you’re a parrot

From Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg (which I’m not reading, but my wife Laura is):

    The students occasionally took Alex to the washroom, where there was a very large mirror above the sinks. Alex used to march up and down the little shelf in front of the mirror, making noise, looking around, demanding things. Then one day in December 1980 when Kathy Davidson took him to the washroom, Alex seemed really to notice the mirror for the first time. He turned to look right into it, cocked his head back and forth a few times to get a fuller look, and said, ‘What’s that?’

    ‘That’s you,’ Kathy answered. ‘You’re a parrot.’

    Alex looked some more and then said, ‘What color?’

    Kathy said, ‘Gray. You’re a gray parrot, Alex.’ The two of them went through that sequence a couple more times. And that’s how Alex learned the color gray.

I have no idea what was really going on in Alex’s brain, but I do believe I understand why this story seems so touching. Alex learns that he happens to be a parrot. I happen to be a human being–and not just any human being, but exactly the one who happens to look back at me in mirrors (and who’s about as gray as Alex was). It all seems a matter of luck. You could be you, you could be someone else, you could be a very smart African gray parrot, or you could be a sea slug. I imagine a creature walking, crawling, or flapping through life until the point when it is suddenly told what it is. What a blow that could be! Our identity seems completely vulnerable to the whims of chance, not even slightly under our control. I only hope that Alex–if he really learned what he was–was glad about it. That’s about the best we can hope for.

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