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 to.no 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 task.got my free pinkberry: original with chocolate chips.an excellent jazz duo, sax and bass, played at the corner.no 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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ode to Graduate School

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

Ode to Graduate School

to the days of deep eternal questioning
to the sloth of waking up when the morning glories have swirled shut
to the luxury of sitting around thinking all day
when other people are actively doing and making and helping and struggling and tired.

to that microsecond when I tell a stranger what I do and I feel proud and interesting
only to snap back into my pathetic state of uncertainty, and then shame.
i dont have a real job
i am a disgusting lazy drifter with the illusion of ambition
hiding the filthy secret of waking up at noon
pretending to care, deciding whether to wear the same shirt as yesterday.

i sold my heart for a mind
one that does not suit me
can i go back to the way it was?
millions of years ago
before this pre-frontal cortex started
making things up that aren’t real.
is evolutionary thinking just a deep and
enduring form of intellectual nostalgia?

i have had so many theoretical adventures
all without leaving my apartment
but i want to go home again
to the way it was before i knew
to the way it was when i could still feel
without worrying
that what i am saying is
biased and absurd and overwrought
and filled with breezy, unexplainable goodness.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Way Forward

There is something to be said for slow, steady, plodding, gradual, progress. This is the way most science is done. Very few people can reinvent the wheel and reap the rewards that it enables. There is a lot of emphasis in our society on “thinking outside the box”. “Think different” you say? Well, what about thinking only very slightly differently, making it fit in with what we already know, and then releasing it to the world? Most progress is incremental. In many ways this gradual approach is more difficult than punctuated bursts of perceived brilliance because it requires background knowledge and working within constraints, but still emerging with something novel.

Among my mother’s cadre of wise sayings is: “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel”. It was applied to everything from my wedding invitations to my dissertation topic.

Maybe in response to this, and in accord with the silly inspirational sayings like “think different” (of which I fell for like a fool), I have staged my share of petty rebellions. So much of my life has been in response to some kind of perceived oppressive force. It has gotten me nowhere really.

As I race to finish my dissertation—which was meant to forge new ground, but essentially dug its own grave—I am reminded that reinventing the wheel is not always best the way forward. My Mom was right, again.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Art of Interruption

People are uncomfortable with silence. It’s too bad. So much thinking can be done in quietude. Not so, during active, empty, uncomfortable, rambling.

I think it is impolite to interrupt people when they are talking. I feel a deep churn in my gut when I realize, that I simply have to.

I love to listen. You can learn from listening, more than from talking. Layers of information, cloaked in social cues, sparkling with innuendos and thousands of years of biology and culture all terminating in the one wonderful and worthy star of a speaker.

I should not lionize the speaker by listening so intently though. Most people are just talking shit. Saying nothing. Wanting to talk. Wanting to fill something that isn’t empty.

I am realizing that in professional meetings, no one invites silence. The only way to speak is to interrupt. It’s disgusting, but necessary. Can I gracefully interrupt? My first word has to overlap with your last or I will sit there like a modern unpainted mime, making you uncomfortable with my silence while you make me uncomfortable with your unbroken string of breathless thoughtless sounds.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Homemade Gypsy

There is something so sad and deeply painful about Halloween. The homemade costumes that reveal what you hide in your junk drawers and the half-baked ideas you have in your head, that nobody “gets”. All glued together as a patchwork of vulnerability, for the world to see. As a child, you want so hard to be something. That universal yearning is so sweet and innocent, I almost can’t stand to think about it. So your Mom makes it real. You find yourself at the mercy of her versions of your ideas, which are limited by her energy and time. Then, after hours of insisting for this particular scarf, and not that one, you put on a coat as you go off to trick-or-treat, and the whole thing is ruined and even more unclear. You are just you again, but poorly dressed.

As a young adult, on Halloween, you stand around at parties explaining to each newcomer what you are, pathetically, because it is not clear. Because you aren’t clear. Because you want to be something that you are not, and that no one is. Because it all seemed so magical when you birthed the idea, and now the foolishness rises slowly around you and fills the room.

As an adult, it is ok to be silly, and to wear a costume, but some manifestations of this are more uncomfortable than others. This year, Halloween has escaped me. My heart is not in it, or glued to my sleeve, it’s nowhere. I am sad because I miss something, but I can’t tell if it’s youth that I miss or being a homemade gypsy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Common Ground

“They have a wine tasting every SomethingDay over on 98th street.” “Oh I usually go to the one on 108th, which also has wine tasting.”

My thighs strained. I was wearing shorts, a backpack and carrying a black plastic liquor store bag. I was undignified. They caught me off guard, or something. I walked up the stairs past my neighbors conversation about local wine tasting. 

I gave a smile that was undoubtedly bigger in mind than it was on my face. smirk. smurf. I meant to look friendly, but I am sure I was oozing rude white girl. 

I keyed into my apartment, made my favorite cannellini bean surprise, olive oil, capers, the works. My favorite. 

I opened the bottle of rosé.

As the screw spiraled down into the cork, I wondered. 

I wondered how many people in my building were opening bottles of wine at the end of their days. At the same time. I wondered how it would be if we all opened the same bottle, together. 

We clearly have things in common. We have lived in the same building for 10 years. We have the dry cleaners in common. We have the have man who yells “Glory, Hallelujah” repeatedly in common. The man with three pomeranians and a prosthetic leg, we all know him. We know our landlord is a slumlord (shhhh). And that someone smokes pot in the morning and its reprehensible, but that it smells good. 

But then I remembered how nice it is to be alone at the end of stressful day and I imagined that we had that in common too.