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Get better sound quality with less hassle by combining a recorder and microphone. Lugging it along is worth the effort, as it provides much more control over recordings, which will be of the highest quality. The parabolic reflector, which looks like a satellite TV dish, funnels sound waves directly to the microphone. Cup your hand to your ear to get a sense of the effect, says Kroodsma. A parabolic setup excels at at reducing background noise, but it does have limitations.

Laura Gooch, a former civil engineer based in Ohio, and her husband, an electrical engineer, made their own recording kit. In the field, turn your device onto the pre-record setting, which essentially puts the device on standby. To help reduce that dilemma, Budney recommends that you start recording sooner rather than later—a conservative distance from the bird.

Then try to close the gap by half, which will double the volume you hear. Before you hit the stop button, be sure to state where you are, what time it is, and what species you heard. For new recordists, a disastrous file is practically a rite of passage. To ensure that the sound is good, plug headphones directly into the recorder and keep an eye on the level setting—peaks should be between -6 dB and dB. Also, and this is especially challenging, stand as silently as possible; shuffling feet, rustling clothing, and breathing can ruin a recording. And then there are your companions.

You may want to start dividing your birding trips into joint expeditions and solo ones focused on recording, since it can be difficult to convince others to wait silently. She uses recordings like this one for the nature classes she teaches across Ohio. Harter records with a shotgun microphone; her blog offers a breakdown of her equipment. She directed her homemade parabolic reflector setup toward the bird and began recording. A few minutes in, a pair of screaming Red-tailed Hawks appeared, and the wrens switched to alarm calls.

And yet, without being conscious of the specifics, we are at points capable of doing something properly miraculous: we can make another person. We can conjure up the limbs and organs of a fellow creature. We can choreograph the birth of an organic machine that will probably still be going close to a hundred years from now. We can be the master coordinator and chief designer of a product more advanced than any technology and more complex and interesting than the greatest work of art. Having a child definitively refutes any worry about our lack of creativity and dismantles at least for while the envy we might otherwise feel about the inventiveness of others.

They may have written a stirring song, started and sold a bio-engineering company or plotted an engaging novel. But we will have created the oddest yet most inspiring work of art and science around: one that is alive; one that will develop its own centres of happiness and secrecy; that will one day do its homework, get a job, hate us, forgive us, end up being, despite itself, a bit like us and eventually, make humans of its own that can spawn themselves into perpetuity.

However much they may resent one another, grow apart or be worn down by the humdrum nature of family life, parents and children are never entirely able to get past the supernatural sequence of events that connects creators and created. Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: what is a good life?

As we go about answering it live in our words and actions over long years, we will at least know that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around work: that of not being able to make a difference. There will not be the remotest danger of lacking impact, only of unwittingly exerting the wrong kind. We will be the biographers, coaches, teachers, chefs, photographers, masters and slaves of our new charges.

Our parental work will lend us the opportunity to show our worst, but also our best selves in action: it is the particular words we will find, the touch of our hands, the encouraging look only we will be able to give, the swerve towards lenience or the brave defence of principles that will make a decisive difference to the sorrows and joys of another human being.

We will — in our role as parents — be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted but forever spared the slightest doubt as to our significance or role on the earth. There can be no generalisations about what authentic work will actually require us to do. A job may, for instance, ask us to stick with a set of almost intractable mathematical problems for a long time. This would sound awful to some people; but we may powerfully enjoy the long, slow sense of nibbling away at a major task, trying out several options before landing on an especially good solution.

But perhaps authentic work will involve making many urgent and decisive financial interventions in a fast-moving, somewhat chaotic environment. While this might induce panic in some, for others, calmer circumstances would be hellish. Or it could be that to feel authentic, we need our work to involve a subordinate, supportive role where we can be admiring of, and loyal to, someone else who is in command — a pleasure stemming back, possibly, to the satisfaction we had as a child around an older, quite bossy but very impressive sibling. What makes work authentic is the deeply individual fit between the nature of our role and our own aptitudes and sources of pleasure.

One of the benefits of having identified authentic work is that we will substantially — at last — be freed from envy. There will always be someone doing a job that pays better, that has higher public status or more glamorous fringe benefits. But, we stand to realise, there is no point yearning for such a role, because it would not fit what we know of the distinctive timbre of our own character. There is a degree of pessimism about work within this fashionable concept, for it implies a need to shield life, the precious bit, from the demands of work, the onerous force.

We are taught by economics to think of ourselves as primarily selfish creatures. It can seem as if what we primarily want from work is money. A job can pay well and offer immense prestige, but unless it is meaningful, it will probably eventually stifle us and crush our spirits. It is work that helps others, that has a role to play in making strangers happy. For all that we think of ourselves in darkly egoistic terms, we in fact long through our labours either to reduce the suffering or to increase the pleasure of an audience.

We crave a sense that we have left a little corner of the world in slightly better shape as a result of our intelligence and strength. Some jobs fit this requirement with ease; the nurse and the cardiac surgeon are in no doubt as to the meaningful impact of their tasks. For most of our lives, we are helpless to change circumstances for the better.

We are at the mercy of vast impersonal forces over which we have no say. But at its best, work pushes against this. In a limited arena, we have agency.

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We can ensure that someone does receive a package on time, understands calculus, receives a well-grilled chicken or sleeps in crisply-ironed bedlinen. We can trace a connection between the things we have to do in the coming hours and an eventual modest but real contribution to the improvement of humankind. What separates a good day from a bad one is not necessarily that we have been without stress or have returned home early. It is that we have derived a tangible impression of having made some sort of difference to the lives of others. It turns out that it is — strangely, but beautifully — simply not enough to make only ourselves happy.

We are, each one of us, severely limited creatures. We can only ever get good at a few things, we can only apply ourselves properly for a certain number of hours each day; we can keep just a select number of issues in view at any point.

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And while a working life can feel quite long, we only have three or four decades of high quality effort in us — which is the blink of an eye in the larger sweep of history. Ideally though, the structure within which we do our work moves the balance in an opposite direction: it radically expands upon individual strength and capacity. When we work alongside others either as the director of combined labour or as a member of a team , our collective powers are extended way beyond anything that one fragile being could ever accomplish.

The team is far stronger, wiser, more intelligent and more capable than the people involved within it can ever be, considered one by one. We massively exceed our own strength. In the ideal team, we grasp exactly what we contribute but also how much the project benefits from what others bring to it.

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However annoying our colleagues may be, our irritation with them is soothed by an awareness that it is precisely their differences that make them adept at particular moves we would be incapable of, and that therefore justifies the unusual efforts we have to make to get along with them. Through team work, our egoism is submerged within a bigger loyalty: we are held together by a shared goal which everyone knows they could never accomplish in isolation.


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In an important sense we cheat death, because our contribution lives on in the efforts and ambitions of our successor members. The best teams reverse the baneful fundamentals of the human condition: through collaboration, they replace the competitive war of all against all; they substitute collective strength for individual weakness; they turn the brevity of our lives into endeavours that outlast us.

One of the most welcome aspects of work is that we do not, in its vicinity, need to be fully ourselves. Even though we may inside be tempted by all kinds of emotions, we know we must handle ourselves with calm and reserve — which is not the limitation it may sound. It can be the greatest freedom, sometimes, to have to repress some of what we are.

A certain collective lack of honesty at work can be an intense relief after too long in a domestic atmosphere where everyone feels it their duty to be the frank and uncensored correspondent of their every passing whim.

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We have the chance to edit ourselves. Our work need not bear the imprint of too much of our human reality. Under the sway of depressed moods, he could grow tyrannical and mean. But none of this was obvious from his work. The legal documents sent around the office may bear none of the panic, emotional turmoil and questionable habits of the person who put them together. The shoe shop, with its hushed atmosphere and elegant logo, shows none of the unreasonableness and peculiarity of those who serve in and designed it.

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The dentist is, in her white jacket, no longer the tricky person she felt herself becoming over the weekend. Work gives us a chance, rare within the overall economy of our lives, to give precedence to our better natures. The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, we can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: we get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. We bring order to chaos in a way that we rarely can in any other area of life. The Zen Buddhist monks of medieval Japan had an intuitive understanding of this kind of benefit to work.

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They recommended that, in order to achieve peace of mind, members of a monastery regularly rake the gravel of their intricately plotted and bounded temple gardens around Kyoto. Within the confines of a large courtyard space, the monks could bring total coherence and beauty to fruition.

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The monks loved to make ambitious patterns of swirls and circles. They might struggle to keep the rake going at just the right angle. It was sometimes maddening, especially when it was autumn and there were leaves everywhere. But it could — eventually — all be put right. With time, a bit of careful correction and a well-trained hand, they could get everything just as it should be.


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The problems were real, but they were bounded — and they could be solved. We are not wrong to love perfection, but it brings us a lot of pain.