a call for art

I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed and urgent. There are refugees and crises and rights and marches; there are proclamations and orders and lawsuits and commentators on the Sunday mornings. My feeds are an avalanche of information that is all important, but so much so that I feel as though there are fires all around. As soon as I build resolve and focus to write a letter to protest a nomination for Secretary of Education I turn around and feel the call to protect colleagues of science working at our National Park Service, followed only hours later by being riveted to my screen following retention of travelers from abroad followed by protests followed by lawsuits followed by us figuring out what amount we can give to the ACLU. All the while, I’m incensed by someone idling their diesel pickup in the parking lot. Truly, I feel as though there’s some campaign to continually distract me, us, until I can no longer keep up with the pace and could no longer possibly recover from the whiplash.

This, I’ve decided, is why, more than ever, we need art.

I’m not talking about art to serve a purpose of making more posters for the sit-ins that are surely going to take place. I am not referring to hand knit hats for marchers. I am not calling for Bob Dylan to re-invent protest songs (though A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall and The Times They Are a Changin’ are ringing in my head). These will all come and these will all help, but I’m not asking the artists to create the pavement for our marches nor the rhymes of the chants.

Instead, we need artists, all of us, to create the impractical, the beautiful, the collective wonder of what makes us human. We need to remember what this is, and we need particularly to know that we can craft it collectively.

Here’s an example. Ben Folds is accompanying a youth orchestra, which in and of itself is beauty: a middle-aged musician with the same smart-assed tongue as a teen, playing along with teens on the mature instruments like cello and French horn. There’s a tradition at a Ben Folds show in which someone calls out a request for “Rock This B’tch,” and as he explains it that tradition simply started with one semi-heckling fan, and that turned into a challenge at practically all subsequent shows. Whenever called out, he improvises a song with that title, totally on the spot, and totally brand new, live and without a net. So on this night, someone calls out the request with Ben and 100+ teens and their proper symphony and in their proper concert hall. What does he do?

He makes art. No, correction: They, Ben Folds and the 100 youth and the conductor and the audience, make something right then and there that had never been made before. It was in that span of 10 minutes, stripped of any and all pretense and without any plan B. And it was beautiful.

To me, the beauty is in the creating. Because, frankly, if we can create this, together, in the span of 10 minutes, we can do anything. We can organize marches and we can protest injustice. We can write symphonies and constitutions, we can find solutions to problems like climate and energy. But we have to practice, and we have to show that we are in this together. And, maybe most of all, we have to show and continue to practice that we have the human capacity to make something, to be something that is bigger than the sum of our parts.

We are distracted and we will continue to be distracted, but we need the focus of art to remind us of why we’re here. So painters, use all the colors on the palette. Dancers, bend your knees, extend and contract. Writers, sharpen your pencils and tell our stories. Musicians, listen to one another and then rock this hall or turn it up to 11, as they say. And from all this we will continue to learn and to be reminded that there is something we are all working for, and we have the capacity to do it. We have to believe this. I have to believe this. What else is there?

Making Science

I was asked to write an introduction to some of our state’s science materials. I was supposed to craft a description of the essence of all science in one page.

Of course, that’s impossible. So I was happy to try to do it. It only took me three times as many words as I was allowed, and it took twice as long as I said it would, and each time I read it I change it — usually because of a dumb typo or something that is obviously unclear, but also because I can never get this description quite right.

So, I’ll keep working on it. Here’s what it looks like for now.

What does science look and feel like?

If you’re reading this book, either as a student or a teacher, you’re going to be digging into the “practice” of science. Probably, someone, somewhere, has made you think about this before, and so you’ve probably already had a chance to imagine the possibilities. Who do you picture doing science? What do they look like? What are they doing?

Often when we ask people to imagine this, they draw or describe people with lab coats, people with crazy hair, beakers and flasks of weird looking liquids that are bubbling and frothing. Maybe there’s an explosion. Let’s be honest: Some scientists do look like this, or they look like other stereotypes: people readied with their pocket protectors and calculators, figuring out how to launch a rocket into orbit. Or, maybe what comes to mind is a list of steps that you might have to check off for your science fair project to be judged; or, maybe a graph or data table with lots of numbers comes to mind.

So let’s start over. When you imagine graphs and tables, lab coats and calculators, is that you and what you love? If this describes you, that’s great. But if it doesn’t — and that’s probably true for many of us — then go ahead and dump that image of science. It’s useless because it isn’t you. Instead, picture yourself as a maker and doer of science. The fact is, we need scientists and citizens like you, whoever you are, because we need all of the ideas, perspectives, and creative thinkers. This includes you.

Scientists wander in the woods. They dig in the dirt and chip at rocks. They peer through microscopes. They read. They play with tubes and pipes in the aisles of a hardware store to see what kinds of sounds they can make with them. They daydream and imagine. They count and measure and predict. They stare at the rock faces in the mountains and imagine how those came to be. They dance. They draw and write and write and write some more.

Scientists — and this includes all of us who do, use, apply, or think about science — don’t fit a stereotype because no people fit stereotypes. If we really want to figure out what we all have in common, it turns out that our genetic structure looks a lot like that of a chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from chimpanzees, however, might be that we walk a little more upright, have a little less hair, and make better pizza. (For what it’s worth, chimpanzees do really well at many things we think of as “human” skills, such as communicating, fighting, taking care of one another, establishing communities, and using tools.) What really sets us apart as humans is not just that we know and do things, but that we wonder and make sense of our world. We do this in many ways, including through painting, religion, music, culture, poetry, and, maybe most especially, science. Science isn’t just a method or a collection of things we know. It’s a uniquely human practice of wondering about and creating explanations for the natural world around us. This ranges from the most fundamental building blocks of all matter to the widest expanse of space that contains it all. If you’ve ever wondered, “When did time start?” or “What is the smallest thing?” or even just “What is color?” or so many other, endless questions, you’re already thinking with a scientific mind. Of course you are; you’re human, after all.

But here is where we really have to be clear. Science isn’t just these questions and their explanations. Science is about a sense of wondering and the sense-making itself. We have to wonder and then really dig into the details of our surroundings. We have to get our hands dirty. Here’s a good example: two young scientists under the presence of the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park. We can be sure that they spent some amount of time in awe of the giant sandstone walls, but here in this photo they’re enthralled with the sand that’s just been re-washed by recent rain. There’s this giant formation of sandstone looming above these kids in the desert, and they’re happily playing in the sand. This is ridiculous. Or is it?

How did that sand get there? Where did it come from? Did the sand come from the rock or does the rock come from sand? And how would you know? How do you tell this story?

Look. There’s a puddle. How often is there a puddle in the desert? The sand is wet and fine; and it makes swirling, layered patterns on the solid stone. There are pits and pockets in the rock, like the one that these two scientists are sitting in, and the gritty sand and the cold water accumulate there. And then you might start to wonder: Does the sand fill in the hole to form more rock, or is the hole worn away because it became sand? And then you might wonder more about the giant formation in the background: It has the same colors as the sand, so has this been built up or is it being worn down? And if it’s being built up by sand, how does it all get put together; and if it’s being worn away then why does it make the patterns that we see in the rock? Why? How long? What next?

Just as there is science to be found in a puddle or a pit or a simple rock formation, there’s science in a soap bubble, in a worm, in the spin of a dancer and in the structure of a bridge. But this thing we call “science” is only there if you’re paying attention, asking questions, and imagining possibilities. You have to make the science by being the person who gathers information and evidence, who organizes and reasons with this, and who communicates it to others. Most of all, you get to wonder. Throughout all of the rest of this book and all of the rest of the science that you will ever do, wonder should be at the heart of it all. Whether you’re a student or a teacher, this wonder is what will bring the sense-making of science to life and make it your own.

ode to students

It’s 7:30 AM on the Monday of finals week*, deep into the month of December. It isn’t yet light outside, and probably would seem even more dark except for the fact that there’s 8 inches of snow on the ground, adding to a general glow and muting the sound of a car spinning tires and struggling to make its way into the parking lot — the perfect scenario for the physics exam had I only thought to write it in. The snow offers a cushion of calm in an otherwise stressful landscape.

Students walk into the lecture hall for their final exam. They stomp their feet; heads and shoulders are accessorized with snowflakes, a kind of weather monitor, confirming it’s still accumulating. Some were here half an hour early when I first checked on the room. Hats and coats drape chairs. People carry the amperage of anxiety and the weight of fatigue in the same body.

There’s the young woman who gave birth four weeks ago. She went a week past her due date and, in a kind of pregnancy purgatory, still came to class each morning. She made the daily pilgrimage down the 18 lecture hall steps to her seat in the first row. Watching her, no one complains about how tired or uncomfortable they are.

There’s the girl whose family has been in upheaval — a sibling who needs care, parents who don’t understand or support the kids in this new culture and new trajectory. She’s taking care of all those around her and forgot about herself. Can I still get a C? She can, if she gets nearly perfect marks on all the rest of the work in the course. And she tries. She’s there early.

A woman with a hijab headscarf (and an especially heavy coat on this snowy day). I don’t know what else she faces in our current angst, but I don’t fault her when she’s not in class. But I worry when she’s not in class. I just smile and welcome her when she’s here.

These students are parents and children and brothers and sisters. A husband-wife duo sit in the corner in the front row opposite the new mom. They’re here early each day. A brother and sister sit a few rows above. She’s there early and he gets there just in time — or a few minutes late — as she razzes him. A moment later she shares notes or the latest announcement that he missed.

There’s the girl who reminds me of my own daughter — something that sounded cute a few years ago and now is especially real — a pink pom pom atop a black knit hat that caps long, straight hair. There’s the guy who shows up in blue scrubs, doing an internship at the local hospital. I’d asked him if he’d saved a life yet. He said no. I asked if he’d let anyone die yet; and he said no to this, too.

There’s a student whose marriage fell apart at the beginning of the semester. He just asked for an extra few days to finish a two-page paper. I said okay.

One young woman with a subtle nose piercing sports thick framed glasses and Chuck Taylors. She conveys elegance in a cotton sweatshirt, even though she doesn’t know it. She got 100 on her last exam. She pulls her long hair towards her upper lip during tests.

When a student’s sister tragically died a few years ago, he was back in class after a couple of days and I’d asked why. Why didn’t he want to have some more time? He said he didn’t know what else to do. So he came to physics class, he did the homework, he took exams, and he studied with others. He looked tired, maybe older.

Another: She’s taking her fourth course with me and writes solutions to problems that I want to frame and put up in my office. I think she’ll be valedictorian of her graduating class this year. When she suddenly had to leave class the other day I started to worry, but then I’d realized that it was December 1, the day that dental schools release acceptance notifications. She’ll be attending her first choice of schools, and if I ever needed a root canal, I’d be happy to call on her. There are students here who may be installing a stent on me someday, or putting an incision into my partner’s eye, or delivering my first grandchild. This is all completely within reason. Although I’m uncomfortable to see a former student interning at my urologist’s office, I know that this is all right and I know that they’re so capable and extraordinary. After all, they’re taking this exam to demonstrate they can calculate the wavelength of an alpha particle spiraling in a magnetic field.

And then someone asks to make an appointment as soon as possible. She’s waiting on a diagnosis: an infection, something random, or cancer. Can she have a few extra days to complete the project? Yes, of course. Let me know what else I can do, I so tritely suggest. I always say those kinds of things, “Let me know what I can do to help.” That’s easy to offer when you know there isn’t anything you can do to help. I help people draw forces on squares on inclined planes. I don’t do anything important except keep them working on the forces on boxes on inclined planes so that they can make progress on this one thing, so that they can be certain of one thing, so that we can control one thing.

There have been people waiting for moms to die or for kidneys to arrive. Another sent a note with a photo of where his car had been parked when he’d last seen it. It had been impounded and he couldn’t make it back to class.

There are Thanksgivings away from home back in Virginia, spent here instead at a regional state institution out West, a place where we don’t think about students who may be from Virginia and how hard it would be to get home for a Thursday holiday if you have class on Wednesday.

One time there was an escaped rabbit. She never found it. There was the injury involving a stubbed toe in the stairwell. It was a whole month later before she had a brace on, having finally seen the doctor when it was clear something wasn’t healing and was, in fact, broken. There’s the student who would break down into tears because of her mom, worrying about the diagnosis and falling behind in class as she tried to take care of generations above and below. She brought me three boxes of tissues later that semester, because I never had them and because she knew she might break down in tears again. She did. So have others, and I’m grateful to have the tissues.

Last week we had a two-year-old in class. She played with colored chalk while her mom finished a lab investigation. The chalkboard was flooded with art that reached just above the tray and up another seven inches, the total extent of the toddler’s reach. When her mom was done with the lab, she wished she could stay longer. We left the art on the board.

In spite of the pregnancies and two-year-olds and moms and siblings and lives and deaths, there’s extraordinary work. Those students taking their final exam are contemplating the relative nature of time, the amount of energy released in a nuclear reaction, the dance between electricity and magnetism. They’ll go on, and I’ll see them in the hallway and say hello, or I’ll see them in a classroom of their own — teaching my own daughters, nephews, grandkids (I’ve done the harrowing calculation and it’s totally within reason), and my own future students. When I see former students in their own classrooms, I’m awed by the magic they create that I know they didn’t get from anything I taught them. I try to sit in and learn from them so I can pass it along somewhere else. Or I’ll likely visit a student as my future cardiologist or dentist or mayor or neighbor. One of them, actually, is my pharmacist, so I like to say that I get my drugs from a former student.

Yet, maybe I won’t ever see many of them again. And, it’s so very likely that if I see them and even recognize them I won’t be able to recall if they were in my class in 1996 or 2016 or 2036. (I’m sure that one of them will be my neurologist somewhere down the line, and we’ll be ironically engaged in this discussion about my memory.) But they do stick with me, each one in their own way. Leaving behind boxes of tissues or the memory of the day they rushed out of class to get the call from their future graduate school or the imagery of the walk to the bottom of the lecture hall after 40 weeks or pregnancy, with the broken toe, with the name in line for a kidney donation. They’ve paid their tuition and submitted their papers, but I perennially feel indebted to them. The teaching gig only happens if there are others here to experience it all with me. This, my ode to students, is really just the inadequate, incomplete, and ongoing attempt to describe the gratitude and admiration I have towards them.

I started writing this during a 7:30 AM final in December of 2015. I’ve come back to it now in December of 2016, proctoring the same exam for the same course. There’s a little less snow and the faces are all new, but it’s the same scene and the same ode.


end-of-semester teaching and redemption

I suppose this happens every year, but it feels more ridiculous each time. Although it’s not a true disaster, as I face the plunge into the final week of coursework I tell people that my classes feel like a massive pileup on the interstate. They laugh. I chuckle feebly with them. It’s polite.

But truly I have this image of rollovers and crumpled hoods. There’s a tire rolling down the pavement on its own trajectory in the northbound lane. As I’m standing there on the shoulder there’s this feeling of despair and disbelief. I light a safety flare and arrange the cones to guide people around the wreckage: ungraded assignments and a triage kit to figure out how to get students to make sense of energy and matter’s fundamental properties.

Or sometimes it feels like a football play where the quarterback makes the option pitch to the running back around the right side, and at first this seems like a good idea but then there’s no longer a path forward and instead of making the best of it the running back makes this split decision that’s garnished with a delusion of grandeur. That’s me, changing the course as I realize that this new lab format isn’t doing what I’d hoped, or I’m just generally losing students’ interest, or maybe I’m simply falling behind in course notes because I didn’t think they understood some nuance in week 11. So I pivot and run back behind the line and to the left. Everyone scrambles and tries to pick up blocks, even though our inept hero is not just running laterally, but ever backwards. And then a linebacker starts charging through and we see the never-give-up (or just stupidly stubborn) attitude really start to rise up, again doubling back, doubling down, running still more negatively and away from the pursuing defense. By now the blockers are scattered all over the field and tacklers are closing in from multiple sides and we truly wonder if there’s a way to just go back in time and start the play all over again.

We know how this ends. If only the band would charge the field. But that won’t happen, and we can all see how it could have been so much better if the running back — if I — would have just run the play the way it was designed.

This is the time of the semester that I find myself looking looking for redemption. I’ve seen this enough times that I know, in all likelihood, that it will be okay in the end, if a little messy and scattered as we cross the finish line. I’d like to make sure that all of the teachers I’m visiting have a full set of my observation notes transcribed and back to them before the last day of class. I’d like to make sure that my physical science class has a project that they can design for their final lab activity. I’d like to make sure that the pre-meds in their last physics class get a chance to understand how we know that neutrinos can’t be massless. I just have to put those hazard cones around those things that are a mess and direct traffic forward, hoping that students don’t rubberneck too much as they move by.

Also, in this classic sitcom episode theme of poor timing, I need to remind my students that they should turn in course evaluations.

For now, my optimism is directly proportional to coffee intake and some brief recharge after each weekend. I just need to sustain that. Also, I need to buckle down, plan for Monday morning, grade some exams, write up some notes, and just generally brace for finals. Keep running in one direction or another, just faster. This isn’t a miserable pursuit. On the contrary, it’s energizing and joyful. But I do need to fix things, and I will need more coffee.

The other day, I got my hair cut in a quiet corner barbershop in an old historic building in the old historic section of town. The barber used a straight razor on my neck, cleanly shaving out the errors of my genetics, the random distribution of hair that extends from my head to my back. Someone else was fixing everything, just making what was wrong, right. A warm towel on my head and a splattering of some cool fluid sealed it all in for the moment.

That easy solution won’t happen here. So I’ll medicate with ongoing doses of dark caffeine and occasional shots of warm towels, long trail runs and 15-minute naps. In between those, I’ll just use the impending end-of-term and end-of-tasks to motivate faster work, maybe cutting things short and making them not quite what I intended them to be at the outset — including this essay. My own inadequacy to catch up will get bundled and confounded with the realization that I’m responsible for getting myself into this mess. So I’ll just drink more coffee and see how much redemption I can eek out of the semester. And then I’ll start over again in January.

grace remembering

Walking across campus, 14-year-old Grace had a moment of recognition as we passed by the short, steel posts that prevent traffic from heading down pedestrian paths. “That’s where we would get our clues.”

It took me a moment, but she filled in details as I flashed back ten years. This subtle trigger took us to when she was in the preschool in the basement of the education building, where they provide a fenced playground and reading circles and sensory tables. I would pick her up from school to walk across campus and to either make our way home on a bike plus trailer or on the city bus. It could be a simple symptom of nostalgia and the fallout of watching children get older, but these are among my fondest memories. And it wasn’t until this moment that I’d realized I’d let them slip into some dark recess.

These posts were part of our adventure across our own augmented reality. We pretended to pick up small scripts from these stations that would give us a clue for our next destination. “Go to the door with the alligator,” said one, Grace remembered, a direction to my office where there was an old black and white comic taped to the wall. “Take the bus to the boat-house,” she remembered another one saying, a reference to the stop adjacent to where a boat was parked in someone’s driveway. She recalled another: “Climb the mountain to the yellow house,” a final directive to our own home, often with the added tension of being pursued by imaginary others racing to the same destination.

These all rang true; and I’d forgotten all of them. She gave me the gift of a memory I hadn’t even realized I’d misplaced.

But the most notable memory this triggered for Grace was that, once we got off the bus to make our way up the “mountain,” I would hoist her on my shoulders and carry her the entire way home, half a mile east and a couple hundred feet of elevation upward.

I’m sure this isn’t entirely accurate, but I didn’t correct it. The correction would have been wrong.

I’m happy to let her remember it this way. And, as long as she’s holding onto that image, me as her horse and her with a wide grin on her 4-year-old face framed within a knit stocking cap, I’ll remember it that way too: A preschool rider on my back as we charge up the hill, having slain dragons and evaded disaster, charging up the mountain to the safe yellow house where we could slurp hot chocolate with marshmallows. Because that sounds really good, like something we’d do. And, I’m sure that it isn’t that far from that real, authentic truth of our childhoods (and parenthoods) that we’re all trying to hold onto for as long as we possibly can.

learning an American Tune

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered.
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees.
Oh, but it’s alright, it’s alright,
for we lived so well so long.
Still when I think of the road we’re traveling on,
I wonder what’s gone wrong.
I can’t help but wonder what’s gone wrong.

Paul Simon’s American Tune inserted itself into my psyche out of the blue this week, apparently pacing in some Vietnam War era space while waiting for the chance to have its meaning resurrected. I keep hearing the words, sometimes just in my head, sometimes on repeat through the speakers, and often enough coming out of my own mouth. If I sing them to myself I’ll remember to breathe, in and out. I play the Bach chord progression on the piano and try to make sense of the world.

Since the night of last Tuesday’s election, I’ve been cycling back and forth from anxious to angry, a knot in my stomach and a quickened pulse even when I’m not explicitly aware of where the angst is coming from. I’m not alone, of course. Coming to class and the office on Wednesday morning, there was a somber, weighted blanket on all things. Disbelief mixes with confusion to set a paralysis.

“How are you doing?”

I think I ask Colin this because I know that neither of us have words to describe that weight. He tells me it’s not all that great. I have nothing more I can add except for a nod. He’d posted earlier, the day after the election, that he was sorry for his complacency. Farther down the hall but on my same highlighted thread of Facebook posts, John points fingers and holds others accountable. His aim is accurate. Stacy, just down the hallway in the other direction, but in the same feed, oscillates from despondency to vigorous fight. She does the calculations for how new policies for deportation and immigration could look, or for how much sea level will rise as we follow the pledged policies of a President Trump.

Clearly, we’re collectively wrought. Still in a daze the morning after the election, I walked into Stacy’s office and gave her a fist bump without saying anything else, because I knew that anything more and I was going to break down. And, pretty much, there’s the sense that we’ve all been crying. None of us have slept well. Up and down the hallway, we all look like shit. We’re all too polite to say anything, but we know. “How are you doing?” is not just a pleasantry, but the smallest of offers of an ear. But we’re all speechless. The challenge is that I look to my friends — who happen to be among the very most thoughtful and integrity-full colleagues I could imagine — to right the ship and even the keel.

It’s all wearing. More and more this has all felt like an affront to values. I will accept that there are people like Donald Trump in this world, but I can’t accept that we can collectively shrug off statements that are outwardly vile. Before, as a private citizen, he was simply spouting off hateful rhetoric. Now, he’s accountable to our collective citizenry. Here’s where I rail about how that collective is comprised of those who have marched for civil rights, who have suffered sexual assault, who have felt threatened because they wore a hijab or a skirt or an earring, who are trying to protect a planet and scientific integrity, who are simply trying to give a world to our children and our students that we won’t be embarrassed about after they unwrap this hand-me-down gift, as if that was the best we could do.

All of that comes down to a very distilled and concentrated kind of anger and anxiety. Selfishly, I’m angry because of what this does to me. But that’s so minimal. I’m angry like so many of us because of what this does to undo what we thought we’d worked for. I’m seeing now that I didn’t do enough. Still, it’s frustrating when all being in this together means that some populist can, either out of malice or out of ignorance, pull the rug out from underneath. This hurts me to the core as an educator. I thought there was a clear path of progress, and I was looking forward.

I’m angry because I can’t breathe slowly and deeply enough to fully cope. I’m think I come back to this essay entry because I want to write myself out: out of the anxiety, out of the fear, out of the despair, and simply erase what’s transpired over the past week.

It doesn’t work.

I’ve learned that there’s a lot for me to learn. It took me a few days to realize that what I’m feeling is a very small piece of what it feels like to be the minority, the threatened, the one whose rights or body or intellect have been assaulted. I’ve known those were real things, but I’m sure I haven’t felt them on another’s behalf in any significant way. The knot in my stomach is quaint. Really, I’m not the victim here. I’m responsible. Complacency is my privilege, and if nothing else I need to turn this around and use privilege for the benefit of others — especially those who don’t get to write through anxiety under a solid roof and from within a quiet neighborhood.

But maybe I’m most angry because of what this does to my friends and my family. Here are the people that I lean on, every day, and to see them all equally scattered not only shakes me, it Breaks my Heart. As I see everyone else in their own justified state of rage, of fear, of disenfranchisement, I need to back them up. I need to give everyone room to figure this out, and I need to give them a close space to feel safe.

Today, though, whether they know it or not, people I love are pulling me up. Don’t get me wrong: You all still look like shit. There’s a grimace in the smile, but there’s hope. Colin said that he is seeing light; John helped host a meeting to lobby for climate change action; Stacy is maneuvering to march on Washington with a million other women. I see this with some awe. I’ll put a safety pin on my shirt again tomorrow and pretend that I’m that strong to be a comfort to someone else. That’s that privilege I need to cash in. That’s my responsibility to my family and to my friends.

Simon concludes American Tune with a reminder that we’ve been in these places before. (Although, I can’t imagine when he was writing these lines that he could have imagined they’d be pulled out of retirement 40 years later.) There’s some comfort here. Maybe we’ve been in this place before. Maybe the despair — “You can’t be forever blessed” — is necessary therapy.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower.
We come on the ship that sailed the Moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And we sing an American Tune.
Oh, but It’s alright.
It’s alright it’s alright.
You can’t be forever blessed.
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day,
and I’m trying to get some rest.
That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest.

And, maybe, some rest is a good idea. There’s work to do. I’m grateful I have friends who will pound their fists on the table, pour temporary antidotes into a pint glass, and then reach down and pull me up. We have work to do, I know. Just some rest, first, and then, dammit, there’s work to do.

democratic discourse

I’ve been in a funk lately, and I haven’t been able to get out of it. I know I’m not alone in this. I see it in students and colleagues, a certain malaise laced with anxiety and frosted with bitterness. We’ve been searching for something more promising.

Today I found it.

Today I watched true intellectual discourse, democratic ideals and empathy for fellow humans. There was a pursuit of truth and a clear path of intellectual curiosity.

Today, while we were all voting for the President of the United States, I witnessed democratic ideals in a 4th grade classroom during their science investigation.

Students evaluated evidence, how air in a cup kept a paper towel dry even as the inverted contraption was submerged in water. They prodded at nature and found other variations to try. They wondered and they wrote their questions down in a public space on their classroom wall so that they could keep record of the things they were unsure about but wanted to pursue later.

These kids would say, “I disagree because,” and “I think that … because,” and they would cite evidence behind their thinking. And then they listened to each other. “That was interesting. I didn’t see it the way that you did; thank you for sharing that.” This came from a 10-year-old girl who was figuring out her own understanding of how air could push on other matter — something that is abstract and fraught with confusion. She got help from the collective group of students around a desk, and she looked to a natural phenomenon and empirical test as arbiter.

There was pondering. There was writing. There was anticipation and that intellectual curiosity. There were kids with big, curly hair and kids with flat, short hair; kids with dark skin and kids with light skin; girls and boys; kids whose first language was English and kids who had some other lingual background. All had a chance to share and everyone listened. They took turns and they helped each other with patience. Their ideas were valued. “I hear you saying,” and, “Do you have something to add on?” was all the moderating that a teacher had to do, besides bringing the plastic containers and water, along with the problem at hand.

At one point, a group was teasing out the details of a disagreement, and then it came to this: “I’m saying stuff about air pressure but I think we’re talking about the same kinds of things.”

I imagine that, too often, the grownups are talking about a lot of the same kinds of things, but maybe just past one another. I’ve been feeling bad about this, sick even. I came into this classroom a little weary from work and from campaigns and lack of sleep. But, there’s this: These 10-year-olds are going to be voting in just a couple of presidential election cycles. In the meantime, we have something to learn from these scholars of the 4th grade, along with their teacher who helped put it all together. They gave me a gift on my weary Tuesday afternoon. They gave me hope.

capable of anything

Maybe the place to start is to publicly thank Donald Trump for providing a case study and an example of what it means to be a thoughtful human being. But you might get the wrong idea. Maybe I’ll just state a simple truth: Mr. Trump’s “locker room talk” is deplorable. Also, it wasn’t even said in a locker room, and it’s not the kind of thing that I’ve ever heard in a locker room, even though the things I have heard spouted by half clad high school boys were already reprehensible.

The thing is, what Mr. Trump has said and done both recently and in his past can easily qualify as abusive, misogynistic, narcissistic, bigoted, grotesque, and on, and on, and on. But I believe him when he says that he doesn’t think that this is who he really is. Who would? Who could?

Don’t get me wrong. I feel a need to put Mr. Trump into the categorical “asshole” bin and shut the lid tight. He’s reprehensible to me and I have better things to do than to give him any bandwidth. But, I don’t think classifying him and sealing the envelope is the responsible thing to do. Nor is writing off his supporters.

Because, even if you yourself haven’t said what Donald Trump has said — which I’m pretty sure you have not, given probabilities and the fact that you’re reading this and that I just generally assume and experience the fact that nobody says these kinds of things, in spite of Donald Trump proving me wrong — you’re capable of it. So am I. If I were Donald Trump and I were able to experience his privilege and his sense of being immune to consequence, what could I get away with, and would there be a slope I’d naturally slide down? How easy would it be to narrow my gaze and ignore the greater field of view around me?

If I were the bank manager who could bully workers into creating false accounts in order to maintain my status and wealth and job, would I? If I were able to funnel money into my own pocket instead of the charity it was intended for, could I justify the action to myself? If I were the police officer who lived in fear and with some implicit bias that I’d grown up with, what would my trigger finger do? I want to think that there’s no question that I’d make the right decision, that I wouldn’t even see it as a decision and that I’d just take high roads and solid moral ground. But the fact that I’d hope there would be no decision to make, no effort or sacrifice on my part, makes me realize that we all just go to a default that we must be inherently in the right. We can justify so much with a quick reframing: locker room lewd replaces rape inciting speech, thinking of shareholders justifies mistreatment of customers and workers, and “law and order” euphemises racial profiling.

It’s easy to point fingers at and condemn “the deplorables,” whether they’re those identified by Hillary Clinton in unfortunate and irresponsible remarks, or perhaps Mr. Trump himself, or perhaps unscrupulous world leaders and businessmen. It’s easy to find these individuals and to point out the deplorability of their actions and, in turn, place them in that bucket of “others” who are not like us.

This, all of it, would be easy, and it would be wrong.

My discomfort lies in the fact that those people, the deplorables, are not that much unlike me as I’d like to believe. I was raised and loved by parents who would lie down on a busy street for any of their grandchildren and who regularly serve supper at a shelter, but simultaneously vilify President Obama. We receive a weekly gift of farm fresh eggs from a kind woman who thinks that Donald Trump is our country’s right course and that Hillary would lead us into apocalyptic devastation. And I know progressives who mistreat co-workers in spite of their professed views of respect and equality for all. We are all tiptoeing lines of dualism, being a complex, twisted version of what we profess and want to be.

Let me me clear. I haven’t said anything remotely like what Donald Trump has said and I haven’t stolen money and I haven’t physically harmed another human being. But I have to remind myself that I’m capable of this, that I’m not somehow better inherently, and I’m certainly not immune. We are all simultaneously capable of kindness and cruelty, of compassion and selfishness, of right and wrong, of foolishness and deludedness and wisdom.

The basket that others are going to put me into is going to be determined by my individual decisions and the actions I’m accountable for. Some of these are the “in the moment” decisions — what I say or how I respond to the locker room banter. But there are the other long term pieces that assemble and sum to what is me. I need to work on implicit bias, recognize that I’m reacting to a black man on the street differently than I would a white man. I need to work on how I respond to speech that is alienating or hateful and challenge it. I need to look internally to see if I’m judging a woman differently than I would a man. I need to reach externally to understand my world beyond my comfortable bubble of influence. I need to see Donald Trump for who he is: all of us, even me. I need to point to him and realize that he has become that man through his own action and inaction, and I become my own man through my own deliberate act or inattention as well. We are all capable of anything — even becoming president — and we need to see all possibilities and directions at each fork in our road.

coyote of Telegraph Hill

Note: I’ve been assembling a list of drafts of things that, for my own sense of forward progress, I need to make sense of and move into the foreground. For now, I have this, an old piece from March of 2016 that was mostly finished (if there’s such a thing) but hidden. May as well put it here for posterity, or at least a bit of momentum.

I woke up to learn that my morning flight back home had been canceled. There were no explanations, only me with a flight rebooked for two hours later and the grogginess from a restless sleep in a cramped hotel room, rain all night dripping in the alley outside my gray, alley window.

In a way, fate had invented new time for me, but there was no point in going back to sleep. No point in rushing out to breakfast. The rain had paused just enough to lift gloom from the wet streets and my psyche. I found my hat and wool shirt, laced my shoes, tucked my hotel key and i.d. in my shorts pocket and headed out, negotiating the tight space between my bed and the door’s inward swing.

Running uphill on Grant in San Francisco takes you under Chinese lanterns that are suspended across the street. Storefronts that would normally display whole ducks and bok choy are closed and streets are quiet on early Sunday mornings. A few carts cross narrow, wet streets. As I crest the hill and look towards North Beach, the neighborhood and the neighbors change. I cross Columbus at its its angle skewed relative to all other city blocks, City Lights Bookstore on my right as I focus attention to crosswalks and traffic signals. And then I climb again past charming restaurants and retailers, progressively steeper and steeper until I’m wrapping around Telegraph Hill.

There’s serendipity in all this. I love a city early in the morning. I love the wet streets in between the torrents of rain that have pushed through the last few days. I love the climb of these hills and this particular route. Up until now, I hadn’t been able to make my way to Coit Tower, even though I could see it from a distance and from all directions and even though I love the route down from that point, a series of cobbled brick stairs weaving a path in between homes and a jungle of green. There used to be parrots living in these trees, which sounds unbelievable until you’re there and you have the sense that they could still be hidden among the greens.

And then there was the coyote.

I had rounded off Grant and up Lombard where it was about to turn me again onto the final twist up the hill, tracing the most reasonable grade up to the park at the peak. And there she was, in the middle of the street, just the two of us, face to face. Beyond was the bay and a bridge fading into the fog.

Looking back on that moment, maybe the most stunning part of it was the complete absence of sound. I don’t remember my breathing, my footfalls, or the city’s sonic profile. I’m not sure if my memory has blocked out everything else or if addressing a coyote on Telegraph Hill transcends all other experience and sensation.

I slowed to a walk, sidling along the curb as she held her ground in the middle of the street. First, I’d thought, “coyote,” but then I was sure — I knew — that this was impossible, it must be a dog; this is San Francisco. But then there was that bushy tail and the sleek coat and the bright eyes and presence of an animal who lives outdoors. But then, again, no, this is the middle of a street in San Francisco; but where is its collar and where does it live? I looked to the canine and back to the closed doors on either side, waiting for a round man in a tattered robe to step out and call his companion back into the house.

Still facing it and walking right by, I’d convinced myself that it couldn’t be a coyote, even though it was obviously a coyote. I’ve faced coyotes twice before in the “wild,” I think. The first time I’d watched it run across my path in the middle of the the first day of a weeklong trek dissecting the Sierras. It streaked by, bounding away into reaches I’d never find. I’ve come to know coyotes as those animals that are heard, yipping or howling in the middle of the night, but not seen. They are clever and elusive. They are supposed to be elusive. And they most certainly don’t live in San Francisco. It wasn’t until I’d left the coyote behind, turning back to reconsider and re-reconsider, and made my way up the path in the park to find a sign. It was a “real,” human made, makeshift A-frame folded sign, communicating the impossibility that there could be coyotes in the area and that we humans should be aware and give them space if we should happen to come across one. I turned back to look at the impossible coyote, still in the middle of the street below me.

She walked across the street and away, elusive again.

A coyote on Lombard street is the poem that I can’t write, can’t even have imagined. Ferlinghetti might have written it, but he wasn’t there. It was a gift for me on a tired, damp morning, the gift of a canceled flight, the gift of running shoes, and the gift of the gates of Chinatown and the stairs of Telegraph Hill, and the gift of coming face to face with something beautiful and unexpected. If that’s all there is, it’s enough.

on a walk

It’s been a few days since I’ve made it out of the mountains, and I’m still working to make sense of it.
Hurricane Pass

It would be strained to suggest that there was some well-defined purpose for this trek in the Tetons with dear friends and my 16-year-old daughter. I have this pile of scribbles that I’ve compiled over the years to make sense of weeklong treks into mountains and desert and why these are worth doing. Ultimately the excursions have some bigger purpose, making connections within and without. And there’s something about high altitude, low volume, heavy weight, and vast distances that draw me in and make me a better person. At least I stand by that claim as I grasp at justification to leave a portion of my family and take a long walk.

Yet, there’s also this other feature that I appreciate more as I think about learning and my work with students and teachers. I keep pushing people to think about the questions and ponderings they have about the natural world. But there are wonders that you don’t realize you should wonder until you’re in the presence and present of it. For example:

How did the plateau form such a flat contour above a glacial valley?

Death Canyon Shelf

Why is this high alpine moss so vividly green?

Alaska Basin moss (?)

Where did this dark colored rock come from, and how did it get so squished, as though it were taffy?

And wildflowers … I don’t even know where to start, because there’s the lushness and the color and the variety and the locality all at the same time.

Alaska Basin Wildflowers

And it could go on. There are some things that I know about the natural world — lots, actually. But then there is the experience of the natural world that trumps just knowing something or even seeing it through the lens of someone else’s camera or narrative, this passage included. There’s a renewed sense of wonder and awe that comes with setting foot on the trail, and that never gets old.

Anna cresting Static Peak

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