Tuesday, September 15, 2009

But it looks like a Swallow-tailed Kite!

I just commented on this guy Stephen's blog, about his post in which he posts that he saw a Swallow-tailed Kite on the drive from Tucson to California: http://predelusional.blogspot.com/2009/03/kite.html . There are very few records (well-documented instances) of Swallow-tailed Kite in California.

Oh god, this is a touchy subject. I am both a victim and perpetrator of a crime called "No you didn't see that species of bird: you're wrong." As a matter of fact, I have been on the opposite side of such an argument, in these last couple of weeks. A bird called a Great Knot showed up in San Diego--the first time one has been seen in California. I am on the side of those who say it is a Great Knot, while others are vehemently arguing that it is some other species--say, a Surfbird.

I got annoyed at the logic of those claiming that it's not a Great Knot (a sandpiper that breeds in Siberia, and winters in Australia), so I wrote an email off-list (sent in private to certain individuals, and not to all of the subscribed members of the California birding email list) describing my problem with the anti-Great Knot arguments. Boy, did I get my head handed back to me, on a platter! The problems are multifold.

First, getting back to Stephen, and his Swallow-tailed Kite. Here's my impression of his situation: He appears to be a casual birder from a part of the country where the only kind of kite that he sees is Swallow-tailed Kite, so when he saw a White-tailed Kite, he (un)safely assumed that it was a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Okay, but now I am going to point out my own errors:
1) I have never met Stephen. I don't know anything about him. Therefore, I have no actual data in terms of his birding skills.
2) I don't know the origin of the Swallow-tailed Kite photo on his blog. Did he take that phot in California? In his home state? Did he lift it off of someone else's web site?
3) This is the one that pisses me off the most: when other birders write me a letter in which they say, "No, Tom. You did not see a Arctic Loon/American Oystercatcher/Common Blackhawk/Crissal Thrasher/Yellow-billed Loon/insert-species name-here." These emails always come from someone who was sitting on his ass at home, while I was out somewhere, looking at the bird that I claim to have seen. They don't understand the idea that they can't tell someone what they didn't see, unless they were standing right next to them, and looking at the same bird/frog/lizard/butterfly/dragonfly, etc. at that same moment in time.

My favorite variation of #3 is the time I saw a juvenile Common Blackhawk near my house, and some guy went out the next day, saw a Red-tailed hawk, and then declared to everybody, that obviously I had mis-identified a juvenile Red-tailed hawk as a Common Blackhawk.

Time for a Confession: Someone else reported what I am sure was the same juvenile Common Blackhawk on the local birding email list 5 days earlier, at a location 15 miles from my house, and I thought to myself, "Well, she's a beginning birder, I'm not so sure she..." Boy, did I feel like a jerk when I re-found her bird a mile from my house, 5 days later (as rare as Common Blackhawk is in California, I feel safe assuming it was the same bird--but even that is unknowable).

Now we're going to go back to point #1: it actually does not matter what Stephen's birding skills are. Yeah, maybe he is the world's crappiest birder. That still does not prove that he did not see a Swallow-tailed Kite on that particular occasion. The two are unrelated. It happens in California once in a while: some novice birder finds a really good bird--say, a Roseate Spoonbill--and all of the experts pooh-pooh it, until one of them says, "Uh, actually...there really is a Roseate Spoonbill in the pond."

Oh, I get it. Now it's legit!

So, here it is, in plain English: Personally, I don't think Stephen saw a Swallow-tailed Kite, but that is my unverifiable, untestable, subjective opinion, despite the fact that I am an experienced California birder.

So my biggest complaint was that people who had not taken the trouble to drive to San Diego to look at the Great Knot declared it to be a Surfbird, based only on photographs (taken by others). There were two kinds of answers to that:
1) I don't need to go see the San Diego bird, because I have seen thousands of Great Knots in the Eastern Hemisphere.
2) I have ten thousand photographs of birds, that I have taken over the years.
I haven't taken the time to explain to these two types of birders that points #1 and 2 don't matter one iota. The point of their statement(s) is that they are experts, who should not be questioned. These arguments are the flip-side of the "Stephen is a crappy birder, so that proves that he didn't see a Swallow-tailed Kite in California" argument. The two phenomena are unrelated. The other problem with arguments #1 and 2 is that they are stating that as experts, their opinion must be accepted. In my college sociology class I learned about how TV and newsaper adds use what are called testimonials where a guy in a white lab coat tells you how great some product is. In tiny letters on the bottom of the TV screen they flash the words "actor portraying a doctor" for a short time, and you can't actually read it i.e. most people will never notice the disclaimer.

Well, to be perfectly blunt, a lot of birders who I respect or like (or--at least--did, up until now) have tried to invoke the "I'm an expert--don't argue with me" card, and don't realize that they're trying it with a guy who really does wear a white lab coat for a living.

Had they made the same arguments while standing next to me on the beach in San Diego, I would never have written this post. For the record, while I stood there on the beach, a very well-respected & knowledgeable birder stood there next to me, and said, "It's a good [as in, it's correctly identified] Great Knot."

They say that "You can be right, or you can have friends, but you can't do both." Right now, I'm so annoyed, that I'm actually willing to not have friends, if that's what it takes. They don't get it. Yeah, I think that the San Diego bird is a Great Knot, but that's not something I would want to lose friendships over. I am willing, however to lose friends if they're going to use faulty logic, and then react to my pointing it out by being arrogant and rude.

The thing that really pisses me off is the level of certainty with which my detractors have criticized me. Boy, I wish I could be that self-confident. Oh, wait. I think that's exactly the problem: their need for rock-solid certainty. I'm lucky. I took a bunch of biology courses with a lady professor named Cathy Jacobs who tells her students, "Biology is messy." Birding is dominated by men, and a lot of them are pushy type-A macho guys, and uncertainty freaks them out. I am comfortable with undertainty, and they grossly misinterpret my comfort with uncertainty as a sign of low testosterone levels.


Speaking of biology professors, that's the other thing about this Great Knot Affair that annoys me to no end: the testosterone-induced posing as if we birders were a bunch of scientists i.e. biologists who are using standardized, precisely measureable data. We're not. We're just a bunch of birders arguing about a bird that we are staring at from 100 yards distance, because we don't want to scare it away. I'm sure that I pissed off a bunch of people when I said exactly that this weekend, when I answered their tirades. Too bad. Deal with it. Suck it up.

Of course, there's one last problem: had someone shot the bird (like in the old days) or merely captured it with a net, and extracted DNA from it, and it turned out that it is in fact a Surfbird, the anti-Great Knot crowd would have howled in triumph: their logic was better than my logic. Nope. They would be blind to the fact that their baseless claims had nothing to do with the fact that they got lucky. They would be too busy making connections that aren't there.

Monday, September 14, 2009

If it's not a heart attack, why does it hurt so much?

I had one of those experiences that really freaks you out: while walking with a group of birders, I started experiencing chest pain. It felt like there was a fist inside my chest, and it was squeezing my insides. My first thought wasn’t, “Oh my god I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to die.” It wasn’t, “I’m too young to die. I don’t want to die.” It was “I can’t die of a heart attack: I have two small children who I need to raise.”

I decided a while ago that no matter what, I need to live until my daughter—the youngest of the two—graduates from college, with a masters degree, or higher. That means that I need to live another 25 years. The federal government already decided that I’m going to live that long: they’re going to make 70 the retirement age for people of my generation. They’re guessing that as people live longer, there will be too many of us who refuse to die of old age & disease while collecting Social Security, so they need to make us work 5 years longer than the current generation of no-good, lazy Baby Boomers, to keep the government from going bankrupt.

Well, I’m glad the government thinks I’m gonna live a long time, because like Woody Allen, I’m a hypochondriac who is disappointed every time a doctor tells me, “All of your tests are normal.”

Back to my alleged heart attack. It happened again two days later, while I was working in my part-time, weekend job. Some idiot decided that the weekend crew were overdue for a fire drill. Can you believe that? It’s Sunday night, 10:00 p.m., and the fire alarms go off in the hospital. Strobe lights are flashing, all of the doors automatically close, and the hospital operator (a girl who is very cute, and far too in love with herself) announces a fire in a patient’s room literally at the far end of the hospital. Hey, it’s Sunday night. The last thing I expect is that this is a drill. Taking it seriously, I grab a fire extinguisher of the wall bracket, and run down the long, main hall to the other end of the building. Huffing and puffing, I find Olga, the Russian midget who owns the security guard contracting company (if the hospital ever gets attacked by a marauding mob of Chihuahuas, we’ll be safe), in street clothes, with a clipboard in her hands, and a stern look on her face.

I realize that:
1) There is no fire, and
2) I am having chest pain, again, and it’s worse than Friday morning.

With all of my years in emergency medicine, I find something suspicious in all of this:
1) I only get this chest pain when I eat, and then exert myself,
2) I think I only get the chest pain when carrying something heavy (tripods, spotting scopes, fire extinguishers), and
3) Other times when I exert myself, I don’t get the chest pain
4) I am still alive.

So Monday morning, I get off the train at Cal State LA, and run up the 4 flights of stairs to the street, wearing my backpack full of stuff (laptop, bird book, binoculars, thermos, lunch, two cell phones, etc). When I get to the bus stop, I am huffing and puffing, as usual, but there is no chest pain.
Well, I should still go to a doctor.
Monday night, the chest pain is so intense, that I’m thinking about calling 911, or going to the hospital (hey, if I’m having a heart attack, I don’t wanna play around with this). So I finally went to the local urgent care on Tuesday, where I met a nice young doctor who never made eye contact with me the whole time: they are so obsessed with electronic records keeping now, that while talking with me, he kept typing on his laptop that generated a report of my visit. It was like going to confessional, with the priest on the other side of the curtain.

So he says, “I don’t think it’s your heart.” I also had my doubts, too, but other than the EKG, he never ordered a blood draw for cardiac enzymes (if you have a heart attack, the dead heart muscle cells release enzymes into your bloodstream that are used as proof that you’ve recently had a heart attack). He also didn’t order a chest x-ray, which I thought was weird, because I was suspecting that maybe I’ve got a hiatal hernia (your stomach pokes up through the diaphragm, partially occupying your chest cavity, instead of staying in your abdomen, where it’s supposed to), and that usually shows up nicely on a chest x-ray.

So he tells me, “I can’t give you a referral to a cardiologist; your own doctor has to do that.” Great. (By the way, I already tried to see my doctor before going to urgent care, but she was out of town).

So now I went to my own doctor a few days later, and got a referral to a cardiologist. On the phone with the cardiologist’s office I am told that my first visit will be only a consult, and I will not be allowed to do a stress treadmill test. Great. How much time am I going to miss from work?

On the morning of the cardiology appointment, I notice on the referral that my doctor filled out, that she has written “cardiac enzymes normal” EXCUSE ME???? They never did a blood draw at the urgent care, so how could the test that I never (but should have!) had be normal? Unbelievable. You need to stay on top of your doctor, and what goes into your medical records.

So I get to the cardiologist’s office, where they do another resting EKG (I hate getting EKGs: I have a hairy chest, and it hurts like a mother-effer when they rip the tabs off my body). That’s normal, and he comes in, and asks me a bunch of questions, and pokes, prods, and listens all over. Then he says, “Would you like to just go ahead, and do the treadmill test, today?”
A man after my own heart (no pun intended—I think)

I kicked ass on the treadmill test. He was amazed that a fat guy like me went one minute past the maximum for my age, height, weight, etc.

By the way, my cholesterol is totally normal. Eat your heart out, Robb Myrtle.

So, whatever the hell is causing this chest pain (I had it again this past weekend, while in the forest, Sunday night, setting up our camp site, and it kept me awake, while Lisa and the kids snored next to me, inside the tent), it’s not my heart. Maybe it was that soup she cooked next to the campfire. Maybe it was the process of hauling all of our stuff out of the car, over to the tent.

Who knows.

I don’t appreciate this heart attack scare. Both of my parents are dead. I don’t even remember my father, since I was less than 2 years old when he died of a brain tumor. My mom had a massive stroke when she was 65, and spent the next 7 years slowly dying, in slow increments. Her brother has had several heart attacks (according to the cardiologist, the fact that he had them in his 70s, and not his 40s or 50s is a great sign). I’m really obsessed with living long enough to provide my two children with the opportunity to establish themselves in life, where they can buy their own houses, and not have to worry about money all the time, like we do.

I should have lunch with the guy who had a heart attack at USC last May. He had the good taste to drop unconscious in front of me—Mr Works in the E.R. and Has a CPR Card. Of all the people in USC that could have been near him when he had a heart attack, he chose me. Good man. Maybe he’ll slap some sense into me.