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."

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.