Reading the Macho Birders

Something a writer thinks about a lot is Voice – at least, it’s something this writer thinks about a lot, though I can’t say I think about it at the right times. I don’t often consider it while I’m writing, which is probably when it would make a difference. I tend to be shy about using a strong voice in my writing, thinking it would make the work too mannered and get in the way of the story; yet I purely love a strong voice when reading.

The best examples I know of strong, consistent narrative voice come from perhaps the last place you’d look for it; birding blogs.  To be specific, macho birding blogs. I follow a set of birding blogs that never fail to delight me, and it’s not just the bird photos – it’s the voice.

Let’s look at Seagull Steve and Felonious Jive, over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds. When you see a blog post titled “Costa Rica: Hammering Lifers at Las Alturas, Grit Blazing In Golfito“, you know you are in the presence of Voice. This blog has a well-developed online persona.

In October of this year, I returned to an autumnal birding battleground where I had not waged avian war since 1999: Ventura County. It was like MacArthur returning to the goddamn Phillipines.

This blog introduced me to the term ‘crushing’ in birding, something which I have recently seen local birders use even though none of us can really define it.  We just want to sound like the cool kids.

Then there’s This Machine Watches Birds, by Nate McGowan, and another verb I never thought applied to birds.

I was going to write this post about how I went to the valley and dipped on a Northern Jacana and how it sucks and blah blah blah. Fuck that whiny shit. I went to the valley and saw awesome fucking birds that most of you don’t see very often. I wouldn’t want to hear someone bitching about dipping on a Grassquit if they got to see Limpkin, Snail Kite, and Antillean Nighthawk. Dipping on birds is part of birding.

Macho birding at its best! Nate’s sidebar :

my exploits revolve around watching birds, listening to birds, and destroying birds with a camera.

Now I certainly get something from these blogs’ voice that the authors can’t, and that is the frisson of these new and exciting verbs – which is even stronger because they are not explained, nor are the geographic terms. I’ve seen the same technique used in science fiction to great effect. It gives an air of negligent expertise. I have to admit, I also enjoy the profanity.

Birdcrusher hangs out with these people, but positions himself as a younger and less grizzled version.

And now, a boy arrives at the puffins. In a dark blind on Machias Island as HJs were being furiously exchanged in the shadows, a boy and three nerds brutally did this. The devastation was total. A boy prays and hopes that the island’s seabird populations will recover from his actions.

This voice, frankly, sounds like a parody of the others. It makes their secret too obvious – that it is all about using in-terms without explaining them (HJs?) and applying violent words to a nonviolent activity. It falls into meta with the number of terms – furiously, brutally, devastation in two sentences? – and the clash between his self-presentation as a boy and the violent language. I can’t fall into unselfconscious enjoyment of this one; it jerks me into critical analysis. Which is not at all a bad thing. If I were writing in one of these voices I would definitely want to have self-parody in my toolbox, and be able to jerk the reader around like this.

The voices in these blogs don’t depend on tricks of phrase alone, though. From the very nature of the blogs, they must contain content and it must be specialized content that demonstrates their expertise. Seagull Steve’s persona would not work if he didn’t tell us which bird is actually the most over-rated in California, with supporting argument. Nate McGowan’s blog would just be posturing if he did not in fact post amazing bird photos and discussions of identification. Nor would using a voice like this in fiction writing work unless you could demonstrate the character’s actual expertise.

The best stab I’ve made at an expert’s voice was in The Adjunct, though there’s nothing macho about that character. It was fun to write something in my wheelhouse, where I actually had the depth of expertise to draw on. It would be a way bigger challenge to create one of these characters in an area I wasn’t strong in, because it is my impression that you need a lot of submerged expertise to support a little Voice. But it would be worth the work.

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Turn your child into a marine biology fanatic

Pagoo by Holling Clancy Holling was one of the best science books I ever read as a kid. As soon as we arrived at our vacation spot I would race to the library, take this book home, and lose myself in the microscopic and not-so microscopic adventures of Pagoo the hermit crab.

To this day, whenever I think of plankton or tide pools, these are the images that come to mind. When I finally got to graduate school in marine biology, I discovered that Holling Clancy Holling was absolutely accurate. Just compare his painting of Pagoo the zoea with a modern photo from Wikipedia:

The artist had obviously looked through a microscope, and captured the wonder of that invisible world.

Pagoo isn’t a long book, nor does it have to be. Almost half of its pages are full-page color plates of the Pacific tide pool world, and the margins of the other pages are filled with sketches of everything from how mussels form their byssus threads to how a larval crab sheds its shell. Not to mention everybody’s favorite villain…

Nowadays I’m sure kids get interested in marine biology through the internet. But there’s still a lot to be said for a book you can take out in the back yard and read under a tree. For my money, this is that book.

Holling Clancy Holling was one of the great artist-naturalists of the 1920-40s who roamed the US recording what the saw and experienced. Stories of his travels across America and how it was reflected in his art and books can be found at the Holling Clancy Holling blog.

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Peak Password (or why Amazon will eat PayPal’s lunch)

I donated to Wikipedia last month. I clicked the button with a sinking heart, not looking forward to the tedious business of managing to make my donation, hunting up my credit card or PayPal password, and then what appeared but an Amazon link! To say I was relieved would be understating things. I was able to make my donation with the same one-click ease with which I make my purchases. And I left the site thinking Why doesn’t everybody offer this option?

I have reached Peak Password. I don’t care about competition or monopolies any more; I don’t care if Amazon is poised to take over the world and enforce its will via its new drone army. I just never want to create another online account and make up another password. I’ve reached the point where if something requires a new online account, I just do without it.

In the last month alone, I’ve not made online purchases because they required a new account. I’ve not joined groups. I’ve not bought tickets, which means I’ve not attended performances. And I’m not alone.

Imagine if you went into a store and had to fill out a form before you could step up to the cash register and buy your stuff. That establishment would go out of business. Even more so if you could go into the Amazon store next door and buy the very same item with no more trouble than saying ‘hello’ to the clerk.

I don’t see any way this ends well for Amazon holdouts. Theoretically, I should care about that. But in real life, my only emotional response is Yay, no more G.D. accounts to create!

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Unexpected Publication!

I happened to go to my Amazon author page and what did I see but a new book! From the Dragon Lord’s Library, an anthology I sold a story to, has come out. I’m quite happy to be in a book with such a dragonly cover.

cover of the dragon lord's libraryI can’t speak for the rest of the stories, but mine is an Edwardian-style tale with a giant who hides his heart, a moody hen dragon, and one of those frogs who rescue golden balls for princesses. What more do you want?

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Is it time for unabashed Community fiction?

Sarah Avery has a long and fascinating essay at Black Gate about serial novels and why. It’s one of those essays that I hope will become a classic, because it names something that is definitely out there but I haven’t before seen clearly identified; the community-driven novel and its delights.

She puts her finger right on what I value most in a novel, and even why I write novels. The multiplicity of characters. The way they see things differently, get along in little ways and irritate each other in little ways, come at problems from different perspectives, fit their strengths together and make up for each other’s weaknesses. This is one of the great pleasures of reading and of life, and I’ve never seen it directly addressed before.

To what extent have genre authors been steered away from this just because it wasn’t a recognized category? How many community-driven genre novels have been reshaped to meet publishers’ and editors’ criteria for something else?

I have to admit, I don’t think of most genre epics – even series  – as community novels. The ones I’ve read seem more focused on one character, or on one set of events in which all the characters are involved. My experience of real-world communities is that while one or two characters may be engrossed in putting the fire out, at least as many others are looking for the marshmallows, or haven’t noticed the fire at all, or realize they need the details of an article about combustion and are back in their offices googling it when the building finally falls down on top of them.

And that’s what I love about community novels.

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Unfriendly Literature

Umberto Eco had an interview in the Guardian in which he encapsulated a view of literature that is pretty much what I picked up in college lit classes.

“I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

“It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

Just reading this brings back the atmosphere of an undergraduate literature class on a sunny fall afternoon in the 1970s. A third of the students have not read any of the book in question and are shifting in their chairs, staring into space. Most of the rest have read part of it and are hoping the prof only asks about that part. I’m not in either group, because I was always a fast reader; but being in my early teens and from a family of science nerds, I have no context in which to place the book and have not understood it at all. When I speak up it will be with an off-kilter comment that provides more inadvertent humor regarding my family’s oddities than insight about the work in question. I will spend much of the time drawing diagnostic pictures of fishes or liver flukes in my notebook – not even decently in the margins, but on the page itself in token of this class providing nothing worth writing down – and I will get an A by virtue of being the only person who read everything and attended all the class sessions.

And somewhere among all this, I pick up an adversarial image of modern literature. It’s about losers doing unrealistic, foolish, ‘dramatic’ things (like adultery) that real people do not do. A ‘good’ story’s real message is hidden in images and references, so no wonder if it means nothing to the person who doesn’t know that secret language. The author’s real goal is not to communicate or delight, but to show off for peers and slip something past the casual reader; when not slipping things past the lumpenreaders authors want to change them, unsettle them and overturn their cherished assumptions.

My job as a reader, I come to believe, is to be smarter than the author; to spot these attacks and fend them off. I do this mostly by focusing on biology. I write papers on the accuracy of cetacean classification in Moby Dick and the zoological evidence for where exactly the Ancient Mariner was becalmed. I finish an English minor and, later, a humanities BA, untouched by any trace of delight in ‘literature’ except for the two poetry anthologies I have to buy for a criticism course; I devour and memorize large parts of these, but they are almost all poems the prof did not mention in class.

All this time, I am reading genre literature by the bucketload. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Thrillers, Children’s Lit. These are the stories that don’t try to slip anything past me. When they challenge my assumptions, they do it to my face. They treat me with respect, as if the authors like me; this is not how I put it to myself at the time, but when I look back it’s the major impression I have of these books. They enlarge my world not only by adding new rooms to it, but by inviting me into them.

At some point I begin reading authors outside the genres. I remember some of them, am changed by some of them, and forget others even before I’ve returned them to the library. I now look back and think that many of the authors I forgot about were ones who alerted those well-learned defensive reflexes, the ones whose goal was to change me into the reader they wanted. Umberto Eco was one of them. And I wonder if the tension in the genres right now has nothing to do with whether books are about rocket ships or not, or the authors’ and characters’ diversity, and instead is about whether the authors alert those reflexes, whether they make their readers feel invited in to a new world or shut out of an in-crowd.

I wonder what thinking of it in this way would do to my own writing.

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Trees and Birds

Flickr, phphoto2010. Used under a creative commons license.

Flickr, phphoto2010. Used under a creative commons license.

One of the big drawbacks of christianity, for me, is that it was invented in a part of the world without the seasons I’m used to. The things that are most significant for me meant nothing to the folks writing the bible; am I supposed to believe that the whole spectacular yearly parade that shapes my life in the northern hemisphere is spiritually meaningless?

Honestly, if I had to choose between nature and christianity I would choose nature in a heartbeat. But it doesn’t have a church, at least not in my neighborhood. Nature falls down on the organizational side.

My church is a pretty exploratory one, so we did a parlor class on the spiritual meaning of autumn. If the bible doesn’t have what we need, we will make it up ourselves — so we focused on the two images of the trees turning and the birds migrating, on what we saw in them, which one we identified with the most, and what insights they give us into different virtues.

Herewith our first stab at the spiritual insights to be drawn from the things happening around us in fall:

Screenshot 2015-11-13 07.25.57I find this comparison really useful. Myself, I’m a tree. The things I aspire to almost all fall in the tree column, and hospitality is the virtue I most associate with them. But I have friends who are definitely birds! In our study group at church, we were split 50:50 between those who considered themselves following the path of trees and those following the path of birds.

Our church is gearing up for Divine Intervention, in which we offer winter shelter for the night to 20-25 of the local homeless ‘campers,’ as they prefer to be called. The tree and bird images couldn’t have come at a better time.

swallows on a branch in snow

Flickr – Keith Williams. Used under a Creative Commons license

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Cutting our own Throats With Privilege Talk

Ever since that article about rising death rates in the white working class came out, my corner of the internet has been full of speculation. Is it stress, caused by the actions of [group writer wishes to vilify]? Are people killing themselves because they lack [supportive social structure writer wishes to defend]? Because they are not getting help from [government program the writer wants to establish]? Because they’ve abandoned [moral position the writer identifies with]?

The most irritating hypothesis I’ve seen has been the Loss of Privilege hypothesis – that working class whites just can’t adapt to the changes that have expanded the groups taken seriously in the country. They can’t compete – they can’t reconcile themselves to having to compete.

I think this is a no-good, horrible, very bad idea. And at the same time it should be a great starburst of enlightenment.

The no-good: it undercuts sympathy. For heavens’ sake, here are poor people killing themselves in large number in my country, and I am supposed to say Aw, poor special snowflake couldn’t cope with being a little less special? F that S. It’s corrosive to me, whether it matters to a suicidal working class person or not.

The horrible, very bad: it gives up the battle before it’s even joined. Because suppose these people are killing themselves because they’ve lost things they used to be able to count on. Living wages, for instance. The hope of a peaceful retirement. Are we really going to agree that those things are ‘privileges?’

The enlightenment: all this privilege talk is a way of KEEPING US FROM DOING RIGHTS TALK. The term ‘privilege’ comes with connotations of ‘unfair,’ ‘special advantage,’ ‘get rid of it,’ that completely stop any consideration of whether these things are rights. It’s the biggest, most succcessful derailing of a national conversation since I’ve been old enough to pay attention.

Let’s look at some items from the gospel according to the privilege knapsack.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

Are you comfortable calling these ‘privileges?’ Saying that they are unfair special advantages that should be gotten rid of? With ‘privileges,’ the inequity would be gone if the privilege were taken away from those who have it. Things would be OK if nobody got to go to the front of the line. All that matters in privilege-land is equity, after all. But do any of us think things would be OK if nobody got reliable health care? If nobody could protect their children?

The word you’re looking for is RIGHTS. Stop calling things ‘privileges’ when they should be RIGHTS  that belong to all of us. Stop worrying about who has ‘privileges’ when the issue is who doesn’t have RIGHTSIt will not be OK if health care and safe housing are taken away from white people too. It will not be OK until those things are available to all, because they are not ‘privileges.’ They are RIGHTS, and it’s time we started calling them RIGHTS.

But that would be awfully inconvenient for some sectors of our society. Because it would give other sectors a common language and a common cause. Better for us to say those white working class people are killing themselves because they no longer have more privileges than others. If we start looking at what the RIGHTS of all citizens ought to be, and how many of them have been taken away over the last 30 years, who knows what might happen?

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Passing Things On (or not)

I’m not a fan, so I didn’t get too far in the Amazing Stories ‘Voice of Fandom’ article, but I got far enough to develop a huge case of deja vu when I read:

The problems facing fandom are multi-fold, but key among them I believe are the following: our graying is not nearly as much of a problem as the fact that we are ineffective in passing our culture on.

I also follow some traditional religious blogs, and this is the theme of them all. We’re not passing our tradition on! Will your children or grandchildren be X, Y, or Z?

I’ve thought about this a little myself, as I get older. I will not be passing my traditions on, and my grandchildren will not be X, Y, or Z, because I have none. Nor has my brother. Whatever proud Bownian traditions have been erected by previous generations will end with us. But the older I get, the more I realize that there were not that many proud Bownian traditions. What I admired in my parents, and regret to see passing from the world, was not unique to them; and it may not really be passing.

There are certainly people out there living the sort of hobby-farm rural lifestyle my father enjoyed, and there are academic philosophers like my mother, and there are people who carry on mannerisms from the pre-war days — I know some of them — and there are people who knit, who can, who chop wood, who garden, who play bridge, who have cats, who read mysteries. There is probably even someone out there who still reads Chemical Abstracts.

But! But! None of them are my parents. None of them tell our family jokes, or remember our family grievances. None of them discuss chemistry in bed or put up floating docks in the middle of the pond or make sun jam or steam their Xmas puddings over a wood stove — except they do, don’t they. As soon as I move away from the mere fact of being my parents into actual things my parents did, I move out of uniqueness.

Our lives are assemblages. Other people’s lives are assemblages. There is probably no single piece of the assemblage unique to any of us except our individuality and our body and our relationships with other individuals and bodies. And this is why I think the angst over tradition is a mistake, because it’s an attempt to displace what we really want, and can never have again, onto something else that is in truth not special in any significant way. We can tinker with a tradition forever without its ever being good enough, or authentic enough, or pure enough, because it really doesn’t contain the magic ingredient at all.

I could make a fetish of my family traditions, live in the same house, wear the same clothes and eat the same food, but none of it would bring my parents back. Better to take the hundreds of things they taught me and enjoy them for their own sake. Thank heaven, none of those things are unique, or even hard to find.

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Let’s do the Time Warp Again

Last night this song was playing on the radio as I drove home. This morning I was reminded of it again as I read the medical news in order – I hoped – to keep my pathophysiology notes up to date.

It’s harder to update my patho notes than you would expect. For instance, today’s oncology research news tidbit is that the closer cancer cells are to the embryonic cell state, the worse the prognosis.  This has been in my patho notes since I attended an oncology workshop in 1991. A few months ago, the research news told me that the cells in any given tumor varied, competing with one another. Amazing! At least, that was my response when I added it to my notes in 1992. I know the dates because I cleaned files this semester, throwing out the old folders I hadn’t opened for twenty years.

For the first ten years or so, I was smug when science writers discovered the existence of things I had been teaching for years. Now, it’s just plain embarrassing. How many times are the same old concepts going to be presented as brand new discoveries?

The internet was supposed to speed up the dissemination of information. We were all going to be more up to date when work didn’t have to wait 5 years between lab and textbook. And maybe for people deep in the field, whose interest is in the practical application of these concepts or the techniques of how to measure them, cancer biology is just zooming along.  But I am out here longing for some science writing with even a tiny bit of historical context – even a 30-second PubMed search to reveal how long something’s been in the literature.

Of course the real issue may be that the outlets I followed back then were the current science of their day, while the ones I follow now – the ones I can understand – are incapable of presenting the real cutting-edge work. Perhaps the real new stuff is inside an impenetrable fortress of molecular genetics, so we whole-body folks are left outside with the people who are just discovering that cells exist. Perhaps what I really need to update my patho notes is a course in cancer genetics.

Or perhaps the major conceptual discoveries really were all made in the early ’90s, and I shouldn’t have thrown out all those old folders.

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