Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Didn't your graduate student become queen....., but her husband was Prime Minister.

Nigeria, Venezuela, USA, Egypt, Somalia, Korea, United Arab Emirates, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Argentina - over the years I have had 16 graduate students - roughly half of them internationals; half each men and women.

Our kids were vaguely aware of them. My first graduate student was from Nigeria, and when we took her to church one Sunday, our only child at the time just stared at her in the back seat of our Volkswagen Rabbit - Dupe said, "you have never seen a black face before, have you?"

Jump ahead eight years, and our youngest of four was just a few months old when there was a reception for the graduate students in the College that had finished their degrees. Mariam was my next-to-last finishing graduate student in California. I knew she came from a professional family in Somalia that had high expectations for how she did with her studies. At the reception she walked up and introduced me to her finance, Ali. She had spoken of him before, so I knew that he was a professor at Syracuse University, and that he had been involved in giving testimony of some kind to different international organizations in Europe. They soon were married, she moved to Syracuse and completed another graduate degree in statistics, and began having children; my wife and I moved to Oregon the next Autumn with our four kids in tow; she and her family eventually to Minnesota; we occasionally exchanged emails, but with time lost touch.

Jump ahead another 12 years. I was in Minneapolis at a conference, when just after giving a presentation up walks Mariam and an escort - she had noticed in the news that the professional societies I belong to were having their annual meetings in the city, so found the program on-line and saw I was making a presentation, and so looked me up to say hello. We asked about how each other was doing, children and parents as well - most of her family had fled Somalia to Kenya and then emigrated to either Canada or the United States. When I asked, "How is Ali?" She said in a matter-of-fact way, "Oh, he is fine, he is Prime Minister." It was time for her to go, so just as she walked up down the aisle, so she disappeared the way she came.

Jump ahead another 10 years. Our youngest is now 22 and finishing his Political Science - International Relations degree in 58 days - he is counting down the days (see his memories count-down blog). Three weeks ago we were talking about something to do with world affairs, and he asked, "Didn't your graduate student become a queen?" I replied, "No, but her husband became the Prime Minister of Somalia." I don't know how often dads and sons questions and answers line up like that in a lifetime, but it seems to me that it wouldn't be all that often - at least my way of looking at things.

Our discussion caused me to see if I could find anything about Mariam and Ali. I found they no longer living in Minnesota, or at least he as a professor at the University of Minnesota - perhaps back to Persian Gulf to run the business he owned. Somalia is still in the news, still a dangerous place to be. I wonder if Mariam will ever be able to return, or perhaps her children will some day - in more peaceful times.
Updated: May 21, 2012, from Africa Review, Apr 25th, 2012, click here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Northwest Florida Wetlands and Wildlife

In a way, you could consider us as camp followers - like those civilians during the revolutionary war who provided supplies, services, and emotional support to the troops of the Continental Army. It started with our son in the Army when stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington and me on a detail in Beltsville in the spring 2005 and then moving here in January 2006 - mostly picking up the tab for dinner every other week or so. And then when our youngest entered the Naval Academy in July 2006, my wife and I live only 10 minutes from the Yard, and so provide a quiet retreat and meals and beds to company mates when ever asked, or a fast food pickup and drop off - only a phone call away. So, with flight school a reality just over the horizon, and a report date of October 1 already locked in, why not take a look ahead of time at the environs around the Naval Air Station at Pensacola - you never know, birding and tracking training craft as they dart across the sky may become a new pass time in our future.

The Pensacola Bay system includes five interconnected estuaries: Escambia Bay, Pensacola Bay, Blackwater Bay, East Bay, and Santa Rosa Sound. The watershed also includes three major river systems: the Escambia, Blackwater, and Yellow rivers. The system also includes numerous tributaries of these estuaries and rivers including the Shoal River and Titi Creek tributaries of the Yellow River. The watershed covers nearly 7,000 square miles, about one-third of which are in Florida. The watershed includes the majority of Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, northwestern Walton County, and a substantial area of southern Alabama. The entire system discharges into the Gulf of Mexico, primarily through a narrow pass at the mouth of Pensacola Bay.

The Escambia River is a major alluvial river, which extends 240 miles northward from Escambia Bay to Bullock County, Alabama, as the Conecuh River. Its drainage area covers over 4,200 square miles, about 90 percent of which are within Alabama’s borders. The Yellow River extends 110 miles from the eastern shore of Blackwater Bay to a point northeast of Andalusia, Alabama. Its drainage basin covers 1,365 square miles, with 64 percent within northwest Florida. The Blackwater River drains approximately 860 square miles, of which 81 percent are in Florida's Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. The river originates north of Bradley, Alabama, flows about 60 miles, and discharges into Blackwater Bay. The estuarine component of the system covers approximately 144 square miles and extends approximately 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

The Pensacola Bay system supports an array of biological communities and species characteristic of a Gulf Coastal Plain riverine and estuarine system. Estuarine habitats include benthic microalgae communities, seagrass beds, oyster beds, salt marshes, planktonic and pelagic communities, and unvegetated soft bottoms. Freshwater habitats include alluvial and Blackwater rivers, bottomland hardwood forests, tupelo-cypress swamps, seepage swamps, and tidal fresh marshes. Primary land uses include an increasing urbanized area, silviculture, and state-owned forest lands (1). Shown are examples of the kinds of migratory birds that are protected in Florida and rest of the United States: a. cattle egret, b. snowy egret, c. tree shallow, d. white ibis, e. tricolored heron, f. little blue heron, and g. double-crested cormorant.

(1) The above information was copied from the Website of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. More information can be viewed at:

Spring Ritual

I was early for a meeting yesterday, so the host and I were talking before the others arrived in the meeting room. She asked if I was following the College Basketball tournament - she is a Purdue fan and they were playing for a Sweet Sixteen spot last night. I said I hadn't really been keeping track, and that being a dull person, I prefer baseball. We talked a little about that - baseball, not my dullness - and that being from the Pacific Northwest, missed the Mariners, especially in their heyday (relative heyday compared to teams like Boston).

Well, as fortune would have it, I was browsing through the major city newspaper Web pages this morning when I saw the headline on the Philadelphia Inquirer, Phil's Moyer Makes His Case. I couldn't believe it - didn't his career end last season with the elbow injury? No way to keep a good man down. He was one of our family's favorite players with Mariners, so I have at least casually kept track of him since he joined the Phillies - especially since the city is just up the road.

Phils' Moyer makes his case

Posted Sat, Mar. 27, 2010

By Matt Gelb

Inquirer Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. - After three off-season surgeries, Jamie Moyer came to spring training fighting for a job in his 24th season in the majors.

"I didn't really know what to expect, because I haven't been through this kind of thing in the past," Moyer said. "So, you know what? Go wing it. See what happens."

It's working.

The 47-year-old lefthander all but guaranteed his spot as the fifth starter in the Phillies' rotation with a dominating effort last night.

Facing a New York Yankees lineup filled with regulars except Jorge Posada and Nick Johnson, Moyer cruised. He allowed just two base runners over 62/3 innings and struck out six. He walked none. The Phillies won, 3-0.

Moyer retired the final 15 batters he faced.

"He looked pretty good, didn't he?" Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He threw good quality strikes down. Even when he missed, he was close. He dropped a little yo-yo on them."

Manuel declined to name Moyer the fifth starter, but everything suggests he will earn the job. Early in the spring, pitching coach Rich Dubee anointed Moyer the favorite. Dubee said he did that because of Moyer's track record. Moyer has won 258 games over 23 seasons. He is also due to make $8 million in 2010.

But Kyle Kendrick has been impressive enough this spring to raise doubts. Over 192/3 innings, he has a 1.37 ERA. Throw in that the Phillies removed Moyer from the starting rotation in mid-season 2009 and his hold on the spot looked precarious.

Moyer has dispelled those doubts.

"I've never felt at any time there was urgency to do anything," he said. "Or prove anything. Or work out in a certain way. You just try and monitor every day for what it is and take it from there."

Against the Yankees, he pitched at a steady pace. He needed just 79 pitches, and no more than 16 in any one inning.

He allowed a single to Marcus Thames, the second batter of the game. That was New York's only hit. The other batter to reach base was Curtis Granderson, who was hit by a pitch in the second on a 1-0 count.

It was Moyer's second Grapefruit League appearance. In 112/3 innings, he has allowed one run. He also started three B games earlier in the spring. Two were three-inning scoreless outings. In the other, his lone hiccup this spring, Moyer allowed five runs on eight hits in three innings.

Expect to see him in the rotation.

"It doesn't surprise me," Manuel said of Moyer's performance. "I've seen him go to the minor leagues twice and you think he's done, and he fought his way back to become a heck of a pitcher. When he came to spring training this year, I expected him to be in pretty good shape and working hard. Nothing's changed. It's who he is."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Old Crow

There are random days when the hours in the office run long (1). But when my wife takes one of her six or so trips back to Oregon each year to see the grandchildren, I don't have a lot of motivation to go home to an empty house, so will work until seven or eight in the evening while she is gone. The sights at night in the city are a lot different than a quiet evening in our neighborhood after I turn off the one boulevard that feeds the Annapolis Neck Peninsula. Even though it is Washington, D.C., big city, things are pretty quiet around the National Mall after normal work hours, especially in winter. The way the Whitten Building is lit at night gives it a bit of an eerie look - something like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. But as I walk east on Jefferson Avenue towards the Smithsonian Castle, and then turn onto the Mall towards the Metro entrance, the view north up 12th Street looks totally different - like a long canyon off in the distance, lit by street and traffic lights, people busy doing their after-hours living, silent, life that doesn't hold still.

The Washington D.C. Metro system is remarkable - you can go down into the ground, and then sometime later come up in some other place a long ways from where you were. I have only driven into downtown D.C. a handful of times in four years - why drive when you can ride anywhere all day for $7. The Metro is also amazing because people from all walks of life ride it together. It is the great mixer for society - suit-and-tie kinds like me, maintenance workers, college students with their text books, nervous-looking tourists worried they will miss their stop, government workers of all kinds and colors, loud kids riding to their high schools or returning with supervising teachers from a field trip, young moms with little ones in strollers, uniformed enlisted and officers from every service branch, and the occasional panhandler, evangelist, or homeless person sleeping in a corner seat. In the middle of the day you can catch a train just-in-time, or just miss the one you need and end up waiting 15 minutes for the next one and so for sure be late for your next appointment. You can also not pay attention to what you are doing, and hop on the wrong line and end up going where you didn't intend - but always count on eventually getting to where you want to be.

It was one of those latish evenings when I arrived at the Landover station (2) and emerged to a chorus of thousands and thousands of crows perched in the trees around the parking lot. I should have known something was awry when I first parked there in the morning - the parking lot was more white-wash colored than dark pavement - the white lines blurred by Jackson Pollock-like paint blotches randomly patterned over an asphalt canvas. Even now, more than a month later, the branches of trees which have not yet leafed look like birch - white arms tangled together, reaching to the sky.

It was a scene right out of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds - potential for urban terror in the Maryland suburbs - a long ways from Bonita Bay on the northern California coast where nature ran amuck (3). The birds in the trees were squawking at the intruding commuters below. Every once in awhile a couple of dozen or so took flights briefly, and then either landed where they just were, or in other trees a short distance away. What were those cinematic evil-reputationed pluckers of Suzanne Pleshette's eyeballs going to do while I walked through the parking lot? I walked calmly to my car, and then slowly drove away to the exit gate and out onto the street, all the while looking into the rear view mirror - were Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren sitting in the back seat?

(1) One Friday afternoon, after I hung up the phone from talking with someone, the message waiting light was flashing - the Administrator of my agency wanted me to give him a call. The first thing he said when I returned the call was, "...don't you know you should never answer the phone after 2:00 on a Friday?" All of a sudden I had a briefing paper that needed to be written by COB - close of business - which means before going home.

(2) Parking at Metro stations is an art. I normally use New Carrollton Station, but if I am going to arrive after 8:00 AM, I know that it is unlikely that I will find a parking place in the eight story parking structure. From experience, I have learned to continue driving west on Route 50 to the East-West Highway exit and then on surface roads to the Landover Station where a parking spot is sure to be found. Alternatively, if arriving around 10:00 AM at any Metro station parking lot, you can park in the reserved spots that are held otherwise between 2:00 and 10:00 AM - it is amazing how many people don't read the fine print on those reserved parking signs and don't park there, even though they are fair game.

(3) I remember first seeing this movie as a kid on television - a creepy black and white story where natural peril lurks waiting around the corner of every scene. It is one of those movies that affects children for a lifetime because there is no resolution in the end, leaving you wondering even as an adult, waiting for the terror to begin all over again.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A New Eye for Detail

When my folks retired and moved off the farm to town five years ago, I acquired all of the color photographic slides my mom had taken since 1950. The intent was for me to scan them into a digital format and share them with the rest of the family. When we were young, once a year we would set up the old metallic-smelling projector and screen in the living room and have a family slide show - lots of family stories were locked into my memory at those times. Some time well before the move, my mom organized all of the slides that had been held in orange-colored Kodak slide boxes - twenty to a box - into carousel holders - an intermediate antiquated technology before digital. Just before Christmas, I sampled a half dozen or so slides from each of the 15 carousel trays to scan and load into a digital frame we were giving my folks as their gift - a 60 year swath of family memories. As I did so, I was struck by how much horses and the Sierra Nevada mountains were a part of my family - trips to places like Horse Coral, Funston Meadows, Roaring River, Painters Camp, Garfield Grove, Big Wet Meadow... Later, there were trips of my own - backpacking with a map in my pack to places like Mineral King, Hamilton Lake, Eagle Lake, Valhalla, Big Arroyo Canyon, Kaweah Gap, Sawtooth Pass, Kings Canyon... My dad could never figure out why I would walk rather than ride a horse - "at least take a mule with you to carry your pack." (1)

My Dad loves horses and the mountains. I am sure he farmed because it was more profitable, but deep down, he was always a cowboy and a mountain man. In Smith of Wooton Major, a young boy, not-so-much-by-luck, ingests a silver star baked in the Great Cake of the Feast of Good Children. As a result, the star becomes a part of his forehead and later allows him safe passage through the Land of Faery as a man, until his time had passed and so another may follow. And so it was for my dad - like Starbrow - when in his 70's he lost his star on a pack trip to the high country. He had a serious reaction to the elevation, and so like Smith from Wooten Major, he knew that was his last journey and that he wouldn't return - it broke his heart to sell his mules and all of his pack gear - there was no going back again. (2)

For me, there was much less drama when my time had passed, or just slipped away. I haven't done any serious backpacking into Faery country for more than 30 years, and it is unlikely I will ever try to again for a combination of reasons over time - too many kids with too my sports events to go to, too out of shape, a bad back, too little time on my hands... As we prepared to move east three-and-a-half years ago, I found that after years of neglect my Jansport Trail Wedge tent's rain fly had disintegrated, as had the padding around the rim of my Kastinger hiking boots, and my walking stick - the one Colin Fletcher insisted one must have for trekking - all into the dumpster. On one of the many trips to the Goodwill Store while still cleaning out the garage and basement, I donated my Mountain Master backpack - a huge external frame contraption by today's standards that from behind looked like a semi-truck going down the trail. It was funny how the college'ish aged fellow who sorted our stuff took note of the pack - he remarked, "it's a classic"... I said, "I know." (3)

At last he found a road through the Outer Mountains, and he went on till he came to the Inner Mountains, and there were high and sheer and daunting. Yet in the end he found a pass that he could scale, and upon a day of days greatly daring he came through a narrow cleft and looked down, though he did not know it, into the Vale of Evermorn where the green surpasses the green of the meads of Outer Faery as they surpass ours in springtime. There the air is so lucid that eyes can see the red tongues of birds as they sing on the trees upon the far side of the valley, though that is very wide and the birds are no greater than wrens.

Roaring River
On the inner side of the mountains went down in long slopes filled with the sound of bubbling waterfalls, and in great delight he hastened on. As he set food upon the grass of the Vale he heard elven voices singing, and on a lawn beside a river bright with lilies he came upon many maidens dancing. The speed and the grace and the ever changing modes of the movements enchanted him, and he stepped forward towards their ring. Then suddenly they stood still, and a young maiden with flowing hair and kilted skirt came out to meet him.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wooten Major, 1967

A year ago this past February, my wife and I flew to Missouri for the retirement party of a close friend. Paul and I go back to undergraduate and graduate schools days together - Fresno State, Oregon State. We also did collaborative research together for decades. We flew into St. Louis and then drove to Columbia for the party - only Charlotte, Paul's wife, knew we were coming. Thus starts the next phase of generational experiences....retirements in my age cohort.

Recent photo by my friend Paul
We spent the night after the party at their home, had a leisurely morning together, toured their Boone County property - the farm, and then rushed back to the airport after lunch for our return trip east. With soon-to-have-plenty-of-time, Paul was planning a High Sierra adventure for this past summer and invited me to join him - of course, not having found the silver retirement star in my cake and not-soon-to-have-plenty-of-time on my brow, I had to pass on the offer. Months later I got an email from Paul, and attached was a photograph of what I missed. When I opened the image, I was struck by the diversity of plants in the scene - years ago I would have never noticed.

A first notice of trees
Immediately I was taken back to August 1969 when I had my first trip up in the Sierra with my dad and brothers - on horses with pack mules, not backpacking - and how I was not all that enthralled with spending hours, bored, sitting on a horse getting-to-where-we-were-going and knowing how long it would take. It was somewhere along one of the worn trails in the Kern River Basin when all of a sudden I realized there were more kinds of plants out there than green - trees, grass, and ferns. That was a pivotal moment for me, the starting point that would eventually take me on my own treks to Faery - setting me off in directions through places that led me to the classes I later took in college with their own strange languages that can describe another faery: Botany, Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, Systems Ecology, Autecology, Plant Geography, Rangeland Ecology, Seed Technology - and dialects used where I work today: Sustainability, Organic Agriculture, Food Systems and Rural Development, Renewable Energy and Biofuels, Systems Architecture. Strange words to others' ears, but ones that are a part of the star on my forehead that let me pass into foreign lands.

(1) I don't know whose blog link this is, but the places in their photographs are the same places I have been, just a lot of years earlier - everything looks the same, but I wouldn't want to drink the water right out of the streams any more, as we did then from a tin cup hooked on our packs.

(2) All of the mules went to a pack station near Kings Canyon National Park - my dad's hobby had been breeding the palomino-colored mule string he took to the mountains each year. Back down in the Valley, he would occasionally ride a mule when checking the cattle out on the remnant prairie pasture our family had leased from another family for 80 years. The story goes that once when out looking over the cows and their new calves, his mount wyley took a sudden side-step that left Dad with hang-time in mid-air momentarily, before crashing to the ground - like in a Roadrunner cartoon. After gathering himself up - broken ribs and his pride - he deftly picked up a stick, thrashed the mule in between the ears to show who was still boss, and then remounted for the ride back to corral without further incident.

(3) When I bought the Mountain Master pack, it was the top rated backpack in Backpacker magazine. I remember it was manufactured in Fresno by Denali. A quick check on the Web showed that packs (modern ones) are still manufactured under the Denali brand, but I could not find the place where manufactured - probably Thailand.