Monday, January 31, 2005

Birdthday Rejection

Yes, it's true that today is my birdthday and yes it is also true that I have decided that I will NOT become a year older as most people do. My logic; if I can't have a job that actually pays a living wage like all the other adults I know, then I refuse to grow up at all!

Even though I am too ashamed of my current un(der)employment situation to tell anyone that today is my birdthday, I hoped that my friends would magically figure this out anyway and send me lots of great gifts in the mail. I checked my mail earlier than usual today, looking for all those wonderful cards and packages and colorful wrapping papers and cakes and pies but instead, I only found one letter. It was yet another rejection letter for a tenure-track position. Baaad timing, methinks.

But instead of receiving the typical rejection letter (pictured for ease of comparison) that usually consists of two or three self-esteem crushing sentences, I discovered the nicest rejection letter I've ever received (and after 18 months of job hunting, I have become quite a connoisseur of rejection letters so I am very capable of making this judgment).

I was so impressed that I decided to republish the text of the letter here. This letter is a great model for those of you who work in academia and are looking for polite ways to reject your job applicants without making them feel they are something disgusting and smelly that is stuck to the bottom of your shoe (all names have been elided to protect the guilty, of course);


Dear "GrrlScientist",

Thank you for allowing us to consider you for the faculty position in Biology at (elided). The search committee has now finished the selection process, and I am sorry to tell you that you have not been selected as a finalist for this position.

On behalf of the search committee, I wish to extend our appreciation for the time and effort you put into your application, and for making us aware of the skills, experience, and motivation that you might bring to a teaching role. We would like to keep your materials on hand, in case other opportunities arise.

Visiting faculty positions open periodically, in response to short-term needs, and Regular (continuing appointment) faculty positions open in late summer / early fall for the following academic year.

All our positions are posted on the Web site: (elided)

Thank you again for your interest in teaching at (elided). I hope we will be able to utilize your talents in the future.


Faculty Hiring Coordinator


Despite the fact that I think this is a very nice letter, I do have an editorial comment; the faculty hiring coordinator's secretary uses too many commas and capital letters, yet she has a job that pays a living wage (and I don't).

Hoppy birdthday to mee.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, January 28, 2005

The First Day of Class

After 18 months (exactly) of searching for a job, and 3 months, 2 weeks and 5 days of unemployment, I finally have a job that actually pays my rent, a job as an Adjunct Professor of Science. Of course, if I plan to eat or wash my clothes or ride the subway, I must support those habits by being paid to do a variety of other things, such as pet sitting or tutoring or freelance writing, but for now, I am grateful for this job.

As I rode the subway home last night after my first day at my job, I found myself in the company of hundreds of excited and hopeful college students. It appears that yesterday was the first day of the academic semester for many colleges and universities in NYC. I closed my eyes for a few moments to enjoy my almost overwhelming feeling of satisfaction, of joy, of belonging. For months, I have doubted my value as a scientist, as an intellectual, and as a person and I was certain that my academic and research lives were forever lost to me. I was nearly ready to write a resume full of fiction and send that off to the many temp agencies in NYC in search of a mind- and soul-sucking "survival job" so I would have some way to mark time before my eventual death.

But a single phone call cut through my depression and changed it all. It was almost as if an alarm clock had awakened me from a nightmare so I could discover that my meaningful life had been there all along, that it was curled up in bed next to me; comforting, warm, real. As I sat on the subway last night, I felt this fierce, powerful conviction that I had rediscovered my true home: Academe. It's been a long time.

It was so abstract that I was afraid to believe it was true, so I'll say it again, I HAVE A JOB!

As you probably have guessed, yesterday evening was the first day of my anatomy and physiology class. It was the lab portion of the class (the photo on the cover of the lab text is how I feel right now). Despite the fact that last night was our first meeting, the lab went well and I managed to teach the students how to use microscopes without anyone destroying anything.

I arrived on campus several hours early so I could locate and inspect my classroom and talk with the people who set up the lab for me (CLTs -- Certified Laboratory Technicians?). Prior to this, I had spent hours trying to decide how many lab exams to have, the percentage of the total lab grade that each exam is worth, and how to account for other things such as lab reports, attendance and "lab technique" (basically, this is how I hold each student accountable for cleaning up after themselves, for personal conduct, etc.). I finally decided that I would never devise the perfect grading scheme, but what I had written down seemed good enough to start with, at least.

Surprisingly, when my students arrived, I was not nervous even though "stage fright" (or perhaps terminal shyness) has been an ongoing battle throughout my life. Okay, I was just a teensy bit nervous, but my relative ease in front of my students was unique for the first day of class.

I have 27 very motivated students. They range in age from 20 to 45 or so. Two are caucasian and approximately half are immigrants and they all speak English very well. All of them are employed, either part-time or full-time. Slightly more than half of my students are male, which is unusual (in my limited experience) for classes such as these that are designed for those pursuing nursing and other medical professions, such as Physician's Assistants (PA) and respiratory therapy (should I mention that the average PA's or general duty RN's starting salary is $45,000 ($60,000 in NYC with an Associate degree, $62,000 in NYC with a BSN) -- both are bachelor's degrees -- and the average starting salary for a respiratory therapist is $34,000, while the professor with a PhD who is teaching these students their anatomy and physiology only earns enough to cover rent, if she's lucky? Oh nevermind, I get ahead of myself sometimes).

At the beginning of class, I introduced myself and told my students a little about my background (but I forgot to tell them that my own collegiate career began in a Community College, too). I told my students they can call me by my first name, but I think they are somewhat intimidated (by me? by my title? by my position?) so they all call me "Professor Owl" instead.

In spite of the fact that I grew up in a farming community where college educations were very unusual, I wanted to be a university professor for most of my life. In fact, one of my favorite words is "professor" because it has such a lovely and venerable meaning, and hearing myself addressed in this way is so powerful and evocative. When I was a TA (Teacher's Assistant) and a guest lecturer in graduate school, my students liked to address me as "Dr. Owl" or "Professor Owl". At that time, I felt very uncomfortable with this, almost as though I was promoting a fraud by prematurely accepting credit for something that I had not yet accomplished. But hearing the respect in my student's voices (almost reverence, really) last night when they addressed me as "Professor" is a verbal reminder that I've finally "made it", or so I would have thought when I was a graduate student.

But things look so very different from this side of "achievement" than they do from the other side, when I was a grad and undergrad. For example, I never thought I would be unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) after I had earned my PhD and completed a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship, nor did I EVER think I would have to seriously consider living on the streets. How could I have missed this? How?

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Survival Job Survival 101

Last night, I slept better than I have in almost one year. Even The Dump Truck cooperated by refraining from dropping bowling balls on his bedroom floor (my bedroom ceiling). This morning, I awoke in a warm apartment to the sounds of my birds quietly discussing politics in the darkness. It was so pleasant.

After donning my favorite blouse and my newly patched pair of jeans, I arrived at the Community College (CC) a few minutes early and felt an odd momentary sizzle of excitement as I walked into the building. Professor Owl.

My building is nice. Even though the labs were dark when I peeked into their windows, I could see that they are large and modern.

I met the people who run the Science Department where I will teach (profess?). I was given the course textbook (still in plastic wrap), and the course materials and I filled out mountains of paperwork (I wonder how many forests were sacrificed to the gods of bad handwriting on my behalf?). I was told about the odd CC class schedule and how to decipher their grid system so I am teaching the right topics at the right times and places. "The grid" seemed to make sense when they explained it to me, but looking at it now, it is utterly incomprehensible to my exhausted brain.

I listened and asked questions and answered questions and walked around the building and looked out onto beautiful Manhattan from the departmental windows and eavesdropped on desperate students trying to add my class.

My class.

After three hours of this excitement, my brain was crammed to the explosion point with wordswordswords, names, books, diagrams, syllabi and peoplepeoplepeople. They finally let me go in the early afternoon. Exhausted. Drained. Hungry. This experience will help me empathize with my students tomorrow.

My students.

I fell asleep on the subway under a mountain of books and papers and almost missed my stop.

I hope I do well tomorrow. I am so tired now that all I want to do is go home, eat a non-chocolate meal and snuggle under my blankets while I dream of Resplendent Quetzals.

This reminds me, I have one piece of advice for everyone who is or will be in a similar place as I was today (after hiring, before the paperwork); if you are too broke to properly celebrate your new job with numerous rounds of competitive drinking with your friends, resist the urge to eat a big bag of Peanut M & Ms for your celebratory breakfast. Especially avoid doing this on the morning when you meet your colleagues and supervisors for the first time, even if a Peanut M & M breakfast normally makes you feel really good.

That is all.


Non-academic applications: 2 (editor for a science journal, science writer)

Academic Interviews: 1 (preliminary telephone interview for tenure-track position at a smallish midwest university)

[I admit I've been quite depressed this past week, which has greatly reduced the number of applications I've sent out recently. I hope that getting this CC job will help me deal with the prospect of hundreds more rejection letters from my professional/academic applications jamming into my post office mail box and email boxes. I once jokingly referred to these as "fan mail" but my amusement with this little "alternative reality" game died approximately ten days ago.]


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Some Good News

Today, I was offered (and accepted) a position as an Adjunct Professor of Science at a local community college. I will teach an Anatomy and Physiology lecture/lab and I somehow managed to convince them to offer me a second class, a Chemistry lab for nursing students. Classes start Thursday. Thursday, as in, less than 48 hours from now.

After making sure that I would be paid enough to cover my rent (and believe me, rent will be ALL that my stipend will cover), I accepted the position. According to this college's policy, because I will be working nine lecture hours per week on these two classes, I will be paid for ten lecture hours. I will be busy three days per week (Tuesday-Thursday) and will devote the other four days per week to working on my research and scientific papers. And blogging, of course!

I will still be cat sitting, tutoring and freelance writing to cover my other expenses (food for me and my birds, power, cell phone, and MTA cards). And I still will not have any health insurance. I'm happy that I enjoy good health (fingers crossed)!

Welcome Hedwig, to the adjunct schtick. It's a survival job, but not a living.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Dump Truck

This morning, my upstairs neighbor woke me up earlier than usual with a loud crash that (I later discovered) sprinkled a few chips of ceiling plaster and paint onto the hardwood floor of my bedroom. Dammit, I just cleaned!

During the past six or so months since my upstairs neighbor moved in, I adjusted my daily worry schedule to coincide with his peak nocturnal earthmoving activites so I can make maximal use of this otherwise wasted time while he rumbles around above my head like a runaway dump truck. Incidentally, this also explains how he earned his nickname from me; "The Dump Truck".

But living under The Dump Truck has not been entirely worthless because I have learned at least one important lesson; I learned that I am not as pacifistic as I thought. In addition to worrying about my employment and financial situations, I also invest a portion of my newly-scheduled night time worry hours into wishing that Santa had left a bazooka leaning against my bedroom wall last month. Well, my birthday is coming in a few days, so perhaps Santa will make amends for this, although it is my opinion that Santa has MUCH to compensate me for and I am not talking about missing Christmas gifts, either.

The Dump Truck also was the impetus for me to meet some interesting night time conversation partners in the NYC police department. After my complaints to the landlord about The Dump Truck did not result in any noise reduction, I began using that wonderful "non-emergency" police number in NYC, 311. In fact, I am sometimes tempted to call my 311 conversation partners to "catch up" on those sleepless nights when The Dump Truck is peacefully snoring above me (can't he do anything without making a huge noisy production out of it? In fact, it would not surprise me to learn that his unadulterated noise-making capacity is the reason his wife divorced him).

My contacts in the NYPD inform me that I am filing a "Quality of Life Complaint" when I call them to object to The Dump Truck's noise-making. I like that phrase better than "Noise Complaint" because it implies that the police actually take this sort of thing seriously and that they will do what it takes to remedy the situation that threatens my precious "Quality of Life". But it also raises some interesting questions; what exactly can be designated as "Quality of Life" and can I file a Quality of Life Complaint about my entire sucky life? What happens if I file such a complaint and nothing improves? And gawd forbid, if my life becomes even worse after my complaint has been filed, what happens then?

Some people assert that my neighborhood is noisy because my neighbors are Dominicans and I "should have known" this before I moved here. But how should I "have known"? Osmosis? Certainly, noise-making capacity isn't genetic because when I moved in more than one year ago, my (then) upstairs neighbor was a Dominican man and he never presented a noise problem (sure, he had a loud stereo, but he turned it down after 9 pm, as all civilized people do and as required by law). The Dump Truck, by contrast, is a short, very white-skinned man with hair the color of those wilted carrots that you sometimes find in your refrigerator vegetable crisper, and he relies heavily on furniture-moving therapy during the wee hours.

I know these things because I visited him very early one morning during one of his middle-of-the-night noise-making sessions and found myself face-to-face with his insipid grin, almost as if he expected me to ask him for a cup of sugar. Barely able to restrain my desire to wrap my hands around his skinny neck and squeeze until his eyeballs popped out of his head, I told him to stop the noise, that it was 230 am fercrissakes and some of us actually had jobs that required us to get out of bed in a few hours (this of course, was back in the days when I actually had a job).

But because I hurt my back yesterday while hauling my clothes to the laundromat that is one block away and because I thought the resulting pain was enough punishment for me to suffer for one night, I mistakenly thought that karma or cosmic justice or whatever would protect me from having to endure The Dump Truck's nearly nightly noise festival last night. So it was that I found myself in the darkness at 148 am desperately wanting to wail uncontrollably into my cell phone to the 311 staff, wanting to tell Jan or Michelle or whatever her name was that my back hurt so much that I could barely move without wishing to shoot myself with this year's nonexistent Christmas gift, that I was tired of struggling so much for nothing, that this is just not right and what did I do to deserve this, that I wanted to file a general Quality of Life complaint because my whole life sucks, and all I wanted was a decent night's sleep for a change and is this too much to ask?

But I was too tired and in too much pain to do anything of the sort. Instead, after I filed my noise complaint (ho-hum), I crawled out of bed and walked slowly, painfully and quietly (so as to not teach my birds yet more unpleasant phrases) to the bathroom medicine chest where I found the ibuprofen in the reflected moonlight from the falling snow outside my window.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, January 21, 2005

Central Park Brrrrrrrds

I freely admit that I am a cold-wimp. This means that I have not been birding much (only twice) this week, despite my desire to escape my current sadness by losing myself in the lives of birds. My personal goal (to avoid depression) is to go birding at least once per week and more often when the weather is reasonable. But considering the current weather situation, I am not sure if I can live up to this promise: I don't have health insurance but at the same time, I do have a particular talent for becoming desperately ill with pneumonia. As I write this, a blizzard (or "Nor'easter") is on its way and I have no idea how long it will be before I can go out to look for birds again in Central Park, nor how often I will do this.

I am sad about this. My Friday/Sunday morning birding excursions have been the only time(s) each week when I spend time in the company of people. Otherwise, I am alone, unless you consider being crammed into a subway car with hundreds of cranky commuters to be stimulating social interaction. But I was lucky; even though my birding companions don't know me well (nor I, them) they accepted me into their group immediately. I am pleased to note that they also look forward to seeing me each week and they always have fun stories and jokes to share with me.

Because of the weather, only four others (out of 10 or so "regulars") in the birding group showed up on this very cold Friday morning to poke through the bushes in the icy winds in Central Park. Perhaps because I was the last to arrive, everyone laughed and cheered when they saw me walking towards them -- probably in recognition of our shared insanity. It was a nice way to start the morning.

We did not spend much time looking for birds in open areas because the strong wind was so cold. Instead, we spent most of our time near the birdfeeders on The Ramble and at the northwestern end of The Lake. The fox sparrow made an appearance under the feeders while a red-breasted nuthatch fed on suet in a feeder, above. We marveled at a yellow-bellied sapsucker hanging motionless from the trunk of a tree, approximately three feet above the ground. This bird had puffed its breast feathers into a fluffy globe whose diameter exceeded that of a softball so as to capture the warmth of the morning sun radiating from the tree trunk.

At the northwestern end of The Lake, a savannah sparrow picked at our offerings of peanuts from the flat rock in the company of sparrows while chickadees swooped down to collect them and greedily hoard them away into secret niches. Nearby, an immature yellow-bellied sapsucker added new holes to his collection of active sap wells already drilled into the trunk of a small conifer while chickadees closely watched his progress.

The Reservoir hosted many ducks and gulls on Sunday but they were all gone by Friday, when it had frozen over. We also were unsuccessful in our search for the boreal owl near Tavern on the Green, although we have carried out a thorough census of owl poops in the middle regions of Central Park. (Searching for poops and pellets under trees is an efficient way to locate roosting owls).

Although I have seen neither Pale Male nor Lola on or near their restored nest this week, one of my birding companions reported they were both perched on their nest early on Sunday morning and it appeared they had added more twigs to the structure. But I have seen Pale Male from my office window almost every morning this week as he circled low over the bare trees of the park. On all occasions, he seemed to simply be enjoying himself by soaring, and never attempted to capture any of the terrified pigeons that flew frantically from him. Much to my disappointment, Pale Male never once visited me by perching on my window ledge this week.


Central Park Bird List, 16-21 January 2005 (31 species total seen):

Weather: cold and windy; poor light all days
Binoculars: Swarovski 10x50
Telescope: none

Mute swan (introduced), Cygnus olor, 1 adult on The Lake
Canada goose, Branta canadensis canadensis
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
Hooded merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus, 1 pair on the Reservoir (Sunday)
Ruddy duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
Red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, 2 adults (Pale Male and Lola)
Ring-billed gull, Larus delawarensis
Herring gull, Larus argentatus
Great black-backed gull, Larus marinus
Rock dove (introduced), Columba livia
Mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, The Ramble birdfeeders, also Shakespeare Garden
Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus
Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, 1 immature working a coniferous tree on the northwestern shore of The Lake (Sunday), 1 sunning itself against tree trunk near The Ramble bird feeders (Friday)
Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
Hairy woodpecker, Picoides villosus, 1 flying through the trees and calling at The Ramble (Sunday)
Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata
Tufted titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor
Black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis carolinensis
Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis, 1 at The Ramble birdfeeders
American robin, Turdus migratorius
European starling (introduced), Sturnus vulgaris
Fox sparrow, Passerella iliaca iliaca, (rufous with grey stripes) 1 feeding on the ground at The Ramble birdfeeders
Savannah sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis 1 feeding on the ground at the northwestern end of The Lake (Sunday)
White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, both tan and white morphs
Dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis hyemalis
Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
House finch (introduced), Carpodacus mexicanus
American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis
English (house) sparrow (introduced), Passer domesticus


The picture linked here is found on the Buchanan County Bird Club photo gallery website. It is linked without permission with no intent to profit in any way, except to satisfy my desire to share the beauty of the birds I see with my readers.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


It is obvious to me now that I was NOT thinking rationally when I sold and gave away my beloved bird family so I could accept my postdoc in NYC, especially when I promised my birds (and myself) that I would bring them all back "home" after my life settled down. I remember dropping them off in pairs at the Continental Airlines desk in Seattle shortly before they flew away to their respective destinations in all parts of the country. I remember looking at them through teary eyes as I fiercely promised, "I will bring you back home to me, as soon as I have a home."

Then I turned my back on them and walked away, even as I could hear their piercing whistles echo through the cavernous building. Even as my heart was breaking.

But I lied. Like all of my fantasies, that's never going to happen because my flock of birds not only moved to new homes, but they are continuing to move beyond this plane of existence, forever beyond my reach. They scatter. They are gone. Fading memories. They glitter in the distance like broken glass. Broken promises. Broken trust.

The first lory I ever had the pleasure of living with, Paris, died yesterday morning. Of course, I try to read my email only once per day, so I did not learn about her death until this morning when I found this message waiting for me from my friend, S, whom Paris lived with for the last 4 years of her life;

This morning my 21-1/2 year old dusky hen, Paris,
died in my hands at the vets. I checked on her this
morning and she was in her dog kennel outside by her
heat lamp and she was panting and acting like
something was wrong. I threw on my coat and headed
to the vet's about 40 min away from home. When they
put us in the examining room and were setting us up,
she died. My vet is doing a necropsy this afternoon
and I'll pick up her body tomorrow. I've got her
old friend, Pierre, in the house now so I can
observe him and keep him company. I've been
dreading the day when she would die. At least I got
to hold her and say goodbye. S

Paris was a female orange-phase dusky lory, Pseudeos fuscata, who was born on the 4th of July, 1984. She was 20 years, 6 months and 2 weeks old when she died. For the first 14 years and 8 (or so) months of her life, she lived with me, first as a pet and then later, with a male of her kind. Paris (and the flock of lories that I purchased and bred over the ensuing years) intrigued and delighted me with her funny voice and her sweet nature. She was a gentle and kind presence in my life who always could cheer me with her goofy antics -- antics that earned her a vast collection of nicknames such as "BatBird". Paris was a brave and unique individual from another culture who generously shared her life with me and my friends and who taught me much of what I needed to know, particularly about social behavior.

Even though no one really knows how long lories live, Paris's longevity was unusual. Most captive lories don't tend to live very long on average, because people tend not to feed them properly. Because lories are parrots, people often feed them seeds or pellets under the misconception that all parrots naturally eat dry seeds (actually, few psittacines naturally eat dry seeds). In fact, because lories are nectivorous, their diet is similar to what the average hummingbird consumes. Further, since they have a soft diet, lories' crops are unable to grind hard objects, so seeds collect and build up like a block of concrete, choking the birds.

Several other common hazards to lories' long term health in captivity are also related to diet; first, they must be fed nectar, fruits and vegetables -- all soft, sweet foods that spoil rapidly and therefore must be replaced often with fresh to avoid bacterial infections that can rapidly kill them. Lories are also susceptible to iron-storage disease, the bird version of the rare but deadly human disease, haemochromatosis. This is a condition where the body captures excessive amounts of dietary iron, a rare essential element, and hoards it in the liver. After a few years of a typical captive diet that is rich in iron, the bird's iron-choked liver is transformed into a hard, blackened mass that resembles the sole of a shoe, and the bird suddenly dies from liver failure. So considering this brief listing of health hazards that easily could have cut her life short, Paris was certainly well-cared for by others in the lory community after she left my care.

But I always thought she would live long enough to come back home to me, even though knowing that she was happy and healthy and living in lovely Seattle gave me much comfort. Almost as if she was my child, I was proud that she was out there in the world, teaching others about birds as she had taught me, that she was giving other people so much pleasure -- she was a true birdie ambassador. But regardless of where she lived, she is -- was -- part of my inner emotional core; my family. Thinking about Paris now almost seems to call her here to me. I can almost hear her silky wings cut through the air as she flies to me, almost feel her push her warm fluffy head under my hand, slowly, slowly ... demanding in her quiet but persistent way that I stroke her soft plumage, just as in days long ago. I wish I could postpone her departure by stroking her again. And again. Stay with me, Paris.

My fascination with Paris and her tribe led me to refine my life's passion. You could say that she changed my life forever. My love for lories quickly embraced all that they touched: I came to know and appreciate the flora, fauna and geology of the islands of the south Pacific, the evolutionary home of the lories. As I learned more about them and their island homes, I was convinced that telling my birds' story will greatly increase our understanding of the molecular mechanics of evolution while also deepening our knowledge of evolution in this compelling geographical region. Because I believe in my birds so much, I carefully prepared for years to pursue my longstanding fantasy called "Plan B" (to sail away to the islands of the south Pacific so I can live with and study my birds' wild relatives); I learned to sail, to cook southeast Asian/Pacific island cuisines and to speak and read Indonesian. Paris and her kind were the focal point and the inspiration that launched the thousand bright, shining ships of my postdoctoral career, the career that eventually led me to give up my flock of lories -- the very same career that has abandoned me now, just as I abandoned my flock of lories several years ago. Karma is a bitch, isn't it?

But I was stupidly optimistic: I thought that making small personal sacrifices, such as temporarily giving up my flock of birds so I could pursue my postdoc work that focuses on lories, would provide me with the credibility necessary to make big advances for my birds in the future. I thought my research would direct scientific interest onto my birds and therefore protect many (most? all?) species from the onrushing extinctions that threaten the continued existence of almost all island species, particularly island-dwelling birds. But as with everything, I was wrong. I failed. Again.

Sleep well, sweet Hallowe'en bird, upside-down BatBird, demanding shriekmeister, loving VelcroBird, gentle sensei who taught me so much. I am so sorry I let you down, dear Paris. I abandoned you. I am just like my parental units.

After all the relocating I've done, I don't have a single picture of Paris to share with you all, so I linked to my favorite photo of a dusky lory. This is a picture of another friend's dusky lory, Tiki, standing on a camera. By seeing this picture, perhaps you can sense the person under the feathers.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Monday, January 17, 2005

Performance Art

A colleague of mine is visiting from beautiful Seattle this weekend. A colleague who was in graduate school with me, who shares professional interests, lab space and even the same advisor. In a sense, I guess we are family; sisters. In fact, my academic colleagues are the longest relationship I’ve ever had, except for my relationship with my parrots.

I am happy about this visit, but I am also quite depressed about it.

I know it is not healthy to compare my life to anyone else’s, that doing this is only asking for trouble, but at this point, it is difficult not to make comparisons because of our shared academic history. We earned our PhDs from the same lab approximately one year apart, but this is where our similarities end. Unlike me, she is gainfully employed in a meaningful job in the field, she has a loving marriage and still has her pets, her parents and family love her, she lives in Seattle in the loving embrace of her friends and last but not least, she is a talented writer.

This weekend has been excruciating because I want to show my colleague and her husband a good time, I want them to enjoy their visit to my beloved city and I want them to enjoy all the wonders that my former employer has to offer, but at the same time, I simply want to die. I want to die because it is obvious to everyone that I lack everything that makes life worth living: I fear I have nothing to offer.

Well, my office phone is ringing. They are calling, they are here. The curtain goes up. Bright lights burn my eyes, blinding me.


(108pm) NO! That phone call was not them after all, it was the chairman of a university search committee for a tenure-track position, calling me to set up a telephone interview for this week. Wha ... interview??


(530pm) They arrived, my colleague and her husband. They had a great time and now they are leaving. I watch them from my office window, four floors above as they put their luggage into their taxi. I am so sad, I miss them (how can I miss them? They were only with me for a few hours!), I don't want them to go. I wish I was getting on that plane with them, it would be so easy to go back, I want to go back to my former life that I painstakingly built, back to my former life where I had a flock of friends and a flock of birds and a community that needed and respected me, but if I left this, my other beloved home in defeat, what then? My former life is gone forever, I cannot reclaim it by simply returning to the place where it was located, I have to rebuild it the best way I know, here, in this place that I love.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, January 14, 2005

Secret World

Have you ever had a secret? A secret that made you smile inside as you held it close to your beating heart, like a small and precious bird? A secret whose feathery warmth gave you strength to brave the terrors and boredom of everyday life? A secret that, like a good book, altered your perspective by possessing your waking and sleeping thoughts so they blended seamlessly together into a single, magical world? This is what birds are to me; they are my refuge in this storm, they are my magical world. I am a writer and birds are the story, I am the instrument, birds are the tune, I, the scientist, birds, my beloved mystery. The diaphanous filaments of their lives bind me to them, creating a silken web that I willingly tangle myself in, a secret world that I escape into gratefully.

So it was that I finally escaped into my secret world in Central Park yesterday and today (Thursday and Friday, 13 & 14 January) and found that I was expected. The Ramble birdfeeders hosted the usual array of hungry avian visitors but I was surprised on Thursday to discover one fox sparrow feeding companionably in the company of white-throated sparrows and sooty dark-eyed juncos, his rusty plumage harmonizing with the newly fallen leaves. Then on Friday, I was delighted by two common grackles parading around on the wet earth under the feeders, the pale sunlight lightly stroking their iridescent plumage as they busily flipped soggy leaves in search of seeds.

The Reservoir accommodated notable guests, too; a pair of hooded mergansers. I almost missed seeing them on Friday because I was ready return to my office to thaw my frozen fingers around a steaming mug of tea when these gaudy ducks appeared suddenly, wings flapping frantically before they hydroplaned across the water's surface and then settled down near me. Their unexpected arrival did not disturb a bathing male bufflehead who scarcely paused his rhythmic preening of thick snowy feathers while he flapped a delicate pink foot in the cold breeze. The sleek mergansers peered about alertly, their slender necks craned, their rounded crest feathers raised, but after a few moments' inspection, they were satisfied and relaxed visibly.

Overlooking the model sailboat pond, Pale Male and Lola were calm as well. They perched casually on nearby buildings or lolled about on the winds above their restored nest as is usual for them in the afternoon. As if knowing they were safe, fat rock doves congregated in the tree branches above my head.

But on Friday, Lola spent the afternoon following Pale Male from building to building and settling next to him on patio railings, window ledges and television satellite discs, neatly folding her wings across her back. Pale Male spent the afternoon ignoring Lola, studiously surveying his kingdom before sidling away from her or opening his wings so the winds could deliver him to another perch. And so it went for almost an hour. One could almost imagine Pale Male and Lola as an old married couple, the husband sitting in his easy chair and drinking beer while his wife unsuccessfully sought affection by snuggling on his lap during commercial breaks. Apparently, even long-term avian relationships have their problems.

But it was cold and my numb fingers were painfully protesting their plight, so I finally, reluctantly, left my secret world so I could thaw out. It awaits, I shall return.


Central Park Bird List, 13-14 January 2005 (31 species total seen):

Weather: either foggy and cool or unseasonably warm, windy and rainy; poor light all days
Binoculars: Swarovski 10x50
Telescope: none

Mute swan (introduced), Cygnus olor, 1 adult on The Lake
Canada goose, Branta canadensis
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
Hooded merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus, 1 pair on the Reservoir
Ruddy duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipiter striatus, 1 chasing birds near the model sailboat pond
Red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, 3 adults, including Pale Male and Lola at their restored nestsite
Ring-billed gull, Larus delawarensis
Herring gull, Larus argentatus
Great black-backed gull, Larus marinus
Rock dove (introduced), Columba livia
Mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, The Ramble birdfeeders, also Shakespeare Garden
Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, 1 adult male at The Ramble birdfeeders (Thursday) and 1 at the model sailboat pond
Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, 3+ (females only) at The Ramble birdfeeders
Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata
American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, 1 seen in The Ramble, calling to one or more -- heard but not seen (Thursday),
Tufted titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor
Black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
American robin, Turdus migratorius
European starling (introduced), Sturnus vulgaris
Fox sparrow, Passerella iliaca iliaca, (rufous with grey stripes) 1 feeding on the ground at The Ramble birdfeeders (Thursday)
Song sparrow, Melospiza melodia, 1 at the Reservoir
White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, both tan and white morphs
Dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis
Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
Common Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula versicolor, 2 at The Ramble birdfeeders
House finch (introduced), Carpodacus mexicanus
American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis
English (house) sparrow (introduced), Passer domesticus


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Thursday, January 13, 2005

"Getting It", NOT

This, sent by a friend ...


Strippers Make Money: Career Day

PALO ALTO, Calif. A popular speaker at a Palo Alto middle school's annual career day might not be invited back after he advised students that stripping -- yes exotic dancing -- could be a lucrative potential profession.

William Fried (freed) informed eighth-grade students at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto on Tuesday that exotic dancing was a lucrative career move -- offering as much as a quarter (m) million dollars annually. He also said the exact amount of financial opportunity was directly proportional to the dancer's bust size. Fried is the president of Foster City's Precision Selling, a management consulting firm.

He told students: "The truth of the matter is you can earn a tremendous amount of money as an exotic dancer, if that's your desire."

Fried has given his 55-minute talk "The Secret of a Happy Life" to students for the past three years. He also distributed a tip sheet that includes a list of 140 careers, ranging from accounting to wrestling, as well as exotic dancing and stripping.

The school's principal plans to send some apologetic letters home with students.

Fried says he doesn't think he offended anyone.


Let me repeat: Fried says he doesn't think he offended anyone.

Um, okay. Can someone out there please explain why this joker has a job while I am unemployable?


Academic Job Applications: 2

Non-academic Job Applications: 6 (editor for professional journal (2), scientific assistant, lab supervisor (2), and production editor (part-time) -- this last potential position, if I get it, guarantees that I cannot pay my rent even though I would be employed. Oh, joy).

Academic Job Rejections: 1

Non-academic Job Rejections: 1 (Editor for a (unnamed here) professional scientific publication -- this rejection hurt, too).



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Sunday, January 09, 2005

My "100 Things" Meme Contribution

"100 Things about Me" is an internet meme that many bloggers have been participating in for quite a few years now. According to scientist Richard Dawkins, who coined the word Meme in his book The Selfish Gene; a meme is a unit of intellectual or cultural information that survives long enough to be recognized as such, and which can pass from mind to mind. Dawkins goes on to say that examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Since I am invisible/unemployed anyway, I decided to play the internet meme game too ... besides, it'll be a challenge to see if I can think of 100 things to say about myself without looking like an idiot.

100 things about Hedwig the Owl

001. I was born and raised in a farming community outside of a small town in eastern Washington State. Now I live in one of the biggest cities in the world.

002. I am a natural blonde (still). I know for a fact that blondes do not "have more fun" unless they also have really big boobs.

003. I could hurdle a four-foot high bar when I was 12 years old but I could only back flip over a bar that was three-foot nine-inches tall.

004. As a kid, I could recite the pedigree back to three generations for any winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, or the Belmont Stakes races.

005. I won my first blue ribbon in the state fair when I was 7 years old. I won it for my drawing of a horse. I continued to win blue ribbons for my drawings and paintings until I was 14, when the judges told me to enter the professional category instead of the children's category (adults and professionals were merged). I guess they thought I wanted a challenge, but at that point in my life, all I really wanted were lots of blue ribbons. I looked at the professional pieces and decided I was not good enough to win any ribbons at all so I never entered my work in another art show again, although I have sold a few pieces.

006. The first concert I ever attended was Supertramp. They were magical, especially when they played Crime of the Century.

007. My first job was a groom at a racetrack. I took care of seven racehorses, including one who was a semi-celebrity because he won the Governor's Speed Handicap. This horse bore an uncanny resemblance to Secretariat.

008. I worked many odd jobs in my life, including; a raspberry picker (ouch!), a "fry chef" at Burger King where I watched flames shoot out of their hamburger-patty-cooker-thingamabob (that resembled a large toaster) after I pushed frozen meat patties into its rectangular mouth, a waitress where I learned the art of kissing ass in an attempt to earn a decent tip, a telemarketer, a phlebotomist in a hospital emergency room, a hospital microbiologist, a PCR primer synthesizer in a hospital research lab, a parrot chick handfeeder, a manager of a pet store, and a bird watching field guide.

009. I walked on to my junior high school cross-country team the day before their first meet, and won fourth place in my first race a day and a half later.

010. In junior high school, I enjoyed creating my own alphabets. My friends learned several of them and we used them to write notes that we passed to each other during class.

011. I read the entire bible (several times), the koran, and the book of mormon when I was a kid. There's a lot of sex in those books.

012. I am agnostic. But if god does exist, I am certain that she is appalled by our horrible behavior.

013. I don't know either side of my family, even though I grew up in the same area where they lived -- and (unknown to me at the time) my family lived within one mile of my father's parents for many years.

014. My parents are mentally ill. Bipolar. And children of alcoholics.

015. My mother spent a fair amount of my childhood in mental hospitals. This did not bother me very much because it gave me a chance to escape their craziness because I was farmed out for weeks to months each time to their friends who owned horses.

016. My parents always maintained that they never wanted me. They frequently practiced getting rid of me by throwing me out of their house.

017. If I had it all to do over again, I would choose to be born to different parents.

018. I briefly considered joining the Air Force so I could take advantage of their GI college benefits. But I did not sign up because they refused to train me to be a test pilot. They said this was because I was too tall (I think they really meant that women weren't acceptable).

019. I wish I could afford to get my pilot's license.

020. I legally changed my name three and a half years ago. Even when I was a kid, I knew I would do this, but I spent a lot of time thinking about which names I wanted to take as my own. I am happy with my name now, although I wish I had done this years ago.

021. I don't think that anyone's baby is cute and if I say it is, well, I am lying to save their feelings.

022. I don't want to have children.

023. I don't believe in marriage.

024. I have been in love several times, but no one has ever loved me (not even my family).

025. I went out on my first date when I was 22.

026. I have a terrible knack for falling in love with men whom I (later) discover are abusive or mentally ill.

027. I have a very difficult time trusting people.

028. I have never owned a television.

029. But I really like Law and Order and all its spin-offs.

030. My favorite television characters are Joyce Davenport, the idealistic lawyer from Hill Street Blues and Xena, Warrior Princess (also an idealist), whose spirit I channel from time to time, as you might have discovered in several of my blog entries.

031. I own one pair of jeans. They are Levi Strauss 560s (30W36L) -- kinda baggy, just the way I like 'em -- they are three years old and I have worn four holes in them that I need to patch. I'd sure like to buy another pair.

032. I am a good cook. My specialties are Thai and Indonesian cooking. I also prepare several Vietnamese and Philippine dishes.

033. My favorite fast food is Taco Bell.

034. I have never been on a diet.

035. I sometimes dream about extra-cheesy nachos with black olives and jalapenos and topped with lots of great salsa, sour cream and guacamole. Contrary to what happens to other people, I do not gain weight from these dreams. This is probably because I do not have any of these ingredients in my apartment.

036. I once ate whale meat when I was in Japan. I felt guilty after I learned what it was.

037. My favorite cuisines are Thai, Japanese and Mexican.

038. I don't particularly like Greek cuisine.

039. But I want to visit Greece someday.

040. I have only ever lived in three cities that didn't depress the hell out of me; Seattle (my adopted home), Tokyo and New York City (my second adopted home).

041. I stayed in a Buddhist temple when I lived in Tokyo.

042. After reading Alfred Russel Wallace's book, The Malay Archipelago when I was 9 years old, I decided I wanted to live in New Guinea. I later decided I also want to live in Fiji, Tahiti, and the Solomon Islands. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these islands are where my research birds live.

043. I have always wanted to sail around the south Pacific islands on a catamaran with one or two companion parrots, similar to Thor Heyerdahl's adventures in Kon Tiki. Well, except for the scary parts.

044. I am investigating emigrating to Australia or Great Britain.

045. My favorite places to go bird watching are Umtanum Canyon (on the Yakima River), the Montlake Fill (Seattle), Rifle National Wildlife Refuge (near Vancouver, Canada), Yatsu Higata on Tokyo Bay (Japan) and Central Park (NYC).

046. My favorite time of the year is migration.

047. I remember animals' names much more easily than people's names. For this reason, I sometimes describe myself as a "name moron".

048. My close friends often remind me of particular bird species. I don't tell them this, though.

049. I remind myself of either a corvid or a parrot, depending upon the situation.

050. I suspect that domestic chickens are not real birds.

051. I have bred and raised many parrots and several passerine species in my lifetime.

052. I sold my entire flock of parrots so I could make a biiiig career move to NYC.

053. I miss my flock of parrots every day.

054. I met and shook hands with a president of the United States while he was still in office.

055. I once ate lunch with Arthur Schlessinger, who told me I was part of "this country's future". I wonder what he'd say if he could see me now.

056. My biggest fears are (listed in no particular order); homelessness, losing my pet parrots, possibly getting cancer or Alzheimer's disease, wasting my life in a dead-end, mind- and spirit-sucking job that I loathe, and that everyone will finally discover that I am a loser. I am working on developing more fears so I can continue entertaining my readers.

057. I love all sorts of music.

058. I wish I could play the piano and the saxophone. If I cloned myself, not only would I be famous and maybe become rich enough to pay my rent, but I could be 2/3rds of my own jazz trio. (I'll allow someone else to be the drummer).

059. I think astrology is a crock of shit.

060. I strongly dislike stupid people and religious zealots, and I've noticed that they often are one-in-the-same.

061. I want to own my own place someday so I can paint my walls any color but white!

062. My favorite stones are black opals and boulder opals. Opal is not my birthstone but I am willing to pretend that it is.

063. I am allergic to many things, including smoke, pollens and perfumes. Fortunately, I am not allergic to any animals. Yet.

064. I have gone into anaphylactic shock twice due to allergies and was hospitalized once due to allergy-induced anaphylaxis.

065. I think marijuana should be legal even though I cannot smoke it (damned allergies).

066. I have used illegal drugs in the past, but wasn't impressed by them, although I'd like to try LSD.

067. Even though I enjoy an alcohol "buzz", I hate losing control over myself (which also nixes my professed curiosity to try LSD). This has the added bonus that I have rarely suffered from a hangover. Like dwarf hamster therapy, moderate alcohol use is another method for staying silly enough to continue laughing at myself and at the world. But that said, I probably should invest in a few dwarf hamsters since they are lots cheaper than alcohol and they tend to live longer, too.

068. People are always surprised when they learn I have a tattoo. No, it's not on my ass, either.

069. I want to get more tattoos. No, not on my ass. Sheesh.

070. I have broken my wrist (twice), my collarbone and my foot (once each). A few years ago, one of my parrots bit my finger and broke that bone, too.

071. I have had one surgery (to place a titanium pin in my broken wrist). The doctors would not allow me to watch the surgery because the local anesthetic did not work properly so they had to give me a general anesthetic. Bummer.

072. I once had a photographic memory. The religious zealots at my schools told me I was sinning when I relied on my memory while taking a test. I lost my photographic memory when I failed at suicide.

073. But I can still see (in my mind's eye) some of those forbidden book pages from my youth.

074. The first book I read was John Steinbeck's The Red Pony. I read this book when I was in first grade. Yes, it did take me a little while to read it even though it is a thin book.

075. I have more than 100 favorite books.

076. I own copies of all of the Harry Potter books in three languages; English, Spanish and Indonesian. I have only finished reading the series in English.

077. I have earned several university degrees. These degrees are worse than useless because they do not help me get jobs in my field and they prevent me from getting jobs in other fields.

078. If I had my academic career to do over again, I would have gone to medical school instead of graduate school. If I had done that, I would always have a reasonably meaningful job that pays a living wage, and I would currently be in Indonesia, engaged in tsunami relief for Doctors Without Borders.

079. I aspire to be a scientist and a writer.

080. I have written stories since shortly before I started kindergarten, but I am always surprised when people say they think I am a good writer, or when I learn that people want to read what I have written.

081. If I could have a chip implanted into my brain such that I have constant internet access, I would do it.

082. I have designed, coded and maintained my own webpage since 1994. It won a bunch of awards, which I mostly ignore.

083. Perhaps surprising to you, this is my first blog.

084. I like teensy post-it notes. I use them for everything from bookmarks to daily reminders that I stick inside my cell phone.

085. I have a green thumb. When I moved to NYC, I left behind almost 100 tropical plants and ferns, most of which I had kept for 5 or more years. Now, I do not live with any plants.

086. I strongly dislike teaching, even though I am good at it.

087. I like roller coasters. They scare the shit out of me -- just as real life does.

088. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- made my own special way with lots of crunchy peanut butter topped with lots of Smucker's grape jam or me-made raspberry jelly spread on a piece of lightly toasted wheat or pumpernickel bread.

089. I have a sarcastic sense of humor. My humor is often at my own expense because there are plenty of stupid things about me to laugh at.

090. I like to make people laugh. Some people say I should be a stand-up comic. I think I could succeed at this only if my audience were really really drunk.

091. I have only ever owned one car. It was a nearly mint condition (used) 1968 Ford Mustang. It was the last one in the world that was originally owned by a little old lady who only drove it two miles per week to grocery stores and church. According to its original sales receipt and registration, its birthday was 21 March 1968.

092. I hate telephones. But I only dislike cell phones.

093. I hate being photographed. Yes, as a matter of fact, it does steal my soul.

094. I don't believe that Sirius is really gone.

095. I love subways, trains and airplanes. They take me places. They bring people to me.

096. Spelling errors bug the hell out of me, especially mine, because I was the school spelling champion when I was 10 years old.

097. I get bored easily.

098. The only birthday party I ever (almost) had in my honor was cancelled because of a blizzard.

099. I love poetry and wish I was a poet. I sometimes think I have a poet trapped inside me, struggling to express herself.

100. I can hardly wait to read the latest installment in the Harry Potter series; Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. In fact, this is the only thing that consistently keeps me going these days.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Friday, January 07, 2005

Pale Male and Lola: Dating Again

I visited Pale Male and Lola's restored nestsite as often as possible this week in a futile attempt to elude the gathering stormclouds of my own depression. Oddly, as if mirroring my inner turmoil, it has been raining most of this week -- unusual for NYC in January. As a result, the birds of Central Park were driven into hiding so I saw little and accomplished less, although I did manage to soak myself to the skin during several expeditions.

Even though I saw Lola on Tuesday afternoon of this week, my glimpse of her was brief as she swooped low over the model sailboat pond and then continued deeper into the park, flying from tree branch to tree branch before she finally pounced on a pigeon. But as if promising that there was more to come on this gloomy Friday, I was greeted by a brief visit from Pale Male this morning as he zoomed past my office window in pursuit of the resident flock of rock doves. "Ah, Pale Male is exercising the pigeons again!" I sometimes jokingly say, although I am acutely aware that escape is serious business for the rock doves.

True to Pale Male's word, I saw both Pale Male and Lola again around noon as they flirted with each other on the winds above their restored nestsite. Sometimes they were joined in their aerial dance by two other red-tailed hawks, at least one of which was presumed by the observers at "the bench" to be a chick from the previous summer. The two interlopers were tolerated for a few minutes before Pale Male returned to earth, perching on a railing near the top of the "smokestack building" while Lola settled down onto the edge of the "Linda building", folding her wings neatly over her back. But Lola was airborne again soon afterwards and soared out of sight, while Pale Male remained perched for many minutes, facing into the strong winds that blew through his breast feathers. The other two red-tailed hawks became dots in the cloudy sky as they swirled higher and higher.

My visit to Pale Male and Lola's restored nestsite was the last stop I made on my Friday morning birding adventure. But inspired by Pale Male's early morning invitation, my birding adventure began when I met a group of birders and we set off through the middle portions of Central Park, ostensibly to find eastern screech owls and to possibly relocate the vagrant boreal owl.

We spent some time at The Ramble bird feeders, watching approximately 20 goldfinches squabble good-naturedly with each other over thistle seeds in fine mesh bags while female downy woodpeckers grabbed mouthfuls of suet, and house finches and tufted titmice argued over ownership of black oil sunflower seeds. None of the ruby-crowned kinglets were present around the feeders as they had been the previous morning, but my disappointment was cut short when a male red-bellied woodpecker arrived. Even though his black-and-white checkered plumage blended surprisingly well with the bare tree trunks, his red head and nape were unexpectedly luminous in the thin morning light, betraying his presence.

We all moved on finally, tramping cautiously through the slippery mud on an unpaved pathway. As we approached the wooden Bank Rock Bridge, we caught sight of two immature Cooper's hawks perched on separate branches on the same tree above our heads. They were very calm and allowed us to study their plumage carefully while they called to each other repeatedly. Finally, their passionate conversation led to an amorous chase through the trees before they disappeared over the hill top.

After searching fruitlessly for eastern screech owls in Shakespeare Garden, we ended up at the Tavern on the Green, searching unsuccessfully for the vagrant boreal owl. We ran into several other birders there who had been looking for the bird most of the morning, also without luck. We even entered the Tavern's brick-paved patio to examine the vines and holly bushes there. I was momentarily taken aback with the Tavern's elegance before I joined my companions in our avian Easter egg hunt, pointedly ignoring the waitstaff inside who were setting up for their patrons and peering at us with mild interest.

More holly bushes grew along the wooden fence outside the Tavern's patio, so we searched there, too. Even though our search did not locate the boreal owl, I did spot a very late-migrating veery that flushed into view. The bird looked ready to cough up a particularly large seed, before changing its mind. After providing us all with good looks, the veery silently disappeared over the fence.


Central Park Bird List, 3-7 January 2005 (29 species and 1 hybrid total seen):

Double-crested cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, 8 flying overhead
Mute swan (introduced), Cygnus olor, 1 adult on The Lake
Canada goose, Branta canadensis
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Mallard x Black Duck Anas rubripes, hybrids, 5 on The Lake
Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
Ruddy duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
Cooper's Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, 2 immatures at Bank Rock Bridge
Red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, 4+ (probably 6) adults and immatures including Pale Male and Lola at their restored nestsite
Ring-billed gull, Larus delawarensis
Herring gull, Larus argentatus
Rock dove (introduced), Columba livia
Mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, 10+ feeding on the ground with a large flock of American Robins in Shakespeare Garden
Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, 1 adult male at The Ramble birdfeeders
Yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, (heard only) 1 at Shakespeare Garden
Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, 3+ (females only) at The Ramble birdfeeders
Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata
Tufted titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor
Black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
Ruby-crowned kinglet, Regulus calendula, flock of 20-30 at The Ramble birdfeeders -- seen Thursday 6 January, morning only
Veery (eastern subspecies) Catharus fuscescens fuscescens, 1 at the Tavern on the Green
American robin, Turdus migratorius, flock of 30+ feeding on the ground at Shakespeare Garden
European starling (introduced), Sturnus vulgaris
White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, both tan and white morphs
Dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis
Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
House finch (introduced), Carpodacus mexicanus
American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis
English (house) sparrow (introduced), Passer domesticus


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

More Job Ideas

Now that the holidaze are over, I am getting more focused and creative in my job search. Here are my latest job ideas (borne out of desperation, true, but they're generally useful and meaningful jobs, nonetheless!).

Actually, I have been feeling incredibly depressed about my situation because I have been job hunting for 17 months and five days (as of today), so I spent some time thinking about things that cheered me up when nothing could make me laugh. I recalled how my pet golden hamster, Mesocricetus auratus, whom I named Caesar (and who is an angel now), always could made me laugh when I was 8 years old. After some thought, I realized I could use these same techniques -- taught to me by dear departed Caesar -- to cheer up sad NYCers: I could be New York City's first Dwarf Hamster Therapist! But because golden hamsters are too cranky to be reliably used as co-therapists, I have opted to rely upon dwarf hamsters, Phodopus sungorus, instead. Dwarf hamsters have a much better sense of humor than their much larger cousins and, if provoked enough to bite, their small overall size translates into smaller teeth, too.

Already I can hear you ask, "Are you thinking of shrinking the heads of unhappy dwarf hamsters?" No, guess again! Similar to Cognitive Behaviorism where therapists use reasoned arguments to help their clients re-educate their thinking processes, dwarf hamsters are a special therapeutic approach that I use to re-educate my clients' behavior: in fact, dwarf hamsters are my therapy tool. It works like this; the unhappy person lays down on a couch and puts one dwarf hamster under his shirt and lets her run around on his belly for a few minutes at a time (NOTE: two dwarf hamsters might be necessary if the client is clinically depressed).

You may not know this, but dwarf hamsters are very fuzzy, warm and soft (even the bottoms of their feet are fuzzy!), so dwarf hamsters tickle. A lot. Even people who are not ticklish, like me, dissolve into tears of unrestrained laughter after a few minutes of this therapy (and for this reason, I strongly encourage the unhappy person to use the bathroom before each therapy session). When the unhappy person becomes so animated with general hilarity that the hamsters' lives are endangered, the furry little guys are rescued and kept in a safe place until the person calms down. This therapy is repeated several times during each session until the ability to genuinely laugh at the world is restored to the unhappy person.

The biggest benefit of this therapy is that I will have tiny fuzzy roommates who don't eat much or need much space (the perfect pet, er, colleague, for an unemployed person).

Tuesday, my craigslist friends and I discussed my best ("best" meaning most mainstream) job idea so far; replacement newscaster for either Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Okay, I know I have camera issues that I need to work through first, but because I want to prove the old maxim wrong, if you've listened to one newscaster, you've heard them all, I am willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Why? You ask. Because unlike those boyz, I am not suffering from testosterone poisoning combined with a seriously overinflated ego, so I don't need to hog the spotlight all to myself. Instead, I will be part of a newscasting team with my faithful newsparrots! Yes indeed, folks, I will sit at my little news desk in front of the glare of lights and cameras with my newsparrots sitting politely on my shoulders. I will read the news, just as our former evening news heroes did, while my newsparrots nibble gently on my ears (while hoping that they don't suddenly rip the studs out of my pierced earlobes). Then, at the conclusion of each news story, the newsparrots will make a cryptic or enlightening "color comment" such as "I can talk, can you fly?" or "There's nothing wrong with him that unemployment wouldn't fix" or, most succinctly, "Bite Me!" My special newscasting style, combined with my faithful newsparrots' witty insights, are guaranteed to inform you while also helping you place world events into their proper context within your busy life.

Wednesday, as I was working on flyers that advertize my tutoring services, I barely resisted the urge to promote myself as Hedwig the Owl's Tutoring and Cheating Services. This is a reality-based business idea: Even though I tutored only two college students during the previous academic semester, I could have been hired to cheat by twice as many, and for much more money, too. I was approached by four different university students who wanted to hire me to do their homework. It was fun homework such as designing and carrying out an animal behavior experiment in Central Park (there's lots of possibilities there for both avian and primate studies) and then writing up the results or completing a molecular biology take-home exam. I was approached most frequently by pre-meds from Columbia University, but I was also approached by one NYU student (who, curiously, also wants to go to medical school ... does anyone notice a behavioral trend here?).

Unfortunately, instead of collecting some desperately-needed cash by doing their damned homework for them, I gave them a lecture on ethical scholarly behavior, free of charge! They were amused by my idealism. Then they paid someone else to cheat for them. I'll bet they don't even remember me now (nor my free lecture), even though I still remember them after all these many weeks. I'll also bet I will be thinking about them a few months from now when I am receiving another free lesson on how integrity doesn't pay the rent. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity in the near future to make amends for my ridiculous high-mindedness.

Inexplicably, Thursday was an exceptionally bad day, even by my standards where all my days blend together into a never ending nightmare. Basically, depression attacked my brain cells so I couldn't think of any job ideas that were even mildly entertaining. In fact, I had trouble thinking at all because my bills were closing in on me and I wanted to escape .. perhaps by going "clubbing" so I could forget my own troubles by laughing at the silly people there. But even when I was employed I can't afford to buy a drink in the average NYC nightclub. So I wondered if I could get free drinks by being hired as an official drink taster for the gorgeous and sultry NYC women who lurk on couches in darkened corners that are occasionally pierced with flashing disco-ball lights.

I am not talking about common and uninteresting women (like me) who "clean/dress up nice"; I am talking about showy, high-maintenance women whose loud, high-pitched giggles give you a headache while simultaneously making you want to crawl under a table to avoid your impending public humiliation at their hands. I am talking about pre-fabricated women who have had more cosmetic surgeries than I have books in my personal library. These are women whose fossilized remains will consist of bones and silicon implants, thereby causing future space aliens to identify them as a distinct subspecies, Homo hubris pretentious. Basically, these are the plastic women whom all the NYC lawyers, bankers and other Wall Street types buy drinks for in the hopes that a real (or fictional) romp will ensue.

Needless to say, my role as official drink taster will be similar to being the official food taster to a king; by sampling every woman's drink a few minutes before she drinks it, I will ensure (by example) that these women can make an informed choice as to whether they wish to be drugged into a coma and taken advantage of by overzealous admirers.

Because I was still recovering from the previous day's psychological ravages on Friday, I decided it would be appropriate to consider a career as a turdologist. ("It's a shitty job, but someone has got to do it!"). I already have a good start on this career path since I am a professional cat crap scooper and, according to some of the more dubious rumors flying around out there, I am also a professional scientist (great joke, huh?). But more than simply scooping cat crap, I was planning to revive the ancient Egyptian art of foretelling a cat owner's future by analyzing his or her cat's shit. This would involve recording the season when the craps were produced, color of each turd, gender of both the cat and the cat's owner, brand name of the cat's food (this is my special addition to this ancient art since modern cats all have their own special food brands now), number of poops produced daily, and amount of cat hair in each turd, then feeding these data into a complex mathematical formula of my own devising to yield information that the client can use. Information such as the answers to these burning questions, to whit; "Will I meet the man/woman of my dreams?" and "Will I get that job that I interviewed for?"

But unlike most turdologists, I will not accept shit for pay: I will demand to be paid with real money.

Saturday, I rested. All day. I also contemplated how tiring it is to do absolutely nothing meaningful for long periods of time.


Academic Job Applications: 2

Non-academic Job Applications: 3

Academic Job Rejections: 1

Non-academic Job rejections: 2 (Scientific Assistant and a telephone rejection for Web Editor for a (unnamed here) veterinary publication -- I have never been rejected via telephone for a job I didn't interview for, have you?)



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Tsunamis and Mangroves: The Shrimp Connection

Note: Nominated for the 2005 Koufax Award for "Best Individual Post".


Indonesian Mangrove.

All the survivors agreed that 26 December 2004 was an idyllic morning, indeed, it was a perfect morning, in spite of the earthquake. This earthquake was triggered within an interval of a few seconds when the Indian tectonic plate suddenly plunged 20 meters (60 feet) under the Burmese tectonic plate along the Sunda Trench. This submarine jolt caused the Burmese plate and the lands perched upon it to move southwest by many meters and to simultaneously rise up by an as-yet undetermined height.

Even though its focal point was located 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of the island of Sumatra (map pictured; located at center of small red circle), this earthquake involved an unusually large geographic area; approximately 1200 kilometers (750 miles) of the India-Burma fault line moved. This rare megathrust earthquake, measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale by the US Geological Survey (making it the fourth strongest since 1900), was felt by millions of people around the Indian Ocean as it caused our little blue planet to shudder momentarily in its graceful orbit.

Unknown to everyone except a handful of geophysicists -- whose forewarnings went almost completely unpublicized -- the sudden vertical thrust of the Burma tectonic plate deformed the sea floor and thereby displaced billions of gallons of seawater that had to go somewhere. This displacement created a succession of shock waves that spread outward, traveling through the Indian Ocean like a series of ripples caused by dropping a stone into a pond. These invisible shock waves raced undetected through deeper waters as fast as a passenger airplane in flight (800 kilometers/hour or 500 miles/hour).

Meanwhile, people ate breakfast, went scuba diving or dug their toes into warm sand.

But when these shock waves reach shallower coastal waters, friction with the continental shelf floor slows the first of these shock waves, allowing the trailing shock waves to pile up into those in front of them. Except for small losses of energy due to friction, the energy of these shock waves remains nearly unchanged when they reach shallow water, so they mound up into one or several giant sea waves, or tsunamis, that can reach 30 meters (100 feet) in height. The combined energy of these towering waves carries them many miles inland, crushing everything in their path. Including people.

It is estimated that more than 150,000 people died on that idyllic morning.

The aftermath of this catastrophe is beyond comprehension, causing us to ask, 'What could have been done to reduce this terrible loss of life?' Since tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean (the last significant one was in 1883) and because of the relative poverty of most nations in this region, it is understandable that a tsunami warning system does not exist for the Indian Ocean. Yet even in the absence of a tsunami warning system, the resulting deaths and damages could have been mitigated if one simple precaution had been observed; stop destroying mangrove forests.

Mangrove forests (pictured, top and right) are tropical and sub-tropical wetland ecosystems located along marine coastlines, on tide flats and at the confluence of rivers emptying into the sea. Mangrove forests are a rich environment comprised of 60 or so species of trees, shrubs and other plants that thrive in extreme conditions; intense winds, turbulent tides, high salinity, and muddy anaerobic soils that are typical to warm water swamps. Mangrove trees have unique aerial roots that trap sediments before they are washed out to sea, thus preventing nearby coral reefs from choking to death, while their taproots filter salt from brackish water, thereby regulating soil salinity. Mangroves are home to a wide assortment of creatures; their root systems provide key habitat for juvenile fish and crustaceans, and for the wildlife that feed on them, including endangered animals such as Olive Ridley Turtles, White-Breasted Sea Eagles, Tree-Climbing Fish, Proboscis Monkeys, Dugongs and Bengal Tigers, while also supplying food, medicine, wood and even clothing for people.

Mangrove forests, in combination with coral reefs, sand bars and sand dunes, buffer inland areas against the ravages of storms, typhoons and tsunamis, thereby protecting fragile shorelines from erosion as well as saving countless human lives. After last week's tsunami, these characteristics were incontrovertible in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. It was reported that those areas of Pichavaram and Muthupet that are covered with dense mangroves suffered fewer human casualties and less damage to property compared to nearby areas without mangroves. The protective qualities of mangroves were also observed in 1999 when a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal claimed more than 10,000 lives and washed away several coastal villages in the state of Orissa on India's eastern coast. This was one of the worst cyclones in history with winds of 160 miles per hour. However, amidst all the damages, it was noted that villages in and around neighboring Bhitarkanika were spared much of the cyclone's fury: Bhitarkanika is the second largest mangrove forest in India.

But because of their desirable location, mangroves are under attack by land developers and politicians who are richly rewarded by the western world's fondness for dining on giant shrimps (also known as prawns) and for vacationing on exotic sandy beaches. As a result, more than half of the world's mangrove forests were destroyed in the previous 50 years and the remaining mangroves are being destroyed at an accelerating rate to make way for yet more beachfront hotels and large-scale shrimp farms.

But shrimp farming has been especially damaging; it is estimated that roughly one-third of all mangrove forests were replaced with commercial shrimp farms between 1986 and 1996 in southeast Asian and Indonesia, where 80 per cent of the world's shrimp farms are located. Among some of the tsunami-affected countries, for example, Indonesia lost 269,000 hectares of mangroves to shrimp ponds while Thailand lost 185,000 hectares between 1960 and 1991. Additionally, as cited in a 2002 paper by V. P. Upadhyay and colleagues in the journal Current Science, the Indonesian island of Java lost 70 per cent of its mangroves, Sulawesi 49 per cent, Sumatra 36 per cent. Globally, the rate of decline in mangrove forest cover is 2-8 per cent every year, according to another paper cited by Upadhyay's group.

Even though fish and shrimp farming were widely practiced for centuries throughout Indonesia, the problems started when existing practices were replaced with intensive farming methods designed solely to maximize profits. Intensive farming specializes in raising a "monoculture" consisting of only one crop (or species) in densely packed groups. Most farmed shrimps are the popular "jumbo" prawns, the Penaidae. Of the Penaids, the Black Tiger Prawn, Penaeus monodon, also known as the Giant Prawn (pictured, left), is the most popular; having captured 56 per cent of the current market because it is the largest of all shrimp species. It also has an attractive color and a mild flavor that pleases finicky western palates.

However, raising these monocultures provides an ideal situation for rapid disease transmission so farmers feed the shrimps large quantities of antibiotics and treat the water with pesticides to reduce unprofitable competitors. Unfortunately, although the maximum life span of a modern commercial shrimp farm is less than ten years, the resulting environmental damage outlasts it. After the farm has been abandoned, the land is barren and unusable for many decades due to contamination with antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals, and with salt. Attempts to reclaim the land for rice farming fail. Even mangroves do not re-grow.

This environmental damage, which directly contributed to the tragic loss of life last week, is driven by western appetites: Depending upon the source country, 80-95 per cent of all farmed shrimps are exported to America (the biggest global market for shrimp), to Japan (the biggest per capita consumer of shrimp) and to the European Union. Even though we cannot stop tsunamis from occurring, each one of us can ameliorate future tsunami damage by protecting mangroves. We can become members of organizations such as the Mangrove Action Project that work to protect mangrove forests. Those of us who are lucky enough to take a holiday in the tropics should avoid staying at beachfront hotels. But most important, we all can and should avoid eating shrimp and prawns, particularly giant or black tiger prawns, in restaurants, and we should request local stores to refrain from stocking shrimp unless it can be shown that they were produced using environmentally sustainable practices.


Some source materials:

Human-mangrove conflicts: The way out. [PDF] By V. P. Upadhyay, Rajiv Ranjan, and J. S. Singh. Current Science 83(11):1328-1336 (10 December 2002).

Shrimp Farming in the Asia-Pacific: Environmental and Trade Issues and Regional Cooperation.

Mangroves vital for mitigating impact of disasters.

UNESCAP Executive Summary (of mangrove ecosystems).

Is it OK to eat tiger prawns?

Chemical crustaceans: pesticides and prawn farming.

My Brain.


Nominated for 2005 Koufax Award, "Best Individual Post".

Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 96.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 19.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist