Category Archives: culture

Love Springs Forth in Springfield

Springfield, Colorado

Springfield, Colorado

I had never heard of Springfield, Colorado before. Springfield, Illinois: Yes. Springfield, Missouri: Yes. But Springfield, Colorado: Never. Have you? The sad fact is that we should all know about Springfield, Colorado. For Springfield is in the heart of the Dust Bowl. A terrifying, but also encouraging, lesson can be learned here–especially today–as we seek to deal with the recent oil spill off our Gulf Coast.

My introduction to Springfield Colorado proved to be a delightful affair–the wedding of my son Noah Evans to Sarah Moffett, a lovely young woman, who had grown up there.

Tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars raging; and this was Republican territory 

Although my husband Brock and I had already spent some time with Sarah’s parents–Joel and Sheila–as well as many other family members, we left Washington on the weekend of the wedding not knowing what to expect. After all, tea kettles were boiling; cultural wars were raging; and this was Republican territory. Along we came, east coast Democrats, and environmentalists to boot.

We were not the only ones who were somewhat tenuous about our final destination. Driving five hours from Denver, my husband stopped to ask a policeman for directions to Springfield. How were we to interpret his answer? The policeman had never heard of Springfield before! En route to the wedding from New Jersey, my son Stephen got similar vibes when the car rental representative at the airport advised him that there were far better places to visit in Colorado than Springfield.

And to be sure, from the perspective of a New Jersey girl, Springfield appeared somewhat stark, to say the least. Much of it seemed to live in the past. With many storefronts boarded up, there was not much to see. So, even arriving late at night, along a barren truck route that suddenly turned into Main Street, we found our destination–The Starlight Motel–straight away.

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

Haley, Ben & Sophie at Picture Canyon (courtesy Steve Garcia)

 A morning hike to, and exploration of, Picture Canyon provided a glimpse of the panoramic grasslands that make up part of the United States’ Eastern Plains. Accompanied by lots of wind and tumble weed, we climbed the rocks and eyed the delicate wildflowers pushing through the dry ground.

In Springfield, the ebullience and generosity of the Moffett clan pervaded the atmosphere, as we all gathered together in the backyard to witness the wedding of Sarah and Noah. A wonderful reception followed. Everyone–family, friends, young and old–pitched in. How else, one might ask, would it be possible to transform a large farm structure, on the family’s ranch property, into an elegant wedding ballroom, with delicious home-made food for all, where East met West, Red met Blue, and some–I am told–danced till three.

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

The Wedding of Sarah & Noah

Back home, recovering from bronchitis (altitude + grasslands!), I sought to find out more about Springfield, Colorado, and its history as part of the Dust Bowl. Everyone recommended that I read The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Eagan. I am so glad I did! However, the book, which described how the people of the Plains not only helped to cause the great Dust Bowl, but also managed to survive it, haunts me still.  Now I understand, at a far greater depth, the long, lonely horizon that I saw on encountering Springfield. But I take hope knowing that the young people I met at the wedding are starting out with hopes anew, even as Sarah’s father, Joel, is working for the National Resources Conservation Service (established by President Roosevelt to deal with the crisis of the Thirties) to help restore and preserve the landscape’s future.  Perhaps there is hope for the Gulf as well.

Creating a Creativity Curriculum

My Muse Sparky

Believe me! Never in my life have I had to turn so much to my muse– my ever faithful dog, Sparky. The reason for seeking his inspiration on this occasion was my decision to teach a new course on Networks and the Creative Process.

As in all creative efforts (Austin 2003), this decision was, to a large degree, a matter of chance.  Initially, I had planned to teach a course on networks and cooperation–a topic that, with hindsight, seems relatively bland. However, flying home from a trip to Utah, I began reading Keith Sawyers insightful book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Deflating prevailing myths that circumscribe present-day thinking about creativity, Sawyer lays out the case for viewing creativity as an emergent, collaborative process, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind.

Reading Sawyer’s book, I was enthralled. My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind. I intuitively knew that a course on creativity would bring all my interests together in the context of complexity science. However, gut feelings aside, I knew very little about the subject of creativity. Nonetheless, I eagerly signed up to teach the course.

Operating in the dark, I delved into whatever literature I could find, contributing significantly–I think–to Amazon’s profit margin. There I sat, in my office chair, piles of books strewn all around me, in the vain hope that I might absorb some of the content through osmosis. To no avail! So I began to read, and read and read–books about neuroscience, personality disorders, flow, improvisation, serendipity, audience reactions, the new, creative economy, Florence and the Di Medici, and more.

Old Woman Reading

Digesting all of this reading, I learned that creativity required passion and hard work in mastering a field; an open mind able to tolerate ambiguity; a willingness to take on risk, and to persist, even as an outsider; curiosity when confronted with anomalies; as well as flexibility to capture the opportunities afforded by chance and serendipity. And so, inspired by this charge, I moved on. . .

When the time came for me to put together the syllabus, I had a skeleton of an idea. Building on the work of Sawyer and his mentor Mihaly Csikszentmihali, I looked at creativity as an ongoing, iterative process in which the creator is but a single element within a larger system, which includes the creator, a field, and an authoritative domain. My hope, however, is to go beyond Csikszentmihali’s characterization of a system, and to flesh out each element–beginning with the brain and extending outward to the cultural arena–showing how each element is itself a complex system, nested and linked within a larger complex system.

My syllabus is, however, a working document at best. It serves, merely, as a starting point and set of guidelines for a classroom improvisation. My students are highly creative, each in their own ways. They not only bring their own diverse experiences to class; they also actively participate in developing the evolving narrative. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Or so says my dog Sparky!

Those Far Away Places

come with me on a Magic carpet...from Lollygagging

come with me on a Magic carpet...from Lollygagging

Only a few weeks ago, I travelled across the globe from New York to Beijing in half a day. I felt like I was on a magic carpet–here one minute, and there the next. To be sure, this was not the first time I had engaged in flights of fancy. In my childhood, such experiences were commonplace. You see, my home on Lafayette Avenue, in Hawthorne New Jersey, was literally just a hop, skip, and jump from our local library. So it was there that I spent many afternoons, transporting myself to far away places via the books on the library’s shelf.

Three books, in particular, inspired my Wander Lust as well as my life long interest in learning about other cultures. All about China, they included Oil for the Lamps of China by Alice Tibert Holbart, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and The Imperial Woman. The latter book, which recounted the story of how a concubine became the Dowager Empress, raised the librarians’ eyebrows, who then reported to my father that I was reading books far too advanced  for my years.

the librarians reported to my father that I was reading books far too advanced for my years. 

But it was not my father who brought an end to my China fantasies. Always supportive of any efforts on my part to learn, my father assured the librarians that I could handle emotionally any book that I could read.  The damper on my literary choices resulted, instead, from the political reaction in the United States to the Yalta Conference, Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.  China was no longer an acceptable agenda.

It was only in the late 1980s that I finally got to go to Asia–in this instance to Taiwan. Having recently completed the OTA study, Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information, I was asked to join a group of lawyers from The Asia Foundation, to speak to the justices of the Taiwanese Supreme Court about intellectual property rights. No matter that OTA’s position was in opposition to those of the other lawyers; for the Agency’s report was, in fact, strongly opposed to copyrighting software. Before taking off, I asked my son what he wanted me to bring home from Taiwan–imagining, of course, some kind of inspiring cultural object. I’d like a counterfeit Rolex watch, he said, in all sincerity. At a loss to explain how this might belie the purpose of my trip, I was resigned to disappointing my 13 year old son.

I’d like a counterfeit Rolex watch, he said, in all sincerity. 

Arriving in Taipei, I was in for a shock. Where was the China of Pearl Buck, I asked myself? Lit up in neon lights, Taipei rustled and bustled like 42nd street. But this was not my only surprise; although I failed to convince my colleagues and the Supreme Court Justices that copyright protection was inappropriate for software, I did achieve my secondary objective. I managed to purchase not one, but two, counterfeit rolex watches–one for my son and one for me! 2144842814_baf390604a_m How, you might ask, did this happen? It was out of the blue. Walking back to the hotel one day, a man accosted me: “Lady, do you want to buy a Rolex watch,” he asked? I hesitated in disbelief, but, before I could reply, he gracefully guided me inside a doorway, and then through another, into a room where counterfeit watches, including all the name brands, were neatly laid out, one next to the other, across the entire room. That night our group went out to dinner. To my surprise, we were accompanied by an Asian representative of the US Chamber of Commerce, Worse yet, I was wearing my counterfeit Rolex, and –of all things–he sat right next to me. I managed to eat my dinner with my right hand and the watch hidden in my lap, while keeping a conversation going, even as my food spattered every which way. The axiom is true; Crime doesn’t pay.

Years after my Rolex had petered out, I had the good fortune to return to China, this time to speak to the Global Forum, on the subject of the digital divide. My colleague and friend Tonya accompanied me. We both were eager to wander the streets and engage directly in the local life. And so we did, far more than we had anticipated. One evening, we went for a stroll in search of a ‘bar’ where we might get a beer. Closing the Bar Door, by Puffett As we sat there, drinking our beers, we noticed that most of the clients were male.

“Sorry, no money, no honey.” 

Naive as we were, we did not realize that we were in a red light enterprise until one of the bar maids, who had been playing cards with a young man across the bar, told him most emphatically: “Sorry, no money, no honey.” Not long after, Tonya and I strolled back to our hotel, but not before we got a photo of the bar door, a signal we had missed when entering, in our eagerness to find a bar. So much for local culture.

Three weeks ago I returned to China; this time to Beijing to make a presentation on the challenges of global standard setting. Fortunately, I was able to mix business and pleasure–for my student Ming, who had taken a semester off, met me at the airport, and guided me around the city, chatting all the while, to places and back streets I might never have otherwise seen. But best of all was the evening I spent with Ming’s  family, which was–to say the least–true quality time.Ming and Me  After so many years, I was grateful to engage in an authentic and intense dialogue with a real Chinese family, each member so delightful and fascinating.   It was a dialogue that I hope will go on for many years to come. As you might imagine, after such a special time, there were tears in our eyes when we said goodbye.

Flying home I reflected on my life-long fascination with China. As I visit China, and engage with my Chinese students, I am struck by the many similarities among our peoples. Pearl Buck seems but a shadow in the past. Could it be that it is the remembrance of me, at age 11, sitting on the floor in the library on Lafayette Avenue in Hawthorne New Jersey, the tantalizing books arrayed on the shelves above, that is today what is so long ago and far away.

Playing Around

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

In today’s scandal-ridden environment, one might think that the title of my blog refers to the recent tales of our politicians’ sexual machinations, which reporters and bloggers have so voraciously been fleshing out (no pun intended). In fact, the inspiration was wholly otherwise. 

It so happened that this adorable picture of my youngest grandson, Kaydon, arrived just as I was reading Johan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens (1971). In this book, Huizinga makes the case that play is not a reflection of culture, but rather culture is the outcome of play. As evidence, he points out that all animals play, even though no one teaches them the rules of the game: to the contrary, the rules–that is to say cultures–evolve in the course of the play.

Playing elephant calves

Playing elephant calves

An interesting argument–but for me, the picture of Kaydon, with the spoon affixed with oatmeal to the end of his nose, was more telling. I could imagine his mother Sarah laughing at the silliness of it all, which made me wonder, what is this game? Don’t all children play it? How was it invented? As well, who in this situation is making up the rules–Kaydon or his mother? Don’t you suspect it was both?

I had to wonder, where did this game come from; who is making up these rules?

It wasn’t much later that my grandson Ben tramped through the woods to our porch, clenching a water pistol in his fist, and looking suspiciously all around. What’s up, I asked? “Nothing much,” he said. “We are playing Cops and Robbers.” Having fun, I continued? Oh, it’s okay, he said. The problem is that Brody is breaking the rules. He’s supposed to be a Cop, but he is playing on the Robbers’ team. Hm, I thought–what rules? Where did they come from–culture? Which comes first, the culture or the game? The truth be told, they must emerge, co-evolving together.

Light reading.  The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

Light reading. The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

As one might deduce from the content of my blog, as well as the previous one, I continue to play around with my colleague Garrison Le Masters trying to find a good way to relate standards to play and virtual worlds. For my part, it requires testing the waters of cultural studies, reading outside my field, and translating an entirely new vocabulary into something that I am familiar with. So far Garrison and I seem to be converging around some of Durkheim’s ideas: For Garrison, it’s the notion of wholeness, integration, what he calls the sacred. For me, its quite similar. I am drawn to the concept of emergent holism–the outcome of symbolic interaction (R. Keith Sawyer)

For now, we are still thinking it through–book by book. In the meantime, thank goodness that I have my grandchildren to help me sort out what play is really all about! .

Games People Play

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

On the recommendation of my colleague Garrison Le Masters, I brought the book, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse, by Mihai I. Spariosu, to read during my vacation at Lake Hawthorne. Garrison and I had spent many hours over the last few years comparing our common interests through different disciplinary perspectives–he from a cultural studies perspective and I through the lens of social science. Often engaged in these endeavors, we decided to collaborate on a project that would build on both our strengths–a paper that explored whether the criteria typically used for evaluating standardization at the lower levels of ICT networks served well for applications at the highest levels such as, in our chosen case, video games and virtual worlds. We plan to present the paper at this year’s Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC). 0801423279

Not knowing very much about the subject of play–at least from an academic perspective–I decided to get up to speed by reading Spariosu. Despite all of the playful moments in my childhood–catching turtles, trying to beat the boys at king of the mountain, acting out various fantasy roles such as homemakers, storekeepers, librarians, and even fairy queens transported by eggshells in a magic kingdom–I had never systematically thought about play; at most I viewed play as an adventure, or exploration. Thus, I often associated play with excitement and risk (even if imaginary); for in my experience a playful romp might start out innocently enough, but eventually it could lead to trouble–as, for example, when as children we developed an elaborate plan to track down the rumored ghost in an abandoned house down our street, only–upon entry–to be greeted by the police.

By any measure, reading Dionysus Reborn here on my porch abutting the lake–where once I listlessly day dreamed reading Ivanhoe, Lorna Doon, and Vanity Fair, is anything but play. Rather, it is extraordinarily hard work. I am lucky if I can read fifty pages in a day. Only now do I understand why my cultural studies colleagues assign such a limited number of pages to their students. “Its all about interpreting the text,” they say. I must agree! The problem is not so much the numerous references in German and French–I can manage these. No, it’s the long unfamiliar latin-based English words, which make references to references on top of even more obtuse references.

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

To proceed I have to follow my father’s advice to me when I was learning to read–substitute the word wheel barrel for every word I can’t understand. No surprise, then, that I am beginning to think the subject of this book is more about gardening than about play. At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me.

At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me. 

It is on this basis that I have decided to become more light hearted about this whole affair. I will use my blog to explore this subject further, that is to say, to play with some ideas. As in all games, It’s risky, but it also should be fun. Where do I stand at this point? From my readings to date, I understand there is an on-going historic conflict between a pre-rational, free-wheeling notion of play (as characterized by Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida) and a more rational conception of play (as understood by Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Schiller). Moreover, these two perspectives parallel what many past ‘thinkers’ believe to be an underlying conflict between the forces of chance vs. those of necessity. I have an inkling that this conflict can be reconciled within the framework of complexity theory and Stuart Kaufman‘s concepts of fitness levels and fitness landscapes, which in turn can also be linked to standardization and standards. But, to sort it out will take a lot more playing on my part.