Sunday, November 27, 2016

Why I clam

A repeat, true, but I like cycles.

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey
Went clamming yesterday morning--chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. 

But that's not why I clam.

After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what's real, to feel my chilled fingers become clumsy as a toddler's as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls.

If you do not know what's real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.

If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.

Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.  
We're in the dark days now, and will be for some time. 
The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart.
The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.

Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May

If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we're all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her.

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.

School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.

Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May

I'm going with death.

There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat
A repeat, true, but I like cycles..

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Virtual reality, virtual republic

The technical side of virtual reality is catching up with a small but powerful culture of humans that has long been disconnected from the world. The word "grounded" has lost meaning. 

It is hard to demonize people you do not know, hard to steal from your neighbors, hard to poison a well we all share, because, at heart, it is hard to be unkind. It's hard-wired in our DNA.

For many of us, the last conscious remnants of our connection to the earth, to our natural cycles, is found where we worship. Religions, for the most part, are tied to the cycles of seasons and sun. The ancient stories remind us we eat, we breathe, we age, we die. Dust to dust.

The ancient stories only work if you remember we are tied to the earth,the air, and the water, and that everything alive is tied to each other.

Words make sense only when words retain their meaning. Words retain their meaning when we retain our senses. We need to feel the warmth of the sun and our clan, taste and smell the foods made by grandma's hands, shared it with the youngest, hear the music of our voices, see the light in each other's eyes.

Connecting to the world bring us joy--just watch a young child plain a May puddle. Words without a connection to this world literally make no sense.

And yet here we are, worshiping false idols who spew words with no meaning, playing to deep, unfounded fears, promising to return us to a world that never existed.

Take a good look (and sniff) around--get grounded again.
Continue the joyful (and hard) work of being human.

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, via SiliconBeat

Friday, November 25, 2016

Biology teachers need to do better

Carrot grown by child in B362
If you teach biology, and think that a child who can spout off the nucleotides found in DNA knows anything more about this world than the earthworm drowned in an April puddle, you need to re-think what you do.

The earthworm knew more, at least before it drowned.

So long as public education worries more about the word than the world, we will continue to elect folks who spew nonsense.

Look at your curriculum.
Look at the child in front of you.
Look at the world.

If all three do not intersect in obvious (and important) ways, then you are not educating a child, you are indoctrinating her.

Public education should not be about serving an economy disconnected from the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving dawn


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

We are, of course, the ghosts, and we will talk of the ghosts before us today, the ones who used to sit there, the ones who used to tell that story.

We are the ghosts who record the world, who fear the loss of life we never quite get, who value words over the world, as it is, for what it is.

We are the ghosts who rattle our way through grocery stores, and glide by in our cars, lit up by the ghostly fluorescence of lamps fueled by burning the remains of life before words.

We are the ghosts who live in a universe that does not exist, of worry and time, of dollars and bonds, of pride and envy and desires only words can conjure.

The world was here long before us, and will still be here long after you are gone, no matter.

The natural world, the one we can observe, the one that refuses to acknowledge our skin as boundaries or our brains as special, pushes the ghosts aside.

You will hear folks say they feel "small" when they sit, still, under a canopy of stars of a truly dark sky.

You will hear folks say they feel "tiny" as they sit at the edge of the Atlantic, their senses massaged by the rhythmic rumble of the waves, their noses awakened by its salty edge.

Even a drop of pond water, when observed for more than a moment, reminds us that we are the ghosts surrounded by countless living organisms, doing the same things we do, for the same reasons, and makes us feel small again.

Feeling small feels good.

A tiny bit of something trumps a whole lot of nothing. Tiny is a human conceit.

So while you're thanking those who keep the human ghostly world humming (and I am truly thankful for that), take a moment to thank the millions upon millions of critters in you, on  you, of you. Thank the plankton and the trees and the moss for the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat.

Then laugh out loud, for the universe cares not a hoot if you give thanks or not, it will reward us just for knowing it, or whatever verb we are when we shed our ghosts by the sea or under the stars.


We are of this world
and will always be.
Take away the words
and then you will see.

And yes, words from the past, again.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Parable of the closet flautist

George got a tin whistle three days after he learned to walk. He loved his tin whistle, and played it for hours in his playpen. For reasons he could not grasp, he could not take it outside. That was OK, though--his mother set up play dates with children in the neighborhood, at least those with tin whistles, and he spent his time with them, playing out his happy little heart.

For George's 6th birthday, he got a wooden flute. Ah, this is even better, he thought. And indeed, the tone was less shrill, less tinny--it required more work to master, but master George did. He worked and he worked and he worked and he worked.
In 2nd grade, despite his parents' wishes, he snuck the wooden flute into school. You see, his mom said, other children do not work as hard as you, so they are not as proficient at playing their flutes. (George thought about this, but was confused, since most of his classmates had no clue what a flute was, and seemed perfectly happy without them.)

George pulled out his wooden flute during lunch, and played a beautiful tune. He was sent to the Principal's office, his flute was taken away until his mother came to pick both him and the flute.

Soon afterward, George's mother transferred him to a private school, where everybody had a flute, but most were aware that the flutes should  be played inside, around those with flutes. This will be good for George, thought his mother. Now he will work even harder.

On his 12th birthday, George got a silver flute, one with valves and a case. Now he could master the songs of his parents, with resonant undertones and complex nuances. So much beauty, so much power!

Now he could carry it everywhere, hidden in its case When he saw others carrying similar cases, he knew, he knew. But he never said a word in public nor dared play a note outside. Still, he had plenty of time to play with others--there was a club for kids like him, and he enjoyed their company.

George did well in high school, and got into a fine college. His mother gave him a golden flute as a graduation gift. His folks paid dearly for his education, but it was oh, so worth it--so many students had golden flutes!

For graduation, he received the gift of all gifts, the key to life's happiness! An invisible flute, so subtle in its tones that George could play it openly, and did. Only those with similar musical training could truly decipher the meaning of his beautiful, so beautiful, music. Others without flutes knew something was up--what grown man walks around blowing into one hand with the other hand curled up a foot away from his face. Such an affectation. But others were doing it, and, well, the others thought, live and let live.

To George's delight, he lived long enough to see a man like him elected President, a man who promised to make flute-playing American again, a man who spray-painted his invisible flute a garish gold, so all the world could see it. He played it so loudly that even the deaf could hear it. And he played and he played and he played and he played. The POTUS-elect did not play well, but, goodness he played openly and loudly and with pride.

But if you cannot play the flute, you have to go. Or if you come from a land that plays rebabs, kalimbas, or a ukuleles, you must register with your local government.

Some say this makes the incoming President an open flautist, and the KKK agrees, but the President has assured us, in between arias, that no, no, no, he is not a flautist, he just knows some good people who play the flute. Not the same thing, no, not at all. (You see, the Lady Mary Anne MacLeod Trump the First told him since he was a wee boy never, ever, ever admit you play the flute.)

George will tell you the same. Not only is he not a flautist, he denies the very existence of flautism. He is a hard-working American who learned to play the flute. But, by God, he is not, and never will be, a flautist.

I apologize to the real flautists among us....

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Time (and time again)

We keep time in class, as we do pretty much everywhere. I've got several analog clocks and one less precise (and less useful) box of digital time.

We pretend that days are exactly 24 hours long, and that each hour is as well proscribed and linear as the next. This is not true, and will not be for millions of years.

Kids know otherwise instinctively, of course, at least until we train educate them.

An hour in December lasts exactly as long as an hour in June these days, but that was not always true. Hours were invented by a mammal that paid attention--daylight was divided into 12 portions, with noon defined as when the sun was at its highest point for the day.

Last hour of the day
We started school here in Bloomfield in September--the daylight hours shrink dramatically this time of year.  We had over 12 hours of sunlight the first day of school. Tomorrow we will have just minutes more than 10 hours.

The sunlight we do get have is more oblique and less intense, long shadows and less light. We pretend our hours are equitable throughout the year.

Science teachers will make a big deal about this, explaining the seasons using globes and lamps, but if we've taught our children that sunlight does not matter, that the clock matters more than your hypothalamus, that we eat at noon, not when you're hungry, well, then, we should stop feigning shock when children really don't pay much attention to sunlight.

None of the adults around them do, either.

A clock in front of our library, from NJ State Library Photo Collection

If college graduates do not know why seasons happen, or how trees accumulate mass, or what forces act on a basketball in flight, maybe it's not because our children refuse to learn.

Maybe it's because they internalized what we've been teaching them all along....

Yes, another cyclical post--I love the rhythms of life.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Clamming in November

Written 8 year ago on a blog long abandoned.

I got a hankering for clams, and paddled over to Richardson Sound to one of my favorite place in the universe.

Slate gray sky above, slate gray water below. The water's still warm enough to wade in, and the tide was creeping in over the clam bed.

I was mostly alone, at least by human standards. A couple of turtles watched me paddle, and a couple of loons called to others, warning of my approach.

I am (finally) getting competent with the clam rake. My hands can now "feel" the texture of the mud as I comb the bottom. I still dredge up a stone now and then, but the ones that fool me now at least are shaped like clams.

I scratched up enough clams for dinner, and a few more for my Auntie Beth, then paddled home. It was a gorgeous morning.

Clamming lets you see things you forget you care about. Clams are in no hurry to escape; the only urgency is the rising tide.

You can watch the tides rise and fall. Literally, if you take the time. I take the time.

 I clam at the edge of water. The edge rises perceptibly as I work.

The edge's personality changes over the couple of hours I rake.  It creeps up stealthily, smoothly, for a few minutes, then takes tiny staccato steps for a few more. It pauses. It retreats for an instant, then surges a bit more.

 The edge does not define the tide. Its jerky journey up towards the debris left by the last high tide reminds me what we cannot know.

Tonight we are eating red hake for dinner. My son and I caught a few yesterday on the ferry jetty. Slaughtering fish is not easy for us, nor should it be.

We can try to minimize slaughter by calling fish "lesser" animals.
We can pretend no pain is involved.
I did not raise my son to pretend.

 Before we took the fish home, we made sure we had enough for dinner. If not, we release them.

 Life is messy. We take great care in school where I teach to put things in boxes and categories, to feed into the great mythology we have created, a mythology that now precludes children from knowing where their food originates. We keep biology clean.

 We're part of a huge morass of energetic goo that replicates and plays and consumes and replicates and plays and consumes some more. Life involves fluids and combustion and not just a little bit of mystery.

My magic wand

Teacher Tip Series

Magic has no place in a science classroom, at least not formally, but I talk about it anyway--stories of myth and magic and miracles. If your world is limited to reproducible natural events, you're missing a lot of the good stuff.

It's not that science excludes miracles--it's just that they are, well, uninteresting, at least from a scientist's point of view when she's wearing her sciency hat.

But I do have a magic wand. I taped a straightened out purple paper clip onto a glass rod. It's not much to  look like, but magic (like science) happens in dull objects when you start paying attention.

From How to Become a Magician, 1882, PD
Here's how it works (and it only works on test days)--each child gets one free answer on multiple choice questions. (Yes, it's possible to ask complex questions with a variety of complex choices--sheesh).

I wander around the room bored out of my skull with my wand a the class roster--when someone raises a hand, I walk up to the test and silently point to the answer with my wand. I record the question number on my roster (in case I somehow screw up--my wand is not a steady as it once was).

It's a great way for me to see which questions are giving my lambs the most grief, it encourages a little meta-analysis and game theory on their part, and kids get a tiny boost of their grades.

If you do this, make sure you deactivate your wand before the last few minutes of class. It can get chaotic.
And yes, I really do this

I'll include a photo of the wand when I remember to take one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Coors, mediocrity, and the rise of Trump

An old post that might explain this election.
"We" get the gummint we deserve.

"Because when you’re set in your ways, you stay true to yourself."
Coors commercial

I'll give the wealthy Coors family this much. They've managed to sum up the crisis in education, in our culture, and in our experiment in democracy in a succinct piece of propaganda.

And they managed to do this by selling mediocre beer at a premium price.

We don't need no stinkin' schoolin'--we revel in our ignorance.

(And we wonder why less than half of Americans accept evolution, the cornerstone of biology.)

Photo by Steven Rhodes , used under CC, of Joe Rees' neon sculpture.