Biology, Linguistics, and the Folly of Two

As a child, I had a book that described the differences between numerous common animal categories. It provided two-page spreads, lavishly illustrated, narrating the differences between frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, snakes and lizards, turtles and tortoises, whales and dolphins, whales and fish, and more. Each was authoritative, each was simple, and each, I would later learn, was either only superficially correct or outright wrong. Deeper exploration of these animal groups shows how these basic dualities offer little explanatory power or understanding and reveal more about us than they do about the world. Biology does not deal in dualities, and classification in particular finds them quaint and obsolete.

So, let’s dive into a few of them.

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Biology, Linguistics, and the Folly of Two
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The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better

Few animals in urban settings garner less sympathy than the pigeon. Christened “rats with wings” by their detractors and dismissed as ambulatory pollution by most city-dwellers, they do not bring the sparkle of joy that cardinals provide or even the nonchalant charm of equally European-derived house sparrows. Much ink is spilled and homeowner frustration vented on the subject of how to get them to stay away from a place or outright stop existing. Our cities are littered with plastic spikes to deter their passage and false nesting sites set up for easy egg-culling. The appearance of peregrine falcons in urban environments is celebrated not only because these birds are magnificent in their own right, but because they prey on pigeons. Those who would defend these creatures receive accusations of naïveté, as though no one who actually interacted with pigeons could find them anything less than offensive.

Watching them live, one has trouble understanding this antipathy. Pigeons’ coloration is striking, with most feral individuals having a band of purple iridescence around their necks that catches the sun. Pigeons retain more of their domestic color variation than most feral animals, making their flocks a riot of diversity. Their calls range from soothing coos to purr-like rumbles, and their mating displays are charmingly gawky. They are unusual among birds in how easily they can drink, directly sucking from water sources rather than filling their bills and pouring it down their throats like most birds. They can use sight, smell, and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate home from thousands of kilometers away. They are devoted parents, with father and mother alike caring for their young until they are fully fledged and even producing “crop milk” in their digestive tracts to feed their squabs. This ability allows pigeons to breed throughout the year, another superpower they have over other birds. Their bodies are loveably rotund, their behavior surprisingly affectionate. Pigeons are, if anything, most of the things we like about cats, only far more sociable. So why the hate?

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The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better

Save Me From Ordinary

It was ordinary people who told me my soul would burn when I told them I am an atheist.

It was ordinary people who kept me from recognizing my gender until my 20s.

It was ordinary people who promoted a level of homework that devoured my free time for most of high school.

It was ordinary people who saw everything about me that was not useful to them and demanded that it change.

It was ordinary people who kept me feeling excluded, misunderstood, and feared until I was an adult, and sometimes still.

It was ordinary people who lied to me for fun and jeered at me for believing them.

It was ordinary people who made the world too bright, too loud, too messy, too much, and told me I was wrong for noticing.

It was ordinary people who made it so that, when I am frustrated or scared enough, I stop feeling my hands.

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Save Me From Ordinary

There Is Always Work

In the late capitalist hellscape of our age, it is common for people to lament that there isn’t enough work. People string together menial part-time jobs, run themselves ragged on gig-economy schemes that are tailor-made to not deliver an actual living, and linger in overqualified underemployment for years on end because there just isn’t work. Immigrants get demonized because they “take” work from born citizens, providing a pretext for legalized racism. Economists and politicians fret about how little work there is and how it forces them into no-win decisions, trying to guard and cultivate work for a restive populace.

It is all lies.

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There Is Always Work

When a Mantis Isn’t a Mantis

Mantises are some of the most distinctive insects, with their elongated bodies and grasping claws. They are big, a bit clumsy, and curiously human, with their large eyes and partially erect posture. They’re famous for a much-exaggerated quirk of their mating behavior, in which females eat males after mating, and also for the multitude of highly camouflaged versions found among them, looking like grass, flowers, leave, and more.

The thing is, mantises are not alone.

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When a Mantis Isn’t a Mantis

Their Brows Look Like Mine: FFS and Ethnic Identity

“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”

I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.

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Their Brows Look Like Mine: FFS and Ethnic Identity

Zero Wake

It’s the understatement of the century that my life hasn’t gone the way I imagined it would. By now I should have been a year into a postdoctoral fellowship, with my eyes on professorship opportunities in some other city and a steadily growing academic resume. I should have been building a research program around the seven years of work that became my doctoral dissertation, extending it into new directions, new species, and new theories to fit with the interests of my postdoctoral supervisor. I should have been teaching lecture courses, as a guest or full-time, and developing my teaching credentials. I had a plan.

Thinking about it makes my hands shake.

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Zero Wake