* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we are still hiding in the closet because our dad let us watch The Birds when we were nine. Apparently Jeff Dutre's dad did the same thing.

Parakeet!

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Our house is dark. More than ten thousand households are without electricity, according to the announcer on my portable hand-cranked radio. He sounds like he’s been crying.

Our cat is running from room to room, searching for something to hide under. I’ve chopped up all the furniture and nailed it to the windows. Nothing can get in — I hope.

My wife has pushed our heavy dining room table against our front door. Good for her. She’s not ready to give up. Not yet.

We hear noises outside: wings flapping and a hideous pecking and scratching against our vinyl siding. And of course the squawking.

My only flashlight went out an hour ago. All we’ve got left are some lavender-scented dollar store candles. They don’t provide much light — perfect for a romantic dinner but useless for this crisis. They don’t even smell good. They smell like cheap lavender underarm deodorant. Already I’ve got a headache from them.

My wife runs to me, and we hold each other close. The pecking and scratching is louder now. The cat cowers at our feet. The squawking rises to an insane pitch: “Hello! Hello! Who wants a cracker? I love you! I love you!” Taunting us. They’re taunting us.

The cat’s fur is standing straight up. She appears twice her normal size. A neat trick, but I don’t think it’ll do her much good in this situation. I envy her, though. If I could puff myself up to twice my normal size maybe I’d find the courage to make a run to the car. But then I remember I drive a subcompact. If I were all puffed up like the cat, I’d never fit behind the wheel. Maybe I could spread out in the back seat and let my wife drive. Nah, if I was puffed up twice my normal size we couldn’t even get the doors closed. We’d be sitting ducks. I told you, it’s a subcompact.

I crank up the radio and raise the volume so we can hear it over the pecking and squawking outside. The announcer is talking fast. Little by little we make sense of what he is telling us.

Not long ago, to the surprise of ornithologists, a colony of tropical parrots made itself at home near the old Albany Steam Station. These “monk parakeets” as they are called, built a heavy nest on a switchyard tower, causing this power outage.

Fifteen birds make up this colony. Police suspect they are escaped pets, or the offspring of escaped pets. Their ringleader is a large myiopsitta monachus believed to have arrived in this country illegally by cargo ship. Whether he falsified documents, or merely hid under a shipment of bananas, is unknown to us. But he is here, and he is stirring up trouble.

A man walking down the street enjoying a Ritz cracker was pecked to within an inch of his life. A local Cracker Barrel restaurant was burglarized. The Nabisco factory is in flames. A truck delivering a shipment of saltines to an Italian restaurant was commandeered and diverted to the switchyard nest. It’s our crackers. It’s our crackers they’re after.

For years they watched with envious eyes as we nibbled our hors d’oeuvres, made mindless small talk over our canapés, feasted on our sesame, our multigrain, our whole wheat crackers, the crumbs sticking to our chins in tempting little beak-sized bites. They watched us. And waited. All they needed was a charismatic leader to inspire them into action. And he is here.

The announcer stops talking. For a moment there is dead air. Then comes a muffled scream. This is followed by several sickening thuds (the poor man being beaten over the head with his own microphone, evidently) then more dead air. Finally we hear a different voice over the airwaves, a high-pitched singsong cry: “Can you say your name? My name is Polly!”

My wife grabs the radio from my hand and hurls it to the floor. It explodes into a million pieces. The stinky, flickering candles throw weird patterns against the dark walls and boarded-up windows.

Suddenly there is a flutter of wings from behind our mantel. “Oh my God!” I shout. “The chimney!”

Something has emerged from the fireplace. Something fat and beaky and feathery, with a pointy head and a proud, mad glint in its eyes. Somehow I understand that this is the alpha male monk parakeet, the ringleader, the top bird. A pungent smell hits my nostrils. The cat has voided its bowels. Or was it me?

Finally the thing speaks. Despite its limited vocabulary, the malevolence it radiates is palpable. “Pretty boy! Hello! Hello!”

With the strength of a superman, I lift the dining room table and toss it away from our front door. I scoop up the cat and grab my wife’s hand and we run outside to the car. I whisper thanks to the Creator when the ignition sparks immediately. The parakeets hadn’t thought to tamper with the engine. Maybe they’re not as smart as we’d feared.

I shift to reverse. Tires squeal as I lurch out of our driveway. There is a squawk from under the car, then a spray of feathers. “I think I got one of them!” I yell.

My heart is pounding as I turn onto Main Street. In my rear view mirror I see the cat staring out the window at the horror we’ve left behind. My wife snaps on her seat belt and curses under her breath. I shift into high gear and aim for the Interstate. There is no traffic, no sign of life anywhere.

I punch the radio on, hoping for some news, some sanity, anything at all to make sense of what we’ve endured. I hear static. I search until I hear a bright, high-pitched voice boom from the car speakers: “Squawk! Hello! Squawk! Hello!”

My wife turns off the radio. I check the fuel gauge. We’ve got a full tank. My plan is to drive north as far as I can, where the weather is too cold for tropical parakeets. I can almost feel my body relax.

Until I hear a flutter of wings from the back seat, and a shriek from the cat.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where our favorite visualization is the one in which our good friend Jeff Dutre brings us another fresh bit of fun.

Ineffective Guided Visualizations

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WARM WATER

Sit comfortably in your chair. Close your eyes. Take two or three deep breaths. Relax your body. Start with your feet. Imagine they are floating in a warm pool of water. Feel the water rise to your knees. Nervous tension disappears as the warmth rises. Relaxation continues up your legs to your waist. Take more deep breaths. Let the soothing water rise to your chest. You might notice your body becoming heavier, as the warmth spreads up your arms to your shoulders. Your neck and jaw muscles loosen as the water covers your chin. Take deep, slow, cleansing breaths until you are completely submerged. Now thrash your arms wildly and scream for a lifeguard.

THE FOREST

You’re deep in the forest. See the patterns of shadow and light on the forest floor as the sun shines through the treetops.

(Wait, what’s that noise? Is that Bobby? How did Bobby get in here? How did he get past the baby gate?? Honey, will you get Bobby out of here? How the hell am I supposed to do my guided visualizations with a toddler staggering around in here? Phew! What a stink! Will someone please put a fresh diaper on this kid? I’d like to know who had the bright idea to switch him from applesauce to Vienna sausage snacks, because it sure as hell wasn’t me.)

Okay, where were we? Oh yes, the forest. Take a deep breath. Smell the earth, the leaves, the fresh pine. All the worries and cares of civilization are far behind you. Gentle birdsong floats through the air, filling you with reverence for all God’s creatures. Except for that rabid fisher over there. It walks towards you, its gait unsteady, its red eyes unfocused, white foam dripping from its teeth. How far is it back to the car?

SUNLIGHT MEDITATION

Close your eyes. Now picture yourself in a safe, beautiful place outdoors. Feel the heat of the sun as it warms your skin. It soothes every muscle, tendon and nerve…

(BANG! What the hell was that? Did Bobby knock something over? Will someone please put that kid in his playpen before he wrecks the house? Lisa, put your little brother in his playpen, will you please? And take that army man away from him before he chokes to death! Who the hell gave him army men to play with?)

Okay, deep breath. Sunlight. Profound relaxation replaces all the tension in your body. Soak up the sun like a sponge – a tan sponge that grows more tanned with each passing moment as cosmic radiation awakens your skin cells, allowing them to shed their inhibitions and multiply uncontrollably. Now visualize the phone number of a good dermatologist.

TRAFFIC

Relax and imagine you are seated comfortably behind the wheel of your car. Traffic has slowed to almost a standstill. You are late for work again. You tap the gas pedal with your right foot, then apply the brakes, then tap the gas pedal, then apply the brakes. Inhale deeply and smell the fumes of the car in front of you. Its driver apparently possesses neither the funds nor the inclination to perform necessary repairs to its exhaust system. Now notice the colors around you: the deep blue of the morning sky, the rich black of the highway, the bright orange of the traffic cones blocking your way, the soft yellow of a blinking sign: “Single Lane Ahead — Expect Delays.” Let your muscles relax. Now listen. Don’t turn around. Do you hear something from the back seat? The wet, sickening sound of a diseased animal licking its foaming chops? Check your rear view mirror. It’s the rabid fisher.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we enjoy a quantum paradox now and then. We believe it is possible to simultaneously read and not read the following piece by Jeff Dutre. But we'd rather you just read it and stop screwing around.

An Interview With Schrödinger’s Cat

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With the release this summer of Schrödinger’s Cat’s memoirs (Schrödinger’s Cat: My Life Out Of The Box) the famous feline has come out of retirement and is busier than ever. Although he is older, heavier and a bit grayer around the whiskers, he still resembles the youthful, courageous animal who climbed into Erwin Schrödinger’s steel chamber in 1935 and changed the course of quantum theory forever.

We caught up with him in his publicist’s office for a saucer of raw milk and this candid conversation:

Q: How did you first become involved with Schrödinger?

A: I didn’t know any better! [LAUGHS] Actually, my living arrangement at the time was less than satisfactory.

Q: I read somewhere that you were homeless?

A: No, I was never a stray cat. I was living with an elderly woman and her eight-year-old grandson. She wasn’t a bad lady, but I found her grandson to be a rather disagreeable child, a budding sadist, if you will. He was forever confining me in small containers. I suspect he was hoping I wouldn’t survive confinement, but I always disappointed him. After waiting several hours, he’d open the container, expecting to find my dead carcass, but instead I’d leap out and use his head as a springboard to reach the top of a cupboard where the old woman kept a bottle of schnapps. I was drinking in those days.

Q: Sounds like a dysfunctional environment.

A: The old lady was drunk most afternoons, often forgetting to fill my food dish, and the boy’s behavior grew more sadistic, with longer and longer confinements. I knew I had to better myself and become self-supporting.

Q: Did you have a plan?

A: I looked at myself in the mirror one day and asked my reflection “What are my strengths? What is it I love to do, that I can turn into a vocation?” And my reply was “Well, I enjoy sitting motionless for long periods of time. I enjoy reading books about quantum systems and pondering the observer’s paradox. I enjoy licking myself.” And so, I started finding work where I could utilize my skills. At first, I posed for photographers and artists.

Q: In your book, there are several photos from that period. Specifically, cat calendars.

A: I was making decent money doing the calendars, although I’m not proud of some of the explicit stuff, like the “Cats Licking Themselves” calendar. If I hadn’t been so desperate, then perhaps I wouldn’t have accepted such an assignment.

Q: How did you finally meet Schrödinger?

A: Did you read my book, or did you just look at the calendar shots? To make a long story short, I answered an ad in Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences): “Cat wanted for scientific experiment. Good pay. Easy work. No treadmills or electrodes involved.”

Q: Did you know what you were getting into?

A: Well, if I’d known I’d be locked in a box with hydrocyanic acid, I wouldn’t have called Schrödinger! He never mentioned that part until much later! All I knew was I would get paid for sitting quietly in a locked container. I told him about my experiences with the boy, and that’s when Schrödinger said I was perfect for the job. The next day I was on a boat to Austria.

Q: You have been compared to Ham the Astrochimp, the first chimp in space, for your bravery and pioneering spirit in the service of Science.

A: Frankly, I’ve never welcomed the comparison. I met Ham in the early sixties, when we were on a lecture tour of elementary schools, and I found him less of a scientist and more of a glorified stunt pilot. He didn’t seem to care about the larger issues of the universe and our place in it. Instead, he was all about “Look at me and my shiny spacesuit!”

Q: Did you enjoy lecturing?

A: The children weren’t as excited with me as they were with Ham. I can’t blame them, really. He was much more of a showman. He handed out lollipops and sang patriotic songs. How do you compete with that? I’m proud to say I never pandered. I’d show up with my prepared material and a professional attitude. Maybe my slide show was a bit dry. I always did my best to get the kids interested in the quantum theory of superposition, but most of them just wanted to pet me.

Q: What was Schrödinger like?

A: Very serious. He never wanted to play. I’d drop a catnip mouse in front of him, hoping he’d toss it for me to chase, but he was too wrapped up in his work and his letters to Einstein.

Q: How did your relationship with Schrödinger end?

A: Late one night, after we’d returned from a cocktail party, we were enjoying a few highballs in his kitchen before bed. “Erwin,” I asked him. “Why a cat? Why not a hamster, or a mouse, or a small dog? Why did you choose a cat for your famous thought experiment?” He looked straight at me, and I’ll never forget this, he looked straight at me and replied “Because I don’t like cats.”

Q: Wow.

A: I got up off his kitchen table, walked out of his apartment, and never saw him again.

Q: One more question: What was it like being both dead and alive simultaneously?

A: I would describe it as Verschrankung. I was conscious, but only vaguely aware of the passing of time. I wasn’t at all concerned about the Geiger counter, the hammer, or the hydrocyanic acid. Without an outside observer, all possible outcomes had occurred, so why worry? I remember licking myself. That, I remember clearly.

Q: What’s next for you? How do you top Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment?

A: I’m going to leap off this table and use your head as a springboard to reach the top of that cupboard where my publicist keeps a bottle of schnapps. This book tour has been exceedingly stressful.

Q: What? Is this some sort of OUCH! Oh my God, I’m bleeding!

A: [FROM THE CUPBOARD] Not until I actually observe you bleeding!

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel. We are committed to providing a decent job for every American -- so long as that job consists of reading the material on our site every week and sending us money via PayPal. Just wanted to be clear on that. And now, this word from new contributor Jeff Dutre...

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

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Looking for a job? Looking for a career? The Department of Labor wants to help. Our “Dictionary of Occupational Titles” describes every job in the world, so you know just what you’re getting into before you apply. Here’s a few samples:

525.687-078 POULTRY HANGER
Shackles and suspends live or slaughtered poultry from conveyor for killing, scalding, removal of feathers or cleaning. Removes live poultry from shipping crates, or picks up slaughtered birds from platforms and chilling vats and hangs them by feet, neck, or wings on shackles of conveyor. Has frequent, shrieking nightmares that startle other residents of small apartment complex. Keeps to himself. Changes the subject if conversation turns to job, animal cruelty, or chickens. Eats only beef and fish. Unsuccessfully answers craigslist “women seeking men” listings in search of activity partner and/or life mate.

920.687-098 HANDKERCHIEF FOLDER (garment)
Folds handkerchiefs prior to packaging. May fold fancy handkerchiefs, such as men’s dress handkerchiefs, into specified shapes and place handkerchiefs in cellophane envelopes. Rents old movies from the ’30s and ’40s, taking special interest in those scenes where men remove their handkerchiefs with a flourish from their suit pockets to wipe the perspiration from their foreheads, and where women use their handkerchiefs to wave goodbye from departing trains. Laments the fact that no one really uses handkerchiefs anymore. Notices that many of his coworkers in the folding department have opted for early retirement. Hears rumors of layoffs. Wonders if it would be prudent to switch careers; to something perhaps involving suspenders and/or bowties.

920.387-194 VACUUM TESTER, CANS
Taps lids of cans or jars with stick as they pass on conveyor to determine if container is vacuum-sealed. Removes defective containers for reprocessing. Angrily tells his friends that no, it is NOT true that “anyone with half a brain” could do his job. Reminds them that not everyone can tell if a container is vacuum-sealed by means of a simple tap. Challenges them to try it themselves. Makes the dubious claim that this is a specialized skill, no, an art, dating back to the ancient Romans. Keeps a hand-tooled mahogany rack to hold a variety of sticks of varying lengths and thicknesses, for the purpose of tapping. Writes a regular column for the trade publication Vacuum Tester Monthly.

553.382-022 VARNISH MAKER
Controls equipment to melt, cook and mix ingredients, such as gums, oils, turpentine, and naptha, for use in manufacture of varnishes. Complains to wife every evening about frequent, debilitating headaches; tries a variety of pain relievers, starting with aspirin, then moving on to greater strengths of tylenol, motrin, and other over-the-counter medicines before begging his physician for a prescription, any prescription, to make the skull-splitting agony go away.

589.686-034 PACKAGE CRIMPER (textile)
Feeds machine that rounds edges of thread packages so that dye will penetrate thread uniformly. Complains endlessly about bass player in his band; how bass player is consistently late for practice, or doesn’t show up at all. Moans about long hours of package crimping job that interfere with the business of songwriting, song recording, and sending demos to talent agents and music industry representatives. Disparages other, more successful musicians. Experiments with a variety of hairstyles: short on top, long in back, or long on top and short in back. Calls in sick every other Monday.

049.364-010 FEED RESEARCH AIDE (agriculture)
Feeds rations of experimental feeds to animals such as dogs, mice and cows, and compiles data on growth, productivity, and health of animals. Tells no one about horse-sized mouse she has smuggled home with the help of a sympathetic, kind-hearted janitor. She knows her boss will kill and dissect the mouse, and this she finds unacceptable. Instead, she has set up a comfortable straw bed in her garage, and brings the mouse stolen bags of experimental feed. She brushes its fur and lets it listen to classical music while she is at work.

920.687-105 LABEL APPLIER (beverage)
Applies labels to whiskey bottles. Does the best he can, but his hands shake, and so he sometimes damages labels. Licks his lips and thinks about the last time he had a drink: four months, two weeks, three days, six hours and fifteen minutes ago. Feels nothing but contempt for inebriated co-workers. They are weak, and he is strong.

920.687-106 LABEL REMOVER (beverage)
Removes damaged labels from whiskey bottles. Places bottles on conveyor for relabeling. Receives stern warning from boss about being intoxicated on the job. Is accused by LABEL APPLIER (920.687-105) of purposely damaging labels. Raises himself to full height, shakes his fist and denies this vehemently before falling over onto conveyor and opening a nasty gash on nose.

649.686-014 CARD DECORATOR (print & pub.)
Tends machine that automatically glues decorative sparkle dust to greeting cards. Feeds greeting cards into machine. Refills hoppers of machine with glue and sparkle dust. Shakes sparkle dust out of hair and clothes onto bedroom floor, to the annoyance of his spouse. Showers frequently, leaving a ring of sparkle dust on shower floor. Awakens frequently during the night because of itching. Coughs up clouds of sparkle dust. Chest x-ray reveals heavy coating of sparkle dust on lungs. Ignores doctor’s advice to find a different occupation. Says, “My father was a card decorator. My grandfather was a card decorator. It’s in my blood,” “Yes it is,” his doctor replies. “Literally.”

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