Cold Comes in January

Crows on our snow pile,

Crows in the back yard,

Our frozen crows in January

Put us on our guard. Sleek and black,

Blacker than the snow filled night,

Like the squirrels, they point north.

 

The rooster on the garage roof points north too.

You’d think there was something good coming that way.

There’s snow and wind and cold,

And it’s been coming that way all night and day.

 

It’s a January day.

The bird feeder swings back and forth

And round and round.

Sparrows jump on and off, up and down

Like children on and off

A playground merry-go-round,

Laughing, arguing, screaming with delight.

 

The wind whips and whistles,

Blowing and bending as it goes.

The temperature is sinking, and it’s early still,

But it’s not still. It’s biting.

 

The wind fills its breath with snow,

Greying the air, filling the lately shoveled walk,

Clouding the car windows,

Merging the leaf pile with the piled snow.

 

And now they’re gone,

The crows on our snow pile,

The crows in the back yard.

They soared into the tall trees,

Waiting, watching, cawing,

Waiting for January to take its toll.

January 2014

A Lamp Is Lit

Chilling ghosts drift across the heavens.

Fragile fingers spread into a stream,

A suffocating, wan December sky,

Blankets coldly, easing downward,

And, humbly, we succumb.

Thus nullified, we rest,

And try to recover and rebuild.

We breathe slowly, and invest in solemnity.

We design aimlessly and conspire with phantoms.

We plan and plot and prepare. And for what?

We wait. For waiting is the last resort,

The final function, the night watch

When all the leaves have been stripped away,

When the brown ground lies fallow

And the lifeless sky presses down.

We are left on our own, alone at last.

Our winter’s wood has all been cut and stacked.

A kettle’s on the stove. Bread is in the oven.

The door is shut and barred. A lamp is lit.

It’s quiet now, and in the evening,

Dreams, unfulfilled, drift blindly to the ground.

They calm our solitude and sanctify our peace.

And in the spring, there won’t be any tracks.

December 2013

November 2012 (revised)

When the water in the dogs’ dish
by the coffee shop door
is a broken chunk of ice,
encasing a single yellow leaf,
When the windshield grows
an inner film of mist as
the defroster tries to thaw
the rime of brittle crystals
that map an early winter vista,
When the last rich aroma of leaf mold,
the warm colors of maples and oaks,
the royal purples and peasant blues
of the asters succumb
to the first hard frost,
That’s when my mortality
stares me in the eye.
January 2014

Philosophy tells us who we are

While I have not read widely on the subject of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation, I have read enough to see what appears to be a common core of arguments.

  1. We need national standards to be competitive in the global economy; vs. we need local control to assure our national character and integrity.

  2. We need the content and levels, specified in the CCSS, to assure quality in education across the whole country; vs. we need to honor choice, and regional and local values that are nurtured through our education system.

And my favorite:

  1. We need to be able to compare schools on a consistent scale; vs. we need to support every child in every school to maximize every individual’s innate potential.

Put another way, these might line up as:

  1. Globalism v. parochialism

  2. Uniformity v. individuality

  3. Free-market competition v. Marxist socialism

This analysis is based on a cursory examination of the commentary, to be sure. I would say “the literature,” but that would suggest a higher level of academic study on the part of the commenters. After all, implementing a nation-wide formula for education based on presumed outcomes is implementing a strictly probability-based inductive rationale. It’s a bit unrealistic for anyone to speak with grounded authority on the outcomes, though many might assume such a posture.

Something that I see in my analysis is a similarity to other arguments afoot across the world. All these argued positions are similar to positions taken in economics and corresponding social structures. And while this might be a loose relationship, it bears some consideration, because it invites the question, “What underlies the discourse on the Common Core State Standards?” In other words, why are we having these debates in education, economics, ethnic identities, and religious beliefs? Isn’t what’s best for the most over the longest time the goal? Apparently not.

I would say we spend far too much energy arguing the road to take and far too little energy trying to discover a goal upon which we can share consensus. In the CCSS debate, little seems to be said about what we agree on as the goal of a public education system: assimilation of diverse peoples into a single national identity? (1890-1910) The development of the human psyche as a spiritual being? (1920’s) The creation of a core of technical elite to direct and manage cadres of practical crafts and labor? (1920-1940) To establish an informed electorate to form a true democracy? (1940-1960) All right, these are rough, broad strokes, but they certainly represent raison d’État in public and, concordantly, private education in the U.S. in the last 150 years or so. And how unlike the gymnasia of Athens 2,500 years ago.

Thirty years ago, I puzzled over what was really expected of me in the classroom. Think for a moment about all the voices, many quite demanding and even threatening, If education is anything, I think, it is the institutionalized effort to acculturate and socialize emerging generations—to bring the rising population into the culture and society of a people. If that’s the case, then the problem seems pretty clear; The United States, by its design and history, is not a single people. At least not in the 21st century. We don’t have a common culture or a common society.

The debate, it seems to me, that we need to resolve is where we want to be on several spectrums. Where do we want to be, for instance, between absolute conformity – very efficacious, e.g. the Nazi war machine – or total individuality – apocalyptic anarchy where feudal war lords rise and fall trampling the masses. Please don’t be naïve; there are a few who would happily embrace the extremes. But there are deeper questions that we avoid even mentioning in practical arenas such as education. What is success? What is the balance between reality and fairness? What should determine what is right and what is wrong? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean that we can even ask such questions?

Philosophical (and religious) questions have plagued, entertained and elevated human beings throughout recorded history. Only physical conflict can compete for longevity, but cannot be said to elevate humanity; although it has elevated science and engineering. While STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) might suggest preparation in the field of conflict, though certainly very many other more humane fields as well, there seems to be little in the CCSS to promote the idea of questioning—the mean by which we clarify and understand—the philosophical puzzles. The world of science tells us what we are, but the world of philosophy tells us who we are. It is the philosophical that raises humans above the rest of the physical world, and leads us to ask “Why?” – the little child’s question that seems hardwired into humans.

So here’s what’s going to happen with the CCSS. It will be implemented poorly and unevenly and even incompletely across the states over the next five or six years, and will be overtaken by the next reform effort. During that time, it will spawn a sea of books, articles, research efforts and college programs—in their own reformed shapes—that will become an exhausted source of profit in the end. The new reform debate will generate a new wave of the same sorts of profitable sources in its turn. Cycles happen. The linden tree has a heart shaped leaf and, when viewed from a little distance, has a heart shaped profile as well. Patterns result from underlying, often mysterious, causes. Education reform cycles, and repetitions, I imagine, are in the underlying gene structure of society.

I gave up listening to all the voices (not in my head as it happens) telling me what education should be doing. Now that my career in the classroom is over, I feel satisfied that as the years passed, I was more and more able to get my students to ask why, in effect,  returning one starfish at a time to its home in the sea. I put my energy into starfish these days. I don’t see much point in trying to STEM the tide.

Complexity Theory

I’ve heard about Complexity Theory. It sounds like reductionism to me, though I’m told I’m wrong there. Dwelling somewhere between chaos and determinism, complexity theory seems, perhaps nobly, to be trying to understand the structure or natural laws governing the existential balance between chance and order. It seems a bit like divining the principles of an engineered universe. And certainly there are things that seem very highly engineered, in physics for example, positively deterministic systems, until we encounter quantum mechanics. Then our understanding is pushed perilously close to chaos. The weakness in seeking an understanding to predictable outcomes for highly complex events is the somewhat quantum nature of the causal agents, you and me. We defy reductive reasoning.

If reductive reasoning presumes that the complexity of a thing can be defined or reduced to a single cause or formula, its logic hangs on causal networks that are patterned or replicable in some way. If the exact same state exists in all aspects, then the exact same effects will descend from a single causal event. Expanding the cause to a set of causal states, changes little. There are two possible shortcomings in this theory, which do not falsify it, but may certainly dilute if not neutralize it.

The first is an easy shortcoming to predict: the exact same state existing in all aspects. This is an extremely improbable, if even vaguely possible occurrence. If the universe began with a big bang or has always exist, with our understanding of it deriving from passing through time and space, then, whether or not it is progressing, it is always changing as we see it. Therefore, we have already passed through the time and place where things were as they were, and can never pass through that time and place again, we assume. Even if we were there again—and there’s no reason to doubt that that ‘there and then’ with us in it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t always exist—it would still be the only time and place where “the exact same state [is] existing in all aspects.” So much for exactness; what about similarity?

There is promise of usefulness in this notion of reductionism at a less exacting level. The weather forecast is based on gathering aspects of climatology patterns, on which meteorologists’ computers, applying algorithms based on past results of similar states, can predict the probability of a range of outcomes. The forces of the irrational deterministic world seem pretty well subject to the reductionist theory. But what about the rational world?

The second shortcoming is degree of predictability on non-deterministic events. First of all, in human interactions, past data of the specificity needed to formulate reasonably reliable algorithms may not very well exist. Take for example the cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. How much critical data can be collected from the first two situations from which to predict a reliable pattern for events as outcomes of the third? In the first place, there was only the slightest number of aspects in Iraq and Libya to call them so much as similar, and Syria shares an even smaller number with both. And it hardly matters how many conflicts we examine, in comparison with the more than 30,000 days of weather data from which to draw positive probabilities. We get what amounts to a weak guess of the final outcome. What’s more, weather is highly regular in its patterns due to our solar cycles compared with human events that have a slight daily and annual pattern and a life cycle. None of these cycles are very regular, especially in a world of global, continuous communications.

The second shortcoming is also subject to rational disruption. Reductive reasoning can easily be applied to poker; there are a known number of cards of each value in the deck and in play. The game is pure chance, except that players fold and bluff, rationally disrupting the course of chance. Even if we come up with reasonably reliable predictors of probability for massively complex human events, or even for our own life events, we will always have to deal with the folding and bluffing of other players in the guessing games of life.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Maybe people are changing. I have always found one pattern of complex human behavior to be consistent: the more we learn of history, the more we know how little we’ve learned from history—the  more we see that history simply repeats itself. The meteorologists don’t change the weather either. Makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it

What is it to be old?

What is it really to be older? What is it to be old? When we look back fondly and say such things as “when we used to care about things,” are we not really trying to return to the past, to recapture it? Or are we trying not to face now? Why wouldn’t we want to face now? Is now so much harder than then? I wonder if then was really so much easier then than it seems to be now? Is now really so much harder than then?

Remembering is selective, of course. Remembering what made us feel good then generally makes us feel good now. Remembering what made us feel bad then would probably make us feel bad now. But either way we tend to regret (a really bad feeling) that it’s not then any more: bad things were losses then and good things are lost now. We’d probably be better off not remembering.

But to reminisce, to indulge in sweet nostalgia—are we not compounding a folly by filling the gaps in fragmented memories with syrupy creations akin to dreams in reverse? When we get old, really old and stop telling people we’re not old, just older—when we reach that stage, we could well have abandoned not only dreams for the future but even an awareness of now and exist live afloat in this sea of dreamed history dotted with islets of factual memories.

Is memory, no matter how sweet and soothing, enough to be a life? At best, memory is an inaccurate recreation of past sensations, a programmatically flawed raster rendition of past inputs. Yet this is the past we are drawn to, eventually becoming a reality generated from a dementia-jumbled conglomeration of memories swimming in a jelly of backward directed hope. Over statement perhaps, but not ill-conceived. What is it to be old and to try to live our not-old lives over?

What about the everyday old, when there simply isn’t much coming in? when memories begin to rub against the ankles of our thoughts, purring their need for attention? Do we slip into the warm waters of sweet memory and quit the dry world of the living? Are we zombyized—not quite dead, yet not part of the living, sweating, noisy world?

When we dream in our sleep, we are who we are. I am 25 or so, active and passionate—outside of age, but inside of life. But these are dreams. Perhaps dreams, like memories, are pulling us back to when we believe life was good, denying the goodness of our lives now, offering us a chance to start over, do that last bit again so we can get it right.

Wavering

I have been wavering back and forth on this a bit. I feel a certain obligation to the organizations and institutions I have allied with in an effort to advance social justice and advocate for human rights, on one hand. On the other hand, I have felt an increasing value in the individual relationships I build when I do something to help one person at a time, pick up one piece of litter, respond to one confused traveler’s lost look. Perhaps what encourages me is the immediacy of effect these tiny effort achieve over the delayed incremental change in the worldly field of assaults and setbacks. I know that the effort must be made in that broad arena to forestall the opposing interests. I am increasingly unsure that it must be done by me. I am not sure I have the energy or the will frankly to take on the world. Perhaps if I were a little obsessed…but I am not. I am retired and feel retiring. I want to contract my life into a much smaller orb. I want to diminish my domain, and want to feel good about my days. At the same time, I do not wish to abandon those I have given to trusting me to be there, even though I feel rather ineffectual in that trust.
Is this disinclination to the broad playing field just a form of depression? Does the scant feedback I get fail adequately to feed my ego? Is this distraction a product of aging, similar to a reduced sex drive? Is it boredom or frustration? Certainly I have been irritated by the constant reordering of events that keeps me from ordering my own life. I am irritated by the failure of others to follow through or communicate. I am irritated by bouts of reluctance, intransigence and timorousness from colleagues and compatriots. I am mostly, and most ironically, irritated by the smallness of vision held by even those considered our most global thinkers, and suspect that much of that smallness is really calculated to distract those who believe themselves to have a global perspective.
Is my attraction to one-on-one interactions just a form of control over my existence, reduced in scope and scale by the shadow of mortality? Is it an immediate need to feed my ego? Is this attraction an illusion in aging, bending my amaranthine youth to vane voyeurism? Is it manageability of my life? Certainly I am rewarded with setting my own agenda and my own schedule. I am rewarded with regular appearance of compliant individuals who tell me ahead of time when they cannot meet. I am rewarded with willing and engaged faces who offer thanks at every encounter. I am mostly rewarded by watching the smallness of individuals’ vision grow steadily if not grandly to enlarge their worlds and improve their lot in life.
Perhaps this is just my Eriksonian reflective age. Perhaps I need to consolidate my ego around an assurance that my life was meaningful. As a teacher, perhaps I am inclined to coalesce this integrity around the act of sharing my findings with future generations, attaching this end of life with the other in a sociological reincarnation. Perhaps I am simply following the natural course of the event called Jay. I can, I know, no longer set major course corrections as I sail toward the inevitable horizon. It is now only the journey itself that counts. It is a journey that will end, but without destination. Under these conditions, my journey can only be right or wrong, good or bad as it proceeds, at the moment it inhabits, without reference to whither it goeth but to what it is at each moment. I feel I must live every moment of my life now, not as if it were my last, but as my only chance to have this moment. Each moment must be complete unto itself, not as a point on a route to some destiny.

Of Cabbages-and Kings

“As the years have gone along,
Our love it seems has risen and fallen
Like the chorus of a song,
Not sadly or coldly,
Nor badly nor boldly.”
“Not so,” says she.
“There was a time when it was clear,
When love and laughter,
Like sun and rapture,
Wrapped us in warmth and good cheer.”
“Not so much,” she says.
“But this is how it seems to me.”
“The love we have is what we’ve always had.
It’s not the love that’s changed;
It’s the lover.
Not the song but the singer.”
“How can you say that?
My love is part of me,
And thine of thee.
Our sharing is blending of these.”
“No,” says she.
“Love is greater than we.
It binds us to one melody.”
“For me, that cannot be.”
“Let us speak then of truth and other things
Of cabbages—and kings.”

Learn This

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Click this .pdf link > Learn This

The Ape Ariseth

We have become the most advanced apes, and we wallow grandly in our apishness. Tool use, once thought to be the haute domain of humans has been grudgingly relinquished to the ape world. We hardly even talk about other tool users, dolphins, elephants, crows, octopuses (octopi?)…

We have far outrun the pack in tool use though. With the entrance of the computer and the dawning of the Information Age, we took tool use to its farther extreme—emulating the gods with our use of tools. Elevating science, technology, engineering and math to the supreme arts, we have banked our education, business, wealth and future on our use of tools. Planted before the stony backdrop of an obdurate universe, the ape has risen to swing his awful club in the face of God. En garde Ahuramazda!

Now we have 3-D printers. We can recreate our world in bits and pieces. One day, it is predicted, we may be able to use such tools to recreate food. If food, why not sexual partners? STEM is pretty sexy—the reddest apple, dangling just within the touch of our finger tips, soon to be fully in our grasp. Imagine life on the holo-deck, lounging on the holo-beach, munching holo-lotus seeds.

The earliest Star Treks were, for the adolescent minded, fascinating in their gimmickry, scope and power. Yet Rodenberry used these to deliberate upon matters of sociology and philosophy, for those of us who troubled our minds grappling with such things. These vagaries were the places no one dared to go. How will we use our godlike power tools then? And for whose benefit? To whose detriment?

But it is much more fascinating monkeying around with our newest tool—a word not far removed from “toy”—than it is to grapple with abstractions. Ah! Making sense of abstractions, bringing order to the chaos of what is only imaginable. Attempting to understand our place in the incredible fabric of the universe. Now that sounds like something even an octopus might struggle in coming to grips with.

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