Stephen Kahn

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Library Cult

In Hard to tell, Humor on February 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm

When I was about 6 years old, I wandered down the hill to the Echo Park Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.  (Apparently the library I used as a child has been replaced.) Even then, I thought in all those books in “stacks” (as library shelves of books are called”) contained some essential answer to the puzzling questions and frustrations of life (#1 Belief in something you cannot see or prove exists).

As a moderately unhappy child in a moderately unhappy family, I used books as my drug of choice by which to escape reality. I am sardonically amused as a long-time user of many libraries and eventually an employee of one to see how enthusiastically this particular cult preaches READ READ READ READ READ READ to its acolytes. Indeed, reading provides many virtues and benefits, but as with any substance, overuse and misuse can be harmful. I don’t recall attending any library “story-times” as a child, but most libraries today do introduce children to the reading cult by telling them and reading them stories in groups.

There are many interesting contradictions and paradoxes in the library cult. As the song “Marian the Librarian”  coyly captures, a librarian (at least in earlier incarnations) was a demure woman, something like a nun, who eschewed the dress and mannerisms we normally associate with female sexuality, thus turning her into a very desirable woman.

On top of this, at some point in their evolution, libraries became ardent defenders of “freedom of speech” and ardent opponents of censorship. In plain terms, this means that libraries defend their right to include dirty books and books telling you how to overthrow the government and commit terrorist acts. For example, I just checked the catalogs some of the libraries I use for books once controversial and often banned because of explicit sexual content, finding in their catalogs books such as Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov, My Life and Loves by Frank Harris, and The Happy Hooker, by Xaviera Hollander. One of the most notorious books for people who wanted to learn how to construct bombs, perform assassinations, and engage in similar types of terrorist activities was titled The Anarchist’s Cookbook. In case you harbor similar inclinations, the library for whom I used to work includes this manual in its catalog.

On the whole, the people who work for libraries are very modest and well-behaved members of society. I worked for a library for over 10 years, and most of the time, I was not particularly excited, aroused, or frightened by my colleagues. There were exceptions, as far as the demure image. One librarian I knew, engaged in a week-long “job swap” with a Las Vegas dancer. After a little “crash training,” the librarian danced and displayed her body on a stage in Las Vegas for a week. After a little crash training, the dancer checked out books and answered reference questions in a library for a week.

Libraries do attract some interesting “patrons,” [library-speak for customers]. During my time working for a library, I encountered on a regular basis at least half-a-dozen people who struck me as seriously mentally ill, although I did not feel threatened by any of them. As repositories of information, libraries attract many people pursuing their obsessions, trying to research questionable ideas. I encountered one gentleman who asked for assistance with an extensive document he was writing about his experience with being abducted by space aliens. A woman earnestly explained to me that the library computers were spying on her, and asked me to alert the library system’s data processing department to investigate these sinister activities. However, only one person struck me as dangerous; a colleague of mine (in teaching computer classes), who behaved so erratically and disturbingly that he was eventually fired. One day after his discharge, he came to work, walked into the system headquarters, and started fixing himself lunch in the microwave. [I wasn’t present the day of his bizarre return.] It sounded like a prelude to a violent workplace rampage episode (such as you read about in the news). However, a supervisor, encountering him; politely asked the ex-employee to leave; and without causing any difficulty, he peacefully left the premises.

So even though I started my membership in the library cult over sixty years ago, I am still a member. I went to a cult meeting a couple of days ago (to talk about promoting a book about crows), and I am going to another meeting today, to learn how to collect arcane information (how to download books for my wife).

Clan Cult (#2 in a series on cults)

In Hard to tell, Humor on February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Among the earliest human social units were clans. Human beings are very social creatures. Even in the earliest days of human existence, it probably was not common to find just Mom and Dad and maybe Dick and Jane and Spot wandering around on the African Savannah by themselves. Probably there were at least a few aunts and uncles in the group as well. When one clan met another, they had to make quick decisions: Eat them? Kill them? Marry them and create in-laws? All of the above?

At some point, as humans began to reason, they began to rationalize and generalize. My clan is better than your clan. If times were difficult – food and water in short supply – vicious predators in abundant supply – they began to imagine better places over the horizon. They also began to imagine worse places over the horizon. (#1 – Belief in some things you cannot see or prove exists.)

“Let’s move over the hill!” Cried some. “Let’s flee over the hill!” Cried others. Eventually a decision was made, and the group – some happy and some not – went along with the clan, figuring there was safety in numbers. (#2 – Feeling of companionship, support …)

As the clan advanced or fled, they said to one another, “Hang on! We’re almost there. I can smell water! I can smell food. The grass is getting greener with every mile we advance.” Or, “Keep moving! I think we’re getting away! I think they’ve lost our scent! Don’t stop now; we’re almost to a cave where we can hide!”  (#3 Sense of purpose…)

My cults (part 1)

In Humor on February 19, 2012 at 7:22 pm

A while back I had an Internet conversation with a secular professor of religion. He criticized use of the word “cult.” I don’t have his exact words in front of me, but he said “cult” is a way of insulting people one does not like. He’s probably correct; even so, I’m rather fond of the word. I associate it it with the following characteristics:

1) Belief in something you cannot see or prove exists.

2) Feelings of companionship, support, validation, and enjoyment by being around others with the other beliefs, even when others not in the group reject, disdain, or persecute your beliefs.

3) A sense of purpose and goals to be achieved.

All my life I have perceived myself as a non-conformist, a skeptic, and as a person who does not fit into any group to which I nominally belong. I still feel that way. Now, edging towards the end of my life, I live on Whidbey Island, a place where a large percentage of the population thinks of themselves as tolerant non-conformists. Naturally, I snarkle quietly to myself, What a bunch of conformists!

However truth to be told, I now belong to several cults, which I will describe in subsequent blog posts.

Pieces of Dove

In Humor on February 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

In the last episode, I described how a small hawk penetrated the netting defenses of our chicken run and attacked my wife’s favorite hen, Big Mama, leaving a bald patch on the hen’s back.

We now have attached mylar streamers to the top netting. The streamers spin and vibrate in the wind. They now communicate to chicken hawks one of the following two messages:

1. If you approach this chicken run, you will have a psychedelic experience like none before in your hippy hawk life. (Whidbey Island has many aging hippies living here; I presume many avian predators are also counterculture members.)

2. This way to the chicken nuggets meal. There is one McDonald’s Restaurant on Whidbey Island, but it is up north by the naval base in Oak Harbor. It is at least a two hour drive by automobile. I am not sure how long it takes to fly there, but for a small hawk, it would be a long trip, and I am not sure they would serve a hawk at the fly-by window. Also the Navy jets flying over the city might pose a hazard for a visiting chicken hawk.

My wife believes our three hens are now more cautious than before the attack, thus going into their “freeze” stance more often, and spending more time lurking in the ferns. I don’t argue with her observations. That is how I stay married for 46 years.

Anyway, besides the chicken run, we have in our yard a bird feeder, frequented by chickadees, juncos, pine siskins, sparrows, woodpeckers, and other seasonal and yearly avian visitors to our woods. A couple of days ago, I got home from the gym and my wife said, “The hawk was here again. This time there was a great commotion at the bird feeder. There are a lot of feathers on the ground under the feeder. I don’t know if it caught anything, but I think it went after one of the doves.”

Besides the other birds I listed, doves frequently browse on the ground under the feeder. Once again, I have two thoughts about the messages we provide to the hawk:

1. As there is no netting or other obstacles around our bird feeder, you will find that we make dining much more convenient. There is also a Burger King in Oak Harbor. Their mottoes are “Have It Your Way,” and “Buy One, Get One Free.” At the bird feeder the mottoes are “Catch it Your Way,” and “Catch One, Come Back for Another at Any Time.”

2. Doves are a traditional symbol of peace. Unfortunately, chicken hawks are not very politically correct, and probably prefer pieces of dove.

Big Mama, a sturdy hen, survives a chicken hawk attack

In Good news on February 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm

My wife was away at her volunteer work at the Senior Center. I was in the kitchen puttering on the computer. Suddenly, I heard a loud commotion from the chicken yard. Looking out the window, I saw feathers flying. I ran out the door and down the steps toward the chicken yard. As I neared, I caught a glimpse of a bird flying out of the chicken yard. Not a chicken; probably a chicken hawk.

As I got down to the chicken run I saw feathers everywhere. I looked inside the coop. I saw a hen cowering under a nesting box. I saw two hens dashing toward the ferns. One was missing feathers and I caught a glimpse of a bare patch on her back. They hid themselves in the ferns, their favorite hiding spot.

I called my wife. She asked me to catch the hen and inspect her for injury. I returned to the chicken run. To lure the hens out where I could see them, I scattered some oats (their favorite “chicken candy”). Two hens came out and started pecking the oats. I could not find the injured hen; she was hiding so well, it took me an hour to finally locate her. Eventually, she came out from wherever she had been concealed. I realized the hen who had been attacked was Big Mama. Although my wife will not admit to playing favorites, Big Mama is her most beloved hen. Big Mama has a big patch of bare skin where the hawk had attacked her, but I saw no blood. She pecked vigorously at the oats. She pecked one of the other hens to show her she was still the chief pecker in the order. I felt reassured.

Our neighbor Sharon had given my daughter a memoir written by her uncle. He had been a miner in Alaska. After failing to find gold, he and a companion crossed 500 hundred miles to the coast in the middle of winter! Eventually, the found platinum and made their fortune. Sharon said, “They were very sturdy in those days.” Big Mama is a very sturdy chicken.

Our chicken yard is very tightly enclosed by fence, wire, and netting, but apparently the smallest variety of hawks might be able to squeeze through the netting. The predator might have been a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk. The male is smaller than the female in both species, so it might have been a bad boy who attacked Big Mama. The attack was on Tuesday morning. We kept the chickens locked in their coop Tuesday night, but we let them out to take their chances Wednesday and Thursday. Today, Friday, we will attach some mylar streamers to their overhead netting. It is supposed to confuse and drive away birds of prey without harming them. Even if I were well-enough armed and a good enough shot to kill a hawk sneaking into our chicken yard, birds of prey are considered endangered and are protected by federal law. Even if I were defending Big Mama, I might find myself dragged off by FBI agents if I killed a hawk in her defense. Either the mylar streamers do the job, or she will have to enroll in hen self-defense classes.