Monthly Archives: March 2013

Abandonment

The door swung open and Julianne looked up at Cheryl’s blanched face.

“Did you hear?” Cheryl asked, nearly breathless.

“Hear what?”

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone?”

“The ship…” Cheryl grabbed the remote from the armrest of the couch and clicked on the television.

“Since its first arrival in Newport, Rhode Island seven months ago, the spherical object that most believed to be some kind of space ship from an alien civilization has defied all attempts at communication, despite collaboration from the world’s top scientists. Now, without any warning, it has departed our world as inexplicably as it came.”

“Frickin BBC,” Julianne replied. “Who says ‘inexplicably’ on the news?”

“But it’s gone!”

“Yeah, imagine that,” she agreed, then shrugged. “Well, at least we know we’re not alone and all.” She reached out and snatched the remote.

“But…but…why did they leave?”

“We don’t know there was any ‘they’ at all,” Julianne countered. “It could’ve just been like a robot probe or something. You know they were always saying that on the news. God, this means we may actually hear about something else on TV for once. I mean I have no idea what Justin Bieber’s up to because all that’s been on TV is ‘the ship this’ and ‘the ship that.’ I mean, Jesus, it’s only one space ship. If they were blowing up stuff, maybe I could see this kind of coverage.”

“But…” Cheryl continued to stammer.

“I mean, CNN, sure. But E? E is wall-to-wall spaceship coverage. Come on, that’s just stupid. This is why we have different cable channels after all.”

“I just don’t understand. Why did they come? Why did they never talk to us? Will they ever come back?”

Julianne shrugged again, flipping channels. “Jesus, I’m wrong. Look, all they’re going to talk about now is ‘why did they leave.’ It’s like a nightmare.”

“I want to know. I want to know why they left!” she shouted. Julianne fell silent for a moment and raised her eyebrows. Cheryl flopped down on the sofa and looked toward the floor.

“Ask them, geesh.”

“We did, didn’t we? We asked them all the ways we could think of. Do you think…do you think they’ve judged us unworthy? Did we do something wrong?”

“There was that guy who tried to throw a tomato at it,” Julianne responded with a snorting laugh. “Imagine that. He goes to all the trouble of breaking through security and all he can think to do is throw a tomato.”

“What did we do wrong?” Cheryl repeated, staring into her own hands. “They were here. They were real. And now…now they want nothing to do with us?”

“Oh, get over it! Ships go bump in the night. Maybe they just had engine trouble and they never wanted to be here at all. Maybe it’s a hoax. Who knows. What do you care so much for anyway?”

“It’s like they said on the news. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened in human history. How can the biggest thing that’s ever happened–”

“Mean nothing?” Julianne finished. “I guess you decide the answer to that,” she added. “Oh!” she exclaimed suddenly as she clicked the remote. “Walking Dead marathon! I love this show.”

 

Drop

It’s a wet rag,
inspiration
There always seems to be another
bit of moisture
one can wring out
Yet each little splash
though unquantifiable
is melancholy
Because you know
You have to know
It cannot last forever

The Moon in Morning

You hang between them
stay in their thoughts
A brickwork phantom between this
and what was before
An artifact of things that should not have happened
A discordant note in the symphony
A glitch in nature’s rhythm
A frailty, an itch
that becomes a sore,
that festers,
that contaminates
An anomaly that always seems novel
But has really always been there
like the moon in morning

Generational Theft

It’s so easy to lose the fine print.

In a recent editorial, Geoffrey Canada, Stanley Druckenmiller and Kevin Warsh warn about the consequences of “generational theft.” The authors, claiming diverse backgrounds, nevertheless pick up one of the favorite memes of the Tea Party budget hawks and deficit wonks. Citing simple arithmetic, these men paint a stark picture of the need to cut spending to prevent what I will term an “entitlement implosion apocalypse.”

Hey, if everyone else can use loaded language, why not me?

Nevermind that the arithmetic is not simple at all and that budget projections are based on enough assumptions to make asses out of you’s and me’s from now until Judgement Day.

The budgets must be cut!

And, of course, now they have been.

In their defense, these authors do acknowledge the problems with crony capitalism that only drives greater and greater concentration of wealth. And they make one of the most important parenthetical imaginable when they say that undoing this “generational theft” must be accomplished without “sacrificing future growth (e.g., research and education).”

But that’s just it: When you make “generational theft” the headline and make research and education the parenthetical as these men have done literally and which the various politicos have done figuratively, you have set the stage backwards. The scenery’s up front and the actors are hidden from view. Enjoy the show.

The sequester, if not promptly reversed, is stealing a lot more from our progeny than most people are admitting. Without investments in tomorrow’s science and tomorrow’s citizens, our economy will stagnate. Eventually the foundation will rot away enough that even the stock vultures and their massive fortunes will waste away.

The sequester’s real casualty won’t be air traffic towers in Podunk, Idaho or casual Fridays for military contractors; it will be American competitiveness.

It really is just that simple. Just as it would be completely simple to reverse this idiotic sequester. Congress can undo the damage it has done with a single vote. Just say “oops” and buy back our future, because without the investment in research and education, we will not rise to the challenges of the 21st century.

Someone else will.

 

Culmination

The skinny faux-pines across the street bend their hungry waif tips eastward, shoved down by the wind.

I am sheltered, though, by the patio’s stucco walls–painted a color I think was called honey-dew–and the hidden structure of two-by-fours and drywall plaster. Short of a tornado, the structure will hold.

The little black dog peers off with me, just at the edge of the porch’s shadow, and wags her tail at the weather. Is she conscious of it, too? Does she feel some satisfaction at having beaten the elements? For eleven thousand years her ancestors have coddled up to ungainly naked apes for this. She’s won a great gamble.

Our tree, too, is partly protected by the bulwark of the house. The white blossoms against the purple leaves shake, but hold fast.

A dozen dead worlds look down from their orbits, surfaces scarred and pitted by meteoric calamity and geological upheaval and lit–but not well enough (or too well, I suppose)–by the same broiling cauldron of hydrogen and helium and hellish fusion.

Here, though, this has happened. So much has conspired to create this moment. Whole empires and the toil of generations. The operatic ceilings of cathedrals and the miasmatic crucibles of war after atrocity after war after armistice after collapse after renaissance. A shuffling of dominoes and a falling of cards. Toward what end?

Me, sitting placidly on the new bench seat–a steal at the warehouse store down the road for a hundred less than the others we’d looked at–and the dog’s delicate little feet on the cement, both of us staring out, watching the wind do its work in the plum leaves.

No Currents Anywhere

hovering in the center
two inches off the bottom
bordered by the white, white, too-white walls
in another reality
defined by the quicksilver film of the surface
a boundary of refraction
to a blue world
of acrid chemical tinge
and tiny bits of human detritus

This is the ocean we make
when you give us a chance

Our Lonely Vigil

The robots are digging on Mars right now, looking for dust that was once part of something alive. Thanks to their programmed diligence, we’re pretty sure that water once ran over the Martian surface, and that at least opens up the possibility that life could have existed there. “Maybe, maybe,” the scientists keep telling us. Water is exciting because here on Earth, anywhere there is water, life has found a way to flourish. That tantalizes with the question: Could it have been the same on Mars?

According to Paul Davies, author of Eerie Silence and long-time SETI scientist, that’s a pretty important question. Even if we find evidence on Mars that life once existed, though, it might not answer the most important question: Just how likely is life in the cosmos?

We know there are tons and tons of planets out there in the galaxy and some of them look a little like Earth, but just how lucky did we have to get for life to begin here? We have some viable theories about how different ingredients came together, but putting the ingredients on the counter doesn’t make a cake. (Cue the chorus of, “See, you need a cook,” but since that raises the inevitable question of just where in the heck did the cook come from, let’s stick to the science for the moment.) The process, the filters, through which matter must pass to become self-organizing, to become life, is still unknown.

Until we find life elsewhere, Davies argues, we will not know just how formidable these “great filters” between the building blocks of life and the first self-replicating formations of matter that were life’s precursors are–and that means we will not know just how crowded the universe might be.

Mars won’t really be any help at all. Unless we find evidence of life there that is strikingly different in its chemical composition from life on Earth, there will remain the distinct possibility that Mars and Earth life actually share a common lineage. It turns out that Mars’s surface settled down a lot sooner than Earth’s in the early years of the solar system–you know, four billion years ago–and might have been a safe haven for the formation of life sooner than our own Earth. It also turns out our planet and its reddish neighbor have actually exchanged a lot of material over the eons and believe it or not, a little germ of life could have survived both an asteroid impact that kicked a chunk of Mars into space, the long drift through the black, and even the cataclysmic descent to Earth (or vice versa).

So basically, we could all be Martians.

Finding life on Mars wouldn’t rule out the possibility then that we are really, really, scarily alone in the universe.

That’s why humankind’s attention (well, some of it) is also on Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter and the smallest of those discovered by Galileo four hundred years ago. We’ve known since the Voyager probes (our floating robot eyes now peeking past the edge of the solar system) that Europa is most likely covered in frozen water and that discovery opened up the intriguing possibility that beneath the ice, the tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity might be maintaining a sub-surface ocean in liquid form. Recent findings now indicate that liquid water might be periodically bleeding up to the surface through cracks in the ice. Should we put a few billion more dollars into a new robot explorer and send it to the surface of Europa? If it found life there, close to home in the grand cosmic scheme of things but definitely too far from us to be descended from the same point of origin as life here, then it would close the book on the question. We could then prepare for a Star Trek-like future of meeting a different alien species every week. If life is on Europa, cold and bleak and distant, then life is probably in every damp corner of the universe.

But if not? We will not soon have an opportunity to look directly anywhere else for life. The other planets we’ve spotted outside our solar system are too far to send our robots to. The little Voyager probes won’t reach another star for hundreds of thousands of years. We might someday be able to really analyze the spectrum of light coming from extra-solar planets and determine whether or not their atmospheres look like ours–and ours has been dramatically influenced by the presence of a biosphere–but short of SETI actually finding a signal (which they haven’t in over fifty years of looking) we may remain the only known occupants of this giant universe for a long, long time.

One wonders what it would do to our spirits to find nothing on Mars, then go to Europa and find no trace of life there either. And what if our future telescopes see only dead, barren atmospheres around the other planets in our galaxy? If such growing evidence suggested that the “great filters” were considerable barriers to the emergence of life, would we–as a species–react with despair at being so alone or would we be motivated to rise to the occasion, take seriously our role as sole known inhabitants of the cosmos?

Life’s existence, and especially intelligent life’s presence in the cosmos, is a challenge to the immutable entropy of the universe. A special kind of light in the darkness. If we are its only stewards, the only voices in the black…well, you know what I’m going to say:

We need to do a better job of tending the flame.

Seen but Not Heard

683px-Duct-tape

Internet notoriety is a peculiar thing. I’ve just been unable to learn the fate of Melissa Cairns despite several permutations of googling her name along with “tape” and “students.” You see, a few months back, Ms. Cairns was suspended from her position as a middle school teacher for a picture posted on her facebook depicting several of her students with duct tape over their mouths with the caption: “Finally found a way to keep them quiet!”

The story bounced onto my radar through casual web browsing back at the end of January. You see, it went down like this: one of her students was absent-mindedly playing around with a piece of tape–just playing around, the horror!–and ended up putting it on her own mouth for a laugh. The students got a good chuckle out of it and Cairns let the kids pose for the silly picture.

Unfortunately, her bosses didn’t get the joke and as of the article date, she was pending possible termination.

Cairns pleaded to the press during her (apparently abbreviated) fifteen minutes of infamy, “Do I think that this one mistake should cost me the last 10 years of all the good I’ve done?”

I have another question, though, for both Ms. Cairns and society at large: Was it a “mistake” at all?

Is it really so wrong to have had a moment of levity with students? As a teacher, I know the daily struggle to engage with students and building rapport through light-hearted banter and off-plan frivolity are part of the art of teaching.

Melissa Cairns didn’t do anything wrong. She was being playful with students, building relationships and trust. It’s social. It’s real. And increasingly, that’s becoming anathema to an education system obsessed with its own dysfunctions.

From zero tolerance policies to high stakes testing, schools have become a wall-to-wall freak-out zone. School administrations and boards dwell interminably on a mantra of more, more, more, better, better–crafting an expectation that every second in the classroom is like being in a pressure-cooker brewing up results, results, and more results. It’s an inhuman and inhumane view of children that neglects the realities of socialization and the psychology of learning. Anyone who violates this climate of rigor is lashed as a pariah, like Ms. Cairnes was for her innocent joke.

This hypersensitivity isn’t earnest; it’s part of the insanely imbalanced climate in today’s public schools where fun is heresy against a dogma of “standards” and “accountability.” Missing from these equations is the joy of learning. The only emotion allowed in this wasteland landscape of high stakes testing is satisfaction at having accomplished one of the benchmarks decided by the state–a narrow, monolithic yardstick that celebrates only a particular type of problem solving at the expense of so much of what makes learning wonderful.

I don’t know what you’re up to now, Ms. Cairns, but I hope you’re back in your classroom with your students, and you know what, I hope they still feel free to laugh with you, too.

Heroes and Truth

courtesy of M. Walsh

As an atheist married to a Catholic and raising (hopefully) open-minded Catholic children, I watched the ascent of the new pope with no small measure of curiosity. Pope Benedict’s crusade against the “dictatorship of relativism” was always troubling to me because the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholic digging in his heels over the abstract notion of absolute truths could bode very, very ill for peoples of other faiths and consciences. So I take heart from Pope Francis’s recent move to bless reporters silently because he recognized the likelihood of their religious diversity and was respectful toward it.

It’s a measure of consideration that is not often paid to unbelievers here in the South. Here it is not unusual for public school commencements and sporting events to incorporate prayers. Many might fault me for criticizing these traditions, but we live in a pluralistic society, a blending of many different perspectives into one meta-culture. A certain respect for that must be implicit in all our public institutions so that all citizens know this is their country, their school, their society. So it is wrong to invoke the supernatural in a ceremony or event funded by the public trust.

How wrong, though? This question is, as any good pluralist must admit, a tricky one. We’re talking about where to set the slider bar between the right of a community to define itself and the rights of individuals not to be excluded from public life. I will admit that I have never protested these episodes. I have never walked out of a graduation service because of a prayer. (Though they almost never specifically mention “Jesus” or anything specifically Christian, I still wonder how the folks in the stands would feel if the blessing’s wording was inclusive of polytheism; if the invocation referenced “the many gods and ancestors” or some such, would they then protest? I think if the average Christian mentally replaced the vague references to a “heavenly father” in these prayers with labels like Allah or Vishnu then they might begin to understand how nonbelievers feel sitting in the crowd.) Even though these sorts of things should not be part of state-funded public events, in the end, I have never felt it was a battle worth fighting.

But Pope Benedict was right about something. Though I found his attack on “relativism” troubling, there was a core of truth in what he was saying: There must be some absolutes.

Reason is one of them. The faith in our capacity to act as rational agents is foundational to the liberal principles of modern democracy. It is, I dare say, far more important as a value than even the pluralistic point of view that I’ve argued should be embraced by all members of our society.

Here in the South–in fact, in a disturbingly diverse number of communities throughout this country–provincial interpretations of Christianity often manifest outside of simple prayers; they are often militarized as part of a systematic campaign to undermine education in this country. I’m referring of course to the ongoing battle over teaching evolution in the public schools. It is a front in the culture wars that opens up again and again, from school board elections in Kansas to textbook adoptions in Texas. There is a broad movement of people who believe that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection which successfully explains the mechanism behind the fact of biological evolution is a challenge to their religion. This peculiarly American school of thought (most of the world’s Christians don’t have any trouble reconciling their faith in a personal savior with physical reality) forges forward undeterred by repeated court defeats which have consistently struck down creationist measures, from Epperson vs. Arkansas in 1968 to more recent rebuffs of “intelligent design” curriculum.

We must be clear on the parameters of this issue, though. Teaching creationism is not an affront to nonbelievers’ freedoms like the prayers at school functions I mentioned above–it is an assault on reason itself that should inspire outrage in all of us. Opposing this anti-science agenda is a cause that any of us should be willing to join at any time.

Which is why Zack Kopplin is a hero. As a teenager in Louisiana, he was disgusted by the anti-evolution rhetoric he saw in the schools. He assumed that Louisiana’s public education system must be a focal point in this struggle between rationality and creationism, so he was dismayed when he discovered that it was not. It was as if in the battle for the hearts and minds of a next generation, reason had retreated. The young people of Louisiana, who should understand the facts of biological evolution and appreciate the wonder of a biosphere taking on new shapes eon after eon under the inexorable logic of natural selection, had been abandoned by the side representing science, reason, and reality itself to the entrenched backwardness of the champions of creationism.

And that moment of discovery is when Zack Kopplin really distinguished himself as a human being. Most high school seniors might have shrugged their shoulders, grumbled, maybe even thrown up an ineffectual blog post about the situation (cough, cough), but not young Mr. Kopplin. He has launched a campaign to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act, the Orwelian name of which attempts to belie the fact that it is designed to subvert effective science education. Kopplin has also gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Michelle Bachman and garnered the written support of seventy-eight Nobel laureates.

When he discovered that no one was fighting against creationism in Louisiana, Zack Kopplin decided he would have to do it. That’s a model of activism and commitment to truth that all of us can live by. Fortunately, I don’t have to square off against my wife and children’s church over this issue. The Catholic church has been on the record since 1950 as viewing evolution as compatible with the Christian worldview, but Pope John Paul pressed further during his tenure.

The world’s largest church, then, has a clear message for believers everywhere: if you believe in God, understanding evolution is looking through a window into his workshop.