The Colgate Scene
May 2008

"Passion for the Climb" — it's what exemplifies the spirit of Colgate people. You share a thirst for a life of accomplishment and the will to do things right. In academic, professional, community, and personal endeavors, you relish the effort, the process, the journey, and care deeply about how you lead your lives, as much as you care about reaching the top.

We know there are countless ways in which the "passion for the climb" manifests itself in Colgate alumni, faculty, staff, and students. As part of the university's Passion for the Climb campaign, we are building a collection of these stories.

Our writing tips and guidelines are posted online. Send submissions to: Please put "Passion for the Climb essay" in the subject line and include your daytime phone number and e-mail address. Although electronic submission is preferred, you can also send typed essays, double-spaced, to: "Passion for the Climb" c/o The Colgate Scene; 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346.

We look forward to reading your essay! Every essay we receive will be read and considered for publication. If your essay is selected, we will contact you.

After her two dragonfly research summers, Amanda Mitchell '08, a biology and English double major from New Paltz, N.Y., took Insect Biology. The course, she said, "broadened my fascination from just one insect order, to all of them." She studied beetles of the family Carabidae for her senior research, and took a campus job organizing Colgate's insect specimen collection. [Photo by Luke Connolly '09]

14 July 2006
Brandes Wetlands
92° mostly clear skies/haze
Participants: AGM

It starts with this entry in my field notebook. I am standing at the edge of the marsh writing notes, which is the easy part. But then it's time to head into the thicket of cattails in front of me. I pull on my rubber hip boots and stuff my regular shoes into my backpack. Next comes my net, whose handle is in three segments that snap together with a metallic clink. Fully assembled, the net is as tall as I am. The rest of my gear — field guide, specimen envelopes, jeweler's loupe, and notebook — will have to stay in my pack. I barely have enough hands for what I'm about to do. As I walk toward the marsh, the ground becomes softer. First it's just mud, but then I'm surrounded by grasses that are over my head and I've sunk to mid-calf in gooey, fragrant sludge. I try to take another step, but my feet are pretty well mired.

It doesn't help that my boots are three sizes too big, borrowed from research headquarters. Already my legs are sweating inside the dark green rubber, and my T-shirt is drenched in every place where my backpack rests against it. I jab the handle of the net into the ooze for balance and extract one foot with a sucking slurp, only to set it down and get stuck again. I proceed slowly, into the center of the wetland where the sun beats down most directly.

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I'm supposed to be catching dragonflies and damselflies, members of the order Odonata. There are plenty to be seen here, flying high beyond my reach or darting in and out of the marsh grasses. A beautiful red one hovers tantalizingly in front of me. I swoop my net over it, only to find that it has evaded me — dragonflies and their smaller cousins, damselflies, are some of the fastest fliers in the insect world, particularly on steamy days like this when they can warm their endothermic bodies for peak muscle performance. The little red one is now hovering a few feet to my left; I swipe again and the net stops short — it's stuck in a thorny bush behind me. Frustrated, I disentangle the net and start listing in my notebook the odonates I can identify by sight: Widow Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, Common Whitetail. Suddenly, something large whizzes by. I freeze, hoping it will fly by again. Sure enough, it makes another pass and I swish my net frantically, twisting the handle to hold the mouth of the net shut in the rare event that I did catch him. When the grasses stop rustling from my sudden movement, I hear it: the papery clatter of rapidly beating wings inside my net. I've got him!

I open the net just wide enough to grasp his four wings between thumb and forefinger, drawing him out. This is the largest dragonfly I've ever caught (the big ones fly the fastest and almost never stop to perch during the day). My field guide tells me that this is a male Cordulegaster obliqua, the Arrowhead Spiketail. I might have guessed this by the bright yellow arrow shapes on his long black abdomen. Not only is this my largest catch, but it's also a species I haven't recorded yet this summer, and could be one of conservation need. He is struggling furiously to escape, curling his abdomen and working his predatory mandibles. My left hand gets a little too close, and I feel a sharp pinch. He bit me! It's time to stop staring, anyway, and go back to the lab. Because he's an unusual species, the Arrowhead Spiketail has earned himself a trip in a glassine envelope to Albany, where experts from the New York Natural Heritage Program and Department of Environmental Conservation will verify that I've identified him correctly and keep him as a specimen.

That afternoon represents one of many like it in the two 10-week summer internships I spent participating in the New York State Dragonfly and Damselfly Survey at the Mohonk Preserve's Smiley Research Center in New Paltz, N.Y. The aim was to collect data documenting which species of Odonata live in which parts of the state, where we might find rarer species, and whether they are reproducing. In other words, it was largely a study of diversity, requiring participants to identify what species the observed insects belonged to through fieldwork, rather than pursuing some particular behavioral or physiological phenomenon in the lab. The results would provide important conservation information — odonates are useful bioindicators of water quality and other environmental variables. The general instructions seemed simple at first: go out to catch odonates, identify them with a field guide, write it all down, and send it to project headquarters in Albany.

No matter how many earrings and articles of garden ornamentation are adorned with their shimmering wings and neon bodies, as I found out, surveying for odonates is neither simple nor glamorous. Nonetheless, I was hooked on the euphoria of finding the Arrowhead Spiketail and several other exciting catches. Overall, I identified individuals from 55 species and collected 46 voucher specimens.

By studying insects I've amassed hordes of proper Latin names, arcane entomological details, and more than 100 meticulously pinned specimens of my own. I'll gladly show off my dead dragonflies and damselflies to anyone who's interested, but these specimens are just little remnants of the whole process. If you come to see them, beware: I might just hand you a pair of boots and take you out to the swamp for the real thing.

Stay-at-home dad Dan Carsen in a quiet moment with daughter Lucine Sophia. Carsen and his wife, Talene Yacoubian, live in Birmingham, Ala., where he works as a part-time freelance writer and editor. He notes that the many joys of his parenting job would provide rich fodder for a future essay. [Photo courtesy of Dan Carsen]

No one should be surprised by the idea that life experiences can flip worldviews upside down. Along similar lines, many women will probably not be shocked by this essay. I'm betting, though, that for many men, the conclusions I draw will be surprising if not downright alien.

Not long ago, my wife returned to full-time work and left me in charge of our 2-month-old baby girl. I've been a sitter, a counselor, a mentor, and a teacher, and I'm probably a shade more "nurturing" than the average male. (Guys: Before you stop identifying with me, please note this doesn't mean I'm an "overly sensitive" type. I'm a sports-playing, beer-loving stubble-face just like so many of us — not what you'd call "testosterone challenged.") I'd always hoped to play a major role in raising my children, and I'm happy to be part of a new breed of stay-at-home dads. But being "the woman of the house," which in my case means taking care of baby and running the household five days a week, has been an education beyond any I've received or given.

I now understand something that never would have occurred to me before: The phrase "a woman's work is never done" is literally true. It's never done. Never. Between playing and reading and feeding and changing and wiping and cleaning and cooking and shopping and laundry and dishes and bills and phone calls and errands (you get the point), you're lucky to have a moment to practice your own hygiene, let alone eat, let alone do something for yourself. Even if your working spouse is helpful, you'll know the joy of finishing only the highest priority tasks and collapsing into bed late at night, knowing that baby gets up early no matter what, and that the stuff you didn't get to is happy to pile onto tomorrow's to-do list.

It's been said that women are better at multitasking. They must be. Proof is that the human race still exists. But before I dive into that line of thought, let me try to get across the "multitaskocity" of parenthood in a way that guys without kids can grasp: For the first time, my left bicep is bigger than my right one. That's because I perpetually hold baby with my left arm while doing all manner of things with the other. If "The One-Handed Chore-athon" were an Olympic event, I'd bring home the gold for my country. Unless, of course, some of the more enlightened nations sent forth their manly househusbands. After all, compared to grizzled veterans with multiple rugrats, I'm a rookie.

Anyway, if it weren't for baby's naps and other occasional breaks from the 3-D universe (doo-doo, diapers, drool), I'd probably look (and smell) like something half-dead that washed ashore on a life raft. Actually, you wouldn't be reading this if my little girl hadn't taken pity on ol' Dad by taking two oddly long naps.

I can't imagine trying to run a household while raising a fussy or unhealthy child, or while raising more than one. Apparently, though, people do. I just don't see how. And I really can't imagine trying to do it completely on my own, even if I didn't need to work. Once when my wife was at a conference, I got a watered-down taste of what it's like to be a single parent. Let me tell you: One person does not a village make.

OK — you get it. Raising kids and running a household is hard, never-ending work. (Note: You don't really get it unless you've done it, but you're getting closer). But what does this say about women's roles throughout history? Though the particulars depend on how far back you go, it's safe to say that women — even if we ignore pregnancy and childbirth — have been undervalued for a long time.

Anthropologists will tell you that hunter-gatherers really were gatherer-hunters because most early human nutrition came from plants. And who did the tedious, often back-breaking gathering? Women. And often while minding the little ones. This "minding the home front," along with the rise of agriculture, allowed men time to think and to specialize their labors, which ultimately resulted in complex civilization and the advances we take for granted today. Put another way, it's hard to picture Plato or Galileo or Gutenberg or Jefferson or Edison doing their things while breastfeeding and changing diapers.

I can't help but realize that without the work women have done, there'd be no civilization to speak of. If that sounds extreme to you, think hard about human history and jump to the second-to-last sentence of this essay. Following that recommendation might flip your view of things upside down. And with any luck, you won't witness the crumbling of civilization in your living room.

It's good that men are playing bigger roles in raising children. Besides proving that men can be nurturing, the trend may erode the undervaluing of the "woman's work" that has always held families, communities, and societies together. Note that if you believe in "family values," you believe in valuing women and the work they've done throughout history, and you value them to the extent they deserve. Consider kissing their feet. Seriously.

Men: If you think this is overblown, which pretty much guarantees you haven't done what I'm about to suggest, then try raising kids while running a household for one month.

You can apologize later.

Last summer, Lauren Mangione '08, an environmental biology major from Denver, Colo., spent seven weeks in Tonsupa, Ecuador, with FEVI Ecuador (Fund for Intercultural Education and Community Volunteer Services). [Photo by Kali McMillan '10]

The school where I taught English in Tonsupa, Ecuador, was made of halved bamboo stalks, which stood side by side to make each rectangular-shaped classroom. Doors were of the same material, and simply cut out of one long side of the rectangle. The roof was made of tin, and the ground of dirt, perfect for headaches (and mud wrestling) when it rained. Consequently, the school was empty every time it rained. But school was never cancelled, because it was never mandatory. When students did attend, they shared desk spaces, snugly packed elbow to elbow.

Almost adjacent to this rustic construction, a new school built by earlier volunteer visitors sat empty and locked. With less than a week left in my visit, we finally opened it. The students were awed by the tile floors, electricity, bathrooms, individual desks, and overall vastness.

Freshly painted chairs were placed six across and six down. Pieces of white chalk sat undisturbed, perfectly cylindrical. The children entered wearing crisp uniforms embroidered with Escuela Gonzalo Pizarro on the left breast pockets.

While the students looked polished sitting at the brand new desks, in perfect rows, teaching in this classroom was a nightmare. Every small noise echoed off the tile. A chair squeak or pencil drop disturbed the entire class. One student's question became everyone's concern.

In the old school, shared desks had not only concentrated the pairs of ears and eyes, but also created informal partners so the students could assist each other and share limited supplies.

With separate desks, a student would get out of his chair, walk (or more often, skip or jump) to a neighbor's to borrow the blue marker he so desperately needed. On the way, he would get distracted by another classmate, who had written the assignment in red marker on her forearm instead of paper. He would then be punished for leaving his chair.

I quickly began to consider the benefits of the shiny new school, and the efforts of volunteers like me and donations from generous benefactors, in a different light.

Then one afternoon, I organized the supply cabinet. Near the back, I found bottles and bottles of unopened children's vitamins. I asked one of the Ecuadorian teachers in Spanish why they were not giving the vitamins to the children. She looked at me in the universal language of facial expression with horror.

"These are for animals!" she screamed (in Spanish), pointing to the label (written in English), which pictured vitamins in the shape of cows, lions, and pigs.

I soon realized that my idea, and often that of many other well-intentioned volunteers, was that we were going to show the people how to live better, our way, with our things. But what the children needed most had nothing at all to do with supplies or money or new buildings.

Every day as I was leaving school, the children would follow me. One boy, Hector, would pull at my sleeve and say, "Don't go, mommy. Don't go, mommy."

Hector's sister, Leidi, would sit silently in the back of the classroom, and cling to my leg during the free time. I let her. We rarely spoke. Lack of conversation is not what ailed her. Karen, the youngest of five, would constantly cause trouble in order to draw attention to herself, even if it came in the form of discipline.

I soon learned that it did not matter so much whether or not the children learned the correct pronunciation of the word purple or could count to 20 in English. If they could learn to treat each other with kindness and understanding, then I had done my job.

Sand dollars cover Tonsupa beach when the tide is out. Some are solid, but others crumble the moment you pick them up. At the beach, nothing is static and everything is insignificant.

Sitting on a large, slightly damp piece of driftwood after a day of teaching, my friend and I gaze silently into the distance at what is left of the sun. A woman approaches and asks, "Did you feel that?" We look at her, perplexed. She asks again. "Did you feel the earthquake?" Our expressions do not budge, but are accompanied by slow, side-to-side head movements. "No," we respond. "Sorry," I add, although I am not exactly sorry.

In retrospect, "sorry" would have been the perfect response. Sitting on the beach, we had dodged a disturbance that the people in the tenement buildings and shacks five blocks away had felt. The beach, the place that is never still, became the only place that was solid in that moment. A place that we had not created with money or concrete or tiles was our safety from a natural disturbance.

We pour money into the school and wonder why it cannot fix each problem. Surely, enough money will solve the next greatest puzzle. But, like the unexpected comfort that the beach provided, solutions to societal gaps largely do not come in the form of what we might think they do.

Maybe the cure to addressing the needs at Gonzalo Pizarro School should also be more natural, and organic. Is building new schools and stocking cabinets full of toys and vitamins really the right approach to economic and social unity? Can green pieces of American paper truly create the solution? Perhaps in some cases, a dollar bill holds the same value as a sand dollar that crumbles when you touch it.

The beach's protection has taught me something. Sometimes the best solutions are without imposition and require us to stay close to nature. Something raw and fundamental, such as compassion, just might be a start.

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