Sunday, January 24, 2021



”Everyone’s a critic,” the saying goes. This is perhaps truer now than it has ever been, and the intensity of criticism, and reaction to it, is at fever pitch. Why is this so? Why is criticism so argumentative? Do we even know what criticism is anymore?

To be clear, the criticism addressed here is not the same thing as what a movie, theatre, or restaurant critic does for a living. That kind of criticism is more a matter of shared personal taste and opinion, and perhaps public service. In the case of eating establishments, the health department is the only critic that really matters. A bad-tasting burger is one thing, a case of botulism is quite another. Matters of accreditation are likewise much more institutionalized and standardized, as they should be in the interest of accuracy and safety.

It is quite apparent that criticism in the traditional, personal sense suffers from confusion with disrespect, jealousy, betrayal, political correctness, and a whole host of other negative associations. Indeed, the interpretation of criticism by the receiver, and the intent of criticism on behalf of the critic, are often wildly different. This is a profound failure of communication because the conversation ends with unexpressed resentment, hostility, defeatism, and other emotions, plus assumptions about the character of each individual that may or may not have validity. There is seldom clarification of intent, let alone reassuring words that you are not out to assassinate someone’s character.

This is not to say that criticism is never generated from ego, or an attempt to assert power by demeaning others, subordinate or not in the formal sense of a professional hierarchy. Criticism is frequently viewed as a tool of persuasion. It is assumed to have an agenda behind it. Maybe it is a desire to invalidate a belief system, or discredit a competing hypothesis, or, worst of all, diminish someone’s self-worth and realm of experience to further an established but destructive political, social, or judicial system.

It is this last scenario, the one revolving around white privilege and patriarchal societies, criticism must be leveled and respected as a means of advancing reforms in equality, social and environmental justice, and leadership. We must speak honestly and fearlessly, and sometimes fiercely.

If you come from a place of white privilege and are compelled to start acting to advance the rights of others less fortunate, you must be prepared to accept criticism for every word and every thought you express. A baby does not come running out of the womb. It crawls and walks first. Your initial efforts at empathy and action are going to be laughably awkward. You may need to lower your expectations of yourself, and do more listening in the meantime. There is no shortage of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ leaders to follow and learn from.

Many of us have a visceral reaction to criticism because it triggers negative emotions from our childhood. These are the “buttons” that your parents and teachers and peers pushed. They bypass the logical intersections of your brain like a car running a red light. Conclusions are jumped to that no longer serve your interests and it takes extreme conscious effort to put the brakes on, stop, and think again. It is worth the work, but you once again have to accept that you won’t get it right every time. It takes years, even decades, to get rewired, realigned.

Criticism, at its most brilliant and loving, is delivered with the intent to make you a better person, not turn you into someone different from who you are already. The best critics are people who make this clear from the outset and don’t leave you to wonder. When offered from a perspective of empathy, criticism is a powerful tool for change. Recognition of human insecurity, of imposter syndrome, and ego fragility is necessary in communicating criticism effectively and honestly. The goal should be to elevate the other person in their perspective, knowledge, understanding, skills, talents, and other personal attributes.

The worst criticism comes from a place of self-defense, desperation, dominance, aggression, disrespect, or dismissiveness. This serves no one, including the critic. It is not even criticism at its most extreme, it is violence. If you are so obsessed with preserving your own opinion, perspective, or insulated position of power, you probably need to be more self-critical instead of putting others down.

We come to every place, physical, intellectual, and emotional, with expectations and fears, promise and pessimism. This is human nature. We are gifted with the ability to overcome the inertia of protectionism by the plasticity of our minds, but we are unfortunately too often inflexible in that regard. Let your guard down, a little at least. Bend your ego. The more you do, the less the pain. I promise.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021


That is how many years I have now persisted. About 720 months, or 3,128 weeks. Twenty-one thousand, nine hundred days. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred hours. Over thirty-one point five million minutes. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Not that I am counting, I never have. It does seem as good a time as any for recollection and realignment, though.

Time and stress appear to be accelerating. I do not like what I have allowed the events of the last few weeks alone to turn me into: a soul with increasing suspicion and distrust of even close friends. I now assume the worst and am surprised by acts and signs of empathy and validation. Those defense mechanisms yank me back to my childhood, the separation and ultimate divorce of my parents, when I was a “momma’s boy” but also “just like your father.” Neither was a compliment. As an only child, I had no witnesses to call. The lies. Trick talk.

School was no escape. Bullying back then, the “dainty” kid with the butterfly net, the “fairy,” the other epithets suggesting I was a wimp who deserved ridicule and shunning. There was no refuge but isolation in the woods, and in my room where I drew pictures, read books. Did my few friends empathize, or pity me?

What saved me were mentors. Out-of-family adults who assign you self-esteem and connect you to scholars or hobbyists in your field of passion are critical to advancing your youthful well-being, if only through momentary distractions punctuating your misery. It can be enough to keep you going. It can be enough to steer you away from drugs, alcohol, suicide, or simply running away.

In college, my affinity for natural history collided with the realities of academia. I was no longer rewarded for simply having an interest and appreciation of other organisms. The mathematical abstraction, and obsession with quantification, walled me off from the flesh-and-blood animals that got me interested in science in the first place. I felt betrayed, and carried that resentment for four years before dropping out.

Fast forward to adulthood. I almost certainly had PTSD from my tumultuous childhood, like the concussion I got in high school football practice. Back in the day they didn’t know the true symptoms of either condition. A concussion does not have to knock you out cold. I thought I was fine (the divorce didn’t affect me, I proudly claimed), then everything got blindingly bright, I felt a bit light-headed, and maybe slightly nauseous. I went to tell the coach who was still running the drill, but in thirty or forty seconds I felt fine again and walked away (probably from therapy, too). Tick-tock.

I have always been at least one step behind in the best medical and psychological solutions available. Old school antidepressants prevented me from becoming too sad, but they didn’t allow me to be happy, either. I was emotionally flat-lining through life during that period. Eventually, I found two twelve-step programs that reached my subconscious and revealed the buttons I was letting people push. I began re-wiring my mind, but it is an ongoing process and I am still not up to code. Trick talk still echoes now and then.

All of this is not to say that I have had a morose, unremarkable life. Far from it. I have witnessed two total solar eclipses, seen the aurora borealis (in rural Indiana of all places), a comet (Hale-Bopp), and a volcanic eruption (Mt. St. Helens on July 22, 1980). The Vietnam War ended, and the Berlin Wall fell during my lifetime. Glimpses of hope. I got married, in spite of the horrible example of my parents. My wife has made me a better man, but still less than she deserves.

In some ways I long to be older still, at least sixty-five. I could get the vaccine faster. I could contemplate retirement, qualify for senior discounts. The thresholds for each seem to always be just out of reach. Mostly, though, I do not want to witness any more s***. If I think too long, I can’t die fast enough. I have lost all optimism, but that will never be an excuse to stop trying to influence others in positive ways. One day at a time, indeed. Sometimes one hour, one minute. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Blogging and Booking Onward

Well, that was some year. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel a little like a trapdoor spider cautiously peering out from under its lid to see if it is safe to come out for a bit. As I write this the U.S. capitol is under siege from disgruntled supporters of our outgoing president. In other, unrelated(?) news, I’ve scheduled my second colonoscopy in five years.

It is my hope that all of you are healthy, still reasonably sane, and have not experienced any unanticipated losses of family, friends, and colleagues as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, or any other tragedy for that matter. Maybe you found the experience helpful in creating a new trajectory for your career, or an opportunity to learn some new skill, or indulge in a long-neglected hobby. I wish nothing but positive things for all of you.

The quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions allowed me the perfect circumstance to write not one, but two book manuscripts in 2020. Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, published by Princeton University Press, is already available for pre-order in the U.S. and Canada, and will be in stock for regular orders come late February. The landscape of the publishing industry is one of legal and geographical territoriality, however, and we still need publishers for Wasps in the UK and Europe, Asia, Australia, and other continents. Please comment if you can suggest a publisher, or are affiliated with one. Thank you.

Meanwhile, the other book is still in production and I am not at liberty to discuss it for now. It is also entomology-related, though.

Media appearances and promotions for the wasp book are already being scheduled, and I will post relevant announcements and such on my other blog, Bug Eric. I anticipate making regular posts about wasps the entire year, and Sense of Misplaced may take a backseat to that intention, we shall see.

The other big news from our household is that we will be moving from our current location in Colorado to Leavenworth, Kansas. Not because we are going to prison! The town is where my wife’s parents live, and we want to be close to them in their golden years. I will miss the mountain views and seemingly eternal sunshine here, but there is much to be said for being at the boundary of the Great Plains and eastern deciduous forests. We will also have an honest-to-goodness house, with a yard, something we do not enjoy at our current townhouse and its HOA.

Between book projects, I will need to find other work. I am hoping to find some clients I can write for online, as well as insect identification contracts. I love sleuthing the identities of various arthropods, especially in the interest of scientific research projects at the ecosystem level. Collaboration in general is something I look forward to engaging in more often.

Thank you for your patience this last year, I hope I haven’t lost you as a loyal follower during the book projects. Please do not be shy about asking what you would like to see from this blog in the coming year. I welcome suggestions and helpful criticism.