Wednesday, November 3, 2010

“The Grieving Owl”—the analyst and the trader

To those who have wondered both silently and in writing whether I ever read anything that isn’t financially related, the short answer is “yes.” Rarely, however, can I mine any of these books for blog post material. For instance, I recently finished John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. Since it had a Russian money laundering backdrop, I thought it might prove fruitful. Wrong. But then, to make a long story short, and a short story very short, came David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Little, Brown, 2010) and “The Grieving Owl.” I’ve taken the liberty of subtitling this story “the analyst and the trader,” even though the book carries the usual disclaimer: “Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.” I should add my own disclaimer: The portrait of the “trader” may be unduly harsh, but don’t forget which owl is painting it. Take it in the whimsical spirit in which it is offered.

Here are the salient passages.

“It’s not just that they’re stupid, my family—that, I could forgive. It’s that they’re actively against knowledge—opposed to it the way that cats, say, are opposed to swimming, or turtles have taken a stand against mountain climbing. All they talk about is food, food, food, which can be interesting but usually isn’t.”

. . .

“One of the things an owl learns early is never engage with the prey. It’s good advice if you want to eat and continue to feel good about yourself. Catch the thing and kill it immediately, and you can believe that it wanted to die, that the life it led—this mean little exercise in scratching the earth or collecting seeds from pods—was not a real life but just some pale imitation of it. The drawback is that you learn nothing new.”

The narrator owl hasn’t learned this survivalist lesson well; he wants to learn new things. And so he bargains with his potential prey, the rat: “Teach me something new, and I’ll let you go.” The rat obliges and is duly freed to take off across the parking lot. But “just as he reached the restaurant’s back door,” the narrator owl continues, “my pill of a brother swooped down and carried him away. It seemed he had been following me, just as, a week earlier, I’d been trailed by my older sister, who ate the kitten I had just interrogated, the one who taught me the difference between regular yarn and angora, which is reportedly just that much softer.

“'Who’s the smart one now?’ my brother hooted as he flew off over the steak house. I might have given chase, but the rat was already dead—done in, surely, by my brother’s talons the second he snatched him up. This has become a game for certain members of my family. Rather than hunt their own prey, they trail behind me and eat whoever it was I’d just been talking to. ‘It saves me time,’ my sister explained after last week’s kitten episode.

“With the few hours she saved, I imagine she sat on a branch and blinked, not a thought in her empty head.” (pp. 74-75)

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