Saturday, November 29, 2008

Airports Are People, Too

I've decided that airports are funny places.

When you think about it, airports are the tangible representation of a sci-fi future. No, really, hear me out on this. Almost every sci-fi movie or book these days has a description of some kind of air transportation - rocket powered hover craft or zippy little personal jets - all convening in some sort of transport hub. Airports are not too different from these futuristic space ports - in fact it still boggles my mind a little that hundreds and hundreds of large metal canisters fly through the air, avoiding each other, with the greatest of ease. Mos Eisley, here we come.

The best thing about airports, though, is the people watching. There are some amazing cultural norms that are developing in airports.

For example, when you are at an airport, even though you are surrounded by hundreds of people, it is imperative that you use your time to stay connected to some other person in your life who is not currently there with you. So, even though the nice lady sitting next to you in the waiting area will not move her large pile of things from the last availble seat, or even acknowledge you, she will include you in her conversation with whatshername about the gout in her left big toe and the ginger scrub she just bought that may or may not make her feet smell like ginger. She includes you, and the other 75 people sitting near her, in her conversation by talking three times louder than she needs to because, apparently, whatshername on the other end of her cell phone is currently walking through a construction zone. All this personal information from someone who won't even make eye contact with you.

If you feel like doing a social experiment, try purposefully making eye contact with people as you walk through the airport. It' s fun and weirds people out.

Another rule: if you fly on a day when your local professional football team is playing, you are required, regardless of your gender, to wear an over-large replica jersey proclaiming the name of some very large man that plays football that you are not even though you will soon be in a different place with people who don't care in a very short time. And you must not, under any circumstances, make eye contact with anyone else wearing the same jersey as you - no matter how much they may look like Lofa Tatupu.

There are a few statistical rules, too, that you've probably noticed. If you dare to even let the thought enter your mind that, "Gosh, I hope I'm not sitting next to that person", you will, as a rule, end up sitting next to that person. This rule kicks into overdrive for children, sick people, and the lady with the gout who smells overwhemingly of ginger. So practice being positive, you'll benefit in the long run.

Occasionally people do break the rules, though.

Most recently, my favorite example of this rule breaking happened in Dulles airport while waiting for the magic people transporter to come back from its latest trip to the main terminal. These huge, raised bus-like hum-vee things pull up to the flight terminal and people shuffle and prod their way into them through doors on the ends. It was in this pre-prodding phase that the man next to me leaned over and said:

"I feel like a cow."

"I'm sorry?" I said with a impressively placid look on my face.

"I feel like a cow," he repeated. "You know, being herded into the corral."

"Ah," I said. "I see."

We made eye contact and both smiled. It was the most pleasant part of my 9 hour long day of air travel.

So next time you're at the airport, take a look around and enjoy the people watching....maybe even buck the social norm and try talking to someone.

There's some funny stuff going on.

Friday, November 21, 2008

You're a What?

Inevitably, when I tell people I am a park ranger, they ask me, "So do you carry a gun?"

Then, when I tell them I am an interpreter, I get a pause, a blink of the eyes, and the response, "Really? What language do you speak?"

I don't usually tell people I'm an interpreter anymore. If I feel the need to be official I say that I'm an Interpretive Ranger. This usually confuses people enough that they don't ask the follow up question.

"Interpretive? Does that mean interpreter? Does that mean dancing? Huh. Maybe I shouldn't ask."

I usually continue on to explain that I do educational programs for the park and work in the visitor center. This seems to clear most things up for most people, but, to my sensibilities, this does not in any way convey what I do. And I would bet that even some of my closest friends and family members still have very little idea of what I do or why I do it.

Interpretation has changed quite a bit over the years. It has gone through several different stages, the least interesting of which was the stage where an interpreter would simply tell you the common and scientific name of the flower you were looking at and maybe throw in some natural history about the plant as a bonus. It was this stage that led many to believe that interpretation is easy and anyone can do it. Anyone can memorize flower names, right?

And sure, that information has it's place. You have to start somewhere.

But if you look up interpretation in the dictionary, you will find something like this:

Interpretation: the rendering of a dramatic part, music, etc., so as to bring out the meaning, or to indicate one's particular conception of it.

Just insert nature, natural history, or something of that ilk where it says, "etc.", and this is where the fun, and the hard, part of my job starts.

Interpretation is about meanings. And, ultimately, it is finding meaning in something that will give it value. The trick is figuring out how to bring those meanings out. After all, something like the ocean could mean one hundred different things to one hundred different people.

Without getting too deeply ensconced in the intricacies of interpretive theory, I'll just say that doing interpretation in America's National Parks is the job of a lifetime. Why? Because the Parks are worth fighting for. They are amazing and beautiful and inspiring and, as much as people love them, they are not something people have on their list of Top Ten Most Important Causes. They are a indulgence. Something to enjoy on their vacation, but once they get home there are much more important things to worry about.

Granted, in the grand scheme of things, there are more important things than national parks.

But not many.

National Parks are a symbol. They are pure. Beauty, time, peace, power, change, life, death, renewal, love, wildness. Stuff that transcends wars and greed and economy. It's all here. And when we're gone, if we stay the course, it will still be here. And just in case that's not important to you, it's being preserved so the next generation and the generation after that can have the chance to find it and appreciate it. Because the parks aren't about us. They're about our history and our potential.

And that, in a nutshell, is my job. To provide people with the opportunity to make a connection with these places and what they mean. And to help them see how these places make us who we are. If they don't mean anything to anyone, they won't be saved. And they'll be lost forever. And we would lose a piece of ourselves that we could never get back.

So is interpretation just doing education programs or working in a visitor center? Is this easy stuff that anyone can do?

Maybe. All I know is that I am doing one of the most noble jobs I can think of for an organization that, even with all its flaws, has a most selfless mission.

And sometimes, when I get bogged down with paperwork, or I'm sitting on the desk for the 6th straight hour, I forget for a little while why I'm doing what I'm doing.

But it always comes back to me. In a way, I, and through me the people I now train and supervise, am responsible for the future of the national parks. It's a daunting task.

And even though I don't use the actual term as much as I should, I'm proud to be a National Park Interpreter.