Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Aliens are coming! The Aliens are coming!

The really funny thing about even thinking about blogging is that separate, seemingly unrelated events begin to connect unexpectedly. I have fallen into a pattern, since I began this thing in June, of writing once or twice a week, usually in response to events around me, and after I’ve processed them through my “utopia matrix.” I’ve tried to look at the news and contemporary culture within the framework of a William Morris-inspired world that applies his philosophical insights within my own fictional realm. And even though I haven’t published the book yet (I’m still trying to decide if I want to simply put it up online and see what happens), I nevertheless filter my responses to the news through a very particular perspective.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that two events from the last couple of days are linked here: a letter in the Dallas Morning News complaining that a Vietnamese woman who’d been here for ten years still didn’t speak English (the article that prompted this letter concerned the woman’s ordeal after a man tried to commit suicide by jumping off a local bypass, landing on her car, and injuring her severely). Aside from the lack of compassion implied in the letter, the underlying stimulus was the current national preoccupation with Aliens (of any stripe), and how to deal with them. I don’t want to get into the Great Immigration Debate here (mainly because my solution is essentially to let ‘em all in, and develop a Reliable Terrorist Detector), but having lived through the fifties, I’m acutely attuned to the relationship between current events and science fiction—Which, later on, will bring me to the second impetus for this post: the hullabaloo about Halo 3.

First, my response to the letter in the Dallas Morning News. Nothing I’ve ever sent to these people has ever been published, but here’s what I wrote:

In regard to letters from Kelly Williamson and other readers complaining about immigrants’ English language skills (or lack thereof), I have one question for these critics: when was the last time you tried to learn a complex language as an adult? It’s one thing if you’re a child, at peak language-acquisition age; it’s entirely another if you’re adult—especially if you don’t happen to live in a particularly supportive community. I have also noticed that folks who live around here are neither very good at understanding (nor very tolerant of) “foreign accents.” They even need subtitles on the news to understand interviews with non-native English speakers! I’ve even heard adult, native-born Texans complaining about “Yankee accents,” insisting that they can’t understand what’s being said.

As long as people can make themselves understood, and translators are willing to help them out, what’s the problem? It’s not as if immigrants don’t want to learn; but who would even attempt the long and difficult process if they knew they’d face impatience or even ridicule for their efforts?

I had originally written “aliens” (in quotation marks) instead of “immigrants” in the last paragraph, but decided that they’d edit me anyway, so went with the less suggestive term. But that’s what it’s really all about: aliens, and what to do about them, the Other, the NOT US. Towns around North Texas are busy enacting and enforcing laws that deny housing to “illegals” and deport anyone without “papers” for even the smallest infraction (like a parking ticket). Families are being split apart because some members are citizens and some not, and in some cases they’re being housed in prison-like facilities while somebody negotiates on their behalf. The underlying fear that governs all of these activities centers on the latest version of the Red Scare: illegal immigration and terrorism (and the apparently necessary connection between the two). I know that this issue is far more complex than my rather facile description implies, but I’m pretty sure that the similarities hold. We’re afraid of something that might happen, so we focus on eliminating (or at least containing) the “other” as the solution. Implicit in this preoccupation is the basic perception of the other as dangerous, threatening to our way of life, and/or destructive of our very values.

Yesterday, the debut of Halo 3 caused a minor earthquake at Best Buys throughout the country. Friends with children are still debating whether or not they should purchase it (that is, if they weren’t already camped out in line with their kids the night before), and the conversation has centered on its graphic violence and its “Mature” rating. There but for the age of my children go I (my son has probably already purchased his own copy and may even be playing it at work—he has that kind of a job). But this isn’t another rant about violence—it’s an observation about world view.

In Halo, the Covenant is out to destroy future Earth. The gamers are out to defeat them, all decked out as the Master Chief (probably the dumbest name in science fiction history), and they can’t do this through negotiation. They have to blow the crap out of the aliens and destroy their Weapons of Mass Destruction (the eponymous Halos) in order to Save Us from the Other. Or we could drop nukes on Nagasaki. Or invade Iraq and defeat our enemies with Shock and Awe. Or . . . well, you get the picture.

As I will continue to maintain throughout my literary life, science fiction is not about the future; it’s about us. Now. Today. It’s one of the metaphorical devices through which we work out possible futures, alternatives, worst- and best-case scenarios. Aliens, of course, are not always bad (Klatuu barada nikto!), and are sometimes the redeemers. But since it’s much more fun to blow things up, the good ones don’t get as much play. The most interesting take on the question in recent science fiction was Joss Whedon’s Serenity, in which the “aliens” are us—the result of bad judgment (and bad science) on the part of a repressive government.

I’m no longer arguing against graphic violence in video games (although I might someday argue against video games in general, just to keep my logic chops going), mainly because it’s a bit like banging my head against a game controller (I work in a design school that teaches people how to do this, after all). And the graphics in both Halo 3 and Bioshock are quite simply gorgeous. I just wish that we could get over our fear of others for long enough to stop crabbing about how they can’t speak English, and start wondering what we can do to make immigration unnecessary (by finding ways to help stabilize foreign economies and improve standards of living abroad, for example) or make what we do less offensive to the rest of the world (and less desirable for all the wrong reasons). I also want a beautiful video game with challenging play and sumptuous graphics that doesn’t involve explosions and blood and gore—but rather invention, creativity, intelligence, and the potential for good will. We’re very good at thinking up ways to kill people or simply exclude them—but we’re terrible at imagining what a better world would look like.

Photo: I snitched the poster from Wikipedia. Surely it's in the public domain by now.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Accidental Garden

It’s easy, as we move into fall around here, and the temperatures stay reasonably moderate throughout the day, to forget summer’s heat. That is, until I go out into my “garden” to see how it’s fared over the long, dry spell. The spent tomato plants (almost the only thing I planted this year), and withered grasses, along with the stalks of volunteer sunflowers and horse parsley, remind me all too vividly that I’ve fallen into my usual pattern: great ambition in the spring, before the mosquitoes arrive, followed by a gradual, but relentless easing off. It’s pretty much all over when I can’t go out without insect repellant, because I won’t use the nasty stuff full of DEET, and the effectiveness of the herbal versions depends on how awful they smell, and how long they cling to my skin. If I sweat off the stench, I get bitten, and so it’s hard not to just say “to hell with it” and come back in to the computer—or to read a book or magazine on gardening, and sigh in frustration.

Perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of water-guilt, I’ve pretty much left the back eighth of our half-acre go its own way. I’m also waiting for the bearded iris border (planted by the previous owner, but much too attention-demanding for me) to die out so I can plant old-fashioned, heat-hardy, luscious-smelling hedge roses. The iris border was lovely at first, but too large and too needy. I’ve already given away tons of corms, and have noticed that the area is well-depleted now and nearly ready for digging up. Over the last two or three summers, a mullein plant has volunteered, and self-seeded nearby, so that about five plants occupy a formerly-plantless spot. I transplanted lambs’ ears there in the spring, so now I have a mini-garden of plants with soft, furry leaves—in case I ever decide to stop using toilet paper, I guess. A recent conversation on the Orion magazine website (responding to Nicole McClelland’s article, “Sitting Pretty”) reminded me that mullein is nature’s version of Cottonelle, and I haven’t been able to look at it without smiling since.

There’s something about letting grow what “wants” to that appeals to me. I’ve always been delighted by what comes in “on accident” (as my children used to say)—like the inkberry plants that pop up every year (and are on the increase because I don’t pull them out), with their delicate white flowers and pretty berries. The birds like them, and some day I’m going to try my hand at testing them for their reputed pigment qualities. In spring the volunteer honeysuckle takes over scenting the air as soon as the wisteria (now taking over the back fence) stops blooming. The centerpiece of the back garden is itself a volunteer: a 25-foot Chinaberry that grew from a seed pooped in by some berry-drunk bird about four summers ago. These are essentially trash trees, but I love their ferny leaves, purple flowers, and heady perfume. Of course, it’s now shading a good portion of what once was an herb garden, and the herbs have essentially departed. I’m going to have to plant a new area next to the car park, and put more thyme, oregano, and sage species into the front yard. I think that one reason I’ve let it go is to do penance for how it had been treated before I moved in.

Oddly enough, what sold me this house was the back garden. I remember my husband saying to the estate agent, “Don’t let her see this; it’s all over if she does” as soon as he stepped out the back door when we came to look. He was absolutely right, not just because there was a nice expanse of lawn and plentiful trees, but because there was also a compost bin and a fence laden with blackberries and grapes. At the rear of the garden stood a small peach tree, two figs, and plenty of room for veggies. The previous owners had set up poles and wire mesh supports for beans, but he had died and she was selling the house, so there was no garden that summer.

What I didn’t know then was that the “compost bin” was essentially an inaccessible receptacle for garden trash and Schnauzer droppings, the entire area had been nuked with insecticides and chemical fertilizers so thoroughly that nothing living came into the yard except for squirrels and sparrows. No worms, no butterflies, no bugs of any kind—except, of course, for mosquitoes and fire ants. We spent that summer getting rid of barbed wire from the fence, rebar rods from everywhere (I’m still not entirely sure what they were all used for), and trying to let the soil return to its natural state. By the next summer, I’d planted herbs and balloon flowers, and a few bugs made their way back in, along with an occasional rabbit or snake and a few toads. As if to thank me, the garden produced its first surprise: a basket flower, which I wisely let grow, even though it started out looking like a spiky weed. The original peach tree died, but was replaced by a volunteer, which is now bigger, and has better peaches, than the original.

Now, seven years later, the grapes have gone wild, and the blackberries have petered out (I did have about three years of plentiful growth) to be replaced (by Mother Nature) with mulberry, peach, box elder, pecan, hackberry, and assorted other treelings. Soon it will be time to thin them out a bit, but they provide a considerable amount of privacy, and with a modicum of training, will become a nice little private forest. I have plans for putting an old Shasta AirFlyte travel trailer back there to use as a guest-house, if I can ever find one. Or perhaps we could order a gypsy caravan from the Tumbleweed Tiny House people. But I do like the fact that I’m not in total control—that I’m doing my part to let nature “happen” when everything around us is planned and manicured and soaked with chemicals. I also like the fact that by letting things take a more natural path, I become more aware of natural processes, and stand a chance of learning from my own land—rather than completely imposing my own will on it.

During periods of drought, it makes sense to me to let grow what can grow, and then plant things we can eat in places that make it easy to water sparingly. Even hedge roses grow hips, and that means jam, and a useful garden seems philosophically preferable to a merely ornamental one. In addition, the more accidents I allow, the more I leave myself open to surprise. I wouldn’t mind another basket flower, but the mullein wasn’t a bad substitute. A little nature-affected mind seems to be a nice antidote to an already too-heavily mind-affected nature.

Photos: Top, the accidental garden; middle, Woody amidst the wisteria; bottom, the volunteer peach

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Paying Attention

My blood pressure’s taking a beating these days, and this past week made me wish that there were a magic bullet pill one could take to lower it when necessary. My cardiologist insists that people can’t “feel” their blood pressure elevate—but I think he’s wrong. I can always tell, and I can usually predict what will do it. Usually the morning and evening doses of the regular meds actually do the job, but sometimes I have to sit back and breathe deeply, do a little meditation, and relax in order to overcome whatever sets me off.

This time it was a YouTube video asking me to think about teaching with technology. Well not so much asking me to do so, but insisting that if I didn’t, I would potentially “enrage” my students when what I need to do is to “engage” them. In what amounts to an animated PowerPoint presentation put out by the Jordan School District in Utah (called “Pay Attention”) the now-familiar exhortations to make use of powerful new technologies are ramped up with suggestions on how to use cell phones in the classroom (“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”—I kid you not!), getting kids to text-message people to find out what they had for breakfast, what the weather’s like where they are, and to name their last purchase. This is followed by a claim that the gathered data can be used for all sorts of applications (all of which flash onto the screen). I didn’t take notes.

Where I come from, this is not called education; this is called pandering. This is also a classic example of the failure of modern educators to distinguish between is and ought. Mind you, I’m perfectly willing to use technology to teach. I’ve maintained a website for my students since 1999, and have encouraged the use of computers as an aid to research. I’m quite happy to use videos to augment my lectures, and I use PowerPoint as an image-delivery system in my art history and humanities classes. I might even be willing to suggest that students download certain audio programs to their iPods, if I were to hear of something useful. But I do ask them to unplug the minute they walk through the classroom door, because I simply can’t compete when they’re all wired up to their myriad electronic devices. No computers are allowed for note-taking, either (without special accommodation requests), and no recording devices. My “etiquette” lecture at the beginning of each quarter warns of dire consequences if they breach the established parameters. This is necessary because despite what students insist, they cannot “multitask.” The concept is baloney. They already have attention spans that can be measured in nanoseconds (thanks to Sesame Street and Madison Avenue), so I just don’t need the constant distractions.

To educate, according to the OED, means to “lead forth.” And although the first definition listed focuses on the physical upbringing (to rear by supplying physical wants—more on this later), the second refers to “bringing up” in regard to “forming habits, manners, intellectual, and physical aptitudes.” The third expands the idea to include the training of any person (not just a child) “so as to develop the intellectual and moral powers generally.” All of these are true to the original Latin sense (educo) in regard to raising children. The Greek notion of pedagogy (although it originally referred to the literal leading of a boy [sic] to school) is also grounded in the notion of training, discipline, leading forth. To pander, on the other hand, means “to subserve or minister to base passions, tendencies, or designs” when it doesn’t refer to ministering to the gratification of another’s lust.

I suppose, in regard to the supplying of “physical wants” that one might argue on behalf of desire, and make some cute remark about the necessity of personal technologies, but it would be specious, and beside the point. The education of desire begins with the recognition that our students don’t really need any of this. What they actually need is to know how to make their way in the world, how to survive. And with the technologically-infused “education” we’re foisting on them (from an increasingly early age, according to “Pay Attention”), we are not leading them forth; we’re leading them astray.

Of course they need to know how to use these tools; in my school, we are training everyone from interactive media designers to fashion designers, all of whom will use these technologies every day when they go out into the world to practice what they’ve learned. The scary moment comes when we ask them if they know how they work: what they’re made of, what their components do, how the raw materials were obtained. Not only do they not know these things, but they don’t even know to ask the questions, and without asking the questions, how will they ever care whether or not those computer chips require the devastation of mountain gorilla habitat?

Years ago, the notion of technology assessment preoccupied many of us who studied the history and philosophy of technological development. Even though the ethical implications of emerging technologies seemed to be of some interest, however, the main concern centered on the potential commercial applications of new tools and methods coming out of scientific research: Teflon developed for the space program ending up lining frying pans, etc. Of course, a more complete assessment might have turned up the potential for developing cancer from ingesting Teflon particles, but that kind of study wasn’t done. It seldom is. We kill a large number of rats and ruin the eyesight of countless bunnies to create new drugs and cosmetics, but we’re notoriously short-sighted when it comes to labor-saving devices with potentially huge profit margins.

Rather than simply throwing technology at our students in an effort to grab their attention for the next thirty seconds, perhaps we can consider other ways to engage them. We should not make the same mistake that the well-intentioned producers of Sesame Street did all those years ago, when they helped to reify children’s 1.5 minute attention spans by creating short vignettes designed to hold their interest for just that period. Advertisements, with their flashy thirty-second screen presence sealed the deal, and any parent who has let his or her child watch television in the last thirty years is complicit. The job of educators nowadays must include devising ways to lengthen the amount of time our students can stay engaged. All of the really worthwhile things we do in life—reading, thinking, conversing, eating and drinking, watching sunsets, making love—take time.

There’s no reason why we can’t rely on our own interest in our own subjects to spark a similar interest in our students. What was it about archaeology that drew me to it in my youth (before the days of Indiana Jones)? Why does the natural world fascinate me so? Why do I want my students to love these things, too? Instead of getting them to text-message one another, maybe we could just take them out to lie on the grass and watch clouds roll by.

This week’s assignment: read Lowell Monke’s essay, “Unplugged Schools: Education can ameliorate, or exacerbate, society's ills. Which will it be?” in the September/October issue of Orion Magazine. Then, if you have to watch television, turn on Sunrise Earth and watch it with a child. There’s nothing like an hour of watching moose eat breakfast in Jackson Hole to lower your blood pressure and make you want to get up and face the world.

Photo: Clouds over El Morro National Monument, New Mexico. Winter 2003

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Wind in the Bur Oaks

I have to admit that I couldn’t come up with a more poetic sounding tree than “bur oak” to sub for “willow” in this post’s title. I thought about “hackberry” or “live oak,” or “cedar elm” or even “box elder” in an effort to find a native tree—especially one that implied less resource-dependence than willows do around here. In fact, willows are an emblem of inappropriate excess here in drought-ridden north Texas. They only grow well near streams, and although graceful, they look curiously out of place in most local landscapes. So I chose my favorite native species, with its big frowzy acorns the size of boules, and its craggy, almost lithic bark. I have one growing next to my garage (that's it, in the photo, looking up into the leaves), and will soon have to attend to the wild grapes growing up into its branches in order to assure its survival. But this is a hardy tree, and lovely to look at, even if it isn't all that prevalent out on the remnants of west Texas prairie, where the wind farms are.

Energy is much on my mind these days, for a number of reasons. A recent run-in with the local electrical service company, Oncor (not my provider, Green Mountain) got me going about deregulation and incompetence, and then several news articles about NIMBY issues related to wind energy prompted me to continue ranting about energy dependence in general, and alternative energy sources in particular.

This summer has been relatively mild, with temperature rising to 100 or better only about five times in three months. We were also blessed with abundant rain early in the season, which means that the ambient temperature around our house has been cooled by greener grass and healthier trees (drought restrictions in this area allowed only once-per-week lawn irrigation last summer, and with little rain, my lawn suffered pitiably because I can’t bear to waste water on impractical landscaping). Since we haven’t had the time or the money to convert our St. Augustine lawn to something more useful, it suffers when the rains don’t come. But this year it’s pretty healthy, and helps cool the house. This is especially welcome, because for the last month we have eschewed air conditioning entirely, and had used it sparingly before that. So when I received a notice from the electricity folks that I was going to be shot at dawn for not having an accessible meter, I was a bit put out.

Of course, I exaggerate, but the tone of the letter was rather snotty, and so I called Oncor to find out what was up. I have a completely accessible meter; it’s on the side of my house, visible from the bloody street. The letter said something about a locked gate. I thought it might have had something to do with the fact that my dogs bark loudly and nastily when people even walk by the house, but they’re kept indoors when we’re not home. At any rate, there is a gate, but it’s not locked, and you have to walk by the meter to get to it. I’ve also lived in this house for seven years, and no one has ever before had trouble locating my meter. I told this to the company representative, and mused that perhaps the teenagers they hired during the summer weren’t as astute as the usual crew. She assured me, snippily, that they were using the same “technicians” they always had, but that she’d send someone out to check.

A few days later I got a second bill from Green Mountain for an additional $27 (I’m amused that they had actually underestimated the original bill). I put the bill aside, planning to pay it at the beginning of the month along with the new bill—until I got an e-mail note from them asking me to call, because they needed to discuss something with me. When I called, I told the nice lady that I was pretty sure I knew what this was all about, and recounted the above story. She laughed and acknowledged that the local service companies don’t always have the same perspective, and said it would be fine for me to pay at my usual time. She also mentioned that Oncor had been having trouble filling positions, and that the “same technicians” line was a lot of hooey.

Vindicated, I paid my bill and got on with my life. But the energy question persists, and in the last week I’ve come across a couple of articles that point to the problems that attend alternative energy use. Sure we all want to lessen our dependence on foreign oil (I’d like to eliminate it, along with our dependence on domestic oil), but we’re not really happy about the alternatives. And when environmentalists start talking about nukes as the only practical clean alternative to fossil fuels, my stomach turns. Don’t any of these guys remember Chernobyl? Solar power is becoming more accessible and affordable, but impracticable in many situations (we can’t have panels that show from the street because we live in an historic district). So, many of us choose wind when it's available, even though the rates are slightly higher.

Now, if you live in a state like Texas, with vast expanses of unoccupied semi-desert, wind turbines provide clean energy with relatively little environmental impact. But the turbines themselves are large, tall, ungainly, noisy, and not particularly attractive (although I think they look kind of cool, from a distance). So the idea of erecting these things in Maine or off the east coast doesn’t particularly appeal to those who have paid big money to live in lovely surroundings with gorgeous views—like Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose family environmental credentials are pretty solid. Froma Harrop’s column, “A Sad Coda to Kennedy Career” nicely summarizes the quandary of wealthy liberals who really don’t want those noisy turbines in their back yards, their neighborhoods, or where they sail on weekends.

But it’s not simply a question of “them” vs. “us.” Wind farms can disrupt the environment, they are noisy, and they do compromise wilderness (see the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s article on the controversy about a Maine wind farm). The trouble is, we’re not really thinking small enough. We’re too caught up in the big energy model that we can’t seem to think more minimalistically (I think I made that word up). For example, I’ve often wondered why we couldn’t just have little windmills or other energy sources in our back yards, just as many now generate some of their own power from solar panels. When I looked into it, I discovered that something called “micro wind turbines” actually are available. So my question now is this: why can’t we just rethink how we get our energy in the first place? Why can’t we consider appropriate local sources (wind, water, solar) and start producing our own, in our own towns, for our own citizens, as much as possible. Think of it: no big-ass power poles emitting electromagnetic fields; no Oncor “arborists” chopping the guts out of lovely trees to accommodate their power lines; no grid—or if there is one, it’s small, and local. Break up the grid so that every building that houses a home, a school, or a business, produces at least part of what it needs to run its machines and lights.

More important, however, is the fundamental necessity to reduce our dependence on energy itself. I personally love the idea of having to ride a bicycle every time I want to watch television, but I’m too old to do anything about it now. I can, however, just turn the damned thing off. And I’m perfectly willing to crank up what I need to run this computer, a la Nicholas Negroponte’s units for his One Laptop Per Child initiative. Although I’m not quite ready to buy into the notion that giving children laptops is going to solve any global education crisis, I admire the practicality of his machine.

Our efforts in this house have been modest, by my standards, although giving up air conditioning is looked upon by my friends as both noble and insane. We’ve dutifully replaced about 95% of our light bulbs with compact fluorescents (I balk at getting rid of functioning bulbs, especially when they’re used infrequently), and have bought energy-efficient appliances when we’ve needed new ones, or done without. The next time a coffeemaker conks out on me, I’m going back to using my old Chemex.

We can’t really do much to insulate the house (no spaces between walls), and have a gas furnace, but we’ve added curtains and roman shades to the windows, and portiers between the rooms so that we can keep the thermostat down at 60 degrees in winter (a new, programmable unit will be installed before the coming winter). The computers and peripherals come on only when we’re using them, even though it’s annoying to wait for things to boot up. We use a small convection/microwave oven or the narrow top oven of our dual-fuel range to cook (both use considerably less energy than a standard gas or electric oven), and eat salads and cold meals during most of the summer to reduce even that amount of use. All of this has been accomplished with relatively little sacrifice on our part, and even the animals seem to be fine, as long as there’s air flow.

The point is that it’s not difficult. But this country is so conditioned to constant consumption and convenience that we think we’re entitled to the kind of extravagance that has led us to “need” big, expensive, polluting, ugly energy. We wouldn’t have to worry about wind farms at all if we didn’t accede to the idea that we can’t live without all this stuff.

And I wouldn’t have to argue with energy service providers about whether or not my meter is accessible, because I wouldn’t even need one.