John Does Ornithology

I suppose the first question you might have after clicking on this article is- “John, what is ornithology?” God, what an uncreative question. Seriously, don’t ever pursue a career in question asking because that question is among the worst I’ve ever heard. Anyhoo, if you must know, Ornithology comes from the latin root Orni, which means incredibly awesome, and Thology, which means very likely to attract more women than you are socially equipped to handle. Put together, these roots refer to the scientific study of birds. Today, I’ll be introducing you to a few different birds that you could see in the gulf coast region of Texas and hopefully leave you with a greater understanding of the beauty of our feathered friends.

The Northern Mockingbird

a northern mockingbird, on its way to steal your girl

This staple of American birdwatching simply has to be first on the list. Not only can it be found year round in basically all of the southern United States and Mexico, it’s the state bird of Texas. The first recorded mention of the mockingbird was in a brief poem written by a Spanish conquistador in the sixteenth century:

the bird mocks me/ reminds me of my ex-wife/ i’m going to eat that bastard

It loses a little bit in translation, I think. As the aspriring poet mentions, the mockingbird gets its name from its tendency to mimic other sounds in its calls. Urban mockingbirds can be heard making car alarm sounds, repeating the sounds of domestic disputes, and broadcasting unsolicited mixtapes. Ornithologists have many theories regarding this tendency to copy whatever they hear, and the one that currently has the most support from the community is that the birds want to make their sounds more “relatable” to accrue the most retweets on cough tweeter. Like humans, the birds reach sexual maturity after one year of life, and will begin to pursue mates during the spring and early summer. To attract mates, the males will sing at the top of their little lungs, display the size of their wings, and physically pursue females that venture too close. The birds are socially monogamous, which means that they stay faithful to one mate for the entirety of the season, with a few exceptions. If a male demonstrates that he is not fully committed to parenting, usually by saying things like “well it wouldn’t hurt to wait for a little while, right?” or “i’m just not sure that we’re fully prepared for this at this point” the female is liable to fly away to find another mate that is 100% willing to blindly commit themselves with no regard for anything else.

three large mockingbird poops in a nest

Mockingbirds have also demonstrated a relatively high level of intelligence. In a study that replaced the entirety of students from a South Texas high school with mockingbirds, 57% of teachers were not able to tell a difference, and one bird went on to score a 1100 on the SAT and was admitted to Rice University, but was tragically killed after flying right into the glass doors of the university.

the author, with a mockingbird, shortly before it shit on my shirt and flew away

The Cowbird

This is by far the most savage bird that we will be reviewing today. If you doubt this fact, here are the varieties that you might come across in your bird watching expeditions: the Screaming Cowbird, the Giant Cowbird, the Racist Uncle Cowbird, and the Donald Trump Cowbird. The last two have been the subject of a highly controversial debate among ornithologists- a small minority maintain that they are, in fact, separate species, but most consensus lies with the assumption that they are the same.

those black, unfeeling eyes *shudder*

However, I digress. What exactly makes the cowbird so vile? The cowbird is a member of a classification known as the “brood parasites.” This means that when a mother cowbird needs to lay an egg, she will surreptitiously do it in another bird’s nest. From time to time she will revisit the scene of the crime to make sure her egg is still there- and if it isn’t, she will crush the poor mother bird’s other eggs in a fit of retaliatory bird rage. The cowbird eggs hatch and mature faster than other eggs, demanding more and more food from the poor mother and in some cases, actually sabotaging the rightful members of the nest by making subtle suggestions that they were adopted, undermining their trust in their parents, and smothering them under its manchild body.

guess which one is the cowbird. hint: it's the one that looks like it could swallow the other chicks whole.

So if you ever feel like you might be a terrible person, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t a cowbird. Hopefully.

The Cattle Egret

One of the most common birds in the area that I’m from, the cattle egret is absolutely #relationshipgoals. The bird subsists pretty much entirely on insects and small mammals that their life partners, the cows, stir up as they graze on the ground. In exchange for this food delivery service, the egrets peck ticks and flies off of the cows and give them verbal affirmations from time to time, whenever they look like they’re feeling down about their body image. This is truly the ideal relationship- one party gets food, the other party gets parasites removed off of their body and sporadic self esteem boosts.

a cattle egret, with neck

The cattle egret owes the success of its relationship with the cows in part to the fact that it can retract its long neck to look more like a cow. This evolutionary adaptation makes them almost indistinguishable from their bovine counterparts, and allows them to build a trusting environment more quickly than any other bird.

a small cow

The Loggerhead Shrike

This tiny psychopath was named after the main character in the popular children’s movie Shrek 2, who is named Shrek.

this bird has seen some shit

Its small body and largely useless talons have not only contributed to persistent self-image issues that manifest in areas of its behavior, but have also led it to invent a novel method of torturing the things that it wants to eat. Once the shrike captures a small insect or mammal, it will fly to the nearest barbed wire fence and impale the thing on a spike. Once the life (slowly) drains out of it, the shrike will either consume it, or leave it there for its deranged amusement.

that's gruesome

The shrike females are apparently very impressed by this barbaric practice, and are highly attracted to males that have a lot of skewered dead things to display. The male will also fly erratically in the air, fan out his tiny tail feathers, and blow black smoke out of his tiny truck to wow the ladies. This sounds slightly underwhelming, and it appears that the females agree- before mating, they will literally whine like babies until the male feeds them, to make the deal a bit sweeter for them I suppose. I can’t blame them. Anything with talons that small probably isn’t worth my time, either.

The Birds Will Inherit The Earth

I hope that this article has opened your eyes to the magical world of ornithology. I’d like to close with a section of a song by popular music artist SHWAYZE:

ain't no party like a bird party
'cause a bird party doesn't deliver its young live
it lays eggs

A stirring anthem for our day and age, in my humble opinion. Stay safe, and watch out for cowbirds.

Keep Saying 'I Feel Like'

or: back in my day, nobody had feelings

I read an op-ed by Molly Worthen in the New York Times a month or so ago that I’ve been meaning to write a response to ever since. In the article (which can be found here) the author lays some over-broad criticism on young people for using the phrase “I feel like” to preface an argument or whatever thing that they happen to want to say. She goes on to assert that this “linguistic hedging” is destructive in a number of ways to the free exchange of ideas, American democracy, liberalism, kittens, whatever. Once one gets past the dusting of pretentiousness and into the actual meat of Worthen’s argument, it becomes clear that she misunderstands the value of feeling through an argument and is wrong in demonizing both the feels and the people that talk about them.

Worthen’s first point is dangerously close to incoherent. She says:

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

This implies that stating a feeling is inherently different from making an argument, and the distinction is somehow what makes a point able to be argued or not. However, her own conclusions seem to disagree with this analysis. Further down in the same article, she writes:

In the 1990s, after many years of studying patients with brain damage, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio put forward a hypothesis that is now widely accepted: In a healthy brain, emotional input is a crucial part of reasoning and decision making.

So if emotional processes are a large part of the way in which people make decisions, why is it so scandalous that a person should make it known that their argument is how they feel? Worthen’s alternative (which I am presuming, because she never really explicitly states one in her op-ed) is for people to make the same emotional arguments, just without saying that they feel like it- which doesn’t really solve any huge problems, but instead makes an argument a lot more frustrating because the opponent is now dealing in absolutes that are obviously still motivated by not a lot past their own emotions. So really, the “I feel like” disclaimer facilitates discussion, as most would probably be more inclined to voice their disagreement with something that they know could just be a feeling as opposed to a feeling that is aggressively voiced as an absolute truth.

The statement by Ms. Chai (a student at the University of Chicago) that personal experiences are unarguable points doesn’t make much sense either. Of course one would never argue that another DIDN’T get rear-ended by a female driver, but the argument that not all women are bad at driving just because of that person’s experience is not a difficult one, because persuasive points are supported by more than a person’s experience. Maybe Ms. Chai is just bad at arguing, because feelings shouldn’t really be an intellectual roadblock.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a liberal op-ed vaguely related in subject matter to speech without some level of dumping on millennials, and this is no exception. I try not to take things like this personally, but Worthen doesn’t make it easy for me- I really do love being described as a “early [carrier] of a broad cultural contagion”, like I’m a farm animal that has a parasite or something- but I digress. Worthen asserts:

This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely “feel.”

She follows proudly down the well-traveled road of calling out college students for taking a proactive role in shaping the institutions that they pay to attend. Worthen provides absolutely no justification for the argument that students standing up and fighting for what they believe in is making them worse at confrontation, and logically this conclusion doesn’t make any sense. Disagreeing with a menagerie of powerful individuals and institutions and acting on those beliefs regardless of what the popular public opinion says is acceptable is not for the faint of heart, and certainly doesn’t reflect a mushier, scared student- it follows in the footsteps of revolutionaries ever since the beginning of history. This doesn’t stop the author from continuing to universalize her argument:

For decades, Americans have been in the process of abandoning both the moral strictures of religion and the Enlightenment quest for universal truth in favor of obsessing over their own internal states and well-being. In 1974, the sociologist Richard Sennett worried that “the more a person concentrates on feeling genuinely, rather on the objective content of what is felt, the more subjectivity becomes an end in itself, the less expressive he can be.”

The idea of a simple dichotomy between things that ‘are felt’ and things that ‘are’ is a little reductionary. Something isn’t true just because I feel like it is, but my feeling could be true, because I’m a smart kid sometimes. Conversely, what I feel could simply be wrong, because I’m also a dumb kid sometimes. Stating one’s feelings is not an example of “relativism run rampant”, because ‘I feel’ doesn’t translate to ‘here is a thing that you can’t disagree with because everything inside of me is pure truth’, it’s simply a space for an opinion that is open to being influenced and changed if its owner is introduced to something that they maybe hadn’t considered earlier.

I haven’t even gotten to my favorite part of the article yet:

If our students have any hope of solving the problems for which trigger warnings and safe spaces are mere Band-Aids, they must reject this woolly way of speaking their minds.

In Worthen’s world, once everyone starts screaming their opinions at the top of their lungs in a way that makes them sound like indisputable facts, bigotry vaccines will start raining from the sky and everyone will be happy again. I’m actually curious as to what the author thinks the point of safe spaces and trigger warnings are, if not to make gradual progress at solving the sort of deep rooted societal issues that a wide variety of people face. The only thing funnier than her misplaced superiority complex is the quote she puts directly after:

“Cultivating the art of conversation goes a long way toward correcting these things,” Dr. Lasch-Quinn said. “Instead of caricaturing someone who says ‘I feel like,’ we can say, what does it mean to say that instead of ‘I think?’ ”

Did she think that readers would just forget like ten paragraphs earlier where she quite obviously… Nevermind.

Worthen’s critique is a poorly reasoned attack on the way young people speak. Expressing opinions as feelings not only makes a discussion more approachable for parties that may disagree, it makes the entire discussion a lot more likely to be a civil sharing of ideas as opposed to an aggressive war with words. Maybe millennials are careful about how they express what they feel because we would rather not spend the vast majority (neat infographic via washington post) of our lives at war? Or maybe we would rather not reproduce the same violent ideologies of racism that flourished in the past? In any case, I feel like the way I choose to express my opinion is not reflective of some broad social ill, it’s indicative of a society changing for the better- and should be regarded as such.

Why I Hate Twitter

or: a long term relationship

I’ve been with twitter for quite a bit of time- as our four year anniversary approaches and my follower count hovers around 600, I’ve been putting some relatively serious thought into the effects that this outlet has on my creative life. I cold-turkey quit twitter for Lent, and during that time and the few months afterwards I found that I wrote more just for myself than I ever really had- I finished two short stories and a handful of essays. I wrote a little bit every day, and I felt great about it. I’ve always had ideas about cool things that I would like to write about, but I never really did anything with them up until that point. Of course, my streak occurring near my twitter hiatus doesn’t necessarily mean that the two were in any way related- but I have a few thoughts as to why they might have been.

the fav hustle

Any half-conscious twitter user is familiar with the concept of the fav- nevermind that they’re technically “likes” now- they’ll always be favorites in my heart. It’s a simple click or tap that the reader of a tweet can perform to send the writer a notification that they enjoyed that particular scrap of content. It’s rewarding, it’s fun, and I find receiving them truly addictive. It’s instant gratification that not only indicates to me that something that I wrote affected a person in a way that compelled them to do an action that they didn’t have to do, it’s also a status symbol- my tweet got 9 favs, and everyone can see that it did. It’s a little sign on someone’s timeline that says that John is Good Enough To Get Nine Favs. All this, just from 140 characters- the reward vs work ratio is colossal, especially when compared to the measly satisfaction of having completed a story after two months of daily work and then letting it collect virtual dust on my hard drive.

twitterbrain

So when my little peabrain is presented with the choice of thinking about new things to tweet or thinking about new full length stories to write down, I consistently choose what’s going to give me the most pleasure- the tweets. And every time I get more positive feedback on twitter, I become less likely to choose to write long things in the future. It’s a vicious cycle that I think is really bad for my personal creative development. So I feel like this begs the question: is tweeting inherently worse than writing long(er) things? I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on that question as well, and I generally think that the answer is yeah, it is worse. I think that when a creative outlet offers a freeform medium for self-expression paired with the kind of emphasis on quantifiable feedback that twitter does, it creates a conflict of interest for the user- either genuinely express themselves, or create things that they know are most likely to provide the most little heart-shaped dopamine hits. I’ve started to become acutely aware of this dichotomy, and it’s affected the way I feel about my thoughts. I’ll tweet how I genuinely feel about something, and I’ll watch the little piece of my mind hang out in the zero-fav hellscape until I delete it and feel bad about myself and then tweet something like this:

The problem is, there’s no reason that I should expect anyone else to approve of an actual genuine piece of myself- but I do, because twitter is a game that I’ve begun to feel like my worth as a creator is decided by. Writing long-form stories and essays and publishing them on places like Medium or on this blog removes the feedback element, and leaves me free to express myself completely free from the worry that none of my followers will enjoy it enough to hit the like button.

so quit twitter, nerd.

Yeah, well- it’s not really that simple. I use twitter to connect with new people, to promote things that I believe in, and to keep up with friends. Deleting my account would leave me at a bit of a disadvantage in the modern world. I’m not entirely sure what the solution to the problems that I’ve described are. I’ve toyed with the idea of creating a script that will automatically delete my tweets a short time after I tweet them- but that’s functionally the same as having no account at all, it seems like. I can’t help but feel like I’m making excuses for myself, which may or may not be fair. I think that twitter is bad for me, but I won’t quit. I will, however, try to use it less and actually write more- and hopefully in the process, I’ll train myself to not rely on other people’s fingertips for self-esteem and creative fulfillment.