Marcel Teaches Me to Sing Again

Not long after a wrenching breakup with my then-fianc, I embarked on a very 1990s, introspective, California-style character retrofitting and the purchase of a canary, Marcel. The retrofit featured some cosmetic reconfiguring: a new hair color (red) and hair style (long). The foundation work included reinforcing personal strengths (particularly a sense of humor) and shoring up a shaken sense of confidence in just about anything.

Marcel, the canary, figured into the fun, pampering part of the equation. I hadn't had a pet since junior high and my guinea pig, Sally Ann Doris Lynn Louise Mona Fiona Elsa Nancy Joy Nigel Heard. Remembering Sally's name 20 years after the fact baffles me. Maybe it's because I chose the names from my favorite books, beloved relatives, and special friends.

Anyway, after I got Marcel and before I knew it, I was enthusiastically relating baby canary stories to a co-worker. The topic of conversation obviously worried and slightly horrified him. He was probably picturing me becoming the old woman who lived in a shoe and, in this scenario, had so many pet birds she didn't know what to do. What he didn't know was that Marcel was part of my overhaul, the whistle while I worked.

Marcel, the yellow canary, was my one flash of color (not counting my new hair) and herald. I looked forward to hearing Marcel sing in the morning before I went to work and in the evening when I came home (if only to minimize time spent on weekend afternoons soaking in a hot bath at my friend's house and crying to the tune of running water). Having Marcel might mean I wouldn't be wearing out the patience of friends I wanted to keep. Not to mention preventing me from turning into a prune-skinned amphibian.

Fortunately for me, my friends, and my life on land, Marcel began to find his singing voice a few weeks after he joined my household. He'd start with a prolonged squeak and then break into song, notes tripping up and down an impressive, multi-octave range. I left the radio on for him all day, alternating between the local classical station and my favorite "movin' on, leavin' your woman or man 'New Country' " station. Marcel, the singing canary sun-substitute, lit up even sequential fog-filled San Francisco summer days.

THIS rapture of melody halted abruptly after Marcel went through his first molting season. He stopped singing. Pet stores I called told me to play tapes of singing canaries to get him back into the swing - or sing. No reply.

Months passed; my life returned to a certain kind of normal. Between work and play, I almost didn't have time to miss Marcel's singing recklessly all over the scale. But I did feel the gap, even though some pet-bird manuals I'd read said this silence was nothing unusual. Some canaries just stop singing, they said. I didn't totally begrudge Marcel this stage in his life, but he was a canary. It was his nature to sing, wasn't it?

A friend who loves animals of all sorts finally suggested that I start singing to Marcel. Maybe he needed extra-special TLC, she said.

"Excuse me? I'm supposed to sing to a canary? What's wrong with this picture?" I replied. "My singing might silence him forever!"

My friend said that Marcel would probably have a sense of humor about it. Even if I did not.

All I had to lose was an overdeveloped self-consciousness about my singing, that it could send any living thing, even plants, screaming in the other direction. So I started singing easy tunes to Marcel twice a day - once in the morning when I got up and again right before I covered his cage for the evening. My roommate joined in, but covertly at first. "I've been singing to him, too," she admitted to me later. We were wrapped (warped?) up in an attempt to sing a canary into song.

In less than two weeks, Marcel burst into unparalleled, almost operatic bird song - just as if someone or something had unlocked his voice. I would catch myself humming the tunes I sang to him - at work, walking down the street. I, too, was singing, badly, but I wanted to sing. It felt natural, right.

I practiced the piano more, even in the morning before work, because Marcel would join in. One morning on my way to the office, I ran into my upstairs neighbor and her three-year-old daughter. The first thing my neighbor said was, "The music you play in the morning is so pleasant. I really like it!" Her little girl looked up at me, grinning in agreement.

Clearly, this music feast had unforeseen, beneficial, wide-ranging consequences!

I'm not sure when I stopped focusing so seriously on what had gone wrong in my life, and with whom. Probably about the time I started singing to a canary, and the canary sang back!

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