Thursday, December 28, 2017

There are no words, but what are we gonna do, not talk?

     My daughter has a job taking out the trash at the day care center all my kids attended.  Once a week, she spends a half hour or so rolling out the trash cans, getting empty boxes out of the basement,  and moving the recycling bins to the curb.   Because this week, she is at Girl Scout winter camp, and because it was so cold, I did the job myself without the boys' help.  As I was moving boxes, a parent gave me a hand.  His wife knew Lori professionally, they live around the corner, my daughter has babysat for them.  But he really just wanted to hug me, to tell me he's been praying for me and to cry with me.  And that's okay. I'm down with that.  I realize he's not crying for me, he's crying because of his own fears of what could happen to his family, to him or his wife.   It's like some weird superpower; people burst into tears at the sight of me.  Beware, I'm hankie man able to stop evil by telling it my sad story! 
    Of course, at the beginning I cried.  I cried a lot.  My boss Matt was the first one to come to me (not quite true, Sandy was first but I sent her with the kids to my mom's while I dealt with the detectives and M.E.'s.)  Matt came because I didn't really know what to do so I had texted him I wasn't coming to work on Monday.  Then I texted him why.  He came immediately.  When he walked into the kitchen, he hugged me and I made noises that I thought only animals did, big, wailing sobs that I didn't know I could make, part coyote and part Orca and I think I probably ruined his clothing with my snot as he enveloped me in a huge protective hug.    I had a few more of those cries but it happens very rarely now.  I'll go days without crying and then it sneaks up on me, most recently in the shower Christmas day, after the presents were open and the breakfast eaten but before the rest of the relatives showed up for dinner. Sometimes, it's quieter crying.  As we sat in Christmas Eve services, listening to the Mennonites sing Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, a single tear, or maybe two, leaked out as I remembered that Lori and I always got confused as to which parts we were supposed to sing and I'd end up singing with the women and she with the men. 
     But this isn't a post about Christmas, it's a post about how to talk to grieving people inspired by the spectacular job my former students are doing.  Michaela wrote me from Egypt where she is on assignment and her message is worth quoting in full:

Dear Doc Sal—
I’ve been reading your blog posts—who knew the person who taught me to write history essays could make me cry from something other than his comments on my essays?—and I just wanted to add my condolences to the deluge. I didn’t think it was necessary and even felt as if it was an intrusion, considering how many friends of yours and Lori’s are currently reaching out. But I always think of that part in the Series of Unfortunate Events—how come “children’s” books are always so much helpful when it comes to death than adult books?—where Lemony Snicket says “it is a sad truth in life that when someone has lost a loved one, friends sometimes avoid the person, just when the presence of friends is most needed.” I doubt that’s happening much to you, but at least I was doing it. I was hoping, before contacting you that I could come up with a really, REALLY good condolence message, one that would 1) prove the illusion of death 2) prove that any ending is simply the limitation of human perception 3) prove that God never takes something away without giving something back and 4) find quotes from people much smarter than myself in regards to human mortality to substantiate this (the only death poem I love is the Aeschylus one Bobby Kennedy quoted to the crowd when MLK got assassinated, and this poem didn’t even work since I’m pretty sure you’re wise enough already without Lori being dead.) After reading my letter, you would laugh in the face of human mortality, and your pain would be completely healed. Unfortunately, by the time I came up with this it’d probably be a little late, since you and I would both be dead. So instead, I’ll just say that even me, a constant but peripheral Doc Sal fan, even I had my life touched and made better by you and Lori’s love. As a divorce-child who’s read far too many books by bitter male writers, time travel seemed far more possible than the idea that you could love and respect someone that much, and build a family and a community around that love. I could just tell by the way you talked about her, even off-hand. So when I heard the news, I just… I don’t know, wanted to punch the universe in the crotch, it just seemed so unfair. But over the weeks, reading your posts, seeing people reach out, I realized I’d been seeing it the wrong way. It just seems so apparent, as an outsider, that that love didn’t disappear. You just built something so wonderful with Lori that even with Lori dying there’s so many people around you who care. So I still feel that I would be so lucky to have what you had, even though it was so much shorter than you would have wished. And yes, that still makes the universe my number one enemy—and if I ever find it’s crotch I WILL punch it—but I just know you and your kids, you’ll all be okay. I will strive to follow your example. You have the right idea, you read the right books and cared about the right people (namely: basically everyone.) You already know this, but like hell if it doesn’t feel good to hear things you already know once in a while. And you can hardly blame me, since you know everything, after all.

TL;DR: Good fucking job, and I wish you a wonderful Christmas—Go laugh in the universe’s face.

Sincerely, Michaela
PS. You didn’t actually ever make me cry from a history essay comment (maybe because I could never actually read them) but I did once avoid you for weeks when you told me you wanted to ‘talk’ about my first essay.

So, that's one approach.   I would like to say for the record, I, too, would like to punch the universe in the balls.  The letter made me laugh, it made me feel better, and it flattered me.  But hey, Michaela gets paid to write!  the rest of us probably can't pull that off.  So then there's plan B.

     Plan B comes from another former student, Kat.  Kat lost her mother when she was just a few months older than my daughter in a similarly stupid and tragic way.  Kat, the siblings, Alex, Lindsey, and Grace, and Taylor are some of my former students who lost a parent at a young age.  They've all turned out pretty great and they've been tremendous in reaching out to me to let me know my kids will be okay.  Kat met me for coffee just before Christmas and told me the following story.  It was just after her mom died and her friends were over basically pitying her.  She walked outside to get some air when her older brother's best friend came outside and sat next to her.  "This sucks," he said.  "Yes," she said.  "It does."  And then they just sat.  I'd been saying, "It sucks," quite a bit to people, along with "there are no words." (Generally, the latter, in response to folks who said, "I don't know what to say.)  I think "This sucks," is pretty powerful.  It accurately sums up the current condition and suggests a future possibility that doesn't suck, or at least sucks less.  (Levels of suckitude are incremental, and are measured in owl licks like Tootsie pops.  Two weeks ago, my suckitude level was 27 owl licks, but I'm currently at about 15 owl licks, but then again, I've been eating the Jon and Kira's chocolates someone gave me.)  Anyway, "this sucks" is a safe bet to say to me, should I be on the verge of unleashing my newfound superpowers on you if we should happen to run into each other in the supermarket or movie theater.    Other acceptable phrases include:
"You and your family are in my prayers/thoughts/koan."
"Happy Holidays!"  (I'm a big New Year's guy, and there's also Three Kings' Day, and Tet's gotta be around the corner.)  
"Have you heard the one about little Bobby on Christmas?"*  
Seriously, nobody will tell me a joke anymore.  And I desperately need to laugh now.  I used to laugh all the time.  Now I'm worried I'll forget how.  Leave your best joke in the comments so I don't. 

*Little Bobby on Christmas is not a funny joke.  It is an awful joke.  It is the kind of joke that people throw things at you after you tell it and disinvite you from visiting their homes.  Needless to say, it is one of my favorites. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

It doesn't matter; it matters a lot.

The snow the day before was ominous.  A bad tiding.  The boys and I spent an hour stuck in traffic to go a mile after getting our haircuts.  My friend Debby was in from California and on chauffeur duty for my daughter.  She hadn't driven in snow in thirty years, if ever.  Lenny coached her through it on the big hills, with phrases I'd shouted at cars in the past, "whatever you do don't stop!"  Julie got grounded in her flight in from Boston.  Kir, who had already taken two or three trains from Vermont had to take another to get to Chestnut Hill; it would have taken hours to get her in Center City.  Philadelphia was gridlocked.  Lori's relatives driving in from Ohio had made great time, and spent two hours on the last three miles.

And yet, dinners were eaten.  We all said it's been too long since the last time I saw you.  Was it six months?  A year?  Three?  Too long, and the kids have grown and you look great.  And remember that time when we were at the beach, the wedding, the graduation?   Talking about anything and everything but what we had to do tomorrow. 

But the next morning, was clear and bright.  We shoveled the snow off our cars and our walks.  Donuts were fetched.  Ties were affixed.  Snow boots put on, and dress shoes carried to the car. 

I pulled up to park behind a car with a Maine license plate, Steve had driven down over two days to be with me and honor our New Mexico history together.  Across the street, my brother Jon shoveled the walk of the church again.  Students trickled in to their soundcheck.

The boys and their cousins threw snowballs in the yard and then rushed inside to warm up by the roaring fire in the parish house.  We drank coffee and met each other again.  My cousin Marilyn, meet Lori's cousin Nick.

Folks wandered by looking for the bathroom and awkwardly encountered us.  Too long, we'd say.  It's been too long since last I saw you.   I promise I'll come to Delaware, or Wisconsin, or DC again soon.  There's a wedding in Boston over Labor Day, I could arrange a side trip.

And finally, we entered.   The Church was packed, three hundred or more.  Please take a seat up front on the side, said the pastor.  And some of you did, but still more stood in the back, afraid of the palpable wall of grief from our families, perhaps.  Or wanting to share but not intrude.

And the service began.  You required two ministers, your personal theology was complicated.  The Episcopal host priest called in Mennonite reinforcements.  We sang Amazing Grace and those who had never been to St. Martin's discovered why we hold concerts there, the acoustics were perfect and we sounded warm and glad.  Weber picked up the melody quickly, by the time we reached "Through many dangers, toils, and snares/ I have already come..." his 9 year old boy voice was clear and on-key.

We prayed.

Loretta told of you as a mother and a professional and how the instincts of one reinforced the other.  Everyone laughed in the right places as she told the story of you escorting a nervous young couple to a showing holding the pause before "so when the gunshots rang out..." just long enough to get the maximum laugh.

Susan encouraged us to be like you:

"The best way to keep Lori with us is to do what she would do, and share it with others. Take a minute and think about something Lori liked and commit to doing it in her memory.
Here are just a few of the things that come to mind for me.
Go outside.
Go camping.
Ask a girl a question, instead of telling her something. Support her as she finds an answer.
Help others find their place and love their home.
Stand in the cold for something you care about (and it is totally okay to remember to bring hand-warmers!)
And definitely eat ice-cream for breakfast at least once a year."

The Chamber Singers from school sang one of your favorite Christmas carols.  They sang it joyfully and beautifully.  And then Jarret gave the Homily.  His text was supposed to be  from Ecclesiastes but he went off-script.  Instead he preached on this poem:

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
to be,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

He said he'd heard it in the TV show Godless.  He attributed it to Yehuda Halevi, a Jewish theologian and poet from the Golden Age of Spain (for Jews), as many others have.  I think the actual author is Chaim Stern, who wrote much of Gates of Prayer, the siddur I grew up with in a reform synagogue.  Somewhere along the way, the "It is" phrases were changed to "Tis".  

But it doesn't matter.

The homily was beautiful and perfect.  We sang again, "Shall we gather by the river."  Yes. We shall.  By the river or at the wedding, or on the trip.  We will say again.  It's been too long.  it's been too long since the last time I saw you.  Was it six months?  A year?  Three?   

Amy lamented.  "God, we admit our grief, our, loss, our anger, and our deep pain over Lori's passing.  We confess that we don't now what to do without her....  we remember Lori's love of Christmas lights... in each twinkling light and each Christmas ornament, help us to remember Lori's life as fully lived.

We pledged in song to let our lights shine wherever we went.

We were blessed: "Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.  So be swift to love.  Make haste to be kind.  And as we go, may the blessing, the love, the joy, and the peace of the Holy One, who is in the midst of us be among you and remain with you always."  

The service was beautiful.  It was everything I hoped for and more.

And then the hugging and the eating and the "it's been too long."  And the "Seth, I can't believe you drove down from Boston." And "My dad fled to the car; he didn't want you to see him cry."  And all the hugging and the introductions as we found our little groups, the New Mexico folks and the Michigan folks, and Swarthmore folks and the couple that drove in from Indianapolis to sit with Lori's mom.   "It's been too long.  it's been too long since the last time I saw you.  Was it six months?  A year?  Three?"

Later,  my friend Mike finds me.  He always tells me the truth because once you have lived together and been broken together by college AND grad school together, you are obligated to never to lie one another.  "How long has it been?"  We decide nine months.  "You look like shit," he whispers in my ear as we hug.  He's not wrong.  I'm dehydrated so my wrinkles are pronounced, and my eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep and crying and trying not to cry and crying anyway.  

More hugs.  More introductions.  More It's been too long.  it's been too long since the last time I saw you.  Was it six months?  A year?  Three?  

Don't wait too long, my friends.     

It matters a lot not to. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Yule Log

Dear Lori,

         The tree is up, although with fewer ornaments than you would have liked.  On the other hand, we didn't break any.  There are lights in the windows in the living room (and in Lenny's windows too).  We are doing our best to celebrate your favorite holiday without you.
          When we started to get really serious, when we tried to figure out if we could have more than a mad love affair and build a life together, you were willing to sacrifice Easter, but Christmas was a non-negotiable.  You loved everything about it and did nothing halfway.  On our honeymoon in Italy you haunted the pop-up Christmas markets in old Roman racecourses.  In Philadelphia, you prowled the shops of Germantown Ave and the downtown stalls at City Hall.  We tried a variety of Christmas services before you found the Mennonites in their 17th century meeting house around the corner.  You loved the plainness of the hall, the lack of pretension, and the wonderful singing.
           You would listen to Christmas music year-round (being careful to check I wasn't around of course) and started building your Christmas mixes in July, listening to hundreds of songs to find just the right ones for CDs, and later digital dropboxes.  I cannot lift the plastic tub, that houses all your Christmas music it is so full.
           You were patient with me when I complained about buying too many gifts that were useless: the plastic birds that talked to each other, the CDs and concert tickets purchased because I said I liked an artist one time, stocking tchotchkes that would break by New Years.  And then you put socks in my stockings every year because you knew I wouldn't buy them for myself.
           You let me make Christmas dinners.  There was the ill-fated goose on our first Christmas in Ann Arbor together when you indulged my New York Jewish fantasies about Dickensian yules.  More recently it was turkeys or beef tenderloins with chimichurri.  You handled the roasted root vegetables, including the various many colored beets, your favorite food discovery from meeting me.  Breakfast, however, was your domain.  Your family's bubble bread recipe (never to be messed with) and various egg casseroles as your palate moved away from lil smokies and towards chorizo and green chiles.
          You loved all your old family traditions and you loved the new ones we invented together.  You loved the fact that it was a family holiday and that we always found some folks to celebrate it with, even if we couldn't be with our own families. 
           You loved that if it was a warm year, we could sit on the porch after walking home from services and listen to the church bells from the Methodists over on the Avenue and then the Anglicans up the street.  You loved driving around and looking at the lights, the more garish the better.  You loved wrapping presents and making fun of my terrible jobs and you always enjoyed watching other people open presents far more than you enjoyed opening your own.
          But you rarely told people why you were such the Tiny Tim.  You only explained it to me once, in that first conversation.  But once was enough.
          Christmas hadn't always been happy for you.  There was a Christmas season, maybe thirty years ago, where you thought you didn't want to wake up on Christmas morning.  You thought it might be easier if you just skipped out on the whole thing.  Your teen years were rough, far rougher than mine and you'd had enough.

       Instead of acting on that terrible impulse, you went and sought help.  You "went away" for a bit, and only dropped occasional hints about what happened on "the inside."  I know the walls were green in the hospital, and lots of people smoked, and you were always grateful that your dad worked a good job with spectacular health insurance that allowed you to do the in-patient stay that saved your life.
       And so Christmas was a non-negotiable.  It was your yearly affirmation that when you made the choice to live, that you'd chosen correctly.  It was your celebration of life, and the fact that you were here for another year.
       Well, who could argue with that?  And so I became a Jewish boy who celebrated Christmas, but what I really was celebrating was the fact that in choosing to live, you eventually chose me and the life we built together.  You chose a city you loved, a house you adored, a job you took great pride in, and a family that you loved deeply and well.  And every Christmas, I was reminded of how much we had done together how much your choice before I ever met you changed me for the better.  And I threw myself into it.
      And now I'm telling the story again.  I'm telling it to convince myself to embrace the season, to get up in the morning, to grade papers, and do dishes.   I'm telling it because I don't want to do any of those things.   I'm telling it because listening to the radio in the car these days is a fraught exercise in dodging songs and phrases that have me fighting back tears when I'm driving.  And I wasn't exactly a good driver to begin with.
       But I'm also telling it because I know there are other people that need to hear it.  There are teenagers and adults that are despairing.  And you were the proof that things got better.  You were in a place so dark, that you wanted to extinguish your light forever because the flickering seemed in vain.  And over the next thirty years, you nurtured the tiny candle that almost went out into a raging fierce bonfire of love.   The hurt never went away completely for you, but you managed it and every year you celebrated.  And every year your fire burned brighter. And even though your fire went out far too soon, it burned thirty years longer than it could have.  And so every Christmas, I'll remind myself to celebrate that.
     But I won't lie to you, Lori.  It's a struggle.  People keep asking me what I want for Christmas, reminding me that I need gifts too.  And I'll answer with a bottle, or movie tickets, or chocolates.  But there's only one thing I want for Christmas, and it's the one thing I can't have.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Practicing the Politics of Love

In the last two weeks, I've heard from so many people.  Some of these people are our relatives.  Some of them are friends from childhood, or college or grad school or work.  Some are former or current students.  Some are parents of my kids' classmates.  There's the folks we went to day care with, by which I mean we were parents of toddlers together, and the folks who only know me from the internet. Some of these people were clients of Lori's.  Everyone has a kind word.  There have been gofundmes and we've raised a scholarship.  I never knew just how many friends we had. 

But I should have. 

Lori and I always tried to practice a politics of love.  Sometimes, it's simple.  Back when I still took the train to and from work, before the kids started at SCH, I was coming home in a bad rainstorm.  Lori came and picked me up at the station near our house.  While I was waiting for her, I had struck up a conversation with a young man who was waiting for the storm to break before he walked the few blocks home.  When Lori pulled up, perhaps with my daughter in a car seat, I told the young man to get in and we drove him home.  He was very grateful.  Lori told me later that giving the young man a ride was something she loved about me, that it would never occur to her to do that.  We talked about why I considered it okay, and how maybe if she were alone, it wouldn't be a good idea.  My former students write and tell me about how I was there for them and now they want to be there for me. People I haven't talked to you in years are sending me notes on facebook telling me about a time I helped them out and wanting to do the same for me. 

While I've always been good with strangers, Lori was the kind of person who once she knew somebody even a little, loved them almost unconditionally.   She was a room parent at day care every year for about a decade.  Her clients loved her and wrote tear-filled tributes on facebook about how Lori was the first one to know about their happy things:  pregnancies or promotions; and their sad things, a miscarriage or a family death.  I got a note from one who told me of how Lori talked her out of buying a house until she had more money so that she wouldn't lose it if she had a setback.  She cared about her clients as people.  She was always willing to kill a deal if she sensed her clients would be harmed by it.

The politics of love can be hard.  It means telling people no; it means helping them through their pain.  It can mean asking a kid a really tough question when there facing the music for an action that hurt other people.  But it also means checking in with that kid for the rest of his school career so that he knows who to talk to when he's on the verge of making another bad decision.  It means opening your heart to the risk of rejection and hurt, and when that rejection or hurt comes, you open it up again the next time.  It means caring about people you know well, and caring about people you don't know well, and sometimes, caring about people you never met at all.

As I was getting coffee the other day in the school cafeteria, a parent I didn't know came up to me and hugged me.  For so many of my peers, this moment has shaken us.  Lori's stupid, senseless, statistically improbable death made them face their own mortality and ask what would happen to their loved ones if the unthinkable came about.

What I know is, I've been helped by so many already.  And so many people are waiting their turn.  And I believe this isn't because people pity me, it's because I've worked hard since I became an adult to practice the politics of love everyday.   It's one of the reasons I've had so much support already.  And it's one of the reasons I can face the hard tasks ahead with more fortitude than fear.

Hug your loved ones, mend your fences, do some good.  I love you all. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Learning How to Mourn

It's been a week since she died. I've picked up the ashes from the crematorium, gotten the death certificates, and had myself made the custodial parent on the kids' bank accounts. My awesome friends and relatives cleaned my house hauling away years of junk, and maybe the snow shovels. If you know where the snow shovels are, please leave a note in the comments.

Other than the snow shovels, I seem to be handling things pretty well. We've moved back into the house. Stuff is getting done: big stuff like - the cremation - and little stuff - like the laundry. The kids are coping in their ways. People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don't know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I've been training my whole life for it, for it's times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I've read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand's Cyrano and The Bible.  I've studied history and art and literature.  I've done science in the labs and in the woods and I've stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I've stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers.  So when the unthinkable happened I was ready.  I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times.  It's a handy thing to have on your side. 

This, then, is the true purpose of education.   We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant.  The calls for job training and "useful" majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable.  It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer. 

Friday, November 17, 2017


Historians are inquisitive people. We ask questions and we try to answer them. Some questions are fairly mundane. Why did Washington commit so many troops to try to keep New York City, even though it was obviously a losing cause? Sometimes the questions are harder to answer. Why did so many apparently good, upstanding people commit treason in defense of slavery? Sometimes we can find the answers. Sometimes we can only guess. But we are always driven by questions. Why? How? Why? My own research tended to be more of the how questions. How did uranium mining and the building of Interstate 40 change Western New Mexico. How did uranium miners live? How did they die? The why questions were too difficult for me. I suppose that is why I have always had a difficult relationship with religion. I am the proto-typical bad New York Jew who grew up belonging to a synagogue but attended infrequently. I did not achieve Bar Mitzvah but I did reach confirmation. I found the confirmation classes interesting, but I was more attracted to the history lessons than the doctrinal ones. I can still sing "The Golden Age of Spain" song (which for Jews is the 8th to 13th centuries). But I've always had a touch of the mystical about me. I dreamed my wife before I met her. In my dream, I did not see her, but I knew I was dating the woman who had my friend David's distinct grey Kelty frame pack with MCKEE written in large black Sharpie marker. After I met Lori, and fell for her, when she opened that fateful jar of pickles that magical summer in New Mexico, I was floored to learn that she had borrowed that same backpack for the summer. I never asked Why or How it happened that I dreamed her before meeting her. I just accepted it. The universe had plans for us. We fell in love immediately (well it took her a little longer, but not much). On our first official date, a wedding at the end of that wonderful summer, the bride asked us if we were the next wedding and we scoffed, but it must have been obvious even then. The universe had terrific plans for us. A short term move to Philadelphia turned into a permanent stay in a city that we loved deeply. I took a one-year high school teaching position and it turned into a career. We had the first of our two carefully planned children. Lori's day job as a Realtor's Assistant, became her career as she got a license. We had the second of our two carefully planned children. The universe gave us a third child despite all reasonable precautions, and we accepted him and loved him and never asked Why? Tonight, Lori left me. She left the kids. She left the earth. Because she is so young, the Medical Examiner will eventually tell us how she died. Or maybe they won't. But I will never know why she left tonight, November 17th 2017. It's not a question I can answer. I accept your thoughts and prayers. They ease my pain. The universe has been very good to me. I was lucky to born into a loving family, well cared for, my basic needs met and then some. Most people in the world, will never have what I have had. Most people in America will never have what I have. But the universe can be cruel sometimes. If the Hindus are right, I'll perhaps meet Lori again in some new incarnation. If the Buddhists are right, her energy is nourishing the world in all the good things; if the Christians are right perhaps we'll meet again in heaven. We Jews are unsure about heaven, but we are willing to entertain it, as with most things, as a possibility. I am not really concerned with the how of it all. The question I want answered is the unanswerable one: Why?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

It ain't easy being green, but it's worth it.

So this happened.

Which is pretty cool.  To get the award SCH had to complete three  "pathways" including energy.  Guess who co-lead the energy pathway last year?  This guy.   Hey, I was, and still am, an energy historian!  That expertise in the history of uranium mining comes in handy now and then.   (You can learn more about the how to become an eco-school here.)  

To complete the energy pathway, we had to conduct an energy audit of the campus.  For our sprawling campus that comprises three main buildings and a number of outbuildings across the 62 acre campus.  The way eco-schools pathways are designed did not work with the way our school functions.  How much energy do we use and what kind?  Well, some buildings are duel fuel for heat and hot water, but not all of them.  We have a massive solar array (at one point, the largest in Philadelphia) that generates electricity and we also pull some from the grid (which could mean any source mixture).   Where could we find savings?  Who knows?  We couldn't count every lightbulb in the place (I'm not sure anybody knows where they all are, and the audit only asks about inside bulbs, anyway).  So to conduct the energy audit we had to get creative.  An Upper School statistics class generated a random sample of rooms using the master room list, lower schools collected information about the rooms, middle schooler math students calculated energy usage on those rooms and kicked the data back to the stats class that then generated a range of energy use and identified rooms that were "energy vampires."  To check our data, and go beyond what was asked in the audit, we also used energy monitoring devices to target areas outside of classrooms to see their energy usage.  Very few people anticipated that the beverage vending machines were the biggest energy using devices in the school.  They use more than the printers, or any of the computer network devices.

At the time, I did not think this was a big deal, but in retrospect this was the type of interdisciplinary, real world learning that pundits and education reformers are always talking about.  Around these parts:  we just call it school.  

You can read the whole energy pathway here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Adventures in Health Care

The significant other broke her ankle a few weeks ago.  She can't drive.  Man, she drives a lot.  Picking up that slack, that's a lot of driving.  I hate driving.  

Oh yeah, her pain and suffering and being trapped in the house all day and having to up and down stairs on her butt and all that stuff sucks too.

But, man I hate driving. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

10 Things I learned this summer

1.  If you lick a fossil, it will stick to your tongue; if you lick a regular rock, you get a mouthful of dirt.

2.  All birds are descended from dinosaurs.  And, if I understand it right, all dinosaurs are descended from one genus of dinosaur that managed to survive the great die off at the end of the Triassic.  Checking with wikipedia,  I probably don't understand this right.

3.  You, your cat, and every other mammal pretty much has the same hip structure as a dinosaur.  But you are not related to dinosaurs.  This is called a conjunction.  It's when unrelated species have similar features for the same reason. 

4.  Dinosaurs are not lizards.  Repeat, dinosaurs are not lizards.

5.  Pterodactyls were not dinosaurs.

6.  I can still sleep on the ground for weeks at a time.

7.  KQAY in Tucumcari, NM is a kick ass radio station.  Where else would you hear Elvis followed by Prince followed by Patsy Cline?

8.  There is a young cowboy in Quay county who has a BA from Harvard and an MPhil from Trinity College, Dublin.  He's starting a PhD in history as I write this.  His brother is at Hillsdale.   The latter reports that the libertarians and the fundamentalists still can't get along there.  

9.  Cooking over an open fire is more fun than cooking over a gas grill, but the clean up sucks in comparison.

10.  The 40 dollar boots I bought at K-Mart in Tucumcari have held up a lot better than my Merrils which I owned about a year.  

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sometimes I write things

I've been mostly off-line teaching in an unplugged program in New Mexico.  Hopefully more posts will follow.  This is a quick hit for a story I wrote during a writing workshop with kids.  I return to civilization tomorrow.  Perhaps blogging will pick-up 


[Note bits in bold should be said together by the group if being read aloud]
Once there was a boy who wanted to touch the sky.  First, he climbed on top of his house.  He reached way up but he couldn’t touch the sky.  So then he climbed the tallest hill by his house.  He reached way up but he couldn’t touch the sky.  So he went to the next town and asked around about the tallest hill was there.  He climbed it, and it took him most of the day, when he go to the top, he reached way up but he couldn’t touch the sky.  So he asked around and he heard that if he followed the river upstream there were mountains.  So he walked along the river until he saw a mountain.  He climbed the mountain for two days, and when he got to the top he reached way up but he couldn’t touch the sky.  And he looked around at the top of the mountain and saw an even bigger mountain nearby so he went down the mountain to the valley and started climbing and it took him four days.  And when he got to the top, he reached way up but he couldn’t touch the sky.  The boy was very distraught.  He was frustrated.  He was angry.  He yelled at the sky.  He shook his fist.  He climbed down the mountain; he went down the valley, he rafted down the river, he walked back to his village and found the lowest point he could because he just felt so low.  He lay on the ground and kicked his feet in anger.  He punched his fists in frustration, he cried tears of pain.  He rolled onto his back and as his tears fell down his cheeks, it started to rain.  

And he laughed and laughed because he realized, it wasn’t his place to touch the sky, but if he waited long enough, than the sky would touch him. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

This. So much this.

Ellen Stroud was part of a fabulous panel at ASEH.  Now she covers that in a concise blog post here

Basically, it's about how to integrate Environmental History into the US survey.  I'd like to think I do a reasonably good job at this, but teaching AP this year made me backslide a bit.  I'm recommitting for next year assuming I don't forget by September.

What are your June-year resolutions for September?

Friday, April 21, 2017

I'm taking credit

So once upon a time I wrote a thing about menstruation.  Now I have two former students.  One is writing something on menstruation for a semi-reputable publication.  The other is working on and writing about it.   I'd like to think that maybe I had something to do with this, but probably not. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

More videos: I'm getting typecast

Yet another video made by my students.  If you are seeing the same cast of characters and similar tropes (the head of upper school gets attacked, "the twins" laugh evil laughs, etc.) well, good jokes get better with repetition

Friday, March 24, 2017

From Value to Values: Eduprenneurs and 21st Century Education

I recently attended a professional development day run by my school.  It was run on a conference format with sessions offered by faculty and staff, parents or other stakeholders, and outside local experts.  One of the sessions I attended was on edupreneurship and 21st century education.  Other than being an absolutely awful word, edupreneurship is an interesting concept.     The basic idea is allowing teachers to create their own products and then distribute them as they wish (via for profits, non-profits, or just give it away via personal learning networks and word of mouth).  This may not sound all that new, but in an era of standards, de-skilling, and “turn-the-page” curricula, anything we can do to get back to handcrafted curricula is a good thing.*

Part of the session involved edupreneurs from other schools doing workshop pitches for their products.  What became very clear from the pitches was that none of these teachers (some older, some younger, some thinking for profit, some thinking non-profit) were self-aware about the relationship between the language they were using and the way it effects the way it structures their products and ideas.  In brief, they were using the language of the market to talk about things that are not particularly market related.  To understand why this matters, we need to detour into a brief history of the rise of the market. 

A Brief History of Market-Based Thinking

Markets, as we understand them and live in them, are relatively recent inventions.  Prior to the rise of market-based thinking in the 1600s, most people in Europe (and in the European parts of North and South America), thought in terms of the labor theory of value and just price theory.    Taken together, these theories basically believed that a good or service was priced based on the time and skill it took to make the item or on a pre-existing fair price that was “natural” or fixed.  Thus a loaf of bread should always cost the same no matter the cost of the flour. 

Starting in the 1600s, the ideas of supply and demand began to enter circulation.    Along with it came a whole set of other practices and assumptions:  joint-stock companies, insurance, patents, copyright, futures markets, and so on.  Both the English and French Revolutions were reactions to market thinking.  When your high school history teacher told you the barricades in Paris rose and fell with the price of bread, she wasn’t wrong.  By the 1860s, the logic and language of capitalism was fairly triumphant everywhere.  Resistance to capitalism shifted from the language of just price and the labor theory of value towards socialist language around collectivism, progressivism, and/or welfare capitalism. 

Capitalism, in it’s various forms, is good for solving lots of problems.  For example, capitalism can solve issues involving the production of goods, usually via technological innovation.  Problems that capitalism could not solve directly were often solved via regulation.  Thus capitalistic tendencies towards boom and bust (often tied to currency supply or consumer demand) and worker safety and downward pressures on wages were solved via regulation of markets, through redistribution programs like unemployment insurance and social security, or through workplace regulation either directly (via agencies like OSHA) or indirectly by government supports of and regulations around unions and their formations.   These interventions generally worked within capitalistic paradigms and the language of the market and capitalism. 

However, certain problems have proved resistant to market solutions or market regulations.   It is not surprising that three of the biggest challenges today exist in areas that are resistant to capitalist solutions.  Three of these areas are health care, the environment, and education.  Thus, it is no accident that these areas are currently driving much of American and global politics.**  

The edupreneurs I saw were trapped in the language of capitalism.  They talked about “value added” and “value-proposition,” and “market identification.”  There is nothing wrong with these terms, but they are ill-suited towards solving the kinds of problems these folks were trying to solve. 

Many of these problems can’t be solved by capitalistic thinking.  Rather, they need to be solved by shifting the terms of the debate from capitalistic thinking to other modes.  Quite frankly, I have no idea what those other modes look like.  But I do think we need to think longer and harder about what they could look like. 

From Value to Values 

Putting a price tag on the value of education is notoriously difficult.  How does one price out the value of a Harvard degree versus a Swarthmore degree versus an  Eastern Michigan Degree versus a Colorado School of Mines degree.  Because college graduates from SLACs and big universities tend to pursue lots of different types of degrees, it’s hard to measure them against schools that focus only on especially lucrative careers (I’m looking at you Colorado School of Mines).  My friend Erin, who teaches philosophy to prison inmates, isn’t doing it so that these guys can get better jobs when they get out, it’s because she believes, rightly, that philosophy will help these guys make better choices when they get out.   That’s hard to put a dollar value on (although I suppose a utilitarian could come up with something but it would be pretty bogus).  Likewise, it’s far easier to put a dollar value on degrees (a BA is worth more than a high school diploma on average) but it is harder to put a value on educational experiences.  As long as we see education as something that can be quantified, optimized, and monetized, we are unlikely to develop the types of solutions that the 21st century requires. 

Therefore, we need to shift the way we talk about education.  We need to stop talking about the value of an education and start talking about the values of education.***  What are our values?  How do we transmit them?  Civic literacy is not a market value.  Hamlet is not a market value.  Teaching kids to write poetry is not a market value and any attempt to justify these practices using the logic of the market is doomed to failure.  Rather, we need to justify the practices of education (and environmentalism, and health care) by talking about the values we hope to transmit as we go forward as a society.

These are going to be difficult conversations.  We won’t all agree.  But in the end, if we shape our policies on education (and health care and the environment) based on values rather than value, we will create the education system we have wanted to create rather than the current mess we’ve created. 

*Looking for the right term here.  Handcrafted, bespoke, customized, teacher-crafted are all problematic. 

**See also religious fundamentalism in all it’s variations. 

***Special shout out to Ed Glassman for helping me see the difference between value and values

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Roaring Twenties

Today my AP US History class used this web site to explore the sound history of New York City in the 1920s.  I game them about half an hour to explore the sound map and draw some conclusions about the urban experience. 

It was a little loud in my classroom.  And some of the kids were in the hall. Go play around with the sound maps now.

What surprised you?  What did you learn? 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

School Stories - Build a Light

We had a visioning summit at school today.  The participants were students, parents, teachers, alumni, parents with kids who graduated, community members and hangers-on.  It sounds deathly.  It wasn't.  One of the exercises was to craft a story based on the question "What does school look like when it is at its best?"   This was my story.

*                                                      *                                                             *

"Stories are what we live in" wrote Kerwin Klein.  This is a story to live in.  It is a story of twins, a boy and a girl.  When they were very little they were afraid of the dark.   But soon enough, they put their night light away and started school.  At school, they learned to love learning.  The learned to love being outside and the learned to love tools.  Not just hammers and saws (although of course, hammers and saws) but all the tools.  They loved designing and coding with computers.  They loved logic and rhetoric and persuasion, the tools of argument.  They loved the woods and the city and it's people and all the different things the woods, and the city and the people could teach them.  The loved the tools of science:  microscopes, and magnifying glasses, and statistics.  And most of all they loved the tools of friendship:  love, communication, and the courage to tell their friends when they're wrong or even worse, when they were obnoxiously right.

When they got older, there were new challenges and terrors.  They were afraid about college, and new people, new places, and challenges of the wider world.  They worried about their futures, and the futures of their city, their country, and their planet.  But the learned to act on their fears and use their tools.  They looked at the darkness and were no longer afraid but thought about how to make a light.  And then with their friends, they built lights.  Some lights were little and only shined on their desks.  Some lights were big enough to light their homes and their dorm rooms as they left for college, and their first apartments.  And some lights, the lights they built with others, were big enough to shine on the whole world.

*                                                        *                                                            *

What does the light you want to build look like? 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Rome Simulation!

Oh BTW, we just finished a simulation in World 9 class.  It took 2 days.  People in the class were composite characters or groups (Julius a general, his army, the urban poor of Rome, etc. etc.).  The simulation culminated in a huge battle (with dice) wherein the Parthian King and his army was backing a class of rich landowners and Senators who had armed the urban poor of Rome and Alexandria and turned them over to the General Julius.  (The Urban Poor armies got -1 on dice rolls for being untrained).  Meanwhile, Cleopatra, the Soca, the High Priest of Rome, Julius' army (having defected), Antony, his army and a Senator who had been captured by Julius but freed by the Antony - Cleopatra coalition were aligned against them.  The merchants and a few other groups sat things out.  After the carnage, the Parthian King died on the battlefield as did Cleopatra.  Antony was on the run without an army and his Senatorial ally was dead.  One of the Senators got himself declared tyrant immediately before the battle and was busy giving out land afterwards.  It's unclear whether Julius was content with being the most powerful general or whether she was going to lead the troops against the Senate.  The Senator who declared himself tyrant played a very patient waiting game.  After the first day, he'd done almost nothing.  Most of the action involved Antony and Julius jockeying for power by allying with Cleopatra and the Parthian King, respectively.  

One of the more interesting outcomes of this iteration was that the merchants were constant targets but nobody actually got around to attacking them directly. 

Two days well spent making the point that it took money, land, and armies to rule Rome and those resources had to come from somewhere usually via expansion.  

More Market Revolution! When visuals are visual!

This is the second in a series on student projects related to the Market Revolution.  The first is here

The first project I talked about was way off rubric.  The one I'm talking about today is more typical.  Here is the project: 

You can see the five categories she chose:  economy, workplace, westward expansion, reform and gender are the same as the last examples but here the presentation is very different.  Each category gets a part of the circle and then interconnections are explained via lines and text.   The final copy that was graded was printed at school on a commercial grade poster printer on glossy paper.  It's poster-board size and is currently hanging in my room.

One of the things that you might not get is that this student is using two deep references to make this work.  First, she references Eastern State Penitentiary (a panopticon!), with the star-shape.  But there's also a nod here towards early notions of moral reform.  Specifically, the image "Keep Within the Compass"  that we looked at in class during a unit on Republican Motherhood.

This student is hoping to fix some errors in her original and then possibly market it for classroom use.  Although interested in history she is hoping to pursue a graphic design career.  However, as her work analyzed in this post shows, doing one thing doesn't mean not doing the other.    Tomrrow's post will be about the three game projects that students designed.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Market Revolution Projects #1 Bonus Tracks!

In most of our history work throughout the Upper School, we only deal with three categories of analysis* at the most at any one time.   For example, in an essay on the effects of the Mexican War on the coming of the Civil War the students might look at changing ideology around labor and the ways that ideology affected political parties and sectional divisions.  That's three categories that a student might deal with.   To move students past formulas of identity, get them used to seeing the complexity of the past, and see the interconnections between categories of analysis rather than just seeing them as separate things, I developed the Market Revolution Project.   The Project asks them to work with five categories of analysis and show the inter-relations between them while using primarily visual means. 

While my college prep students loved the assignment and often did quite well with it, my Honors students were frustrated.  The instructions are intentionally vague to promote creativity and the rubric is vague so that it's hard to work to the rubric and get an A.  Instead, the project rewards depth of knowledge, creativity, and the ability to see connections among a mountain of evidence.  (I've included the project directions below the note).  Over the next couple of days, I'll be posting examples of students who took different approaches to the project and explaining what's good about their work.

First up is a project that wasn't particularly visual.  It's a track list for a 5 CD set called "The Market Revolution".  Here are the tracks and I've added the categories of analysis the student used in each imagined CD:
Disc 1 Economy
  1. Inflation Nation by BUS
  2. Who Gave You the Right (to Charter Banks) by We the People
  3. The BUS is After Us by We the People
  4. Special Thanks to My Banks by Economy
  5. It’s Going Down by Paper Dollar Value

Disc 2 The Workplace
  1. Wheat Farmer to White Collar by Joe Schmoe
  2. See You in the Mills by Working Women
  3. Outside My Separate Sphere by Working Women
  4. Wage Rage by The Strikers
  5. Home is Where the Heart Is, Not the Workplace by The Mills

Disc 3 Gender Ideals
  1. God-Fearing Child-Rearing Dirt-Clearing Women by Separate Spheres
  2. Women of Virtue by Separate Spheres
  3. The Might of Men by Separate Spheres
  4. A Man Born to Lead by Separate Spheres
  5. It Boils Down to Nature by Separate Spheres

Disc 4 Reform
  1. BYOB by Bad Temperance
  2. Rehab by Asylum
  3. Ain’t No Way to Live by Union
  4. How Do You Spell That? by The Illiterates
  5. Celibacy or Bust by How Not to Die

Disc 5 Westward Expansion
  1. Manifest Destiny by Soulsearching
  2. Gold Rush by The Poor and Ambitious
  3. Heading West by The Cash Crops
  4. We Were Here First by The Native Americans
  5. Grass by Megafauna


You can see the interconnections in the way that she combined song titles with group names.  Also, she made a real CD with 13 tracks  on it.  This was the best one.

Actually all of them were that one.  

NB: Category of analysis is the lens through which you view the problem.  Typically students want to use social, economic, political and the left is often accused of only being interested in race, class, and gender.  What this should tell you is that there are NO STABLE CATEGORIES OF ANALYSIS.  Social groups might be a category but race, class and gender are all separate categories within social (and class is both social and economic).  Students should get to the point that they can start creating their own categories of analysis just by looking for commonalities in evidence. 


The Market Revolution Era                                                                Due:  Dec. 3rd

The goal:  To represent your knowledge of the changes that occurred during the market revolution and show how they are inter-related. 

The task:  To create a visual representation of life during the market revolution era.  The visual may be a drawing, a cartoon, a comic strip, an idea map, or another visual (check with me). 

Your visual must include information about the economy (the rise of the market, money, banks) as well as four of the following categories for a total of five categories.

·      the workplace (who does work, where, how)

·      gender ideals

·      politics/political parties

·      sectional identity

·      racial identity

·      reform movements

·      westward expansion

Reminder:  The best visuals will illustrate the inter-relationship among these phenomena.

You may have one visual or a series of visuals. 


Content will be graded for each category based on the depth of knowledge demonstrated   Content will also be graded for showing interconnections across categories. 

You will also be graded on creativity, polish, and grammar and/or spelling.