Saturday, April 19, 2014

"We've always done it this way..."

You should share my reliance on those old, old truths which shallow, drawing-room talk contemptuously dismisses as "commonplaces", though they have more marrow in them, and are quite as seldom wrought into the mental habits as any of the subtleties that pretend to novelty.
Marian Evans (George Eliot)
via Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind

We love the new, the shiny, the splashy, next big thing.

When we focus on the newest tech tool, we can let go of the harder questions. We can bask in the light of the new while quietly ignoring the mess we've left behind. We focus on the bright green foliage at the edge of the cesspool.

When we focus on the newest tech tool, we confuse the surges of adrenaline and dopamine we get from novelty with the warm satisfaction of working our way towards wisdom. The tool becomes the truth.

I love tools--I've used a drill, a mallet, a cross-cut saw, a measuring tape, a socket wrench, and a wheel barrow all within the last few hours to build a raised garden bed to grow vegetables that we plan to harvest with our hands.

The point is, literally, the fruit of our labors.

That anyone uses the "we've always done it this way" as a defense for a particular practice strikes the technophile crowd as galling, and on the face of it, I agree. The more interesting question would be why has it "always" been done this way? Does it work?

I am trying a raised bed for the first time this year, but I will not know if it is an improvement until I see the results in late summer. I've invested some time and money in the effort for something that I know works for many, but has never been tried on this particular patch of land here in my backyard.

I will still bury my beans one knuckle deep, as I have always done. I will still use jute twine to hold up the vines, as I have always done. I will still mix some compost and aged manure into the earth, as I have always done.

My goals have not changed--I want to eat fresh basil and sun-warmed tomatoes within an hour of harvest--and I use tried-and-true ways for obvious reasons.

The art of educating human larvae may have lost its way--these things happen when crowds wander around aimlessly without a consensus on the destination. The high tech crowd keep selling us marvelous GPS devices that do everything they promise to do, and we keep mindlessly buying them, hoping to reach our destination quicker.

Unless you know where you want to go, you're never going to get there.

I'm not as much anti-tool as I am pro-mindfulness.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On bulls and blossoms

The Story of Ferdinand

The cherry blossoms are a week late this year--they know better than I do when the bees will be around, so I do not begrudge their timing.

Several cherry trees line Liberty Street here in town, a road I've walked a few thousand times on my way to and from Bloomfield High School. A few have branches low enough for me to bury my nose into their blossoms, so I do, but not before I check for bees. The bees have work to do.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have cameras to compare our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of curves not  angles, smudges not sharp borders, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other.

Cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

Branch Brook Park, April, 2010

If you have never slid your nose into an hours old cherry blossom, no words can describe wash of peppery sweetness that takes you to nowhere but here now. Noses are like that.

Yellow pollen sticks to my nose like fairy dust.  I wipe it away, feeling vaguely self-conscious, ignoring the strangers who pause to stare at this madman burying his nose in the flowers.  It takes me a moment to regain my bearings.

In a week the blossoms will be gone, and I will have nothing but a false memory left of what once was.


This cerebral, abstract culture of ours does not deal with noses well. Odors are just so hard to control, the memories they arouse so unpredictably deep, and the sense of smell is, well, too primitive for those of us who dwell in the abstract world of words, numbers, and big data.

We talk about stopping to smell the flowers, but we focus on the stopping, not the wave of sensuous, even sensual, deep aroma of flowers that give us reason to pause. What does it mean to stop and take a break, to get away from it all, when the all can be found in a moment spent on the edge of a city street, face buried in flowers.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Story of Ferdinand,  a bull who would rather spend his days buried in flowers than fighting. The book was banned in many countries.

Things as they are would, of course, fall apart if too many children figured out that what we want them to want is more about success of our economy than about them them. Ferdinand is a dangerous role model.

You can live your life working for the next big thing, dreaming of your next vacation, your next car, your next hazelnut macchiato, You can dwell on the moments you will (or not) eventually have, but the idea of anything worthwhile is still just that--an abstract thought, reduced by the limits of imagination, and ultimately unsatisfying.

If you continue to see the kids in front of you as potential professionals, as potential thieves, as potential laborers or soldiers or teachers, you cannot see the child in front of you now, on a dreary April morning, here, in a room defined by its sharp edges and word salad on the walls.

Kids know if you're present in the classroom.  Passionate teachers are effective not so much for their passion, but for their presence. You can fake passion--teachers are good actors--but you cannot fake presence.

If you need to fake it, you're not doing it right.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Agent of the state

I am a public school teacher. As such I am an agent of the state, and was told as much early in my training.

I am given tremendous powers, a fair amount of autonomy, and I get to share what I love to young folks because the state has decided that a working knowledge of biology matters. It's been a pretty good gig.

The idea that public schools exist for the public good has not changed so much as what we now consider the public good.

If folks trust corporate logos more than they trust what is ostensibly their own government, then we will get the kind of schools such thinking deserves.

This does not signal acquiescence on my part, but it does acknowledge a sad reality here in the States today. In the meantime I'll keep busting my ass to expose my lambs to ideas that (I believe) matter. I'll keep showing child after child the miracle of basil seeds turning into vivid green plants with impossibly delicious scents,woven with the particles of their breath, right here in B362.

If enough of them get a glimpse of what we're hiding from them, we'll get back our schools, and our government.

Heck, Eisenhower today would be considered too left even for the liberal side of the Democratic party.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Words as idols

David Coleman and his socks
"As you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think."
David Coleman, Architect of the CCSS 

I gave this sample PARRC question to my sophomores today.

We've been playing in the PARRC in our building, and while a cerebral edge of what's left of my brain loves the idea of extrapolating from a defined piece of text, there's something just slightly off about all this, a Stepford wife kind of feeling.

The cerebral masturbation required for some PARRC questions may be fine for us old folk with a little money in our bank accounts--it's why the New York Times Sunday Crossword exists-- but I'm betting my 17 year old self would have gained less from it than from the wisdoms of the motley crew who served as my teachers during my stint as a public school student over 40 years ago.

I was one royal pain in the ass in the classroom, but so long as my  tangents went somewhere, a student like me was not just tolerated, I was loved by at least a few teachers who recognized life beyond books.

Words matter only so far as they reasonably reflect whatever this Plato's cave we all share outside our skulls. 90% of my nattering on any given day comes down to this: Hey, we're here in whatever this here is and we're here in it together.

That I can parse tremendous amounts of information from the close reading of just about any block of English in front of me has served me well, even got me a gig as a medical doc for a couple of decades, but it always felt a little bit like a parlor trick, great for entertaining the few who could afford to hire people like me to serve in the professional class.

I am also appreciative that with words I can vaguely convey the feelings if joy I have on a mudflat, or the fear I felt while crawling inside the steel skin of a sinking barge, or the anger I feel watching my lambs struggle to find a living in a culture that has lost its way.

I have never viewed words as something more than abstract tools of convenience--they are tricky devils that often fail when we try to say anything beyond Hey, we're here in whatever this here is and we're here in it together..

 I trust shared laughs more than notarized contracts though the latter will get you more money, more power, and (if these things matter to you), a more Stepford-like spouse.

I cannot in good conscience pretend that PARRC view of the universe matters when on Saturday I'll be clamming, drinking ale, and romping with the love of my life--all with no more language than the happy heartfelt grunts of a mammal too happy for his own good.

Words matter, but only because the world matters.
Worshiping words isolated from the world is just idolatry.

Clams have more soul than the suits pushing an abstract world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A melomel story

My strawberry melomel is near ready for bottling. The yeast are mostly sleeping now, having done what they could with a gallon of honey and a few pounds of strawberries.

Last year's melomel, much of it gone now

The airlock has quieted down. Very little carbon dioxide bubbles out anymore.

The strawberries were not yet strawberries this time last year--as evanescent as my last breath, and made of the same. The honey had yet to be harvested by the honeybees of last summer, all dead now.

We're all of the same stuff, put together into the wonderfully wild beings that bless earth by the grace of the sun, then broken down again, back into pieces to be used again.

Fresh fish in Dublin,no doubt reassembled by now

The sun has returned, the bees a bit wobbly as they waggle out of their hives to gather some of the sugary stuff spun together by plants from our breath, our gasping machines, and an occasional carboy of homebrew.

Our honey is about as local as honey can get, and the strawberries likely came from within a county or two. There's a real good chance that the mead we pour in June will have pieces of us from winters past.

And pieces of those we love who no longer breathe....

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A cherrystone's guide to the universe

These were alive today, and now they are not--much of what they were leave my body as exhaled breath even now.

Some of what they were now rests in an injured thumb, sliced open a week ago, filling in the gaping hole left by my carelessness. Stuff comes from stuff--no matter how spiritual your guru may be, he is made of dust and air.

Some of what they were sits in a bucket, shells waiting for the garden. Look at each line marking their growth, years sitting in the mud, years being clams, eating and breathing and (occasionally) releasing millions of sperm or eggs to make more of themselves, because, well, no one knows for sure, just because.

They were alive, and they are no more, as I was once no more and am now alive and will be no more again.

It's the same stuff put together by the same sun, broken apart by other critters for the same reasons. Like sleep, like sex, like any of the great mysteries so common to all of us, we ignore death as we prattle on about the thisses and the thats, while young humans pass from larval to adult forms before our eyes.

We teach as though we know something, when it's clear to the young ones we know nothing.

The only things that matter in any true economy is how stuff moves from here to there, where it came from, where it goes, and what free energy was used to make this happen. All of biology can be reduced to this. So can history or economics or music or anything else we do.

And that's OK....

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crocuses, clams, and the common core

Crocuses here, today, now.
Crocuses in full bloom, I'm smelling like a mudflat with a mess of clams just raked and scrubbed, and the light is returning.

A good day to be human.

Sad thing is, the days I feel most human are the days I most doubt the benefits of a public school system driven top down by a central power influenced by big money.

The things I most enjoy--clamming, singing, drinking home-made mead, and hanging with my best friend--I learned despite school.

I think we all agree kids need to learn to read and write. We pretend to agree that they should know a thing or two about numbers, but if your child has touched a calculator before she's 10, you're doing it wrong.

Clams today, here, now.

Beyond that, I think most would agree that a child should know her history, know who holds power over her, and how the local economy works--though I am not sure the CCSS crowd would concur.

I'm pretty sure that she does not need to know the number of rings in adenine and guanine, quadratic equations, or how many miles we are from the sun.

Not saying she might not pursue all those if they interest her--and we owe it to her to show her how to pursue what she wants to pursue. We just need to make sure it's done well, with faith in our towns, and with fidelity to the truth. Not sure that will prepare a child for the global economy, and I doubt that will lead to success on Wall Street.

If we could do that, democracy would thrive.
Capitalism, at least the form we practice in the States, would collapse like a clubbed baby seal.

So we got the "Common Core" instead, for us commoners. There are a lot of us. We have more power than we know.

Time to do what's right for the child in front of you, for her parents, and for your town, even when (or maybe especially when) it conflicts with the needs of a few folk who do not know your child, and never will.

The Great Famine was neither an act of God nor an act of nature--it was the direct result of centralized power.
We all have similar stories in our histories.
Act like your child matters.