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.