Knee Jerk

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.

It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.

We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.

Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?

To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.

I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.

I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.

From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.

•••

I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.

We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.

“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”

“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”

I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”

When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”

I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.

The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.

What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.

•••

When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.

The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.

You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.

My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.

There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.

I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?

Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.

•••

When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.

Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.

Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.

After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.

Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.

Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.

I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.

Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.

Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.

I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.

•••

The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?

I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.

Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.

A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.

A gun says, Look at me. Now.

A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?

A gun says, I am afraid.

•••

My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.

I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.

This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.

This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.

This new understanding says, You were not alone.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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7 thoughts on “Knee Jerk

  1. “loitering in your despair”…love it. Hoping you got those birds to go somewhere else!

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