Sunday, March 30, 2014

Agent of the state

I am a public school teacher. As such I am an agent of the state, and was told as much early in my training.

I am given tremendous powers, a fair amount of autonomy, and I get to share what I love to young folks because the state has decided that a working knowledge of biology matters. It's been a pretty good gig.

The idea that public schools exist for the public good has not changed so much as what we now consider the public good.

If folks trust corporate logos more than they trust what is ostensibly their own government, then we will get the kind of schools such thinking deserves.

This does not signal acquiescence on my part, but it does acknowledge a sad reality here in the States today. In the meantime I'll keep busting my ass to expose my lambs to ideas that (I believe) matter. I'll keep showing child after child the miracle of basil seeds turning into vivid green plants with impossibly delicious scents,woven with the particles of their breath, right here in B362.

If enough of them get a glimpse of what we're hiding from them, we'll get back our schools, and our government.

Heck, Eisenhower today would be considered too left even for the liberal side of the Democratic party.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Words as idols

David Coleman and his socks
"As you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think."
David Coleman, Architect of the CCSS 

I gave this sample PARRC question to my sophomores today.

We've been playing in the PARRC in our building, and while a cerebral edge of what's left of my brain loves the idea of extrapolating from a defined piece of text, there's something just slightly off about all this, a Stepford wife kind of feeling.

The cerebral masturbation required for some PARRC questions may be fine for us old folk with a little money in our bank accounts--it's why the New York Times Sunday Crossword exists-- but I'm betting my 17 year old self would have gained less from it than from the wisdoms of the motley crew who served as my teachers during my stint as a public school student over 40 years ago.

I was one royal pain in the ass in the classroom, but so long as my  tangents went somewhere, a student like me was not just tolerated, I was loved by at least a few teachers who recognized life beyond books.

Words matter only so far as they reasonably reflect whatever this Plato's cave we all share outside our skulls. 90% of my nattering on any given day comes down to this: Hey, we're here in whatever this here is and we're here in it together.

That I can parse tremendous amounts of information from the close reading of just about any block of English in front of me has served me well, even got me a gig as a medical doc for a couple of decades, but it always felt a little bit like a parlor trick, great for entertaining the few who could afford to hire people like me to serve in the professional class.

I am also appreciative that with words I can vaguely convey the feelings if joy I have on a mudflat, or the fear I felt while crawling inside the steel skin of a sinking barge, or the anger I feel watching my lambs struggle to find a living in a culture that has lost its way.

I have never viewed words as something more than abstract tools of convenience--they are tricky devils that often fail when we try to say anything beyond Hey, we're here in whatever this here is and we're here in it together..

 I trust shared laughs more than notarized contracts though the latter will get you more money, more power, and (if these things matter to you), a more Stepford-like spouse.

I cannot in good conscience pretend that PARRC view of the universe matters when on Saturday I'll be clamming, drinking ale, and romping with the love of my life--all with no more language than the happy heartfelt grunts of a mammal too happy for his own good.

Words matter, but only because the world matters.
Worshiping words isolated from the world is just idolatry.

Clams have more soul than the suits pushing an abstract world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A melomel story

My strawberry melomel is near ready for bottling. The yeast are mostly sleeping now, having done what they could with a gallon of honey and a few pounds of strawberries.

Last year's melomel, much of it gone now

The airlock has quieted down. Very little carbon dioxide bubbles out anymore.

The strawberries were not yet strawberries this time last year--as evanescent as my last breath, and made of the same. The honey had yet to be harvested by the honeybees of last summer, all dead now.

We're all of the same stuff, put together into the wonderfully wild beings that bless earth by the grace of the sun, then broken down again, back into pieces to be used again.

Fresh fish in Dublin,no doubt reassembled by now

The sun has returned, the bees a bit wobbly as they waggle out of their hives to gather some of the sugary stuff spun together by plants from our breath, our gasping machines, and an occasional carboy of homebrew.

Our honey is about as local as honey can get, and the strawberries likely came from within a county or two. There's a real good chance that the mead we pour in June will have pieces of us from winters past.

And pieces of those we love who no longer breathe....

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A cherrystone's guide to the universe

These were alive today, and now they are not--much of what they were leave my body as exhaled breath even now.

Some of what they were now rests in an injured thumb, sliced open a week ago, filling in the gaping hole left by my carelessness. Stuff comes from stuff--no matter how spiritual your guru may be, he is made of dust and air.

Some of what they were sits in a bucket, shells waiting for the garden. Look at each line marking their growth, years sitting in the mud, years being clams, eating and breathing and (occasionally) releasing millions of sperm or eggs to make more of themselves, because, well, no one knows for sure, just because.

They were alive, and they are no more, as I was once no more and am now alive and will be no more again.

It's the same stuff put together by the same sun, broken apart by other critters for the same reasons. Like sleep, like sex, like any of the great mysteries so common to all of us, we ignore death as we prattle on about the thisses and the thats, while young humans pass from larval to adult forms before our eyes.

We teach as though we know something, when it's clear to the young ones we know nothing.

The only things that matter in any true economy is how stuff moves from here to there, where it came from, where it goes, and what free energy was used to make this happen. All of biology can be reduced to this. So can history or economics or music or anything else we do.

And that's OK....

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crocuses, clams, and the common core

Crocuses here, today, now.
Crocuses in full bloom, I'm smelling like a mudflat with a mess of clams just raked and scrubbed, and the light is returning.

A good day to be human.

Sad thing is, the days I feel most human are the days I most doubt the benefits of a public school system driven top down by a central power influenced by big money.

The things I most enjoy--clamming, singing, drinking home-made mead, and hanging with my best friend--I learned despite school.

I think we all agree kids need to learn to read and write. We pretend to agree that they should know a thing or two about numbers, but if your child has touched a calculator before she's 10, you're doing it wrong.

Clams today, here, now.

Beyond that, I think most would agree that a child should know her history, know who holds power over her, and how the local economy works--though I am not sure the CCSS crowd would concur.

I'm pretty sure that she does not need to know the number of rings in adenine and guanine, quadratic equations, or how many miles we are from the sun.

Not saying she might not pursue all those if they interest her--and we owe it to her to show her how to pursue what she wants to pursue. We just need to make sure it's done well, with faith in our towns, and with fidelity to the truth. Not sure that will prepare a child for the global economy, and I doubt that will lead to success on Wall Street.

If we could do that, democracy would thrive.
Capitalism, at least the form we practice in the States, would collapse like a clubbed baby seal.

So we got the "Common Core" instead, for us commoners. There are a lot of us. We have more power than we know.

Time to do what's right for the child in front of you, for her parents, and for your town, even when (or maybe especially when) it conflicts with the needs of a few folk who do not know your child, and never will.

The Great Famine was neither an act of God nor an act of nature--it was the direct result of centralized power.
We all have similar stories in our histories.
Act like your child matters.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dawn of the Dead

An hour shorter makes for a longer week... 

"...[T]he shift to Daylight Saving Time (DST) results in a dramatic increase in cyberloafing behavior at the national level."
DT Wagner et al, J Appl Psychol. 2012 Sep;97(5):1068-76

A quarter of the world's population will be groggy tomorrow. A few people will die traumatically. Students' test skills will deteriorate. A few more people will die of heart attacks. The stock market may crash.

And yet we still do it.

Stonehenge time
You cannot save time.

You cannot add an hour of sunshine to your day.

You can, though, manipulate human conceits. If nothing else, Daylight Savings Time is an excellent way to demonstrate to children the folly and the real consequences of humans believing they control more than they control.

Tomorrow my 1st period lambs will trudge through before dawn through blackened banks of snow to get to school. Broad Street in Bloomfield will look like the zombie apocalypse. We'll tell them to keep their heads up (or at least wipe the drool of their desks before they leave), but we are bucking millions of years of evolution.

Photo by Eugene Ter-Avakyan, cc-2.0

Humans need sleep. Adolescents (still considered by most to be a subset of humans) need more than the 97 minutes my kids average on Sunday nights.

It could be worse, though--in Illinois, state officials have perused the current scientific literature on sleep and concluded that groggy zombies trudging through post-apocalyptic grimy snowbanks should take their statewide tests  (ISATs).

Arne says: "Students exist To Serve Man"

And why not? What better way to prep for college and career readiness in the global economy than making students take life-altering assessments while comatose? Have kids knock down a few Xanax pills, and chase it with gin and Adderall cocktails to make it really authentic.

Stonehenge photo by Resk, released to PD

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Staring into puddles

 Another old piece written before my Dad died. I keep trying to write about ed reform, then get so utterly frustrated watching our last few public spaces get destroyed by monied interests it's all I can do just to remind folks what matters.

Children see things before they are taught those things do not matter. With enough education, they learn to avoid puddles. They no longer waste time staring at the edge of a pond.

My daughter, now old enough to have children of her own, still whiles away time at the edge of puddles. Yesterday we wasted some time on a warm June evening staring into a 15 gallon bucket of pond water, kept by the garden for watering plants. She did this partly to keep me company, but mostly because she wanted to. On the days I am sure I screwed up as a parent, I need to remember this.

If you stare at the night sky long enough, details emerge. A hundred stars turns into a thousand. If you hold a handful of pond water, you might not see anything at first. Look a little longer. Look for movement. It's there.

Yes, I know, these are beans not peas

I shelled peas today, something I love to do. I split the impossibly green pod, then run my thumb inside, freeing the peas. Some bounce away onto the ground, looking to snuggle into the earth. I leave them be.

Shelling peas is supposed to be tedious--it's one reason Americans wanted to get off the farm, I suppose. 
But just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95% of the people can be freed from, the drudgery of preparing their own food.
James E. Bostic, Jr
Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development
as quoted by Wendell Berry*
I enjoy shelling peas. My father, not much older than me, cannot shell peas anymore. Not sure he ever enjoyed it when he could, but he would today. He still enjoys eating them, though he turns blue now and again when eating things pea-sized. June is pea season. It is my father's last pea season.

The family microscope is a teaching scope--Kerry and I can look at another world together. When one wanders away from one's usual world, it's good to have company.

We stared into the same world together.

The critter peeked from under a duckweed leaf, saw an even tinier critter, and munched. It moved, well, gleefully.

I am, of course, anthropomorphizing....but gleeful is the right word. We can reduce it to the transfer of energy from one critter to another, but the subsequent burst of energy gave me a burst of energy--glee is contagious.

Turns out the critter was an ostracod. I never saw an ostracod before. I never thought about them when I used pond water to feed the garden. I knew that pond water made great fertilizer. I just never wondered why. "Glee" (or energy) gets transformed into plant growth. Which means ostracods die.

Photo by Anna Syme, (CC Attriution-Share Alike)
Ostracods have sex. Ostracods eat. Ostracods have baby ostracods.
Boy ostracods attract girl ostracods by using flashing lights. Boy ostracods use "a special long leg" to pass sperm into girl ostracods. I bet a boy ostracod enjoys his "special long leg."

Watering my plants with pond water just got harder.

In the 17th century, Antony van Leeuwenhoek made microscopes. Invented them, really. He saw things no one saw before.
I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort... had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort...oft-times spun round like a top...and these were far more in number.
                      Antony van Leeuwenhoek, in report to the Royal Society**
I cannot imagine the wonder coursing through Leeuwenhoek's veins, but I know what I felt as I sat with my eldest on the stoop, seeing critters we never imagined.

We did not know they were ostracods yet. We did not know much about them at all. We knew this much, though--they got excited when they found something to eat. We could see them munch on something else, then could see the "something else" in their bellies. Voyeurs, we were.

This is the world we live in. You have innumerable critters in your gut, in your nose, on your skin. You are surrounded by a cloud of bacteria. Every step you take destroys uncountable lives, but creates ground ripe for uncountable more.

We think we are special, and perhaps we are.

Yearning. Lust. Desire. I seek light, warmth, food, and love. So do animalcules. In January this would depress me. In June, with the infinite light of early summer, it makes sense. 

*From The Unsettling of America, in "The Body and the Earth," Wendell Berry, p. 96.
**Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Seeds of civilization

We're still up to our butts in snow here, with more coming, but today I plant the first seeds of the summer.

Peppers take their time crafting baby peppers, and given a voice, would not be here in Jersey at all.

The story of planned planting is the story of civilization, a word that evokes complex (and for me mixed) feelings. Music without guitars, foods without farms, travel without cars--for the brief times I am walking along a mud flat hunting quahogs, civilization recedes.

I will clear out a small space for my pepper plant seedlings. and kill many beings I do not see (and a few that I do) in order to create an orderly, human space for my pepper plants. We forget the inherent power of our words, our thumbs, our sheer size, as we tear up the earth for what we need, and more for what we want.

Civilization is dangerous enough when we remember our connection to the earth, when we acknowledge our limits, when we still recognize sin or hubris or whatever word you care to use that defines the moment we forget our connection to something bigger than ourselves.

Lose your land, lose your power--there are not enough mulberry trees or mud flats or dandelions to keep my family alive, so we barter our services for what we can find on the shelves of our local grocery stores. In education we sell this as career readiness, and some of us use the threat of joblessness and starvation as motivation to get a diploma.

And we wonder why so many of us are sick....

So I plant. I share seeds with others, and we plant and plant.
  • I do not want my students to topple civilization--I just want them to know that it starts in the dirt that does not recognize deeds.
  • I do not want my children to covet their neighbor's land--I just want them to realize the costs of living landless, depending on strangers for food.
  • I do not want my lambs to lack career readiness--I just want them to learn how to live once their bellies are full and the rent is paid.
I believe in the land, in the sea, in the air I breathe, and the remnants of  the Constitution of the United States. I trust the patterns of the natural world, while recognizing much of it will remain impenetrable. Most of all, I trust that the seeds I plant later today will reward me with food, and more seeds for whatever March holds for me next year.

That's why I teach.
Education exists To Serve Man?

The clams and the pepper plants will be here long after I am gone, and, if we teach our children well, so will this great land of ours.

We need to take it back.

Yes, it sounds like an idealistic dream. This country was founded on dreams.
Hops photo  from the backyard.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Empathy trumps tolerance

The original quote is Helen Keller's "The highest result of education is tolerance." Her message graced our school's electronic display.

I don't much like the word "tolerance," and said as much to our Principal.
He asked if I had any idea how to improve it.
I said yes, and he shared it with the rest of the town:

It's nice to know we have a voice.... 

Thoughts while kneading bread

I stumbled upon an old blog of mine--forgot all about it.
I like some of what I said then, so I am sharing it anew.

On a good bread day, when the humidity is just right, the yeast budding furiously and happily in their doughy world, when my hands work unconsciously, my dough comes together after about 15 minutes of kneading.
Fold and press, fold and press, fold and press.

An occasional turn of the dough. Fold and press. It will be ready when, as the adage goes, it feels like a baby's bottom. It usually takes me about 200 folds. The purists may push for 300 folds, but after 200 or so, it feels ready. I am middle-aged, and I only know the feel of a middle-aged woman's thigh. Enough for me.

Perhaps younger bakers yearn for the firmness of 300 folds. Let them yearn. They have more energy, and certainly more time.
Wheat grown on our classroom windowsill.

200 folds. Each fold doubles the number of layers of dough beneath my hands. 2...4...8...

Which would you rather have, the old teaser goes, a million dollars now, or a penny doubled every day for a month?

Each layer makes the gluten strands stretch and layer upon itself. A network to catch the carbon dioxide released by the yeasts busy budfucking in the dough.
Bread made by a friend, Jessica Pierce (photo by her)

Most of us in this part of the world do not exert a whole lot of energy. Most of the carbon dioxide we release comes from the decomposed ferns and trilobites and pterodactyls that we burn without a thought. Sunlight captured 10 million years ago combusts, consumes O2, produces CO2.

In the States, few folks walk anymore.

My dough doubles in size in less than two hours. The hot breath of yeasties, budding and budding and budding.

We screw. We fuck. We get laid. We score. We pant. Sex. A commodity. An end in itself. Few of us take the time to bud anymore. I want to make a bud. Asexual reproduction. Proof I matter. Silly thoughts. My brow beads with sweat. Kneading is hard work.

Photo by Jessica Pierce
The moon is about 240,000 miles away. That's about 127, 200,00 feet. Or about 1,524,000,000 inches. The dough now has 40 times more layers than inches to the moon. And I am not even a quarter of the way through.

I have a 300 gallon puddle in my backyard. It has a lot of critters in it. One large koi. 2 bream I nabbed from a Newark park trying to catch tadpoles. Perhaps a few dozen nymphs. A hundred thousand copepods. And hundreds of millions of bacteria. Each critter no more aware of me than I of each of them.

My head hurts from counting. Too many critters to think about. 6 million people, give or take a million, slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps. 20 million Russians perished in the latest world war. Maybe a million less. Maybe a million more.
2,809,856,000, more counting--sweat in my eyes.

I say a prayer when I toss my yeast down the drain after they convert raw honey and blueberries into a lovely blueberry mel that makes my legs wobble. Most are dormant from exhaustion, poisoned by the alcoholic milieu they created.

I doubt they hear my prayer.  Not sure anyone does.

The yeast in my dough are less lucky--they are living and breathing, and they will be baked.

While I no longer ponder their sentience, I no longer question their desire either. I hear the burbling of carbon dioxide gassing out the carboy as the yeast bud and bud and bud to exhaustion.

I feel most alive when my lifelong love and I share breath and energy. Get the cortex out of the way. The cortex developed late in the scheme of evolution. The medulla is where we fall in love.

We try to imagine the pain of millions dead. The challenge is to feel the pain of one creature dying.

I recoil at the thought of millions slaughtered. I get real quiet when I remember the slow death of my mother. Millions matter, of course, but only matter if I have the courage to recall my mother's strength. "We are born to die," she said. Maybe.

Just not so slowly. Not so painfully. Not so grotesquesly.
Fold and press and fold and press.

I have a recipe for bread from an ancient Yugoslovian woman. I know her grand-daughter. I taught her grand-daughter a little bit about medicine.

Her grand-daughter knows I love bread. Her grand-daughter is not so far removed from her grandmother's world that she does not recognize a wheat berry. She gave me her grandmother's recipe for potato bread.

"Why potato bread?" I asked. Dr. Elana bowed her head ever so slightly--she still had an old world respect for her teachers. "Because," she explained, "we had no grain during the war. We were starving."
Fold and press and fold and press.

"We were starving" before she was even born, and she still feels the pangs.

Fold and press and fold and press.

Almost done. I slap the dough. Almost right. It is warming up from the life inside.

Americans confuse sensuality and sexuality because we cannot see that the two cannot be separated. We pretend otherwise at our peril. We blame the Puritans.

I'd bet my loaf of bread that Puritans knew how to make love better than most of us. I know they could make bread better than us. Too easy to blame the Puritans.
I fold again. The dough snaps. The dough is ready.

I slap the dough. I like the sound. I slap it again. Millions and millions of layers. A fine net of gluten strands ready to catch the breaths of the jubilant yeast madly reproducing, respiring, realizing. This will be a good loaf. You can know before the first rise.

A prayer before I thrust the dough into the oven hours later. The yeast die noiselessly, and (good western man I am), without awareness.

But not without desire.

March, and still winter

Just what are you doing in the classroom?
Just what are you doing at home?
Just what are you doing under the sky on a late winter day?
Just what are you doing with your time, each day, right now?

A carrot in our classroom, from seed

I pretend that I know that I am mortal.
I pretend that I am not wasting my time.
I pretend that my time even matters.
I do not feign happiness, though--I got real lucky, real early. I pray my students are even half as lucky.

I spent a chunk of the afternoon cutting back the grape vine. Last time I did this, too long ago, was in anger that my sister had been taken away by a Christian missionary with a limited worldview and even more limited driving skills.

The gargoyle in our backyard, grumping about the cold

Today I cut the vine back joyfully.
The light is returning.
We are of stardust, and the light is returning.

Not sure what else I can do in the classroom except show that joy is possible.