Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prince Street Projects

This is a rant. The children I once bled and sewed and shot full of antigens deserve better.

If you look up Stella Wright Homes on Google images, you will see photos of explosive demolitions.

"My late mother (left) came up from Monmouth County with my sister Sue Ann (right) to witness the festive demolition of the last four buildings of the Stella Wright Homes (background) on a bright spring day."

That's the caption to the second picture that comes up when you Google "Stella Wright Homes."

A couple of ladies from out of town, both with dust masks, are standing two blocks away from the neighborhood, minutes before it was destroyed.


I spent years working here on a mobile medical unit, the "Big Blue Bus." We parked in the center of the projects, surrounded by 7 buildings, 13 stories each. Stella Wright Homes officially held 1206 single-family units, though the interpretation of "single-family" gets stretched a bit in areas with scarce resources.

I saw people shot. I saw grandmothers doing everything they could to keep their clans together. I saw rats the size of Kansas. I saw a child with Apert's syndrome cared for by a father who made sure my falafel was ready at lunch time, but not because I asked him.

I saw a fireman run into a building with the child's father trying to rip off the fireman's jacket so that he, the father, could charge into the monstrous smoke to save his children. The firefighter wrestled the father off, and charged into the same smoke devil I could not force myself to enter.

The child came out limp, lifeless. I went with the child to the ER, covered with soot, soaked from the firehoses. The child survived. I believe in miracles.

I saw mothers die of AIDS, gallantly holding together their clan until they could no longer hold on.

I saw neighbors share asthma inhalers, food, clothes, furniture, money.

If I am ever in a position where I truly lose everything, I pray to God that my neighbors are as generous as those in the Prince Street Projects.

I heard laughter more raucous than any heard at a burlesque, and wails more heartworn than those of King Lear.

We pushed vaccinations, lanced boils, pushed vaccinations, treated strep, pushed vaccinations, diagnosed AIDS, more vaccinations, discussed various OTC treatments, shot some more vaccinations, asked some not to call us "motherfuckers," pushed vaccinations some more, cleaned out ears, sewed wounds, and spent a lot of wasted breath telling people things Medicaid insisted we tell them.

We got paid to do this.

In return we got food and love and stories and love and hugs and love and trust and love and pictures and love and invitations and love and love and love and love and love.

I used to ask pediatric residents if they could imagine white people living in the projects. If you cannot, you are racist.

Turns out most of us are racist. This surprises my paler friends.


I do not like Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education. OK, I really, really dislike him, and I am not one used to disliking people. While I can be an annoying crank, I am not good at bearing grudges.

The dislike is more visceral than cerebral, though my cortex is slowly finding him every bit as unlovable as my limbus.

My instincts are usually pretty good, but this one puzzled me. Yes, Duncan's positions annoy me, but it was more than that.

I think I get it now.

Mr. Duncan prides himself on his history of ending a few neighborhood schools. I am not going to argue the particulars here. A school can become a disaster. Neighborhoods can spiral out of control. Our sense of order in a well-financed suburban neighborhood defies the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Maybe a school deserves to die, maybe not--but anyone who can cut the financing to a neighborhood school with more pride than sadness deserves scorn.

We cannot continue to pretend that inner-city children are just the victims of poor schooling. We cannot continue to pretend that everything can be fixed with education, that we all can be princes and princesses.

I met a lot of decent, hard-working parents in Stella Wright Homes. I met a lot of decent, hard-working teachers in schools that served Stella Wright Homes. A few were cooked, true, but they did not head to Newark for that reason.

You tell me how to teach a child that cannot breathe because she is wheezing, that could not sleep because of lack of heat, that has moved to 4 new schools in two years so the clan can keep two steps ahead of the landlord, that has pain from an ear infection that cannot be treated, that is hungry.

Try teaching on an empty belly.

And the amazing thing? Crushing poverty does not crush kindness. Crushing poverty does not crush curiosity. Crushing poverty does not crush hope.

It does, however, crush the snot out of standardized test scores.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lincoln logs

In the past couple of days I got to play tug-o'-war with a striped bass (he won), watch a loon chase spearing, and listen to the fog horn go on for hours--it is spring in Cape May.

Last night my brother surprised me with a few gifts. I slipped past fifty when I wasn't looking.

Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots. Labyrinth. A 007 spy camera/gun. A 1959 World Almanac. A classic rod hockey game (nobody ever beat me). A Tinkertoy set. Joe Pepitone, Jerry Koosman, and Tug McGraw baseball cards.

None of it expected, none of it deserved, all of it cherished.

This morning I built a cabin out of Lincoln logs. The container has both a girl and a boy (the boy with an odd expression on his face). Some of the pieces have been chewed on by a puppy who has long died of old age.


My Lincoln logs are made of wood. Some fit together better than others. Every single piece came from a tree, and had to be shaped.

I built a small cabin with a window and a door. I forgot to put in a log. I had to take apart a wall, and when I did, it fell down.

No reset button. Just Newtonian physics. A little bit of frustration.

I rebuilt my cabin. A lot of satisfaction.


Plastics are cheap, and easily shaped. (That's why they're called plastics.) Plastikos: moldable. About a century ago we figured out how to mold oil.
Ben, I got to talk to you.
I'm just going to say one word to you.

Very low doses of bisphenol A, found in many plastics, prevents chromosomes from lining up right in rats. It has been associated with breast cancer. It has been associated with prostate disease. BPA mimics estrogen.

A year or two this made big news because you can find it in baby bottles. But we knew that already. And we did it anyway.


My daughter loves to fish, but will only fish for what she can eat. She lives in New Jersey. This means she can no longer fish for bluefish. Or striped bass. Or eel. Or white perch.

She can eat one fluke a month, and one weakfish. We'll catch our fluke in June, our weakfish in July.

I'm not supposed to eat bluefish more than 6 pounds. I'm already addled. I'm no longer reproducing. I'm eating bluefish.

My grandfather was born in 1898. He could eat all the bluefish he wanted. He lived a long life, and finally died in the 1990's. He worked until a a couple of weeks before he died.

He never drank water from a Nalgene bottle, and if he ever had the opportunity to drink from Nalgene, water would not have been his first choice.

Plastics were not invented until he was 11 years old.

Toys were made out of wood because that was what was available. Wood is still available. Plastic is cheaper.

Imagine if the Soviet Union sold us baby bottles that harmed out children. Don't worry, it's Dow, GE Plastics, and Sunoco, not the Commies.

BPA was developed in the 1930s, specically as a syntheitc estrogen. Now the States make over 2 billion poinds a year of this stuff.

An estrogen mimic acts like estrogen. Wowzers, stop the presses!

I am a science teacher--hundreds of children have passed through my classes, and I bet not one of them worries about BPA.

Something is wrong.

Lincoln logs did not contain BPA in the 1960s--they were made of wood. In the 1970's, plastic replaced the wood because, of course, plastic is cheaper, and in our culture cheaper trumps just about everything.

Lincoln logs are wood again. The fish are still not safe, but at least a few people are aware of the problem. So this summer my daughter and I will catch a fluke or two, then maybe play Skeeball to replace fishing.

Should either of my children choose to have children, they will know what wood feels like.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I've lost face(book)

As mentioned last week, I saw Ian Jukes give an evangelical rip-snortin' talk last week, and he fired me up. I'm bouncing around like a jackrabbit on 'roids, trying to engage my lambs, even stooping to using chartreuse font on a blazing pink background.

(I think I sprained my left eye this week.)

One of his suggestions was to try new technologies, to engage in the same world our children now live in, to tweet, to friend, and to do all sorts of abominations that require converting nouns into verbs.

So I twaddled on Twitter, giggled on Google, blabbed on blogs, and (may God save my soul) joined Facebook.

Mr. Jukes has some wonderful ideas, and jumping headfirst into the digerati may be among them, but those of us on the short end of the mortal stick spend our hours like misers. I only have so many left.

If "friending" someone sounds offensive, do not join Facebook. Unless you friend someone (and I suppose they have to friend you back) playing on Facebook is as exciting as gazing at your own navel.

Untangling yourself from the Facebook world requires several steps, including a mandatory step explaining why you are leaving. For each possible reason you might choose to leave, a Facebook popup box will give a smarmy reply as to why you should stay. I do not like talking to machines, and I especially do not like them talking back.

The final step requires copying a barely legible pair of words.

The words I was required to copy to abandon the Facebook world?

this Prison

You cannot make this stuff up.....

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Grace and gravity

WACKADOODLE: "Well, why is there gravity?"
ME: "I've no idea, that's a religious question."
WACKADOODLE: "It's not a religious question! Why is there gravity?"
ME: "OK, maybe not a religious question, but it's one science cannot answer."
Today in class

I love my wackadoodles, the students swimming in the lowest depths of the class rankings, who keep questioning everything, a prescription for disaster in public schools.

This particular wackadoodle unearthed one of my prejudices. If a question worth answering cannot be answered by science, I label it religious. Some thoughts I should keep to myself.


Teaching (on a good day) reflects the fine line between ordered cortical thought and the mad, wise ramblings of the limbus. I have been reading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil, and I suspect that that's where my odd assertion about religion popped up.

I heard gravity, started thinking grace, and, not expecting the question, gave an unexpected answer.

I might consider rediscovering my frontal lobe.

I am hired by the town to teach a curriculum tailored to meet the requirements of the state. As long as public school remains public I am OK with this. (I trust the collective wisdom of the good folks in Bloomfield over the maniacal machinations of Bill Gates or Mike Feinberg or their puppet Arne Duncan.)

You cannot teach science without bumping up against limits of knowledge.

The most important part of teaching is to teach what it is to know.
Simone Weil

"What it is to know" is not limited by science, especially by the narrow view of what passes for science education here in the States.

Ah, look, there's an amoeba....and there's a corpse plant....over here is a yeti crab.

If you can look at a yeti crab and not wonder at the whole absurd and loving complexity of the biosphere, you may want to reconsider teaching children--they are far more interested by the fact that a yeti crab exists than its molecular make-up, and questions of existence put you on dangerous ground in a science classroom.

Charles Darwin was closer to the truth than we give him credit for.

And gravity? This inexplicable pull every object has towards every other object in the universe?

It may be a religious question after all.

The flying dancers are from the North Shore Civic Ballet.
The yeti crab is from the Pacific Ocean.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust...."

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot

My seeds are sprouting. I put seeds in peat moss, water them, and the miracle happens.

I do nothing to deserve this. Nothing.



We have long lost our commons. We are now close to losing anything public.

We are heading towards a brand new day in education. The corporate interests are winning. The monied class is winning.

Public is an honorable word, derived from the Latin publicus, which sprang from an even older word poplicus, a variant of populus, or "people." Public literally means "open to all in the community."

Still, a tiny portion of my town's public monies goes to buying peat pots and seed starter, lights and seeds. My kids get to plant in one of the few remaining public spaces left--school.

I will plant most of my seedlings on private land because we no longer have a commons. Back when folks knew that land meant food, this caused concerned. Today the connection of food to land seems as quaint as telling time using a sundial.

If I had to give up watches or sundials, I'd give up the watch. I own a working sundial. I do not own a functioning watch.


I dreamed last night of death, as I usually do in spring. The sun swings ridiculously quick to the north these days. Everything I do that matters requires sunlight.


Without an influx of energy, things fall apart. At my age they fall apart anyway. My telomeres, cellular hour glasses, keep shrinking.

I pretend otherwise. I am bathed in light from my monitor, powered by coal stripped off the face of this Earth by huge machines powered by petroleum.


If you want to keep a plant alive in a classroom, you need to pay attention. You need light, you need water. Our breaths provide the rest.

I can rattle on about cytochromes, about chemiosmotic potentials and ATP synthase. I can make my students mouth off fancy phrases--we have post-graduate education classes designed to teach me how to keep my charges in check, to convince them that testable knowledge holds value, that they need the diploma to be complete human beings.

Preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society. It's an economic imperative.

Arne Duncan

I know a lot of very bright adults. I know a lot of very educated adults. Sometimes an adult can be both. The most interesting adults I know all know where food comes from.

The most interesting adult I know outside of my immediate clan never finished high school. Don't worry, Arne, he's done his part to support our economy. He's produced far more than any superintendent or politician ever has, though he had help from the bees and the sun and the land.

He's a farmer, and a good one.

Farmers know death, and farmers know grace.
Hard to accept one without the other.


New Jersey tests all of its biology students in May. By then, a few of my students will have bean stalks hanging from their bonsai bean plants struggling to survive in a classroom.

If you own land and cannot afford the time to plant a bean, something is fundamentally wrong. People sense that things are fundamentally wrong, and we have good drugs for this--Zoloft will make you feel better, and might even help you on the state exam.

It won't, however, make you a better gardener.

When things settle down in this part of the world, when we remember what made our land and The Great Experiment such a source of joy, we may get less excited about telomeres, and more excited about beans again. Death will no longer be such a surprise.

Planting a bean in class will not help any of my students pass a standardized test.

I do it anyway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Guerrilla gardening

Spring, finally.


I tend to wander away from the monitor once the sun heads north. In January puny words sustain me--in April germinating seeds do. I will become more scarce here as the sun arcs higher in the sky.

Leslie and I wandered along the edge of the world again today--a small flock of loons hunting by the ferry jetty called to each other. A bit later, a crow grumbled at us as we approached.

Crows never grumble at us in February.

Not so long ago I caught one of my students artistically applying ink to a mailbox, which would be fine if the mailbox was his. It is not.

I live in the same town I work, which is unusual these days in north Jersey, so reporting the child to the authorities was not in anyone's best interests.
Not saying I did, not saying I didn't.

Yesterday I planted basil and zinnias and oregano and cosmos. Today I put some garlic cloves in the ground. Tomorrow I'll plant more tomatoes or maybe peppers, egg plants or maybe nicotianas, who knows.

I'll run out off ground long before my interest wanes.

My neighbors mostly plant grass. Not the good kind like wheat or oats or corn. Kentucky blue grass (which would be interesting if it were truly blue). Chewings fescue. Bermudagrass. All clipped before they give off a hint of sexuality.

Straight. Green. Inedible.

At least I can eat my dandelions and wild purslane.

Should the authorities wish to pursue my graffiti artist, he may pay a fine. He may spend some time in the youth house. It will cost money, my money, and not much gets solved.

I have a better idea. I am short of land, but not of seeds.

Guerrilla gardening.

Guerrilla gardening is like graffiti, except it results in something useful.

Find a piece of land, and surreptitiously plant something. In these parts, think Indian. Corn, pumpkin, squash, blueberries, beans, sunflower--these were all here before the Europeans came.

The Europeans destroyed a lot of things, but they have yet to destroy the climate. (Give us credit, though, we're working on it.) If you plant a pumpkin in New Jersey, it will grow. So will a sunflower or a bean or a blueberry bush. They will grow if loved, but better yet, they will grow if neglected.

Pick a property with an absentee owner. We have plenty here in Bloomfield.
Plant a pumpkin seed.

The child gets to buck the system. The neighborhood gets a few pumpkins. Passers-by get a chance to smile at a misplaced sign that God loves us even when we're not kneeling in a pew.

I know that God or nature or life or whatever you want to call all this matters, and I know I cannot understand any of it. That's as much as I know anything, and it's enough.

We plant seeds in the classroom, and they grow. The children are amazed, as they should be. (I am amazed, too, every time it happens, as I should be.)

I do not, of course, advise my students to break the law. I do not push them into lives of crime, sowing illicit vegetables around town.

Still, John Chapman is one of my few heroes, and I would be proud if one of my students emulated him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Planting season

In the next hour or two, I will be filling up cut-up orange juice containers with peat moss and vermiculite, dropping a brandywine tomato in this one, a Pruden's purple in that one, and start the cycle again.

Today I saw Ian Jukes speak--he's dynamic, bright, and he shared evidence that today's children, the native digital generation, have altered minds.

I used to work on the Newark docks, he claimed to be a pro football player in the Canadian Football League (though a look at the all-time BC Lions roster doesn't mention a Jukes), so I cut him more slack than I would most pedagogues, and even though he quoted Thomas Friedman a bit and took a cheap shot at Clifford Stoll, most of what he said made sense.

The one thing that perked my interest was his aside that the news that children are different today than a generation ago, truly different in a neurological way, frightened him. He didn't elaborate, and why should he? He makes decent money chatting it up with high-tech futuristic sorts, and he's evangelical in his approach to education, but still, he said it.

I hope someday to pursue it with him, but his blog The Committed Sardine boasts over 78,000 followers, and I have 12, so my leverage is a bit limited.

If I did ever share a pint or two with him, here's what I'd say. Yes, children are different, yes, technology has a huge role in our lives, yes, all this visual noise is uber-cool but....

If I want fresh brandywines and Pruden's purple tomatoes this year, I still have to plant seeds in March.

If I want just-pulled-out-of-the-mud fresh clams, well, I will have to climb into my kayak, head towards my sekrit place, and rake them up.

If I want music that happens to reflect my limbic state at the moment, well, I have to pick up my guitar, or one of the many scattered harmonicas, or a flute or a trumpet, and play.

No way around it.

My kids are still my kids, altered brains or not, and brandywine tomatoes are still my tomatoes, as long as I am young enough to stoop in the garden.

Which gets to the real point--I plant in March for returns in August and September. I do not believe summer is coming, because my imagination always fall short this time of year. I plant by faith.

One of these years, what I plant in the spring may need to be harvested by someone else in the fall.

That's the way it is. And a CPU can't change that.

Two follow-ups:
Mr. Jukes replied in less than an hour. He's a mensch.

More important, I tried using some of his stuff--and my class woke up, engaged as though it was the first week of school. He's onto something. More as I learn more.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dredge fill

This is more for me than anything else.

We get bogged down in PSATs, HSPAs, UbDs, SATs, NJDOEs, KWLs, SQ3Rs, QQPs, IEPs, ESLs, NAEPs, NCLBs, AYPs, IDEAs, ADHDs, ADAs, FAPEs, ODDs, PDDs, TBIs, TTYs, CSTs, OCDs, DYFSs, SLDs, and all kinds of other capitalized nonsense that define a very limited human world that catches up with most of us.

And then I find myself on a moonscape.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Barnacle philosophy

I found the largest barnacle I have ever seen while meandering along the bay's edge yesterday.

The barnacle has not been dead long--the sweet decay of death announces its presence. It still has enough spirit left to talk to me. And it does.

I was alive yesterday, I am not alive today.

My neighbor died last week. A friend of mine's father is very ill this week.
All living things die. All.

I forget this.
Half of my clan has died, and still I forget this.
The monitor lets me believe I am immortal.


Darwin studied barnacles, thousands and thousands of them. I have barely studied one, and a not-so-alive one. (I did spend a lot of time when I was younger watching barnacles sweep their feathers in the water, mesmerized by their rhythm.)

In one day I have learned about the life history of acorn barnacles, that it can see in its early stages, that at its cyprid larval stage it sniffs out adult barnacles, then touches them, then attaches its small body next to adults. It flips upside down, then forms the walls around itself, the walls so familiar to anyone who has scraped the bottom of a boat. I learned this all on the internet.

My barnacle friend sits on this desk, next to this monitor. I sniff it again. My nose teaches me what my eyes cannot.

My nose knows death.

And why do barnacles need to live so close each other? Why do young barnacles smell and feel other barnacles before settling down for their lifetime on a rock in Cape May?

Barnacles are intimate with each other. Unlike clams and oysters and striped bass and so many other creatures ecstatically tossing gametes into the sea, barnacles, um, have relations.

With each other.

Yes, their anatomy reflects this--take a peek below if you're insatiably curious.

My barnacle lived a good life--I found him on a plastic pipe that had been tossed on the beach by a recent tide. He had company, and I suspect they had relations. Empty wine glasses, burned candle stumps. I knocked off his carcass with my foot, and he will likely stay in my home until someone cremates me.

He will sit on the windowsill with the shells of oysters and clams and urchins and horseshoe crabs and whelks and mussels. I hope that someday they all get tossed back into the sea. I hope I get tossed back into the sea with them.

Dancing only makes sense if you're going to die. Dancing costs energy. We do it anyway.

I sniff my barnacle again. I smell the organic molecules breaking down, food for bacteria, energy caught but never used by the barnacle.

In our cultural drive to be more productive, more efficient, more more, the barnacle's rhythmic dance on the rocks reminds me that my children are not their test scores, and that what I teach matters, even the stuff not on the tests.

Darwin suffered losses while he studied the barnacles. He was plagued by illness, and lost his favorite child Annie. Somehow he got through it, and wrote The Origin of Species, an epic work that summed up a life.

I'd like to think the barnacles helped him get through the darkness.

If you want to see a wonderful video of barnacles in action (and beware, men, you may develop penis envy), click here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Function follows form

Our district has bought into Understanding by Design, a useful (though not unique) method for designing curriculum that emphasizes the interesting end of Bloom's taxonomy. Part of our task at a recent workshop was to develop an "enduring understanding" for a unit. Big ideas, enduring understandings, whatever you want to call them, drive the units.

Our group picked evolution as the unit.

Predictable enduring understandings emerge--species change over time, species evolve from pre-existing species, natural selection drives speciation.

We say it, we teach it, and we miss it.

Darwin struggled with his thesis. He twisted it inside out, passionately looking for flaws. He would have been a happier man had he found them. He did not because, fundamentally, his thesis is sound.

With evolution, form does not follow function. Giraffes do not have long necks because they want to eat leaves, humans did not develop thumbs in order to grasp things better.

Mutations are random. Meiosis and sexual reproduction create tremendous variations in individual organisms. The organisms who thrive in their particular environment are more likely to reproduce successfully.

Earthworms and horseshoe crabs and the double-wattled cassowary have been evolving as long as we have. For all our talk of being advanced, none of us could survive long if tossed into the same habitat as the earthworm.

If a particular form does better in a specific environment than a different form, it is more likely to persist. There is no "want" or "desire" involved.

What ultimately succeeds is not necessarily random--a fusiform fish can swim faster than a round one, and it's not surprising that many fish are streamlined. Still, an ancient fish did not ponder its fate and hope to become fusiform.

Form did not follow function. Survival followed form, but that's not the same thing, not the same thing at all.

Early hominids walked upright, that much we know from the fossil record. It may well have been the result of a mutation, an accident. Lucy did not say, "Hey, I can walk!" Her parents did not say "Hey, if we stand up straight we can pick more fruit!"

The front limbs, now freed, became useful for other things, but not because of any planning.

There is great comfort believing that something guides the universe, and there is enough order in the chaos around us for a few of us to maintain that belief.

Humans could have happened anyway. We're not special, or rather, we're no more special than the horseshoe crabs and the earthworm and the double-wattled cassowary.

Thankfully for me anyway, I think the double-wattled cassowary is pretty special.

The double-wattled cassowary and the worms are from the BBC here.
Leslie took the horseshoe crab photo.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Separating the wheat from the chaff

Bloomfield, New Jersey, sits on the border of Newark, part of the urban fringe. No commercial farms exist here now, and if someone pursued such a quixotic venture, they would not grow wheat. We already have Kansas for that.

Still, given the rabid efforts of many Americans in these parts to grow lawn grass, it seemed a reasonable proposition to grow some wheat in a tiny patch of the backyard. Wheat is just grass all grown up.

One May afternoon, I scattered a handful or two worth of seeds over a 20 square foot patch, scritched the earth with a rake, and then went about my business. Three months later, I had my very own amber waves of grain fluttering in the warm August breeze.

I carefully cut down my wheat, tied it up into stooks and let it dry. A little pride crept in as I admired my stook, my connection to the past, smug as an urban Luddite can be. My smugness would soon be cured.

Separating the wheat from the chaff.

A quaint Biblical expression, easy enough to interpret. The wheat is the solid, good stuff. The chaff is the fluffy bad stuff. Throw the wheat in the air, and the heavier wheat berries fall straight down, while the chaff wafts away with the wind.

In the olden days, the collected chaff would be burned, not out of some symbolic representation of Hell, but just as a quick way to get rid of bulky waste.

So on Sabbath you head off to church, root for the the good guys (Yay, wheat!), tsk, tsk the bad guys (Boo, chaff!), pat yourself on the back for falling in with the wheat crowd, then go home and munch on some bagels made from, well, wheat.

Turns out it's not so simple. While today's pastor can glibly warn his flock to avoid the chaff types, any farmer back in Biblical times knew that wheat did not come in two parts. The chaff is an integral part of the wheat plant, the dry husk surrounding the wheat berry, the part used for food.

Before winnowing the chaff from the wheat berries, you need to thresh the wheat. Threshing is basically knocking the wheat kernels off the rest of the plant. Today this is done with a combination reaper/thresher (called combine for short), a machine that can cost well over a million dollars.

I was not going to invest a million dollars to harvest a tiny patch of wheat. I got to do it the old-fashioned way--beating the wheat until my arms were ready to fall off.

Initially I tried a Wiffle ball bat. Little success.

I made a flail--two sticks tied together end-to-end, allowing me to beat the heads of wheat much more efficiently. A flail looks like nunchaku, or nunchucks, for a good reason. Nunchaku were initially farming tools.

Flailing is very hard work. I pounded and pounded my small stook. I once shoveled scrap metal on ships in Port Newark. I'm not sure which is harder.

The chaff is an integral part of the plant, not some sinister fluff stalking the grain. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not about separating good folks from bad. That's too easy.

Before separating a part from itself, you need to break it. Threshing wheat requires violence. The wheat plant is broken. Separating the wheat from the chaff involves breaking one's lesser tendencies from the better.

Indeed, the actual separating part is easy. Once the grain is threshed, just wait for a breezy day and toss the threshed grain in the air. The wheat berries will bounce at your feet, the chaff blown away. People once knew this. Wheat and chaff were not distinct elements until after the threshing.

The parabolic statement about wheat and chaff reminds us not only that the community is mixed but also that each of us have our own good and bad elements. There is for each of us chaff that needs to be blown away and burned. There is a separation here of good and bad, useful and useless; but it is not like the difference between apples and oranges. Each of us individually is wheat and chaff.

The Very Rev. Dennis J.J. Schmidt, from The Wheat and the Chaff, December 9, 2001

I will not likely grow wheat again; I have too little land, and the work of threshing by hand is a bit much for a man in his fifth sixth decade.

What do I have to show for it? Well, I have a half pint of homegrown wheat sitting in a Mason jar, enough for a couple of bagels should I grind it into flour.

More importantly, I have a better grasp of "separating the wheat from the chaff," and what a loaf of bread meant to my forebears, and still means to most of the people alive today.

The thrashing woodcut is from a Czech tourism site. My Czech is a bit limited.
The wheat stook photo form the National Archives.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tithonus and the rubella vaccine

I routinely inoculated children in my practice. My children were vaccinated. I love vaccines!
This is just one tiny discussion about one small aspect about vaccines.

Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:

Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

from Tithonus, Alfred Lord Tennyson

At 14 weeks, a developing human has toes. The heart beats. She pees, she swallows. Conscious? No way to know.

In July, 1962, I was just learning to talk, a bit late. During that month, a fetus conceived by a married Swedish couple had the misfortune of falling late in the birth order. She was not wanted. 3 months after conception, she was scraped from the womb. She still exists, at least as cells derived from her lung.

Her name is WI-38.

When I was 7 years old, back in 1966, a 14 week's mother induced his abortion because of psychiatric issues. We know that the fetus was a "he"; we know that his mother was an otherwise healthy 27 year old woman.

His name is MRC-5.

I am aging now--bodies fall apart. Modern medicine promises me big things on the horizon--soon I will be able to regenerate brain tissue, synovium, marrow. If I can hang on long enough, I may never have to die.

WI-38 and MRC-5 are immortal. They live as cell lines perpetually propagated, and are used in the development of many childhood vaccines. They help protect us from rabies, polio, and hepatitis A.

Oh, yes--and rubella. My mother taught in elementary school in 1958, back when I was a fetus. She was exposed to rubella, before a vaccine was available. I am lucky. A little hard of hearing, perhaps, but otherwise OK.

In 1994, Britain required rubella immunizations for its youth, a vaccine developed from MRC-5's cell line. A few conservative Catholics objected.

No alternatives for the vaccine were available. The Catholic bishops left it up to individual families whether to accept the vaccine.

(Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu. "Goodness arises from an integral cause, evil arises from any defect whatsoever." Roman Catholicism has flaws--I left the Church long ago, when I may have been too young to know better. Underneath the dogma, however, wisdom survives.)


Rubella virus causes "German measles"--children get a relatively mild illness with fever, rash, and swollen glands. It goes away in a few days.

Infection early in pregnancy, however, often results in severe disease to the fetus. Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) can cause severe birth defects--cataracts, deafness, heart defects, and mental retardation. It still occurs. I have seen one case.

(Case is a way to deflect the reality--it was not a "case"--it was a child.)



American physicians are predicting we will soon see CRS eradicated in the Western hemisphere.

MRC-5 will not be unemployed, though--his cell line has many other uses.

Tithonus was condemned to a uselessly aged body, MRC-5 to a uselessly young one. When cloning becomes possible, MRC-5 deserves to be in the front of the line.

This week President Obama lifted the Bush administrations restraints on using new embryonic cell lines. The issue had become a political football. Still, it is not enough to be "on the side of science" or "on the side of God." Many quick to dismiss Bush's objections do not know a stem cell from a daffodil.

Where do I fall? Ask me over a Guinness. You will get an honest answer, but maybe not a straight one.

This was written a few years ago, when I still practiced medicine. I am not an "anti-vaxxer," but I am an anti-dogmatist.
The cells are WI-38, from here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Planet of the Apes

Santino, a captive chimpanzee, stockpiles rocks to throw at humans who laugh at him at the zoo.

This was a big enough deal to advance the career of Mathias Osvath, who has studied Santino and concluded that Santino has foresight. If Santino's aim was a little better, maybe Santino's "human" characteristic would have been recognized earlier.

Santino spends his days held captive in a zoo near Stockholm. Stockholm is a long way from equatorial Africa.

In late December, there are only about 6 hours of sunlight in Stockholm, about half the length it would be at home. It's also a bit colder in Stockholm than Tanzania.

Santino never throws rocks at other chimpanzees. Only at humans. Santino is one pissed-off primate. (OK, Santino did kill a rival male chimp back in the day, but managed to avoid jail time.)

Don't you love human interest stories? Human knowledge advances, Osvath is one step closer to a professorship, and we get to laugh at our cousins.

And Santino?
He was castrated in an attempt to calm him down a bit. Chimps who toss rocks put their own at risk.

Puts a new spin on the word "humane."

Photo from The Guardian.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Time out!

Leslie suggests, wisely I think, that I keep my vaccine opinions to myself.
My signal-to-noise ratio got knocked down a bit this month.
I am a teacher, no more, and, of course, no less.

Studies suggest that this disconnect between body time and clock time can result in restlessness, sleep disruption and shorter sleep duration. Other studies have suggested links between time change and increases in heart attacks, suicides and accidents, though scientists say more study is needed.

New York Times
March 10, 2009
But we do it anyway....

Blame the European monks--living by the clock is a very recent development. Before mechanical devices, we relied on the sun, the moon, the seasons. The monks regularly prayed together. Ironically, modern time-keeping has pulverized free time. Who has the time to pray anymore?

I do not have a watch or have a cell phone. Not a digital bone in my body. I am amazed that some people are amazed by that--we are surrounded by clocks.

I usually wake up a few minutes before the alarm goes off at 5:30 AM. Today I got jolted. I do not adapt well to folks screwing around with my clocks. Still, worse things can happen.

About 350 years ago, the British finally succumbed to the Catholic version of the calendar--despite its papal origin, the Gregorian calendar works better than the Julian. The Julian calendar adds about a day every 131 years--and this adds up.

As part of the changeover, September 2, 1752, became September 14th. The whole year was about 20% shorter than other years because of its late start (March 25) and the missing chunk of September.

Imagine if Rush Limbaugh controlled the pamphlet market back then.

So we "lost" an hour. We'll get it back in the fall.

And really, nothing happened. The mourning dove still called out as it does at dawn, the crocuses opened up as the sun rose, a few mayflies hatched out by the pond early this afternoon.

I got to walk in the dark to school, cranky and tired and feeling a little less superior than the sparrows who slept as they always do, guided by the sun.

A few of us will suffer heart attacks this week because of our addiction to artificial time. And you thought fluoride and milk were dangerous....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

This week's Arneisms

"D.C. has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous."

Arne Duncan
as told to the Washington Post

Which God? I want evidence! How much money did God have? Where did it all go? Did God's children pass the NAEP?

Does God feed us coins?

My garden says otherwise.
Food is a gift unearned, meant to be shared.

Does He bathe us in liquidities?
The rain and the rivers and the ocean say otherwise.
Water is a gift unearned, meant to be shared.

Does He manipulate the stocks Pacifi
c Lumber?
The trees say otherwise.
Shelter is a gift unearned, meant to be shared.

Let's keep God out of this--I know it's just an expression, but it's offensive to some, nonsensical to most.

We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers when student achievement isn't happening.

Arne Duncan
as told to the Washington Post

Those pesky teachers! You try scrubbing them out, and they just won't go away.

Yes, of course, he does not mean all teachers, and yes, of course, by "rid" he simply meant not rehiring teachers who cannot, for whatever reasons, adequately teach.

Our students just took the HSPA test last week. Part of the exam focuses on persuasive writing.

I wonder how Mr. Duncan would have scored with that response.

Photos by Kevin Long of the Associated Press found here.

General Jack D. Ripper had a point....

A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works.

General Jack D. Ripper
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Ah, March madness.

I recently suggested that beer in moderation may be better for my health than milk. My first responder, Mr. Anonymous, lumped me together with "the anti-vaxxers, & anti-fluorides."

OK, I confess--I oppose fluoridation of my local water supplies.

Please read that carefully. I am not opposed to the use of medical grade fluoride applied by a dentist. I am not opposed to prescribing medical grade fluoride for use by a child so long as an adult in the home can carefully follow directions.

I do, however, oppose fluoridation of the water that comes out of my tap, especially if the fluoride used comes from industrial waste.

In regard to the use of fluosilicic (fluorosilicic) acid as a source of fluoride for fluoridation, this agency regards such use as an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem. By recovering by-product fluosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized, and water utilities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to them.

Rebecca Hanmer, 1983
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water, EPA, back then

I'm sure Ms. Hanmer is a decent person. She's the former director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, she's won the President’s Distinguished Federal Executive Award, and she's a wonderful advocate for clean water.

Still, she advocated putting industrial waste into my water supply. That's the way it was done a quarter century ago. That's the way it's done today.

Florida has a few lucrative industries, and not all of them are Mickey Mouse. Florida produces tons of phosphate fertilizer. It also produces tons of hazardous waste. Fluorosilicic acid, a mixture of waste products from pollution scrubbers used during the processing of phosphate fertilizer, is shipped all over the country.*

Yes, it's diluted over 100,000 times when used for fluoridation. Yes, it helps prevent dental cavities.

No, I don't want my government deliberately dumping toxic waste into my water supply.

No, really.

And it's not just because I own a tinfoil hat.

*Yes, you can buy this stuff--Lucier Chemical Industries will sell it to your town. Yes, it's Lucier, not Lucifer.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I heart Daphnia

I spent the day starting my journey into the AP Biology world. I drove an hour to get to a conference today, a Saturday, and I can hardly fault the College Board for it being so lovely outside.

At lunchtime, I wandered around Red Bank Regional High School--they have a pond there, not much more than an elaborate puddle, and at one end of the pond a tree has fallen.

I leaned in the crook of the tree in the warm early spring sun, and watched the tiny fish dance just below the surface of the pond.

Inside we discussed a lab that measures the heart rates of Daphnia at different temperatures. Daphnia (water fleas) are little critters that live in ponds like the one just outside our classroom today. Our teacher warned us that Daphnia can die if stressed too much by temperature changes. She does not toss her Daphnia down the drain when she is done--she keeps a jar of pond water in her class.

Makes sense to me. Not sure it made sense to everyone in the classroom, though.

There's a disconnect between AP Biology and watching fish bounce around in the suddenly warming waters the mudhole just yards away from our classroom, chasing Daphnia.

That disconnect bothers me.

About fifty thousand high school students got 4s or 5s on last year's AP Biology exam. Rutgers, the flagship of our public universities, charges about $300 per credit hour. Biology is worth 4 credit hours.

That's about $1200 worth of exemption via the AP exam. Multiply that by 50,000 students, and your talking real money. 60 million dollars. (Not all the students that gain credit via the AP test will opt out of the college course, so my numbers may be a bit inflated.)

Universities and the College Board will continue to argue the validity of the AP biology course. Money talks.

Of the 50,000 or so students that earn 4s or higher on the exam, I wonder how many actually wonder about the Daphnia eating, screwing, breathing in thousands of ponds within a mile or two of all the testing centers in the United States.

If you do not wonder about the Daphnia in your neighborhood, if you do not care about the Daphnia in your neighborhood, then you should not be entrusted with 21st century technologies.

No way to test that, of course, and even if there was, most people would think only a nut would consider the Daphnia.

Still, Daphnia matter. If Daphnia cannot live in the water I drink, I do not want to drink it. Daphnia are used as "biomoitors"--if the daphnia start acting beserk, something is wrong with the water.

If I present my love affair with Daphnia in economic terms--biomonitoring, water quality, human health--folks figure I know something worthwhile.

So I can pretend that's why I stared into the water at the pond's edge today.

But that would be lying. I like the idea that Daphnia exist, that they do pretty much everything I do (except maybe keep a blog), and that their existence is both absolutely incomprehensible in human terms yet makes perfect sense beyond our artificial sphere.

The Daphnia photo is by Paul Hebert at the Public Library of Science, via wikimedia.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stalking the Bloomfield dandelion

I can write about oysters and clams and life and death, and occasionally hear a voice from here, from there. Take on milk, however.....who knew cows were sacred?

No matter--the thermometer rose over 30 degrees today to a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow is melting, the daffodils and crocuses are reaching up to the sky, and the sun creeps upward. Brighid returns.

Any day now the tiger lilies will sprout--and when they do, I graze. Early spring is a wonderful time to nibble on plants.

I do not spend a whole lot of time discussing my spring grazing habits with my friends. I usually get an odd look, and there's no sense upping the competition.

Nibbling on greens shortens the food chain--I tear off a piece of a plant outside, I eat it. I know where the plant grew, I know whether it got dusted by pesticides, and I know the plant's story. I become more local.

Some folks worry about me. What about the risks?

The same folks will buy their food from supermarkets, trusting strangers who have no interest in them.

(I do trust my local grocery store--they want my business. I also have an ornery habit of trusting myself as well, maybe even more than I trust strangers.)

I suppose I should list the usual caveats here--don't eat something you don't recognize, don't nibble in fields that may have been sprayed, don't take advice from strangers on the internet, and make sure you wash anything you might eat. You should follow the same recommendations when eating anything from your supermarket as well.

Here's a small list of foods I graze on here in Bloomfield:

Tiger lilies:

I may eat more tiger lilies than anyone in Bloomfield, maybe anyone else in the world. Leslie loves tiger lilies maybe even more than I do, but her love is more photonic than gustatory.

How do you eat them? Find them poking out of the ground, tear off a shoot, and eat them.

What do they taste like? Sweet and tender, with just a tiny hint of spiciness.

Wild onions

If it smells like an onion or garlic, it likely is, and if it is, it should be safe (unless poisoned by humans). Euell Gibbons said all wild onions are safe, and I trust him.

Euell Gibbons is the guru of wild foods--his book Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop is one of my all-time favorites. He started his adventures by foraging for his family while only 11 years old--his clan was hungry.

Euell Gibbons was, among other things, a school teacher, a carpenter, a farmer, and a hobo, all honorable professions--I would be proud if my children pursued any of these fields.

What do wild onions taste like? Well, oniony, only more so. I especially love to eat the leaves.


I (mostly) admire Gandhi's life, and one of Gandhi's favorite foods was purslane. This weed grows all over the place--I tossed it into the compost for years.

My Auntie Beth told me it's good, and Auntie Beth is always right.

It is nutritious, ubiquitous, and delicious--the flavor has been described as salty/sour, but it tastes like, um, purslane.


I love dandelions! You've got to get them before they start to flower, otherwise too bitter. Even then, though, if eaten raw they may be too bitter for many.

You can pay good money at a fancy grocery store, or you can forage for them in your backyard.

Should things get real tight for us here in Bloomfield, we have too little land to support our population. We have almost 50,000 people living on less than 5 1/2 square miles. Unless I develop a healthy appetite for asphalt, subsistence living here remains a fantastic dream.

Still, nibbling on greens breaking through our earth here in spring reminds me how connected we all are to our land, even here in a crowded corner of the universe.

The dandelion greens are from New York magazine.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Udder nonsense

"Beer is living proof that God loves us
and wants us to be happy."
Ben Franklin

I do a lot of things that may not be good for me--I sit in front of this monitor too many hours a day, I like to go fast on motorcycles, and I use the top step on ladders. One high risk activity I refrain from, however, is drinking milk.

Cow's milk is for calves. Breast milk is for young humans. Aside from some sort of fetish practiced in moderation, adults should never drink milk.

In the cafeteria, Josephine serves me lunch. I love her. She calls me "Pumpkin," and she knows exactly what I like.

Still, I suspect she might be trying to kill me. She can't resist pushing the milk. People love to be in line behind me because I give my milk away. (I can actually get veggies and a fruit for only 15 more cents if I also take a half-pint of milk.)

Beer in moderation, on the other hand, prolongs life. It lowers blood pressure, reduces my chances of developing Alzheimer's, and, well, tastes good. Really good.

Really, really good.
(Did I mention that I like beer?)

Guess which beverage gets the huge color poster on the cafeteria wall?

Now obviously I don't think the cafeteria walls should be covered with Guinness ads, nor do I condone drinking among the young (except maybe for those in my immediate clan).

Our love affair with cow's milk shows what a good PR campaign can do. We are willing to drink the milk from a four-legged critter while simultaneously repulsed by the idea of making ice cream from breast milk.

I'm not going to jump all over anyone for a bad milk habit--live and let live. But on St. Paddy's Day, when I carefully pour the cream over a spoon into my Irish coffee, it's not the whiskey I fear.

It's the cream.

Particularly the cream from the milk of another species.

My students continue to drink milk and Coke and Snapple and all kinds of other things that harm them, truly harm them. Diabetes is no joke.

In D.A.R.E., they learn that beer is a gateway drug.Too much of anything can be dangerous. Thankfully, too much thinking is not one of them anymore. Uncontrolled thinking could lead to all kinds of ruinous activities.

I'll drink to that.

I lifted the image of the beer in a carboy from Homebrew Underground
--at least until they complain or I find my own photo. Addendum: it's cool--thanks, Homebrew Underground!

The udder shot is from Genus Breeding.

Leslie points out, rightly, that cow's milk has not been linked to adult onset diabetes.
Milk has been associated with Type 1 diabetes, but correlation,
of course, does not mean causation.

Leslie also says stay away from BGH (bovine growth hormone).

To be fair, I'm a bit lactose intolerant, so I may be biased.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Blame the crash on a science teacher

Word that the economy contracted at a faster-than-expected 6.2 percent pace in fourth quarter is only adding to investors' worries.

The Associated Press, 3 days ago

Every time I teach a child to plant her own garden, the GDP takes a hit.

Every time I show a child how to knead bread, the GDP is adversely affected.

If I convince a child to walk or bike instead of riding to school, I decrease her chances of developing diabetes, and the GDP drops (unless, of course, the child gets hit by a car).

If I make my class comfortable for children wearing hand-me-downs, or home-made clothes, or styles from last year, I admit I've dinged the GDP.

Should I teach a child how to forage for berries, for clams, for oysters, yes, the GDP drops.

If by chance my words help a child live a happy life with a life partner until death, I'm guilty of shrinking the GDP. (Divorces are so much healthier for the economy.)

If I convince a child to play outside at the edge of the bay, minimizing his exposure to television, he will likely spend less on tchotchkes, and the economy suffers.

Should the Dow Jones Industrial Average fall to nothing tomorrow, the child by the pond would still be amazed by tiny critters dancing just beneath the surface, breathing, eating, living.

Happiness is always possible. Economic wealth is not.

I teach science.
I teach children.
And I will continue to teach science to children until I am tossed out of my classroom.

The chart is by Google News.
My salary is paid for by my neighbors.


2009 DD45 is a newly discovered asteroid, about the size of a large house, and it's zipping really close by today. Unlike Dorothy's house that took out the Wicked Witch, however, an asteroid this size can make a reasonable dent in the local population should it hit Earth square on.

This one will get a blip in the news, and most folks busy with more important matters (is Nike really cooler than Reebok?) will miss it entirely.

So here's the real news. Somewhere out there, possibly thousands of years away, possibly only months away, is a huge asteroid with our name on it.

We know of one reasonably large rock, 2004 MN4, scheduled to careen a bit close in 2029 (and was once predicted to have a 1-in-37 chance of hitting), but now it looks like we're going to dodge that one, at least until 2036, and even then it's unlikely (1 in 12.3 million).

MN4 is aptly named Apophis, the Egyptian god of darkness and nihilism, the enemy of Ra, the sun-god.

But there's another one that will destroy most life on this planet--the ancient Egyptians knew this was possible when they conceived Apophis. We haven't found it yet. Still, it's there, coldly rotating on an elliptical orbit, and it will hit us.

When the big one comes, it's going to take out a lot of humans. The odds of dying in by asteroid are about 1 in 200,000 (give or take a magnitude). You're slightly more likely to die by a dog attack, and less likely by a fireworks accident or a tsunami. (At least according to LiveScience.)

Ah, but the stress worrying about this is most likely to finish you off--heart attacks remain the number one cause of death in the United States.

The cartoon is from NASA--no worries.

New Jersey drinks the Kool-Aid

OK, this one is a snoozer, posted to help me keep track of the players in the development of the state standards here in Jersey. I doubt few folks would be interested beyond those who pick up their names on LexisNexis or Google Alerts (/me waves to an intern at the e-Luminate Group.)

For years, many high schools educated students differently, depending on their plans for the future.

Now, because of all the changes in the world, all graduates will need to have the same knowledge and skills.

NJ STEPS: Redesigning Education
Powerpoint presentation (April, 2008)

The state of New Jersey's education policy wonks make no bones about their bed partners. New Jersey will "integrate 21st Century Knowledge and Skills"--the bold, capitalized letters are courtesy of the state.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was founded in 2002 by Ken Kay and Diny Golder-Dardis "to create an education system that best prepares today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace" and included the following partners:
  • AOL Time Warner Foundation
  • Apple Computer, Inc.
  • Cable in the Classroom
  • Cisco Systems, Inc.
  • Dell Computer Corporation
  • Microsoft Corporation
  • National Education Association
  • SAP
  • U.S. Department of Education

Ken Kay's specialty is "marketing communications," which I suspect is the 21st century version of Madison Avenue Man. He sells ideas. He's "a Washington, D.C., insider"--pay him and he'll get you access.

Folks in Trenton are drinking his Kool-Aid.


According to The Partnership for 21st Century Skills website
Twenty first century skills are key to improving our nation’s competitiveness a knowledge driven economy.

Grammar is sooo 20th century

I love teaching, and I especially love teaching science. Science is not a knowledge-based industry. Science is about inquiry, about curiosity.

It's also about logic.

For years, many high schools educated students differently, depending on their plans for the future.

Now, because of all the changes in the world, all graduates will need to have the same knowledge and skills.

NJ STEPS: Redesigning Education
Powerpoint presentation (April, 2008)

I agree with NJ STEPS that the graduation requirements could use a little tinkering--I'd start by requiring Logic 101 for anyone who thinks the above makes sense.

Picture is of "Unisphere globe illuminated in darkness of World's Fair," via TimeLife via Google Life (noncommercial use)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Shucking is a shellfish act

Oysters don't make a lot of decisions, but they do make some. While still larvae the oysters can walk, and do. They can see (well, tell dark from light, anyway). A baby oyster ("spat") finds a spot it likes, ideally snuggled on top of another oyster, then stakes its claim.

Still not impressed?

If the spat doesn't like its new home, it can change its mind, at least for a few days. It detaches and moves.

Soon after it finds its home, the spat loses its foot and its eye, and life becomes much less complicated. Either open the shell and feed, or clam up.

A few years ago, some spats settled on our local jetty. Saturday I gathered a couple dozen grown-up oysters (and a few crabs and mussels as well), shucked them, and ate them. (A tiny, assertive crab no larger than my thumbnail was returned alive to the sea by Leslie.)

My left hand is a bit chewed up from the sharp shells. I bled a bit on the jetty, and a little bit more when shucking them. A couple of the tiny lacerations are slightly inflamed--my white cells will take care of the invaders.

The more I learn about oysters, the harder they are to eat, and the more delicious they become. We have both evolved from common ancestors. We both need oxygen. We both need to eat in order to live.

This oyster connection gets complicated, too complicated to understand. We both are here (well, were here) together. I will join the critters that were in less than a lifetime.

This morning I returned the shells to the bay--a few still held remnants of the sweet (though now rotting) flesh of my meal. That flesh has already been consumed, maybe by a crab, maybe by a lethargic striper just off the beach.

No way to know the particulars. 14 billion years ago something happened. It's still happening.

I don't know why I am part of it, and science won't (can't) tell me. Still, I'm happy to be part of it.

Slurping down live creatures is an abomination in a civilized world, but it makes me feel more alive.

My hope as a science teacher is to get a child as passionate about anything alive as I am about oysters, alive but not human. We think we are special, and we are.

But so is the oyster.

Photo by Leslie, who sees things I can't.