Monday, May 27, 2013

Wordless in May

Mid-May, life strums, filling up on light and lives of others. A child does not need to live on a farm to see what all the fuss is about.

The animals watch us, as we used to watch them. 
You've known this since you were a child, but you've chosen to forget.

Allow yourself one early morning watching life without your preconceptions--observe a bird or a squirrel for a few hours. If that's too taxing, follow a beetle as it wanders around a patch of earth or a caterpillar munching on a leaf. A few minutes will not do.

You need not look far, but you need to look if you want to see.
You've also known this since you were a child, but you've been encouraged to forget.

If you'd rather be cerebral about all this, think about your connection to the earth. Think of your drive to the grocery store, the huge trucks docked in the back, just hidden enough to ignore, back to warehouses, back to airports back to the hands of a man picking and picking and picking.

You can then have a moment, feel bad for the poor picker or feel great about the efficiency of the system, but neither moment lasts, because both are myths--stories whose truth depends on words and what we choose to believe.

Last spring I saw a red-tailed hawk struggling to fly with a writhing baby squirrel in its talons. The baby's desperate mother chased the hawk as far as she could. I watched, wordless. (And still I said "desperate,"  our myths mold our views.)

We need language to share our observations, of course, but words mostly get in the way if you want to see something new in the familiar. For most of us, the familiar offers shelter and food, safe ideas, but at the cost of compliance with a worldview that leaves a few of us unsettled.

We have stories that help us sustain our belief in the unsustainable, and drugs for when the narrative fails. We slide from valor to Valium.

The world is bigger than our stories.

I teach science, or what the state says is science, but we're losing our way. That hydrogen bonds hold strands of DNA together may be true, but the model is a human conceit, a myth.

Laguna Design/Science Photo Library, via Nature

It is a very good myth, an essential one in biology, but when we strive to "teach" children about hydrogen bonds before we teach them that our living requires the death of others, well, they quickly figure out that if they mumble a few words about the catechism of hydrogen bonds, they can get back to their glass screens.

It's easy to condemn children hiding in their virtual worlds inside tiny boxes, but we have been living in a  virtual world for generations in this part of the world. Until we offer them something better, until we expect something more from them than obedience to an unkind culture, we will fail to teach them science.

Science starts where our words end.
Get them outside.

The stories of many cultures includes the voices of animals, of plants, of the stars and the seas.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Take Our Children to the Park...and Leave Them There Day

Tip of the hat to Tom Hoffman, who (once again) pointed me in the right direction.

Today is "Take Your Children to the Park...and Leave Them There Day," founded by Lenore Skenazy four years ago.

Makes sense--kids spend well over 50 hours each week gazing at glass screens living in a world dominated by creepy adults who like to make children feel insecure enough to buy trinkets and calories they do not need. Fat, unhappy adults keep our consumer economy humming. Heck, diabetes alone kicks in $175 billion each year to the medical field.

Ms. Skenazy makes her case in Slate this week, and it's a good one. The comments, however, are disturbing. Here's the most recent:
"This author is an idiot and 
should have her children taken away...."
The chances of your child being assaulted by the mythical creepy adult who hangs at the park are far lower than the chances of your child getting abused by a blood relative, a coach, or the clergy. Kids run away from creepy strangers.

The chances of your child running into a creepy adult online who wants to reduce her to a piece of meat is 100%--and it's the predators we trust that are the problem. Phil Knight (CEO Nike), Muhtar Kent (CEO Coca-Cola, though he promises not to advertise to children under 12), and Thomas R. Greco (President Frito-Lay North America) all work hard to sell to your children.

Just what is Nike selling?

It's OK, though--when your children come of age, there will be more than enough Budweiser and Zoloft to tame the undercurrent of sadness that defines too many lives, and there'll be plenty of Humulin at your local pharmacy Walmart.

For a few hours today, a host of children will not be buying a blessed thing as they romp under the skies instead of the guise of grinning men who harm children every day. I'll take my chances with the guy in the park.

Happiness costs less than Zoloft.
Nike ad from

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May light, May death

Some years I fish, with joy and exuberance, ecstatic at the pull of an animal on the end of the line.
Other years, I avoid it, acknowledging the pain and cost of life to the fish. It's not something I'm ever going to resolve....

This was written two Mays ago. I may go fishing today.

I tossed some plastic out at the setting sun on the Delaware. Striped bass are around, and as much fun as they are to catch, they are even more fun to eat.


A large bunker had hurled itself out of the sea, away from the jaws of a striper, onto a slightly less inviting scenario, the edge of the surf. Were I a true striper angler, I'd have stuck a hook through it and tossed it back at the striper that precipitated its predicament.

I didn't. I tossed it back. It may well be striper shit now.

We had pesto for dinner.


I do not like to kill, but I'm pretty good at it. We all are. Every step we take, every spadeful of dirt, every short jaunt in our car, no matter how "green," results in destruction.

We mostly ignore this. This has not always been so.

People used to die at home. People used to get buried without embalming fluids contaminating the earth. People used to wake kin under a shared roof.

I know a lot of people who never witnessed death, except on a screen. Most of us have witnessed a lot of deaths on screens.

Witnessing the last hours of agonal breathing will change you. If nothing else, it puts things in perspective. Exxon and Pearson and Microsoft will be here long after I'm gone. My priorities should not be their priorities. If more of us realized we're mortal, we'd be a kinder culture.

There's a cemetery in Cape May county that still buries folks the old-fashioned way: no diesel backhoe, no embalming, and the casket is optional. The Steelmantown Cemetery has been this way for over three hundred years.

Steelmantown Cemetery--where the dead are treated as the dead

I find it ironic that my children must limit their intake of certain fish because of the chemicals they contain:
In coordination with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and agencies in six other states, the DEP updated its fish consumption advisories and is recommending that the public consume no more than one meal every other month (six meals per year) of bluefish larger than 24 inches.

For women of childbearing age, the recommendation is none. None.

The less we know of death, the more ill we've become.

This morning I wandered out to the bay again, this time to the ferry jetty, as steel gray fog rolled in ahead of a thunderstorm. I got to the party a bit late.

Several old men dragged the limp bass carcasses like sacks of manure, leaving abraded scales on a jetty  that was not here 100 years ago, and will likely be gone before the hundred years pass.

The bellies of the bass are full of bunker, and one may have held the partially digested corpse of the bunker I heard slap against the sand last night.

Tomorrow an old man will excrete the undigested remains of a magnificent creature into a bowl, and the water will wash it away into the sewage below our streets, our River Styx now laden with the poisoned remains of animals we no longer dare to feed to our children.

The world is a wonderful and terrible place for all living creatures, incomprehensible in both its beauty and its entropy.

If we cannot teach this, we cannot truly teach biology, or really anything that matters.

The Steelmantown Cemetery picture from an article here. And yes, it is a green cemetery.
The woodcut by Gustave Dore, 1861, via Wikipedia

Thursday, May 9, 2013

On reading Galway Kinnell again

Almost a quarter century ago, my eldest, all of 7 years old, and I wandered around Liberty State Park in the shadow of the Lady herself, trying out various foods at an international festival. Folks were amused at her voracious boldness, I was amused at their amusement. I had known her her whole life.

The day was glorious, the sky as stunningly clear as the day the Towers just across the water fell a dozen years later. There are a lot of reasons to fear north Jersey, and our myriad foods may be near the top of the list. Foreign. Exotic. And delicious enough to challenge anyone who fears crossing the line from sensuous to sensual, John Milton be damned.

A bluefish she caught, and we ate.

We ambled by a kid goat roasting over coals. As we stood there feeling the heat from coals, the kid's head broke off the body, and tumbled onto the grass by our feet.

I looked at Kerry, she looked at me. I doubt she remembers, but I do, my seven year old wunderkind looking as puzzled as the goat's eyes looking back at us. This was not supposed to happen. But it did.

A few years later I watched the Towers burn as I waited on the same island for the injured who never came, on a day as lovely as the one with the rolling goat head.

Both memories remain mostly tucked in my skull, then Galway Kinnell comes by and rumbles through my soul, again.

Here is the moment. Here is the world. Here is the choice.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Galway Kinnell, from "Wait"

From our hands, to our mouths

Maybe the point of teaching is to remind my lambs that there is a choice.

Sometime I forget this.
David Wallace Foster reminds us, too: "The real value of a real education … has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

In the light, again

This was written a 2 years ago, and it works again today. We only get so many Msys in a lifetime.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Theodosius Dobzhansky

I should be crafting a descent with modification (misnamed "evolution") exam.

Descent with modification is the heart of biology. Without it, a world with red-lipped batfish, roly-polies, and humans makes no sense, no matter how clever God pretends to be.

Without it, nothing in biology makes sense. Nothing.

Seems sacrilegious to test it using vocabulary and a few standard examples any student paying attention can just fly through half aware of our universe.
I walked tonight, crushing thousands of insects and worms, breathing in microbes, watching squirrels and starlings and dogs and robins and humans go about their business.

A cherry tree late for the party dropped a few last petals on my head.

Mosquitoes paraded around my tiny pond, blissfully unaware that soon it will be filled with young fish born in a tank in Room B362, trapped by glass they learned to avoid, soon to be munching on the young wrigglers laid today.

Sunlight bathes us now, and everything that buzzes or tweeps or flaps or gurgles has forgotten that darkness was ever possible. At least I have.

And if I can forget, despite centuries of words telling me of death and of destruction and of entropy, well, what hope does the fledgling robin I saw bouncing around the Green yesterday have of grasping how serious this all must be.

Seriousness is a human conceit.

It's May. I going to listen to the fledglings for now, as long as now lasts, as long as the sun continues to bathe us with grace.

Red-lipped batfish--really, how serious can we be if red-lipped batfish exist?
The red-lipped batfish photo from PBS here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

My problem(s) with Kiera

The whole Kiera Wilmot kerfuffle made no sense at all until I saw her photo.

Trying to blow things up falls under white male privilege. Kiera has too much melanin and chromosomal material to qualify for that club. See what kind of nonsense happens when we elect a black President?

If I were the prosecutor, I'd have only one question for Ms. Wilmot:

Were you wearing safety goggles?

If not, well, sorry kid, 3 days detention for you.

For the record, I did something even dumber in school when I was 17, but used "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
In a state with giant reptiles fond of eating family dogs, don't they have bigger things to worry about?

Kierra photo from Miami New Times blog 
President Obama photo from Blogs