Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Christmas story

Not Daphne--but the same desperate stare.
(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The saddest patient I ever had was dying of AIDS, before we knew what was going on. Her family was afraid of her, and much of the staff.

Truth be told, I was a little bit scared, too, but was so deep into a ward full of children dying back in the early 90s that I figured if it was that contagious, I was doomed as well.

So I spent a lot of time with her.
And I did a lot of things to her that hurt her anyway.

And now as I slowly descend the same arc she traveled too quickly, as we all are traveling, I think of her.

Her name was Daphne.

I can blather on about how I learned from her, how she was heroic, how what we learned from her helped us help other children later.

But that's all noise.

The Christmas story is a powerful one, and part of its power is the juxtaposition of a baby and a fate we know too well.

I am not sure what the point to this story is--maybe there is no point.
But I know this much--what we do not do matters as much as what we do.




Live.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunsets and the solstice

Sunset on the Delaware Bay
The earliest sunset of the year (in these parts anyway) happened a couple of sunsets ago ago. The sun is setting later today than it did yesterday.

Folks will argue the point, but I am not so interested in their arguments as their need to have the discussion at all.

We are truly trapped in an abstract of our own making. Noon once meant the time the sun is as high as its going to get on a particular day, and solar noon still means just that, but the sun peaking at noon only happens four times a year now.

And despite what my teachers told me, the sun is never directly overhead in this part of the world.

So I can point folks to the United States Naval Observatory to support my claim, and I often do.

North Cape May winter beach
Here's a better idea, though. Go outside (or at least to a window) and look. Tomorrow do the same. Do it for a week or two. Do the same for sunrise.

I guess it really doesn't matter if someone knows the sunsets are getting later. It may be trivial to most of us. But that's not the point.

If we can so easily fool ourselves about the rise and fall of the sun, imagine the nonsense we do not know that we do not know....




What we believe becomes who we are.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anyone up for a good book burning?

The Bible of biology

"I think the Bible ought to be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter, in faith that we need it no more because the spirit is with us. It is a dangerous book, and to worship it is a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone."
Alan Watts, Myth and Religion

I think we ought to do the same with our biology textbooks, except  burn them on Darwin Day instead--I'll get enough grief burning books without adding apostasy to the fire.

It's early December, way too warm for the season. I am still wandering around barefoot, murdering cabbage worms picked off the Brussels sprouts. I'll wander along the edge of the sea later today, stumbling across live critters going about their lives, and fossils of those long gone.

In biology we worship the mitochondrion and the chloroplast, require children to draw them, learn words like "cristae" and "thylakoids," and use analogies for which children have no reference.

Ask a child what a powerhouse is. Ask anyone.

Basil on my windowsill this morning

The children should be the ones murdering caterpillars, getting muddied and bloodied on ridiculously warm December days. Biology, the study of life, is a mandatory course in New Jersey public high schools.

Living life, apparently, is optional.



Fuck it, I'm going outside.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The pleasure of feeling

A reminder for me....

Backyard basil in September

November crept in on us again, as it will. The shadows lengthen as the daylight dwindles. We talk about the cold and the rain, but we rarely dark of the darkness. Many of us don't see it, our eyes fed by the steady glow of pixels.

Those who see shadow, feel it deep in our bones, have learned not to talk of it. Among the dying it feels rude to talk about death.

Gardeners know.

Countertop sweet potatoes last week


I had a small patch of sand in back, tossed in compost and manure last June, and threw in a few slips of sweet potatoes, bought cheap because bought late, just to see what would happen.

Sweet potato leaves are lovely to look at and almost as lovely to nibble on, and sweet potatoes need about as much care a a patch of dandelions (also lovely to look at and nibble on).

Summer rolled into fall, the sweet potatoes sprawled out of their patch, even flowered at one point. I left them alone, occasionally watering them, more out of habit than out of need. 

I pulled a "test" plant out late October, found no tubers. I set the roots in a bottle, and it sits on my sill for winter now. The first hard frost was coming a weeks later, so I left the rest alone.

Windowsill sweet potato this morning

Last Friday, with the hard frost coming on in before the next sunrise, I went out to my tiny tater patch, not particularly hopeful, but I had already gotten more than I earned. The air was chilly, but the ground still warm and welcoming. 

I pulled up a plant--scraggly roots, no tubers. Oh, well.

The warmth invited my fingers to dawdle in the dirt. I was already on my knees, in no hurry to get up, and digging in dirt with the sun warming my back was what I wanted to do at that moment.

So I did.

And there it was--an inch or two deeper than I expected, the unexpected flesh. I tried to pull it out. It held its ground much as a clam does, snug in its world, not resistance its only defense.

I wiggled it out and ran to get Leslie, and a minute later two happy and excited humans rooted through the dirt, finding tuber after tuber, joyfully sharing our finds with each other.

Fresh dug sweet potatoes

I grew up hearing the Aesop's tale of the dutiful ant and the lazy grasshopper. The ant worked and worked all summer, the grasshopper played. The shadows lengthened, the days grew chilly, the grasshopper knew it was in trouble.
"Making music, were you?" the ants cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

The moral? "There's a time for work and a time for play." It's an awful parable because of its awful message, and it took me decades to throw off its chains. 

There is no need to distinguish work from play or play from work. Turns out the things in life that bring me the most joy mingle  together, and fingers feeling the earth need no justification.




But we will enjoy feasting on the sweet potatoes just the same....


Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the pleasure of seeing

From 2008, with 27 views. I liked it then.
I still like it now.

Mack cleared his throat. “Friends, on behalf of I and the boys it gives me pleasure to present Doc with this here.”

Doc looked at the gift—a telescope strong enough to bring the moon to his lap. His mouth fell open. Then he smothered the laughter that rose in him.

“Like it?” said Mack.

“It's beautiful.”

“Biggest one in the whole goddam catalogue,” said Mack.

Doc's voice was choked. “Thanks,” he said. He paused. “After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look.”

John Steinbeck, "Sweet Thursday" 


We need more telescopes in biology.

We keep magnifying and magnifying, driving deeper towards molecules, creating new worlds, and that is all fine and good. But we could use a telescope, or at least a pair of binoculars. I could spend a period or two out in front of the school, just letting the kids stare at squirrels and pigeons.

Until a child has a rudimentary idea what a squirrel is, won't matter to her how close her DNA sequence is to that critter.
***

Ten  years ago late May, I was busy rattling on about something when my eye caught a few bees buzzing near our 4th story classroom window. I stopped whatever nonsense I was doing, probably lecturing back then, and wandered over to look.

The class, a small but gregarious one (13 girls, 1 boy, all sophomores, enough said) suddenly hushed. They knew something was up, but not quite what.

Outside the window, just across the street, honeybees were swarming.

By Mark Osgatharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

We just watched. And watched.

The bell eventually interrupted our reverie. We lost half a period, gained a lifetime memory.



"After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look"

Friday, November 10, 2017

Bugs, children, and compliance


"Disobedience is not an issue
if obedience is not the goal."

Daron Quinlan via Teacher Tom

The Liberty Science Center was crowded this past Tuesday--tribes of human larvae were running, laughing, pushing through the exhibits, while other organisms prowled and stewed in their tiny glass homes.

I stumbled upon a small glass cage teeming with Australian spiny leaf insects. Most were munching  leaves on twigs, a few were just hanging out, but one was standing on the topmost twig, stretching upwards as though trying to reach the sky.

Photo by Thomas Bresson, CC 3.0
I like watching critters, and this one looked interesting, so I sat down on the small bench next to the terrarium to watch.

The top of the terrarium was covered with a transparent plate, probably acrylic, clearly solid. I could see this one tapping the acrylic.

And then I realized what this critter was doing. After each tap, it moved its foot slightly over, tapped, moved again, tapped, then again, tap, along a line perpendicular to its body. When it reached across as far as it could, the critter then stretched a little more, and started tapping another line.

By the time I left, the insect was fully stretched out, precariously clinging to the twig by just three legs, reaching, searching, aware of something beyond the cramped cage.

I got kids like this in school. Not many. Most have stopped trying to find the gaps, because we knock them down pretty much every time they try. Look at your procedures, look at your school policies, look at your schedule, look at what you are asking your students to do day after day after day.


If one of my lambs keeps tapping the glass, no need to ask why. I'd rather know why the others have stopped trying.



Yes, I am romanticizing and anthropomorphizing a bug.
Maybe it's time we anthropomorphize our students as well.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

EDT cannot save us

A yearly reminder....




Yesterday the sun hung in the sky for 10 hours and 25 minutes in these parts.
Today the sun cheats us out of two minutes, only hanging around for 10 hours and 23 minutes.

Way I figure it, I lost two minutes of Ra time as he travels on his night-barque. 
The eggplants, now barren, cast long November shadows as the world dims.

What possible hour do we think we wrought last night?





If I must chose betwen the sun and hubris, I choose the sun.