Thursday, November 27, 2014

Cultivating a Garden

So I ran across a quote from the end of Candide today - "We must cultivate our own garden". While the rest of the blog was about guarding against the unproductivity of unbridled optimism (and the concomitant self deception that accompanies it), it touched on a topic near and dear to my heart right now - failure. I am teaching myself to play banjo. It is a painful process. I love learning language, even with the pain and embarassment of getting it wrong. I am in a new job, and I gloriously suck at it. Because I am learning.
Maybe pure optimism isn't an optimal feeling. Maybe 'hope for the best, prepare for the worst' is a great summation of the motto that should be used instead. But I like the idea of each step in the learning process being seen as a process of weeding. Tending the garden. Encouraging the plants I like, discouraging those that I don't.
And there might be short cuts. Spray everything with toxins. Use massive industrial machines. Keep chickens and pigs and cows in boxes where they are fed chemicals and recycled chicken parts.
But the real value gets added at that moment when you realize you have been using the word in Russian wrong, and you laugh with your new friend about it.
When you hit that banjo lick right for the first time, and then try it ten times more.
When you watch the radishes come up, thinning out the ones that make the density too high. Fertilizing, mulching, weeding. Watching the pepper plants go from small to large.  Blooming, putting out peppers, turning from green to yellow.  Then making my pico de gallo.

Watching the cotton grow, pink flowers, then boll. Eating my own sunflower seeds.  Popping the popcorn that grew in my garden.

Playing my banjo, even when I'd rather be watching tv.

Cultivating our own garden, just maybe, is the only thing that is worth our time.

No short cuts.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Only too old when you're dead"

When is it too late to start?

"My belief is you're only too old when you're dead."

A friend of mine posted that sentence this weekend, and it just resonated with me.  I have never met Windi.  We are friends of mutual friends on facebook, and admire each other from that distance.   (Well, I can only speak for myself - I admire her...).  As our mutual friend said once, 'Windi is a force of nature - she decides to do something, and throws herself into it with no sense that she is not world class at it.  And pretty soon, she is teaching her flamenco instructor moves.'

Is it any wonder I am a fan?

Windi decided to start learning the fiddle, so that she could play Irish tunes.  Nobody showed her how, she just bought a violin, accessed some online videos and started playing. 

At first, she posted progress online, and her playing was somewhere south of virtuoso.  But I was intrigued, and followed her progress, always looking forward to the next video sample.  It was not long before the tunes were not only recognizable, but even pretty good.

Now, just one year removed from her first sawing of bow and string, she is looking for a band to play with.  I can't wait to hear her first jam session.

My sister Caroline picked up the accordion when she was in London a couple of years ago at age 39.  And no, she was not looking to polka or even (sadly) zydeco.  She had in mind the image of the French cafe accordion player.  And for several months, she just played (um) quietly in her apartment in her spare time, teaching herself left fingering and right keyboarding and chord progression, and....

And one day she had her window open and people under her apartment shouted up some encouragement.  She has since played in bars and auditions and teaches herself new songs all the time.

What is it that you feel is beyond you?  Sure, high school French was brutal, but you find that you are intrigued by Mandarin Chinese? You have a hidden passion for stargazing, and want to learn astronomy? Or is there a musical instrument that you want to play?

Is it too late? Is it true, that Old Dogs Cannot Learn New Tricks?

Our understanding of neural pathways is based on a use-it-or-lose-it model.  If you have not learned what you need by the time you hit puberty, it is too late.  No late-life prodigies in music.  No second career geniuses in foreign languages.

Linguistics studies particularly point to an early developmental time frame when language acquisition is possible, and anything after that is impacted by the fact that you didn't learn it when you were 5 years old.  The brain wires itself along specific neural pathways, linguists tell us, and re-routing those pathways is almost impossible.

Badgerdoodle.  Absolute poppysmeg.

We rewire neural pathways all the time.  We learn new words, new names, and we stick them in  our memory banks in different ways.  Yes, we adults have established a way of learning and those pathways are entrenched.  That might make it hard to organize that new knowledge.

But we also have experience under our belts on what learning works best for us.

Maybe you are a kinetic learner, and know that you learn best while doing aerobics.  Or you are an auditory learner, and can put things to music to memorize them.  Because you have experience with learning, you can take advantage of what you already know about yourself to make the learning easier.

I am convinced that the main difference between adults and kids is embarassment.  Not that kids are not embarassed by making a mistake in public (I recall a particularly horrifying moment when I was in fourth grade crying while cutting edges off of the paper I was turning in) but that adults encourage the kid when mistakes are being made.  And adults who are motivating themselves see the embarassment as a reason to stop.

But consider this: when you were learning your first language, how many times did your parents have to repeat the following sequence before you got it right?

"Dat gog toy."
"That's right, son.  That's the dog's toy."
"Dat gog toy."
"That's right. That's the dog's toy."

Why would it be any different to learn to speak Basque?  New words, new order, new syntax, new everything.  We are going to mispronounce the words, and use the wrong forms, over and over. We will fail and grit our teeth and try again, and fail again.  Just like when we were kids.  Is it just that we are more hardwired to high expectations?

My friend Adam works in knowledge management, and has been studying how organizations share information. And the change to sharing of information in the corporation requires three things: (check out his blog), motivation, ability, and trigger.

I think that the analogy is pretty apt for use in learning any new task, not just in corporate learning.  We all use these tasks in taking on a new task that we have never done before, whether learning computer coding or making French sauces.  We need the motivation, we need the ability, and we need the trigger.

The motivation is probably the greatest change between learning a new task for a child versus learning a new task for an adult.  Mom made me take piano lessons when I was in second grade.  What was my motivation there?  Was it because I decided I needed to be able to play music? 

Um, no.

But when my wife decides that she wants to learn the piano as an adult, what is her motivation?  No longer is it just a matter of pleasing her mom.  She is her own motivator.

The ability sector is "teaching people how to do things." This is the practice.  The physical repetition of the fingering, repeating the vocalizations until you can make a voiced glottal fricative on command, or the practicing of the steps until the samba is second nature. 

The final piece, as I understand it, is the trigger - the place where we re-create the response.  If you always listen to your Russian conversation tapes in the car on your drive to work, then your Russian is going to be strongest in the car, where the association is strongest (part of the reason that you are suggested to practice taking standardised tests in the room where you will be taking them). 

None of this is beyond the grasp of someone who wants to learn.

Will it be frustrating?  YES.

Will it be vexing? YES. 

Will you get a strange gratification when something makes sense? YES.

And see, that is the beauty of learning anything new - the gratification (elation, even?) of succeeding.  But instead of running to mom to share the success, I get it all to myself.  And then I reinforce it with more work on the ability sector.  And reinforce it again.  And again.... smiling with each repeated success.

It is terrifying to jump into something new.  My wife bought me a banjo this year, and I practice every free moment.  But I gotta confess - I am terror-stricken when I think of playing my banjo in front of people.  My hands shake at the best of times, and the thought of adding a little performance anxiety to top it off, well, I am pretty frightened. That embarassment potential is almost reason enough to stop.
But maybe all that means is that I need to change the trigger.  Maybe move to a more public place for playing the three songs I currently have in my repertoire.  Stretch my comfort zone to include front porch playing.  Maybe post a short video of Cripple Creek.  Laugh at the mistakes, and know that eventually, that sentence will come out right. 
"That's the dog's toy." 



For those who teach, a nice blog entry from the teacher's perpective can be found here. 


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Receipt - Gift, Kula, Grace, and Charity

This week, I was involved in a discussion about charity again, and it has been heavy on my mind recently. The book the group is reading is called Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and it essentially puts to question the way we do charitable work. 

I have no answers.  But the discussion has made me think about what happens when we are on the giving end, and on the receiving end, of an unequal giving relationship.

My Wealthy Benefactor

In 1994, I made a friend while doing fieldwork in Mexico.  She showed up a week or so after the fieldwork had started, and she was a force to be reckoned with.  She did a lion's share of the grunt work, trekked twice as far as everyone else, and we quickly became friends.

I found out at the end of the field season that she was wealthy.  Very wealthy.  Like buy-a-Lambourghini-because-I-can kind of wealthy. 

I had not the first clue.

Eventually, she told me the story - she and her husband had been in on the ground floor of a company in a place called Silicone Valley, back before it was known as such.  Overnight, they went from a small company of fifteen people to an international company manufacturing hard drives for computers everywhere.

A year later, on my way to a field season in Hawaii, I stopped by her home in California to visit, and she loaded me up with cool loot for the field season. Sony cassette players (yes, it was a while ago), towels, water bottles, gear.... it was like going to a camping store and just pulling stuff off the shelf.

And I mentioned to her that I was a little uncomfortable. That I had a hard time with a gift I couldn't reciprocate for.

"Crorey, look.  I have found this to be the hardest part of being rich.  When I first got more money than I could spend, I made two changes: I bought enough Levi's jeans - the only brand that fits my frame - and I stopped buying paperback books.

"I looked around at the people that I loved - my friends - and looked to see what I could give them.  And I was surprised at how giving gifts completely ruined my relationship with them.

"They started getting uncomfortable with the fact that they felt it was an unequal relationship, and they started finding reasons not to be around me.  But I never saw it that way, and it was a hard thing to recognize.  Because for me, it didn't have anything to do with buying their love, or creating an unequal balance of power.  It was just about doing something for a friend that they could not do for themselves."

The only response I could have at that point was to look her in the eye, and say, "Thank you."

I have always struggled with that kind of inequality.  I love giving.  I love getting the present just right.  I love watching the response when the gift is unexpected and perfect.  It is part of the reason that I am enamored of surcees - because the unexpected nature of the gift makes it easy to connect the pieces of 'rightness' and 'unexpected pleasure'. 

But with surcees particularly, the fact that they are gifts of small value makes the resulting imbalance miniscule. Last year I received a small gift of an inflatable fruitcake ("Tasty as the REAL thing!") and it gives me a smile every time I see it (thanks, Gracie!). 

The gift cost almost nothing, and that is what gives it incalculable value.  But....

Enter into the equation an inability to reciprocate.  Suddenly the imbalance is the only thing that the recipient can feel - it is the foundation of the experience. At that point, the joy dissipates, and there is left a difficult situation. This is the reason that charity is such a sticky wicket for all parties.  There is something special that happens during gift giving that is not apparent.

Kula Ring and Gift Giving
The Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea were the subject of a study by Bronislaw Malinowski (and subsequently by a number of others, including Marcel Mauss).  BM looked at the trade that happened between neighboring islands in the ring and discovered that there was a part of the trade that was not consistent with a tit-for-tat barter economy. 

A gift would be given would be given from one partner on one island to his counterpart on the next island.  Red shell-disc necklaces are given as gifts in a clockwise direction around the ring of islands and white shell armbands are traded in the opposite direction (the network is the Kula Ring). The giving of the gift would introduce a force - Mauss referred to it as mana - that exerts a pull to respond with a return gift to the giver.  Reciprocation is a compelling force. (I feel that compelling force with every unreciprocated Christmas card I receive....)

After some amount of time, the recipient of a red shell-disc necklace would respond with a white shell armband, and the pull for reciprocation would .  The gifts themselves increased in 'value' over time, as they were given to increasingly important people.  The gift-giving mechanism also served as the basis for other trade relationships - a armband-bearing friend is a good partner to barter with for food.

The inequality among gift givers is a temporary status.  Once the reciprocal gift is given, the debt is paid. 

Christian Grace
I struggle with the idea of grace in Christianity.  Grace is the gift of having an unequal relationship - between deity and human - leveled.  That leveling is not not something that can be earned, it has to be a 'hand-up from above', one-sided offering.  I can live the best life possible, I can do good at every opportunity, but I will never be able to become equal to the divine through effort or force of will.

The basis of Christianity is that the inequality in status between God and humans creates a divide.  That divide can only be bridged through an intermediary.  That act, making the relationship right, creates a debt.  It is a benefit that cannot be earned, an advantage that is given freely. 

By background makes me rebel against that.  To a southern, white, male person like me, the thought of getting something I did not earn creates a cognitive dissonance. I have to earn anything I receive. 

I was reared to ignore the benefits I received from the start, and to recognize the hard work that led to the dividends I had 'created'. As a result I worked hard to make my own way. But I had advantages, and I took those advantages for granted - and grew up convinced that everything I worked hard for was earned.

So to know that there is a mana pulling me into a relationship that I cannot equalize is a hard one for me to accept. I want to be on equal footing.  I want to be able to stand on my own two feet.  Bootstraps are my friend.

But that is not the nature of grace.  It is a gift.  We accept, or we don't accept.  Makes no difference. The gift is still offered.

I would probably be more comfortable with a requirement to 'pay it forward', because then I would be able to reduce the debt.  But there is no quid pro quo.  We are given the gift.  And without any strings, we have the opportunity to do good for others, sharing the good news.

I struggle with this part of my faith.

If I struggle with accepting a gift I have not earned, how can I not empathize with someone who struggles with being on the receiving end of charity?  How do I not recognize the feeling of the father who leaves the room when his family is visited by "Santa" from the local church?

And how do I not use it as an opportunity to demonstrate the nature of the Kula Ring - that we continue to give (clockwise?) the gift we have received?  It is not a permanent inequality, because the debt relationship has been removed.

The only response I can have at this point is to look up to the sky (or wherever heaven is...), and say, "Thank you." And go, and do likewise.

I think I'll go and get started writing those Christmas cards. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Turkeys and extractive economy in Louisiana

In the mid-1980s, a social program was introduced in Yucatan, and it was one of the more brilliant programs I have ever encountered. The government gave out turkey chicks to people in villages.

Strange thing to give, right? Free program. Just take the chicks, and raise them. No strings attached. But we will be back in a year, and will offer to buy the turkeys back.

The turkeys thrived in the village setting. The villagers got some money for minimal upkeep (the turkeys usually took up residence in a chicken coop that was already being used, and ate scraps and insects along the margin of the property) and the government got turkeys for redistribution. At a time when many young villagers were flocking (sorry) to the cities, following jobs, it provided one easy source of cash for villagers, and an additional source of protein for lean times.

Image from

To me, that seems to be the way an extractive economy should work. Yes, there should be profits that go to the group enacting the program. And yes, the guys providing the turkey chicks should make money - whether it is a government, or a non-profit - there should be a way to turn one turkey into a bunch more.

But the people who provide turkey with room and board get something, too. After all, when the turkey is gone, they are left to clean up the poop.

So it is with the Gulf of Mexico.

The people of the Gulf of Mexico have put up with the poop of turkeys for decades. In 1901, a well in Jennings, Louisiana first produced oil within the state. Since then, the oil industry has provided jobs for the people of Louisiana, oil companies made a profit and sent the final product across the nation, but it was the local environment has paid the price. Canals cut through healthy marsh to access wells, leading to saltwater intrusion and the death of the marsh. Oil leaks occurred, small and large. The fat turkeys grown here are sent out of state for the benefit of the nation (as well as for the benefit of the stockholders).

Progressive erosion in Coastal Louisiana, 1958, 1996.

But in this case, the villagers are not being paid for cleaning up turkey poop.

Essentially, in some ways, Louisiana is being treated as an American colony with an extractive economy. (And typical of such colonies, corruption seems to go hand in hand with the tie between the imperials and the colonial governance).

Oil companies are not the only responsible agents for the marsh that is disappearing at an alarming rate. If they were, the solutions would be easy. Unfortunately, there are a number of forces at play. 

The levees that prevent the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks and flooding resident also prevents the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks and nourishing the marshes. Managing the flow of the Mississippi River upstream starves the downstream area of sediment that would rebuild marshes. Storms tear through wetlands and tear them up, and have been doing more tearing since we have started seeing climate change. Nutria are unchecked destroyers of wetlands. Sea level rise and subsidence are brutal influences on marshes and swamps in coastal Louisiana. Added to all of these pressures, the canals carved into the marshes by the oil companies introduce saltwater into fresh marshes and essentially poison the plants.

I don’t believe that Louisiana has not benefitted from the relationship[i]. Concessions are always being made to avoid losing jobs and tax revenue for the state, so clearly the state has a vested interest in the investments made by the oil companies. And we, like all other states, benefit from the reduced cost of petroleum products. But the investment of 113 years of oil extraction has not resulted in huge strides towards development, while the impact from that investment has been increased at every step along the way.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Louisiana has not received any revenue from the offshore oil drilling, as Mary Landrieu famously claimed after the BP spill, but the state has certainly received very little (see an interesting breakdown here). Landrieu used the BP disaster as an opportunity to push for revenue sharing, a successful effort which will begin to show up in our state coffers in 2017.  We’ll see if the additional income can be used to reverse the impacts.

It would be an interesting comparison to take the income from the seafood industry and the oil industry and compare the two. Louisiana supplies 35% of the shrimp and oyster consumed by the US. We have a $220M sport hunting industry. Coastal fisheries in Louisiana make up 30% of the national total.

I suspect that a far greater proportion of the income from those industries stays in Louisiana than from the oil industry.


[i] Davis (1995) found that extractive economies as a whole have higher levels of development than economies without a substantial extractive sector. “Learning to love the Dutch disease: evidence from the mineral economies.” World Development 23(10):1765–1779.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You've made your Procrustean Bed...

Our waitress at Zea's Reastaurant this weekend loves organization.  She runs the bar and is absolutely amazing at making sure that everything is just so - right at hand and ready for when the lunch crush arrives.  She does not want to have to think about where the fruit is, or whether she has the juice and simple syrup ready.  She organized the glassware.  She organized the napkins.  She organized the juices, and applied the stickers on each bottle.  She futzed and piddled and straightened and organized.

What she did not do was wait on her customers.

She followed a process, but neglected to attain the goal.

In my work, one of the requirements is that we prepare a Project Management Plan, so that we have an idea where the project is going, and to have a road map for how to get to the decision.  The PMP is an important tool that helps us understand the level of effort, the people who have responsibilities, what those responsibilities are, and how we will incorporate input from our engineers, biologists, real estate specialists, and our local sponsor. 

Every project has to have a PMP, or it is an incomplete project.  So we have a template that we fill out to complete the PMP.  Much of the information is redundant, and much of the information needed is not included. But we have to follow the template, because it is the only approved template we have.

The report that the PMP gives us a roadmap for is only allowed to be 100 pages.

The template for the PMP runs 120 pages.

At some point, we ceased to view our process as a tool to get to the goal, and we started to view the following of the process as the goal. This failing is something that everyone recognizes within and without our organization, but corporately, we are so entrenched in how we do things that we forget what we are doing.  It is a continual source of frustration for me.

Ancient Greek mythology told us the story of a son of Poseidon named Procrustes (undoubtedly a precursor to one of the Simpson's characters). He had possession of a stronghold at a critical pass between Athens and Eleusis.  When he invited travelers in for the night, he would put them into the iron bed, and then cut them - or stretch them - to fit the bed.  (Turns out that he had two beds of different lengths, so NOBODY ever fit the bed).

Image stolen shamelessly from

Sadistic, sure; bloodthirsty, of course.  But none of his guests could ever complain that the bed didn't fit.  He had a process in place to make sure that those complaints never happened.

I see places all across my life where this kind of thing happens.  We give gifts to needy families at Christmas so that kids don't grow up without experiencing the magic of gifts under the tree, without looking to fit our giving to the family.  We have soup kitchens where we give free food to the homeless and the needy.  In part, we do this because it is the right thing to do - to take care of the least fortunate members of society.  But at least in part we do it because it is easier to pay for food than to address the underlying need.

It is just possible that we are applying a bandaid where a tournaquet  is needed.  Or maybe we are making the problem fit the solution we have - the solution we know works.

And maybe we don't know at all.  Maybe it is time to re-evaluate it all and revisit the bed we are offering these travelers.  Are we cutting the wage-earners off at the knees when we give the Christmas gifts?  Are we stretching a temporary solution of feeding people to fit an endemic homeless situation?

Procrustes ended up being hoist on his on petard - he was stretched on his own bed by Theseus. But we risk the same thing when we value process over problemsolving.  When we focus on organization over service.

And when we strive to 'do charity' rather than fill a need. 

Red Zone

In my agency, we hold Red Zone Meetings when construction nears completion. It allows us to identify the areas in which we need to make adjustments before completing the project.  Stakeholders, construction folk, contractors, local sponsors, project managers, and even some of the brass from the Corps join together to see what remains to be completed.

It gives everyone a chance to revisit expectations, to discuss the way that the project should be completed, to talk about lessons learned, and to lay out the plans for turning the completed project over to the local sponsor.

For those of you who are not football fans, the Red Zone is the area within the opponent's 20-yard line; the area where the offense has gone 80 yards, and only have 20% before they can cross the goal line and score. Each team hase Red Zone offensive plays that are developed specifically to address the problems of finishing strong.  RZ offense is tricky: the closer you are to your goal, the things holding you back from reaching your goal seem to multiply.  When those obstacles are compressed between the project plan and project completion, it is much harder to slog your way, and frustration is greater, at the same time that execution is the most critical.

I love the metaphor.  And I have recently begun to reflect on the process of planning for the finish line. (I have always worked in the planning process, which takes place before ANY of the construction is done; this part of the process is new to me.)  And some questions have started to occur to me: What changes would you make if you knew that you were 80% done?  What adjustments?  What new plans would you put in place?

Last month, I joined a group of guys in hiking the Inka trail.  Beforehand, we heard horror stories of day 2; one co-worker who had done it said that going through her chemo treatments was easier than Day 2.  The first part of the day was brutal - we hiked from 9,000 feet above sea level to the impossible elevation of 13,800 feet, and celebrated at the top of Dead Woman's Pass.  Then we hustled down to 9,000', where we met the porters, who had run the same route (loaded down with our equipment and food and tents and....) who had lunch prepared for us.  Thirty minutes later, we were headed back up to the second pass, at 13,200'.  It was an exhausting climb: the oxygen was thin and climbing was tough.  More than anyone on our trip, I struggled with the thin air, and for every fifty steps I took uphill, I had to stop for two full minutes until the gasping for air receded.

And finally, we had made it through the pass, and were headed back downhill, for the rest of the day.  Out of a ten-hour hike, the last two hours were going to be all downslope. We were exhausted, but the camp slowly started to get closer and closer. 

And with only a half mile to go, we were able to see the bright red tents welcoming us with the promise of popcorn and hot chocolate (Llama Path's version of happy hour).  And the guide looked at us and said, "OK, that archaeological site (he pointed to the left of the trail) is the last thing we do before we head to camp."

Straight up.

My friend Miles and I had an honest conversation about whether we were going to go up and participate.  I mean, a huge amount of the appeal of the trip was the archaeology.  But after 11 hours of the hardest hiking I had ever done, I wasn't sure if I was up to another push.  I had not included the uphill climb at the end of the day in my RZ plan.

What happens in the Red Zone is more important than what heppens on the rest of the field.  The decisions made there are more critical, and affect outcome more than any other location. 

So what am I doing in the last hour of an eight-hour day?  Coasting?  What does my Friday afternoon feel like?  Am I pushing hard to get things done, or already mentally cracking the revenue on the bottle at home?

Football teams are defined by the success of their Red Zone offense. And more importantly than reputation, the really good things happen if the effort in the RZ is successful. 

My friend Miles looked at me, and told me it was my choice.  That he would go with me straight to camp, skipping the archaeological site, or we could go up and see what the guide was showing us.  The result was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. 

Maybe, just maybe... I'll push a little bit harder in the Red Zone. The payoff is pretty awesome.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Secret Place

When we lived in Brasil, Caroline and I had a little spot in the semi-circle that Lawton Madeiras Amazonias had carved out of the jungle - a corner of our very own.  It was at the far-upstream end of the cleared area, away from everything else. 

We called it the Secret Place.

The Secret Place was a small opening surrounded by trees.  It had a guava tree.  There were some banana trees in the middle of the clearing.  There was a strange citrus tree that produced inedible lemons the size of grapefruits (the leaves from that tree were used to make a tea that finally broke Caroline's fever during our first year there - our maid told mom about it, and in desperation, she tried it.).  There was a weird tree with fruit that looked like apples, and that could be used to make a pie that was almost completely unlike apple pie.  There was a cupuau tree, a biribá tree (a soursop), and a guanabana tree. 

There was a ten-foot area that had frontage to the river, and there were almost always caymen - jacares - hanging out by the rivers edge.  These two- to three-foot alligator relatives were no threat, and they always ran away when we came near (meaning that we represented more of a threat.... but I never tasted one of those guys, so I am not sure whether they were even edible).

It was no secret.  It was barely a place.  But the Secret Place represented something magical to us.  It was a place where we could get away from the formalities of life - the school classes, the directed activities, the chores (OK, there weren't nearly as many chores as I seem to remember there being.) Mom knew if we were going there, and it was even subject to the occasional grasscutting by Jorge.

But it was a place where we could explore.  It was not safe in Olaria for an eight-year-old to wander in a lot of the places.  Much of the cleared area was wetland, and was unpleasant to wander through.  The uncleared area was off limits entirely.  So was the operational part of the lumberyard, while work was going on.  And the off-limits area extended to the airplane landing strip that had been cut into the jungle two years before (it had never been used, and there was almost no trace of where it had been clearcut).  But we were allowed to go unsupervised into the Secret Place, and check things out, look for fruit, and mostly just pretend we were explorers.

I now work in an office.  The work I do has consequences, and I am required to produce, to justify, to answer.  And I find myself needing a Secret Place, more than ever. Once in a great while, the lock on the stairwell to the roof will be inadvertantly left open.  I never miss a chance to go.  I love to try locked doors, whether at work or at church or.. well, anywhere.  See if there is a place that is not known.  Where I can escape for just a little bit.  To explore.  To pretend.  To get away.

And dream of sunning lizards on the edge of a sluggish Amazonian river, with electric blue butterflies swooping across the clearing.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014


It was 1999 and I was walking across Tulane's campus between classes and saw a stone with a plaque on it in the entrance to a courtyard between buildings. Curiosity got the best of me, and I walked over.

"Tulane's Blarney Stone.  Removed and returned to its rightful location, April 1994."

Oh, man.  If there was ever a need for a little bit of sleuthing, it had to be this.  I asked first in one place, then in another, walking into nearby offices and asking people I had never met if they knew the story behind it.

Finally, after a number of blank stares and strange looks, someone suggested that I go ask the resident silverback - a professor emeritus whose name escapes me.  "He's bound to know," I was told.

As is the case with all emeritus professors, his office was not accessible through normal means.  The small door under the staircase opened up to a tiny office overstuffed with old papers and a teetering bookcase on the verge of collapse.

The white-haired man in the tweed jacket with patches on the elbows seemed startled.  "Can I help you?"

I asked my question to Dr. Edmund Meritus and he laughed.  And immediately dropped into storytelling mode.

It was the aftermath of WWII, and there were a huge number of older student at Tulane using the new GI bill to fund their education.  During this time, there were a number of unexplained things that appeared overnight, including a small boulder that simply appeared on campus one morning.

The engineering department adopted it as their totem, which, at the time, assured that the other departments would work to steal and/or deface the totem.  Each time it was stolen, the thieves would look to secure the stone in a way that would prevent future boulder raids.

Times were different then.

Eventually, the engineers decided to stop this nonsense, once and for all.  They stole the stone back from architecture, proceeded to drill a hole in the base (schist fractures easily, so this had to be done carefully), inserted a pipe that was cemented into place, and connected the other end of that pipe to the underground high-pressure steam pipe, located twenty feet underground.

It stayed there.

Generations passed. 

The geology department put together a rock garden, and without actually asking the engineering department for permission, went through the administrative route, and got approval to abscond with the stone.  A work order was placed, and the facilities guys got out the backhoe, exposed the base of the pedestal to which the stone had been cemented, and yanked the stone out of its base.

Remember the high-pressure steam pipe?

Yeah.  Engineering did, too.  Fortunately, it was accompanied by a monster BOOM, but nobody was hurt.  The backhoe driver changed underwear, the pipe got fixed, and geology got their piece of schist for their rock garden.

It was, after all, a different age, with different rule, and the department loyalty meant less. So once the Blarney Stone had been incorporated into Geology's rock garden, it was forgotten. 

Except for the emerite. He remembered. And passed the story off to his graduate students. Year after year.

Finally, a graduate student got the hint, and recruited several of his cohort to steal the rock.  After some minor planning, and perhaps a dram of courage or two, the four of them waited until midnight to make the heist.  They comprised the Committee for the Recovery of and Restoration of the Blarney Stone.

They backed the truck up with no lights, attached the ropes and pulleys (this is a BIG rock) and proceeded to begin the process of lifting the rock into the back of the truck bed.

At which point, predictably, Mr. Campus Security Officer strolled by, making a nightly rounds.

They froze, hoping that Mr. C.S. Officer would not see them.

No such luck.  There was no opportunity to flee; the truck was blocked in.  So the leader of the pack did the only thing he could do. 

He pulled out his clipboard, and showed the officer the Requisition Form, signed and in triplicate (it was an undergraduate paper he was supposed to be grading), granting permission to relocate the stone from Geology to Engineering.  Her further explained that the truck had only been approved to drive on the campus grounds to undertake the extraction after hours. 

By the end of the discussion, Mr. CS Officer was nodding, had a bogus phone number of a nonexistent professor, and was lending a hand putting the rock in the back of the truck.

The next morning, the chair of the Geology Department chair was apoplectic over the theft, and filed a campus police report, claiming that a schistose stone was stolen overnight from the rock garden in front of the geology building.  The value of the stone was listed as $0.00.

Oddly enough, the Campus police never solved the crime....

The story was over, and Professor E. Meritus watched me to gauge my reaction.  In the process, he threw down the gauntlet.... would I be the one to re-initiate the stealing of the Blarney Stone? Would I be willing to take on the challenge of starting an internecine war over the possession of a worthless rock?

Photo used without permission, stolen from 

The stone is now cemented into place, complete with its brass plaque, in the U-shaped courtyard of one of the buildings on campus.  The Engineering department is now defunct.  Professor E. Meritus is now removed from his spot under the stairs. 

And I still want to steal the stone back.  Just to start the process all over again.  Anybody got a diamond rope saw I can borrow?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Homeless and panhandling

"She will most likely just spend it on booze."

I run the gauntlet several times a week.  The drive between Riverbend and I-10 on Carrolton provides an opportunity for me to clear out all of the change I hoard for paying for parking or the extra dollar in my wallet I keep for the mid-afternoon Snicker's craving.  If I make it through the gauntlet with all of the lights green, I get my candy bar AND I have some change for the meter.  Otherwise:

The Carrolton and Claiborn intersection:  There is a guy there who is on crutches.  He has a sign that says "ANY AMOUNT HELPS.  GOD BLESS!"

The next intersection is Earhart Blvd.  This is where the kids dart in and out of traffic, each with a bucket.  They are dressed in their uniforms (basketball, cheerleading, whatever) and are raising funds to support the team.  At least, I think that is what they are doing.  Most of the time, but not always, you can see an adult supervising the collection plate as it is being passed.

The next big intersection is in front of Costco, where there are entrances coming from five different directions, and each is manned by an interchangeable homeless person with an identical handwritten sign. 

A couple of intersections later, I go past the latinos hanging out at what used to be the Home Depot.  Waiting for someone who needs help with carpentry or painting or weeding or whatever.

Do I give money?  Is it a bad idea?  Do I make eye contact and try to communicate love without giving?  Do I pretend I can't see them (check that cell phone for a message....)?  Would Jesus pull out his whip and turn over some tables, or would he invite himself home with them for dinner? 

A class I am part of discussed this yesterday, and I am fascinated by how passionate we are about a world we don't understand.  The fact that we are so uncomfortable means that it is something we should try harder to understand.

I have a friend who gets fighting mad about the issue every time it is discussed.  "If I were out begging, in the 95+ degree heat, without water or shade, in clothes that haven't seen a washer in weeks or months, with teeth that haven't seen a toothbrush and a crappy cardboard sign I had to steal from a dumpster, and I managed to scrape together enough to spend the night in the shelter and buy some food and maybe some medicine (you know, for the migraine I have from being dehydrated in the heat every day; or maybe for that UTI I have from not being able to keep up proper hygiene), I'd take that leftover $2.50 and buy myself a damn tall boy, too. In fact, that's what I do nearly every day. Reward my hard work with a beer. You think it's easy to beg for a living? You think that's not hard ass work with no reward and endless agony and a sinking sense of permanent hopelessness?"

CS Lewis had a similar (but much more quotable) response when asked about why he was giving money to a beggar.  "He will just use the money to buy ale!" his friend exclaimed.

"Well, that was all I was going to do with the money, too."

Our reaction to panhandling seems to be tied with a sense of accountability - the money should be used only in a manner in which we believe that is constructive, lading to a sense of improvement.  Which is right, on one level. Charitable giving without accountability leads to abuse. 

But as a Christian, I am given pretty direct instructions on how to behave, and it doesn't come with the disclaimers that I would like.  He just said, "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you."

Wait, what? 

Obviously, JC didn't seem to understand about abuse of charity, or modern panhandling.  Or drug use.  Or poverty.  Or the concept of a 'hand up, not a hand out'.  Or any of the clever pithy sayings we come up with.  For him, the approach was simple.  Ask, receive.  Be asked, give.

So I guess I just drop the judgement.  Drop the condescension.  Drop the paternalism of 'I know better than you how you should be helped.'  And just give with a cheerful heart. I have a job, I have resources, and I can afford to avoid the stingy. I can do this, and I am told that I should. 

1 John 3:17 But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
It doesn't. 


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nigerian Prince

So I got the brief email, complete with misspellings.  The essence is that Ira Curry wants me to get in touch with her to claim my $600,000. 
I have wanted to do this for so long.
I responded, saying that I would be very pleased to accept the money, please make out a cashier's check to James Lawton, and send the check to my workplace.  Did I mention that it is a military installation?
Over the past week, I have carefully answered each of the emails, and finally requested that my contact at the courier services call me, that the $320 he wanted me to pay for courier services seemed really high, and I did not have a lot of money to pay him for something that was a 'pig in a poke'.  And yes, I used the expression.
When 'James Collins' called (happened during my lunch break), I told him I wanted someone here to verify that he was legit.  He said he would send me the website and a point of contact.
This was the response:
Here is our site and one of our customer in Usa
The Elite Courier website is not a real website.  And when I called him on it, and suggested that he might be trying to scam me for $320, he gave me an indignant email.
Complete with a 'LETTER OF GAUANTEE' from the high court of India:

Now I am no expert, but this reminds me of the 'Eric the Half a Bee' sketch:
"That's not a Cat License, that's a Dog License with the word Dog crossed out and the word Cat written in in crayon!"
Accompanying the image of the Letter of Gauantee was a picture of the parcel that they are sending, along with the following text:
Official greetings to you respected . I am in receipt of your last mail which is well noted. I will like to make it clear to you that due to your last message that this is %100 legit and also you need to make the payment before your parcel can be dispatch from our office here in India to your given destination and also there is no way we can be able to take money from you without carrying out our duty because we don't want to jeopardize the name of our company.
Why are you so skeptical about this we have sent you the letter of guarantee document that was given to us by the high court of India in regard to Ira Curry donation that is be given to you, because you have to know that this money is going to make a lot of changes in your life and the life of the people around you , so am going to attach a copy of the letter of guarantee to you and if you insist not to make the payment kindly inform us to enable us disclaim your parcel,all you have to do is just to revert back and fill in the copy of the disclaimers form that will be sent to you for us to cancel your parcel and that will allow you to give it to any charity of your choice and right now you have known our conditions if you wish to make the payment please do inform us.looking forward to hearing from you.
James Collins
I don't know.  What do you think?  Legit?


Friday, November 7, 2014

Small world problem

Earlier this week, I was talking with a classmate (Institute for Environmental Communications) about our class, and we started discussing architecture. 

"My parents both have architectural backgrounds," she said.  "Mom is an architectural historian, and tells me all the time that the old houses were not meant to have AC.  They were built to emit heat, and take in cold air.  My dad's basement - he lives in South Carolina..."

"Where in South Carolina?"

"It is a little town on the coast named Beaufort..."

"Beautiful Beaufort, by the sea; twenty..."

"-six miles from Yemassee!  How do you KNOW that?"

Turns out that her dad is a couple of years older than my mom, and both come from the same town.  We shared stories of Lady's Island, of Land's End Lights, of bluffs and hurricane insurance, Pat Conroy, summers in Hunting Island...

We reduced the size of the world by common origins.

Two weeks ago, I was standing in line for the bus in Machu Picchu, and I see a friend of mine from New Orleans (she left the Corps of Engineers to go live in Colorado about two years ago).  It was an insane moment, completely unexpected.  In fact, when I went over to speak to her, she didn't recognize me, because it was so unanticipated. My proferred hand just hung in space, unshook.

Finally, the man standing next to her nudged her, and she looked up.  "CROREY! What are you doing here?!"  She introduced me to her dad, we talked about the different hikes, and marveled that we would run into each other a half a world away.

The world, reduced, as a result of a common work environment.  And maybe a common bucket list item.

Friends who know friends, people related to friends who live abroad, co-workers and acquaintances, we face fewer degrees of separation at every turn.  Part of the reason my world keeps shrinking is because my circles keep expanding.  As people I did archaeological survey get hired at universities around the country (and the globe) and as friends from work move away and take jobs elsewhere, my connections all over the place become dendritic.

Two generations ago, the norm was to stay in the community where you grew up.  Moving was a pretty traumatic experience, as you were torn from your friends and out of your social network.  The Eisenhower Highway system shrunk the world considerably, and we have become more peripatetic than before.  The internet has made it possible to stay in touch with those who have moved away, and so those connections can continue to be fostered at a distance.

This is the 'small world problem', introduced by Milgram, following up on concepts by Gurevich and Marconi.  The essence is that there are remarkably few social connections needed to connect one person to any other.  There were Monte Carlo simulations involved, and horrific displays of statistics.  But the end result was that people are more interconnected than they realized.

Whether you tap into the small world problem by using the Kevin Bacon application through google (Type "bacon number" (no quotes) into Google's search bar, followed by the name of an actor or actress... oh, I don't know... say, Caroline Lawton), or whether you connect to an archaeology project in Namibia through a mutual friend, the reality is that the world has gotten smaller.

Here's the kicker.  The small community is known for its normalizing mechanisms.  You tend to behave, because Aunt Millie is always watching.  You tend to do the right thing, not because your inner compass is working harder in the small community, but because the people in your community know you.  Know your family.  And report back to your family. 

Now that our world is tiny, and Aunt Millie is watching 24/7 from every cell phone and crime camera, getting away from the small community is impossible.

Even in Machu Picchu.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Surcee - 'just because'

"surcee: (n) - hmmmm....."

There is no entry for 'surcee' in my desk copy of the M-W dictionary.  Random House also failed me.

I know the word is there.  I learned it growing up.  My wife has always referred to it as a 'happy' (the use of an adjective as a noun bugs me, but it communicates the sense pretty well).  A surcee, or a happy, is a gift given with no associated reason.  It is not a thank you gift, or a birthday gift. 

It is a 'just because'. 

It is different from the concept of lagniappe.  Lagniappe is a gift given in addition to the purchase.  It is intended to augment a business relationship, and push and economic transaction into more of a personal realm.  Surcees are different, because they are intended to celebrate the relationship; they are a gift given because the person was thinking about you.

I love the idea.  It might be because my birthday falls right after Christmas, and I couldn't expect a gift at any other time of the year.  It might be because such a gift giving appeals strongly to my spontaneous nature.

Or it might be because I see it as an expression of love.

See, if you give me a gift on my birthday, and I give you one on yours, we have a quid-pro-quo going on.  Even if I miss your birthday, there is a weird obligation relationship - it is almost as though the spirit of the gift desires to be returned to the originator.

The surcee has no such draw.  It is a gift of small value, often a spur-of-the-moment purchase, made with the recipient in mind.  The candy bar that you know they like.  The silly earrings you thought they would laugh at.  The box of the coveted chocolate-covered ginger Altoids. A cutting from your rosebush. All the gifts have little value - they are picayune - but communicate love.

Interestingly, I believe that the new Coca-Cola campaign is based on the premise of the surcee.  Share a coke with Steve.  Or Robert.  Or a Buddy.  The campaign encourages the unexpected gift.  Expressions of love.  The purchase of a coke for yourself.... and then one to share. 

An internet search for 'surcee' seems to locate its use in coastal South Carolina, and I suppose that makes sense.  I heard my mom use it, but I don't remember it from my dad.  Or from many others in the upstate, for that matter. 

But I am going to work to bring it to life where I live.  Because I need to give surcees.  And because I love to get them. 

How about it?  Can you think of someone who could use a small gift, for no reason? 

Go.  Give them a surcee.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Framing Your Arguments

Framing Your Arguments

The election is over.  At least, it is mostly over, minus some run-over elections that go into overtime.

Now that we are back to working together (~) on the issues that face our country, I am thinking more and more about the (in)ability we have to find middle ground.  Part of the interesting part of my job is starting discussions with agencies and officials and personalities who do not agree with my agency.  Opening the dialogue, getting us talking.  First step, find the common goals, then common ground, then work towards using common methods to achieve the goals in front of us.  Getting to the ‘us’ part of the discussion is very rewarding.

But sometimes finding that common ground is hard, and I am fascinated by the places where we fail to find common purpose. In debate, we usually look at framing our arguments in terms that give us the best chance of ‘winning’.  We use the opening gambit to constrain the limits of our opponents, to prepare pivot points, to gain position for the whole argument.

Finding common ground, however, means that we have to take into account the point of view of the recipient.  This point was driven home to me this past week when I was attending a lecture on communicating climate change.  As an analogy, the speaker used the example of gun control.

I am not interested in arguing gun control.  I enjoy shooting guns, and I grew up hunting – dove, deer, quail, ducks, marsh hens (and while I was in Brasil, a few other kinds of birds).  But as much as I love shooting, I understand the other side of the argument, and so I take no joy in the debate.

The gun argument, I have learned, is a little more subtle than I had realized. There are a priori assumptions that go into the positions that I had never recognized.  The premise presented by the speaker was that people view the world on two axes: egalitarian/hierarchical, and communitarian/individualistic. From the basis of this bifurcation, the worldview for each quadrant is very different. This worldview changes everything, including the framing of the argument.

The example used the following: the basis of the gun argument, from an individualistic hierarchical point of view, is:

1.      It is my responsibility to provide protection for myself, my family, and my things.

2.      The consitutionally-protected right to carry a gun helps me to provide that protection.

The argument from an egal-communitarian, however, is that society is better served if no one is allowed guns, and that protection for the community is based on the reliance of professional police to keep order.

No wonder there is no middle ground.  Because the pro-gun proponent recipient hears this:

1.      You think that you are responsible for protecting yourself, your family and your stuff.  You are not.

2.      Your responsibility is to dial 9-1-1 and await the coming of the police, whose job it is to protect you.

3.      You should put your faith in the government, and relinquish your guns, because the real danger is from you and your ilk.

Well, shoot. There is no middle ground here.  In order for the person who is anti-guns, winning the argument requires that the gun advocate change not only his stance, but his worldview (as well as his place in it).  There is no framing of an argument that will prepare a pivot point in the argument.  There is no way to box out or gain priority, when the thing you are attacking is the very sense of self that the opponent brings to the argument.  Giving any ground in the debate requires the debater to give away something that defines his very self.

Is it any wonder that the issue inspires such passion?  Is it any wonder that we can’t find a way to agree on even the basis of our arguments?

 It has also made me wonder about the background of other arguments that I hear, and whether the debate is so embedded in psyche that it requires a psychological break in order to accept the opposing side. 

The evolution versus creation debate comes to mind.  The message received by the creationist is:

-        The God you serve lied to you.

How do you argue that position? How do you set yourself up to even discuss the logical implications from that basis? 

I suspect that more of our deeply held political stances (immigration reform, healthcare, education) are contentious precisely because of an unexpected tie to our psyches.  

So how do we find common ground?  How do we start a conversation, rather than a debate?  Understanding the underlying assumptions is a good first step, but it is not enough.  I can understand the reliance on a competent police force, but I have lived in places where the police are not competent (and worse).  My bias is towards the guy (or girls – my sister is a far better shot than I am) protecting a family.  I am less likely to agree to common ground when the outcome means taking away my guns.

Can we start somewhere?  Or do we just watch legislators at an impasse, and just shake our heads?