Thursday, October 30, 2014

Samhain, again

 An old one, but Samhain is creeping up, and the ancients revered the cycles. I'm creeping towards ancient status.



Despite whatever virus is playing tootsies with my hypothalamus (or maybe because of this), I found myself in thigh deep water on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at dusk, trying to catch a striped bass. I spent the evening shivering under a blanket.

The waters here are about 62 degrees, still plenty warm for wading. The air temperature wasn't bad, either, and the wind didn't bother me until the sun set. In my feverish napping, I realized that for all my training and prepping and struggling as a science teacher, a student can learn far more about life on the edge of the Hallowe'en sea than she ever will in the classroom.

As the sunlight recedes on Samhain, the dead walk among us.
***

This morning I noticed a drop of water on the shower curtain. Light rays were bent by the drop of water clinging to the curtain, and the threads of the curtain loomed larger than life. At least that's how I perceived it.

If I had not been there to catch the bent rays of light, the light rays still would have been bent for whatever light-sensing creature might pause to look at it, or so I believe. Faith, really.

This past week we have been talking about diffusion in biology class. I started the year off with a mini-history of the universe, talking about two huge articles of faith in science:
  • Whatever rules apply here at this moment apply everywhere in the known universe (given, of course, the same conditions), and
  • Whatever rules apply now (at this given spot) applied throughout the past and will continue to apply in the future.
If we're going to tackle issues of faith in the classroom, may as well tackle them head on. Science requires a special kind of faith.
***

Like the drop of water visible only to me, or the fin of the striped bass cutting through the surf while I stood alone at the beach, most moments only happen once. We see patterns in our moments, and some patterns, particularly those based on the natural world, become predictable. (This borders on tautologous--if a moment defies observable patterns, we toss it out of the science realm.)

The dead among us walk among us. My mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles and the hundreds, thousands of my clan that preceded me still live in the common spirit our clan shares, carried by me and others, passed to our children.

We ask children to study the complement system in the face of viremia, something none of them will see in a lifetime, yet deny the ghosts they see in the shadows, as real as the refracted light on my shower curtain. I know that the shower curtain threads did not magically enlarge, and I know that ghosts do not lurk in the shadows.

What I know and what I believe, however, do not always mesh. On the edge of the ocean at night, I am afraid. Perhaps without reason.

We try to bend them to a scientific view of the world in a place where science rarely happens, in a classroom, on a forced time schedule, in order to educate them "to a better economy."

We teach models as though they are real. Science is useful, but it is based on models, a special way of looking at the universe, a way that has resulted in all kinds of wonderfulness, but not real.

Or rather, no more real than the shadows lurking under the late October moon, reminding us that we, too, will walk among the dead, no matter how education we have. If I did not believe this I would not fear the night, even though I know better.





Photo by Immanuel Giel, no permission needed

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Paradise Lost: On data driven drivel

I am watching the shadows change 
as I spend hours on the latest conceit from Trenton, SGOs.

This was written last fall--you would think I'd learn to live.

The "pond"

I spent a chilly few minutes yesterday pulling out some elodea from the pond to take to school--each time I pull up a garland, I let it drip a bit over the pond, wondering about the lives of the critters found in each drop.

(I worry about the few drops that hit the ground.)

When I start to think I am losing my mind thinking about these critters, I peek at a drop or two under my microscope, and see, once again, the dance of foreign life doing familiar things.

That's enough data analysis to remind me why I teach.
***

If we're going to preach data-driven instruction, and use it to take us to the Holy Land, we need to agree on whose Holy Land matters. And my Holy Land includes the critters I kill every time I take a step.
The gargoyle guarding the pond.
If you're alive, it's impossible not to see ourselves in the living around us.
If we see ourselves in the living around us, we care more about the world.
The abstract has no meaning when torn from the earth.

Being alive is a big part of being human, though you'd be hard-pressed to see evidence of this in our data-driven world culture.
***

It's late October, the morning glories in the shadows stay open through the day.  The dead will be dancing in the shadows soon. The world freezes over, and our children are taught not to notice.

The morning glory knows.

Good thing, too--if the children could see what we're stealing from them, they'd never sit still long enough to take the PISA's, the HSPAs, the NJASKs, the PARCCs, the SATs, the AP exams..

I'm still naive enough to believe the point of education is to help young'uns find their paths to thoughtful, productive, and happy lives. There's plenty more data to be found at the edge of a pond than under the flicker of fluorescent lamps.

But this data-driven nonsense isn't about accountability, or data, or education at all.
So I will keep teaching and keep praying, both for children and for the critters found in a drop of pond water the children no longer know exist.

The last of the hops flowers



You cannot dance if you're thinking too hard (or at all) about the rhythm.

"This Is Not a Test" Teacher Study Group

During the days of AIDS hysteria, my epic psoriasis  drew some attention at Sandy Hook.
My torso was splattered with dollar coin sized lesions that looked like raw hamburger,
and a couple of kids screamed "He's got AIDS!" 

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, families dragged their beach blanket fiefdoms
away from my clan, giving the four of us a clear path to the ocean's edge.

That is not what racism looks like....


Kids learn early on what to say when. I think they get their best practice in science class, where we teach a catechism, the kids repeat it, and then we leave each other alone until catechism class resumes the next day. What is true in science class (trees are mostly made from air) has nothing to do with their reality (trees are mostly made from dirt).

I'm going off script here.

Justice, occasionally blind, usually white
I do not spend every moment thinking about race, because I do not have to, but I live in a culture where race matters every moment.

I cannot know what it means to lives in a culture of us and them, where our minds see image after image after image that reflect our dominance in culture, even as we mouth the words "color blind" and "love" and "harmony" publicly, with different conversations when the doors are closed.

The closest thing I know to living in a parallel but utterly different world is my mild deafness. The hearing know it's there when I ask one to repeat something he just said, but otherwise, it's not something most folks would notice, yet I'm immersed in it, aware that may be missing part of the world, but unaware what that part may be.


Racism is only superficially similar--both deafness and race hold people in worlds the dominant culture rarely notices--but fairness is never the issue with deafness.

We're starting a teacher study group at Bloomfield High School in the next week or two, a school taught (mostly) by white folks to (mostly) kids of color. We're using Jose Vilson's words This Is Not a Test to help get the conversation started.



I figured I get this conversation started among those of us who need it most.....

Statue photo (Dublin Castle's Gates of Fortitude and Justice) by J.-H. Jan├čen via CC
Three Buddhas image from (and sold by) My Spirit and Success website




Friday, October 17, 2014

Same damn thing



For all the noise technology gets these days, the important stuff is still the same damn thing.
We live because plants spin air into food. You'd be surprised at how many folks old and young, wise and dumb, do not know this. Go find a tree. Look at its base. The ground is raised there. Ask yourself why.

We live because plants split water molecules into pieces, much of which drifts away as oxygen. The stuff keeps us alive, as it has for hundreds of thousands of years, as it will if we do not forget our mortal roots matter more than our god of the generation.

We live because we fuck, we fight, we flee, and we feed. The best ads focus on these, while we focus on the brand of our shoes. Schools have become dens of fashion oppression. If a teacher drones on about the number of carbons in sucrose with the same voice used to describe the number of casualties in WWII, the purple piping on the latest Nikes become utterly fascinating.
And we die.
Most (yes, most) of us have forgotten what matters. 
We confound fear with freedom.



If you teach, teach what matters.
Apple won't matter in a few more decades--but apples still will.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Going for the gold


Wheat, despite what we believe, is made mostly of air, not earth, and will always be, no matter what we think. We can live out our lives in ignorance, convinced we are right, and wheat plants will not change, spinning air into sugar, a greater gift than Rumpelstiltskin's skill with straw. Grace.


The value of gold is a human conceit. An ounce will get you $1200 today, an abstract string of symbols that can be traded for over 5 metric tons of wheat berries, almost 200 bushels of wheat, about 8000 loaves, a loaf a day for over two decades, enough to get me well into my eighth decade, should I live so long. Greed.

The wheat is dying now, because the light is dying.
The light will return, as will the wheat.
And many of us will die before then, working for our Rumpelstiltskin masters, when all we had to do was just step outside.


And yet we teach our children to value metal over life.

Go ahead, prepare your children for college, for careers, for a life dependent (or so they think) on the spot price of a troy ounce of gold on the market. I'll find my gold in the light reflecting off the dying plants of autumn.



You can, too....

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On human conceit

While walking along the edge of the ocean today--by itself a wonderfully impossible idea to comprehend--Leslie and I saw several battles in scattered tide pools.


For whatever reason, hermit crabs in this part of the world are particularly territorial on this particular day for no particular reasons humans might discern, but no doubt of concern to the hermit crabs pushed to the edges of the tide pool.

They are alive, they are conscious, and (despite a very thorough and expensive education), I believe that they are, at some level, aware.

Aware beyond the words and the images we impose upon ourselves, in our foolish belief that the ideas of man could ever exceed whatever this thing we call the universe is.




The more I realize this, the less effective I get at serving the agency of the state....

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fuck pink

These words, posted 5 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.
***
dichlorodiphenyl-dichloroethene
polychlorinated biphenyls
dieldrin
chlordane
heptachlor
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."