I, MEET J Megan McShea & Brian Oliu
I: Megan McShea
Helen is, as she notes in her e-mails, a retired behaviorist, specializing in raptors.
J: Brian Oliu
J is man in love with statistics--how numbers add up to create tangible things; that all things can be measured and weighed and assessed in an attempt to find beauty in percentages. He may or may not have an anonymous blog.
Ed. note: These first two missives appeared simultaneously.
J: Mystery Correspondent:
Hello. Remember when we weren't allowed to even give our first name out on the internet? I pretended that I was from California (I am not from California) and that my name was actually my middle name. My
screenname, devoid of numbers as I was an early adapter, was a reference to my father's alma mater, and I played a lot of online trivia in MSN Chatrooms. Eventually word got out that I was one of the younger ones, that I was smart for my age, that there were people there who had children older than me, but we were all ageless: we were answers, correct, incorrect, but that is all.
I: okay. is this thing on?
to whom it may concern,
there’s been a delay because i’ve been working. i’ve been working and when i’m worin the field i can’t really help getting all caught up in where i am. part of that has to do with the work – i am a behaviorist. and part of it has to do with my personality. let’s not pathologize, okay? I am not ocd, I am a scientist. but it’s been an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a scientist, starting out in 1961 as a woman in this field, and so my focus has been important, and when I’m working i’m not letting energies dissipate in side projects. when i started out, all anyone could talk about was jane goodall this, jane goodall that. and then you had tim asch down in the amazon with his drugs. and those were people, sure, but he was captivating. he was the leading edge.
writing really is not my forte, so apologies for this, with grammaer and spelling problems i am sure. i submit aggregates of data generally speaking. but i do think about my work, think and wonder. this correspondence might be a way to put some thoughts down, i thought.
when i started out, i was nearly the only one working in birds who wasn’t doing it for sport. raptors. i could go on about their chatter and their nesting habits but as long as you’re indulging me, i thought i’d eschew the usual expert routine and tell you the things i project on them – psychologically, that is. i never have thrown any physical thing at a raptor.
so to begin. give you a taste. there was a snowy owl, sleeping, laying across a branch so its wings hung down on either side. i watched the bird for about three hours. with my binoculars i watched its breath rise and fall. i confess i imagined singing to the owl. i imagined the owl curled up in my lap. watching a thing sleep is very intimate.
i must insist on anonymity. this would be my absolute ruin if my colleagues found out. the younger ones joke, but it’s my job to rein them in. to parade my fantasies around like this would be the absolute end.
i fear i've revealed too much already.
J: For me, the process of data is interesting: the sliding of numbers next to one another (although yes, I am also tired of Jane Goodall as well--do you think it is because she has the word 'Good' in her name?
perhaps it is the word 'All' moreso than good, anyway) and the observation of anything and everything.
I am a basketball statistician--meaning I watch and document things like you, but I am interested only in numbers: points, rebounds, assists, turnovers. I enjoy the game of basketball--I was never tall
enough to play past high school, and even then my game was suspect, but I loved the counting: the one, two, three seconds I was allowed in the painted area underneath the basket before I had to slide one
foot into the bare wood. I cared only about numbers--less about the score, but more about how it was achieved: I have three fouls and four rebounds. The guy I am defending has six points, all six I am
When I watch the games I ignore the faces and watch the ball as the ball is the most important aspect: how it moves, when it bounces, what angle it chooses to take to evade outstretched hands. The
shaking of a bald head after a bad call or the meaning of a forearm tattoo doesn't interest me in the slightest; I know I should care about what he is thinking about or why the owl is sleeping, but I
can't--I want to know the wingspan of the owl, how high it can fly, and how long it sleeps.
I: Yes, numbers are so elegant, aren't they? Numbers seem to tell the whole story, or some part of the story that you can't notice without special attention, a part of the story that reveals some bigger story.
In my career I have clocked somewhere around 15K hours of observation. In 50 years. Taken together this is nearly two solid years of observation.
In one early stint after getting my degree, I was hired to measure social distance in a group of burrowing owls. It was a contract for the government who had been selling off public land. I yearn for non-political projects but they are rare outside of the academy. In those three years I measured distances of breeding pairs and their offspring, and distances between breeding pairs, and counted eggs. I counted 594 eggs. Those birds are all dead now. The species has been pushed out of the area I observed in entirely, but they are flourishing about 80 miles north of there.
I made charts to map out the social distances and show their changes over cyclical time. Now they do this with computers. I did it with old fashioned topography, looking, counting, mapping. I liked the visualization of it. All the small quantifiable things in my domain. It is a profound source of comfort.
Jane's work was all about feelings. She just went right out on that limb, exploring emotional behavior among those chimps. and we scientists, especially women scientists, felt a deep betrayal and hatred of her for being soft, for being a bad scientist, and for making us all look girly.
And now she's the only one anyone has ever heard of. But that's the thing about taking that sort of stand, going against the grain, you're no longer a part of the larger project. You're your own project, calling attention to yourself, your singular vision. it's the stuff that gets remembered.
I just wanted to be part of the vast collaboration, but the doors were closed then. I had to fight to make my small and essentially anonymous contribution. Jane gets all gushy and the doors swing wide. It's shameful, our reaction, but believe me, it was a bluntly rendered, cruel, and alcohol-fueled reaction. Strange how it all sounds so pathetic now. Our social distances, charted, might provide some explanation, but probably not. Probably just documentation.
Those birds are all dead now. The species has been pushed out of the area I observed in entirely, but they are flourishing about 80 miles north of there.