Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The unexpected joy of in-laws

There is a lot of folklore about what to look forward to in life and what to dread. In-laws of all sorts are usually in the latter category, while grandchildren are certainly in the former.

Little that I had ever read or heard led me to expect to so enjoy and like my son-in-law Sam Mitschke and my new daughter-in-law Kristy Money Straubhaar.
I guess we expect, or at least hope, that our children will have splendid taste in partners, or at least find people less scary than some of the people they dated in high school.

What I certainly did not quite expect is that my children would bring such interesting people into the family, to the enrichment and pleasure of the whole family (which incidentally is shown in the first picture, at Rolf & Kristy's wedding reception in Utah--Rolf (our oldest son), Kristy, Sandy and Joe in the back, Sam, Julia (our daughter) and Chris (our youngest son) in the front. I have a hunch that I am in serious danger of getting maudlin if I go on, so I will leave it there. But here's to the unexpected pleasures of life.

And here is Sam, in the snowy Utah backyard of the reception.

And here is Kristy, verifying the whole brides are beautiful image, in the window of her parents home, at the reception.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Let us now praise public libraries

I am passionate supporter of public education and public libraries. Coming from a small, poor farm in a small, rural town in a rural state, I would have had NO chance to go to a good college, a good grad school, work as a diplomat and end up as a professor at a top university without them.

Much as I love Brazil, having spent over five years there off and on, every time I get off the plane there, I am reminded that if I had been born in similar circumstances in a similar place in Brazil, I would still be there. I would not have had the crucial structural supports that enabled me to get pretty solid beginnings of an education, learn about what was possible in the world, and make some fairly informed choices about what I wanted to try to do. My parents helped enormously. My Dad, in particular, clearly assumed that I was going to go to college and did some fairly clever things to help me get there (more on that in another post). But they had limited time and resources, and what helped me to take advantage of their good will and urgings about education was precisely public schools and libraries.

School was necessary but not sufficient. There was no kindergarten, so I started to learn to read in the first grade. I was lucky my first couple of teachers did a solid phonics approach, so I was doing OK by third grade, age nine or so.

My elementary school had a very small library, which mostly had a lot of donated hand-me-downs. Not even classics like the Winnie-the-Pooh books. But it had Dr. Seuss and a lot of older kids books, so once I had run through what we had around home, I worked my way through it.

By about nine, I plucked up my courage and went to the high school library, which sort of doubled as a public lending library on a limited basis, at least for school kids. You can see it here in back of this picture of the student council of my senior year, 1969.

They let me start checking out their books. I discovered more young adult books, like sci fi classics by Robert Heinlein, and books like Drums along the Mohawk. And other historical fiction, particularly about other countries. I was already pretty curious about other places and times, and I absolutely ate up historical fiction of almost all kinds. I started looking at history books and a variety of magazines, like reading Newsweek on and off, when something caught my eye, or things like American Heritage, which fanned my interest in history.

When I was using the Kuna High School Library as a public library, the whole town had fewer than 600 people. It now has over 10,000 and has a nice but small public library, located sort of near the old high school. Here is a picture of it. I am glad that the town has followed through to do that.

In my day (I'm thinking about 1960 in this case) things were quite a bit more limited, so I worked my way through the high school fiction section in a couple of years. One advantage of living on a farm with relatively few other kids around, day to day, was that I read all the time. My parents encouraged that. My Dad would often let me out of farm work, if I had my nose in a book and he did not need me that badly.

My next step was the real live public library in the larger town, Nampa, about ten miles away. By the time I was twelve or so, I would ride my trusty Schwinn one-speed bicycle to Nampa, to see my nephews Andy and Dan, who were about my age and among my best buddies, maybe go to the movies, and most often go to the library. My parents would usually go to town once a week or so, too, and they were also pretty willing to take me to the library. You can see the outline of the building in this logo I found online.

It was heavenly. A lot more novels, historical, sci fi, adventures, etc. Beyond just working my way through the shelves, I even started cautiously trying to look up specific books that I had seen glancing references to, that sounded interesting. When I was about fourteen, it took me six months or so to figure out enough bibliographical information to find Catch-22, which I had seen a vague reference to that had sounded intriguing. It was a bit over my head at first, but it is good to be pushed by books. About the same time, I found The Lord of the Rings, first in the library and then in paperbacks, which I was beginning to be willing to spend my own money on.

The important point, though, is that given even a minimally adequate public school, which at least teaches you to read reasonably well, the public library can open many doors through books, magazines, histories (and now in a modern library, videos, music, even computers and games). You can begin to educate yourself, in effect.

So I am absolutely delighted that my daughter Julia went to UT's library school, just got her Masters in Library Science, and is now working as a librarian full time in Cedar Park, just north of Austin. As you can see, their library is a bit nicer and more modern. But even a really basic library, like the ones I started with, can be the beginning of a person's intellectual expansion and social mobility.

So I have very little patience with people who are not willing to spend a bit of tax money on decent public schools and libraries. People like that are in effect keeping people like me down on the farm, when maybe they would be a lot happier and more productive to society elsewhere.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Think Therefore I Am, I Think

I was thinking today about people and their egos, more specifically me and mine. This turned into a bit of trip down memory lane, so hang on to your hat (it has been a bit cold in Austin, so hats are back on.) It also requires some thinking about philosophy and religion.
For me a very formative time on all this happened in late high school. I lived in a small farming town in Idaho, which was about 40 percent Mormon, with somewhat smaller groups of Nazarenes, Methodists, Baptists, etc.
I was thinking hard about both philosophy and religion. Some of us were rebelling in this farm town by trying to be intellectuals, aided and abetted by one English teacher, Lewis Watson, who was a sort of a 1950s era existentialist slowly turning into a Buddhist. (A very interesting guy, perhaps too much so for a rural high school, he dropped that, dropped out in general, built a house out of stone, wrote a book about it, and lived very simply, largely on the proceeds of the book, whose cover you see here. More on him one of these days.)
Perhaps as a result of him and the whole 1950s-1960s zeitgeist that I was beginning to read more about under his guidance, as well as encountering on my own in national magazines and books, I was thinking about some of the issues involved in terms of the Mormonism I grew up with, the Existentialism which I had begun to read novels and books about, and Buddhism, which was becoming a hip, intriguing alternative in the 1960s.
I had had some pretty strong religious experiences, so I found myself sort of past being agnostic, but deciding what to make of those experiences was less clear. A Mormon interpretation made sense, since the single strongest experience I had had came while singing to myself a song by a famous Mormon 19th century poetess, Eliza R. Snow, called "Oh My Father."
But I was doing a lot of meditating, or praying, about specific ideas and having experiences, or feedback--if you are more faithful about it, that I found I could interpret in either Mormon or Buddhist terms. One of the big issues for me had to do with the idea of the individual ego, whether it goes on and even grows in knowledge and communion with God, eternally, as Mormons think, or whether the ideal is to lose your ego, and its demands and heartbreaks, and look for a peaceful blending in with an eternal or cosmic all. I could see the attractions of both, and could sort of interpret a lot of my experiences of religious ecstasy in terms of either.
The Existentialist part is that I found that I liked the Mormon vision better and chose it. You could call that an existentialist choice, or the exercise of faith, or both. Part of the Western tradition, that has a particularly strong emphasis in Mormonism, is the desire to make progress, so I sort of shelved the really basic question for a while. I have headed in a largely, if eclectically, Mormon path since.
But I have been coming back to the question of ego, how to keep it from getting out of control (which one sees a lot of in the Ivory Tower of academe), and how to balance a hopefully healthy sense of self, with a more selfless desire to focus on others and their needs, which is pretty basic Christian thinking, in a way. But I am also thinking, this time more in terms of the Tao te Ching, which I have been reading off and on for a couple of years, which I read as dwelling on the importance of not letting all the things of the world pull you into an ego trip. (Funny how 1960s jargon stays with us boomers.)
One part of this is that an academic career, if it goes well, can really feed the old ego. Students, in particular, can really build you up -- it was real fun to see how glad many grad students were to see me back in town. Which is also useful, up to a point, because it gives us the confidence to try to do things that push the boundaries of what we know a bit. But it can set us up to expect too much and be greedy. Like I found, a bit to my surprise, that I was somewhat hurt when a student with whom I had worked quite a lot decided to do their dissertation with someone else. That is, and should be, their choice, based on who they think can help them the most, and really, my only desire should be, and hopefully will be, to help them out in any way I can.
In working this kind of thing out, it is surprisingly helpful to think about ego again, in both abstract and personal terms. One of the consolations of philosophy, particularly the Buddhist and Taoist strains, is that it can help us back away from some potentially poisonous thinking that a hurt or hungry ego can get us into. Not to mention the Christian idea of selfless love and service. (To my admittedly biased view, this is what Christianity ought to be good for, guiding us in the right direction on things like this.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Brand Austin starts here

We got back from Utah last night. Brand Austin awaited us at the airport. Twenty steps out of the plane, Lefty's Bar and Grille on Sixth Street and Barton Springs Dry Goods were there for those desperate to buy something of Austin.

Merchants in Austin have evolved an interesting strategy to get people to buy local. "Keep Austin Weird" probably means a lot of things to a lot of people, but the official version means support local stores not national or international chains.

If one of the destructive impulses of capitalism seems to be large scale conglomeration and homogenization, a la Wal-Mart, then this is an interesting corrective. Most people love the small scale commerce of a French market street, so why not the Austin version?

The selection of shops at the airport does include a number of Austin's better known faces, from restaurants to record stores to public or quasi-public entities like Austin City Limits.

So I am a bit ambivalent. I love Austin, but I sometimes wish it was not so self aware of its own loveability. Or that its loveability was not so heavily com- modified.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Alta vista, baby

To reward myself for the long snowy drive to Utah, I went to see more snow. But this time on skis at Alta, just south of Salt Lake City. It claims "the greatest snow on earth," and it might just be right.

It is a relatively simple place, relatively cheap by skiing standards, and has several of the highest, best hills around. The first picture is their illustration of their hills and trails. I skied the one in the center right and the upper and lower left.

This is a picture of the area that I grabbed off the Internet, since I did not want to lug a camera along. It was sunny and beautiful, as in this photo, and the vistas from the top were enough to keep my need for mountains satisfied after we return to the too gently rolling hills of Austin.

The snow was absolutely divine. There were 12 inches of new powder snow. So after a warm up run or two, I did a couple of runs down slopes that had not been packed down and were covered with powder. There is something truly wonderful about skiing through unbroken snow that no one else has skiied though yet. Feel free to do neo- Freudian readings of that statement but it was fun anyway.

My powder skiiing is not as impressive as that in this picture I grabbed off the Internet, but it was fun to do something I had literally not done for 15 years. It was harder work now, but hey, aging happens.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

U.S. 89 Winter Wonderland

For the last couple of days, we helped our son Chris drive his car back from Austin, Texas to school in Provo, Utah. There is not an obvious best route from Texas to Utah, but one of our favorites in the winter (when you usually want to avoid driving in Colorado) is I-10 to Phoenix then US 89 from Flagstaff up through Page and then southern Utah.

Here is a map, courtesy of the US 89 Appreciation Society, showing how it runs the full length of the USA, north to south. We drove about a third of it, the northern half of Arizona and two thirds of Utah. It is a pretty spectacular drive. So if you are ever looking for a US highway to drive to see a variety of spectacular nature in the American west, you could do worse. We used to drive it to see friends in Phoenix when we lived in Utah, then made it part of our frequent ramblings from Texas to Utah, where we often have someone in school, and Idaho, where most of my family live.

It is pretty spectacular in both summer and winter. Oddly enough, it is frequently less snowy than Interstate 15, which parallels it on the other side of a tall spur of the Rocky Mountains. Often the snow falls heavier on the western side than the eastern side of the mountains. But we hit a couple of snowy patches along the way anyway.

Here is a shot of the Sevier River along U.S. 89 in the middle of Utah near Marysvale. The river runs along much of US 89. The prettiest part is actually a bit further south from Kanab to Long Valley, but we ended up driving most of that at night this time. That part is heavily forested, so the Utah section of US 89 sort of alternates between classic western forests along a river and the red rock bluffs and hills for which Utah is probably most famous.

You can see those red rock bluffs, with all their differently colored geological strata in the next shot of the mountains further north between Richfield and Salina on US 89/ I-70.

After the very pretty but much more domes- ticated greenness of Denmark, it is sort of fun to immerse in the wild and spectacular mountains of the American west. Having grown up there, some part of me craves it pretty deeply.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Still ENFP after 30 odd years

My daughter Julia had posted her personality profile on her blog from an online - Facebook version of the Myers-Briggs personality test. Which inspired me to take it again.

I have an interesting history with all these variations on the classic Myers-Briggs personality test. Seems like I have taken it on and off ever since the 1970s. I have almost always come in as ENFP (extroverted vs. introverted, intuitive vs. sensing, feeling vs. thinking, perceiving--vs. judging, as described below, or in job oriented versions, usually recommended to be a teacher or counselor (surprise!--since I spend a lot of time teaching both undergrads and grads, and counseling grad students, both of which I really enjoy.) Conveniently enough, my wife Sandy tests out pretty much the same way, sometimes moving into INFP (more introvert, less extrovert, but otherwise similar).

Once in the early 1980s, when I was doing public opinion surveys in Latin America for the State Department/US Information Service, I took the job oriented version and, instead of teacher/counselor it said statistician. I freaked. That was the last thing on earth I wanted to be. So I plowed deeper into the dissertation that I was also working on, so that I could go become a teacher/counselor. Sometimes these things are more than online parlor games with your friends.

So, following is the current online test version's description of my supposed personality profile. It sort of fits, although I have seen more useful summations of it in versions past. But this is the Facebook version for the online masses.

You Are An ENFP

The Inspirer

You love being around people, and you are deeply committed to your friends.
You are also unconventional, irreverent, and unimpressed by authority and rules.
Incredibly perceptive, you can usually sense if someone has hidden motives.
You use lots of colorful language and expressions. You're quite the storyteller!

In love, you are quite the charmer. And you are definitely willing to risk your heart.
You often don't follow through with your flirting or professed feelings. And you do break a lot of hearts.

At work, you are driven but not a workaholic. You just always seem to enjoy what you do.
You would make an excellent entrepreneur, politician, or journalist.

How you see yourself: compassionate, unselfish, and understanding

When other people don't get you, they see you as: gushy, emotional, and unfocused