Sunday, February 19, 2017

The View From Serendip

The importance of coincidence has always played a role in how I approach this bog. One newspaper item connects with a book or a film—or some other conjunction of media and/or events—and leads to musings that make their way into an essay that falls under the overall concerns of The Farm.

Serendipity is a kind of coincidence, but one with generally favorable connotations. The term comes from the old name for Ceylon (the colonial name for today’s Sri Lanka), and was (according to the OED) coined by Horace Walpole based on a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” According to Walpole, the heroes “were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Hence, its definition as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” The title of the post is stolen brazenly from Arthur C. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life (from 1956 until he died in 2008). He published The View From Serendip in 1977, in which he collected assorted essays, memoirs, and speculations.

As recently as 2014, an essay from the book was quoted by Michael Belfiore in his opinion piece for The Guardian, “When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here’s how to fight back.” But even though I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the jobs our current president wants to “bring back” (like coal mining) and why it doesn’t make any sense to do so (in light of what the future probably holds, and the fact that a lot of these jobs kill people—especially when that same president wants to get rid of as much regulation as possible)—this doesn’t even count as one of the occasions that prompted this post. Nevertheless, I should note that Clarke’s predictions often turned out to come true, and the book is well worth reading.

The real impetus for writing came from two directions.  The first arrived in one of my feeds (Medium), and I sent it to my Pocket list for future reference: How to Turn Wikipedia Into a Bottomless Pit of Story Ideas. What intrigued me about the article is that it advocates using Wikipedia the way I used to use library reference indices, by looking “around” various topics, noticing adjacent topics that frequently led to unexpected enrichment of potential source material. As research became more and more focused on digital sources (especially search engines), I often reflected on the loss of that kind of serendipitous encounter, until I realized that Google often afforded similar opportunities. The author of the article (“Moonlighting Writer” for Student Voices) provides a number of tips for using Wikipedia's features for more than just a quick look-up.

This might be a good place to point out that Wikipedia's description of "The Three Princes of Serendip" (linked above) focuses on the princes' education in the arts and sciences, and how they use that education in their adventures.

The next event arrived completely out of left field when my phone lit up with the name of a former student, one of whom I’d been thinking recently but hadn’t heard from for some time. I’d forgotten that she’s on my phone's contact list, else I’d probably have texted her before now. But she was driving through the neighborhood and decided to call me. Since we’d last spoken, she’d gone to grad school to earn a master’s in art education after discovering that working in the gaming industry wasn’t really what she wanted to do. And now she’s teaching high school, thinking about getting a PhD and also about starting a family—at just about the same age I was when I started out on similar path(s).

At the very moment I received her call, I had been wondering what to do with several years’ worth of Archaeology magazines, and realizing that if I wanted to donate them to a school, I’d have to sort through and arrange them by year, and bundle them accordingly—at least a day’s worth of slog.  But as my student and I were talking I connected “art teacher” and “archaeology magazines” and popped the question: Do you have any use for these? And indeed she did. So we got to enjoy a nice catch-up conversation, and I got to unload a slew of old periodicals and art-related stuff I’d been saving for who knows what. And I didn't have to sort through them because they'll be used for mixed media art projects.

In the end, it was particularly rewarding to realize that I don’t really need to abandon hope just because we’ve got an anti-intellectual in the White House, who has no regard for the arts or the sciences. There are young folk out there who have learned to love learning, and have decided to act on their curiosity and creativity and share it with yet another generation or two. One can only imagine what one of her students might do when he or she connects one event with another in the history of archaeology, or juxtaposes one culture’s artistic input with that of another. The possibilities are limited only by their imaginations, which I hope haven't been too stunted by the current cultural climate.

Image note: Mrs. Peel during one of her evening sojourns in the back yard, with serendipitous sunset back-lighting.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

100 Words for a Children's Endangered-Language Dictionary

Once again I’d like to remind readers that language and education have both long been preoccupations here on the Farm. In an era of political unrest brought on in part by cultural differences intensified by lack of understanding one another’ languages, it seems particularly important to endorse projects designed to demonstrate the power of language as a vehicle for identity and knowledge.

To this end, I’d like to draw your attention to another Kickstarter campaign to create a 100-word illustrated children’s dictionary in the endangered languages of the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh. The goal is relatively modest (10,000 USD), and the funds will go toward the design, illustration, and publication of a dictionary of one hundred basic, important words in four indigenous  languages (Mro, Marma, Chakma, Tripura) as well as the official national language of Bangladesh (Bangla) and English.

I’ll let Tim Brooks (creator of the Endangered Alphabets and related campaigns) tell the basic story:
As you probably know, in countries all over the world members of indigenous cultures have their own spoken and written languages—languages they have developed to express their own beliefs, their own experiences, their understanding of their world. What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, letters between family members, knowledge about medicinal plants, poems.  
In scores of countries, though, even in the West, those minority languages are unofficial, suppressed, ignored, even illegal. Children sit through classes listening to teachers they can barely understand; adults have to speak a second or even a third language to get social services or deal with the law.  
Denying members of a minority culture the right to read, write and speak in their mother tongue defines them as inferior and unimportant, and leaves them vulnerable, marginalized, and open to abuse. The extent and quality of education go down, while levels of homelessness and incarceration, and even suicide go up. 
On the far side of the world from me is the nation of Bangladesh, and in the southeast of Bangladesh is a region called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland, forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and its own language. Some even have their own alphabets.  
All these languages and scripts are endangered. Government schools mandate the use of Bangla, the official national language, so entire generations are growing up without any sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the endangerment or eradication of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the U.S.  
We want to give those kids their own dictionary, in their own languages. Decades of research show that children learn best when they start in the language they speak at home.
I urge you to go to the Kickstarter page for a complete description and for a list of nifty rewards for various levels of pledges. Since its launch on January 27, the project has raised 2,758 USD, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure success (the deadline is February 26). If you’re looking for something to help you feel a little better about this world, the 100 Word Dictionary might help.

For a list of previous posts on related topics, use the "Search This Blog" feature at the top of the side bar, using "endangered alphabets" as key terms. As you'll be able to tell, I think that preventing the demise of the world's endangered languages and alphabets is vitally important to the survival of human knowledge.

Image credit: this is the sample page from the Kickstarter site; the actual dictionary will feature six languages rather than the three depicted.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset

Although I'm not terribly happy about this photo (I generally avoid power lines and try to frame photographs without stray house bits, like the corner of the gable on the upper right), it and its companion below represent this post rather nicely, and were taken on the same day about a week ago. The "Sunrise" shot (above) was taken from the front porch with my new iPhone 7.

The "sunset" shot, taken in the back yard, also includes power lines, so there's an additional aspect of symmetry; I usually stand atop chairs and other furniture to try and avoid them. However, I wanted to submit something to Skywatch Friday for the first time in ages [as usual, thanks to the crew--and do go see what folks from all over have posted], so here we are; what you see is what I got, and I'm making do.

As I am with all manner of things these days. I will not be viewing any of the inaugural festivities tomorrow, and since the weather should be warmer, will instead be doing some early garden prep, reading some Wendell Berry and Joseph Wood Krutch, and watching a couple of episodes of Netflix's wonderful adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I can't imagine anything more appropriate, given the state of the Union. Thus, the photos seem to hold out a little promise for a not completely bleak future, but I won't be holding my breath.

Despite my usual less-than-optimistic view of things, I've decided to find ways to muddle through the next four years. I'll be rethinking and redesigning my website (and changing the name from Owldroppings to Owl's Farm; this blog will be linked to it), clearing out the detritus in the garage and attic (in case we decide we just can't abide Texas any longer), and finding more ways to live more sustainable lives.

Inspiration for all this has come from several places, including my new subscription to Australia's Slow magazine, ecopoets like Krutch and Berry, and even the latest issue of American Craft. The editor, Monica Moses, has written a wonderful little essay on the role of craft in keeping one's sanity in uncertain times: "The Tough Make Art," in which she describes her own plan:
Like a lot of us, I’m looking for ways to cope with the discord, to feel hopeful again. I’m returning to the basics: eating well, exercising, trying to sleep, spending time with loved ones. But I’m also doubling down (as the pundits would say) on art. (American Craft, Feb/Mar 17, p. 10)

My own map of the next few months includes efforts to accomplish much the same sorts of things, including the art part. Her sentiments are in tune with much of what I read among the thoughtful writers whose works I frequent, now that I find myself sticking to the Arts & Life section and the funnies in the Daily Poop,  and the Books and Trilobites sections of the New York Times. Never have I felt more grateful for the library we've amassed, because it should prove most valuable over the next four years, reminding me that sanity might well prevail.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I have in mind:

Eat Real Food. I stole this designation from my Whole Foods Market newsletter, which offered its customers meal plans in several categories. But it's really what I've been trying to do for years, with the help of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and others. I've become rather more serious about it since my retirement awarded me with more time for contemplating and planning. We also recently invested in a smaller refrigerator, which facilitates consciousness of how much we buy and where we have to store it. It's also a terrific deterrent to food waste. The Beloved Spouse gave me Lidia Bastianich's new book, Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, and The Big Book of Kombucha for the holidays (plus Cooking With Loula, a lovely Greek cookbook I noticed while shopping for other people's gifts). I have always loved cookbooks that are more about history, philosophy, and culture than technique, and these are all inspirational additions to the "food" segment of our aforementioned library. Over the last two weeks I've spent more time planning meals and enjoying the process than I'd been able to do for several years.

Get Real Exercise. The realization that the new, pricey drug I'm taking is likely to prolong my life significantly (and my favorite cardiologist's reminding me that exercise won't do squat for my cholesterol but will do massive amounts of good for my brain and overall well being) has made me more conscious than ever of movement. What finally got me perambulating the neighborhood was the death of our sweet dog Woody last summer. His brother Arlo no longer had a reliable source of exercise, so I started walking him, dropping him off at the house when he got tired, and then continued on my own several times a week. TBS would join me on weekends and holidays, and we've gotten to know the topography of the neighborhood better than we had in the previous sixteen years. Over his winter break from teaching we kept up the dog walking, but neighborhood exploration slacked off due to weather and family obligations.  But a movement-tracking app on my phone has helped keep me from being completely sedentary, and as the weather warms up and I get into the garden more (as I plan to this afternoon), I should hit the "active" category much more frequently (now "lightly active" rescues me from couch potatohood). The goal is to use my body better, get stronger, and get out much more.

Make Stuff.  Some time ago I bought a lovely journal with a William Morris design on it (actually, a sketch for a wallpaper design) in which I've been writing down and sketching out ideas for art books and other little projects. I'll try to get some of these done--including the redesign of my web pages. But I've been wanting to go back to painting and "making" things,  which I haven't done since my children were small. This includes working on the house and garden--painting and plastering and staining and the like, along with general homekeeping, mending, knitting, and quilting. Using one's creative juices seems to be a particularly satisfying way to make it through trying times.

Write More. Having received my first rejection slip (for a story in a science fiction anthology), you'd think I'd have sworn off any desire to publish more than for myself  (and my one or two faithful readers). But I've decided to do what I used to urge my students to do: take the criticism to heart, and use it well. I'm not sure I agree with all of the comments, but I'll have them in mind when I revise the story and submit it somewhere else. I also need to work on More News From Nowhere, and to go back to the old-bats-in-space novel I started working on a couple of years ago. I actually posted on the Cabinet recently, and have lots of ideas for more entries. Letters to friends are on the list, too.

Read Even More. I probably read more than I do anything else, but now that I've made it through the entire run of Midsomer Murders twice on Netflix, I've got no afternoon distractions from the telly. TBS and I have stuff we watch when he gets home (because he's too brain dead after teaching to accomplish anything more ambitions), but when I'm not out moving and growing things, I have a huge stack of books to begin or to finish. And then there's always Cat-watching time in the garden, which will need to be extended as the weather improves. Emma likes company when she's out, and I can't leave her entirely unsupervised. In  addition, there's nothing quite as peaceful as watching a cat and a dog snoozing away in the afternoon sun.

This is all very ambitious, I know. But since I'm too old and tired to be politically active any more, if I get even a little of it done, I'll have accomplished something. And so, Dear Reader(s), may the future be better than we have any right, at this moment, to expect.