The Casual Blog

Tag: ducks

My concussion, water birds, toxic masculinity, and submitting to Trump

Tundra swans taking off at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Those are sandhill cranes in the back.

This week I got back from several days of photographing water birds in North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware.  I still haven’t managed to look at all the thousands of images, but I thought I’d go ahead and share here a few that I liked. 

I’m happy to report that I’m substantially recovered from my concussion of three weeks ago.  I got it on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when I somehow fell and hit my head on the wood floor, briefly losing consciousness.  I stayed in bed for the next couple of days because I couldn’t do much else.  

But gradually the queasiness, dizziness, and lightheadedness receded, and I started getting back to normal life.  Still, the experience shook me up. You just never know when you might get struck by a bolt from the blue.   

 

I got the images here during two workshops led by Mark Buckler, a master wildlife photographer and gifted teacher.  The first was in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern N.C., where there were thousands of tundra swans and hundreds of thousands of snow geese, along with many interesting ducks, such as northern shovelers, pintails, and widgeons.  

The second workshop, immediately after the first, was in Cambridge, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  There we saw hundreds of gorgeous water birds, including canvasbacks, widgeons, scaup, buffleheads, red heads, long tailed ducks, brants, and loons.  We also saw one red breasted merganser.  

A widgeon at Cambridge, Maryland

At times it was windy and cold, but it was fun watching the birds going about their lives — flying in, eating, socializing, squabbling, and flying out.  They’re all extraordinary creatures, as shown by the fact that they manage to stay alive in challenging environments. Some of them were not shy, and swam close to us.  I felt like they taught me something about connecting to other creatures and their surroundings and accepting life as it is.

Canvasbacks

I met some nice people on the trip, though I was surprised at times how difficult it was to connect.  Especially with guys of a certain age, like me, there’s typically a reluctance to engage. We’ve been conditioned to avoid exposing ourselves emotionally.  Hard to say what we’re afraid of. Maybe it’s just not seeming like a normal guy. So even those of us who care nothing about the Super Bowl will talk about it instead of something we actually care about.

Female canvasback

Peggy Orenstein had an interesting piece recently about masculine ideals in The Atlantic: The Miseducation of the American Boy,  Her thesis seems to be that we socialize males toward an ideal that is ultimately sad and lonely.  We’re taught to be tough and unemotional. We’re not supposed to show vulnerability. And so we wall ourselves off from others, especially other males.  Over time, a lot of us end up isolated and emotionally crippled, and that’s just part of the problem. The masculine ideal for some incorporates misogyny, homophobia, and racism.  

A northern pintail at Mattamuskeet

Of course, there are plenty of males who don’t conform to the broad stereotype.  And Orenstein doesn’t seem to think that toxic masculinity is immutable. People can change.  It’s just hard. I’ve found that mindfulness meditation helps in understanding unhelpful thought patterns and developing better ones.  A useful, free resource is the Insight Timer app, which is here .

A scaup at Cambridge

Anyhow, if you have a child, a friend, or a self that’s a typical male, they can use your compassion.  We need to rethink how we teach our kids and quit pushing boys to be “manly” in a soul-destroying way.  Meanwhile, girls get socialized in different limiting stereotypes, while they’re taught to expect and accept toxic masculinity. Instead, we need to teach our kids and ourselves how to better understand emotions, relax gender stereotypes, and develop empathy and compassion.  

Snow geese taking off from a field at Pocosin Lakes

It’s been a tough few days for liberals — so much so that I was tempted to give up discussing politics, at least for a while.  Seeing a majority of the U.S. Senate publicly and dramatically affirm their support for the obviously corrupt and unconstitutional conduct of our unlikely President was jarring and demoralizing.  It does not inspire confidence in our system, or in our fundamental decency. And that’s putting it mildly. It makes you wonder, how much farther down can we go till we hit bottom?    

 

While I’m tempted to extend the discussion of the craven shamelessness of the Republican congresspeople, plenty of others have covered that ground.  The question that I’m interested in is, why? What accounts for a mass defection from some of our most fundamental values, like upholding the rule of law and respect for truth?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the cultural strain I was just discussing of toxic masculinity.  The prized characteristics of toughness and emotional disconnection have been fully on display. There’s a tie between bro culture and Trumpism that’s evident in the exaggerated display of virility and the hostility towards those who are different.  

For strong evidence, see a blessedly concise collection  from the vast cesspool of poisonous discharges from the man that Trump just saw fit to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Yes, Rush Limbaugh. A sample: “Feminism was established so unattractive ugly broads could have easy access to the mainstream.”

The Republican legislators are tough all right — so tough that they’ll fight reality itself!  Their anger and hatred of liberals is so strong that it defeats their own respect for truth. Of course, they’re also fearful that they’ll lose their privileged positions if they oppose Trump. 

In a recent op ed piece, James Comey, formerly of the FBI, addressed the question of how principled, decent Republicans can continue to support a President who is thoroughly unprincipled.   He pointed up the power of fear and group think.  He reminded me that that’s how people are — prone to surrender their morality to the group, forgetting that the group is often led by the loudest and worst of us.  

As Comey suggested, all or most of us have had moments when we abdicated responsibility and went along with the group doing something we ended up regretting.  Staying together with our tribe is almost instinctive. But our mothers taught us to try to think for ourselves, and not just go along with the group.  To do what’s right even when it’s scary and difficult.  Sometimes we find the strength and courage to do that.

Anyhow, I liked how Comey managed to replace some of his anger at Trumpist Republicans with an effort at understanding and compassion.  As he said, they’re just people, and their weaknesses are understandable. As I said, people can change, and there’s always some possibility that they’ll change for the better.  If not, we’ve still got some of our framework of democracy, and we can organize and vote.  

 

Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law

 

It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds.  But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day.  Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.  

As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds.  But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera.  But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.   

My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks.  Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down.  I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.    

I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump  was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus!  What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.  

I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats.  As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think.  The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.  

Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham.  In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).

Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday).  I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable.  Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken.  We may be starting a new normal.

The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct.  Let me explain.  We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying.  If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.  

Great blue heron

So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government.  How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?

In fact, there are already a number of systems like that.  I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on.  And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.  

I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad.  There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine.  There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.

Hooded mergansers

But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent.  Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.  

Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses.   Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups.  Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.  

Mallards

This is depressing, I realize.  So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable.  I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived.  Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.  

But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred.  Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think.  Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.

Eye surgery, yet again, and some bluegrass and big cats

Looking southeast at dawn, September 29, 2013

Looking southeast at dawn, September 28, 2013

On Monday at 5:15 a.m. Sally took me over to Duke Eye Center in Durham. It was my third eye operation in the past 10 months, and the routine was familiar. Again the hospital gown didn’t quit fit, and again they checked the various systems (temperature, blood pressure, reflexes, etc.). There were several checks to make sure they were working on the right eye – that is, the left – and checks to make sure I had no allergies or other ailments. As my preop nurse observed, I was a very healthy man, except for the eye.

The operating room was cold. I asked my nurse anesthetist if this was purely for hygiene, and she said it was also good for the surgeons not to get too hot. That sounded reasonable – I wouldn’t want them dripping sweat. As they got me situated and draped my face, I asked if they were planning to listen to music (which they did last time), and someone asked if I cared to hear anything in particular. I said that some Brahms would be good. There was no reaction, which I think meant this was not a choice they expected. Anyhow, there was no Brahms, or anything else. This was mildly disappointing, but at least they didn’t put on anything awful.

It is odd to be conscious when there’s work going on inside your eye. I could hear everything, and feel movement, but it was not painful. From time to time they asked how I was doing, and I gamely said, good, good. The surgeons’ comments mostly related to the job at hand, and there were no indications of unusual difficulties. The surgery took almost two hours. The nurse anesthetist held my hand, which I appreciated.

Dr. M and me

Dr. M and me

At my check up the next morning, Dr. Mruthyunjaya said that things had gone well both for the retina repair work and the cataract removal and lens replacement by Dr. Vann. My performance on the eye chart was not good (couldn’t see any letters), but I could distinguish one finger from two at three feet. It will be some weeks before healing is complete and it’s clear how much vision I’ll have in the left eye. I’ve gradually come to terms with the likelihood that it won’t ever be the same. There’s an irregularity in my macula that’s here to stay. I’ll cope.

Dr. M also enjoined me from vigorous exercise for two weeks. I tried bargaining about this (how about just the elliptical?) but he held firm. And so I missed yoga on Tuesday, my regular gym workout on Wednesday, my personal training with Larissa on Thursday, and my spinning class on Friday. I missed the movement, the stress, the relaxation, and the pleasant endorphin effects afterwards. And I missed my teachers, classmates, and adjacent strangers. The activity and the people are a part of me, and I look forward to getting them back.
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On Saturday I drove out to Cary and took some pictures of ducks at Bond park, then came back to Raleigh for a walk through the IBMA festival, which we’re told is the biggest bluegrass conclave on the planet. We’re on a run in Raleigh with street fairs – in previous weeks we’ve had motorcyclists, SparkCon, and the Hopscotch music festival – and its great to see all the activity. For me, a little bluegrass goes a long way, but it was nice to hear a little, and do a bit of people watching.
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On Sunday, we drove out to Chatham County to Carolina Tiger Rescue, where we saw tigers, lions, cougars, servals, and caracals, as well as an ocelots, a bobcat, a binturong, and kinkajou. It was worth the trip. They were beautiful animals.
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