn’t there. So I tried to open the car door. Still being extremely loopy from the anesthesia, all I could do was slump over to my right, put my hand on the manual lock, and drool a combination of blood and saliva on my shirt. And laugh uncontrollably. Until my mom came back.
“Jason, what are you doing?!!!”
“I’m going to leave the car, mom. You won’t be able to find me!”
We drove home, and somehow, my mom didn’t murder me (which would have been justifiable in 41 states at that point. Oddly enough, Texas wasn’t one of them.) I started taking my pain killers on a schedule. It was a totally weird experience. I’d wake up at the 3 AM with strange visions after vivid nightmares. I saw animals on the walls. I also decided that this would be a great time to watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I don’t remember much about the movie. “We were somewhere around Barstow, at the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” That’s about all I remember. I’ve been told that there are people that have watched the whole movie without opiate painkillers, and that they had a hard time following the film as well. As such, I don’t feel the need to go back and rewatch it. I have since learned about Gonzo Journalism, made famous by Hunter S. Thompson, the protagonist in the movie. That’s the 2nd Gonzo I’m familiar with. As a side note, I swelled up horribly after my surgery. I had localized infections, my lower jaw area double in size, and I turned a purple/red/yellow/green color to my skin. It was too painful to shave. When I returned to pick up Sonia’s engagement ring, the woman that sold me the ring didn’t recognize me. I scared the living $#@& of her when I entered the store. She thought I was there to rob her or something of the sort. It took a few minutes between my mumbling (due to the opiates and jaw pain) and another worker recognizing me for the woman to calm down. It was pretty cool, and I hope that on my deathbed when I have the rolodex of memories flashing before me, I get one rerun of that day.
The third Gonzo was our first family pet. He was our parakeet from June 2011 until July 2016. (We currently have 2 guinea pigs and an albino parakeet. We all would like a dog as well, but now probably isn’t the time to expand the pet family at the moment. Before we had kids, Sonia and I had a cat for about 90 minutes before it ran away. It’s a long story, and it wasn’t a confidence booster before having Andrew. Therefore, we don’t count June as an official member of the Kesselrings). Our children wanted a pet, but due to cat allergies, they were off the table. And we weren’t sure we were ready for a dog then. My parents had some birds when I grew up, and that was a mostly positive experience, so we decided to give parakeets a go. (Another side note, when I was a toddler, my parents had a bird cage with their parakeet on some sort of small table/stand that I knocked over and killed the bird quite by mistake. I got better as I got older, don’t worry).
We didn’t do anything fancy when we got Gonzo. We went to PetsMart and tried to pick out a parakeet – I think we wanted a yellow one that we wanted to call Col. Mustard. The man at the store had a hard time catching any of the 50 birds in the cage. After watching him try to net a bird for 10 minutes, we told him to just get anyone he could. A blue/gray parakeet didn’t move quick enough, and he was ours. We didn’t quite know what to call our budgie, but given the physical resemblance to the muppet (and not Hunter S. Thompson), Gonzo it was.
We’ve learned that in retrospect, most parakeets are hard to tame and to get them to talk if you get a bird from a big box store like we did. It’s much easier to get a bird to be calm around humans if they are hand raised from the get-go. We didn’t know this, and apparently, neither did Gonzo. I think more parakeets would be like our parakeet, if one just took the time.
We mistakenly described him as a “fairly mellow budgie” on our first social media post after he came home. He was very quiet, and didn’t chirp or squak much. Andrew and I were determined to get him to interact. So we took turns sitting outside of his cage, and keeping our hand in his cage for 15-20 minutes at a time, and we didn’t move. While we sat there, we just talked to him, over and over again. We alternated and kept this up for weeks. At first, he wouldn’t come out on to our hands, but would come out if we stuck a spare perch into his cage. He would step on to the perch, and we’d take him around the house.
His wings started to grow back, and started to zoom around the house at first. We didn’t want him to get hurt, so we had his wings clipped. That was the last time we ever did that. He seemed sad and withdrawn for a few days. It took several weeks, but his wing feather did grow back, and we decided to see how this would play out. Best. Decision. Ever.
Whether it was our persistence, his maturity, or some other combination of factors, once he started flying around the house, we noted that he started coming on our hands more often. He wanted to spend time with us. When he got tired of us, he just flew back to his cage. There was something about him being able to control the interaction that made him interact more.
He also was happier. And noisier. And started talking. A lot. I mean “never shuts up” a lot.
We decided that we now had a free-range parakeet. Gonzo slept in his cage, ate there (sometimes, more on that in a bit), and occasionally retreated there if he wanted a break. But he spent a majority of his time around the house with us. We thought it was awesome.
This is where things became incredibly fun. We would tell guests that our parakeet was “free-range”, and some people were decidedly not cool with that idea. You’d hear Gonzo flying down the hall (parakeets are not the best pilots), and some people would panic. One tall friend of ours looked like he was going to dive into a military bunker after he heard Gonzo flapping towards him. Another woman came to discuss some sewing business one day, and Gonzo landed on her head. She totally flipped out and threw her glass of water across the room. It was fantastic. Another person visited us from Knox College to talk about fundraising. We told her that we had a free range budgie and just to beware. She said it was the coolest and most interesting invitation she ever had.
In his five years with us, Gonzo went from a quiet and passive bird to a very active, important member of the family. We observed the following, and it may not be a comprehensive list.
-He learned to mimic many phrases, and even more sounds.
Gonzo had the usual repertoire of “pretty bird”, “good boy”, and “Gonzo!” We taught him other phrases. “Budgie beer”, “Pretty blue cere”, and we even taught him to say “Chirp, chirp, chirp.” He probably had around 15+ phrases. But he also made noises (he could imitate the “duh-dum-duh, duh-duh-duh” of Sportscenter, and tried to make noises like our kitchen faucet when it was running (he was quite good at this; he would actually make this noise when he wanted a drink). Gonzo also would talk himself to sleep; for his mid-day nap, he would turn his head 180 degrees and bury his beak in his back. He would then talk for about 15-20 minutes (sounding like he had an electronic voice box) until he fell asleep.
-He was excellent at communicating at least two emotions.
When he was excited (either for good or bad reasons), his head would bob rapid fire. When he was curious about something or someone, he would bob his head (actually almost his whole body) very slowly. We interpreted this to be parakeet for, “I come in peace.”
-Gonzo had a distinct call when he wanted to see people.
If you spent enough time around our bird, you could distinguish between a few of his chirps. The easiest to discern was his “Come here, I want to see you!” It was loud, slightly high-pitched, and slightly panicked. He would call for me when I got home from work. If he heard the garage door any time after 5 PM, he would start this call. I could hear him from our split-level garage basement while he was upstairs.
-The bird was trained to land on my shoulder.
When I came upstairs, I could call to Gonzo and tap my shoulder. He would immediately fly over and land where I had asked him to land. He wasn’t so good about flying to other people, but he would visit me on command.
-He played games with the kids.
First known as “War Eagle” (after a misunderstanding of whom to root for in the Alabama-Auburn game), our kids played a game with him called “Ultimate Sock Out”. Gonzo used to love to inspect the laundry when we would fold it on our bed. In particular, he very much enjoyed a good fight with a wadded up ball of socks. Our kids would take the socks and throw them at him. Gonzo would then fly laps – from our living room, to a bedroom, back out to the dining area, and repeat. He would land on a ceiling fan and taunt the kids. They would throw a ball of socks at him, and he’d take off again. If they stopped early, he would break into his impassioned, “pay attention to me call” until they launched socks at him again. This game would easily last 20-30 minutes. I will note that Gonzo like to sit on stationary ceiling fan blades pretty much all day. That’s a cleaning job that I don’t miss.
-Much like a toddler, he fought bedtime.
Gonzo liked to party. He went to bed when we went to bed (we have been told that parakeets ought to get several hours more sleep than he did). Since he was free-range, it was easy for him to fly off our hand if he suspected we were taking him back to his cage. Some nights he went back to his cage easily. Others, not so much. Sonia would sequentially turn off lights as I had him on my hand (parakeets don’t see well in the dark). If I had him and he was in our bedroom, she would turn off those lights. Then I’d start down the hallway, and she’d turn those off. Then I’d enter our living room, and those lights would go off. When I stumbled to his cage in the dark, I’d yell, “Now!” Sonia would quickly turn on the lights and I’d shut him in his cage. And if he reacted before I could get him in his cage, we had to chase him around a dark room.
-He really liked spending time with anyone, especially in our bathroom.
Gonzo was a bit like preteen girls – he felt like going to the bathroom was a group experience. If you brushed your teeth, Gonzo was there. If you turned the faucet was on, Gonzo was there (he rarely drank from the water in his cage; he much preferred running water). If you went #1 or #2, Gonzo was with you. But what he really like was the shower. He would stand on the top of the shower stall and squak at me as the bathroom fogged up. Generally, he stayed put and enjoyed a nice steam bath (we speculated that he frequently had dry skin and the moisture may have been soothing to him). But every now and again, he’d swoop down on my shoulder and catch some spray from the shower. Of note, my brother was not a fan of Gonzo sharing bathroom time with him during his visits from Chicago.
-Gonzo tried to mate with the strangest objects in our house.
His favorite targets were the over-sized stuffed dog (named Marty) my friend Dr. Parsley got me, Little Bear (my former teddy bear that is now property of Allison), and most strangely of all – Sonia’s laptop computer. I won’t say what he looked like as he was, ahem, “having a private moment”, but he was very impassioned and hated to be interrupted. I never knew if Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” or Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” was more appropriate mood music, or if parakeets even appreciated such a thing. People would visit, and they’d see Gonzo madly twisting and chortleling on the laptop. If we were asked what he was doing, it was hard to explain. How does one tell company in polite terms to, “Please excuse our bird. He’s just really horny.” I never did formulate a response of which I was truly comfortable.
Here’s the links to both songs on YouTube:
-Gonzo had a place at our dinner table.
Once Gonzo was free range, he really like to see what we ate. He started climbing down our arms, onto our forks, to look at and eat what we had on our plates. Parakeets are supposed to have vegan-esque diets. We, at first, would try to hold food in one hand and let him eat that way, but that method was very cumbersome, and not safe for us or Gonzo. I don’t know how we did it, but over the course of weeks, he was trained to eat off a plate. Every meal, we’d put a little red plate down for him at the table. He would then fly over to HIS PLATE and eat his meal. Sometimes, it seemed like he would actually wait for us to eat with him. Even if he had food on his plate early, he would wait for the rest of us. He just wanted to be included; like he understood the social aspect of mealtime. Of note, he really like spinach, rice, noodles, bread, pancakes, and the occasional orange slice. But, we denied him what he really wanted.
-It was his goal in life to eat chicken and eggs.
This was a little unnerving. I like making barbecue, and smoked chicken is the best lazy person’s BBQ to make. I swear to this day that he knew the smell of chicken, and was very annoying at the dinner table trying to get a bite. The same for chicken-n-waffle night. Or scrambled eggs. It didn’t matter if it was new bird or old bird, Gonzo seemed to think that his all of his relations in the same class tasted wonderful. (This makes me think of Pearls Before Swine and the character Pig and his love of all products made from his species).
-Gonzo was an earthquake alarm.
One time, Gonzo started making noise like he was being attacked in the middle of the night. We ran out to his cage, took off the cover, and opened his cage door. He ran out and hopped on my shoulder. He was panting. We thought that the silly bird had fallen off his perch in the middle of the night. The following morning, we heard on the radio that there had been an earthquake along the New Madrid fault at the exact time Gonzo had made all the commotion. This happened several times over the five years. We’d be woken up by Gonzo’s noisemaking in the middle of the night, and the next morning we would see the USGS report an earthquake near us. It was a very consistent phenomena. Take that, Iben Browning!
-He would stand guard and watch you when you felt bad.
Gonzo watched over all of us when we were sick. If one of us had a bad migraine, he’d stay on your shoulder while you were sleeping. When we moved him (so the person that was asleep wouldn’t roll over on him), he would bite you. When I had pneumonia in April 2016, I came home after 30+ hours of work. I showered, ate, and got my blanket so I could sleep on the couch. Gonzo perched on my left shoulder when I fell asleep. I woke up over an hour later, and there was Gonzo and a pile of budgie dookie on my shoulder. He hadn’t moved the entire time. I don’t know what he was trying to accomplish, but he was a great buddy.
I don’t know what he thought about us, if he thought he was an undersized person, or we if we were all just big, ugly, and featherless parakeets to him. That bird was special. We have great pets now (as I’m sure most families feel about their animals), but Gonzo will always be tough to beat. Cognitively, he was like a toddler with wings. He was 37 grams of whoop-ass, and full fledged member of the family. He really seemed to care about and look after everyone in the house.
Gonzo liked just about everybody. I don’t think anyone came into our house that upset him. He was our de facto 5th Beatle. Allison left a memorial to him with flowers on our front stoop this past summer. I would joke that Gonzo “looked like me”, which annoyed Andrew to no end. He was our friend.
In fact, if we ever put up a tombstone, it would read: Gonzo Kesselring, friend to all.
I’m an almost 41 year old, grown-ass man, and I’ll admit it. I still miss him.