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Boys Scouts, pelicans re-examined

Updated: March 2, 2013 6:43AM

Social change tends to occur in two distinct ways, as captured by Hemingway’s line about bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises: “gradually, then suddenly.”

Thus while decades of protests and legal action kept the issue of gay rights on a low boil, the flame under the pot was turned high in the past week, between President Barack Obama discovering his long-misplaced moral courage and mentioning gays in his inaugural address, including them in the long march of civil rights — “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” — then, Monday, the Boy Scouts of America, which last year was insisting on its right to ostracize gays, said it is considering a leap from the 19th directly into the 21st century, permitting gays to make lanyards.

Gosh, Emma, what’s happening?

I want to return to the subject of pelicans, so I’ll be brief. The key thing about gays is, there was never a valid reason to shun them — they hadn’t done anything, beyond their own sexual practices, which — spoiler alert — are none of your business. They don’t make worse neighbors or inferior parents or bad Boy Scouts, at least no more than anybody else does. That salient fact has sat there in the open all along and ticked. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too vigorously for finally beginning to take note of it.


Reaction to a column can be more interesting than the original column itself.

Take Monday’s sneer at the idea of changing the name of the New Orleans Hornets to the “Pelicans.” Now, on one hand, I was entirely sincere — no ginning up fake outrage for this gunslinger. On the other, it didn’t reflect any deep visceral hatred of pelicans. It’s not like I once lost a beloved puppy, pecked to death by pelicans. I just thought they were goofy, awkward birds, based entirely on my experience of seeing them portrayed in Disney cartoons and resting on rotting piers in third-rate watercolors.

Had you asked me beforehand what kind of reaction I would expect to get from that column, I’d have guessed, “Oh, more aggrieved, dead-of-night emails from Ald. Cappleman” — who complained and explained repeatedly after I warned him of the political risks of his murderous campaign against pigeons in his ward — cris de coeur I declined to print, out of kindness.

But no, nothing from Cappleman, yet. There was, however, an unexpected reader rally to the defense of the brown pelican.

“The pelican is a noble bird, extremely graceful as it skims over the water, and voraciously flesh eating, which of course is what you want for a team name,” wrote George Covington, declaring my column “a total miss.” “Instead of picking on pelicans why didn’t you focus on the really stupid names, such as the Houston Texans. What the hell is a Texan other than someone dumb enough to live in that miserable state?” Good point.

“We used to watch the pelicans dive and catch fish off the Gulf Coast and they were awesome!” writes Janille Palmer, a Facebook pal. “Coolest birds ever.”

“Just having returned from five days in Cancun, one of the amazing sights was watching these incredibly athletic pelicans soaring along the ocean beaches, then artistically dive into the water to ‘go fishing!’ ” writes Dr. Robert Weil. “After watching these elegant pelicans do their acrobatics for a few days, I gotta tell ya: awesome!”

Thomas Evans shared this snatch of doggerel from Odgen Nash:

A wonderful bird is the pelican.

His bill will hold more than his belly can.

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week

But I’m damned if I see how the Hell he can.

Several readers sent a link to an article on the Deadspin website with the delightfully louche, if unprintable, headline, “F- - - You, Pelicans Are Awesome: A Defense OF The NBA’s Best New Team Name.”

“You’re probably picturing a big, clumsy poof of a bird stumbling around in the shallows, picking at weeds,” writes Barry Petchesky. “Wrong. The pelican is fearsome ... the pelican is the serial killer of birds. Not only is it a carnivore — it’s a hypercarnivore (That’s a scientific term; look it up). The pelican eats meat and only meat. ... It wants to kill you and everyone you’ve ever cared about.”

No mas! I surrender. If you view life as a continuing education — and you should; I do — there’s no harm in fessing up to initial ignorance about a subject, particularly something far afield from the standard bedrock of knowledge, such as the true nature of pelicans. So yes, Barry Petchesky et al., I concede the point, and hand my cynic’s sword to you, hilt first, head bowed in humility. Pelicans are indeed, as you say, “badass,” and I thank you for bringing that truth so clearly to my attention. The Sun-Times regrets the error.

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