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Friday, August 26, 2016

This Is Why I Don't Birdwatch That Way

Greenhead fly source
Lia McLauglin USFWS
This summer, after forty years of sending my writing to publishers in attempts to get it published, I had the heady experience of communicating directly with editors-in-chief of national publishing houses, houses it might utterly transform my life to be published by.

Monday I went to Tillman Ravine; it was lovely. I came home and found three rejections.

My writing remained what they initially called it "captivating fascinating." But it violates genre boundaries, isn't like anything we've published before, and would be hard to market.

I was crushed.

I tried to communicate to people I thought of as friends why this news was so devastating.

They didn't get it.

I wake up, as I did Monday, and find police on my doorstep investigating the latest attempted killing; my acquaintances wake up to their backyard, built-in swimming pools. Why should they hear anything I say?

"Why don't you just apply for a job?" a couple of them said.

"Why don't you just self-publish?" another asked.

"Why don't you just show your writing to famous people who will like it and help you promote it?"

"Why don't you just try another publisher?" another said.

In other words, rather than being kind to me, they just piled on unsolicited advice.

Google knows all, tells all.

I just googled those two words: "unsolicited advice."

The first entry: "unsolicited advice is … shitty … falls on deaf ears … pisses people off"

Second entry: you hate it; so does the person you give it to.

Third entry: How can I stop people from giving me unsolicited advice?

Fourth entry: it triggers feelings of inadequacy and anger

Fifth: causes stress … it's a communication killer … it's how your mother-in-law talks.

Not one single positive thing to say about unsolicited advice on that first page of Google search results.

Tells you something, no?

Unsolicited advice exists so that there can be a clever way to insult people and establish your own superiority. "I understand your life better than you do. This whole time, you've been doing it wrong. I will now bestow upon you the path to do doing it right. Be humbled and grateful that I have deigned to grant you this boon."

It's a way to stab people in the back when they are at their most vulnerable.

What did I need? Kindness.

Was there a meeting held and did society vote that spinsters of a certain age shall no longer be recipients of any kindness? Is that engraved in some rule book somewhere?

People still tell me jokes; check.

People still wish me happy birthday; check.

People still ask me what time it is, whether I think it will rain, and what I think of the presidential campaign. All check.

Kindness has petered out in my life.

I'm not talking about someone typing an angled bracket and the number three so it will look like a heart on a computer screen.

Here's one thing I've been yearning for for the past four years of unending medical emergencies and deaths: someone to take me out to lunch, even to the cheapest local chain restaurant, and look in my face, and call me by name, and listen to me, and say, "Aw, I'm so sorry that happened to you. How are you coping? Is there anything I can do? No matter what, I want you to know that I admire your strength and perseverance. I know how much you put into this."

And not look at his or her phone.

And not look at his or her watch.

And not make a date and then break it several times because more important activities with more important people have intervened.

And not preface lunch by saying, "We're going to have to keep this quick. I've got so much I've got to do."

No, that will never happen again.

It used to. I used to receive kindness, and give kindness, too. Is it the wrinkles? Menopause? That I'm not anybody's child or sister or signer of paychecks? It's all Darwinian.

Spinsters enter the Unkind Age.

Here was my unspoken response to the cascade of unsolicited advice:

I threw in the towel on these folks.

"*&^% you. +_^% in $#@@," I thought. Words so bad I can't type them here.

"I hope you contract smallpox" – reserved for the two men who told me I should just apply for a job. And then I wouldn't be poor.

I meant it. In my heart of hearts, I wanted these two men to contract smallpox.

I immediately recognized my thoughts as contrary to what Jesus wants me to think, so I erased the blackboard of my mind. I would not cultivate my angry, hateful thoughts. I would cultivate the kind of loving and forgiving thoughts Jesus wants me to think.

Later I remembered part of the process that those who have had near-death experiences go through. It's called a life review. During the life review, the experiencer relives his entire life. Not only does he feel his own feelings, he feels the feelings of others he has affected.

Someday, the two men who said to me, "Why don't you just apply for a job?" will experience how I felt when they said that to me.

Someday, they may also experience this: being born poor, dyslexic and unwanted. In spite of everything, including a crippling, hard-to-treat illness, and living on no money, earning a PhD and paying for almost all of it out of pocket by working as a landscaper, a live-in domestic servant, a house cleaner, an exam grader, a tutor, and a carpenter. Graduating without a dime in debt. Writing a prize-winning dissertation. Applying for *hundreds* of jobs. And not getting one interview.

During their life review, these "why don't you just apply for a job" friends will, further, turn to internet support groups for other adjuncts, and they will find hundreds of such stories in today's market. Including one poor soul who wrote a memorable essay about receiving not just good, but perfect reviews from his students, not getting any of the jobs he had applied for, looking at his wife and kids for whose support he was responsible, and trying to kill himself.

Finally, these omniscient advice-givers will give up on ever having an academic job, and they will apply for *any* job, and not get hired. Because why hire a PhD who might give you attitude because smart-people-suck and are weird, smart women are weirdest of all, except of course for poor, smart, old women – a volcano of cooties – when you can hire an illegal immigrant who will do whatever you say? Younger, prettier, stronger?  

They will know what my job search looks like, not through reading about it while lounging on the chaise beside the backyard built-in pool. They will learn about what my job search feels like after being diagnosed with cancer and not having any insurance and being told by hospital administrators, 'Wish we could help; there's nothing we can do."

Yes. Yes. I am still thinking angry, vengeful thoughts. Just couched in a patina of religious reserve.

Speaking of patinas of religious reserve.

Jesus tells us what to ask for, and tells us to expect it. "Ask and you shall receive." "Who among you if his son asks for bread, would give him a stone?" And then Jesus pulls the rug out from under us. Jesus is Lucy with the football; we are Charlie Brown.

I prayed that my brother Mike might not die, so soon on the heels of my brother Phil's death, even as his, Mike's, wife was pregnant with their daughter Lydia. Prayed so hard. Mike died.

Prayed so hard that Antoinette not die.

Prayed so hard that "God through Binoculars" would be published at the national house where the editor-in-chief called it "captivating."

I've got enough stones to build a cathedral.

I resolve to pray the rosary daily. Since it is my vow to pray daily, I have to confront that moment when I don't want to pray the rosary because I have no faith, or because the idea of God makes me want to puke.

It was a challenge to pray the rosary after receiving the news I received Monday.

I did, though.

This is what I did. We Catholics pray a designated group of five decades (five groups of prayers) for every day of the week. On Mondays, for example, the decades tell the story of Jesus' conception, birth, and childhood: the annunciation, the visitation, the nativity, the presentation in the temple, the finding in the temple.

Rather than praying the designated decades for the day, I prayed decades I invited on the spot. People who felt abandoned and betrayed by God.

It was a wow-holy-cow moment when I realized that my first decade would, of course, be dedicated to Jesus himself. "Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" As I prayed that decade, I meditated on Jesus' sense of abandonment and betrayal as he died on the cross.

The second decade was dedicated to Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul, as described in her book "Come Be My Light." The third decade was dedicated to Walter Ciszek, a Polish-American priest who was imprisoned in Soviet Russia, including in the Gulag, for 23 years.

My fourth decade was dedicated to Bernadette Soubirous, whose short life included cholera, asthma, and the extreme pain of tuberculosis of the bone, as well as torment and inquisitions because she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary over a communal garbage dump in Lourdes, France. During one of her apparitions to Bernadette, Mary, being utterly frank, said, "I do not promise to make you happy in this life, but in the next." Hey, no kidding.

My final decade had to be more upbeat. I prayed to Saint Therese the Little Flower; I prayed for one of her famous miracles. "I want to spend my eternity doing good on earth," she said. And recipients of her roses insist she has made good on that promise. Keeping my eyes open for a rose.

I'm a big believer in action. Inaction makes sadness worse. I remember making and serving dozens of sandwiches during Phil's funeral.

This week I had to do a lot of medical stuff, a lot of work stuff; I needed to get out more queries on "God through Binoculars." And I wanted to birdwatch. It is my little piece of heaven.

Yesterday I went to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

I got up at three a.m. A group of Hispanic men were having a fight in the street. They fought the entire time I was getting ready. That's stamina.

I was out the door by five and at the refuge by seven.

I write a lot about the rhapsody I often experience while birdwatching. There was no rhapsody to be had yesterday. I saw a lot of great birds: glossy ibises that always bring to mind ancient Egypt, where ibises were worshipped because their bills curve like the crescent moon. Millions were mummified. Black skimmers, great blue herons, American egrets, snowy egrets, tri-colored herons, black-crowned night herons, warblers, wrens. I was just not-to-be-moved.

The notorious greenhead flies (tabanus nigrovittatus) swarmed around me the entire time. They are horseflies. Mosquitoes are capillary feeders. Their method of eating blood is more sophisticated than that of a horsefly. Mosquitoes seek the tiny tubes in the skin. They have a proboscis designed to plunge into skin and find, and suck blood out of capillaries. They can do this without being noticed, until after their blood meal is finished.

Horseflies don't have a proboscis designed to suck blood from capillaries. Horseflies are "pool feeders." The mandible of the female horsefly is a jagged saw blade. They saw through skin. As blood pools, they lap it up. Horsefly bites hurt much worse than mosquito bites.

Greenhead flies live most of their lives on that most rarified and delicate of foods, nectar; just like nymphs in Maxfield Parrish paintings; just like Greek gods who lived on ambrosia. It's child bearing that turns female greenheads into saw-wielding predators. They want human blood to feed their eggs.

While I'm at it, let me pause to salute the terrestrial leeches of Nepal. While trekking during monsoon in Nepal, I sometimes had a hundred leeches climbing up my sarong at one time. The wonderful thing about leeches is that they suck your blood but they don't hurt at all. It doesn't hurt while they are doing it, and the wounds don't hurt after they're done. Scientists say that among the 60 proteins in leech saliva is an anesthetic. I just googled "leech anesthetic" and found Wikipedia claiming that this is true (see here) and one cranky man claiming that it's all hogwash (see here).

To this cranky man, I say, I lived in Nepal, and I can tell you lots of leech stories, including the guy who had a leech attached to his privates that gotten so bloated with blood that he thought, at first, that he had grown a third testicle, and none of these stories ever involve the leech bite hurting – it's exactly because they don't hurt that people have the leeches for so long and discover them at odd moments. Like when blowing their nose at an expensive restaurant meal meant to reward themselves for completing the Everest trek – yikes! What's this in my handkerchief? Suddenly that plate of bloody calf liver is so much less appetizing.

The greenhead flies don't bite me. When they fly into the car, usually around ten at once, eventually they land on something and I just hit them with my hand and they die – pretty fragile. I wear the recommended long, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing and spray myself with DEET. Et voila, not one bite.

I ran into a couple of gentlemen, middle-aged, all geared up. They were standing in back of their serious vehicle, gazing through a telescope.

"See anything good?" I asked.

"A jaeger."

Holy cow! I was ready to kiss my despair goodbye.

There are three species of jaeger in North America: long-tailed, parasitic, and pomarine. I've not seen any of them. They live in the Arctic. They rarely appear at Forsythe, usually in winter.

I looked through the gentlemen's telescope. I don't own a telescope; it's money, and it's heavy, and it's a bit more O-C than I want to be. But I am very grateful when people who use scopes let me look through theirs.

"I don't see it," I confessed.

"It's between two gulls."

Looked again. Saw … gulls between gulls.

The man positioned his hand and his arm as a target. I looked between his two fingers with my binos. I saw … gulls. Tried the scope again. Gulls.

The men were busily paging through their field guide; engaging in manly debate about whether this was a pomarine, parasitic, or long-tailed jaeger. They were using that dead serious tone that men use for collegial debates; I've heard that tone in discussions of who a candidate should pick as his vice president and what the results of a pre-emptive nuclear strike would be.

I took advantage of their debate to look through their scope again. I saw … gulls. And I thought, I'm just a baby. These guys are experts.

I asked what, for me, was the key question. "What made you notice this very distant bird? What told you that it was a jaeger?" The bird was far away. How did they know?

"Something different about the tail … and the wings."

Oh. I realized I saw nothing different about this bird's tail or wings.

"Thank you," I said. "I'm going to keep moving," I said. I walked on.

A bit later they drove up to me.

"That was a gull," they said.

"Thank you!" I said.

And this is why I don't birdwatch that way.

I don't want to be a numbers-obsessed birder. I want to be able to enjoy a magnificent terrain like Forsythe for what it is: a protected pocket of wilderness within eyeshot of tawdry, Trump-tainted Atlantic City.

I want to be moved by the sight of glossy ibises, invoking in their lopsided forms that look as if they are about to teeter over, their curved bills are so outsize; their legs are so spindly, invoking Egypt, invoking the dinosaurs from which they have evolved. I don't want to pick out each new bird in my binos, hoping and praying that it is a species different from what it is, because I need to jack up the number of species I've seen in a given day.

I want to appreciate what is and not make it what it is not.

My friends *have* been kind to me.

The man who said the most hurtful thing went out of his way to say positive things about my book Bieganski. The man who said the second most hurtful thing brought me food and drove me to doctor's appointments when I had a broken arm. The woman who said the third most hurtful thing remembered how touched I was when my sister bought me pomegranates and she sent me pomegranates for my birthday last year.

I can be a pill and nurse feelings of resentment or I can at least fake being more of a mensch and be grateful to these people for who they are, and not wish they are something else.

As for prayer.

I've been praying for my health.

I had to have a test this week, four weeks after the recent surgery.

The other day the doctor called. "This is highly unusual," he said. "Your test results are *perfect.* Usually with this surgery, we go too far or not far enough. So far, with you, we have the very unusual situation of it appearing to have been perfect."

I'll need to keep getting tested, and more steps will most likely need to be taken, but so far, not so good, but so perfect. I can feel it in my body. I can see it in my face when I look in the mirror. I notice it when I walk – since I was diagnosed, people pass me. Since the surgery, I'm back to being the walker who passes others on the trail.

Also. The lump. It appeared last summer after Antoinette died. Scared me to death. Three separate tests verified: it is a lump.

This summer, for a while, it got much bigger. Was actually poking through my skin. Hurt. Circulation in that part of the body got worse. Doctor said, maybe more surgery. Not necessary, but it will improve conditions for you.

Now? The lump is so small I can barely feel it. Circulation is flowing again. All spontaneous. Have been praying about it.

And my writing. The day of the multiple rejections, out of left field, I received an email from an author I highly admire, as do many others. He said, and I quote, "Danusha Goska is awesome." He had read something I wrote, and he really liked it.

God … keeps us on our toes. 

1 comment:

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