Leaving a Flock of Friends for the Company of Birds

A reader in Huntington Beach has complained in two letters that I embarrassed him by quoting from an earlier letter.

James R. Gallagher, a retired Los Angeles police detective, recalls that earlier this year he responded to a column I had written about my skepticism of psychic phenomena. As I remember, Gallagher recommended that I improve my psychic awareness by taking one or more of the several courses available at local colleges. He named a few.

I do not have the column at hand, but I recall it. The titles of the courses he named were what I call psychobabble. They allegedly instruct in such fields as out-of-body experiences, reincarnation, channeling, extrasensory perception and the like.

Gallagher's complaint is that I gave the impression that he was serious , and thus embarrassed him in the eyes of his friends, most of whom, evidently, are skeptics. I was quite aware that Gallagher was being facetious, and that he is as dubious as I am about college courses that pursue the paranormal as fact. If his friends know him at all, I can't imagine that they would suppose that he was serious.

Gallagher did not tell me he was kidding. It was obvious. I do not believe I owe him an apology, or his friends an explanation. Gallagher must learn the lesson I learn everyday. One uses irony at one's peril.

I do not mean to criticize college courses that scientifically examine theories of the paranormal, with the aim of proving their existence. So far, thousands of experiments have been inconclusive, but those that seem to verify extrasensory perception and the lot have been flawed.

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes the Skeptical Inquirer, is dedicated to finding out the truth about such things. So far, nothing I have read in the Inquirer persuades me that human beings can send thoughts to one another without speech or signs, that we can be reincarnated, or that we can move objects by the power of mind.

Shirley MacLaine is a superb actress, dancer and entertainer; but her thoughts on the paranormal are nothing more than that--entertainments.

In all the years I have been quoting from letters out of context, I have received only one other complaint from a reader. That came from a colleague of a deconstructionist whose letter I had quoted. He said that I had made a fool of its author: As I said, "Fools will out."

Gallagher goes on to say that in his retirement he has become a wildlife photographer, mostly of birds. He and his wife, Sylvia, take annual treks through bird refuges. She records bird sounds and together they make shows for their local Audubon chapter.

He says Sylvia teaches bird identification classes, but he didn't say where. Anyway, he says, the enrollment is phenomenal. Her four beginner classes have averaged more than 60 students.

"The majority are professional people, mostly teachers, with a sprinkling of biologists, naturalists, park rangers, doctors, lawyers and engineers. What seems to tie these people together is a love for the out-of-doors and an abiding desire to learn more about nature.

"Being world-famous for that common grackle you spotted some years back, I thought you might also be interested to know that I got my best shot ever of that bird on our trip to Colorado this spring. I would like to present you a picture of it in view of all you have done to further the sport."

He enclosed the following questionnaire:

1. Have more grackle pictures than I know what to do with.

2. Don't have one, but frankly don't know what I'd do with one if I had one.

3. Could use one; please forward.

4. Other.

I will answer "other:"

My files are full of items that will never see the light of day, including, probably, the column in which I embarrassed you. Anyway, are you sure your grackle wasn't a boat-tailed grackle? That's a different animal altogether. The Audubon Society told me no common grackle had ever been seen west of the Mississippi River.

Actually, in the matter of psychic phenomena, you have nothing to worry about.

If your friends are of so little faith that they believe you capable of embracing paranormal heresies, you are better off with the birds.

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