Birds: Blood, Sweat, and Tears (Part 1)

The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia is a small, non-profit, volunteer-only organization that takes in and rehabilitates wild raptors (hawks, owls, eagles, etc.) with the goal of eventually releasing them back into the wild. I have been volunteering with them for some time now, and I was thrilled to see them get some recognition, kudos, and press for a red-shouldered hawk release-after-rehabilitation (Washington Post, 7/12/2014, “Born to be wild: a hawk native to Virginia is released after feather-loving care” by Ileana Najarro).

Kent Knowles of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia

Kent Knowles of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia

Wildlife rehabilitators, I’ve found, have a zeal for animals (birds, in this case) which is hard to find. They take calls in the middle of the night for injured bird pick-ups. They tolerate large amounts of paperwork (permits are required to take in wild animals, and that’s just the beginning) and constant vet visits. Unpredictability, loss, and chaos don’t (permanently) discourage them. Want to work for them or with them? Toughen up: you have to put up with blood (sometimes yours), sweat, and tears if you want to make a difference.

They need volunteers: lots of them. The amount of work it takes to rehab just one bird is incredible: and rehabilitators often have many, many injured birds: it’s like having a full hotel. Chick season (spring) brings in even more birds. 80% of raptor chicks do not make it to their first birthday. But the rehabbers try to push the odds to the chicks’ favor.

So what do the volunteers actually do? They feed birds, clean cages, and assist in the hand-feeding of birds who are too ill/concussed to feed themselves (this takes two people). They pick up injured birds. They take calls and assist in outreach programs. They pick up food, prepare food, get supplies, hose down dirty cages, vacuum, clean floors. They exercise able-bodied birds that need to get into flying condition in preparation for release.

They really do look like this.

They really do look like this.

It is grueling work, but the rewards can be astounding. In the past months I was able to assist in the care and feeding of a Great Horned Owl chick – five weeks old – found on a crowded golf course, no parents or nest anywhere to be seen. (After consideration, it was determined that it was too dangerous to just leave him on the golf course. Rehabbers try to unite bird parents with their chicks, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.) The chick is doing well and will be released when he’s ready.

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Parenting, Joy, Drudgery, Jennifer Sernior, and Anne Lamott

The hot new book on parenting right now is Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. I loved it, and I generally have mixed feelings about parenting books: some have shocked me with their smugness (their subtext being that parenthood is the only way to be truly happy, something I don’t agree with) and some are just plain boring or obsessed with certain disciplinary techniques (time out, for one).

Jennifer Senior’s book looks at the effect of modern parenting on adults, and she says that children strain our everyday lives while adding great joy. She’s interested in what’s new about modern parenthood, and she discusses how three basic developments have changed it the most: 1). choice (birth control, timing, not feeling pressured to have kids); 2). a more constant and complicated work life for mothers and fathers; and 3). the changed role of the child in society now (away from one in which the child contributed economically and labor-wise to the family and into the new modern role of being a “protected commodity.”). She notes that there is now pressure than ever before on the nuclear family, and that women still internalize more of the anxiety and stress of raising a child (especially when the child is an adolescent).

Yet we live in a changing world (environmentally, economically, sociologically) and both parents, nowadays, are more stressed and anxious about the future because they really have no idea at all what the future — especially jobs — holds. According to Senior, much hyperparenting and parental anxiety comes from this basic fear about an unknown, definitely changing global and national future. We really don’t know how to get our children ready for the future. This makes people very, very anxious. The jobs that middle-aged people my age prepared for won’t exist in the future. Personally, I’m convinced that robots are going to take over a bunch of jobs someday. I’m also worried there will be no more birds (or frogs…or bats), but that’s another post. So when I see hyperparenting or feel tempted to indulge in it, I try to remind myself that it’s all based in fear and anxiety.

The books (mostly memoir) by Anne Lamott are my antidote to this. Anne Lamott is a single mom (now grandmother), recovering alcoholic, and the most honest parent-writer I’ve ever read. She’s funny, kind, compassionate, and wise. There are several things I’ve gotten from her books, my favorite of which is Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. The first is this: you’re not responsible for your child’s happiness. You can only do your best, and pray. Seek wise counsel when distressed. Forgive yourself and others, even if it kills you to do so. Have a sense of humor with yourself and others and your child. Hyperparent at your own risk.


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You Have to See This


The young addicts have therapy and military drills. Does it stick?

I’m a big fan of The New York Times‘ videos, particularly their Op-Docs, which are short, expertly done documentary videos on a wide range of topics. One of their current ones, “China’s Web Junkies” (by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia) is moving, disturbing, and insightful. It showcases an internet addiction treatment center in the suburbs of Beijing: a prison-like place in which young men are kept for 3-4 months to do therapy and military drills in order to cure their internet/gaming addictions. Some of them have literally been kidnapped (and/or drugged) to get them on site. The op-doc shows a bunch of them in their native habitat – a 24/7 internet cafe – sitting and smoking and gaming, all wearing headphones. That didn’t surprise me, but it was depressing. What struck me the most was the internet addiction speaker, a man named Tao Ran, speaking (or barking, as it seemed) to parents of kids in treatment. He stressed that their problem was loneliness. “They know the internet,” he told them, “but not human beings.” This struck me as true, and I was impressed that he got right to the problem. One mother was crouched forward in her seat, weeping, as he said this. Another wept as she read her son’s letter to her: he felt betrayed. When they interviewed the boys, some admitted to having a problem, but others didn’t see it that way. But they did seem to be happy playing cards together, in one scene, probably something they’d never do if they had computers available. I do question, though, what benefit military drills will do for them in the long run. Wouldn’t it be more productive if the center were set up like a technology-free summer camp, where they could do activities in nature and/or learn low-tech skills which they found meaningful and pleasurable? See this video while it’s still up.

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In search of meaningful solitude

The last time I went hiking by myself along the Potomac, I stopped at an overlook to admire the river and the stark beauty of the bare winter trees. Then I heard him: cellphone man – also hiking, but engaged in a phone conversation about home renovation. He stopped at the overlook, saw me, and kept talking. A few years ago, I think, I would have found it rude. Now I expect it. His conversation is more important than your meaningful solitude. I see this daily: in libraries, in restaurants, in bookstores, everywhere. I was talking about it with a librarian colleague of mine. “If you want peace and quiet [in this urban area], you pretty much have to stay at home,” she said. I started to disagree with her, and then I realized she had a point.

Most people I know live in densely populated urban/suburban areas because they have to: that’s where the jobs are. Read any recent article on demographic trends:  those areas will just continue to get more and more crowded (and have more and more spread/habitat loss) – more people, more cars, more crowding, and more pollution. Nature gets pushed aside. People get ruder because they’re more and more packed in. I have two relatives who are both of retirement age and who have moved (separately) “to the middle of nowhere.” One of them drives for one hour to get to a grocery store, and he loves it. I’ve told him I jealous, and he laughs. No jobs here, he reminds me. Is there a happy medium?

ImageI long for meaningful solitude. In elementary school, I was fascinated with the children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s about three very different children discovering a secret garden and becoming good friends. My favorite character was Dickon, the moor-abiding, animal-protecting, good-natured boy from a large, poor family who is basically the strongest (emotionally and physically) of the three. Dickon is from a family of twelve, and he spends large amounts of time completely unattended on the Yorkshire moors, wandering around, rescuing injured or orphaned foxes and crows. He’s self-sufficient when not around his family, and he doesn’t take the peevishness of Mary and Colin (the other two main characters) personally. As they get to know him, they start to take on many of his good qualities, such as the ability to be contentedly alone rather than just solitary. It’s still a magical book to me.

There’s another one I discovered a few years ago about the importance of meaningful solitude: Doris Grumbach’s Fifty Days of Solitude. It’s a memoir (of fifty days, at least) of the author’s living completely alone (without really speaking to anyone, either) in a country house in Maine. She’s a firm believer in solitude’s virtues, but she acknowledges that on some days it’s harder for that solitude to be fuller and richer than on other days. For Grumbach, meaningful solitude helps us to grow closer to others and to ourselves, to feel a deep appreciation of what we have, and to re-evaluate our values, beliefs, and illusions.

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Books for the Beast

There’s a conference I attend which seems to be a well-kept secret.

Books for the beast Every two years, Books for the Beast is held by the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, and features contemporary YA authors, YA book discussion groups, and a chance to let teens voice their opinions about which books they liked and why. The conference this year featured authors Robin Wasserman (The Book of Blood and Shadow, etc.), Raina Telgemeier (Drama; Smile), and Sharon Flake (Pinned; The Skin I’m In; etc.). These are always popular, well-respected authors who have a teen (and often adult) fan base. Each author has a recognizable but unique style, and each one “gets” teens in a way that other writers (who don’t write for teens) do not. This conference is open to the public, although it tends to attract mostly teachers, librarians, and aspiring YA authors. Having been to several of these conferences now, I think they’d benefit [more] teens and especially parents of teens. There are several reasons why I say this:

Book of Blood and Shadow1). Hearing the authors speak gives you perspective on why certain literary trends speak to young adults. Robin Wasserman, the keynote author/speaker, talked about why “dark” novels were important to her when she was growing up. When she had a painful experience as a teen in school (and who didn’t?), she found that reading horror novels (such as It by Stephen King) actually made her feel better and stronger. These novels acknowledged what other people wouldn’t: the world is a dark place, and there’s cruelty and evil out there. Instead of hiding it or downplaying it, those novels externalized what she already suspected to be true. In a sick way, they showed that evil can be defeated. She’s fascinated with fairy tales, especially in their original, unsanitized versions: they existed to warn children that the world is not safe, and that evil lurks everywhere, including inside of us. Wasserman feels strongly that “protecting” or shielding teens from certain stories (which they’re inherently ready for) is often doing them a disservice (she distinguishes the YA teen audience from the younger and intermediate grades). She likes G. K. Chesterton’s [abridged] quote: fairy tales are more true – not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. The critics of “dark” YA literature are missing or turning a blind eye to the hopeful and redemptive aspects of the dark books, generally found in the plot’s end. Personally, I enjoyed hearing her perspective because I have heard certain parents complain that YA literature is “so dark now.” You mean darker than Macbeth or Lord of the Flies, which have been required reading for decades? Even everyone’s favorite To Kill a Mockingbird is pretty dark. Let’s not forget Anne Frank’s diary, either. History is dark.

The Skin I'm in2). Meeting the authors and hearing them speak (and answer questions) gives you perspective on why they write what they write. Sharon Flake spoke about how, growing up, she always felt “outside the box,” both as an African American and as a young girl who felt awkward, unattractive, and insecure. She loved to spend her time “hunkered down” in her house because that’s where she felt safe and loved. As a writer, it’s her goal to get kids – especially African American kids “out of the box” and into the mainstream’s perspective. Just look and them and try to understand them. This helps to humanize them: the boy contemplating suicide in You Don’t Even Know Me: Poems and Stories About Boys; the girl wrestler with a reading disability in Pinned; the unloved, ignored, and misunderstood, etc. She shared that teens from all over the world write her and tell her about the connection they feel with her characters, even though they’re of different ethnic, soci0-economic, and religious backgrounds: they too feel like outsiders.

code name verity3). The older I get, the more I realize that many book groups aren’t serious at all about reading. They’d rather talk about themselves, or their kids, or their jobs. These conferences assign reading and the attendees actually do the reading and discuss them intelligently and thoroughly. The discussion groups I attended at Books for the Beast especially loved Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher; Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins; Winter Town by Stephen Edmond; Virtuosity by Jessican Martinez; Drama by Raina Telgemeier; Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley; The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman; and A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached.



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Internet zombies: I see you

A few internet zombies live at my workplace, a public library. They’re people who are there, every day – all day, on the public computers doing what appears to be nothing of real value. Yes, I’m judging them. They do not appear to work, nor do they appear homeless; but they live and breathe by the internet.

Don’t get me wrong: not every person using the computers is an internet zombie. We have the scholars, the e-mailers, the “I just need to print this up” types, and the general business/pleasure internet users. Some of those users are there every day, but they’re not the zombies. Those are the normal internet users. Some even read or check out the occasional book. They will make eye contact, too, if necessary.

In contrast to the normals, the zombies, whose ages range from 18 to 85, spend all day on Facebook or Twitter or enrolling themselves in online home furnishings sweepstakes. Not kidding. I can see what they’re looking at, even though I’d much rather not. They don’t read books, and they are always alone. They only interact with us (librarians) if there’s a problem with their individual computer or the online connection goes down. And then they’re rude and dismissive. Those are the zombies.

ImageI’m curious about them, and I’ve successfully resisted saying to them – one in particular – “Why are you wasting your life?” In an effort to understand them, I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. It’s both reassuring (we need real, meaningful human relationships and interaction, much of which cannot be achieved electronically) and chilling (many people are losing real-life interaction skills). It’s dense and thoughtful. She’s no technophobe, but she does believe in keeping technology in its place.

So how does one do this? It starts with mindfulness and intent, and she offers hints and clues throughout the book. These are some of my notes, loosely paraphrased:

1. Don’t confuse rapid response with meaningful response.

2. Don’t confuse constant e-connection (Facebook, twitter, etc.) with real, substantive connection.

3. How people behave with each other and relate to one another in society is crucial. We need to be more aware of each other’s humanity. Sometimes that is aided by electronic technology, and sometimes it isn’t. Ultimately, true connectedness in life means real, meaningful interaction with people. If that’s aided by technology, great. It cannot be replaced by technology.

What scares me the most about the internet zombies is that in spite of their internet addiction, they seem profoundly alone and completely unbothered by it. They never speak to anyone, they seem to have no real-life friends, and they have no social skills. The computer is their friend, but it doesn’t love them back.



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If You Even Knew What You Wanted, Would You Tell Me?

There’s a fair amount they don’t teach you in library science school, and most of it involves dealing with people. You learn a lot about the architecture and management of information, but you don’t really learn how to deal with people who have no idea what they want (but they will keep asking you for it), which is just as useful/helpful. You also don’t learn how to read people’s minds, but you do get better at that the longer you’re on the job, and the more you’re willing to listen.

There is one library science model, though, which they emphasized, for good reason. It’s about the stages of how we search for information. You can read the link here. In the first stages (initiation and selection), we know we’re looking for something, but we’re not clear exactly what, but we decide to start the search anyways.

I’m not sure if it’s the weather or drugs in the water, but lately, I’ve been having a lot of interactions with patrons in which I realize they have absolutely no idea what they want. They seem to be on a search for truth, but they won’t admit to it, and when that fact is suggested to them, they vehemently deny it. If it wasn’t so time-consuming and draining at times, it’d be funny.

I’m always amazed at how a patron will come in asking for topic A, and after talking to him/her for a while, you find out it’s not A he/she wants, but a topic as far away as, say, M, or possibly Q.

Here’s what I mean. A man asks me how long the wait list is for Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson. I tell him. Then he asks me for more books like The Glass Castle, so my colleague and I start recommending biographies which were similar (Angela’s Ashes, anyone?).  We pulled them off the shelves and presented him with them. He pooh-poohed them. “I want books about overcoming adversity,” he tells us. “What type of adversity?” we asked him. Economic? Emotional? Professional? All of the above? He wouldn’t say (it’s always like this).

Because we were getting close to closing time, I took him to the general self-help section (not the relationship one, though), where he gravitated down the Dewey Decimal numbers to general Christian inspiration. (He had told me earlier he didn’t want “religious stuff.” Okay.) I brought up a few authors which patrons commonly ask for in that area, and he informed me he had read them all. At this point, the closing music was playing and I had to help close up shop, so I wished him luck and left him there, crouched on the floor, pulling books out and fanning through them.

Passing my colleague on the way back, I smirked and said audibly, “That guy has no idea what he wants.” Usually she cracks up, but she kept a straight face. He was right behind me.

Don’t worry. He’ll be back.


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