Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Invisible Woman

I have lived in my apartment building since March of 2002, it is now November 2018. No one my age in New York City stays in one place as long as I have. I am here because of the rent, and the warm morning light, and strong water pressure, and close proximity to my work. I am also here in spite of the two mice fighting and squeaking in the middle of my kitchen floor, and the giant cockroach that sauntered onto my yoga mat that one time I tried to meditate. My building as 5 floors, I am on the 4th. It has 4 apartments on each floor and no elevator. The further you go up, the tougher the people are for walking up the stairs day after every damn day with groceries, with laundry, with a new something silly but feel-good from Home Goods. It is not perfect. But sometimes it is.

I have had the same landlord for 16 years. George. He is someone I have known for a long time, but at the same time, not known. He has unclogged my tub with his bare hands. He has told me there is nothing he can do. He has probably saved me from things I don't even realize he did. This past week George sold our apartment building. He had owned it for 38 years. Now what?

George invited the people in the building out to dinner this week. I went to dinner and sat across from people who I have walked by in the tiny pre-war spiral hallways day after day after day. When they sat down for dinner, they asked me where I live. Then they told me they didn't recognize me. Three separate people told me this. It is so weird. It is so New York.

I love it here.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

in pursuit of peanut butter

“Welcome to a life of the mind”, were the words from our University President upon my entrance to graduate school, which felt both corny and inspiring.

During graduate school I knew that I would miss the days of sitting around thinking deeply about evolution. Days of scribbling down wild ideas, confusing myself, days of re-re-reading articles, and the gentle roiling angst that comes with doing/what-am-I-doing science. But I couldn’t appreciate it. 

Having earned your Ph.D. means a very specific thing. It means you have your Ph.D. It means you came up with an original idea, read the related literature carefully, collected new data (in some cases), wrote about it for more pages than will likely ever be read, and your scholarship was approved by experts in the field. But it also means something else. 

It means that throughout this process of idea generation and pursuit you have developed a habit of mind, that you cannot lose. You can never just read one article on a new topic again and purport to know about it, because behind each piece of knowledge lies a vastness and complexity and nuance that one cannot wholly grasp, unless one really, deeply, years-of-hard-work knows it. It is an intense humbling. In this depth lies confusion, conflicting information, mistakes, and doubt that you have to wade through in order to find your particle of, dare I say, truth. And finding something that no one has before does not typically feel anything like eureka, it feels more like dipping your toe in a freezing cold body of water in the pitch black night; a creepy shiver at best. 

I am acutely aware of not making others who don’t have this degree feel inadequate. People get weird about it honestly. Sometimes people immediately start telling me about their plans for graduate school, which feels less like a conversation, and more of a confession. Other times people puff up and pontificate in order to assert their knowledge. I didn’t ask for that. I do not want to make people uncomfortable. So, I have taken to not telling people most of the time, because I don’t want the weirdness. I believe that many minds have something to offer, and the quality of someone’s ideas is not equivalent to their schooling. The quality of ideas is equivalent to the quality of the ideas, whether it comes from a 5th grader, or a distinguished professor.

But in my hiding, I have lost something. It’s turned into something that feels more like shame. This is my doing entirely, no one asked me to behave this way. I work with many non-academics around me, so this has something to do with it. It’s like I learned how to swim, but now I pretend I don’t know how: why would anyone do that?  So, I am writing to remind myself that this degree is something. It is not nothing. It was transformative for me. And I am sorry if my own personal pursuit has scared you, or reminded you of your own failures, that was not my intention. I ate peanut butter for many years, and thought deeply about things most people don’t care about. And I am not sorry that I love both of those things. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

pools of coffee, waves of joy

It wasn’t raining. It also wasn’t sunny. It was an in-between blue-grey day.

I paid. They handed it to me. As they passed the paper cup over the counter, it felt like slow-motion glory. I could not imagine wanting something more than I wanted the contents of that cup. It had a beautiful only-ness to it. My brain was soup. It was a haze, under-motivated to even zip up my jacket all the way. My hair was combed, but it looked uncombed. I no longer hated everyone for not respecting me for all the things I had done that they had no way of knowing about. I was too weak to hate. I reached out and grabbed it like a warm ring of gold, the holy grail, to go.

I nodded and thanked them, more than they could know. I didn’t need my change. I apishly pulled that poorly-designed plastic tab. I pulled it so much. I pressed it back in its supposed divot. It popped up. I pressed it back again. Even though I knew things were uncertain, I went in for a sip. The plastic tab irreverently popped up again and scraped my eager lips. But I did not care. I could swear that I could feel it sparking and lighting through my brain like a trail of water through a desert dry for 1000 years.

It was imperfect, but still good. I instantly felt strong and what I imagine normal to be like.

My hand gripped the cup in earnest. So much so that a little empty spot above my wrist, framed by strained tendons, appeared because my hands are so bony. Into this space, the coffee pools. It jumps and sloshes while I walk. It pools in the temporary place in my hand that is only there because I am holding the cup. The cup and the space are a part of one another, dependents in a messy morning dance that I cannot hate, nor ever fully enjoy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Bird

They arrived on a Wednesday, in a box labeled honey baked ham. I rushed around teaching, meeting, and answering emails. The box sat. I knew what was inside, but I needed time to open it. Time to carefully inspect the cold little bodies inside. Time to respect their terminated lives. And I wanted to be alone with them.

The box felt heavy and damp as I carried it. It was 12:14pm when I arrived in the lab to unpack my precious frozen gift. My hands trembled. I have been dreaming of their nuanced intraspecific diversity for many months. Subtle differences between individuals of the same species will tell us something new. It’s different than the great variation we see between wildly divergent species. It’s quieter. Newer.

I pulled through two tightly knotted plastic bags. There they were. In a heap, not a flock. In a pile, not a murmuration. One man’s trash. I lifted the first bird. It’s neck was crooked, it’s eyes gently closed. Dignified, even in death. Tawny brown head, it was a juvenile in its last autumn plumage. I set it down in the afternoon sun. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

the bird that isn’t a bird

“They are not considered birds, they are not considered birds”, the ornithologist repeated. They are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You don’t need a permit to kill them. According to the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group, they are one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. European starlings in North America are reviled for their ecological, agricultural, and aeronautic troublemaking.

In 1960, a flock of ~20,000 starlings caused one of the worst airplane bird strikes in history. During take-off the birds were ingested into the engine, causing power loss, and eventually a sideways crash. Sixty-two people were killed. Starlings wreak havoc on farms. They eat the most proteinaceous plant parts, meant for cows, which effects the quality of milk production. Their guano can transmit diseases such as histoplasmosis and E.coli. They also compete with native birds for nesting sites. 

Wildlife control agencies end the lives of millions of starlings every year. These birds are killed creatively. They are trapped, gassed, poisoned, their cervical vertebrae dislocated. In 1890, when starlings first arrived in North America, their were no commercial airplanes, and many fewer cows. I wonder when they were first recognized as problematic? Perhaps not at the outset, allowing them time and space to properly invade. 

All of this is to say, we shouldn’t hate these birds. But we should be cautious not to love them either. No point in getting carried away about their beauty, gregarious nature, or skills of mimicry. That is the type of sentimental thinking that launched this invasion. But, from an evolutionary perspective, I think we have something serious to learn from our unwelcome guests. Their morphological, behavioral, and dietary adaptations are noteworthy. Their population expansion nothing short of astonishing. So, to understand some central concepts in evolutionary biology—variation within species, adaptation to novel environments, and reproductive success—it’s fitting that we turn to the starlings. Even stripped of the honor of being called a bird, and despised for legitimate reasons, the starling still has scientific stories to tell. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

something about starlings

It wasn’t until I reached my office, safe from the crowds, that I knew. I sat in my chair, and stared at my lifeless companions with a new respect. I felt pleasantly betrayed. I had no idea they would elicit that reaction. When museum visitors saw them, they whispered, and pointed, and grabbed. It was as if I was wheeling around miniature feathered rock stars. People wanted a piece of them. And badly.

Starlings arrived in New York City in 1890. Sixty individuals were released in Central Park as part of an effort to populate the park with each bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was a wonderful, awful idea. Sentimentally driven, ecologically ignorant. Today there are ~200 million starlings in North America. This is not considered good. They are an invasive species; raiding crops, outcompeting native birds, and interfering with aircraft. Part of their success lies in their dietary flexibility. I once saw two starlings fighting over a piece of prosciutto on Columbus Ave. They were both holding it in their beaks. It was strung between them like a salty ribbon in an only-in-New-York Disney scene. They flapped, and pulled, and snapped. 

Sturnus vulgaris are, what I would consider, beautiful birds. In spring and summer, they sport a striking iridescent radiance, paired with a shock of yellow beak. In fall and winter, they take on modest brown plumage, flecked with little light colored “stars”. The origin of their name. They are ubiquitous, and decidedly unspecial by ornithological standards. From an ecological perspective, they are downright hated. Starlings are remarkable for their boldness, not for their rarity. They flourish in urban environments throughout the world; Europe, South Africa, New Zealand. Starlings still live in Central Park today, and all around the museum, aggressively pecking at the grass and forming peaceful groups with their inelegant associates, the pigeons.

My four starlings were dead. Taxidermied specimens for education and research. Clustered together in silence on my rolling cart. Not singing, or flying, or behaving. I was walking through the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. One of the most spectacular and impressive dinosaur exhibit halls in the world. But T. rex had nothing on my starlings. Nevermind that, evolutionarily, birds are avian dinosaurs, or that many starlings were alive and flourishing all over the museum lawn at that very moment. There is something about a specimen. The stillness. The oldness. The perceived specialness. But I think it was also a little about the birds too. One specimen was from winter, the other three summer. Spectacular in a kind of ordinary glory.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

strong nothing

This is the second post as part of new installment on my Blog called “Better Left Unsaid”, which consists of blog posts I wrote a long time ago but never published: 

Today was one of those days that didn’t evoke a particularly strong anything. So, I decided to force-feed myself all the ways that the day I was experiencing was actually great. But, alongside all the goody-goodness I could conjure, lurked equally valid reasons why the day stunk. Here they both are:

the GOOD-
sunny morning after days of rain.i dont have to wake up if i dont want one is expecting me anywhere.the jasmine plant seems to be doing well.lingering over coffee.spent all morning puttering around the apartment.almost has the makings of a lazy sunday.Joe caught a fly with his bare hands last night, that fly had been bothering me for days.walked to the museum to complete a minor my free pinkberry: original with chocolate excellent jazz duo, sax and bass, played at the one bothered me on my walk. the apartment looks great when it’s clean.i have nowhere to be.

the BAD-
i told myself i would go running, but i never made it.the bath mat smells moldy.i do all the cleaning.the rubber gloves i bought for cleaning don’t fit.i almost stepped in finely smeared shit on the sidewalk.too many lazy sunday-ish days in a row lose their luster.the odor of the garbage truck almost made me heave.The fly that Joe caught with his bare hands last night was still alive in the garbage.i killed the fly by stepping on it, and it left its blood on the bottom of my slipper.i am still waiting for an email response about something i care about.getting a free pinkberry probably means i eat too much of it. i have nowhere to be.

Perfect Day by Lou Reed