Tales from outer turnip head...

Tales from outer turnip head...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Salt... (A Confession of sorts.)

Salt: Years ago I began reading books that would make me a better history teacher. Not just books like What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd Whitaker (mentioned in one of my first blog entries) or Prentice Hall's Brief Review for Global History and Geography, I began reading books that would teach me more history. My older brother had given me a book, Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky which is a fascinating bend of culinary writing and history.

My Story: I started reading Salt about six years ago—I know when for a specific reason that I will reveal in a moment. I started reading it because I love to cook. I started reading it because I love to eat salty foods. I started reading it mostly because my older brother—whom I have placed on a pedestal all my life—gave it to me. I started reading it because I am a history teacher, and we history teachers read books about history, right? This book has become a bit of a humorous joke in my life, but actually exposes an embarrassment for me as well—I'll address the embarrassing element in due course. You see, Salt was so interesting to me that I began talking about what I was reading to anyone who would listen. It's a side effect of a drive I have to talk through the ideas in my head to "try them on for size". I am told my need to verbalize my excitments can be interesting, odd, annoying, endearing. Maybe all of the above. (It is not lost on me that I am exposing in this post the very impulse behind "History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme a lot.") It's just that I have to share even though I am more an introvert than extrovert. It's just the uncertainty... that I need to work through the ideas out loud...

Salt Mine Dining: Wieliczka, Poland
Inside My Head: Did you know that there was not enough salt production in early America such that we needed to secure salt stores with France before engaging England in war? It takes nine months for salt to penetrate the center of a parmesan wheel that sits in a brine bath. Sandwich, MA was the site of a large salt works, but was unable to produce enough salt for the population that was already settled by then. A nasty concoction of food stuffs is added to briny water to congeal a scum that is scraped from the surface to clean the salt bath. There are caverns of salt underneath Europe that were used for recreation and entertainment. And on and on and on...

My Love: I loved the stuff I was learning from Salt. My 8th grade students then—who are currently in their first year of college and thriving despite having me inundate them with with my randomness—stated they loved the tangents that were possible in history class and in my class specifically. They were hungry for anything, everything, and egged me on to prepare lessons that went off the path. They suggested a lecture on salt and cooking. A ha! I knew the trap—get Brother Pete off task and he'll throw his hands around and be the lunatic. But a known trap is no trap at all.—and  so I prepared a single break away class (we were ahead of the other classes by about a day or two in a project that was grade wide) on the role salt played in early American history. It was a really good lecture. The Q&A it spawned was lively. Students thanked me for honoring their request. Real relationships were forged from these side conversations. Several of them still write and visit and the infamous salt class is still a story of humor for us.

My Shame: But the embarrassment. I haven't finished Salt. It's been six years and I am on page 328 of 484 (The actual text stops on 449, the notes add another 35 pages.) My brother teases me, but actually intones judgement in his jests. I think I have lost his respect a bit as I chip away at a few pages each summer while on vacation—my progress as slow as my reading speed compared with other avid readers.

The Full Confession: I am on page 140 of 223 of The Genesee Diary by Henri J. M. Nouwen; 25 of 138 of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (A second reading) by Shunryu Suzuki; 140 of 212 in It's Your Ship by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff; 95 of 212 of Like You'd Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard; 86 of 444 of Manhunt by James L. Swanson. In my nightstand I have "the short list" of books to read soon, some of which include Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll, John Adams by David McCullough, Father Joe by Tony Hendra, The Wrong War by Bing West, and Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham.

The Problem: Don't misunderstand me, please. I finish a lot of books. In the last few years I have digested scores of graphic novels, dozens of science fiction stories, countless news stories. It seems finishing non-fiction, and especially historical non-fiction is a stumbling block for me. I become paralyzed with the potential lesson plan, the impact and method of delivery for my students. The connections and possibilities of the read slow me down to a painful rate of reading, day-dreaming, note-taking, and rereading. I lose the story, obsessed with the lesson, and become bored with the book, or worse, I become angry with myself.

The Solution: And so I began to hide (until today) the full lack of progress I am making on these books (I AM still reading them). I was wallowing in tortoise-reading, but there was a solution, read something else, that I wouldn't feel the need to teach. I ask my students what they are reading, and I read their stuff. It's more fun and I don't get bogged down in the lesson I need to teach. I become the student, and so... I can just read. If they ask me for a book in return, I try to offer up one that is a fair trade. Ah! What fun it is to trade recommendations with them. I have been recently exposed to The Things They Carry by Tim O'Brien, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and last spring The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. Here's a few examples of Maugham's writing that I liked so much:

The Razor's Edge: "That wonderful day, with the brilliant sunshine, the coloured, noisy crowds, the smell of the East, acrid and aromatic, enchanted me; and like an object, a splash of color that a painter puts into pull his composition together, those three enormous heads of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva gave a mysterious significance to it all. My heart began to beat like mad, because I'd suddenly become aware of an intense conviction that India had something to give me that I had to have. It seemed to me that a chance was offered to me and I must ale it there and then or it would never be offered me again."

Larry Darrell is wandering, reading, listening, being. All for some need to find answers to the questions that often have no clear answers. He retreats from the path that was cushily laid out before him as a member of "good society", and follows his own meandering trail. "Almost all the people who've had most effect on me I seem to have met by chance, yet looking back it seems as though I couldn't but have met them."

Maugham places himself inside is own thinly veiled account of Larry Darrell's life (there is much speculation who Larry's real identity is, but no definitive answer). Maugham says, "You learn more quickly under the guidance of experienced teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no one to lead you." To which Larry says, "You may be right. I don't mind if I make mistakes. It may be that in one of the blind alleys I may find something to my purpose."

I know my purpose is, in part, to be a teacher. I know that I meet roughly 100 strangers each year in my classroom, many of whom become my teachers. Although not guiding me as experienced teachers, they are the many blind alleys that offer a few treasures of insight and joy...

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I am all over the place in my mind this week (what's new). Words like story, relationship, isolation, journeyssharing, and gifts are bouncing around in my head along with a head cold and too much coffee... 

Facebook: This week I shared the  following status update on Facebook: Next five days... married for 17, together for 23, sober for 25. Just a little bragging here.  Thanks Kat and all the rest who are the glue in those crazy numbers. I am not one to normally count "Likes" too much, but I was taken aback by the percentage of my friends list took a moment to click (14.6% for those who like statistics). What was it that resonated with a big chunk of my "friends"? I am assuming it is a combination of several things; the components might be... The approval of my long marriage with Kat? The support for my sobriety? The participation in being some of the glue? At the heart of all of these reasons is relationships. Relationships are what people make with each other. The need for meaningful relationships is so critical for our well-being. I am reminded of the lesson offered in the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Here is part of the plot summary found on Wikipedia of the movie made from Krakauer's book: 

MAJOR SPOILER TO FOLLOW: IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE BOOK OR WATCH THE MOVIE YOU MAY NOT WANT TO READ THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS. (If you do not wish to read the spoiler, listen to Eddie Vedder's beautiful piece from the movie, Society.)

In May 1992, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) arrives in a remote area just north of the Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska and sets up a campsite in an abandoned bus, which he calls The Magic Bus. At first, McCandless is content with the isolation, the beauty of nature around him, and the thrill of living off the land. He hunts wild animals with a .22 caliber rifle, reads books, and keeps a diary of his thoughts as he prepares himself for a new life in the wild. 

Four months later at the abandoned bus, life for McCandless becomes harder and he becomes less discerning. As his supplies begin to run out, he realizes that nature is also harsh and uncaring. In the pain of realization, McCandless concludes that true happiness can only be found when shared with others and seeks to return from the wild to his friends and family.... ....Slowly dying, he continues to document his process of self-realization and accepts his fate, as he imagines his family for one last time. He writes a farewell to the world and crawls into his sleeping bag to die.


Isolation and Sharing: True happiness can only be found when shared with others. That's the wisdom. We are social. It is in our nature to be social. Isolation at times is excellent. Travel with oneself is critical. Sitting quietly, alone is essential for so many of us. But we always need to return to someone or make new connections to share those quiet or isolated moments with others. 

eric: I am not sure how to communicate how each of these elements connect, but I wish to offer a short story from Shaun Tan again to finish off this entry (I opened my blog in September with Tan's artwork). This story, called eric, comes for the collection tales from outer suburbia (from which the main element of my blog banner was also taken). 

I think the "liking" of my anniversaries on Facebook, the wonderful and varied relationships I have in life, Christopher McCandless' isolation and final denumal, and eric's visit in our country all converge on what I have swirling in my head today. Here's eric. Enjoy.  


some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come 
to live with us. We found it very difficult to pronounce 
his name correctly, but he didn't mind. 
He told us to just call him "Eric."

We had repainted the spare room, bought new rugs and furniture,
and generally made sure everything would be comfortable
for him. So I can't say why it was that Eric chose to sleep and
study most to the time in our kitchen pantry.

"It must be cultural thing," said Mum. "As long as he is happy."
We started storing food and kitchen things in other
cupboards so we wouldn't disturb him.

But sometimes I wondered if Eric was happy; he was so polite
that I'm not sure he would have told us if something bothered him.
A few times I saw him through the pantry door gap, studying with silent
intensity, and imagined what it might be like for him here in our country.

Secretly I had been looking forward to having a foreign visitor
— I had so many things to show him. For once I could be a local
expert, a fountain of interesting facts and opinions. Fortunately, 
Eric was very curious and always had plenty of questions.

However, they weren't the kind of questions I had been expecting

Most of the time I could only say,
"I'm not really sure," or, "That's just how it is."
I didn't feel very helpful at all.

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly
excursions together, as I was determined to show our
visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.
I think Eric enjoyed these trips, but once again,
it was hard to really know.

Most of the time Eric seemed more 
interested in small things he 
discovered on the ground.

I might have found this a little 
exasperating, but I kept thinking 
about what Mum had said, 
about the cultural thing. 
Then I didn't mind so much.

Nevertheless, none of us could help 
but be bewildered by the way Eric 
left our home: a sudden departure 
early one morning, with little more 
than a wave and a polite good-bye.

It actually took us a while to realize he wasn't coming back.

     There was much speculation over dinner later
that evening. Did Eric seem upset? Did he enjoiy
his stay? Would we ever heard rom him again?
     An uncomfortable feeling hung in the air, like 
something unfinished, unresolved. It bothered us 
for hours, or at least until one of us discovered what 
was in the pantry.
     Go and see for yourself: It's still there after all these 
years, thriving in the darkness. It's the first thing we 
show any new visits to our house. "Look what our 
foreign exchange student left for us," we tell them.
     "It must be a cultural thing,' says Mum.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"I have lived on the lip of insanity..."

History: A few years ago my classroom was left unlocked, and during the evening of a school event, my laptop was stolen. Now mind you, I used to leave my room open all day, every day, and for over a decade had almost no problems with leaving out numerous things of value (even small amounts of cash). I could count the number of a decades' worth of missing objects on my hand, and their total value was less than the gas money needed to replace them. I took pride in the honesty of my community of learners and trusted in it daily. 

Lost Items: And then my laptop was stolen. I was devastated. Although I do backups, they are infrequent enough that I lost hours of curricular development. Although I use passwords, I could not risk my accounts being accessed and so deleted numerous processes (and subsequently lost hundred of dollars of music and app rights in iTunes). I worried about credit cards stored (encrypted) and changed them anyway. I did not realize how much I relied on my whole life being synced in my "mobile" device-of-choice, a mac laptop. I was unable to effectively maintain the school website, use images and presentation software for my classes, listen to music in my prep periods to sooth my wandering mind. I was way more lost than I would have believed having lost my computer.

Violation: I sank into a bit of a funk. Less smily, more guarded, low energy, I went about my job reminding myself that "I am not my computer." I thought I was adapting to this sudden forced change as well as could be expected. A few days went by and I gave a test to my students on my test day. Although I wandered the classroom and answered questions as needed, I found my mind preoccupied with anxiety and distrust. I felt violated. I felt foolish for feeling violated. It was a laptop worth only a few hundred dollars at best (it was aging and off-gassing: some of it's plastic components were starting to break down.) Maybe I wasn't handling things so well. Was I so preoccupied with my possessions that this would rattle me? Was I so attached to the products of my past work that I was delving into a funk that was unshakable and affecting those around me? What was wrong with me that I was not giving myself to my job as I was used to? Aarghhhh!

Non-Attachment: When I was living/studying in India I kept a journal with all my reflections, poetry, observations about some insights I was having. I was transforming in a positive way, and better yet, I was aware of my growth and wanted to write down my ideas so I could refine them when I came down from the high of my  experience. And then my journal was stolen... most likely by one of the many young boys who hung around our band as we traveled. My teacher suggested that it probably turned into a quick warm fire on a cold morning or was used as toilet paper. He laughed and compassionately said, "maybe it is a lesson on non-attachment for you." It was a tough lesson. I had letters for my girlfriend who I was beginning to think could be a partner for life (I DID marry her five years later). I had reflections on why I had been so lost when I was in high-school. I had little moments of poetry that were clear, and to me felt beautiful, and I hoped to share them with whoever might listen. And regardless of whether my work was cremated or wiped, it was gone. Non-attachment.

Melancholy: It was fall when my laptop was stolen. I love the fall. The fall taunts me with melancholy and rewards me with the smell of cook-fires. The fall is a cold breeze on my face and a cup of hot tea in my hands. I get reflective and I regress. I think the contrasts are what I am drawn to, and which tweak me a bit. It's like chasing a bite of chocolate with a piece of sharp Vermont Cheddar. Nom nom nom. It seems fitting that this laptop incident happened at the end of October. It's always in October; whatever it is. It is hard to explain how October feels to me. The 1995, 10x platinum, Smashing Pumpkins album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness comes close. My wife asked years ago, "Doesn't it brilliantly define the teen experience with all the conflicting emotions?" I have to agree. It does: Bullet with Butterfly Wings: "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage." Thirty-Three: "Intoxicated with the madness, I'm in love with my sadness." 1979: "No apologies ever need be made, I know you better than you fake it." Tonight, Tonight: "Time is never time at all, you can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth, and our lives are forever changed, we will never be the same." And on and on...

Test Day Doodles: And so on my test day, in between answering questions and wandering around the class, and while I was not feeling trust nor faith in students, and while I was licking my melancholic wounds of October, I resorted to doodling. In reflection I think I must have been tuned into poem drawings that I've seen my students doing for English class, and I must have been tuned into a poem that is a personal favorite. But what started out as self-pity, angst, a romantic embrace of madness turned into insight and peace. Rumi's poem tricked me to kick open my mind and remember that I am looking for reasons. October was over, November brought promise of more stability, and the kindness of my friends and students washed away the melancholy. Rumi wrote:

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.

The Return: Students figured out in a few days what had happened to my laptop. Their collective outrage, colleagues' offers of help and compassion, the administration's quick support for me, and my family's understanding quickly smoothed my over-reactive feelings of violation. Weeks later the stolen laptop mysteriously appeared in my closet shelved among the books of poetry and Asian wisdom. I had had time to doodle, find some perspective, reflect on my October. The contrasts of wisdom and foolishness, self-indulgence and community, living in the moment and dwelling on lost moments moved into a sweet blend of acceptance and restored trust. What had knocked me out of whack had very little to do with my actual laptop. It had nothing to do with monetary value. I allowed myself to be distracted by the re-injury of lost creative work. But the real pain was the temporary loss of faith and trust in my students. I allowed one impulsive act of weakness to tarnish my feelings for students in general. Foolish man.

The End: And in the end, that one unknown soul who experienced one weak moment found the courage to undo his one impulsive and selfish act. I checked the logs of the CPU processes. They told a story of several attempts to break in, disconnection from the network, further attempts to reboot and login, and finally the death of the battery's charge. And there the logs lose track of the story. The best part of the story remains untold. It is the struggle by one to do the right thing and find a way out. 

Postscript: I should note that I kept the returned computer a secret from everyone save my Principal. Weeks after the computer was "shelved" in my closet I did note that a dear student, lost at times, but very good in heart, repeatedly checked in with me asking if I had recovered my laptop yet. It was curious, his choice of words, his repeated check-ins. He did not share other students' condemnation of the thief. He seemed worried I had not gotten my property back, yet. I never said, "I forgive you." But I did find the compassion to say, "I am sure it was only taken in a moment of weakness, and whoever took it was probably a good person at heart." He smiled at that, and didn't check on the laptop's fate again... 

Sunday, October 5, 2014


From the NYT Opinion Pages, SEPT. 25, 2014:

"In successfully launching an orbiter to Mars this week, India’s space program demonstrated what’s possible when a determined group of people put their minds to solving a complex problem.

India’s Mangalyaan, or “Mars craft” in Hindi, is not the first orbiter to reach the Red Planet — the United States, the Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have previously achieved that feat — but it has done so in its first attempt and on a shoestring budget of $74 million. (NASA’s Maven mission to Mars cost $671 million).

Furthermore, India is the first Asian nation to reach Mars. The Indian satellite will remain in an elliptical orbit around Mars to study the planet’s surface and atmosphere.
" (Read the rest of the opinion here.)

I have had an interest in India ever since I lived there for a semester in 1992. I have had an interest in Mars since forever (actually, since my grade school classmate Benji Farr got me excited about space travel and Mars in particular). So when India gets into the Mars race, I get a little nutty!

Recently I picked up The Mars Trilogy (for the fourth time) by Kim Stanley Robinson. It paints an interesting and seemingly plausible future where the colonization of Mars is a possibility driven by necessity. The books focus on relationships of the "first 100" and the resulting multi-global politics that surround an overpopulation-driven land and resource grab. Here is an excerpt from Red Mars that speaks to the perspective of truly changing one's world view and hints at the wisdom that can be brought by time:

"Everything had changed, it seemed; the world and its civilization all grown vastly larger and more complicated. And yet there they stood nevertheless, all the oh-so-familier faces changed, aged in all the ways human faces age: time texturing them with erosion as if they had lived for geological ages, giving them a knowing look, as if one could see the aquifers behind their eyes. They were in their seventies now, most of them. And the world was indeed larger—"

The impulse to explore space costs a lot, even when done as cheaply as India's Mangalyaan. I have heard and read critics who believe that the effort is ill spent money. Out problems on Earth should trump NASA and others' experiments out there. And yet, what dreams are born with men and women risking so much to push the boundaries of where we have walked? How many kids yearn for the unknown places to be uncovered like a mystery box opened? Nobody expects little green men to leap out from behind a rock, but wouldn't it be cool to find a little lichen somewhere in a deep crevasse on the red planet? I found a website that attempts to show earthly technologies that have been improved or created as a result of our impulse to explore space. I have not vetted the list, but the items seem plausible enough to be extensions of NASA work that I have not felt the need to doubt the claims. Some of the items of note to me:
  • Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
  • Infrared Ear Thermometers 
  • Anti-Icing Systems
  • Highway Safety Grooving
  • Improved Radial Tires
  • Land Mine Removal
  • Fire-Resistant Reinforcement
  • Firefighter Gear
  • Temper Foam
  • Enriched Baby Food
  • Portable Cordless Vacuums
  • Freeze Drying Technology

It is good to dream and even better to cheer for those who live out our dreams. I have long said I would like to live to see someone step foot on Mars, felt crushed when the financial crisis on the 2000s forced NASA's Mars program to be severely scaled back, and now feel hope as India joins the effort.