You Must Read This

Imagine being a Harvard golden boy – smart, well read, funny – and suddenly having a freak accident in which you’re blinded in your right eye. Goodbye, golden boy status (sort of). That’s what happened to Howard Axelrod, a bright young Harvard student in his mid twenties. In his memoir, The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, basically nothing happens, plot-wise, beyond his living in a very remote house in the Vermont woods.

The Point of Vanishing

This interrupted Axelrod’s successful white collar trajectory. His family was dubious about the whole idea, not surprisingly, but he needed time to re-adjust to his new disability, after all. After putting up handwritten signs in obscure places, Axelrod secures this hidden living arrangement; his time spent there is one of reflection and solitude. He rarely sees people, takes long walks, writes, and thinks. I’ve never read anyone write so beautifully or poetically about silence and its role in identity and selfhood. If I had to use one word to describe this book, it’d be “silence.” Silence both heals and provokes change, but it’s change that others cannot see, ironically.

This was my favorite book of 2015. It struck me repeatedly while reading this that Axelrod has a unique writing voice and doesn’t give himself enough credit for the guts and humility that he clearly has. I can’t wait to read more by him.




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I’m normally not this dumb

The art museum’s alarm went off, and I happened to be behind the man who (I think) set it off. He was getting alarmingly close to a medieval painting in an art museum in Bologna, Italy. “You moron,” I thought. He lurked off, and a guard entered the room. I must have had my best “It wasn’t me” look on my face, but the female guard smiled at me and started chatting at me in fluent Italian. I was dressed up, in European art-going style.

I had zero idea what she was saying. She figured it out soon enough, and just smiled at me and said “Okay.” Problem over. That was the fourth time something like that had happened to me in less than a week. Most Americans do not go to Italy over Thanksgiving, so that was part of it. You can fool a lot of people with dress and overall appearance when you travel, too. Just keep your mouth shut, or you’ll ruin the illusion.

FullSizeRenderFeeling powerless comes with the territory of not speaking a language and being surrounded with people who do. Luckily, many Italians in major cities (or ones who work in the service industries), do speak fluent English. And they always took pity on me and my family. Every single time. People helped us when they didn’t have to: on buses, on trains, and in the labyrinthine streets. I was so grateful, and I realized how much it means to the person being aided, even if it’s a little thing.

On my home (work) turf, I routinely help people who speak no English, some English, or pretty good English (albeit heavily accented), and it’s given me new perspective on how they must feel virtually every single day.

My New Year’s resolution is to be super nice – as nice as I can be even if it’s the fifth time I’ve had to help them with the printer – to anyone and everyone who struggles with English. Te lo prometto (I promise).

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Real Popularity is Kindness and Acceptance

I just stole a sentence from a book which I thought I would despise:  Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular, a Memoir: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. I loved this book, and I am a huge skeptic when it comes to books on teen popularity. My husband and I are parents of a pre-teen, and I regularly tell my son that I wouldn’t go back to middle school for all the money in the world. But I digress. I dislike “gimmicky” books, and when I first heard the general premise of this book, I wrongly assumed that it would be just that: gimmicky.

Wish I had had this as a teen.

Wish I had had this as a teen.

Maya, a young teen living near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas, decided that she would apply the principles found in a 1950’s etiquette book (Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide) to her modern day life in middle school. She would adopt the advice – both physical and psychological – in an effort to make more friends and come out of her shell.

In many ways, it’s just a really good slice-of-life book about being a young teen and facing all the things (body issues, friend estrangements) that young teens face, including heavy topics like a dying mentor. Her discussion of where she lived was equally interesting: being on the Tex-Mex border, they could see smoke from Mexico as it burns in the drug war (63). Her school was regularly on lockdown, and not for drills. She’s essentially a middle-class kid (her dad is a Ph.D. who works in academia) living in a predominantly blue collar world; her observations were insightful and poignant on this. Maya would regularly poke fun at herself: her looks, her clothes (she claims to do all her shopping at Walmart), and her dorkiness. She could not be more likeable, and her writing style was genuine and funny.

Like most things in life, her experiment worked and it didn’t. She thoroughly embarassed her best friend Kenzie by wearing 1950’s clothing (girdle, long skirt, the works) to school. She worked on her posture and wore minimal makeup. She did the tummy reducing exercises which Betty Cornell recommended. But mostly, she worked on initiating conversations with people who seemed intimidating or lonely or not in her “group.” As an adult, I tend to forget how hard it was for me to do that as a teen, but Maya worked on it and got better at it. Her final thesis – not original but completely true – is that real popularity is directly tied in to how kind you are to people, and how accepting you are of them. She admits it has everything to do with your ability to get along with all kinds of people. I wish I had known that as a teen; I know adults who are still working this out. Way to go, Maya. Your book is awesome.

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Goodbye, sweet bird

The Mississippi Kite would not eat.

He was injured but reasonably calm, a probable car hit. He had been brought in to the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia in order to be rehabilitated. Not native to northern Virginia, Mississippi Kites are beautiful hawks with gray feathers and deep reddish brownish eyes. The vet – another volunteer who works for free – gave a “meh” prognosis. The MiKi (his species abbreviation) just wasn’t thriving in spite of excellent care.

He looked remarkably like this.

He looked remarkably like this.

The MiKi was elegant and elegaic in his wail. He would cock his head to the side (a possible sign of neurological damage: once again, thanks to our car culture) in what seemed to be thoughtful contemplation. He needed to be force fed every day. He was gentle and easily caught. But not eating is a huge problem in the bird world.

Birds which can be rehabilitated and can prove that they are physically and mentally capable of surviving re-entry into the wild get approval to be released back into the wild. Birds which can be rehabbed but are unable to survive in the wild can be placed into an educational setting: a wildlife rehabilitator; a wildlife center; a zoo; a nature center; etc. But birds which have to be force fed every day are virtually impossible to place. Not eating is a deal breaker.

For almost a full year, this beautiful bird was lovingly hand fed (force fed) by two rehabilitators. They tried to place him, but to no avail. Not eating is a symptom of failure to thrive. Best case scenario for a bird in this situation? Euthanasia.

Most wildlife rehabilitators, including the one I work for, do their utmost to prevent this. They spend precious time and money trying to save every bird. But some cannot be saved, despite their best efforts and intentions.

I feel privileged to have known this bird. He was gentle and beautiful. He’s a species I rarely – if ever – get to see. But I’m honored to have known him, as much as a human can “know” a bird. I feel sad that I participate in a consumer culture which essentially seeks the end of nature.

Goodbye, sweet bird.

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The Old Woman Who Awaits Me

Working with the general public teaches one patience whether one wants it or not. It’s taken me years to realize this, but a lot of people just want someone to talk to. It’s hard to see this behind their obnoxiousness, or their craziness, or their neediness, but it’s there if you look hard enough. They’re lonely. You’re the person with whom they talked today. Maybe the only one.

This is her one outing for the day.

This is her one outing for the day.

For years I’ve had an elderly lady who seeks me out on a shift during which my library is very busy and very understaffed. She has radar for where I am, and she’ll wait for me (often showing irritation with other librarians who try to help her). Her reference questions – often involving people or places or things from her past – are often time-intensive, hard to complete at a public library, and frustrating in their obscurity. She knows this, too, and it doesn’t bother her. She doesn’t mind holding up the line. Those people can wait.

I used to grit my teeth when I saw her coming, but I learned a trick which has stood me in good stead with her: just be kind to her, make a good-faith attempt, and give her something, whether it’s a fact, or a book, or a piece of paper with a website address. If her give her your enthusiasm and a “take-away,” she’s reasonably content. Not surprisingly, it’s gotten easier to deal with her over the years, even though she is still a time vacuum. She hugs me (sometimes) and tells me about the surgeries she has had. I feel a fondness for her. She’s a good person with lots of interests, opinions, and wit. She lives alone in this area.

I am not necessarily getting better at research in this internet age, but dealing with the general public on a regular basis has taught me patience. I know very well that someday I could be that old woman, and I hope that others show me kindness.


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Birds: Blood, Sweat, and Tears (Part 3)

Like most people who end up caring for wildlife (including birds), Michelle Rafffin never set out to become a wild bird/exotic bird/wildlife rehabilitator. She just grew to love birds.

Michele Raffin's new book

Michele Raffin’s new book

I had the pleasure of listening to her on Diane Rehm’s podcast today about Raffin’s new book, called The Birds of Pandemonium: Life among the Exotic and Endangered. If you’re interested in wildlife conservation or bird conservation in any way, you should check this out.

Michele RaffinThe few rehabilitators I have read or listened to never intended to get into the “business” (which is not really a business but rather a labor of love) of wildlife rehabilitation, and Raffin is no exception. When she started caring for birds, she learned the hard way: through failure. She explains – on the podcast and in her book – how bird care (especially wild bird care) is complex and hard because there’s really not that much written about it. For example, she learned the hard way that the mating habits of certain exotic wild birds are controlled by humidity levels. That hadn’t occurred to her.

Right now Raffin is focusing on six exotic species which are at a high risk of extinction in their home countries. These birds now function as a reservoir of potential birds that could be returned to the wild in their home countries when the numbers start to run drastically low. It’s sad that the world has come to this; it would be even sadder if there weren’t some people, like Michele Raffin, trying to reverse it.

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Birds: Blood, Sweat, and Tears (Part 2)

I was afraid this would happen. When I first heard that there was a snowy owl hanging out in downtown D.C., my first thought was, “It’ll probably get hit by a car.”

Snowy owl in downtown D.C.

Snowy owl in downtown D.C.

Unfortunately, it did: it got hit by a bus and an SUV. Luckily, it got transferred to a local wildlife rehabilitator, and then to a raptor-specific rehabilitation center: the Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was then released (Washington Post, 4/23/2014).

The Washington Post reported that this female snowy owl has died, most likely due to a vehicle hit (WP, 8/23/2014). I still want to weep just thinking about it. Birds have so many enemies: cat, windows, cars, habitat loss, and others. They are all formidable enemies. But from a personal perspective, most of the birds I see at the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia are car hits.

At least 340 million birds each year die from being hit by cars (USA Today, 5/29/2014). That is literally mountains and mountains of innocent dead birds.

Three things I’ve learned from my work at the Raptor Conservancy. First, you can’t predict how a bird will fare (after a car hit) just by looking at it. Some look bad and actually recover, if properly cared for by a trained, licensed rehabilitator. Some look fine yet die due to internal injuries; a bird who seems to be recovering can die suddenly. It is very, very hard to predict which birds will make it.

Any kind of trash will attract bird prey.

Any kind of trash will attract bird prey.

But here’s the practical advice I have for you: two things. First, your litter/trash brings death to birds. If you throw trash from your car and it’s anywhere near a road, that trash brings rodents/small critters who then attract birds. The birds swoop down to get their prey and get hit by cars. They can’t help it: nothing in their evolutionary history prepared them for the car. It’s basically their death-bringer.

Second: if you see an injured bird, please call animal control. They can get the bird to a bird rehabilitator. If you have the time, and I hope you do, please wrap the bird in a towel, put it in a well-ventilated box/cage, and physically take it to animal control. Time is of the essence. Once a bird’s condition gets too low (after an injury), its chances drop of being saved.

May others survive and thrive.

May others survive and thrive.

In spite of the sad end to the snowy owl, I know that there were many individuals who worked very hard to try to put the female snowy owl back in the wild where she belonged.

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