Monday, January 24, 2011

Good News Amidst The Bad

Since the benefits of urban life have begun to come to those of us in the hinterlands of north Texas, unexpected pleasures have emerged. The recent opening of a Whole Foods Market just to the south (and thus on the way home from school for both of us), has meant that the Beloved Spouse is now increasingly involved in home keeping--in that he's doing much of the grocery shopping because most of my classes are at night, and he gets off early enough for a foraging stop.

I used to be the one who succumbed to the magazines at the checkout counter, frequently picking up the latest issue of Cook's Illustrated despite my efforts to cut down on the number of magazines that litter our coffee table. But since he's the one tending to the shopping these days, the BS is the one who gets snagged by an interesting article. For the past two months, issues of the Utne Reader have shown up in the canvas bags that are supposed to contain food. I am thankful that he's not one of those husbands who gets seduced by improbable snacks or unnecessary goodies. But he does like his alternative press, and Utne's the best source of it.

So this morning, after I'd finished the Daily Poop, I settled down to read an article on the marshlands in Iraq, in the January/February issue featuring Marge Simpson as Rosie the Riveter on the cover.

My interest in the people referred to as the Marsh Arabs began back at Penn, when I took an archaeology class on Near Eastern prehistory, and then took a geology course that required a research paper on the interactions between people and their landscapes. The work I did then has stayed with me because the people themselves were so interesting, and their way of life almost a model for sustainable living. The pictures in the Utne article are astonishing, considering what things had looked like after about 1991 (then a veritable desert where once had flourished the probable inspiration for the idea of the Garden of Eden).

The update includes scenes the likes of which I haven't encountered since I conducted my research back in the '70s--when the marshlands around the Shatt al-Arab (the river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) had covered thousands of square kilometers: people pushing their boats around reed-filled marshes dotted with small islands of land on which the Maʻdān (as they are sometimes called in Arabic) build reed houses and raise livestock.

The interior of a Mudhif, a traditional reed-built guest house.

By the time I wrote my paper, the life of the Marsh Arabs was already at risk, due to expanding irrigation to the north, and because of increasing political conflict among Muslim factions in Iraq, and growing tensions with Iran. For an account of what happened next, see this article from Human Rights Watch, documenting Saddam Hussein's program to to punish the population in the south for supporting a Shiite uprising by draining the marshes and destroying the local culture.

The good news is that the marshes are beginning to recover, and their champion, Iraqi American Azzam Alwash, is optimistic about its future--even though potential problems still lurk: Turkey's erection of dams at the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as continuing political instability in the region.

The fact, however, that the marshes are recovering at all gives me some hope that wetland restoration in other areas, including the Everglades in Florida, and the lower Owens River Valley, might succeed more rapidly than one once might have hoped.

For folks interested in pursuing this topic, there are two good articles available from the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (from the Museum journal, Expedition). One is from the fall of 1962, E. A. Speiser's piece on the connection between the area and descriptions of Eden in Genesis (perhaps of particular relevance to my Technology and Utopia students), and a more recent (but before Saddam's devastation project had taken its highest toll) essay about "Life on the Edge of the Marshes" by Edward Ochsenschlager (1998), which focuses on connections with the ancient Mesopotamian past. For good historical photos, see the archive of Wilfred Thesiger's evocative photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford University. The Google image pages for "Marsh Arabs" is chockablock with rather lovely pictures from all kinds of sources.

The update in Utne Reader, "Birds Not Bombs," by Samiha Shafy for Der Spiegel, is a welcome bit of news--even if the situation is still fraught with danger.

Image credits: Both photos are from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Only Connect

Before last week's snow, we were treated to a couple of dramatic sunsets, but here in treeland it's hard to capture them; I have to run down the alley next to our house and shoot over the houses on the next block, to get clear of trees and power lines.

I did manage to catch an odd moment of orangey light on the clouds overhead, but by the time I got things more or less focused (I had the telephoto lens on without realizing it), most of the glory was over.

Not only that, but a cranky neighbor yelled at me, "What're you takin' a picture of?" Since he didn't say, "What're y'all takin' a picture of?" he wasn't making a friendly inquiry. Seems everybody's paranoid these days, and I'm pretty sure he hadn't even noticed the sunset.

It's been a long week, but rewarding in its own way. The Utopia class is a joy; the kids (and some not-so-kids) are lapping it up like kittens at fresh milk. I guess that since art students don't get much time to discuss ideas, they're really enjoying having a chance to show off their brain power. The discussion, about E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" and its similarity to life on today's social media (as well as connections with contemporary stories like Wall-E) was fodder for a rousing discussion. I'm looking forward to next week's response to Morris's News From Nowhere, which presents a rather stark contrast to Forster's nightmare future.

Connections these days seem to be fleeting and superficial most of the time. So it was good to share ideas with those who'll be living in whatever world we create over the next decade or so. But it was also reassuring to note that even the youngest members of the group were highly aware of the technological snares we're setting, and that there's some hope that we'll not end up in underground hives, deprived of everything but dim images of one another, and disembodied voices.

Last night I had a chance to get together with an old friend from Penn, who was in town for a physics conference. After playing phone- and e-mail tag (he's as much of a communications technology doofus as I am), we finally managed to spend a few hours reminiscing and catching up on news both good and bad. It wasn't nearly enough, and one realizes on occasions like these how precious friendships are ("Only connect," as Forster says in Howard's End), and--using the above photo as a metaphor--how little time left we have to nurture them at our age.

We've promised to keep in closer touch, though, even though he and his family all live on the East coast--and its the very technology of which I'm frequently so critical that makes that connection possible (but no, we don't need Facebook to do it). The best thing about old friendships is that re-connection is its own reward, and it opens up new paths of memory: new stories shared, new joys and sorrows. Our children are all grown and embarking on their own lives, with weddings and perhaps grandchildren still to come. It's enough to gladden even the most mechanical of hearts.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Snow Days

When the Beloved Spouse and I awoke last Sunday morning, it was rainy and dreary. But the puppies were strangely eager to be let out, and persistently (and repeatedly) begged to be released from house arrest, only to return immediately as soon as they were exposed to the rain. We kept trying to ignore them after that, busy at our Sunday paper, until shortly before noon when they practically started a revolution, demanding to go out. We'd kept the curtains shut to keep out the cold, so we couldn't see what was happening. By the time we acquiesced, however, the landscape had been completely transformed by a couple of inches of snow.

Now, these dogs have always been particularly fond of snow, having been exposed to it almost immediately after being adopted seven years ago. We got them on a Tuesday in February, and on that Friday it snowed a good five inches, so that they had to plow their way through drifts taller than they were (at three months old). Ever since, they've loved frolicking about in it, the deeper, the better.

Most of the area got an inch or two this time, but because we're further north we ended up with about five inches total, and it's persisted for several days. The weather's been cold enough that we've been putting out suet cakes for the birds, along with the usual feeders, and one intrepid little woodpecker kept returning to get his share, even though he had to peck through the snow.

On Monday the skies cleared, but it didn't warm up enough for the snow to melt. The contrast between the white on the tree trunks and branches against the bright blue sky just begged to be photographed.

Serious melting didn't start until yesterday, so I took this as I was leaving for work--knowing that by the time I got back the icicles would be gone.

There's still a bit of the white stuff left on the ground and on tables and chairs about the yard. It looks rather like we could get more today, but our weather prognosticators (who were terribly wrong about how much snow there would be last weekend) say not. Since I've got a class tonight (old people with no lives are prime candidates to teach Friday night classes), I do hope they're right this time. There is positively nothing worse than a Texas driver in a snow storm, and I'd rather not have to deal with them at 10 pm.!

Happy Skywatch Friday, everyone, and have a great weekend.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Engaging Chaos

As time goes on, I'm finding it more and more difficult to get a handle on things. It's as if the flow is going by so fast that I when I reach into the stream, I only manage to grab a handful of water. Meanwhile, all sorts of detritus is washing up on the banks, and none of it makes much sense.

I keep trying to tidy up the house, but get distracted or run out of steam before anything significant gets done. The holidays weren't much help, because I spent most of my time off constructing a new course (Technology and Utopia) and updating the old ones. I began to wonder why the only thing I could accomplish was related to what I was supposed to be vacationing from.

During this last week, our "faculty development" period before the new quarter starts on Monday, I discussed the problem with a couple of colleagues, and we agreed that the combination of advancing age and an ever-increasing work load seems to suck the psychic energy right out of a person. And since I'm older than most of the people I work with, I seem to notice it more than they do.

Admittedly, I've taken on quite a bit. Nearly four years ago, when I started this blog, I was also participating in an online forum. I joined another when it became apparent that I'd have to have heart surgery again. The spin-off blogs (the Cabinet and The Owl of Athena) probably didn't expand the load because I soon realized that I wasn't going to be able to maintain them all with any regularity. Since then, though, my total output has diminished, and the forums are all but abandoned. I do wonder, as a result, how anyone who's on Facebook manages do do anything at all.

My selectivity toward social media has paid off to some extent. Not "doing" the Facebook thing (nor Twitter, which I find preposterous) may have been my wisest choice. I still keep hoping that if I can just get the course prep all snugged up, I'll have more time to write. I did, after all, manage to get a short story written in November for a contest I never entered. But while I'm teaching, most of my (remaining) little gray cells are tied up with the growing problem of engaging students who want less and less to do with what I teach.

If it weren't for the small number of adoring (and, I might say, adorable in their own way) current and former student acolytes, I might be tempted hang up my guns altogether. I'm pretty sure I won't end up watching soaps and eating bonbons all day when I retire, but the prospect of not teaching still seems more empty than enticing. Every now and then, too, I manage to come up with an idea that works with the over-connected generation, and that buys me breathing room.

As the new year rolled in the urge to organize increased: clear off the desk, get things in order around the house, and rid myself of distracting clutter. But at heart I'm still an archaeologist, and the piles of stuff represent layers of discovery--strata that I can carefully mine for scribbled notes and pages stuck into stacked books that record ideas gleaned from the op/ed pages of the newspapers I still make time to read. There are useful artifacts to be discovered, deposited during decades of enjoying the life of the mind. The spirit is still willing, at least until the flesh poops out.

One tangible result of having accumulated the thousands of books, piles of notebooks, and collections of tear sheets from magazines I've managed to recycle, is that constructing the new course has been an adventure in serendipity. One day I walk by a bookshelf and my eye lights on a book I haven't picked up in years. I sit down to leaf through my marginalia (few books I own aren't marked up with comments and my personal set of hieroglyphs to indicate important passages) and rediscover something useful. Or the end notes in an essay lead me to other forgotten works that reveal further fodder for the course. And so it goes.

The slow, episodic excavation of what amounts to an intellectual midden has allowed the new course to evolve into a reasonably organized, well-focused introduction to philosophy and how it works, as well as how we can use it to understand an increasingly technologized world. I get to ask my students to wrestle with questions I wonder about all the time, and I'll probably learn a great deal from their contributions. If the course numbers hold through today (fourteen), I'll get my first real seminar in sixteen years.

I've begun to think of my desk as a metaphor for my brain: it seems to be muddled, but it has its own internal coherence and logic. I still have to clear it off and sort things out, but that's the kind of cataloging process I love--and it may enrich the new course even further, as I uncover more forgotten bits under layers of more recently encountered material.

As an added bonus, by Monday I'll have opened up enough space to hold the new piles that are sure to build up over the next eleven weeks.