Saturday, November 1, 2014

what are you?

me and my brothers (August 1976)

Nature ID is my learning tool to help me find answers when I take pictures of little living things, here and there, plants, butterflies, what have you, and I ask, "What are you?" The funny thing is, I get asked this question all the time of me. Even when it's not Halloween. By complete strangers.  "What...  are...  you?" in a loud, slow, measured way, as if I can't hear (uh, yes, I have a hearing impairment, but that's beside the point).  I get asked as if I were somehow not human.  As if I were a chair, or a dog.  "What are you?"  I've been asked so often in my life that I count down, 3, 2, 1, for the follow-up questions that are sure to come in rapid-fire succession, "Chinese?  Japanese?  No?  What are you?"  It used to piss me off.  Okay.  It still pisses me off. I have yet to come up with a witty reply, because so often I'm stunned into silence by the sheer surprise of the question.  Any suggestions?

Andy has been lamenting that I haven't been posting to my blog very much recently.  He's been extremely supportive of this hobby I started over 5 years ago, which is now a huge part of my life.  After a couple crappy job interviews this past spring, I decided to use what I love about Nature ID and what I've learned and direct all my energies into something new, something yet undefined, something of my own creation.  And, it's scary.

I'm now asking myself that same funny, pissy question, "What are you?"  Haha.  I'm in one of those awkward developing and gangly growing stages, and more than ever, I'm afraid of looking like an idiot.  Am I merely one of those annoying people who asks far too many inappropriate questions?  Am I a naturalist?  Am I a lepidopterist?  Am I a botanist?  Am I a phenologist?  Am I a citizen scientist?  Am I an actual scientist?  What does that even mean?  Where will I be in another 5 years?

So, I don't know how to proceed with this blog.   I've learned a lot this year, and it's difficult to translate that as a continuing process in an online format that gets forever saved in time by RSS feeds and search engine spiders.  Hey, as I find errors on Nature ID, I've gone back and corrected them.  And, there are a lot of errors.  Eh-hem.

Time and time again, I've seen how misinformation gets spread around by people who act like they know everything.  I think we all fool ourselves at times, some more than others, even though I'd like to believe I'm self-aware and forthright when I don't know something.  It's been called to my attention that this gives off the impression that I don't know much of anything, especially among folks who apparently know even less and who actually advised me to shut up and blindly defer to the old guys.

This does not sit well with me.

There were a couple years or so while I was learning English, when I could understand what people were saying, but I could not speak it.  My mother told me that I was a chatterbox when I first arrived, but as soon as I figured out that no one around could understand me in my native language, she said I went quiet for a very long time.  Quite frankly, I was scared silent by the strange, slow monster speak coming from these fair-skinned giants with big, blue eyes.  Once I got the hang of English, she joked that she could never get me to shut up again.  Ha!

I've discovered I'm in a similar situation now, in that I understand a lot more than I have the vocabulary to express.  It's frustrating as hell.  However, just like when I was a kid playing with the big boys, I can stand up for myself, even if I can't speak the speak of all the -ists out there. Yet.  Watch out, guys!

ps - It's National Adoption Month, btw.

pss 01/15/15 - For those still hung up on the question "What are you?" that I purposely did not answer, please refer to this New York Times article on adoptees returning to their home country.  It's not an easy question to answer when you've lived it like I have.

pss 05/18/19 - The thoughts and words I typed out here were completely my own in 2014.  Imagine my surprise to find people's comments about Keanu Reeves and their own experiences regarding the ridiculously offensive question of "What are you?"


Imperfect and Tense said...

I don't know about the impolite 'what', but the 'who' (at least to the denizens of Tense Towers) is the knowledgeable and respected California Katie.

You can ID a whole bunch of stuff, plants AND animals, which I guess makes you a generalist to some degree. And as you point out, you're comfortable with asking questions when you discover something you can't ID, which is a pretty healthy attitude, I'd say.

It wouldn't surprise me to hear you reel off the scientific classification of modern humans, from Kingdom to Subspecies, as your answer to the 'what'. Then ask the inquirer, "How about you?"

biobabbler said...

Oh, so many topics I could launch into. Wow. BUT, I'll try to be brief. [p.s. I failed... =) ]

From my perspective you are a person who sees nature, wants to learn about it, DOES learn about it, then shares those results to help others learn & see & appreciate nature. Not sure that even needs a label, but to me, that's ALL good. Watch & learn & share. Super generous.

I've struggled w/the "I don't know" thing and decided I don't care if people think that means I don't know much. Note: I DECIDED I would not care. Not that I just magically didn't care. I made it a personal policy.

Generally, the VERY smartest people I've known (and I've known some SERIOUS smarties, like mentors of mentors) are the FIRST to say, "Hm... that's an interesting question. I don't know!" That is STEP ONE in science. Seriously. Intellectual bravery.

I've even seen people react if I say "I don't know" but not anyone I know really well, whom I know to be self-confident, non-judgmental, and a life-long learner.

Also: on many occasions I've asked questions in meetings that I 100% know the answer to, but suspect others don't know, or aren't super clear on, 'cause it's hampering group progress.

It takes cojones to say you don't know, and anyone who doesn't appreciate that, and thinks less of anyone for saying that has just revealed something about themselves. "I don't know" people are the ones I'd hire. Faking it is not a trait I want to work with. Intellectual honesty and bravery are HUGE. And precious and rare.

Anyhow, I think you rock.

AND, my response to "What are you" would probably be a surprised/confused look, a brief pause, and (in order to learn, 'cause I don't know) ask them, "What are you?"

My question would show them what it's like to hear that, and their answer would probably help me figure out what they want to know. Then I'd make them answer their question first. That means that if they are asking something too personal, they may balk, and if they fling their info out there, then they probably didn't mean to be nosey. They're just curious.

I listened to a radio thing about etiquette and the guest suggested if someone asks something you find very personal, you can just ask them "Why do you want to know" to give them the opportunity to self-reflect, and at least MAYBE realize they are asking something personal. If not, you can just say "that's not something I talk about" or some such.

I have straight up asked people about their ethnicity when I learn their name, usually their last name, 'cause I'm a total word nerd, and am sincerely interested. Was also an anthro minor, so just love learning where people's people are from. The world is a fascinating place.


Neil Kelley said...

Rad photo!

Cindy said...

What the heck is a phenologist? I think I know but that's a durn cool word. Just another example of how Katie Nature ID stimulates curiosity and questions.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Oh, Graeme, I've tried with "I'm a human!" but it just goes over their head because the moment they ask the question, they've already objectified me as an "oriental" thing. I sometimes reply back in French. That, too, gets lost in translation. I'm guessing I'd have a hard time understanding you when you speak, similar to your Orkney experiences ;)

bb, I so appreciate your enthusiasm. You commented about this a couple years ago, and I admit I didn't fully understand at the time. I do now, having seen people bluster their way to save face and make stuff up, which leads to bad info and bad decisions. I've been spoiled by Art Shapiro, who is the first to admit he doesn't know everything about butterflies. Gotta respect him!

Ha, Neil! The older I get, the more I appreciate the wacky 70's style.

Cindy, it's also thanks to bb that I first heard of phenology. I've added a link above for you.

Brent Morgan said...

I've been so impressed with your blog, that I imagine you could do nearly anything that spins off from it.

I think you'd be a good fit with a local nature conservancy or the CNPS, but you said you are doing something on your own. I'm sure that will be a success, whatever it turns out to be.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Brent.

I guess I'm trying to figure out where I fit in. Currently? And where I hope to be in 5 years? On the funding landscape? Among citizen scientists? But, I'm also designing my own project, and I'm fully aware the onus of publishing results and analysis will fall squarely on my shoulders, something I don't think is expected of most citizen scientists. Problem is, I don't have an affiliated institution or organization. On the other hand, I have the option of simply going with pretty pictures. I'm undecided.

Brent Morgan said...

There are examples of citizen scientists with significant accomplishments within a shoestring budget. Amateur astronomers come to mind first, but amateurs have also found new plant species (I think there's an example in Peter Raven as a young man)and I'm sure a little Googling could turn up a few more pertinent examples.

I have plenty of ideas and a few resources that I wouldn't mind discussing with you on the phone or via private email. Drop me a line if you want to chat. I'm easily found on Facebook and Google Plus.

John W. Wall said...

I've always enjoyed your blog and look forward to whatever new direction you take it.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Thanks, John. Ditto... although, I wish you turned your comments back on. Eh-hem.

Jennifer said...

You are many good things Katie. You have an open inquisitive mind and that is the best! Just keep being you and don't let anyone get in your way.

That is the cutest pic. Love the socks and your pose!