Madam Secretary Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis, photo by David F. Smith

“The ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”

John Maynard Keynes

In 2014 Nick Lemann contacted me about a profile he was writing about Janet Yellen for the New Yorker. He had a brilliant idea. In his essay, he wanted to assign bird names to Janet Yellen and other prominent economists, including her Nobel laureate husband, George Akerlof. 

Two birds are used to describe the monetary policies of economists, especially central bankers who have great power over the lives of ordinary people. Hawks tend favor high interest rates in order to keep inflation low. Doves favor monetary policies like low interest rates and quantitative easing that tend to grow the economy and stimulate job growth. 

Oddly, the hawk-dove generalization persists, even though, as numerous observers have argued, the labeling is oversimplified to the point of being meaningless. One proof being that an individual economist can shift from hawk to dove depending on circumstances. Yellen is mostly a dove, but she has and could be again a hawk. Better that each economist have his or her own bird name, based on background, economic philosophy, individual inherent traits, public persona (bombastic, arrogant, measured, modest), what they like to do in their spare time, and morphology (short, tall, thin, plump).

I never specifically discussed with Nick what prompted his idea. As is often the case when colleagues, even ones who’ve not spoken to each other in decades, toss around an idea, I just “got it.” I was immediately on board with his idea. 

Nick knew I knew something about giving people bird names. I am the Brown Pelican, and around the Texas Monthly office, where Nick and I overlapped in the 1980s, my coworkers referred to me, amusedly, as such. I am part of a clan of birders who received bird names 50 years ago from the esteemed Texas birdwatcher and mentor of young birders Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. After he died in 1985, his mentees carried on the tradition. 

I spent a several hours over a couple of days reading about Yellen and her fellow economists and coming up with bird names for them. Jizz is the term birders use to identify a species by its general appearance and behavior – by the vibe the bird gives off. Jizz birding is a skill acquired with experience. The same concept applies to assigning bird names to humans. I compiled and sent to Nick a chart documenting the bird names for his list of economists and my jizz reasoning behind each. My selections were spot on – not that anyone but I would care.

I named Yellen the Bluebird. Specifically, the Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis. She strikes me as a quintessential East Coaster, born in Brooklyn, educated at Brown University and Yale. Yes, she was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley for years, where she is now Professor Emerita. So? I still identify as a Texan, even though I left Texas almost 40 years ago. 

Bluebirds, among American birds, enjoy broad popularity. So does Yellen. In these deeply entrenched and contentious times, she was approved by the Senate as Secretary of the Treasury by a wide bipartisan margin (84-15), an even wider margin than when she was approved as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2014 (59-34). 

Yellen’s behavior, as manifested in her monetary policy, reminds me of a Bluebird. She is calm, steady, thoughtful, companionable. I love the fact that she lunched in the employees’ cafeteria when she was Chair of the Fed. 

Bluebirds, though often described as sweet, are fiercely protective of their territories. I believe in her unruffled way Yellen fiercely defends her economic principles. 

Her lovely, lilting, calming voice is reminiscent of the Eastern Bluebird’s song. 

She frequently wears blue. 

Bottom line: Janet Yellen looks like an Eastern Bluebird.

 

On July 11, 2014, I received a brief email from Nick that read, “Remnick killed all the bird names. Sorry.” 

I was not really surprised. As much as I loved Nick’s idea – and still think all these years later the concept could have had traction – I knew it would be a hard sell to a boss who “didn’t get it.”  

I gained a bit of knowledge about economic policy and the economists who hold sway over our lives. I follow news of the economy and economic policy with greater attention and from time to time I read enlightening books about those subjects (e.g., Robert Kuttner’s 2018 book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism). And, in the end, I was amply rewarded. In the print edition of Nick’s article, the spot illustrations – one of the wonderful hallmarks of the New Yorker for many of us – were of Bluebirds. 

Nick’s profile, “The Hand on the Lever,” appeared in the July 21, 2014, issue of the New Yorker. With Janet Yellen the first woman – not to mention bluebird – to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, his piece is a must-read. 

Addendum: “Your Economics-Birds Quiz”

Recently, I was reading a fascinating article in The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/constitutional-case-gun-control/600694/ about the constitutional case for gun control, in which the authors mentioned the work of the late Yale law professor Robert Cover. One of his overarching legal principals is the importance of narrative in the context of law. (They write in the article, “According to Cover, narrative is what gives law moral authority, what imbues it with the power not to compel mere obedience, but to embody the legitimate choices of those it governs.”) In a far less weighty realm of thought, Robert Cover is renowned for an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York Timeson April 5, 1979, called “Your Law-Baseball Quiz” in which he challenged readers, in a multiple-choice test, to pair the correct Major League baseball player with one of four U.S. Supreme Court Justice, based on the way the player played ball and the Justice adjudicated law. 

To honor a legal scholar who died too young, and to perpetuate Nick’s great idea, if only for my amusement and perhaps that of a few fellow birders, here is your “Economics-Birds Quiz.” Depending on reader demand, I may or may not provide the correct answers in a subsequent post. 

1. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

(a) Dunnock

(b) Jack Snipe

(c) Merlin

(d) European Shag

2. Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

(a) Hoary Redpoll

(b) Turkey Vulture

(c) Brewer’s Sparrow

(d) Kingbird

3. Alan Greenspan (1926-)

(a) Pied-billed Grebe

(b) Gray Catbird

(c) Swainson’s Thrush

(d) Sooty Shearwater

4. Paul Volcker (1927-)

(a) American Coot

(b) Dunlin

(c) Yellow-billed Cuckoo

(d) Great Blue Heron

5. Joseph Stiglitz (1943-)

(a) Magnificent Frigatebird 

(b) Yelllow-rumped Warbler

(c) Bobolink

(d) Royal Tern

6. Ben Bernanke (1953-)

(a) Willet 

(b) White-breasted Nuthatch

(c) Pomarine Jaeger

(d) Chimney Swift

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Another Bottle

I have carried this fragment by Austin poet David Moorman around for forty years. From Texas to Minnesota to Tennessee to Nebraska to Arizona back to Minnesota where it now hangs on my refrigerator. The poem and I have weathered together. And I am still bringing another bottle up the stairs.

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The Place Memory of Small Things

The nights afterwards in this place were not bad like the first one, because I then had my bearings. All my senses had touched the objects about me. But it was lying in that smothering dark and not knowing what was near me – what I might touch if I reached out a hand – that made the first night so horrible.

Emily Carr, from her memoir Klee Wyck (1941)

Life is not some high pursuit of truth and beauty. It is remembering where you put something. I call this the place memory of small things. This memory functions only in coordination with proprioception – the sensory system in muscles, joints, and tendons that tells your body where it is in space and in relation to other objects. It’s not enough to remember where you left something. Your body has to then figure out how to move through space to find it. Proprioception helps you find things. It also keeps you from falling off cliffs.

I love the word. It sounds like a dance I am doing when I am looking for the turmeric I thought I left in the spice drawer only to twirl and find it on the kitchen counter.

Once your body has put something down or found its way to some destination and your brain remembers this information, your body, as a general rule and until systems start failing, will find the object or get you where you want to be, again and again and again. Decades can go by, and place memory for small things will help you find something you left in a box in the basement.

And all the searching occurs in the background, quietly, hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. This graceful and barely acknowledged fluidity of moving through space looking for small things all day frees up the mind so that it seems as if all our cognitive energy is focused on the search for truth and beauty. Or perhaps on some other human pursuit such as happiness, kinship, kindness, righteousness, gratification, jealousy, malice, revenge, or mischief.

I don’t much like the dark. It is a serious impediment when wayfinding or searching for objects. Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr captured my aversion. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was an intrepid explorer of the First Nations lands of British Columbia catching rides on fishing boats and other watercraft, a female traveling solo except for a canine companion, usually a small Griffon. Her description of the utter darkness of her first night in the Nisga’a village of Laxgalt’ap (known also as Greenville) is testament to my dread of losing my bearings.

About ten years ago I spent a few weeks interviewing physiatrists and physical and occupational therapists for a project I was working on for Mayo Clinic. This is when I began my wonderment for the place memory of small things. People who work in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) spend their careers helping people find things and to move their bodies through space after strokes, brain injuries, broken bones, joint replacements, a sports injury, as a consequence of aging, or because of Parkinson’s or other movement disorders.

People choose a career path for a lot of different reasons, some fall into a job and others have a passion. I could be wrong but it seems to me that PM&R providers fall on the passion end of the spectrum.

One thing for sure, they are always talking fervently about ADLs, among themselves or to their patients. Activities of Daily Living. Yes, that is what we do, performing ADLs over and over. Brushing teeth. Opening a cabinet. Putting on socks. Finding where we put binoculars and picking them up. Lifting a cast iron skillet. Weeding the garden. Finding the keys to put in the ignition. Finding the car where we parked it. Hugging people we love. Climbing a ladder. Bending down. Not falling down. (Try to make a list of the ADLs you perform in one day. Ha!)

It is unfortunate, I think, that ADLs is a dull acronym for our dance through life to get somewhere or to find something we need or want or someone we love.

I am writing this before I can’t find it.

Barring a swifter demise (heart attack, fatal car accident, stage 4 cancer), it is likely the dance will start to lose precision or momentum or both. There are of course those anomalous persons whose search abilities – memory coupled with proprioception – never wane until their curtain goes down. Consider the years of repetitive searches, calling on the brain to set the body in motion. It does begin to sound exhausting. When I was a Hospice volunteer, my privilege was often to sit with a person at end of life while his or her caregiver could run errands and take a break. Most often that person was sleeping. I have no medical ground to back up my conjecture, but I came to the conclusion that the elders in my charge were simply tired of looking for things. If nothing else, it is valuable advice to self. There comes a time to lie down and stop searching.


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Her Feet

In the days leading up to election on November 3, 2020, I happened to recall my one and only visit to the Statue of Liberty. This was a long time ago – probably in the late 70s – so my memories are dreamlike. I caught the ferry from Battery Park. We were a happy, smiling crowd, me and my ferry mates.  At least as I recall.

It was thrilling seeing her from afar in New York Harbor then watching her grow larger as we drew nearer. The commanding woman with the torch of liberty uplifted in her right hand standing on a small island.

Ellis Island opened as an immigration point of entry in 1892, six years after the statue was completed. Our Mother of Freedom stood guard over more than 12 million people who immigrated to America by way of Ellis Island.

What I remember most vividly of all my dreamlike memories were her sandal-clad feet sticking out from under her robes. They were enormous. The bulbous toes were like roots digging into the soil, the soul, of my country. Those feet meant to me that she was immovable.

I almost always have my binoculars at hand, first for birds and then for everything else I want to see up close. Binoculars are especially useful for looking at architectural details on tall buildings and structures.

I cannot prove I had them with me that day, but I must have. There would have been gulls and other birds to see flying around New York Harbor, and without binoculars I would not have been able to see so clearly and remember so well her feet. The Statue of Liberty stands on a foundation and pedestal that are a combined 154 feet in height – half the length of a football field. I will wager that most visitors to the State of Liberty never notice her feet. Neither do they see what I also failed to see, or do not remember seeing, that day with my binoculars – the broken shackle and chain that coils at her right foot and reemerges under her garment at her left.

The French government gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the years following our Civil War to celebrate the abolition of slavery and advance the universal ideas of democracy, freedom, and justice.

It took almost three decades of back and forth for France’s gift to become the indomitable statue she is. One item of contention was the shackle and chains. The sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had originally placed the broken chains in her left hand, but he acquiesced to vociferous complaints from certain factions in America. Instead, Bartholdi placed a tablet in her hand with the Roman numerals for the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. He did not back down completely. He left the shackle and broken chain at her feet.  

Historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1940 autobiography noted that the hope the Statue of Liberty conveyed to immigrants did not pertain to his race. And those millions of immigrants she watched over – they have not always been greeted with open arms and equal opportunities.

The Statue of Liberty is officially known as Liberty Enlightening the World. She was dedicated on October 28, 1886, a week or so before Americans go to the polls every four years to elect a president.

One hundred and thirty-four years, almost to the day, have gone by since her dedication. The Statue of Liberty is unshackled. She is free to move on but she has planted her feet. The task of moving forward is ours.

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Swimming Upstream

Photo by David F. Smith

The Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) inhabits fast-moving, boulder-strewn rivers and streams high in the Andes of South America. To me, these churning, chilling, deafening waterscapes are frightening to behold. A Torrent Duck is the avian equivalent of a white-water kayak, and, as the master of its own craft, it far outperforms any human kayaker. When feeding, it swims upstream – yes, against the current – diving into standing waves, boofing over boulders, surfing wave holes, ferrying from eddy to eddy. Somehow it is not swept downstream as it treads water while plunging its head or entire body underwater to nibble benthic invertebrates on submerged rock faces. The duck makes these maneuvers look like a breeze. It is designed for torrents. Evolution is elegant, clever, and bold. It leaves no niche, even the most treacherous, unfilled.

Late in the afternoon on February 19, 2020, David and I were standing on a footbridge over the Río Papallacta, as it frothed and roared down the vertiginous eastern versant of the Andes in Ecuador: Torrent Duck territory. The river runs through Guango, an eco-lodge where we would spend the last two nights of our nearly month-long trip to Ecuador.

There was something indelible about the afternoon, the emerald green of the cloud forest, the swirling silvery mists of neblina, the gun-metal gray rapids, the beckoning bridge, the roar. Perhaps I was in a heightened state of not wanting the trip to be over.

I was not counting on seeing a Torrent Duck and seeing one was not requisite for my happiness. Daniel Yanacallo had told us about the bridge. He is on the staff at Guango, a tall tree of a man, smiling, and serene, it seemed to me, in fielding the incessant queries of birders. He had told us to walk downstream to the bridge and just maybe in the late afternoon, when the ducks make a last foray to feed, we might catch a glimpse, but because of recent heavy rains, he said, the Papallacta was running high and fast, a bit much even for a bird that is a kayak.

We stood on the bridge for the next 45 minutes and this is what happened. I was looking downstream where at a distance of perhaps 200 meters the river took a bend. On a boulder at the bend I saw a speck. I put my binoculars on it – a Torrent Duck, a male. Even though it was far away, I could not imagine our good fortune. It stood there nonchalant, preening a bit, looking one way then the other. We watched for perhaps five minutes then out of the blue or rather out of the churn a female popped up onto the boulder next to him. Even from this distance, we could see their ruby-red bills and exquisite plumage, he boldly black, white, and gray, she similarly patterned above but rich cinnamon on her breast and belly. I cannot remember how long we watched them. I think I recall one or both of them plunging off the boulder briefly than returning to perch side-by-side, looking one way, then the other, like a couple just home from work having a late-afternoon conversation about what was for dinner.

Then, by god, they hurled themselves off the boulder and began swimming upstream. Towards us, I was thinking, they are coming towards us. Now I really couldn’t believe our good fortune.

They advanced upstream as if pulling themselves up a ladder, one rung, a pause, then the next rung, and so forth. Each pause they perched atop a boulder or cluster of boulders. They kept to the boulder path along the bank overhung in some places by vegetation. They did not swim in the middle churn of the river. Sometimes they disappeared as if swallowed by the stream – this made me anxious – and then astoundingly they reappeared. It was like watching a magician do a card trick.

David was taking photographs and videos. I was glued to my binoculars. I said to him, but I am not sure he heard me over the roar of the river, “I hope we can come back here someday when they have young.” I added this to the list of reasons why we had to come back to Ecuador.

Maybe five or ten minutes passed. The pair kept advancing the aqueous ladder. Perhaps they were 100 meters downstream from the bridge. Suddenly a third duck materialized from the swirl, then a fourth. By god, a family of Torrent Ducks.

The young were slightly smaller than their parents. They had black bills. Their feet had pumpkin-orange webbing. Their plumage was an elaborate chevron-pattern of black, white, and gray. They seemed as adept in the water as the adults, although once I recall one of them had a bit of a struggle leaping out of the current onto a boulder. At times one or all of them, parents and young, were out of sight longer than I would have liked. I worry about a lot of things, but I particularly worry about birds raising young. In a world of ever-shrinking habitat, autocrats dismantling environmental regulations, global climate change, and a general ignorance or indifference about the natural world among overpopulating Homo sapiens, so much is going against them.

The family kept coming. Soon they were right beneath us. From our bridge vantage, for a brief while, we could look straight down on them. I remember, although it seems dreamlike, watching a few times as a parent or young grazed on imperceptible aquatic larvae on a submerged rock face, water pouring over the boulder and the duck like quicksilver. Their bills seemed flexible, as if made of rubber.

Before we knew it, the family swam under the bridge and continued upstream. They grew smaller. They were gone. The Papallacta roared. The light was fading. It was damp and chilly. We headed back to Guango where we knew a glowing wood stove awaited us.

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