In defence of pigeons

People think it’s okay to be rude about pigeons because they’re clumsy, grey and ill-proportioned. But you’d never dream of talking about your grandparents like that. You’d never call them “flying rats” or “the scourge of the streets.” Even if they were part of a senior citizens’ drug gang, you’d probably find a way around it.

People think it’s okay to dismiss pigeons because they’re so common. But logically, most people are common too. Crowds flock to the zoo to see exotic birds like parrots and peacocks and pelicans. They stare into their cages with open mouths and say things like “would you look at those magnificent feathers” or “isn’t she a beauty?” meanwhile kicking the pigeon who has landed near their foot.

Last May, German daily Der Tagesspiegel published an excellent article in defence of the pigeon. The writer concluded that the bird had an “image problem” and dispelled many of the hateful myths associated with it. For one, pigeons don’t carry any more diseases than your average feathered friend. Their excrement is not as abundant as you think either. In Berlin, dogs produce 20,000 tonnes of poo a year. Pigeons, on the other hand, a measly 27. Pigeon expert Ludger Kamphausen claims the chance of picking up an infection from a flower pot containing mushrooms is higher than from a city pigeon.

This is nothing new. Birds have been maligned for not matching up to an aesthetic ideal for hundreds of years. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling was published in 1843. It tells the story of a duckling who undergoes hardship because of its plain feathers, until one day it turns into a beautiful swan and is re-accepted into the community.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not pigeons that have the image problem, it’s society. We can blame it on evolutionary biology but it’s no excuse really. We think that if things are cute, they are good. And good things are more deserving. Take these two examples.

In 2007, Germany went crazy for a polar bear cub called Knut after he was rejected by his mother. He became an international phenomenon; books, DVDs, teddy bears and even songs were produced in his honour. After his untimely death, Spiegel Online ran an obituary of Knut which described him as an “innocent bear who enchanted millions.” A bronze statue was erected at the zoo in his honour.

Thousands visited Berlin to pay their respects to Knut. They mourned the loss of the bear while eating mass-produced pig meat which they bought from the hot dog stands nearby. Jonathan Safran Foer writes eloquently about this irrational behaviour in Eating Animals, which is worth a read whether or not you are a committed carnivore.

From Knut to Susan Boyle. Two years after Knut came on the scene, 47 year-old frumpy Scotswoman Susan Boyle appeared on TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent. The judges laughed at her and unfortunate members of the audience, whose faces have been immortalised on Youtube, scowled cruelly when she came on stage. Then she started to sing. She was very good and moved one of the judges to tears. They stopped laughing after that because Susan Boyle had compensated for the offence of not being conventionally attractive. She had talent, so her aesthetic shortcoming, or in other words the crime of looking like a normal person, would be quashed, pending a makeover as soon as she got a record deal.

The story of the Ugly Duckling and of Susan Boyle have been packaged as if they contain some moral message. But they tell us much more about society’s questionable collective morality than anything else. In the case of the Ugly Duckling, enduring years of hardship is rewarded by becoming beautiful and accepted. In the Susan Boyle saga, the message is that it’s possible to distract people from the obvious defect of not being glamorous by showcasing alternative accomplishments, like a beautiful voice or a talent for embroidery.

As for what Knut teaches us, it’s no more than the inconsistency pet-owners who eat meat recognise in themselves. We seem hard-wired to prefer things that look nice, but we’re also smart enough to know that acting on that bias goes against the equality mature societies strive for.

So next time you shoe a pigeon away while canoodling with a canary, think about whose feathers you’re really ruffling.

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Kate Katharina’s Theory of Relativity

On my ninth birthday I sat in the armchair in my living room and felt overwhelmingly sad. There was wrapping paper on the floor and what I’m sure were wonderful presents, and a cake too, but all I could think about was that time was passing me by and I could do nothing to stop it. My first decade was nearing an end and I was going to have to grow up.

This is completely true because I remember the feeling vividly. My mother reassured me that I was still a child but it didn’t help, because in my head, to be nine was entirely different from being eight. It was a milestone and I had reached it before I was ready.

A few months before I became wistful about the passing of time.

A few months before I became wistful about the passing of time.

I wasn’t precocious, I was just keenly self-aware. But either way, the point is, I was wistful about time passing, at the age of nine.

And could you blame me? All I had ever known was to be a small child and now on this day that was full of surprises and cards and cake, it hit me that some day very soon I would be a big child and I would have to accept all the responsibilities that went with it.

I’m 25 now. I know, ancient. People older than me especially like to hear me say that. They never sigh and roll their eyes and remark “What I’d do to be 25 again..”

(But seriously, a quarter of a century and not a novel to my name..)

There’s a reason I’m writing all this. I’ve spent the whole day translating an academic essay about Paul Feyerabend, an Austrian philosopher who was all about relativism, before he put it in perspective.

Feyerabend believed a lot of nonsense which makes my head spin but that’s neither here nor there.

He got me thinking about the curse -and the blessing – of relativism.

Alexander the Great had become great king of Asia Minor by the time he was 25. James Joyce composed the politically poignant poem “Et Tu Healy” at nine. Mark Zuckerberg was a billionaire at 23 and Justin Bieber is about seven and a half.

I could be here all day.

As most of you know, my accomplishments are few and far between and despite my best intentions, I do sometimes think about all the more wonderful people in the world.

And I don’t usually dwell on them because I am too busy with my quarter-life crisis and because wallowing, given the enormous privileges I enjoy, is quite obscene.

But I couldn’t get way from relativism this week. The news was full of the findings of a study that confirmed that Facebook “makes you miserable.”

Apparently, looking at beautiful people on beautiful holidays with beautiful cocktails doesn’t make you feel good, especially if you’re the kind of person that lurks, rather than gets involved on social networks.

So to spite Feyerabend, who despised the empirical method, I spent the week lurking, trying to find out whether other people’s more beautiful lives were making me miserable.

Further research is needed.

But the more I looked at it, especially when I logged off Facebook, the more mind-boggling it all became.

There are infinite comparisons you could make. You could compare yourself to someone with nicer hair or to one of the rats that skirts about on the tracks of the underground. You could think about how insignificant you are in the cosmos, or about how LSB didn’t scrub the pot, even though he said he would. You could think about everything you are or everything you’re not.

Relativism

Relativism

But when you pop on your onesie, sit back with a cup of Barry’s tea and really think about it, you realise that it’s all a load of nonsense.

The only thing worth envying is happiness. And envy doesn’t get you there.

Chocolate, beer, nice people and a good sense of humour do.

And on that note, Feyerabend, whose name rather ironically translates as “Beer O’Clock” has left me craving an Erdinger.

But my fridge is empty and it’s dark and snowy outside. And I suppose that relatively speaking, I’m rather happy and cosy in my chair, munching on some milk chocolate and writing my very first ever philosophical treatise.

Lessons from the Lampsilis Mussel

Until yesterday, mussels were something I avoided looking at when passing the frozen deli section of my local supermarket. But when, late last night, I discovered the lampsilis mussel, native to the streams of Missouri, everything changed.

Mohammed Noor, a delightfully geeky professor of biology at Duke University, who is running a free online course on Evolution and Genetics, directed me to a video about the ingenious mollusc.

What I saw left me almost speechless. Not once since the demise of my goldfish Miranda, have I been so intrigued and enamoured by a freshwater creature.

For those of you too lazy to watch the video or in the kind of place where it would be inappropriate, let me tell you about the lampsilis mussel. It will sound like I’m making stuff up, but if you go back to Monday’s post, you’ll realise I’m incapable of that.

Here we go. For some reason, baby lampsilis mussels cannot become adults unless they spend some time inside a large-mouthed bass.

Don’t dwell too long on that. Just trust me that it’s true. Given that mussels cannot swim and are blind, it seems like an almost impossible feat to accomplish.

But the clever lampsilis mussel has found a way to export its young into the mouths of unsuspecting bass. It knows that if there’s one thing a big fat bass fish likes to eat, it’s a smaller, “darter” fish. Now, it’s not exactly going to find some small fish willing to paddle around it all day acting as some kind of bass bait.

So instead, they simply grow a fake one, which is fixed to their shell and exhibits all the characteristics of a small fish. It even darts around when the mussel senses the bass approaching.

When the bass reaches out to gobble up the fake fish, the mussel squirts its young into the bass’s mouth. The mussel babies grab hold of the fish’s gills and feed off its blood before finally dropping off as fully-formed mussels several weeks later. Beyond being deprived of the tasty meal it expected, the bass isn’t harmed in the process.

I’ve been so inspired by the story of the lampsilis mussel, that I’ve drawn up a list of things that humans could learn from them.

1. No matter what the extent of our defects, there is always some inner resource we can employ to solve a problem. It’s our job to find it. It could be anything from the talent to grow a fake fish to the ability to pick ourselves up again after we’ve been knocked.

2. If you can benefit from another’s weakness without harming them in the process, (and even save another fish while doing so) then by all means, go for it.

3. If evolution lends credibility to the highly ridiculous, then so should we.

4. Be patient and persevere. Sometimes you have to wait a while to get what you want. Not every bass is going to swim right into your trap, but chances are if you wait long enough, eventually one will.

5. Non-traditional early childhoods can be very successful.

Kate Katharina is looking for an Agony Aunt… and she’d better be real.

Earlier this morning, I was asleep on a plane with a copy of Anna Karenina abandoned on my knee, when I was jolted awake by an adapter plug, which hit me in the face. I looked up to see a young man hovering over me. He looked mortified.

He had been searching for something in his case in the luggage carrier over my head and seemed startled to have launched a missile.

“I’m so sorry!” he said, grabbing the offending converter.

“Don’t worry!” I said, compensating for my drowsiness by employing an inappropriately bright tone.

He then had the unenviable obligation to continue looking for whatever he needed while leaning over me.

It was a laptop. He took it to his seat, which was diagonally across from me, and opened up a Word file containing many pages of text. The font was too small for me to make out. He must have sensed my dismay because just as I was craning my neck to make the title out, he turned to me and apologised again.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

“Not a problem!” I said, waving my hand as if flicking away some trifling annoyance, like a fly or an undeserved compliment.

I thought that if this were the beginning of a story, our paths might cross again in an awkward collision on the way to the tiny plane toilet or while looking for lost baggage.

Inspired by the few pages of Anna Karenina I had managed to read, I began to weave a narrative in the style of a nineteenth century Russian novel. But soon enough, the prose became less imaginative, and the young man who had fired the plug morphed into LSB, and his glamorous but troubled victim, a peasant girl masquerading as a wealthy actress, became me again.

This is the problem, you see.

Reality claws its way into my writing. The effect is similar to the sense of confinement suffered when entrapped by an uncomfortably tight scarf.

Fiction is of course, suitably, the dream. Everyone wants to write a novel. And blogger types like me really want to. Sure you’d be mad not to. What could be more satisfying than cementing your immortality in pretty prose?

But the cruel tug of real life gets in the way of my dreams. Every time I sit down to write a story about things that are not true, things that are creep in.

When I actually managed to complete a short story recently, I sent it to my father to read. I thought I had struck a happy medium. Much of the story was true, but the interesting, pivotal bit was not. He liked it all but for the bit I had fabricated, which he found, *sigh* unconvincing.

He tried to comfort me by reminding me of the virtues of lesser writing, like travel memoirs and historical essays.

“Nonsense”, I said. Non-fiction is the refuge of the unimaginative. “Like me”, I added sadly.

It’s not as if I can’t make things up. In fact, LSB frequently accuses me of shameless fabrication. I’m able to imagine stories of boys with magical powers, dystopian universes and tales of dwellings made entirely of marzipan and inhabited by colonies of chocolate worms.

I just don’t seem to be able to write about them. Any time I go to write about something that was not, it occurs to me that I am infinitely more qualified to describe something that in fact, was. And so I write about the giant dog I accosted on the train, or the time LSB rolled down the hill.

Everything I have written above is the *sigh* true tale of a non-fiction writer in denial. But perhaps dreams can come true. I know many of you casual readers out there are talented weavers of convincing deceit. I’m left with little choice but to appeal to you, to teach me your art. In other words, help me before I am irretrievably lost to the Real.

Yours helplessly grounded,

Kate Katharina

“Top of the Morning to you, 2013!”

My mother once told me I had an innate reluctance to move. She’s right. I am happiest when frozen to the spot, staring at some unfortunate stranger and trying not to blink.

You’d think this would make me a reluctant traveller but the opposite is true. I adore sitting on trains and buses, pretending to read my book while listening to Bríd and Deirdre discuss Máire’s nose job. Air travel is okay too. I like to watch the hostesses trying to extinguish grins as they catch each other’s eye before performing those bizarre safety demonstrations.

My sedentary travelling lifestyle has lately brought me to Edinburgh, where I’m writing from LSB’s bed, with a cup of tea and a packet of Tesco’s finest shortbread beside me.

The trip is being treated as a surveying mission. “I hope the city charms you,” LSB said before we left. After all, he does live here and there’s a chance he’ll even find gainful employment in the city after he finishes his Masters.

But my mission has had an alarming effect. In just five days, I have been transformed from a lethargic voyeur to an improbably eager hill-walker.

View of firework display from Calton Hill

View of firework display from Calton Hill

The city, built on seven hills, has left me with little choice. Getting to the nearest coffee shop is itself a minor exercise in mountaineering.

LSB’s plan for Hogmanay, which he revealed late on New Year’s Eve, when there was no getting out of it without sullying all of 2013 with a domestic argument, involved climbing Calton Hill, a relatively modest heap in the context of Edinburgh’s lumpy terrain.

Any disgruntlement I might have felt was dispelled when he provided me with a hot water bottle for the journey up. Just before 11 we reached a stone tower where hundreds of people were gathered. The man next to us had set up a tripod and the group of girls behind were drinking gin. The view over the city was magnificent.

I don’t know whether it was the spectacular display of fireworks over the castle or the electric atmosphere up the hill that changed me. Either way, I spent the early hours of 2013 trying to convince LSB to climb up Arthur’s Seat, the peak of Edinburgh’s hills, on New Year’s Day.

He was reluctant at first. “It’s not recommended this time of year,” he said. ” It’ll be muddy and slippy.”

I told him to get new shoes.

I set my alarm for 9 o’ clock the following morning. When I do this I can usually expect to leave bed by 11.

But when the piercing, relentless beep first sounded, I was more than ready for it. I hopped out of bed in a way that I have only ever done when suspecting an emergency or oversleeping on a work day.

I left LSB asleep, clutching the hot water bottle and conducted my ablutions full of steely, brave resolve.

When I came back, LSB was still asleep, looking angelic.

I woke him up with sensitivity, crying “Time to go hillwalking!” into his ear.

He opened one eye heavily and murmured something that sounded like dismay. I ripped the covers from him and tried to ignore the whimpers, which tore at my heartstrings and reminded me of myself every other morning of the year.

As he was showering I prepared a hearty breakfast of oatcakes with hummus. I arranged them into the shape of a flower, which I hoped would remind LSB of the great natural beauty to behold up Arthur’s Seat.

LSB reminded me that we’d gone to bed at 3.30 am the previous night but I insisted that on this day the focus should be on the future, not the past.

The day was bright and crisp. I felt like Heidi, frolicking in the hills with my goat. The view was breath-taking, as was the ascent.

If only we knew what was to come...

If only we knew what was to come…

We were on the way down a damp grassy slope, marvelling at the tremendous start we had made to the New Year, when LSB began to slide away. At first I thought he was trying to perform some stunt to impress me. But as he wobbled, stretching out his arms, crying “help!” I began to suspect his performance was involuntary.

I clutched him heroically but to no avail. Soon I too was sliding down the hill. I made a desperate attempt to grab hold of a tuft of grass but it was all in vain. Before I had a chance to contemplate my last words or decide how best to distribute my possessions, we had landed, entangled in a muddy heap.

When LSB had caught his breath, he said “Katzi, what were you thinking?”

“What?” I asked still in shock.

“You pushed me!”

“What?” I cried indignantly.

“When you grabbed hold of me,” he said. “You pushed me down the hill!”

“I did not!” I retorted in disbelief. “I was trying to save you!”

“Ch,” he said, regarding his mud-encased canvas shoes and jeans.

We reconciled shortly after over a hot chocolate and orange cake in a charming café called Clarinda.

But this morning, when my alarm sounded, I hit the snooze button. I told myself it was a precautionary measure. After all, our early start the day before could have resulted in our untimely deaths.

A little while later, I woke to find LSB looming over me, triumphantly.

“Time to get up, Katzi!” he said, beaming. “We wouldn’t want to miss the best part of the day!” From the corner of the blind, daylight flicked at me, menacingly.