Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Inner Geek (MIG, for short) Goes to Slaughterhouse 4

My Inner Geek had a field day today.  MIG always loves getting let loose.  And in my current job, the opportunities for free-range geek are few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a class about gambling in Old Testament times.  It was a fun class, with a nice tie between gambling and prognostication, and we ended the class by throwing bones and keeping score, using rules that had been recorded from the 1st Century AD. 

What we used in that class were deer astralagi; a small talus bone at a joint found in the hind leg (snorts to self about the 'hind' leg....).  They were available from an etsy site, and they cost about 20 bucks for the four 'dice' we used. 

Worth.  Every.  Penny.

What I had really wanted, though, was lamb tali.  (Taluses?  Whatever.)  I had called around to a couple of butchers in the area, and they had no idea what I was talking about, had even less interest, and suggested that I talk to a sheep farmer.

Wait.  What?  A sheep farmer.....  Hmmmmm.

As it turns out, an acquaintance of mine has a sheep farm just north of New Orleans.  Charlie used to live down the street from me, and his company sells organic lamb (and beef, and goat) to restaurants and retail clients around the entire area.

So I contacted him, asking for his help to obtain some sheep knucklebones.

His reaction was laughter.

"Sure! But i have no idea what that is. Sheep dont have knuckles haha."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rebuilding trust

Trust is a funny thing.

My niece came home after a recent basketball practice with the story that she didn't like playing, and she wanted to quit.  She made her case to her dad, saying that they boys would not throw the ball to her, and instead that they tried to hit her with the ball.  In the head.  Just because she was a girl.

Parker looked down at his sweet four-year-old and told her that she was just seeing it wrong.  Not that she was not telling the truth, but that her perspective made it seem that the boys were just trying to hit her in the head with the ball.  And he convinced her to stay on the team.

Later that week, while watching the team play, one of the other dads came up to Parker, and said, "That Molly is a tough girl.  She just stays after it."

Parker (I can see the smile on his face when he said it) agreed.

"Yeah, my son said that the boys wouldn't throw the ball to her because she was a girl, and that they tried to hit her in the head.  Of course, I told him that was not acceptable.  But she has toughed it out.  Good for her!"
Everybody got a trophy!

It wasn't that Parker didn't trust what his daughter said.  He just didn't trust her perspective to be accurate.  Which, as it turns out, he should have.

We all fight a similar battle with trust, every single day.

I have a very loud, quarrelsome, argumentative citizen in the area where my levee project is being built.  He has accused us of destroying his livelihood (the ramp over our levee that leads to his boat launch/landing has been replaced), and threatened me with lawsuits on multiple occasions. I have a couple of conversations a week with Pookie (not his real nickname).  And I listen, and tell him what we have authority and appropriations to do. 

And I also tell him what we do not have authority to do.

Mostly, his accusations are wild, tall tales and involving actions supposedly being taken by our contractor that are patently untrue.  Unfortunately, he also includes things that are genuine concerns, and have merit.  So in order to separate wheat from chaff, I have to listen carefully and evaluate each piece.  But the wild accusations make it hard to trust Pookie.

This week, he told me that I was responsible if cars flooded while parked in the rising floodwaters (the landing is flooded already - so what kind of idiot would park there??) At that point, my days of not taking him seriously have certainly come to a middle.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Throwing Bones

I have a fun Sunday School class.

It is an adult group that I lead, and they happily follow me down whatever rabbit hole I end up walking.  Most of the time, I stay in the bounds of theological sound-itude.... but not always.

Last week, we threw dice and gambled in the church library.

Well, kinda.

The class is a four-part look at the archaeology of stuff that shows up in the story of the days leading up to Jesus' death.  So, of course, the first class has to be a dry recitation of what it means to cast lots.  Scriptural references, with scientific names, a discussion of the anthropological value of auguries, a brief discussion of scapulamancy and heptascopy (I wrote both of those words on the board, and told them that using them in public was a time-honored way of bringing any party to an early close.)

And then I pulled out the astragali.  No longer was this simply an anthropological treatise on prehistoric gambling.  Four knucklebones, from a deer (no longer available on etsy).  Labeled with the appropriate number for the appropriate side - 1, 3, 4, 6.  Deer was available, and I figured that "cleaves the hoof, chews the cud" is close enough.  It didn't HAVE to be sheep.

(I am, however, in communication with a sheep farmer.  He has promised to let me attend the next slaughter and butcher session.  After laughing at me for believing that sheep have knuckles...).

And then we each took a turn rolling the bones.  Maybe we weren't gambling for the robe of Jesus at the throne, but the winner ended up with my bow tie, somehow.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Forgive them.

"We don't do that.  You might try ABC Church in the Garden District.  They might marry you."

I have held those words in my heart, letting them fester, for almost sixteen years.

After Kathe agreed to marry me, and we decided together to do it before I left for 6 months of fieldwork, I asked the Rectoress, Mother G***, if she would marry us.

She looked at me as though I had tracked dog poo into her sanctuary.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Pulling up the seedlings

Writing about gardens this week, I was struck by a memory of my dad.

Dad planted a garden for a year or two when I was a kid.  I don't mean a flower garden, or a patch of rosemary and sage under the window.

I am talking about a garden.  Long rows.  Furrows.   

There was a pretty large patch of land behind the lumber yard where he worked.  So one year (maybe two?) he plowed up a large area, and planted vegetables.  We had corn, we had cucmbers, we had squash, we had bell peppers, beans, peas, and eggplant (that was the one unfortunate addition to the garden, to my way of thinking). 

I was five, maybe six years old, and he decided to let me care for an area where he had planted some squash and beans.  After he showed me the difference between the weeds and the seedlings, and told me it was MY job, in MY garden, to make sure that the weeds got pulled so that the seedlings would be able to grow strong.

And I got started, and I asked for clarification.  "Is this one a weed?"

"Nope.  That's a bean plant."

"Is this a squash?"

"No.  That's a weed."

One of these bean plants is not like the others.
And so, after the fourth time I asked (I simply could not hold the mental picture of the seedling and the weedling in my head, for some reason), I was too scared to ask again, and so I just did my best to pull out things that looked like they didn't belong.  You know, like the Sesame Street song?

A half hour later, Mom and Dad came over to inspect my work.  I looked up, trying to read whether he was mad or not, seeing if I had done it right.

I had not.  I had pulled up every single sprout, and left every single weed.  There was not a single seedling remaining in the five-foot long section of the row that was designated as MY garden.

Dad just shook his head, and looked over at Mom: "I guess that is one way of getting out of having to weed the garden."

I was devastated.  I think I even tried to re-plant some of the squash seedlings I had pulled, and was told that it was not possible to save them. I had unintentionally destroyed my own garden. Leaving weeds in my wake.

I have gone through a lot of my life doing things that way.  Hoping that I can figure it out before someone notices that I made a mistake.  Faking a confidence I do not feel.  Afraid to ask questions, when I feel like I should already know the answer. 

And sometimes it works.  Most times, I end up pulling out the seedlings.

Asking is almost always better.

I might even be able to write that technical manual that is on my desk, if I were just to ask for the help I need.

Chaos or Order Muppet Garden

The farmer scattered seeds.

The Biblical text in Matthew 13 records a story that Jesus told. In it, the farmer tosses seed willy-nilly over a field. The result was predictable: there was some seed that fell on hard ground, other seed that fell among thorns. Some fell on good ground.

I was reared in the deep south, and my Uncle Paul was a farmer. I grew up knowing farming – well, not firsthand, but definitely secondhand. That bit of Matthew's text never made sense to me. Who farms like that?

Apparently, the answer is, I do.

A few years ago, I plowed a small garden alongside my house. It was on the side away from the entrance, and it was about one furrow wide. I have had great joy planting random things there. I have planted peppers, radishes, cotton, sweet corn, popcorn, okra, peas, and a number of failed experiments (amaranth was an impressive failure, mostly because I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like.)
Wait.... is that dollarweed or sunflower?

And every time, the chaos sowed is impressive. There is no order or rhyme or reason. The seed package says "three seeds per hole, sixteen inches apart"…. And I would have between one and twelve seeds every six inches in an offsetting zigzag.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Condition contrary to fact

I am a grammar geek.

I am also a metaphor geek.

So when I watched a TEDx talk my sister pointed me to (it is WELL worth the watch) on the use of the subjunctive in English, suffice it to say I geeked out entirely. 

If you didn't stop to watch the video, you should.  But for those who are not grammar geeks or who are too time-crunched to watch, let me sum up.  The essence of the talk is this: people who speak languages with the subjunctive are not as happy as people who speak languages that do not. 

The idea is not novel.  The Sapir Whorf hypothesis (see, Judie, I DID listen to the lectures in linguistics class!) basically says that there is a feedback loop between language and culture: that the way we speak affects our attitudes, and the culture, in return, affects our language. 

Garbage man = Sanitation engineer. Short person = vertically challenged.  The entire political correctness communication strategy is built on this concept - that if you change the name of the thing, you can change the attitude towards it.

But Phuc Tran shows something different and wonderful. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Let it Go

The desk is turned the wrong way.

It is between scenes in the theater, and we are watching as the stage hands are moving around in the mostly-dark.  It has taken longer than expected, especially since the first scene took place outside the curtain.  So the audience's eyes have adjusted to the starlight and we are watching the dark figures move around on stage, placing backdrops and chairs.... and a desk.

And the desk is too light. 

Sure enough, when the lights finally come up, the opening for the desk is facing the wrong way, and Mother Superior is sitting sidesaddle in her chair, because there is no place to put her knees.

She goes to reply in song, and the mic does not work.

Unfazed, she moves to the next part of the scene.

My sister sometimes talks about having actor's nightmares, and what I described above is the kind of thing she fears (well, hers are actually quite a bit worse...).  Seems as though what every actor has a terror of is the unexpected, uncontrollable situation; where something is blocking you from doing what you are supposed to do.  Where what you rehearsed, planned, worked on, and counted on..... simply does not happen the way you expect it to.

So last week when my wife and I went to a performance of The Sound of Music we had a great time.  It was a middle school production, and a friend of mine - Gloria Ruiz - played a spectacular Gretl Von Trapp.  All of the players were amazing, and it was one of the most wonderful evenings of pure entertainment we had experienced in a long time. I really walked away from the performance blown away by those kids.

Yep.  Front row, center seat.

What impressed me most, however, was their resilience.  Things went wrong, and the kids didn't look confused or panicky.  They just played with the hand they were dealt.  Desk turned the wrong way?  Adjust as best you can, and deliver the lines as you are supposed to.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fighting discouragement

Vignette #1

"I bought a banjo about a year ago.  And I have been working to teach myself how to play for the past year."

"Oh, well, that's good.  I understand it is the easiest instrument to play"

My next door neighbor is not known for his tact.  A concert pianist, he doesn't have a lot of sympathy for people who struggle with music.  It isn't unkindness.  It is just that he has no idea what it is like to struggle to make music.

Or maybe his struggle is simply in another form.

But those words just killed me.  My short fingers do not move quickly.  They do not stretch where they need to go.  They are not nimble, and they do not play the music I hear in my head.

Particularly because I do hear music in my head all the time - I am preternaturally susceptible to the earworm, and I go through my life with my own soundtrack (there is a woman who appears at regular intervals in my life to the theme of the Wicked Witch of the West) - it is a particular struggle when I can't get that music out. 

So I hear the music, and yet I struggle to make the instrument sing the way I hear it in my head.

And to hear a musician so easily dismiss my year of work to gain competence.... it hit harder than just having a bad session.

Vignette #2

My wife opened the kiln.  This firing was particularly slow, so we had been waiting on this moment for three days.  She reached in, and pulled out the tile....

...which was blistered and cracked.  The glaze had simply not adhered to the clay body, and the result looked awful.  This was the second batch she had run with a new clay, and it meant that her work for the past two weeks had been for nothing.

Vignette #3

A co-worker gets turned down for a supervisory job, and is supplanted by someone with less experience.  Five times in a row over three years.

and Vignette #4, and #5, and #6....

Everyone deals with disappointment.  But what do you do when it goes beyond just not getting the gig (or the girl, or the promotion....)

What the difference is, has nothing to do with the disappointment in not succeeding.  That element is in present in any process, and represents a temporary emotional setback. It is the discouragement (dis-cour: literally, losing heart) that really is the danger.  In high school, I read a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. I have read it numerous times since, each time getting something different from it.  But I remember particularly his discussion on what he called 'gumption traps'.

Gumption traps, he explained, are the dangerous places in a project where you lose enthusiasm for the project.  And they can be external (where you have a setback) or internal (where you have a hang-up.)

So how do you deal with these traps?  How do you face disappointment without becoming discouraged?

No, seriously.  I am asking.

I am told that taking a break helps.  (Pirsig mentioned that mechanism for dealing with a setback.)This approach helps because it allows the brain to change perspective on the problem. 

Violence also helps.  Well, not exactly, but there is something cathartic about breaking things and using physicality to fight discouragement.  I once used about four days with a sledgehammer to fight off a discouraging setback (fortunately, the concrete sidewalk needed to come out anyway).

What other elements help you? What are your walls?  What happens when you hit your wall, and how do you push through it?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sleeper Cell

It is a war of attrition.

Novel after successful novel has the bad guy infiltrate the bureaucracy years in advance, working along and seemingly part of the organization.  Security worker, inspector, dock hand, postal carrier, whatever - he fits in with the guys, but seems a little standoffish.  And then, one day, he receives a call, and takes the action that makes something cataclysmic happen.  The act invariably happens at the beginning.

Then the writer introduces the hero, who spends the rest of the novel trying to undermine or undo the effort that was begun by the security worker/inspector at the moment of betrayal.

Part of the reason that the fear of such a thing is so real is that the minions - those of us working in the bureaucracy - crave relevance more than anything.  We want the effort we put in to be worthwhile.  And what we see is that the antihero, if he bides his time, and does his job, will eventually be trusted enough to take one action that will change everything.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


This week I dealt with irate burrocrats and angry landowners and a lot of pressure.  I was struggling with my gig, trying to figure out how best to make the pieces work together.  

It was not going well.

But it occurred to me, while I was steeling myself to call the angry landowner: I learn the most, and have my best epiphanies, when I change my perspective on things.  

That is all it takes.  Looking at things differently.  And suddenly it doesn't seem so bad. In fact, I find that I kinda like the work.  

Lemme give an example.

A couple of years ago, I was in Little Rock for some training for my job.

One of my best friends, Cherilyn Plaxco, was out of town this week, and left me her parking pass.  Great.  Little Rock has a local company in charge of managing parking.  They are called Best Park, and they have a number of lots around the federal building.  I called her after I got the pass, trying to figure out which lot to park in. 
"Did you get the map?"

Hm.  No.  I saw the note that said "For Crorey", and pulled the pass out of it, and threw the note away.

"Oh, that had the map on it.  No matter, you can park at any of the angled spaces."

Great.  So I parked at an angled space.
When I came back at the end of the day, I was met at my truck by an old, toothless, dirty, grumpy old codger, saying I couldn't leave without paying the fine. "These numbered spaces are assigned.  This is a monthly lot."

I pointed to the parking permit.  "I was told that that gave me access to any of the angled spots."


The anger, it starts to burn.

Prior to my arrival, Mr. Snagglepuss had placed an 'Arkansan boot' on my car.  Orange plastic traffic barrel with a chain and lock hooked up to my exhaust system.  Crude, but effective.  Then he had leaned against my car and waited for me to try and leave.
He had even waited beyond his his work day to collect $40.  But I was in an argumentative mood.  Back and forth, me getting madder and madder.  Finally, I asked him, in perfect exasperation, "What does that parking permit allow me to do, then?"

He finally looked at the piece of plastic I held.  "Oh," he said, "That is for Lot 138."

"I see the 138 on the tag.