Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facebook, Thanksgiving, atheism, and me

An old friend of mine, from well over 4 decades ago, pondered what athiests are thankful for on Thanksgiving.

Here is my response.
I'm not an atheist. I'm not not an atheist. I do have faith that I am a part of this matter/energy thing, whatever you want to call this.
I celebrate Thanksgiving. I thank the sun, the earth, the air, the water, and the beast we have slaughtered (by someone I also thank) to share.
I thank the universe/Godhead/matter-energy/whatever for grace.
I thank the quahogs on the mudflat, the mosquitoes that feed the bats, the dolphins, the moon, the occasional flash of a meteor against the sky.
I thank the bacteria that define me and you, the fungi busy digesting the stuff for which we have no use, and Seamus Heaney and Galway Kinnell for reminding me of these things.
I thank my mom for teaching me to dance always and whenever and my father for teaching me how to defend things worth defending.
And I thank you, Lee, for giving me this opportunity to thank others, for your gracious heart that allows for folks as dissident as me in your universe, and for all the small but deep chats we had when we were so much, oh so much, younger.

Friday, November 6, 2015

My kids are more confused than ever....

The theme for my freshmen this year is confusion--I've already played Feynman's video below several times, and will continue to play it. We even have a giant paper banana now, usually tacked to the wall when not taking trips through the school.

 Our error-o-meter continues to run up points--at this point the kids pretty much decide what kinds of errors, ideas, questions, or thoughts earn points.

And, blessed be, the kids are now asking better questions than I am, and, at times, tackling them with me just gawking as a spectator.

Just don't tell them to list the parts of a cell from memory--I won't, and they know I won't. If you want to have a chat about how membranes work, though, get ready to pull up a chair and listen. I never expected my lambs would truly be interested in how membranes work.

I never trusted them enough before to let the universe do the work for me....

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day of the Dead, again

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.

And here it is a year later, and I'm doing it again.

Do ghosts "exist"?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.

Today is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.

If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.

I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.

Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.
Originally posted a year ago. I like rhythms.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Fuck pink, again

These words, posted 6 years ago, started as a visceral response to a friend who coined
 "The One-Boobed Systyrs of the Apocalypse."
She's still fighting dead.

I remember the first breast I saw no longer attached to the body it once helped define. I had seen body parts in various forms before, but this one was fresh. A flap of sallow skin with a wizened nipple defining it, a long trail of fibrous fatty tissue trailing off the slab.

The pathologist, smoking as he dictated, handled the breast like a butcher handles meat about to be weighed, though not as kindly.

The breast had been part of a man who probably did not survive his bout with breast cancer. Most people back then did not fare well, and men fared worse than women.

Incidences of breast cancer change in populations as people migrate from one area of the world to another, suggesting that environmental factors contribute to this disease. There is a continuing effort at the NIEHS to identify these environmental factors and the role that exposures to specific chemicals could play in this disease.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

I shaved my mother's head when the cancer recurred--bony metastases in her skull made the shaving more difficult. She walked like a marionette with tangled strings the weeks before she died. In a radiology reading room, we'd call them "goobers." Goobers on the brain.

Unless it was one of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters--then they were metastases.
Since 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has been the sole funder of October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Zeneca has promoted a blame-the-victim strategy to explain away escalating breast cancer rates, which ignores the role of avoidable carcinogens. Zeneca's parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of petrochemical and chlorinated [organic] products -- including the plastic ingredient, vinyl chloride -- which has been directly linked to breast cancer, and the pesticide Acetochlor.

In addition, Zeneca is the sole manufacturer of Tamoxifen, the world's top-selling cancer drug used for breast cancer. In return for funding the "awareness" campaign, ICI/Zeneca has control and veto power over every poster, pamphlet and commercial produced by NBCAM.

" A decade-old multi-million dollar deal between National Breast Cancer Awareness Month sponsors and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) has produced reckless misinformation on breast cancer," said Dr. Epstein.

The media focuses on the strength of cancer survivors, and I have seen tremendously strong women live and die graciously through months and years of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery. The magazines will show glossy pictures of proud women, and these things matter, of course. Avon will sell "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer Lipsticks," Mars, Inc., will sell you pink and white M&M's, and General Electric will sell you a Senographe 2000D mammographer.

They do not show a mother cowering in her bathroom, her bald head bare, blood all over the toilet from a nosebleed that will not stop, her teen-age son standing awkwardly, bravely holding her head.

They do not show the vomiting, the pain, the fear. They do not show a mother with her arm in a machine trying to squish out the fluid building up from lymphedema.

They do not show the bony protuberances on a skull, the smell of dying cells.

They do not show a child wiping her mother clean because she is too proud to use a bedpan and too weak to use a toilet.
polychlorinated biphenyls
polychlorinated dibenzodioxins

In 1991, these were the 6 most common carcinogens found in breast milk. The news has gotten worse since then. We are at the top of the food chain--toxins accumulate.

It has been known that breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed your babies, the lower the risk. This has been attributed to hormonal changes related to breastfeeding--breastfeeding women cycle less, and had less exposure to estrogen.

There has been speculation (and it is only speculation), that breastfeeding may help reduce the chemical pollutant load on the mother. Guess who gets the chemicals.
The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer was just less than 10% in the 1970's, or 1 in 10; it is now 13.4%, or almost 1 in 7 (NCI, 2005). In the 1940's, the risk was 1 in 22. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women 34 to 54 years of age.

Until recently, the incidence of breast cancer had gone up about a percentage point every year since 1940.
Janet Jackson flashes a breast, and our Federal Government now rushes to redefine obscene. Certain words and phrases will cost lots of money; Howard Stern has opted to put his voice into orbit.

Here's an obscene phrase that won't cost anything--in fact, in past Octobers you have might hear it dozens of times:

Early Detection is the Best Protection.

This makes no sense--once detected, you already have it. The best protection is prevention which, admittedly, would require massive, radical changes in the way we live. The NBCAM folks got wise--they now say "Early Detection Saves Lives"--if you go to their website, they pretend that this is what they have always said.

So it must be true.

I wrote this several years 8 or 9 ago for a friend,who was still fighting at the time, and my mother, who "lost."

Monday, August 31, 2015

My annual school prayer

please grant me

a slab of slate
a chunk of chalk

a live critter
a dead ego

a magnet
a marble

curious children
and a sundial's sense of time.


Sundial at Rockefeller Center, NYC, National Archives

Goals for the start of the new school year

These were my goals in 2008.
Haven't changed much for 2015.

Teachers report tomorrow, students on Wednesday.

Tomorrow's goals:
  • Find a pair of pants-> iron them
  • Find a tie that does not involve alcohol or sex or Disney
  • Find my shoes (I spend summer mostly barefoot--winter, too, outside of school)
  • Find a pen
  • Memorize my student roster
  • Say a prayer for the end of summer

Wednesday's goals:
  • Remind myself the universe is beyond my grasp
  • Remind myself that there is order in the universe (even if I cannot find my pants)
  • Remind myself that I am only here to remind my students of the above--anything else is arrogance, nonsense, or both

Photo is "The Sun Sets at Harris Beach, 1938" from the National Archives; 1938 was 70 years ago--anyone who remembers seeing this particular sunset is more likely dead than alive. But we still have the image. 

And should Homo sapiens go the way of the Neanderthals, the sun will still set on this same beach.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Insane things I hope to avoid this year: Micromanaging microscopes

In America, many high school biology students go through the ritual of memorizing the parts of a tool they will then use to analyze a newsprint letter "e" under various powers and positions, only to put the tool away for the rest of the year their lives

This ritual can go of for days, as students struggle to make sense of this new tool, of the requisite worksheet asking deep questions like "Which way does the 'e' move?" and a teacher seemingly obsessed with a particular letter of the alphabet.
 (You can even buy a letter e slide, preserved using
"state-of-the-art preservation techniques."

This is often followed up by having students look at preserved (and very dead) specimens of critters they never knew, except for that kid in the corner who chewed on his chapped lips enough to surreptitiously look at his own blood.

Mark my words--a student struggling with focusing a scope will get excited by an air bubble, then get his own bubble deflated as he hears "that's just a bubble," followed by criticism for improperly mounting his specimen. (Talking about "mounting specimens" with sophomores has its own entertainment value, right up there with talking about the blue nitrogen atoms in your 3D molecule model set.)
Live slug from my backyard more interesting than letter "e"

Heck, if a child gets excited by the beauty of a bubble in his microscope, share the excitement! It's a step in the right direction. Then let your students play. Get some pond water, a dead ant, a piece of hair, floor dust, anything but some assigned slide a child has little interest in, and let them play.

Give your students permission to use the scopes whenever they have a reason to use one, which, in biology class, can be pretty much every day! Encourage your students to look at everyday objects they choose to look at.

They will very quickly learn the limits of the tool.

Otherwise you're wasting everybody's time--no need to know how to use a hammer if you live in a world that has no nails.

If your microscope lamps are not burning out now and again, you're not using them enough.