Early in the spring of 2008, the Rockport, Texas Master Gardeners held their Hidden Gardens tour, where individual homeowners gave tours of their private back gardens. Because I’ve always been an avid gardener, I thought this would be something I’d enjoy. I came back incredibly inspired. I saw fabulous private landscapes hidden away from public view, some with not a single blade of grass, with winding pathways, wildflowers, rippling fountains and streams and fish ponds, artful presentations of variegated foliage so that even in shady areas it looked spectacular. One yard in particular really struck me—it was full of flowers, yet the homeowner said she didn’t have a sprinkler system in place. She said the plants were all Texas natives and virtually never got watered except when it rained.
Now this was intriguing. Flowers that never needed watering? In the Texas heat? Native plants? What was that about?
I decided to find out. That fall I signed up for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Master Gardener Certification Program, which was held one afternoon a week between August and December, equating to 50 hours of classroom instruction. In addition to the $175 course cost, it also required 50 volunteer hours to receive the certification, which you could work off in any number of areas that interested you. To maintain your certification each year, a certain number of volunteer hours had to be repeated monthly, plus continuing education.
Lyle (not his real name), the county extension agent who was teaching the class, announced on the first night that a criminal background check and credit check would be required of everyone who wanted to participate. This took me aback. A background check? For a gardening program? What the hell for? Not that I had anything to hide, it just felt particularly invasive of people’s privacy. I’d never been in jail or didn’t have bad credit or never even had so much as a speeding ticket in my life; I was as lily white as they came. It was the principle of the thing. I didn’t like it.
So when he made the offer that we could opt out of the background check if we adhered to the following restrictions: that we would never use our volunteer hours to: 1) work with money in the program or, 2) work with children, I thought to myself, “Bingo! We have a winner!” Because I had no need or desire to do either one of those things. At the end of the first class I went up to his table in the front of the room and asked quietly, “Where’s the opt-out form? I want to sign it. I have no problem with the two exclusions.”
Like an asshole who meant to purposely embarrass me in front of everyone, Lyle stands up and makes an announcement: “Yes, if there’s anyone else who wants to sign that opt-out form, just remember, it’s right up here.”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Oh thank you for that.” I was wondering if everyone thought I was trying to hide my parole status or history of bankruptcy or something else embarrassing.
The first few classes were disappointingly basic and boring. I wrote an email to a friend of mine:
Master Gardeners class is picking up. On the 3rd class when we spent 4 straight hours on email etiquette and how to use search engines—I thought I was going to die (DON’T MAKE ME USE ALL CAPS). Sure a lot of these folks are retired and maybe didn’t spend their life on a computer, but come on, the Internet’s been around for 15-20 years now. We should be past all this. Now we’re finally into propagating and other good horticultural stuff. It’s really making me look at this yard with new eyes to see what I can do with it.
Once we got into the second month, I felt like my time and money were not being wasted and I was really learning something, and getting excited. They brought in experts from all around the area, including regional botanical gardens speaking on trees, turf grass, tropicals, how to garden pesticide- and herbicide-free, how to start plants from seed, how to do soil tests, how to build drip irrigation systems, etc. I learned about growing Texas native plants, organic gardening, using water-wise plants, building up healthy soils…just about every aspect of gardening in south Texas. I was in heaven.
One lesson I’ll never forget was from the director of the South Texas Botanical Gardens in Corpus Christi. His talk was about Texas native trees and how to plant trees correctly. He asked for a show of hands: “How many of you buy a tree at a nursery, then toss it into the back of your pickup truck and drive it down the freeway to take it home?” Nervously, a few hands went up. Somehow, we knew it was a trick question. Then he asked, “What’s the speed limit these days? Around 70, 75 if you push it?” Nods all around. “Congratulations!” he said. “You’ve just put your tree through a Category 1 hurricane before you’ve even put it in the ground!” That one got a big laugh, but his point was driven home. Even if it’s a short trip, the winds in the back of a truck can have a devastating effect on plants because it desiccates the leaves of all their moisture, plus it just physically beats the crap out of them. Then we plant them and wonder why so many die prematurely.
About halfway into the course, Lyle got a better job offer and left the program, moving away from Rockport. That left the extension office scrambling for how they were going to finish out the course for all of us paying students, as they didn’t have another extension agent assigned to our county. The last half of the course ended up being taught by previous students who had completed the course and had several years of experience under their belts as master gardeners and had developed areas of specialty that they felt qualified to teach.
Around 30 of us completed the classroom training in December, and then each person was on their own to complete their 50 volunteer hours within the next year. Whenever that was completed, they would receive their full certification at a special ceremony. It took me until the following July to complete my hours because I was working full time. Mainly the area I volunteered in was to help the Aransas County Master Gardener office redesign and rebuild their website, which was fairly abysmal before our team took it over. In fact, we did such a good job with the redesign that we won an award across Texas in 2009 among all the local chapter MG websites!
For the six months after completing the classroom hours, and in the years thereafter, I attacked my landscaping and totally transformed it. I used every bit of knowledge I gained in that course and gradually built flower beds in what little sun I had, but mostly a fantastic shade garden in my back yard. That yard used to turn into an absolute mudhole every time it rained because of the half-dead grass that just couldn’t grow underneath my giant trees. I eventually had a large deck built over much of the back yard, and then cultivated individual pocket garden beds around it, worked in compost, and chose native plants that were appropriate for the level of light that the trees let in. In between these beds I built pathways of flagstone. When all the planting was done, I added drip irrigation on a timer, so that I never had to hand water anything. Up against my back fence and hidden by a row of bamboo, I also started a couple of compost bins, where I daily added my kitchen waste. So eventually, I didn’t even have to buy compost for my yard.
But my involvement with the MG group was short-lived. One month after I completed my certification, I received a letter from the new county extension agent who replaced Lyle. The letter was dated August 7, 2009, and stated
Updated information has been received from the Youth Protection Services Office which indicated that all Master Volunteers must be screened. There is no longer an “opt out” options [sic] for any Master Volunteer. In addition, the newly adopted Aransas/San Patricio Master Gardener Association Policies and Procedures provides that all members by [sic] screened evey [sic] three year [sic]. Our records indicate that your screening needs to be update [sic].
I was given 2 weeks to sign the required form and send it in.
Not only did this blow me away, but I was also appalled to be receiving a letter coming from a supposedly professional person in a supposedly professional organization (Texas A&M!) riddled with typos and grammatical errors. I mulled over this for about a half-hour, then picked up the phone and called the local MG office.
I asked to speak to Margie (not her real name), the woman who managed the local office and who was, of course, aware of the letters that had gone out. “What’s going on with this? What precipitated this? I have no involvement whatsoever with children, you know that. I’ve been working on your website; I rarely even come into the office. Why are they forcing this issue?”
She said, “I think what happened is that Lyle overstepped his authority with that opt-out business. That option wasn’t standard across Texas, is my understanding. He kind of broke the rules with that, and they are trying to bring us into compliance with the rest of the state.”
I wasn’t buying it. “Hmmm. That doesn’t sound right to me. He seemed pretty anal-retentive to me. My impression of him was that he did everything by the book; he went the extra mile with everything. Something doesn’t sit right that you guys are throwing Lyle under the bus on this. Something else must have happened.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about that.”
“Also, Lyle left almost a year ago. Why wait all this time to do this? Why wasn’t an announcement made to the class the minute he left, if the rules had changed? The timing on this seems really suspect to me.”
“What do you mean, suspect?”
“From my perspective, this is how it looks. You didn’t make an announcement that the requirements would be changing in the middle of our class when he left, because you knew there would be people like me in there who would probably stand up and leave. And also ask for a refund, because they were enticed to sign up for the class under false pretenses. So you’d lose money. And then, you waited until people like me had completely fulfilled our certification, meaning you got our full 50 hours out of us. I didn’t receive this letter until a month after my certification. I’m sorry, but I think the timing there is very fishy.”
“Now Gail, that is really ridiculous.”
“Is it? Your organization lives and dies on volunteer hours. You couldn’t exist without us. You knew all this time that I was the one spearheading the revamping of the website and I was the only one with any expertise in that area. So I really think it’s funny that I didn’t get this letter until that project was finished, which just happened to coincide with my certification. You know Margie, these things go both ways. You treat us with suspicion, you are going to be treated with suspicion.”
Dead silence on the other end of the line. So I continued.
“Well, this will be result of this decision. I will not agree to a criminal background check or a credit check for the master gardener program, simply on principle. I will not sign that form. There is absolutely no reason for you guys to be nosing into a private person’s background, just because someone decided you have that right, without cause. So what we have here is I’ve just won you an award for the redesign on your website, and I’m going to walk away from this program. And you need to let the people at A&M AgriLife know that. I do not work with children. I do not work with money. I am no threat to your organization or to the community, but I do have a lot to offer. You guys are going to lose good and talented people like me because of this blanket decision that is being forced on everyone.”
“Thanks Gail, I’ll let them know what you’ve said. I hope you know this is out of my hands. I know this hasn’t come about because of any personal complaints against you.”
In the end they didn’t care. I didn’t send in the form agreeing to the background check and I never heard from anyone in the organization again. Their policies are still the same.
This policy still astounds me when I think back on it. Background checks and credit checks have their place. Job applications, mortgage loan applications, apartment lease applications—people need to know who they are dealing with and have a right to know whether they can expect to be repaid when they make a loan. But this seemed so over-the-top absurd to require this kind of invasive checking for people who would never be involved in youth programs or would never be a treasurer or even so much as sell tickets for an event.
I guess in the end we both lost—they lost a capable and enthusiastic volunteer, and I lost my connection to a group I truly enjoyed and learned a lot from because of my stubbornness.
I watched my ex-husband Bill do this same thing with fascination and trepidation one time, several years earlier. When we were buying our house in Houston, and we were signing the mountain of forms a homebuyer has to sign, we came to the form that gave our mortgage lender blanket permission to access our tax returns. He saw that form and balked. “What the hell is this?” he asked our realtor.
“Oh, that’s just a standard form that’s in every loan package. Everyone has to sign it.”
Bill said, “They already have my salary information from the last 2 years. They know how long I’ve been employed at Exxon. They have Gail’s salary info. They know what our credit rating is. They know we can well afford to buy this house. There is no reason whatsoever that they need to look at our tax returns.”
“It’s just a formality. They may not even use the privilege; it’s just there in the file in case they are on the fence with making a decision. In those cases they sometimes use tax returns to sway the decision one way or the other. In your case with your income, I doubt they’ll even use it. It’s really nothing to worry about.”
I piped in. “Bill, what’s the big deal? Sign the form. It’s part of the required package.”
He replied, “The big deal is, I don’t like the idea of forms like this sitting in files, giving people permission to stick their nose where it doesn’t belong. They don’t need our tax returns to approve us for this loan, so I’m not signing this form.”
The realtor said with a worried look on his face, “The problem is, it could cause the loan application to be rejected. Someone somewhere will be making an inventory that all the required forms are present and accounted for. If one form is missing, it could kick the whole application out.”
“Well, we’ll see what happens.” The realtor’s face fell.
Bill did not sign that form. I was pissed because I was sure it would kill our chances for getting that house. We had just gone through an exhaustive, months-long search and I was done looking for houses; if this one fell through, the thought of starting over was just too much to bear. But our application sailed through and the missing form was never mentioned.
It taught me something that day about the corporate world and privacy, and about standing up for what you believe in. That time it worked in our favor. Maybe that’s where I started to derive some of my stubbornness—even though my family might say that “Gail had a full measure of stubbornness well before meeting Bill!” But there is something about being willing to stand your ground and pay the consequences, however the pendulum may swing.
Looking back on this, my concern over privacy 14 years ago seems almost quaint by today’s standards. When I took my stand with the MG group, Facebook® was in its infancy, only being started by Mark Zuckerberg 5 years earlier. (For reference, he didn’t introduce the iconic “Like” button until 2009.) With the explosion of the Internet and especially social media, we now blithely sign up for free Gmail and Hotmail and Facebook accounts and in exchange for those free accounts, we readily give up enormous amounts of private data about ourselves without even thinking about it. That’s the price of those free accounts. Background and credit checks are hardly necessary anymore—we freely hand over to Amazon®, Microsoft®, Google®, and Facebook our income information, our shopping habits, where we live, who our family and friends are, where we work, what our hobbies are, whether we are animal owners or not, whether we are gun owners or not, how we vote. The list goes on and on. Furthermore, these same companies regularly violate their own privacy policies, say “sorry, we need to do better” when they get caught, and are allowed to stay in business.
I try to protect myself the best ways I know how on the Internet, but it feels like a losing battle. From the get-go (since 1994) I purchased a private domain for my email address, rather than using webmail. These are my bergan.com and now my gailsstory.com email addresses. I always use installed software on my hard drive, not web browsers, to read my email. That way only me and the person I’m writing to are reading my emails, as far as I know. I won’t use Alexa® or similar devices in my house, because they are listening devices. I won’t wear an Apple® watch. I use ad blockers and tracking blockers on my browsers, but these have a downside—they prevent me from going on certain websites, because it affects their own ad revenue. I don’t use the Google search engine anymore because of the tracking they do; I use DuckDuckGo®, which doesn’t track your searches. Or it’s not supposed to.
So this happened: last week I made an online purchase of some eyebrow gel I really like from Thrive Causemetics®. The next morning I went on Facebook to check a couple of private groups that I follow, one for bloggers and one for sewers. Right next to the news feed are the advertisements in the upper right-hand corner. What did I see but an ad for the exact eyebrow gel from Thrive Causemetics that I’d just purchased the night before. That wasn’t supposed to happen with the protection I had built in, but there it was. My false sense of security came crashing down; somewhere along the way, my purchase still got tracked and Facebook still picked it up. I felt defeated.
We continuously must decide and draw the line for ourselves: what is an acceptable level of privacy, or invasion of privacy, in this world of shifting standards and constant tradeoffs? To stop living in our interconnected world, to stop online shopping, online banking, interacting with people all over the world, getting our paychecks direct deposited, getting our tax refunds and our Social Security checks direct deposited, getting our news online…. well, it would almost mean becoming a modern-day Luddite. Where do you draw the line?
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