Wednesday, December 30, 2015

We are hol(e)y

Thoughts while waiting for the light to return.....

While science rests on models, abstract shadows of patterns drawn out of noise, the models ultimately depend on nature.

Nature is the concrete stuff around us, in us, of us. Our children do not know this because we do not know it ourselves, so we do not teach this.

If we knew (and made a deliberate effort to remain conscious of what we know) our relationship with the natural world, we would change in ways that would make us happier. But that's never been the point of public education, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.


Our deepest selves, in the literal sense, take in molecules from this concrete world with each breath--our skin is a holey border revered by our sense of self, an ego that believes we are something separate from this stuff around us--but every living cell needs to interact with the world beyond ourselves or else it will die.

When we bleed, we mourn the tear in our border, but not the thousands of white blood cells, of us, writhing in a drop of blood that falls from a pricked finger into the rich earth of the garden. A few bacteria may be caught in the unseen drama before our cells ultimately lose the fight, themselves consumed by life unseen in the dirt.

While the story is abstract, the reality is not.

We are holey, we are not one.


Living (for most critters on this planet), means doing the things you need to do to get the stuff and energy required to keep your pieces together in some sort of organized way that lets you stay alive. While your physical being (a cell, a body, a colony, whatever) eventually crumbles, this living process called life continues through generations, life that is as much a part of you eons ago as it may be eons from now. We all share this with all other living things, reason enough to rejoice.

As we crumble and rebuild, crumble and rebuild, it becomes obvious that you and me are put together from stuff outside of our holy selves. Plants knit together the carbon, and we take it from there. What is not as obvious is that we are crumbling and rebuilding moment by moment, so that the stuff of you today is hardly the stuff of you just a few years ago, stuff that was once part of the nonliving, stuff of the dead, stuff of the still living.

We are holy, we are one.

The stuff we have here on Earth doesn't change much day to day--we get a few hundred tons of space dust every day, and we're losing hundreds of tons of hydrogen gas at the same time, but neither has much to do with day to day living here on Earth.

We are literally recycled stuff, bits and pieces put together in orderly fashion through the living before us, using the grace of free energy released by the sun.

We live (and die) by cycles, the cycles of stuff, and the cycles of seasons (which ultimately depend on the waxing and waning of available sunlight.

The great religions, at their best, have shared these truths with us for thousands of years. Science is starting to get there now, after a dark period of reductionist thought that still dominates our thinking in the western world.

So take a breath--feel the oxygen enter your lungs, imagine it coursing through your arteries to your cells, know that it will be transformed to water as it rejoins protons and electrons stripped from water by a plant not so long ago.

Eat an orange--feel the food surge down your esophagus, to be broken down into tinier and tinier bits, ultimately reduced to the carbon dioxide you breathe out, and to the protons and electrons that will join the oxygen you just took in.

Reason enough to say grace to the stuff, to the light, to us, to everything we call "stuff."

Photos by Leslie (sludge pile, sunset) and me (hops, shell)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Clam and kale soup

Not a post--I put my recipes where I can find them later

Low tide at 4:55. Sunset at 4:44.

The dreary December dusk descended with a breeze stiff enough to make my rake handle vibrate when held across the wind. The water-warmed wind wrapped around me like a September squall.

Foam broke off the back bay waves and skipped onto the mudflat, fleeting beach demons dissolving in the darkening gloom.

I got my dozen, then put three back. I had what I needed.

Back home kale waited for me.
  • Two handfuls of fresh dug clams
  • Three fistfuls of fresh cut kale
  • A few sprigs of rosemary cut off the bush
  • A small onion
  • Just enough olive oil
  • Big dab of butter
  • A glass (or two) of white wine
  • A cup of half and half cream

Prep the clams: 
  • Scrub the clams.
  • Bring clam pot water (about 3/4" deep) to boiling
  • Put clams in until opened.
  • Scoop out the clams, chop up the meat, save the juice, and hold in bowl until all clams cooked.
  • Once all clams cooked, dump chopped clams and juice back into the clam water and let simmer.
Everything else:
  • Pour just enough olive oil into iron skillet to coat bottom.
  • Toss in a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and cook until leaves flatten in oil, then remove the sprigs
  • Toss in chopped onion, and let simmer until onions start to sweeten just so
  • Pour in wine, and let simmer for 5 minutes
  • Rip up kale and toss into above in several handfuls--each handful should shrink into manageable size before tossing in the next.
  • Toss in dab of butter, simmer until melted
Put it together:
  • Pour the kale broth into the clam broth
  • Simmer a few minutes, long enough so that the kale and clams get acquainted
  • Toss in cup of half and half, turn off flame, and let set for 5 minutes.

Serve with bread and Guinness.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

St. Stephen's Day, a day late....

A reminder from last year's adventures
It is one thing to write of mortality, quite another to kiss its cheek.
I am in the land of the fine again, but we all are dancing in the same shadow.

Flatiron Building, 1902, Library of Congress

A St. Stephen's Day Story

My great grandfather was a bricklayer at a time when New York City, just a sail away, was laying a lot of bricks. He'd come to the States, ply his trade, then return to the island.

In New York City there are many magnificent buildings erected on the backs of those who traveled from home, because they had to, and I am sure many families in the area claim a particular building (or two) as their own.

To whom does a garden belong? The gardener who digs into the rich bed of life, or the rich man who pays for his gardener's services? And so it is with the Flatiron Building in New York City. It is as much ours as anyone with a legal claim to the deed.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through a man far younger than myself as he tumbled several stories to the street below in a city far from his home. I can only imagine the pain and fear as he was carted off to a hospital, at a time when no one expected a man to survive a fall like that.

I do not have to imagine, though, that he prayed.
I have little doubt that in his prayers, after, of course Jesus and Mary, he prayed to St. Stephen.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Paolo Uccello, 1435

St. Stephen was stoned to death for a few reasons, but clearly he agitated those in power with his belief that  "the most High dwells not in temples made with hands." He is the patron saint of bricklayers, which would be ironic in most cultures.

So today is a good reminder to me to remember a few things that matter:
  • We are here by the tenuous thread we call the Grace of God.
  • Though our individual threads will break, we are all part of a larger, living tapestry.
  • Spills, even bad ones, can end well.
  • We revere the temples of learning at our peril.

I am the same man;
I will not be the same teacher.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Pill bug Christmas prayer

My Christmas prayer last year....

Less than a mile away, in the gray shadows of a closed classroom, a pill bug wanders around some compost, feeling relief as it moistens it gills. It stumbles onto a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway.

It sees light we know exists, but no human will see today.
It knows sound we know exists; an old analog clock ticks a few feet away.
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.

There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

On joyful noise and the human condition

Found on our classroom typewriter

One of the joys of clamming in December is listening to Brant geese chatter back and forth a few yards down the flat from me. Mostly at each other. Sometimes at me. Occasionally at nothing more than the water and the sky.

Wordless, but not senseless.

One of the joys of spending a good chunk of my awake hours in a room full of adolescent mammals is listening to them talk.

Not the words--I'm too deaf to spend the energy discerning whatever abstract nonsense is being piped about. We've been sharing the same abstract nonsense ever since Adam blamed Eve for his own foolishness.

No, I mean the warm wall of sound, the rhythms of vowels carved by consonants, the dance of the back and forth cadence of voices, the wavering pauses.

"Dance of Death," Michael Wolgemut

Add the fleeting facial expressions, the aromas and pheromones, and a cacophony of noise to the elders becomes a symphony of meaning for the young.

We are all mammals, even teachers. Our most intense moments of the shared sounds of communion dissolve into wordless exchanges. Shared meals, shared music, shared bodies, shared death, we remember for a moment we are all one in this world.

This is what we lose by texting

Sunday, December 20, 2015

On Transubstantiation in the classroom

From years past. the real Christmas miracle....

"Flowers, leaves, fruit, are the 
air-woven children of light."
Jacob Moleschott, 19th c. physiologist

The sun stands still for an instant just a few days from now, and will start its trip back north. We are all children of the light.

I ate a basil leaf in class today, grown from a flower fertilized by bee that stole a sip of nectar back in August. A child in class separated the seed from the dried flower head in October, and planted it.

The past two months the basil germinated, grew a pair of leaves, then another, then yet another, weaving together the carbon dioxide molecules floating around the room, pieces of this child's breakfast or that child's heart.

Transubstantiation, the miraculous changing of the Host into the flesh of God, has all the fancy accouterments one would expect for these kinds of things, but after all the noise, the Host still tastes like, well, a wafer.

Through several Sundays of Masses, the tiny basil seed grew, taking in the carbon dioxide of the breath of my lambs in class, an odorless gas, and weaved it with broken water molecules, creating the stuff of life, a basil plant, and today we took Communion.

No one believes this, of course, because it is simply too much to believe--but it's true and requires not a lick of faith.

The plants in our room are, literally, from the breath of those who live here--and at least a few of the carbon dioxide molecules captured were released when someone's brain in class tried to grasp the concept of photosynthesis.

And it was good.

And you're allowed to gnaw on basil....

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Photosynthesis in December

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

--John Keats 

The shadows are as long as they will get in these parts, and will stay with us for a few more days. Our shadows trail us like stretched cartoon monsters chasing us over browned grass and fallen leaves.

Too little sun left now to put back together the stuff we break, complex molecules put together by plants in brighter times. Every moment we live we create chaos out of order, our bodies hanging on by the grace of entropy, freeing the energy of sunlight trapped by the plants now waiting for the return of spring.

Our lives depend on this instability--large, unstable molecules masquerading as a grilled cheese sandwich, a pint of ale, a bowl of cereal literally shredded apart in our cells and tossed out of our bodies with every breath.

Puff on your palm--the moisture and the exhaled gases were part of the bread you ate less than a day ago, the heat the energy of transformed sunlight captured in July by a wheat berry in Kansas. This is the material, real world, the stuff in us, of us. This is not metaphorical.

There is no global economy--it is the sounds of words and numbers and data, all too abstract to sustain even the tiniest critters among us. Yet that is what we tell ourselves matters.

The real economy is found in the breath we exhale, the knitting of these cold and stale molecules back into the rich stuff we call food, only to be broken again. And again. And again. Until we cannot do it anymore.

A year ago the "I" part of me came close to falling out of this lovely and utterly terrifying cycle of life, though I'd still have been a part of it, my cremated corpse contributing to the building blocks of the living.

I'm still here. So are you. Let's keep it real.

We work at what we worship, and the gods of the old were far less abstract than the ones we worship today.
Photos by Leslie Doyle. If you want to use them, ask.

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."

Friday, September 11, 2015

September 11, again

I wrote this in 2003, and it's not something I'm comfortable sharing.
I'm sharing it anyway. Every breath we take....
It will only be up a few hours.

I was a coward.

A few bloody excuses. .. my family...I am not a trauma space is better served by this doctor, that's been a decade since I put a chest tube in a child.
You have the mobile medical unit. You know how the generators work. You are good at fixing things. They need pediatricians, there was a daycare in there. At least you have some experience in trauma. 

The Executive Director, dressed in scrubs, a woman with young children of her own, a woman whose judgment I trust, asked me to go, and (even more importantly) gave me the option to say no.

I went.

Some day I will dredge the day back to my memory--it remains a collage of images, real images from a long day spent at Liberty State Park, chest tubes and IV bags and dressing and gauze and ET tubes and cots and cots and cots lined up in the abandoned Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal for the injured and dying who never came, waiting and waiting for a ferry of battered passengers.

Odd discussions. A nearby convention of surgeons had gathered here, prepared to surgerize, some too giddy for comfort, while the two pediatricians groused at them--when the children come, we would stabilize them and move them--do your cutting somewhere else.

But that is not what I want to share now. Maybe later. Probably never.

It was late afternoon, the city was burning. We watched from across the river. We watched billowing plumes, and the occasional immense blush of dust. The Governor came and he was hardly noticed. We got news in dribs and drabs. But you already know about this. That is not why I am writing.

The Jersey view of the sun setting on the west side of Manhattan on an early September evening wraps me with joy-- the golden hues of a promised autumn, the deep blue of the Hudson, the shimmery reflections of glass buildings. September 11, 2001, was one of those delicious days.I sat on a park bench next to the only other pediatrician at Liberty State Park that day. In the warm glow we sat, our legs stretched out on the railing overlooking the edge of the Hudson. In a surreal scene, the conversation became blessingly mundane--we gave each other implicit permission to do just that.
What do you suppose all those tiny flitting pieces at the top of the flume are? Paper?
Lovely day, no? Too bad we had to see it this way.
The view is lovely here. It truly is a lovely day.

We churned with emotion. We were both all too aware that the shared shock of the moment, as dizzying as falling in love, had little to with each other. Still, the moment was as intimate as I dare share here--we had prayed for our families, for the dying, for the day. The wounded had not yet come, and their hopes dimmed as the delay grew ominously longer. (There was no way for us to know then that the rescuers just down the river, in Jersey City, were overwhelmed with the battered.)

We had been told we might be needed for a couple of days, possibly in shifts. We had set up our triage area. Triage. A frightening word on a battlefield.

We had been fed. We had plenty of equipment, though not enough caffeine, not enough Motrin. The adrenaline waned. We were starting to become acclimated to our new condition. Humans adapt.
I remember coming here as a child.
My grandmother came though here, Ellis Island.
So did my Grandad!
Which county?
Mayo. Of all the luverly poetic counties in Eire, my folks come from an ugly-sounding one.
Well, could be Sligo, that almost sounds worse.

A pause. City burning. The smoke, thankfully, drifting southward towards the Verrazano Bridge, we thought.

A hush of guilty silence. We were alive. We had a break. It was a lovely evening. We felt very, very much alive.

This is not a love story. The irony of sharing an intimate, relaxing moment amid carnage and chaos bubbled to the surface. We laughed, more an embarrassed giggle. We were alive when, we thought, tens of thousands had died or were dying. Both of us were too old to mistake the moment for anything but what it was.

But in that moment, in the lovely glow of the setting sun, we were all that mattered.

Photo lifted from September 11--no credit listed.

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.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

My best new trick last year: Errorometer

While sharing pints with a few teachers upstairs at McGinty's, Chris Harbeck took a sip of Guinness, then tossed out a few words that changed my teaching--
"I give out points for anything, a thousand here, a thousand there. They don't mean anything."

Simple. Cheap. Effective.
Print out your errorometer, laminate it, hang an Expo marker next to it--done.

Every time a student gives me a reasonably well thought "wrong" (or even an unusual but "right") response to anything going on in class, even if only tangentially related to the natural world, a student can put a point up on the Errorometer. For every 10 points, everybody in class gets 10 out of 10 points in the Test/Quiz category.

Yep, everybody.
Yep, it diminishes the "value" of points individuals receive on tests.
Yep, everybody's grade gets a boost.

But, as a wise Canadian math teacher told me over a pint (or two) of Guinness, if points mean nothing (and we agreed that was true), then giving them out freely and frequently means nothing as well.

Image PD, quote added by Golda Poretsky.

No points are given for thoughtless answers--and it doesn't take long for the kids to catch on. Doesn't take long before the kids are debating among themselves whether a wrong answer deserves credit. (The fancier pedagogues among us might even call this metacognition.)

(Yes, points are just about meaningless....even the perpetual A students get to like this after a few weeks....)

Chasing dopamine, amygdalin, and death

My brother and I have well over a hundred birthdays between us, but both of us still love to dig holes and find things--living, dead, ancient, new, doesn't really matter--it's the moment just before discovery that matters, Dopamine is dopamine, no matter how you get it.

We needed to clear a small patch of ground for a patio that we'll get done sometime between this lifetime and the next, and while scurrying around like woodchucks, I ripped out a black cherry seedling, and, for whatever reason, sniffed the roots.

I do not know what I expected, but I did not expect the round, deep cherry-almond aroma overwhelming the earthy soil smell.

We both took turns sniffing the roots, like two children in the garden that once was. Under the hypnotic cherry-almond roundness was a hint of something uncertain, unnerving, yet still compelling.

Amygdalin, again.
Sugar and cyanide linked together in a compound with a bitter, incomprehensible allure

I am pulled to amygdalin, always have been--I chew on apple seeds with abandon, will gnaw on a peach pit for literally hours, have since childhood.

I plan to take some black cherry roots back to school. Maybe I'll draw the symbol for amygdalin on the board, maybe I'll bore the class with a minute or two on the life history of a tree native to Bloomfield, and then I'll pass around the root shavings.

For the younger among us, what do you think you would remember 5 decades from now?

Friday, August 21, 2015

White on white

Part of the reason for my recent silence....

I am working on "White on White," a blog that will explore white privilege, geared towards white folk (like me).

I thought it would launch weeks ago, but the deeper I go into the rabbit hole, the muddier it gets, not the least because of the layers of subtle (and not so subtle) racism I need to dig through beneath my own epidermis.

At a minimum, a blog purporting to witness what appears to be obvious to some, oblivious to others, should do no harm. (Not no anger, not no outrage, not no hurt, but no harm.)

Starting a blog mostly for whites by whites certainly is nothing new--Trump is no accident--but asking whites to think about their own humanity enough to pose to other whites awkward questions they usually reserve for people of color could short-circuit faster than the clamming of pale lips when one of "those people" walks into a room unexpectedly.

Feel free to email me thoughts. I do not need ideas for material, Lord knows every hour of paying attention provides enough fodder for years. Just wondering if the pale folks among us think that a public forum by whites for whites to enlighten whites could work?

I welcome words, both here and (for now) privately.

On green beans and models

The world, the one outside anyway, is incomprehensible. We nibble on models as we nibble on green beans, mindlessly consuming them as useful without grasping the wholeness they represent. In school we reward students for "mastering" the abstract without a thought to whether they grasp the real.

The students who cling to the earth learn their roles quickly. There is little place for dirt and dreams in the school to college to career pipeline. Middle school launders the few who still stare at puddles.

The same green beans we nibble on for dinner leave us like ghosts as we sleep, zing their way through our veins, our lungs, escaping as tiny particles, breath by breath, as we dream our limited human dreams. That's not a model. That's the reality.

The essence of animal life requires breaking things down back to the ghost of carbon dioxide, releasing tiny particles back outside where dandelions and such knit stuff back together, using the energy of sunlight to push particles together that would otherwise stay as they are.

I watched a spider on its web this morning, as she wrapped up her prey in a fresh silken shroud, then dragged it back into the corner of the eave. She will eat most of it, and she will breathe much of it out, tiny particles that mingle with the tiny particles I breathed as I watch her, some of which will end up in the beans, again.

You can get a degree in biology without ever having slaughtered an animal, without ever having grown a flower, without ever even caring to ponder your place in this living world.

You don't need to ponder any of that to be useful in most fields that require a biology degree--degrees today are used as certificates of successful completion of the abstract, so that more abstract can be done, usually in the service of abstracting money.

I teach biology in high school. I also helped start our school garden, which has fed me a couple of times already this summer. In a couple of weeks, I'll munch on a green bean or two as our students tour our garden, and get, once again, "you can eat something that comes from the ground?"

And I'll smile and say of course not, I eat things that mostly come out of thin air....

Sunday, August 9, 2015


On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.



Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima, again

Hiroshima was destroyed on August 5th, 7:16 PM, our time--just under an hour before our sunset.



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
-J. Robert Oppenheimer

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

This is posted every year, as a reminder to me.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Lammas, again

Yep, mostly the same post fifth time around--I like the rhythm of the year.

"No ideas but in things."
William Carlos Williams

The English had a sensible name for this time of year before William the Conqueror blew through--weed month (weodmonað). We teeter towards the dark months. Things fall apart.

The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally. Students occasionally ask religious questions, and I deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

Today marks the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a good reason to celebrate Lammas.

The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teaching in June

From a June half a decade ago.

She wrote, simply, "hi mike."

I assumed I was the Michael she meant, but it does not matter, berries are for all of us, so I am using the photo. The hand belongs to Jessica Pierce, the berries to whichever mouth gets them first.

Along my walk to school are several cherry trees--the cherries are ripe now. I get to school with a tongue stained purple.

I found two blueberry bushes three blocks away yesterday. The mulberry trees are about to give up ripe fruit in the next week or two. It's a great time to be a mammal (or a bird).

The cherries are small and dark, full of bitter tannins countering their ridiculous cherriness.

When I eat a cherry, I believe in God. Not the wordy omega John God--I keep Him in my pocket in late autumn. I mean the atavistic, prehistoric sun god, the Ra, the one who sets off week-long dancing and unpardonable ecstasy. The mysterious one. The unknowable one. The one found in a June-warmed cherry.

Most of the year, I can talk myself into anything. In June, I simply cannot talk. No need. Life is bursting around us.

When I was still young, I feared dying in spring or summer, feared missing what was to come, dying in the midst of plenty.

Now I fear dying in winter. I do not wish to die, few of us do, but when I do, I want to be surrounded by possibility, by sunlight, by berries.

I want to be the bee found nestled in the flower at dusk, her last day spent exhausted and resting on clover petal, a life well spent. I do not want to die in the hive. Even a 5 star accredited hive full of well-intentioned bees trained to transition me to the next life.

I am not transitioning anywhere. In June I am here, and no other "here's" exist. In June William Blake makes sense. W.B. Yeats makes sense. Even death makes sense.

The school year is winding down. And what have we learned?

I live in a good town. I teach in the same town. I am paid through taxes given up by my neighbors. I work hard, and so do they.

The least I can do is teach their children the ecstasy found in June berries and honeysuckle blossoms, pursuing the happiness of sweet stained lips instead of the demands of a petulant man-child dictating education policy several hundred miles away.

The least I can do is show them our local lichen and hawks and bees, instead of just words in books written by strangers who know nothing about the pair of mallard ducks who slumber on the Bloomfield Green.

The least I can do is show children why I still get excited when the sun rises over our town, our gardens, our homes, and why so many of us choose to stay here. The sun worth knowing is not the one in the textbooks, the one of fusion and distance and solar storms.

The sun worth knowing is the one that keeps us alive, the one that we can feel on our faces, the one that pulls the bay over my clams, the one that blesses the cherries with sugar.

If you want to teach science, start with joy. If you cannot tie joy to wild berries, go play on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue.

Real education starts right here in Bloomfield..

Monday, June 8, 2015

Technically we've lost our minds

These will be part of the state-mandated curriculum starting September here in New Jersey.

Enter information into a spreadsheet and sort the information.
Identify the structure and components of a database.
Enter information into a database or spreadsheet and filter the information.

For children in 2nd grade--children 7 to 8 years old.
Oh, it's doable, and even maybe a little cute, watching the young'uns enter data like their mommies and daddies working at their desks under the fluorescent hum of lights making enough money to pay the bills.
But it's not something anyone needs to do before sprouting axillary hair.

Technology is not going to fix the cultural injustices that haunt our hallowed halls. But we can pretend.