Friday, November 13, 2009

Over My Head

"The best way to graduate from beginner is to get in way over your head. Nothing makes you better faster."
--37 signals

I saw this quotation on a web site, The American Entrepreneur, and felt a spark of encouragement. I had recently jumped into a learning experience that was reminding me what it feels like to be a beginner again.

As a teacher at Point Park University, I can take an undergraduate course once in a while. On-line Journalism sounded like just what I wanted to learn--creating blogs, making web sites look nice, and writing for the web. We gather twice a week in a sunny computer classroom equipped with the latest and greatest Apples. I'm in heaven, because at home I have a computer that is so old HP won't support it anymore and no Internet. Here in the classroom, I can go anywhere in the world.

The "we" of this course is made up mostly of undergraduate students who are younger than my children. They are nice to me, very accepting of the gray-haired lady in their midst. I try to keep up, and I try not to ask too many questions; but at times they are many steps ahead of me following the directions of the professor, Heather Starr-Fiedler, while I am scribbling notes and wondering "what did she say?" In taking this course, I am learning not only new moves on the keyboard but also a new vocabulary.

On the first day, I learned what "RSS" stands for, where it is and what it can do for me! I was thrilled. Now I get daily updates from The Wall Street Journal, as well as local news outlets. I can embed an HTML code, add a slide show to my blog, play around however awkwardly with "Audacity," and create audio interviews. Our teacher is not only a professor but also a practitioner--the founder and managing director of the web site Pittsburgh Mom. I may be a beat or two behind the nimble minds of my classmates, but I am learning things that I never would have discovered if I had not gotten in way over my head.

Scattered Parcels in Pittsburgh

Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold was an American conservationist who believed that the land is more than mere property. It is part of a biotic community, of which we too are members. He wrote his most revered book, The Sand County Almanac, while living on an old farm in Wisconsin. The land had been worn out, and he set about to restore it to health and productivity.

Leopold died the year I was born, 1948. His book is a treasured companion of mine--sometimes reading it restores me to health and productivity.

I like Leopold's thinking partly, too, because he does not believe that the government can solve all of our problems or relieve individuals and corporations of the responsibility to care for the land on which we depend. In his essay, "The Land Ethic," he explains that there are many scattered parcels of land that have virtually no economic value, such as marshes, bogs, dunes and deserts. Yet they need our stewardship as much as prime real estate or valuable farm land does. "The difficulty," he says, "is that these communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; the government cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels."

While there are no bogs or dunes in downtown Pittsburgh, I went in search of "scattered parcels," little pieces of land interspersed with more valuable property. With the help of my younger son and his photographic skills, we found that some pretty impressive little parcels are tucked here and there between the towering financial services and mixed-use office buildings in our compact golden triangle.

How much these lovely little parks and parcels signal a greater concern for the environment by large corporations, I do not know. However, I am grateful that large companies and smaller property owners think that it is important and valuable to plant trees and dig winding paths (PNC First Avenue Park) or plant a fountain of water spouts in the ground (PPG Plaza) that little kids can run through on a summer day.

It is worthwhile to take a walk around the city and see how many of these quirky havens you can find. Rest your eyes, or rest your feet. Aldo Leopold's words do apply: "If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversity and beauty to his farm and to his community." It may not appear in a corporate mission statement, but Pittsburgh apparently has several custodians of beauty.