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.
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."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Shucking is a shellfish act

Another old post from over 5 years ago--it's my party....

Oysters don't make a lot of decisions, but they do make some. While still larvae the oysters can walk, and do. They can see (well, tell dark from light, anyway). A baby oyster ("spat") finds a spot it likes, ideally snuggled on top of another oyster, then stakes its claim.

Still not impressed?

If the spat doesn't like its new home, it can change its mind, at least for a few days. It detaches and moves.

Soon after it finds its home, the spat loses its foot and its eye, and life becomes much less complicated. Either open the shell and feed, or clam up.

A few years ago, some spats settled on our local jetty. Saturday I gathered a couple dozen grown-up oysters (and a few crabs and mussels as well), shucked them, and ate them. (A tiny, assertive crab no larger than my thumbnail was returned alive to the sea by Leslie.)

My left hand is a bit chewed up from the sharp shells. I bled a bit on the jetty, and a little bit more when shucking them. A couple of the tiny lacerations are slightly inflamed--my white cells will take care of the invaders.

The more I learn about oysters, the harder they are to eat, and the more delicious they become. We have both evolved from common ancestors. We both need oxygen. We both need to eat in order to live.

This oyster connection gets complicated, too complicated to understand. We both are here (well, were here) together. I will join the critters that were in less than a lifetime.

This morning I returned the shells to the bay--a few still held remnants of the sweet (though now rotting) flesh of my meal. That flesh has already been consumed, maybe by a crab, maybe by a lethargic striper just off the beach.

No way to know the particulars. 14 billion years ago something happened. It's still happening.

I don't know why I am part of it, and science won't (can't) tell me. Still, I'm happy to be part of it.

Slurping down live creatures is an abomination in a civilized world, but it makes me feel more alive.

My hope as a science teacher is to get a child as passionate about anything alive as I am about oysters, alive but not human. We think we are special, and we are.

But so is the oyster.

Photo by Leslie, who sees things I can't.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On mastering something new

A former student dropped by today to tell me she just got her pilot's license. 
She worked on it for over 4 years, and openly admits to being a little jittery first time she soloed'. 
This post is now 6 years old--but I need a reminder now and again.

By the time you hit your 5th or 6th decade, you're mostly competent at what you do. You've long abandoned the things you're incompetent at, and mortality precludes starting a whole lot of new things.

As a result, most older folk forget what it means to learn new things, forget what it means to be a decade or two old, when everything requires climbing a wall to gain mastery.

"Potential" becomes an albatross around the neck of the young. (Go read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner if you have not. Yes, it's Coleridge; yes, he can be onerous; yes, it's worth your time.)

I got a clam rake last spring. It's an old rake, and a good one.

I can only imagine how many clams ended up in a pot after being pried out of their homes before I got it. The tines are rusted brown, the handle oiled by the sweat of others before me.

Still, as good a rake as it is, it was almost useless in my hands last June.

Can you remember when you first drove a car? When every twitch of the wheel required thought?

Just about every 17 year old Homo sapiens on the planet has faster reflexes than me. Just about every Homo sapiens in the western hemisphere has more facility with technology than me. Still, All State Insurance charges me a bucketload less for auto insurance than any 17 year old I teach.

Teachers need to remember how hard it is to drive the first time.

Or else go clamming.

Back in June, the rake was a weapon--plow through the mud, rip out whatever it hit, say a prayer for another unfortunate creature impaled by its tines. Horseshoe crabs, whelks, worms--but very few clams.

These days the rake is an extension of my arm, its tines tickling the mud beneath the water. I can feel shapes, I can feel density. A tine or two bump against a clam, my sympathetic system reacts. Against a stone, nothing.

The horseshoe crabs are safe again. The clams are not.

I like clams.
I really, really like clams.

I practiced and practiced and practiced because I like clams, and slowly my brutal assault against any critter large enough to suffer from misguided tines evolved to a gentle prodding of the mud.

My students like driving.
Really, really like driving.

They practice and practice because they like driving, and slowly their jagged starts and turns evolve to hugging the road unconsciously.

Here's my plea to anyone of us arrogant enough to presume we have something to offer to the young. Try something new.
Try to master something you suck at but like to do anyway.
Now imagine trying to master something you suck at and don't really care for.

Welcome to high school.

Photo mine.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

An abstract on abstraction

The abstract world will not (because it cannot) forgive you.
The natural world does with every breath you take.

Our children are timid because we pound them with the abstract day by day by day.

Somewhere in North Cape May....

If a teacher evaluation system is based on a 4 point ordinal scale, the final average should not be carried out to 3 decimal places, to the thousandths--it literally makes no sense.

Yet we do it anyway.
To our students.
To ourselves.

Take a few moments each day to share something natural with your students before succumbing (again) to the world that does not exist except in the heads of a few critters who hold themselves above the laws of the living.