Sunday, January 25, 2009

Somebody pinch me

I just read the President's Energy and the Environment Agenda over at the new Granted, it's just an agenda, just a plan, but to see these words, "Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change," on a government website made me think for a moment that I might have slipped into some strange parallel universe, or might simply be in a dream. Other than not believing there is such a thing as "clean coal," unless one means it in the sense of "clean the top of this mountain off so we can get to the coal," I found the agenda a welcomed change from the years and years of denial and profiteering by the entrenched energy players. I really hope Obama's 'take the bull by the horns and get moving' approach will score some major victories, quickly, and affirm that this is real -- it's not just an agenda, not just a plan, but a process that is going to change America. Can't wait to see it!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nothing like girlfriends on a roadtrip to clear your mind about what to do with your life

Girlfriends fleeing the everyday -- we all love our lives, but our lives trap us and before we know it, another year is gone. It's January. We're caravanning to the Valley, headed for Betty's ranch north of Mission. She has a guest house where we'll all sleep. We'll cook and socialize in the house her mother stayed in when she came out regularly. We'll sit in a circle around the fire under the stars. We'll bird (that's us to the right, in a bird blind in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge). We'll canoe the Rio Grand. We'll see the Wall. We'll talk.

I'm riding down with Kirsti and Rose. I'm wearing the ethnographer's hat this weekend (it's invisible), planning to participate in and observe birding. What I really want is to ask my friends what they think I should do with my life. They know me, and they know conservation and environmentalism in Texas. So, we talk about who birds, the continuum of birding experiences, from a few hours at Bright Leaf to 3 weeks in New Guinea, from listers to naturalists who only get 5 yards down the path before they're lured off by some plant. Eventually, we come to it: birding is about other things besides birding.

It's Zen. The process is enough. Rose recommends I read Stroke of Insight. She says she learned about left and right brain integration sitting on Hawk Mountain where 3 hours would go by and she lost track. Some of birding is left brain (hunting, focusing, calculating, etc.) and part is being in and a part of nature in a deep way. We all get this immediately. It's central to why we bird.

Discussion is great, but it's not the thick of things. I got that the next day when we birded Bentsen Rio Grand State Park and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. I took notes for about 30 minutes. Yep. That's all it took. I'm not writing about birding.

I wonder about things I don't know. I wonder about people like the Ayers and how they came to be interested in leaving part of the ranch land they have acquired to the public. How or why have they chosen to share what they have. I want to know that story. And I want to know the stories that others might tell about why and how they decided to give back. Or should I call it giving forward? They see themselves in relation to the land differently from the person who only possesses it as property.

I doubt that birding has much to do with conservation directly. It probably indirectly affects it, through stimulating the economies of birding areas, encouraging preservation of high-quality habitat to attract eco-tourism dollars. And birders contribute membership dues and donations to organizations that conserve and preserve (Audubon, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club). Even that seems tenuous. But I'm clear now. I don't want to know more about birding as an activity.

You know, it's funny. I just want to be in the zone, be out there. I love the left brain/right brain integration birding instantly accomplishes without the least effort. But that is separate from my interest in the commons.

I want to learn how to promote and protect the commons. All kinds of commons: the copyright commons; the commons of public lands and land trusts; the commons of trusts and foundations. Peter Barnes mentioned in Capitalism 3.0 that we would have a regulatory window of opportunity some day, and that we'd have to take quick advantage of it because it wouldn't last long. I think we have it right now after the bank meltdown, in the midst of world-wide recession. I want to fly through that window. I'll choose a commons, learn more about it, read as much as I can, and then get involved in an organization and see where it takes me.

Terri says Bob Ayers would be happy to talk to me about how his family got into land trusts for the Shield Ranch. And Valarie mentioned the Pedernales and Devil's River projects, both of which could offer case studies in the well-done land trust/conservation easement. "Good intentions: Ensuring a boom time for legacy" still holds appeal, 3 weeks later. That's a good sign.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Evil librarians

Georgie, age 6 or 7, around the time of tangling with the evil librarian
It's little wonder libraries are in trouble today. Oh, there's the digital revolution and all that, but libraries have bigger problems. Some librarians are evil. Not all of them, I admit, but I tangled with one who was and it scarred me for life. I was seven. That's me in the school photo.

My teacher, Mrs. Cloud, handed me a small slip of paper, folded in half. I opened it, read it, and must have surprised her a little as I gradually acquired several blotchy red patches on my neck. "I turned that book in last week," I mumbled, staring at the paper. "Well, go see the librarian," Mrs. Cloud replied. She probably wondered why I was so dejected. The paper only said I owed a dime because my book was late.

"I already returned this," I said, as I handed the slip to the tall, thin, gray-haired librarian whose name I don't recall, though I knew it at the time. "Well, I have your card right here telling me that you still have it. If you had turned it in, I would have pulled this card and put it in the book pocket and re-shelved it."

"But I know I returned it."

"There's no reason to lie about it. Just pay the dime and bring it in tomorrow."

"Lie about it! Over a dime, you think I'd lie about it?" Now I was furious. I had instantly gone from a bit embarrassed, accused of being late returning a book and owing ten cents, to enraged, accused of lying on top of it all. Next thing I knew I was being marched to the principal's office and my mother was on her way to school!

Once my mother arrived, the principal explained to her that I had not turned in my book, I owed a dime, and I was lying about having returned it. My mother was shocked. This was not what she expected when she got calls from school. "There must be a mistake. Georgie doesn't lie. My son is the liar, so I know lying when I hear it." The principle, in a bind, punted. "Let's go see the librarian."

So off we went, the three of us. When we arrived at her desk, the librarian told the same story about the check-out cards. "Well, if Georgie says she returned it, she returned it. Let's check the shelf," Mother suggested. This was perfect. The librarian and I probably both believed that the shelf would support our conflicting stories. She confidently called out the call letters on the check-out card, and we all marched over to the shelf where the book would be if it had been checked in.

There it was. The librarian snatched it from it's little thin space, opened the cover and there, inside the pocket ... she found the wrong check-out card.

The librarian had pulled the wrong card and placed it in the pocket of my book. I was so relieved and looked to my mother, took her hand, happily noted the obvious, "see, I did return it," and turned to leave. But to my utter astonishment, the librarian accused me a third time: "Why didn't you check to be sure I pulled your card and checked your book in correctly before you left?" I simply could not stop myself. I blurted out, "Well, it never occurred to me that you could make a mistake," with more than enough sarcasm to get into big trouble for being disrespectful.

The whole incident became a referendum on my deportment in the face of provocation. The librarian's reaction to a child who contradicted her had been swift -- mistrust and accusation -- but I was to overcome this. That was a hard lesson. I was a good student, I didn't lie, I was well-behaved, and I enjoyed in return that people believed what I said. I worked hard to earn trust. This lesson seemed to reneg on the deal: Someone may accuse me of lying rather than consider other possibilities, and I am to tiptoe around the obvious and say nothing to offend the accuser. I don't think I ever got the "be polite to adults no matter what" thing. But I did learn a lesson. Don't be like the librarian. Things work out much better if you recognize early in any conflict that you may be wrong.

And better late than never -- today I'm turning in my "thank you" to the evil librarian.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ethnographic field notes & live-blogging

This week I prepare for a trip to the Valley, a birding trip, a trip to the WALL, the big border wall, a meeting of the State Sierra Club, in other words, a big mashup of opportunity to be observer, blogger, processor, participant. All at once.

I'm taking my digital journal, my Macbook Evernote ap. I'm writing down everything all the time. I'm taking photos. I'm thinking about angles and possibilities. I'm reviewing birdsongs and calls. I'm birding. I'm cooking and helping feed cattle. Attending a potluck dinner and tracking down a Pine Flycatcher, a bird I hear is on this side of the WALL for the first time ever -- to observe the dark side of birding. To tell on my friends.

Oh boy! I'm an ethnographic storyteller. In 10 years. When I realize that at some point I have to stop observing and writing everything down and start reading and analyzing what I've been writing. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I am just trying on the ethnographic storyteller outfit for a long weekend. See if it fits.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Soliciting stories door to door

I was reading in the newspaper this morning about a new book on the rich and how they got that way. I wasn’t interested in what the author had to say about that. His book interested me for another reason: his process. He trekked across the country, literally knocking on doors in the 20 most wealthy zip codes to ask people to tell their stories. As the reviewer noted, the author had reasoned that those people who would talk to him would likely be worthy of reading about, “[b]ecause close-minded, unadventurous, uninteresting people wouldn’t invite a stranger into their homes and share their life stories with him.” Maybe. But the reviewer says the stories were boring and trite. Still, the author got published...

Process interests me more than results. I attended a fellow PhD student’s dissertation proposal defense Friday and I found that all the questions that popped into my head were about process. He must be interested in what will come of his analysis (he's been working on it for quite awhile now), but I was more curious about the mechanics of everything he had done. At one point he told a little story about how he ended up buying an island in Second Life, how it was not at all what he intended to do initially. So he’s going to study the development of a learning community in a virtual world. Ok. How he came to that, now that was interesting. I love how the totally unexpected can emerge at your feet where you've just buried your latest dream.

One of the first articles I read after beginning doctoral study explained how little of the experience of being a graduate student ever makes it into a paper. Papers report results. In fact, their authors intentionally strip out all the process because that’s where all the failure, frustration and disappointment are (and maybe doubt and depression and self-recrimination). Students don’t talk about how they screwed up 50 times before they finally got the experiment to work. For whatever reason, that process interests me a lot more than the results of the experiment. I think it always has. I need to keep this in mind as I think about what to write about.

And on writing -- I'm on my third book about writing since realizing just before Christmas that I am a writer who needs to improve her writing. Deciding what to write about isn't nearly so hard as it seemed when I defined the result as a dissertation. When you focus on process, the difficulty just evaporates like rain that never hits the ground.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Siva interviews Google's Vint Cerf -- the magic of thinking you can do it

Siva posted the text of an interview he conducted with Vint Cerf at Google earlier this year, on Googlization. Interesting post and I enjoyed reading it, but this caught my eye as it is a timely reminder that the problem with getting into the nitty gritty of various research ideas I wrote about in my last post might be simple cynicism (eek!).

Siva: What aspects of Google have made it such a success?

Vint: Well, we have hired some awfully smart people. And most of them have the benefit of being young. So they don't know "you can't do that." So they just do it.

Plus, the company gives its employees the time to explore new ideas - 20 percent of their time.

The management structure is very flat. And the company has very particular hiring practices and standards. We hire people who are both smart and responsible. They all have a "how can I help" attitude. So you can learn something from almost anyone in the company. You will notice an almost collegial atmosphere here.

I can sure vouch for the collegial atmosphere. It's energizing just to be in the company of that creative, positive vibe. Got to visit once soon after UT joined Google Book Search.

So it seems that life's lessons are quite valuable ... up to a point. Once they convince you that you know how everything works, and how it doesn't work, the balance goes negative. They become a stock to dump, not worth the drag on your potential. Ah, but when does experience carry you across the line? As always, the real issue will be finding the balance between naivete and cynicism. An open mind but not an empty one.