Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rescuing daphnia at midnight

Science, as far as it is useful, is counter-intuitive.

Our intuition is based on survival--we don't see things as they are, we see them the way that most likely allows our survival. Intuition is powerful, it's real, but it does not have a cozy relationship with reality.

The natural world gives no credence for our humanness, no more than it gives a squirrel for its squirreliness. We live, we sometimes reproduce, we die.

Last night, just past midnight, woken up by the howling northwest breeze that announced winter's arrival, I remembered that I had left a tub of pond water out back. (Every year I drag in about 8 gallons of pond water, ostensibly to save elodea for next spring, but more because dancing daphnoa help get me through late winter.)

I pulled on a sweatshirt, didn't bother with shoes, and dragged my bucket full of elodea and daphnia and countless other organisms, down into the basement. I could pretend that imagining the slow freezing of thousands of creatures that bring me joy each time I peek at a drop of water under my microscope had nothing to do with it.

The race of sharply outlined clouds against the unexpectedly bright half moon hanging up in the east. There are times I become, briefly, comfortably feral.

The pond is freezing over now, and winter is settling in. I got kids to teach, but before I teach them how they relate to the world, I need to teach them that they are of this world. Of this clay. Of this light. Of this whatever it is that started nearly 14 billion years ago.

We're losing our sense of what matters.

Monday, November 18, 2013


We were in Asbury Park Friday night, and drove past the Silver Ball Museum.
Reason enough to re-post....

A long, long time ago, before most of you were even born (ca. 1976), pinball machines were still electromechanical, tied to the Newtonian universe. Real bells clanged, real thwack sounds when a game was won. Adolescent reflexes allowed mastering a game well enough to dominate a machine (and sell the accumulated games for more than the quarter it cost to play).

We played at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Jersey shore. We fell in love with each other, ourselves, and the ocean. Play the silver ball, sell a few games, wander waist deep into the creamy night waves, kissing whoever wandered in with you.

Now and again, you entered the zone. Thwack, thwack, thwack! The game counter grew, the crowd swelled, and you were oblivious, except for the occasional glance at the woman you loved, and would eventually marry. (No matter what I do now--succor the afflicted, sit on the Supreme Court, take a bullet for humanity--I cannot glean the same gaze from the love of my life.)

We knew we were at some kind of cusp. In 1972, Prozac, the compact disc, and Pong were developed, harbingers of the digital revolution. Amidst this rising ugliness, Ted Zale (designer) and Dave Christensen (artist) created Fireball, the masterpiece of the electromechanical pinball. Bally praised its "lightning storm of scoring action," while Playboy hailed it as "the perfect pin."

 As the Human Torch threw bolts of lightning from the backglass, Odin and Wotan captured balls, allowing for multiball play. The bumpers kicked hard enough to keep play on the razor edge of control when in the zone. These features alone made this pin worth the two bits for 5 balls.

This was the 70's; we lost a war, our Federal government lost credibility, and we feared a nuclear winter. Oil was in short supply. We needed more than a good pin. Ted Zale knew this.

If you played well, a magical transformation took place. The lower flippers ("zipper flippers") came together, closing the gaping mouth at the bottom of the machine. A left side kicker grooved on, kicking back any errant ball slipping through the left gutter. For a moment you believed you had complete control.

Just as your shoulders started to relax, when you allowed yourself the myth that you were the master of Fireball, the whole center of the board started to spin rapidly; chaos reigned in the middle of your silver universe. You could just hold on and enjoy the ride as the ball clacked off the bumpers, got caught in the swirling center, and was hurled back at the bumpers. Like Job, you stood in awe of the chaos could not understand, much less control.

In a moment, the machine stopped playing with your helplessness. The wheel stopped spinning, the zipper flippers parted open, your ball was again at your mercy. Still, you knew better. Life could not be contained within the glass box.

No matter how glorious the box.....

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Advice for Arne Duncan, from one privileged white male to another...

It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.
Arne Duncan, Education Emperor

Arne Duncan is a privileged white male--you could look it up. (The first clue  is his first name--"Arne" is a bit too precious for my tastes--I can say that because I am also a privileged white male.)

It's fascinating to me to see how Arne breaks down demographics.

Let's suppose there's white/everyone-else, men/women, and suburban/urban/rural Americans. That gives us 12 permutations.  Go ahead, spin the wheel.

Georg Pencz, Wheel of Fortune, 1534


Everyone-else rural dads
          White suburban moms
                    White urban dads
                           Everyone-else rural moms                                                          Everyone-else suburban dads

Ponder your visceral reaction to each group as it comes up on the big wheel.
Ponder why you have any visceral reaction at all.

Then go ponder Jose Vilson's prescient "Excuse Me, Your Privilege is Showing (White Privilege in Ed Reform)."

It's not so much what Mr. Duncan thinks about white suburban moms--it's what he thinks about everybody else.

Until we confront racism in all its guises, the neo-liberal version of ed reform movement will continue to reek, no matter how much fancy cologne is dabbed on its stinking carcass.

Time to have that conversation.
Updated with help from Mr. Vilson.

xcuse Me, Your Privilege Is Showing (White Privilege in Ed Reform) - See more at:
xcuse Me, Your Privilege Is Showing (White Privilege in Ed Reform) - See more at:
xcuse Me, Your Privilege Is Showing (White Privilege in Ed Reform) - See more at:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Clamming and the Common Core

Just got back from raking up a mess of clams for dinner. My hands are still a tad numb from the chilled backbay waters--winter is coming.

I think I think  a lot on the mudflat, but not sure it would count in the academic world. In the dying gray light of a slate gray November day, the sensuous overwhelms the cognitive. For all the noise we make about international standards, global economies, and other abstract nonsense, it gets down to a clam converting plankton to the meat I will eat tonight.

It gets down to plants stripping pieces of water and strapping them onto the air we breathe out.
It gets down to finding clean water, foraging for food, seeking shelter when we need it, and sharing joyful noises with each other.

Anything above and beyond that is abstract, and often more about power, about separation, about things that hurt us than about what every child needs.

Food. Water. Shelter. Love found in the company of each other.

I teach so that children are reminded of what they once knew-this world, the one beyond words and logos and abstractions,  is their world. Everything essential comes from the land, the sea, the air, fueled by the sun.

A child needs an acre or two of land far more than she needs to know some abstract set of standards. We are of dust and sunlight. No more, but even more important, no less.

Every person I have ever coaxed out onto a clamming expedition found joy on the flats.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mary Beth Doyle

Today marks the anniversary of my sister's death, when a self-described Christian missionary ran her off the road, left the scene, then wrote to me (after being apprehended by the police a day later), that this was God's will.

Apparently some modern day apostles have the power to know these things.

I'm not an apostle, and I'm hardly a fan of what passes for Christianity these days (not sure Jesus Himself would be welcome at some of His more popular franchises), but I do enjoy the Gospels, which are at least as wise as, say Who Moved My Cheese, though actually practicing any of that ol' time kindness (in its finest sense of the word) would get you kicked off most corporate boards.

I take my solace from knowing what's left of her is in our hearts and in the now leafless limbs of some apple trees in Tipton, Michigan, her ashes overlooking Irish Hills.

Here is a story about her, told by a friend of hers, and I'm stealing it verbatim:

Twenty years ago today, Mary Beth and I arrived in the fabled Hunza Valley, the model for Shangri-La, in northern Pakistan. We stayed in a town on a cliff 4,000 feet above the valley floor, in a hotel that cost about 5 bucks with a view of 4-mile-tall Himalayan peaks. The poplars lining irrigation canals – brimming with pearly and opalescent glacier runoff, feeding stone terraces of apricot wheat, mulberry, grapes – had just come to full flame. An orange and yellow hearth fire lapping at the feet of the mountains 18,000 feet high, capped in blue glaciers.The altitude started getting to me. So, Mary Beth took a walk.

A few hours later, she came back, her fancy scarf from the Sindh – the one with real silver threads, presented to her by relatives of the mayor of the town of Khaipur – traded in for one of the rough cotton veils Hunza women wear working their terraced fields.

“I traded my scarf! And got some presents!!” She was carrying a huge bunch of grapes and a loaf of bread that smelled like a fire place and was so dense, huge, and nutritious it took us a week to finish off.

“I met some farmers! Check it out!” She’d spent the afternoon in the compound of a Hunza family, a rare privilege. “They all thought I was insane once I got them to understand I wasn’t lost. Kept asking ‘where’s your husband? (in this medieval world, it was just easier, and more sensible, to claim we were married)
Why did he let you come here alone?’ How the fuck am I supposed to explain I’m the one who dragged my ‘husband’ to Pakistan.” (Coming here was Mary Beth’s idea. That’s another story.)

She was glowing from the encounter. Not a lot of people are served tea in the kitchens of Hunzakot matriarchs. Not a lot of people are like Mary Beth. Travel is like being a rock star in that to succeed,
it takes a certain talent – the kind Mary Beth possessed in spades, wheel barrows, truck loads full.

Later, we shared this experience: that evening, Hunza was celebrating an Ismaili Muslim festival. After sundown, people scaled the surrounding mountains and set bonfires. As the peaks faded into the night, the whole valley – dozens of miles long, and thousands of feet deep – came alive with bonfires. The sight left even MB speechless. Unforgettable stuff like this made Pakistan her favorite location of the whole year we spent in Asia.
I'm going fishing in a moment, but it's not fish I'm looking for.
I miss you, Mary Beth.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Terrorism of the abstract

Clammed under a November sunrise yesterday.

I am not an efficient clammer.

I rake what I need, sometimes even put a few back. I try to avoid damaging too many other critters as I scratch the flat, but I know that every pass of the rake kills and harms critters--occasionally one will end up embedded on a tine, clawing at the unfamiliar air and sunlight.

If a commercial clammer could dredge through here, it would be a whole lot more "efficient"--a commercial clam dredge scraping for ocean quahogs approaches 100% efficiency landing the clams in its path.

I figure there are a few thousand clams on my flat, enough for me for a lifetime, and for many lifetimes if we only take what the bay gives back.

Somewhere in New Jersey a few men in suits struck a deal--the Garden State Parkway could be widened despite the surrounding wetlands so long as a portion of my clam flats was "ameliorated."

"Wetland mitigation" resembles The Inquisition education reform--noble purpose, squiggly means, and disastrous consequences. Evergreen Environmental wiped out an acre or two of my clams with the blessing of the New Jersey state government.  It's OK, though--a biologist who found me clamming there said it will be better than it was "in five years." He said, with pride, that he had had a hand in the project.

If his raking skills were any reflection of his biology training, I'd say he was telling the truth, at least about having something to do with the damage.

I hear the same about the Common Core--yes, our children will be slaughtered on the PARCC exams, but it will be better in 5, or 10, or 20 years. It takes a lot of abstract thinking to toss away the present for an imagined tomorrow.

Photo by Lewis Hine, once a teacher.

I'm not "against" the CCSS any more than I am against improving the environment. I am against destroying things of value (and children still fall under that category) today for some promised gains tomorrow. The end rarely, if ever, justifies the means, especially an end as imaginary and elusive as the Holy Grail of education reform.

If the money paid out to the consultants, the biologists, and the suits were on checks dated years into the future,
 I bet we'd all be better off--except those who would harm us today.

The Parkway expansion cost us 3.5 acres in wetlands along the Parkway.
Evergreen Environmental "improved" 7 acres to compensate for that.
A lot of money changed hands, a lot of quahogs were killed.

Here's a look at the plan as it was proposed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"...for nature cannot be fooled"

Science lives in the natural world.
Too many children live in a virtual world.
Science works by resolving cognitive dissonance, with nature as the referee. It's often counter-intuitive and frustrating, but at least it's patient--if a few primates struggle to put the sticks together to reach the bananas, at least once they figure it out, the rules stay the same, and the bananas will always be reachable.

I have too few children who have any relationship at all with the natural world. In their world, a world with their music throbbing in the background, they can always find change the rules.

(If they should figure out a way to reach the bananas, someone will change the rules, and they will forever be chasing bananas.)

If a student has no knowledge of the natural world, spends more time watching balls bounce on screens than off the ground (dirt, asphalt, grass, it does not matter), then balls will always bounce whichever way the child wants them to bounce. If they bounce one way in some virtual world that causes a child any discomfort at all, she can switch to another world.

If I share the way the world works, where trees make stuff out of air, where water comes from burning propane, where my DNA shares its code with the bacteria in my poop, and my explanations for these ultimately gets back to that's just the way the world works, then a child will not spend one glucose molecule's worth of free energy to do the work she needs to do to grasp the way the world around her works.

By Steven Paine, shared via CC

She doesn't have to. She just needs to put on her ear buds, turn on the screen, and find another world.

Yes, the title and the post owe everything to Richard Feynman.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

November light

Sea vultures (well, really turkey vultures....) Credit: Leslie

November again.

Friday night I saw a spectacular meteor east of me—I happened to be looking up at a dying light at the Atlantic City Garden State Parkway rest stop, and a wide swath of glittering light arced towards the ocean. Unexpected light the first night of November. A sign?

Yesterday, as I was loading the car to go clamming, I felt a clump of leaves stuck to my bare foot—I mindlessly tried to scrape it off with my other foot, but it felt a tiny bit too doughy for leaves, I took a look—a dead gold finch was stuck to the bottom of my foot. I put my sandals on, figuring I would wash my feet in the back bay that held the quahogs. And that is just what I did.

This morning a house sparrow crashed into the patio door, falling to the porch in a twitching ball of feathers, then lay on its side unconscious, heaving tiny sparrow breaths. I considered kindly killing it.

After several minutes, its beak opened but its legs remained splayed sideways. A few moments later it blinked, then used its beak to prop itself into a sitting position, where it sat for about an hour.

I slid a quahog shell full of water next to it, one of the clams I had raked and killed yesterday. The sparrow held still, then looked at the water, and eventually took a sip or two. 

Quahogs on the edge of the back bay, in late autumn light.
The blustery breeze ruffled the bird’s feathers; its eyes continued to stare at nothing, looking as hung over as a bird can look.

And then he was gone, leaving a small white pile of bird shit, as though a tiny tube of toothpaste had been spattered on the deck. I checked it for blood, and saw none.

Leslie and I took a walk on the beach today—a flock of vultures was gliding low near the bay’s edge getting ready to feast on the dead. November is a good time to be a vulture.

My foot, not a vulture's. Credit: Leslie
Leslie and I found a freshly dead loggerhead turtle, its magnificent shell cracked, probably caught by a prop from one of the hundreds of boats out on the Delaware Bay yesterday hunting for stripers.

November is a tough month for a lot of reasons—there’s a reason that we recognize the dead among us. All Saint’s Day. Samhain. Día de Muertos. The anniversary of my sister’s death. Those around me know I do not do well when the shadows grip.

The light is dying, and many of us will not be here when it returns. In this part of the world, few of us fear starving during the lean days of winter, but our bodies remember. Each and every one of us comes from a long, long line of creatures that have seen what darkness can do.

We share pieces of DNA from the critters we were over 3 billion years ago. It’s good to be reminded of our mortality, as we struggle through much of the nonsense that passes as productive work these days in the classroom.

 I don't get this whole thing, but I get enough to know what's real and what matters.