Fish & Chips & Winter Waterfowl

Today my father and I drove to Cape Ann, had a delicious plate of fish-and-chips for lunch in Gloucester, and spent the early afternoon driving from Gloucester Harbor up to Rockport and checking out the smorgasbord of winter waterfowl on the coast.

New England’s beaches are transformed in the winter; the crowds vanish and a unique mix of birds show up to seek food and shelter close to shore. Many are species that breed far to the north or normally live away from shore. Here’s what we saw.

Gloucester Harbor had a small flotilla of common eiders bobbing in the surf near the Gloucester Fisherman statue, as well as herring and ring-billed gulls scattered about. It’s entirely possible there were more species mixed in with the ducks and gulls, but I couldn’t pick them out.

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Common Eiders, male (left) and female (right). Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=701012

The harbor was choppy and the wind coming off the water was enough to cut through the warm sun. I never claimed to be a particularly intrepid birder, and my father has a particularly low cold tolerance, so we went back to the car.

We drove up toward Rockport, and soon found a lovely, sheltered beach just to the west of downtown. A large group of mallards was hanging out in this cove, along with more gulls — including a great black-backed gull. Made sense that the mallards would stay here, because the geography kept the water almost as placid as a summer pond.

Scanning the edges of the rocky outcroppings on either side of the bay, I finally spotted my prize: a trio of harlequin ducks, two males and one female, swimming out from behind a promontory. These tiny, gorgeous ducks live way up north in rushing mountain streams during the summer, and winter on the rocky coasts of New England in winter.

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A male (drake) harlequin duck. (Peter Massas, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9736138

Unfortunately, they ducked (ha!) back behind the rocks after just a few moments. My father and I stayed at this little beach a bit longer, savoring the view, and gave a lesson in basic winter waterfowl identification a one of the several people who strolled by. We were both shocked when a house finch started singing from somewhere nearby — and kept it up until we left. Perhaps he was getting in some vocal warm-ups before spring?

We drove a bit further up the road, and pulled in at another sheltered beach — just where the harlequins should be. Sure enough, they were right where we expected, standing on the tip of the same jetty they’d vanished behind earlier. This stretch of beach had its own pleasures, not least of which included a red-breasted merganser, a trio of buffleheads diving in near synchronicity, and — a new bird for us — a razorbill.

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Razorbill. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248528

Razorbills are part of the same family as puffins, the alcids, and are almost never visible from shore. Like puffins they spend almost all of their time at sea away from the coast and in far northern waters — but in winter, especially after storms, they can be found down the coast of New England. The razorbill’s profile is unmistakable, and our small scope gave me a perfect look at that distinctly heavy beak with its thin white markings. Razorbills and other alcids swim with their wings, not their feet, and it was my first chance to appreciate their distinct diving posture: tipping forward with their wings spread wide.

We stayed at this beach for a while, enjoying a perfectly clear day with the sun at our backs. The lighting was perfect, and we got really lovely views of most of the birds: I could make out the green sheen on the buffleheads’ heads and the rich palette of rusty-brown, black, blue, and white that make up the harlequins’ painterly plumage.

Eventually, we left, and headed home. We weren’t on Cape Ann long but we had a delicious meal and saw a bunch of beautiful birds and just as much beautiful coastal scenery. What more can you ask for?

Full Species List:
– common eiders (many many)
– bufflehead (3)
– razorbill
– mallards (many many)
– herring gulls (many)
– ring-billed gulls (many)
– great black-backed gulls (few)
– red-breasted merganser
– cormorant (unknown species, too far away)
– harlequin ducks (3)
– house finch (singing)

#BernieOrBust: Whose Necks Are You Willing to Stand On?

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Credit: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

I voted for Sanders in the MA primary. I will happily vote for him in November should he manage to become the Democratic candidate. I am thrilled to see how he has challenged the Democratic party and pulled it left; I love that he has rallied the passion of my peers who might otherwise have succumbed to political apathy.

You’ve seen me poking at Bernie and his supporters on Facebook because (1) I’m an insufferable contrarian and (2) I think the more emotionally appealing an idea (or candidate) is the more it needs to be challenged to keep our critical faculties sharp. It’s precisely because I like Bernie so much that I give him so much grief.

All of that is just to head off anyone who might dismiss me as a shill for Clinton. Believe me, she’s not my dream candidate.

But in November, if Clinton is the nominee, I hope anyone reading this will for vote for her instead of Trump, Cruz, or whoever the Republican nominee is. I hope you will vote for Clinton instead of writing in Sanders. I even hope you’ll vote for her if Sanders decides to run a third-party bid.

I hope you will vote for her even if they think Clinton is a hawkish war criminal. I hope you will do this even if you think her ties to Big Business or Wall Street or that great bugaboo The Establishment make her unacceptably corrupt. I hope you will do this if they think her progressive stances on social issues are little more than rank political opportunism. I hope you’ll vote for her even if you think she’s the status quo and you fucking hate the status quo, man.

Why?

Because the status quo right now is better than it was eight years ago before Obama took office. Because all available evidence points to Clinton being a thousandfold better for every social group in America that isn’t cisgendered heterosexual Christian white men than anyone Republicans might offer. And because Sanders is a lot less likely to win as a third party candidate than a Republican is to sneak up and steal the election, especially if Sanders supporters pack up and go home.

In my limited, anecdotal, heavily social-media-tinged experience, Bernie’s most zealous supporters tend to deal in moral abstractions and absolutes. Clinton fails one test of progressive purity (e.g. hawkishness) so she fails them all. Thing is, you can argue about moral abstractions all you’d like, but those abstractions won’t help women if Cruz is shepherding anti-abortion legislation through Congress. These abstractions won’t help make Mexicans at the border safer from the virulent xenophobia Trump happily stokes.

If Clinton fails one or more of your “I could never in good conscience vote for this person” tests, how are Trump or Cruz setting not setting off at least twice as many alarms? Bad is bad, you might say. Evil is evil! There is no lesser evil!  You might say it’s an unacceptable compromise, to play the game by the rules of The Establishment, that the only winning move is not to play.

In the end I don’t think moral purity matters as much as holding on to the progress — however incremental or dissatisfying — we HAVE made under Obama. I don’t think it matters as much as protecting America from four or more years under a Republican president. The Republican party actively wants to roll back every hard-one inch of progress.

I get it, I do. There’s such a heady self-righteous appeal in the #BernieOrBust stance. It feels good. You’re standing up for something!

But whose necks will you be standing on?

Vernal Musings

The world holds its breath through winter. Finally it’s time to exhale, and with that exhalation comes the first notes of the Spring Chorus. Birds across the Northeast are warming up their vocal cords before spring begins in earnest.

Flowers may be the de facto image of burgeoning springtime, but for me spring is defined not by sight but by sound. My ears are starved in the winter. Too much snowy silence, everything muffled for months.

At the moment, the Chorus is meager: a cardinal or two, a handful of robins, the occasional  titmouse. House finches are the early-season standouts, their exuberant song breaking the hold of the dark months on my mood. These birds may have down-and-dirty evolutionary imperatives on their minds when they sing, but that doesn’t dull the symbolic value.

Hearing these tweets and trills lets me exhale too, a sigh of relief. I’ve made it through another winter.

Dick Pics, Dick Puns, and Englightenment

Nature is lousy with giggle sticks. CREDIT:  Jörg Hempel | CC BY-SA 3.0 DE | Wikimedia Commons.
Common Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) at Lake Åsnen, Sweden.

My friends: I have worshiped at the altar of Ol’ One Eye (no, not him) and come away a changed man.

I do believe I reached a higher level of enlightenment by viewing — in one evening — more bald-headed yogurt slingers than I’ve seen in my 28 years of life.

I found “Critiquing Dick Picks with Love” on Tumblr.

I’m not a fan of male genitalia, as a rule. (Hello Catholic upbringing, sexual orientation, self-loathing.) But sweet ding-a-ling, wow. For sure, it was a an uncomfortable experience at first. But I endured the endless assault of purple-helmeted warriors. The relentlessly positive perspective of the author and dick-critic Madeleine Holden won me over. The entire enterprise is committed to elevating the dick pic from (1) an aggressive picture of an epic wang choked to within an inch of its life designed to convey nothing except length and girth and a warped and narrow conception of masculinity and male sexuality to (2) an outlet for male vulnerability and eroticism treated with the same care and sophistication currently reserved for cis-female nudes. And the diversity!! The sheer variegation of be-veined schlongs! You will literally see one dick, two dicks, red dicks, blue dicks. A variety of races, sizes, shapes, sexualities, gender identities, sports professions, and a few strap-ons to boot.

There is one particular series submitted by a playful couple that is so utterly lovely, adorable, and heartwarming — yes, even with an at-attention member involved — that I want to share it here in all its glory, your propriety algorithms be damned. But I won’t, because I’m not a wanker. Check it out, though.

I challenge you to spend an evening surrounded by these trouser snakes (and one actual snake) and I promise you won’t regret it.

Throbbingly,
– K.

* * *

Oh, and if you needed to be notified that the links in a post explicitly about photos of man-meat might be, well, explicit … I’m not sure what to say to you.

It’s been a while, dear readers. As you might guess from previous posts, I have been struggling. But I have experienced a sea change (more to come on that) and you can expect a slowly increasingly flow of posts in the near future. I promise they won’t all be excuses to cram as many slang terms for penises as possible into a single post.

P.S. Next time it’s vaginas.

GamerGate: A Plague Ship in Need of Scuttling

Let’s get a few things clear up front: I’m a gamer, I’m male but genderqueer, and I’m a feminist. I’m not writing this to change minds. I am not taking the high road. (Although given the bar set by GamerGate loyalists, anything short of out-and-out harassment of the most vile and craven nature is going to seem positively lofty.)

No, I’m here just to state loudly and clearly that I condemn GamerGate and anyone who continues to support it. Yes, anyone. Even you, supposedly noble gamer who will insist ad in-fucking-finitum, that your hashtag crusade is about ethics in journalism.

It isn’t. It is not. Period. Full stop.

It ceased to be about anything except misogyny, harassment, vitriol, ignorance, tribalism, and the sociopathic ability of some gamers to disregard, utterly, the human dignity of those they see as threats the first time someone carrying this banner decided it would be good to try to ruin a person’s personal and professional life via a sustained campaign of threats.

“But we’re being painted with the same brush!” Yes, of course you are, you’re standing on the same goddamn canvas and refuse to move.

Earlier tonight, Felicia Day broke her silence about her feelings on GamerGate. It took less than an hour – less than an hour – for someone to post her physical address in the comments.

If you’re reading this, and you associate with GamerGate, I won’t even bother asking you to reconsider. If you’re still drinking from that well you evidently enjoy the taste of excrement. I’d rather give you a swift kick to the head, frankly.

But – and this is important – I won’t. Nor will I try to find out where any of you live so that someone with less of a compunction about causing harm to another human being can do it for me. I won’t even sit by if someone does it in my name or the game of the current reigning counter-hashtag, as I understand (and sadly believe) some already have.

Why? It’s called integrity.

The physical and emotional safety of your fellow human beings is paramount. There is no justification for associating with a group that has shown, repeatedly, that it is perfectly willing to harm others as a matter of course. Read that again, please. There is no justification.

You have had almost two months to come to your senses and extricate yourself from a boat with an increasingly dangerous and toxic payload. It no longer even matters whether you wanted to let plague-infested rats into your metaphorical vessel; they’re breeding in your cargo hold and the rest of the world has noticed. It’s way past time this ship was scuttled.

***

Like I said, I’m not here to change minds. I’m just here to add my voice to the growing – and overdue – cultural backlash against GamerGate.

If there’s anything this saga can teach us it’s that “don’t feed the trolls” is not (and never was) good advice. It puts the onus on decent people to indirectly manage the behavior of the worst elements of online culture. In any other arena this would seem patently absurd.

When people say and do horrible things, the worst thing we can do is remain silent. Let’s at least show the trolls and the people who abet them that we have no intention of putting up with their shit.

Book Review: The Strain squanders an excellent hook

the strain coverThis. This is why I hate the word “epic”. Especially when used in advertising patter for genre fiction, where its positive connotation is presumed to be about as strong as “delicious” is for cookbooks.

I’m talking about the Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan novel The Strain and its sequel The Fall. (These are the first two books of a trilogy; whether or not I read the third is very much up in the air.)

You may have heard about it because you are more into horror than I am, or perhaps the recently debuted FX series has brought it to your attention.

The hook—which is undeniably excellent—is a vampire plague for the modern age of pandemics and bioterrorism. It all starts with a single flight landing stillborn in New York. The CDC brings in is crack team, consisting in this instance of genius epidemiologist Ephraim and his cardboard cutout of a partner, Nora.

For the first two-thirds of the first book, The Strain trilogy is compulsively readable. It’s a slow-burn thriller that feels more like The Andromeda Strain than anything else. Vampire mythology is toyed with, as it should be, and doled out with care; the veneer of biology is kept carefully intact.

It’s hard to say when, exactly the scales finally tip. Probably as soon as The Master gets involved. The Master is exactly what he sounds like: a Big Bad vampire behind everything. (He is literally a giant, thanks to well-implemented riff on history and folklore.)

A disease is scary because it doesn’t have a plan. A virus is terrifying because it simply self-replicates. We’re collateral damage. It’s impassive. To wit: Werner Herzog should love viruses, they’re a perfect literary representative just how few fucks nature gives about humankind.

Unfortunately, Del Toro and Hogan apparently give just as few fucks about their science-sharpened hook and summarily drop it for an increasingly “epic” saga. The farther the infection spreads from that first plane, the more tenuous the connection to the novel’s best idea becomes, until it is completely subsumed by its own infection: epic bloat.

After some initial investigation, Ephraim doesn’t even get to begin looking for a cure. He doesn’t get to study the vampire pathogen. Van Helsing (basically) just shows up and Tells Them How It Is, and the ‘stubborn’ and ‘brilliant’ scientist says screw it and tosses aside his stethoscope for a silver sword. (His partner Nora, meanwhile, does essentially nothing.)

Much fighting and shedding of blood ensues.

By the end of the second book (SPOILERS!) the space station is falling out of the sky, the world is plunged into eternal night, and the original vampires are hinted at being somehow connected to nuclear explosions and an angel. There are vampires hunting vampires, psychic vampires, and Nazi vampires. Van Helsing makes his sacrifice, nuclear war erupts, and everything seems totally hopeless.

Of course.

At this point, the final novel can play out one of two ways for me: the authors  continues to their narrative over to the impulse to have Good Guys fighting Bad Guys and the Good Guys eventually pull out a win… Or the authors jump the tracks they’ve been laying for two books end whole thing on a downer just because. Neither would be particularly satisfying.

(Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy watching Good win against Evil in Saturday Morning Cartoon fashion, but when I need a dose of tried-and-true wish-fulfillment fantasy I don’t need to slog through 1500 pages of apocalypse to get it.)

You’d think all of this insanity would make things interesting, but the stakes are so high now that they are exhausting not interesting. Why couldn’t we just have a novel about a vampire-virus outbreak in NYC?

This is to say nothing of prose that dips way too often into “How did this get past an editor?” territory. Ham-fisted attempts at literary metaphors abound. There are entire chapters wasted indulging an apparent need to reaffirm that these vampires are indeed scary by introducing us to someone we’ve never met just so they can die a terrible un-death.

All of this would be forgivable, I expect, if the books had at least kept their unique spark alive.

First rule of epidemiology: if a patient has been exposed to a pathogen and survives, their immune system will be primed to repel it. The authors choose an interesting strain—not entirely new but new enough—of vampire fiction but quickly abandon it for tropes most readers have encountered enough times to be immune to by now.

Bonus women-in-fiction rant: Nora, the protagonist’s partner and love interest, literally has nothing to do for the entire first book and in the second book is only given the job of Running Away With The Kid. This brings the total of female main characters with developed backstories and personalities to a whopping zero.

Just go read Richard Matheson’s I am Legend instead.
– K