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Are you a warrior?

The Name of the Blog…

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

A warrior in a garden- this is my chosen title for this new writing endeavor.

According to the internet, a conversation once took place between a student and his teacher, the great Bruce Lee. The conversation was something similar to this.

“Sensei, why do we go through all of these hours of training? We practice endlessly, but there is no one to fight.” The great teacher paused and then replied, “I would rather be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”

What, then, am I? Am I a warrior or a gardener? The truth is that I am both and more. I am also neither one. Bruce Lee, I imagine, would be pleased with this answer. Warriors are fighters, but they can’t always be fighting, can they? They must train, rest, eat…. When the fights come, and they eventually will, the warrior will stand ready to face the challenge with determination and a calm spirit.

I am no soldier, so what does my fight look like? The internal fighting; the struggles of being a decent human in a chaotic world- these fights are constant. When a man of character is faced with his hundreds of very small, yet meaningful choices which embody the day, each choice can be a fast and well-rehearsed fight. Always striving to improve something over the previous day; this becomes a fight against complacency and apathy. Choosing words that have wisdom within them; this is the fight against ignorance and the mundane. Serving as an example to emulate for the sake of my children; the fight to be responsible instead of careless is real. And always, lurking in the background, nearly forgotten, is the fight to accept reality itself and to turn away from the indulgent and, ultimately self-destructive lies of the ego.

The gardener is a caretaker of all of the life he chooses to cultivate. Gardening is the expression of love and caring for the world I am a part of. It is also a useful illustration of the paradox of the Now. The only reality, of course, is right now. Nothing else is real. The past is shadow, and the future, nothing but conjecture. Being present is the only way to fully appreciate living. And yet, there is the garden. The garden does not emerge, fully formed, from the soil. Its plants are selected and brought to place by the gardener. When they start as seeds, then the seeds must be planted, each in their proper time. Is the planting real? Yes. As I plant a seed, that act is the only real thing I experience in that expression of the Now.

The garden in the living expression of the related energies and forces that exist between the gardener and his world. There is order and disorder. Here we see harmony, and there, a chaotic element pushes through. Some choices become successful outcomes, and some are, as it happens, not conducive to success. The truth, however, is that the garden simply is.

Would I rather be a warrior in a garden, or a gardener in a war? Being both as well as neither one shall suffice.

Great Loss Lingers

The Haunting of Bly Manor caught my attention recently. I have enjoyed the storytelling of the series far more than I expected to. It brings to mind the type of framing used in graphic novels. The narration is easy and natural, like the sort I admire from Neil Gaiman.

There will be plenty of opinions being spread about this series, so I will leave the critiques to others for now. I expect many will be unfortunately complaining that it isn’t very scary. This is really an issue of expectations versus reality, as it nearly always is with disappointments.

The psychological energy explored in this story is what I find compelling. Without delving much into Bly Manor, the theme which grips me is that everyone carries the psychic energy created during great and tragic loss. There is also similar energy from joys, but the series seems to be driven forward upon the nexus of various tragedies and mistakes, all mingling and swirling around a peculiar geographic location. These energies cross the normal barriers of linear time. The “confusion” in the narration is a result of the natural confusion we humans encounter when the expected rules of memory misbehave.

To borrow an analogy from Stephen King’s character, Dick Halloran, there is an energy which lingers in a place after something bad happens, like when someone burns toast. Even after the toast is gone, the smell lingers. The energy created during loss and tragedy doesn’t simply vanish. It will become manifest in whatever form that may be experienced. If you wish to call it ghosts, or hauntings, then carry on. However, it may just as easily take up the role of a psychosis or some kind of psycho-emotional expression within those who are near it.

Another compelling aspect of the story is the nature of regret. This term, regret, is far deeper than simply feeling bad about something you’ve done, or perhaps didn’t do. It acts as the tether which binds us to the energy of loss and tragedy. Until we can absolve ourselves of the burden of guilt, the sense of responsibility and unresolved penance, we relive bits and pieces of that energy in dozens of ways. We feel it, even if we don’t consciously know what we feel, and often see the manifest energy, though our senses can be manipulated.

The story is a finely crafted exploration of psychological stress and drama. It is not filled with jump scares and gruesome killings. Growing up with lots of those types of stories, I am rather relieved to see writing move in the other direction. It’s pleasant to become involved in an actual narrative that is demanding and engaging. It will be interesting to see how the creators attempt to resolve all of the threads and narratives that have been spun for the viewers.

Public Schools, Standardized Testing, Pandemics, and Coconuts

“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut, and you’re bangin’ ’em together.” – Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I have spent some time recently trying to compose something on the topics of standards based grading and standardized testing in our public schools.  The time to shout about these tests, grading systems, and the state of education is nearly here again in Indiana, and yet, perhaps it will be avoided once more. It has been a divisive topic in the media thanks in large part to our state’s political machinations as well as national opinions regarding public education. Even in the midst of our modern Canterbury Tales, there simply doesn’t seem to be anything fresh to report.  Oddly this strange condition has not burdened many others who are writing daily on the topic.

I investigated the political opinions being aired and decided they needed to keep hanging on the line.  I dug into the past of educational testing, found the research that others freely and selectively borrow from without citing their sources, and gradually came to a surprising conclusion of my own.  The debate is always the same.

There are a few points I can be sure of after my recent efforts.  No one is changing the dialogue of the debate other than adding the phrase, “in these challenging times.”  No one is making significant progress toward meaningful change.  And no one who tries to introduce enlightened dialogue into the debate goes unpunished.  With that theme in mind, and in honor of the annual race to improve education throughout our great land, please consider what might need to be done if you discover you are riding a dead horse. Oh, and, masks on.

The Official and Expertly Researched Public Education Response

  1. Upgrade the whip. This is a best practice, and is, therefore, non-negotiable. Upgrade may include reclassification as riding crop.
  2. Change the rider.  This can be achieved easily by revising the by-laws regulating riders.
  3. Remind everyone that this is the data-driven technique.  We always ride dead horses.
  4. Form a virtual committee to analyze the horse.
  5. Investigate how other school districts manage their dead horses.
  6. Rewrite the protocols for proclaiming horses dead.
  7. Pilot programs, spearhead taskforces, form committees, and poll all stakeholders for the purpose of reviving the dead horse.
  8. Design workshops, schedule trainings, and lead professional development meetings to instruct in the riding of dead horses with fidelity, and with grace.
  9. Analyze the data available on dead horses in order to create a meaningful benchmark.
  10. Hire expensive experts to explain in virtual PDs how best to ride a dead horse.
  11. Increase the length of the track the horse is on to gain more comprehensive data.
  12. Reduce the length of the track the horse is on to be compassionate and reasonable.
  13. Understand that no matter what length the track is, it will still be known as four lengths.
  14. Convince all stakeholders that completing four lengths is excellent, but not completing four lengths is acceptable as well.
  15. Declare that progress is being made in the science of dead horse management.
  16. Overhaul the service requirements for horses.
  17. Publicize the gains made since the ride made two years ago.
  18. If no improvements are evident, refer back to response one.

Outstanding educators everywhere, do what you do.  I appreciate you. That hollow thumping sound you keep hearing should stop… most likely a bit past November. Until then, carry on.

*Adapted from “Business Wit” ,These Strange German Ways; Susan Stern, Atlantik-Bruecke, 2000

America needs some Spaghettieis

It isn’t terribly hard to make, and the concept is simple enough. Press ice cream through an extruder to make it look like noodles. Add chocolate truffles for meatballs. Sauce can be a strawberry syrup. Shredded cheese is easy to copy with grated white chocolate. That’s Spaghettieis.

In Germany it is a common sweet treat, and not just for kids. Adults get into it just as much as kids, and maybe more. It’s wonderful and fun. It’s delicious. So, why has this German specialty not made the jump to America? I’m not sure. Maybe it will catch on one day. For now I can do my part by sharing the good word.

While I’m on the topic, we really need a doener kebab stand. Just a few to start would be fine. I’m not greedy. Just don’t tell me that gyros are the same thing. Then we can’t be friends.

On the 28th Start of the School Year

This year was supposed to start much like the other twenty-seven before it, but those were all years BC, Before Covid. I said it. If you steal it, I’ll know.

Moving forward as you would have expected simply no longer applies. Those who try to follow the usual path will likely fall off of a cliff. The path, much to the surprise of most, has been closed, rerouted, and possibly eliminated.

Teaching via an entirely online or remote format had never been even a passing thought prior to a year ago. There are online teaching outlets that I thought about because I have colleagues who work with them. Those had always been separate entities. It was a great idea, but in the “alternate” teaching realm. Now, here we are, faced with an alternate which has become a new standard.

It’s an odd feeling, going into my school for work, knowing that I will be the only one physically in my classroom. It’s odder still that I am talking in an empty room. My students are with me, though, in virtual form, thanks to technological wonders. They appear on my screen looking very much like the Brady Bunch opening credits.

There are many details of these classes that I will leave out for fear of droning on, but I suspect this poor-man’s Matrix version of school will continue. I can’t say how long, of course, but I don’t have reason to predict that my corner of the world will suddenly and agreeably employ all necessary precautions needed to slow an outbreak. With that reality firmly in place, the school environment will continue to be… problematic.

Using my veteran teacher powers, I know to ride the wave instead of fighting it. It’s refreshing in a way to know that all of us are suddenly without a comfort zone. Yet I find comfort still in knowing that I am actually good at what I do. I am at ease in this uneasy setting. I’m not sure I would have been earlier in my career.

Far too early to call a winner, but I feel good about number twenty-eight. If you don’t mind, I shall keep on feeling good and try not to walk too close to the edge of the cliff.

The Treasure

When did something made to serve

Become the thief of time?

The tools we said would lead to ease

Have failed to give us the life sublime.

Looking back, the pattern is there

We focus more on look, don’t miss

And of the living moment we are unaware.

Before the bytes and megas and gigs

Distractions shone from screens built large

And power from wires, towers, rigs.

Small screens now we have in hand

Amazing tools equipped for speed

Connecting with ease through data streams

Not pausing for borders or land.

Privacy and peace, if they ever were real

Seem too easy now to give

For the latest flash and the newest sound

Just sign up for another deal.

Yet through it all, time spent with no end

A lucky few find truths to share

And there are righteous fights for justice or peace

Or the prize beyond worth- a friend.

Pandemic life, racism, uncertainty, and peace

I have deliberated for a brief period regarding what, if anything, I should write. My last entry came before our society was faced in earnest with a global pandemic, a new invisible enemy. We also have been grappling with an old invisible enemy, one that is even more difficult to fight than a virus- racism. In some ways both enemies exist and thrive because of the same conditions we provide for them.

The virus exists within its host, and briefly on surfaces outside of the host. It can do great harm, indeed even kill, whether the host is aware of its existence or not. It travels quickly from person to person provided that we are sufficiently complacent and allow it easy access. Some of us amplify this easy access by decrying the very existence of the virus, by refusing to adopt essential protective measures, and by suggesting that an abusive government is responsible for yet another controlling overreach. All of this creates an environment rich in ignorance and confusion, what Master Takuan Soho would classify as an abiding place, the place where the mind stops.

None of us can know what our future holds. None of us can safely predict what changes this virus will make for us, though many are moving ahead with plenty of predictions. As you move closer to wisdom, however, you will spend less energy proclaiming what you know.

Our old enemy, racism, exists also within us, and, as much as we allow it, beyond ourselves as well. This is in the form of laws, procedures, and practices which have been called into existence by us, and which offer an unseen advantage to the dominant culture. Unseen, of course, is the condition which exists when one is sufficiently complacent to allow it. If you are a member of the dominant group, the easiest “defense” against racism is to deny its existence, or at least to deny that you are a part of it. You can’t recall getting any advantages. You wonder what people mean by institutional racism, and figure it must be some sort of made up issue. By easy defense I mean another form of ignorance, or another abiding place. When the mind stops, any hope of victory or advancement toward enlightenment also ends.

What must the responses be in the face of unseen enemies? In much the same way as one would face the sword of an enemy, removing the sword and using it against him would be essential. The sword in the case of these foes is the environment of ignorance. Ignorance itself is a weapon. Those who attempt to control information rather than to seek and share truth, they are creating the environment of ignorance and confusion. They are offering narratives which provide answers in situations where the truth is not known, or is too elusive to know with our current base of knowledge. The narratives are attractive because they give us what we want. If you want to find confirmation or support in your belief system, whatever it might include, such support will be quickly found in cyberspace. We can all find groups to help empower us, but if you are taking part in yet another disguised exercise in recreating a society out of balance, what value is there in being right?

So in moving, and not stopping, in giving your mind no particular place to abide, you allow your mind to be everywhere at once. We know that there are good and wise practices. We know that there are good and wise manners. When we see the world and others in it as each being worthy of what is good, this is a good starting point. When we see things as they are, and see people as all having the same divine essence that can be called life, how else can you respond but with goodness?

Move forward along the path of peace. As often as you are able, exist in the moments. We too often become obsessed with all of the possibilities, both real and imagined, and effectively become frozen in inaction. In the moment, the now, there is only the moment. The moment is all that is truly real. Your breath is not filled with anger or anxiety. Your breathing is not hateful or racist. When you give yourself more to existing in the true moment, false fears and barriers gradually drop away.

Do this and in all things strive for benevolence and righteousness. There will those who look at you as weak. Some will call you out and label you with the degrading names that are in fashion. Do not worry over this. This is nothing. Goodness and righteousness are not tarnished even if dragged through the mud.

Every act of goodness adds to goodness and becomes amplified by others of its kind. The water that falls as rain can be seen as good. If I ran about trying to catch individual drops, I would certainly be foolish and would fail. If I allow the water to simply be, and if I encourage its flow into a rain barrel, then I have taken this goodness and amplified its effects. I can take this water, so heavy now that the barrel will not be moved, and distribute it again in times of dryness. I can still benefit from the goodness by giving it. Our own inner well of goodness, our own capacity for doing good, is without limit. We can always do good, or not, in any situation.

Live in this way. Be a force for goodness in your own life. Your example will inspire others to do the same.

Be at peace.

What Gets Measured, Gets Improved

For more than a year I have been keeping data for the sake of my fitness journey. Using the Lifesum app on my phone, I have been recording everything I eat, all of my exercises and steps, and in so doing, charting progress in many ways. But one of the things about it that bugged me, being a guy who likes things to be precise, was that I have been using estimates for many food items. But you just said you like to be precise; what’s up? I know. I didn’t have a kitchen scale until now.

This has been a nagging problem, but it is solved now. The issue has been that many of the food items I would put into the food diary on Lifesum were based on what was already in the library. Let’s say I wanted to enter some of the rotisserie chicken I had just been cooking. I was essentially estimating the amount of chicken that was going into the dish I was preparing. I was relying on what others had measured. This is not a major problem, if you have practice estimating food portions. As it happens, I do.

Sometime close to sixteen years ago, my first born, just before turning three, became diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes. T1d, as I will call it hereafter, slowly turned the family into expert label readers as well as food counters and portion makers. At first we were not very good at this, and, really, who can blame anyone for not knowing. The society at large gives us all wonderfully exaggerated serving sizes at every turn. So learning how to measure food became suddenly quite important. The most critical component of the counting life became the carbohydrates. Why?

The insulin a t1d person has to administer is really a direct counterpoint to the amount of carbs one takes in, at least as it applies to eating. Exercise and a number of other factors, naturally, plays into the rubbish equation of t1d maintenance. But carbs are really important. When your pancreas doesn’t work well enough to produce insulin, you have to add it externally and directly into the bloodstream yourself in a constant effort to maintain a healthy blood glucose level. I’ll mention here that the volume of misinformation about diabetes or both types, and the ensuing confusion around them, staggers the reasonable mind. Carbs are the main source of energy for us carbon-based lifeforms. So, having no carbs wouldn’t be much of a solution for t1d. That means lots of awareness and lots of counting.

My daughter with t1d is in college now, age 19, and is quite healthy and aware. She manages her t1d as well as anyone, I would imagine, although I would never stop working for and hoping for a cure. Management is fine, but not needing to manage it would be marvelous.

So measuring out foods is something I can do possibly better than the average dad. Even though it isn’t me with t1d, I have learned those counting lessons pretty well. Still, as it applies to me, I want to know with more precision what’s been happening on this journey, and also what will continue to happen. The food scale will help me. I also had to buy a new bathroom scale, since the old one was becoming a problem. Lack of precision….

The bathroom scale was not giving me accurate measurements recently. I changed out the battery, and did the troubleshooting I can do. In the end, I got a new scale. Now, faced with a “sudden” weight readjustment of about seven pounds, I figured, why not measure better all throughout this equation? Indeed.

The food items I enter into the diary now I can measure in grams, not just serving sizes, or even estimated portion sizes. The label-writing people are a nefarious bunch. Always use caution when reading their works. On a can of fish, for example, I had to take several steps before I knew what to record. The serving size on this tin of mackerel fillets is listed as 1/5 of the container, so five servings in the can. Perfect! Happily I pry open the can to be greeted by what- three fillets. … At this point I should like to apologize to Mr. Mack, one of my former math teachers, and awesome teacher of algebra, for ever uttering any nonsense about not using algebra in real life. I have been corrected hundreds of times over by life. It is useful. Without the food scale I figured the equation out. WITH the scale, I can just measure and eat. Lovely.

It really gets to be important, this business of being precise, when you become concerned, as I am, with calories as part of an overall fitness plan. That whole tin of fish, if I had just thought, well, that doesn’t look like all that much, and had I ate the whole thing, would have been 500 calories compared with the 100 per serving. Fair enough, but if I had recorded only one or two servings, then I would be operating on bad data. I could be thinking I was in a calorie deficit, primed for weight loss, but in reality not in a deficit at all. Worse yet, if I went back to a more who-cares approach to eating, I might easily return to my critically unhealthy former self, squeezing the air out of my lungs to tie my shoes.

With the help of the kitchen scale I will hopefully reacquaint myself with portion sizes, especially with protein portions. I don’t really want to think that I can’t eat without the scale at the ready. But when I am cooking, as I really enjoy doing, I want to know what I am actually putting into the big equation. I am enjoying it all, and doing it with love and presence of mind. I also happen to be tracking data, so that is useful as well.

Measuring things is a tricky business. I am doing a lot more of it now. I am measuring food, measuring different aspects of exercise, and also measuring my own satisfaction. I know some very important things can’t be measured. I can report, happily, that the intangibles have improved right along with the measurable factors. Here’s to the journey! Keep on improving, friends.

An Epicurean, an Epidemic, a Food Pantry, and Government Cheese

I have long thought that Government Cheese would be a great band name. Government Mule was used already by a very cool southern rock group that started back in the mid 1990’s. I’ve had government cheese, though, and it is not anything like cool. Government peanut butter is similarly uncool. Which brings me to the topic of food choices as well as hard times.

I know I am already blessed to have access as I do to tremendous varieties of food and drink as well as the wealth to buy them. During the current pandemic, my work so far has been active, but I know it isn’t promised or guaranteed. I know that everyone has a level of hardship today. This entry is not going to be about how hard it is for me. This writing must be, at least in part, a discussion of the differences between food as mass produced bio-fuel versus food as craftsmanship and even cultural expression.

Bread….

Among the most ancient food products, bread has been made by all people around the world in some form through much of our history. The traditions have been successfully passed on without much loss of integrity in spite of all that we do that normally kills ideas– war, migration, irresponsible agricultural techniques, cultural oppression, etc. Bread is a living connection with our past. It is tied with life itself in religion as well as mythology. And the multitude of forms and varieties it can take on makes it versatile like few other foods. Bread is eaten by the rich and poor alike, though not always the same kinds. With bread, we have so many varieties to choose from, and all of them very different in qualities, prices, and overall goodness.

Growing up I spent many a summer in Germany with family and friends, this being where my mother is from. I would like to explain what the German bread is like, the kind that lives in the memory of my childhood, but comparing it to most American breads is pointless. It’s just too different. I will always remember my mom’s description of the bread she had to buy so often here; gluey-sponge-bread was the name she gave it. There is bread of fair or better quality that can be bought here, but Mom also had a financial proclivity for paying only what she thought something should cost, even if it means the quality suffers. She would never pay the five or more dollars it costs at a modern bakery shop such as Panera for a loaf of “artisan” bread. It’s funny how the stuff that was the simplest peasant food in the past has now become the gourmand’s treat. So she bought the gluey-sponge-bread anyway because it made better financial sense.

Now that I am here, however, before I am judged as a hopeless elitist food snob, I should say that the bread my mom was loathe to buy found its way onto many, many happy plates. There was nothing like the toasted white bread tuna salad sandwich I would make as an after school snack, usually enjoyed with Thundercats on tv. Sometimes that bread held together a BLT from mom’s kitchen. Amazing memories of those BLTs…. But when it came to what Mom wanted to have in the house, the kind of bread she knew in Germany and Europe in general, that was another situation. There isn’t anything else like fresh brotchen.

Brotchen in Germany are like mini loaves of bread in the style of a French loaf, but only about the size of a potato. Their crust is crunchy and the inside is soft. I have never found these simple treasures anywhere in the US. I have looked. The closest I came was in Bobak’s in Chicago, but theirs were not quite right. Something is different about the flour we have here, and this is enough to alter the final product too much. And now I find myself perfectly willing and happy to drive three hours to Chicago for one store’s offerings. I also buy sausages and other meats there when I go because they make it “right” when no one else does. When Pope John Paul II visited America, he would stop in Chicago for the chance to eat Bobak’s sausage. It reminded him of Poland. Actually, though, Bobak’s has closed everything down except for their catering and their direct-to-merchant sales. The other wonderful secret in Chicago was Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square. It’s closed now. A truly sad situation. This was the only place you could buy real veal liverwurst, another favorite from my childhood. I will now go to Andy’s Delicatessen in another area of Chicago. They are good enough for the special trip as well. And more recently I have found a couple of small shops far more locally who carry some of the same products as the Chicago retailers do.

But none of that extra driving or happy food searching has been going on during pandemic times. Lately the food trips are limited to Aldi and Kroger. Just the basics. With financial burdens everywhere, more and more people are relying on help from numerous places, including food pantries from churches and schools. I didn’t have to wear a mask back when I first learned about food pantries, but much is the same.

I really don’t know how often my parents got food from other sources. They left me and my brother out of it mostly. I think the government cheese that my brother and I ate at times when we were kids was a real turning point with my attitude about food. He and I joked about it even then. We knew why we were getting it. Back in the 1980’s, thanks to the deregulation efforts of Ronald Reagan, the trucking industry my dad worked for took a big hit. The company he had been with for twenty years was sold and shut down. Mom and Dad figured out how to supplement the pantry when money got scarce as it often did. We weren’t walking around with some deep awareness of being in need. We just knew that sometimes food came from different places.

We had a lot of fun regardless of the financial climate, and so we made jokes about the cheese or other bulk food containers that sometimes made it home. It was clearly different from other cheese. The plain, no-frills government label was like any other military type packaging. It was big, heavy, and very yellow. It wasn’t hard to make jokes about it. We also received on occasion fantastic packages of venison and other meats from my grandma’s freezer. Grandpa wouldn’t touch the stuff. His loss was our delicious gain. What I learned from the food was that the government was not very interested in providing great food to its people, only food good enough to pass the inspection. No awards for quality, just a blue stamp on the box.

Now when I buy groceries I usually shop like my mom did, paying attention to sales, buying off brands, watching the receipt, but not always. I will pay more for bread that doesn’t plaster the inside of my mouth. Cheese will sometimes be purchased at a premium just to give me or my kids something interesting and happy to eat, and to remind me that the waxy yellow blocks from Uncle Sam might show up again one day, so I should indulge a bit while I can. The pantries are open now, and really always have been. I have brought food home from church pantries before, and I will again as needed. It’s important not to have too much pride in these matters. It is equally important not to judge others who receive things that were meant to be given.

I am happy that my kids know about the varieties of food in the world. They know that foods have special and interesting names, and that cheese is not just known as yellow or white. My older daughter has had brotchen and other breads in Europe, but the other two have not yet had the pleasure. They will, though. I have pictures of each of them at various ages eating toast with Nutella, their smeared faces smiling with the brown cream in their teeth. Pirate teeth we used to call it. Arrrr!

Food is a daily necessity, and so you can’t go gourmet every day. Sometimes food has to be about bare necessities. My kids are not food snobs, but I want them to know that there are lots of things people eat that bring them happiness. Having a powerful connection to a food linked to memories of the past can be a wonderful thing. They also know that every population, every culture, has its own wonderful foods that are waiting to be experienced. You may not like them all, but a few of them may stick with you for life. Part of living life means experiencing new and different things, and one of the easiest ways to do this is through food. Seek those experiences out.

Live well.

The Primal Call of Fire

I can’t remember ever fearing fire. I am drawn to it.

I know how destructive it can be, and how deadly it can be. For these reasons I respect fire. During this time of quarantine and social distancing, I have kept the television off. I get news reports and happenings via the internet, but most of the time tv disappoints me. There are several shows I enjoy, but to just sit for hours in front of the glowing screen seems to lack a certain truth. There is something about making fire and keeping it maintained and in control that is deeply comforting.

Where does this feeling come from? Some people also find the same feeling by the water. Is there something about the primal elements coming under our control that makes it so appealing? With my fires I make in my fire pit, I don’t feel like I am controlling fire as much as I am calling on it to join me for a while. I am asking for something. I need heat, light, and maybe just the peaceful environment it can offer me.

When people find peace in the water I imagine it comes partially from the ancient knowledge that water is a provider. “If you are here,” the water whispers, “then you will not want.” But just as fire has its deadly persona, so, too, does water.

Fire fascinates me. I can and do sit by a fire for hours like others will for television. I see things in the fire- visions. If I am at peace I can sometimes understand things better because of what the fire says. I imagine it is the same practice that the old soothsayers or shamans found so helpful in their arts. There is tremendous power in the connection between fire and magic. Fire itself might be the last bit of magic left from the old world that we can still conjure with relative ease.

Many times I have gone to the ashes of the fire from the previous night, or even longer, and have been able to stir a flame back to life. This feels like magic to me. If I want one after that small flame comes, I can turn it into a grand blazing pyre once again. And there I can sit and listen to nature. My property joins a minor flood plain to the back end. My fire pit is just on the edge of this little ecosystem. During this time of year the spring peepers come alive from the earth, another bit of old world magic, I’d say. They fill the air with their music. On nights such as these I can relax in peace surrounded my the frog concerto and my fire.

Nature takes notice of fires, too. Often while I sit, something comes along the edge of the light, not quite close enough to be seen, yet certainly not worried about being heard. Maybe it’s young kits wandering away from the fox den. It could be curious coyotes. Whatever it is, I don’t fear it. I think this is why it comes so close.

Finally the scene becomes most impressive because of the moon and stars. The moon, sometimes brilliant in a clear sky, traces her well-known path through the night. The stars, not as plain as they must have been in the past, lay out their mysteries for the most clever sages to solve. All of this for a bit of effort and industry. I hope the fires never cease to impress me. I hope I don’t ever forget how to see them, and how to listen. There is so little magic left in this world. What a pity it would be to never see it.

The Importance of Skepticism in Education and Beyond

Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought.  The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us. 
Consider your own circle of influence. How many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification? Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you’re lazy at best, and a likely gullible at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you’d at least know that you’re possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax. 


In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone’s attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief, yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included the levitating man illusion. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation. 


I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation, and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don’t know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the outrageous and dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped. 


The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven.  No one has ever collected on that offer, and it has now since been stopped. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that I have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible. 
Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.

With the nature of social media constantly moving toward more and more video content, and always shorter clips, it is increasingly important to stand for truth. Consider what happens when I ask students to watch a video for an online assignment, such as CNN10, a news summary program, then ask a few questions about the content. The news program is literally ten minutes long. Every time. Yet there are always students who will offer up answers that have nothing to do with the content of the program they were supposed to watch. Their answers are based on opinion, feelings, a tiktok video, or who knows? Did they even watch it? It’s impossible to say. And so what does skepticism demand of this situation? Answers need to be given with solid references to the content. The content itself can, of course, be questioned, too. But just avoiding the responsibility of thinking for yourself should not be an option.

It’s so hard to be critical in such a responsible way. But it is possible, and it must be taught. In the midst of a global pandemic, we must be demanding of our sources of information. Check sources. Demand to know what the sources are. Investigate before sharing. We have access to more information than anyone in history, but we are becoming overly trusting with those who present it to us.

When there are world leaders who are openly derisive of scientific data, it falls to us, the consumers of information, to have higher standards. It isn’t good enough to passively accept what you’re told or are shown. David Blaine wants you to believe that he can pass a long needle through his body and remove it, all without leaving a mark or spewing blood. If you believe in this, you haven’t done much harm to anyone. In fact, it’s entertaining to believe in the impossible. That’s how illusionists like Blaine make a living. But if your lack of critical thinking leads you to do things to harm yourself or others in your care, it becomes a problem that needs attention.

Where to begin? Educators must do more to teach about and then encourage civil discourse. We need to move away from the notion that we can’t be questioned. There are certainly good and bad ways to question, but this, too, is part of the teaching. Instead of being offended or viewing a contradiction as an attack, the effective teacher show the way. Demonstrate to the class how questioning can be done politely, respectfully, or also in a disrespectful manner. Do this well, and students learn that it isn’t the questioning itself that so often isn’t appreciated, but rather the manner of the questioning. The responses and manners of the teacher, of course, must match as well with this lesson. Parents can assume this same role in the home.

The path to knowledge, or even truth, must certainly be marked with questions. Keep on questioning. Keep on learning. To steal a tagline and paraphrase the great Cecil Adams, I’ve been fighting ignorance since 1993. It’s taking longer than I thought.

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