Thursday, January 31, 2008
N. is not the only person who dislikes sudden schedule changes.
Being a midwesterner at heart, I dislike missing commitments.
Even when I have good reason. So following is a photo-essay of why I missed class last night.
January 31, 2008
Dear Professor N.,
Yesterday was a most unsettling day!
This is what it looked like at about 1 PM,
as N. and I were eating lunch.
The storm clouds were sweeping across the Sandia front and into our valley. Still, the snow showers came off and on, and the temperature was about 33 degrees.
At 2 PM, the snow that had covered my driveway was melting in places.
Henry the Big Red Truck had dried himself off by basking in the sunlight that appeared and disappeared as the clouds continued to move briskly across Los Pecos Ridge. So I decided to take a shower and get ready to go. Piece of cake, I thought. I will make it to class.
But when I got out of the shower, my driveway looked like this! Yikes! The temperature had dropped to 23 degrees in half an hour! After consultation with the radio traffic reports, with my husband in town, and with the carpool driver for Machon, and after getting an e-mail from the Sandia Labs East Mountain Drive Updates, we decided that home was definitely the best place to stay. Bruce and MLC even came home early.
We settled in with a video and popcorn to enjoy the blizzard.
And then, as the temperature continued to drop, the wind came up. It stopped snowing over Los Pecos Ridge.
We could see the sky clearing to the west, even as snow continued to fall in Tijeras and in the pass. It did not seem so bad at home, but we could see that the pass would be windy and treacherous.
As the temperature continued to drop,
the cold front came through, with winds strong and fierce. You can see the snow being whipped from north to south along the trees in the high meadow.
The temperature was 16 degrees at this point, and the wind chill was such that in 10 minutes, unexposed skin would be subject to frostbite.
Our road out was drifted. I could probably have gotten into town, but I would not have gotten Henry up the hill later, when coming home. And walking two miles up the hill in this wind would have been life-threatening.
I think I made the right decision.
This morning, we had 1 degree and 5 degrees.
In the predawn, the temperature was 5 degrees above zero. The sky was perfectly clear.
And most spectacularly, Venus and Jupiter were only one degree apart, as they near conjunction in the eastern sky. In the picture, Venus is a faint dot to the left of the tree which is to the left of the right post. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you will be able to see both planets.
The weather is still unsettled. Cold, with strong winds, is the order of the day. But it should warm up tomorrow. Just in time for another storm to roll in from California this weekend.
Would you accept this excuse?
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
She has put this "E for Excellent" stamp of approval on Ragamuffin Studies!
I would like to pass it on to:
Judy Aron over at Consent of the Governed. I read this blog almost every day, and sometimes more than once in the day. This blog will give you information on what is going on in the world of politics, the politics of homeschooling, and the politics of education and children, and more, including humor.
Sandy at Junkfood Science. Whatever you think about the politics of food, you owe it to yourself to check out this blog. Sandy, a scientist herself, writes very good reviews of the studies about food and health that often get reported wrongly by the uncritical media.
I appreciate the good science writing here and the rational approach to food.
Dawn at By Sun and Candlelight. This is a beautiful and intricate blog, and Dawn writes with a quiet spirituality about nature, crafts, faith and her life as a homeschooling mother. Peace and comfort are the gifts for which I stop by frequently.
The unsettled weather is reflected in my mood.
I have an unsettled feeling:
About the weather. About the economic climate. About the politics of the nation.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
You know how on the morning after, you need to take two aspirin.
Well, here's two song parodies to help with the pain after the State of the Union.
One couldn't be embedded, so you'll need to follow the link.
I don't know about you, but I kind of felt like we have a Circle of Lies...
And it was so Depressing....
It feels like Hoover...
I am reminded of the story of Honi ha-Maegel, Honi the Circle-Drawer. He is a kind of rabbinic Rip Van Winkle. He tells a story of how he planted some carob trees, which take a generation or more to come to fruition. As he was planting, a young man said to him: "Why are you planting those trees, old one? You will not live to eat their fruit." Honi replied, "I plant for those who will come after me."
Picture by Elisheva Levin, Marin County, CA 17 August 2007
When I was growing up, I was told that my generation was the future. The future of our country, the future of our people and the future of the world. We were like the acorns that drop from the oak tree. We could grow to be fruitful or not. But now as I approach the beginning of my sixth decade on the planet, I am coming to realize that I am one of the oak branches, and it is the children that I am raising who are the future. And the world keeps on turning. As our children become our future, we hope to leave with them a lasting legacy.
As homeschoolers, we are often told by others that they cannot imagine spending so much time with their children. And, although we know we are giving up other things, such as the power career, we have a reason for educating our children ourselves. We want to pass on to them our values, our wisdom and the wisdom of those that came before us. We want to spend time with our children, and we do this to leave with them our lasting legacy.
This week, COH 109: Leaving A Legacy, posted over at Life on the Road, is up to support our efforts, and to let us share the joys of our little and not so little living legacies! Stop by and share ideas, laughter and tears--all those little moments of light and shadow--that add up to our most lasting legacy.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Today, after a whirlwind of planning, and not a few political and practical hitches, our women's Torah study group began.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
"I've been thinking," I said, as we settled into our steamy-hot, pre-Shabbat bath yesterday afternoon.
Generally, my husband Bruce gets a worried look on his face when I say this, fearing that my "thinking" is going to lead to some new and money-intensive rennovation for the house.
But this time, my thinking has to do with the focus or theme of this new semester in my doctoral program. Each semester seems to provoke a particular line of thinking in my mind, and seems to develop its own theme, as I place what I am learning into perspective with what I already know.
For my Trends and Issues in Special Education, I had just read an article by Kauffman that dealt with the inclusion movement and the (pick one) demise, repair, conversion, or reincarnation of the field of special education. And it got me thinking.
And, as I consider what kind of perspective I will bring as a graduate student in my Child Psychopathology class, I started thinking about the individuality, identity and gifts of neurodiverse people that we usually define by pathology such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Bipolar Disorder, Attention Disorders and others like this, that are essentially defined by differences in the structure and function of the brain. Thinking is added onto thinking!
The confluence of these two streams of thought seems to be coming down to some ideas I have about how in our thinking about education, we are narrowing what we consider to be normal and justifying that by wrapping ourselves in the mantle of "diversity." I was struck by the thought that what is happening in the field of Special Education with regard to inclusion seems to be particularly illustrative of what is happening in our society at large when it comes to dealing with differences. I am certainly not done with thinking about this, but I do have some ideas about what I think is happening. And I think that the concept of inclusion has moved from being one aspect of the continuum of services for special education to being an ideology of almost religious proportions in the minds of its most extreme advocates.
As originally outlined, inclusion meant that along the continuum of special education services, it was sensible to place the student with disabilities in the general education environment as much as possible. This meant that, for example, a student with severe and multiple disabilities, who might need full-day placement in a small classroom with a specialty teacher, should also have recess and lunch within the larger population of the school. But as the idea has evolved, inclusion has for some become about dismantling the continuum of services entirely, and advocating the full-time placement of all special education students in the general education classroom. To the inclusion ideologue, to provide any services in a separate setting is defined as segregation, and the argument is that separate is always inherently unequal. If those words--separate is unequal--sound familiar, they come for the landmark United States Supreme Court Case, Brown v. the Board of Education, which was the school desegregation decision.
It sounds very egalitarian. All children should, they say, have the same educational experience, in the general education classroom, and all necessary services to children with disabilities should be delivered in the general education classroom. This idea is justified by the argument that disabilities aren't really disabilities, and that all of us are fundamentally the same, really, and have the same needs. But when this concept of inclusion is married with the standards movement, which insists that every child should be making exactly the same achievements at the same age, we come to the absurd conclusion that we can mandate equal educational outcomes for all. This is clearly different from the notion that Brown v. Board was intended to ensure equal educational opportunity for all. (This last has problems of its own, and you can read a perspective of what they are here).
And what is really quite interesting--at least to me--is that all of this insisting that everyone is the same is being done in the name of diversity. It makes me wonder if the people who wrap themselves most tightly in the mantle of the diversity movement are the same people who are most afraid of acknowledging that there are real differences among human beings. (For more of my thoughts about this, you can go here).
And so, I am thinking.
I am thinking that it is very interesting that those who cry out the loudest about their respect for diversity, actually want to treat every person as if he or she is exactly the same as every other person. As Thomas Jefferson said, " Remember, first that the greatest inequality is to treat unequal things equally..." (Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787).
I am thinking that it is very interesting that the ideology of "no difference" in education arises just as the sciences of neurobiology and genetics are demonstrating the fundamental physical nature of differences among human beings in the brain as well as the body.
I am thinking that a denial of differences among people is a denial of individuality, which is defined by differences. And that if there is no individuality, then it could be argued that there is no need for individual rights. This kind of thinking could lead to a conception of group rights, a kind of fascism or collectivism that strikes at the very heart of the American ideal of individual rights inherent to each person.
I am thinking that it is also very interesting that this denial of individual differences comes at the same time that "Aspies" and other neurodiverse people are finding their own voices. They are declaring that they have their own cultures and their own appreciation of who they are--that their neuro-atypicality is part of their identity; that they don't want to be cured of it, that they like their differences. (See, for example, Daniel Tammet's book, Born on a Blue Day, or Susanne Antonetta's book, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World. Or go to Aspies for Freedom, a website devoted to these ideas).
Somehow, all of this thinking is going to come together and gel with another train of thought, about what I call the narrowing of normal--which I have yet to write about--and I don't know yet what kinds of conclusions I am going to reach, and how they will affect my direction in my doctoral program.
Right now I am...just thinking.
Friday, January 25, 2008
One of the more frustrating aspects of educating a child with Asperger's Syndrome (AS),
is his antipathy towards change.
N. wakes up with a plan in his mind.
It seems to be based on the day of week, his routine, and his mood for the day.
And like most people with AS, N. is very resistant to any change in his plans.
Normally, I handle this problem by adhering to routine and discussing any changes ahead of time. But sometimes changes in routines, illness and weather considerations make this very challenging. This week we have had a confluence of all three, and N. and I had a rocky week with respect to our learning schedule as we both had to make adjustments: N. to his schedule and me to my expectations.
This week, we had originally planned to have our usual beginning of the week routine on Monday, and work on some math, even though it was MLK day. But our plans were changed on Sunday afternoon, when A.'s mom called and told us that they had a household emergency due to frozen pipes. "Would it be alright if A. stayed overnight on Sunday night, and spend the day on Monday, when he would not have school. Of course I said that would be fine. It is really important for N. to develop a few close friendships, and this is the first one of his adolescence. I know that such friendships are likely to continue over a lifetime, too. It is also important for N. to learn to make adjustments to his routine in order to help out friends and neighbors. He needs to know that stuff happens and inevitably will change that rigid schedule he has in his mind. So, of course, we did not do math on Monday, which has been our routine. I told N. that we would do it on Tuesday (when he does Kamana and reading) instead.
On Tuesday morning, though, N. woke up with a sore throat, cough and general malaise. He had that virus that has been going around. So he slept all morning, then lounged around, reading, while I pushed lots of fluids all afternoon. He did not even feel like going to Taekwondo that evening, a sure sign that he was sick. He was feeling a little better by Wednesday afternoon, so he did go to Taekwondo and Machon that evening. And here is where we ran into our next schedule challenge.
Wednesday evening, I had my first university class, Special Education 615: Trends and Issues in Special Education, a doctoral seminar that goes from 4 - 6:30 PM. This changed how we deal with the Machon carpool. Last fall, I would take N. into Taekwondo, and then whoever was driving would pick him up and take him to Machon. If I was driving, I would pick up the other boys early, and they would wait and do homework during Taekwondo. Now we had an added complication. I explained it ahead of time to N. I would drop him off at a branch library in town. He could get his books for the week and read, and then Bruce would pick him up an hour later and take him to Taekwondo. Then the carpool parent would pick him up and take him to Machon. Since this was worked out pretty well ahead of time, after his initial anxiety about the change, N. handled it fine. But his usual routine at Machon was broken because they had decided to hold an all-school Tu B'Shevat Seder. This put N. out and he came home rather grumpy and silent because I had not prepared him for that. I wasn't informed myself, so I couldn't tell him ahead of time. I have tried to get the powers-that-be at the synagogue to inform me of such changes, but despite my best efforts, they really don't 'grok' the importance of it.
On Thursday, we had the confluence of two things that changed our whole routine. One was the first meeting of my Child Psychopathology class, from 7 - 9:30 PM. This conflicts with N.'s Thursday evening Taekwondo class, which runs from 6:45 - 7:45 PM. I did make plans to deal with this, but then we had warnings of incoming weather, so I decided that this would be a good day to take N. to the noon Taekwondo class. So after breakfast, I explained the change to N. He was quiet on the ride into town, and while we were waiting for the class to begin, I had to deal with silence punctuated by sighs, and general attitude. Even the Taekwondo Master noticed. However, after he got into class, and had stretched out, he seemed to adjust. In our conversation on the way home, N. told me that he needed more time to adjust to fact that he would not be working out with his usual group, and that my prodding him to talk was interfering with that adjustment. In other words, he was telling me to leave him alone while he adjusts instead of trying to pull him out of the attitude.
Of course, he's right. So often, as a parent, I feel that I must try to make him behave as if he is happy about something, rather than just letting him have his mood.
The more I meddle, the more morose he gets, and the longer it takes for him to adjust.
Sometimes, the least said, the soonest mended.
Today (Friday), though, I became anxious about the math.
It seems that if we don't adhere to our Monday routine, the rest of the week gets out of whack as well. We normally do math together on Mondays and Wednesdays, and on the Fridays that Bruce works. So I decided that since we had not done it on Monday or Wednesday, that we would do it today. To make matters worse, I now have the cold, so I decided to just have N. work independently. I determined that he should learn to use his new Math Explorer calculator--especially the fractions function.
I became anxious.
Notice who was doing all the action here.
What was really happening was that I was unilaterally moving from being N.'s unschooling guide on the side, to the sage on the stage. It was all because I sometimes get nervous about whether we are making any educational progress. This happens when my routine is changing.
N. is not the only person who has to adjust.
Naturally, when I informed N. of my decision, there was a problem. It was manifested by silent resistance to my plans, and then the adolescent signs of moodiness: slammed objects, big sighs, and rolling eyes. It was clear that even though N. had the calculator in hand, and the instruction manual open before him, he was not going to learn to do the operations.
We had the following conversation:
Me: "So, I see that you are not going to learn this today."
Me: "I am worried that we might be getting behind in Math. If you want to take classes in a few years, you'll have to learn this now."
Me: "I see that I am messing with the schedule in your mind."
Me: "Could we plan to do this later today?"
N: "Actually, I had a plan for today. Today is Friday and Bruce is home. So I was going to go out and swing for a while (he still needs this to calm his sensory sensitivities) and then I was going to do some tracking and work on Kamana. Then I was going to practice archery. I was planning to learn the calculator on Monday and then do the next lesson, too."
Me: "I see."
I really did. I had not only unilaterally made plans without him, but I had completely disregarded his expectations of following our usual routine, which had been messed with for the entire week. We had unexpected changes at the same time that we were making planned adjustments. He had dealt with it pretty well, but now he had reached his limit.
It was my turn to adjust.
Me: "Okay, I think your plan is reasonable. I see that you have thought about the math, and that you have a plan for it. I'm sorry that I did not consult you before making plans. You see, sometimes I get anxious when a lot of my routines are upset, too."
N: "I know, Mom! Believe me, I know!"
Another episode in the annals of unschooling myself!
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Tu b'Shevat, our Rosh Hashana ha-Ilanot, our New Year of Trees, the Jewish Arbor day.
On the 15th day of the month of Shevat, the mystical rabbis of Safet say, the new waters of spring start rising in the trees.
This day is the birthday of trees, and we count age in years from this day.
So, in honor of the holiday just past, here is a celebration of trees throughout the seasons.
In winter, some trees sleep,
but the evergreens, though covered in snow,
still use the sun's energy to feed themselves, albeit slowly.
And they are still tirelessly giving oxygen to the atmosphere.
Even clad in snow, they still provide cover to animals,
and beauty to the forest.
During the long days of summer,
the trees give us shade,
and the cool breezes blow through them,
bringing welcome relief from
the heat of the sun.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Today, January 22, is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court of the US case in which a woman's right to choose abortion as a medical procedure was upheld and state laws against it were thereby overturned.
Personally, I have not ever been in a position in which abortion was a consideration. Indeed, my problems with fertility have all been from the standpoint of not being able to carry pregnancies to term, and I have thus endured multiple miscarriages. At the same time, I have sat with women friends who have had pregnancies that threatened their lives, or that, for reasons of genetics, or development, were not viable for life. In these cases, I supported their decisions for medically induced abortion. My personal moral reasoning on this issue comes from my Jewish understanding of life, death and the rights of the individual.
Before I begin to discuss Jewish law and abortion, and the formation of my personal ethics about it, however, I want to be up front. With respect to US law, I support the right of women to reproductive choice. And I do not consider the death of a fetus to be a matter for government interference. This is because I believe that the constitution protects the rights of individuals and I do not hold the unborn fetus to be such. My reasoning for this is that the fetus is biologically a part of the mother, and the mother is the individual with the right to life. She has the right to protect that life and the right to determine whether to take risks to it when making decisions about healthcare and the child she carries. If a fetus is granted the status of an individual under constitutional law, what do we do when the interests of the fetus conflict with those of the mother? Should we force a woman to undergo life-threatening surgery in order to save the fetus? I would say that in that respect, the woman's interests are paramount. It is her body and her life and she has the right to determine her own fate, even when she is pregnant. It would be a violation of her right to life and self-determination to require her to sacrifice her own life for that of the unborn baby.
But back to Jewish law and abortion. Or maybe I ought to write "on with Jewish law and abortion" because really, even my idea that one person cannot be forced to sacrifice her own life for another, comes from my understanding of Jewish law.
Actually, Jewish law itself is nuanced when it comes to the termination of a pregnancy. It cannot be used to support either of the polarized positions shouted across the trenches on the battlefield of the culture wars. But then, I think most Americans have a more nuanced position as well. See for example, Doc's post for today.
Before I go further, though, I need to tell you that Jewish law is case law (causuistry) which means that decisions are made based on the circumstances particular cases. A decisor of Jewish law, when presented with a question, will argue the position based on law, precedent and consideration of the particular circumstances. Finally, the movement of Judaism a person adheres to will also affect her view of Jewish law. In Reform Judaism, for example, an individual is ultimately responsible for learning and choosing the ritual practice, and it is not considered binding beyond that choice.
Jewish law assumes that pregnancy is a good thing in most circumstances. It assumes that most people want to have children and that children are a blessing. But Jewish law also recognizes who it is that takes the risks in childbearing. Therefore, even among the most orthodox rabbis, it is recognized that it is the man who is commanded to be fruitful and multiply, and not the woman. The woman is not so commanded because it is understood that G-d delights in life, and would not command a person to risk her own life. Every individual's claim to life is equal. (For example, if you and I were lost in the desert and there was only enough water to see one of us safely home, Jewish law would not command me to sacrifice my life for you. Certainly, one person could choose to do so but cannot be commanded to do so). This is why a woman's use of birth control is not forbidden by Jewish law, although a man's use of it could be, depending on whether he had fulfilled the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. This would be determined by the man upon consultation with his own rabbi and his own conscience. (In the Reform Judaism, it has been said that human beings have fulfilled this commandment very well and that part is done. Others would disagree).
In the case of an unborn fetus, however, another principle of Jewish law also applies. That is that the fetus is not recognized as a person with rights under the law until the head is completely born. Prior to that, the fetus is part of the mother. This does not mean that Jewish law would sanction abortion on demand. It does not, because it assumes that the parents of the child do have an interest in having children. However, in the case where the fetus threatens the mother with death or morbidity, it is deemed to be a rodef, a pursuer. In Jewish law, the rodef forfeits all rights to consideration. In such cases in which the mother's life is in grave danger, a rabbi would not only permit an abortion, but would say that it was commanded because the mother, being a person, has the right to life and the fetus, not having been born, does not. The mother, therefore, has an obligation to preserve her own life.
In cases where the fetus poses a threat to the mother's health, an abortion may be permitted or not, depending on the circumstances of the case. In these cases, the woman would most likely go to her rabbi, who would then either refer her to a rav (a scholar who decides Jewish law), or counsel her about the situation. Much here would depend on the rabbi and the particular philosophy of Judaism that is being practiced.
Finally, with respect to cases in which the fetus will be born with some grave condition that is incompatible with life, or poses a grave threat to security of the family, an abortion may or may not be permitted. In different cases, in different parts of the world, in different movements within Judaism, these questions have been decided differently. Even among the orthodox poskim (decisors), different rabbis have tendered different decisions.
I believe that the choice to induce abortion is a grave moral decision. In such cases, I would personally choose to go to my husband, my rabbi, and my doctor and try to determine what is the best, and most moral choice for me and for my family. I do not want the government to a priori determine these things for me. Ultimately, it is my life that might be at stake. It is my family that will live with the consequences of such a choice. I am the person who must stand before the Eternal and respond for my moral decisions. It would be wrong and immoral for the government to take that responsibility from me. This is why I oppose the attempts of well-meaning people to impose their religious morality on me or on anyone else.
There are some who will argue that not all women take this responsibility and make this choice with equal gravity. It is not my place to determine this. Just as I want to keep government interference out of my life, I want to keep it out of the lives of others as well.
The constitutionally protected rights to life and liberty apply to all or they apply to no one.
There are those among us who would like to think that they have a particular entitlement to determine the extent of liberty allowed the rest of us. They would like to tell you and me who we can marry, how many children we ought to have, what health care decisions we must make, and what world-view we must hold. Whether they are on the left or on the right, they are tyrants. Whether they seek to rule us in small matters or large, in personal decisions or public policy, we have the obligation as free men and women to resist them.
I do not ask anyone else to practice my religion, or to abide by its laws and customs. I recognize that others have the right to practice their own religion in peace. But I expect that those of other religions respect my rights as well. American patriotism begins with respect for the rights of all.
The homeschoolers are coming, the homeschoolers are coming!
A very large edition of COH is up over at Alasandra's blog.
It is the American Literature Edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling.
Thoreau's Cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts. Photo by E. Levin, July 15, 2004.
What can be more American than a discussion of whether homeschoolers are weird? But some of the greats of American Lit were definitely considered.... well, a little 'off'. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and of course, Henry David Thoreau! Although some in the carnival say we are not strange, there are others who want to embrance our differences as truly American.
I can see that there is going to be some really good reading ahead! Hawthorne, Thoreau, Ayn Rand...
Hmmm. I think I'll be needing another pound of coffee!
Monday, January 21, 2008
Tomorrow is also Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of Trees, which is the Jewish Arbor Day, and has become a time to consider our dependence on Earth's ecology. It is therefore doubly fitting that I finished reading Brian Fagan's The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850. (Basic Books, New York, 2000) just this morning.
In honor of Tu B'Shevat, then, as well as a commemoration of 5 weeks in which I got a lot of miscellaneous reading done, I thought I'd discuss this book today on my blog.
I first heard about a climatic event called 'the little ice age' when I was working on a BS in Geology in Illinois in the early '80's. It was discussed briefly in the Historical Geology course I was taking, as well as later, in an Astronomy class that I took for fun. I knew it as a period of colder climate that affected primarily the northern hemisphere during the early modern period, that it was preceded by the Medieval Warm Period and followed by the Modern Warm Period, in which the earth's average temperature once again is stable, high and climbing. There was some speculation at the time that changes in ocean currents in the north Atlantic Ocean may have been a cause of the colder period that followed the Medieval Warm Period. Later, when I was studying Paleoclimatology under Dr. Roger Andersen at UNM, I heard more about how changes in water salinity in the north Atlantic could have stopped the warm Gulf Stream from crossing east south of Greenland, thus affecting the climate of Europe during the little ice age. So when I saw Fagan's book toward the bottom of the stack on weather at our little East Mountain Branch library, I thought I might find out more about this interesting period in European and Earth history.
I read the preface at the library, while waiting for N. to finish his selections. I tend to do this in order to decide which books that I have taken off the shelves are really worth checking out and lugging home. What really intrigued me was that Fagan promised the reader that he would not only discuss the little ice age in terms of the science we have now, but also the impact it likely had on European history, as well as how ongoing climate change might continue to affect us. Fagan wrote:
"Humanity has been at the mercy of climate change for its entire existence. Infinitely ingenious, we have lived through at least eight, perhaps nine, glacial episodes in the past 730,000 years. Our ancestors adapted to the universal but irregular global warming since the end of the Ice Age with dazzling opportunism. They developed strategies for surviving harsh drought cycles, decades of heavy rainfall or unaccustomed cold...(but t)he price of sudden climate change in famine, disease and suffering, was often high." (Preface p. xii).
Fagan then discussed the current state of the science of reconstructing the climatic fluctuations and what that means for what we know, saying: "...the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze. Think instead of an irregular see-saw of rapid climatic shifts, driven by complex and still little-understood interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean...the Little Ice Age was an endless zigzag of climatic shifts, few lasting more than a quarter century. Today's prolonged warming is an anomaly." (Preface, p. xiii).
I was hooked! This was going to be really interesting, especially given all of the controversy about global climate change in our discussion of the politics of the day. So often, as I have discussed here, we tend to think of the past climate as if it was one long now, with change only happening in the future, and we think in very short periods of time.
Fagan structured the book in four parts, each about a particular time period related to the subject, and each part is divided into chapters that discuss the the climatic shifts, the science behind their causes as we know them, and the related historical events and social changes that were affected, at least in part, by the climate. Part I, Warmth and Its Aftermath, gives information about the Medieval Warm Period and the social and agricultural activities that it affected, such as the Norse exploration of Iceland, Greenland, and North America (Vinland), and the increasing agricultural use of lands northwards and at high elevations in Europe. He then discusses the North Atlantic Oscillation (the NAO, similar to the ENSO cycle of the Pacific) and how the stability of the NAO contributed to the warm period and how the predictability of the climate encouraged the medieval European social structure called "the Full World" by the French. He then discusses how, by the end of the Medieval Warm Period, the NAO was weaker and more unpredictable, leading to the Great Famine of 1315 - 1321 signaled the beginning of the instability of the Little Ice Age.
Part II, The Cooling Begins, starts with a discussion of the 'climatic see-saw' that characterized the Little Ice Age. Here Fagan outlines the evidence for changes in climate found in tree rings and ice cores, and ties this information to events such as volcanic eruptions, and descriptions of storms and bad weather. He then outlines how these climatic changes first affected trade in the North Sea and with Iceland and Greenland, the breaking of the Hanseatic League monopoly on cod fisheries, and the abandonment of the Greenland Western Colonies. He also discusses the development of ships better able to withstand storms and ice, as well as the economics behind these changes and how they were precipitated, in part, by the climate see-saw.
In Part III, the End of the 'Full World,' Fagan turns to the organization of European agriculture at the end of the Medieval Warm Period, and the changes brought on by the onset of an unpredictable climate. He begins this part with a description of subsistence agriculture and what it means: farmers grow enough to feed a small number of people for that year, and they may harvest enough to survive one bad year, but no more. Fagan then goes on to explain how the rapid climatic shifts and many bad years during the Little Ice Age resulted in an agricultural revolution in Europe, but not all at once and not for everyone. Political structures and custom, as well as the varying impact of the unpredictable NAO on different regions, had much to do with which parts of Europe developed more intensive commercial agriculture and when. The Low Countries and England, both politically more innovative, did so first, and France, with its entrenched nobility and top-down decision making was dead last. The Little Ice Age, Fagan says, did not in itself cause the violence of the French Revolution, but climatic shifts resulting in a series of bad harvests had a hand in the timing of it. To me this part was the most compelling in the book, because in it, Fagan related events to a much more precise understanding of the climate at the time, for in discussions of more recent events, records using modern measurements of temperature and precipitation were available. This part ends with descriptions of two catastrophic events that came near the end of the Little Ice Age: the Year without a Summer brought on by the eruption of Tambora, and the 'Great Hunger' of the Irish Potato Famine, brought on by a combination of climate, oppressive political rule and indifference of the English, and the establishment of monocultural subsistence farming in Ireland.
Fagan concludes the book in Part IV, The Modern Warm Period, with a discussion of what we do and do not know about the causes of the current global warming. Currently, he says, the data show that we are experiencing warming equivalent to the Medieval Warm period, and thus can expect to see vineyards in Britain, and the movement of arable land northward and to high elevations. But is this the result of the cycle of warming and cooling that the earth has experienced since the end of the last glacial period, or does human activity (increasing greenhouse effect due to the burning of hydrocarbons) play a major role now? The answer, Fagan says, will not be definitively know for possibly 30 more years, although the evidence points to an increased role for human activity. This is because we are only now beginning to understand the role of solar activity (sunspot cycles--minimums and maximums, as well as changes in solar radiation) in producing earth's climatic cycles. (You can find more about this topic here). I found this little discussion compelling, and I want to share it with you:
"What form will this (new era of climate change) take? One school of thought...is serenely unfazed by global warming. Gradual climate change will bring more benign temperatures...milder winters and more predictable weather--much like earth in the time of the dinosaurs. Humanity will adjust effortlessly to its new circumstances, just as it has adjusted to more extreme changes in ancient times.
"The record of history shows that this is an illusion. Climate change is almost always abrupt, shifting rapidly within decades, even years, and entirely capricious. The Little Ice Age was remarkable for its rapid changes...(and) the same pattern of sudden change extends back to the Great Ice Age of 15,000 years ago, and probably to the very beginnings of geolocical time." (p. 213).
The very last paragraphs of the book describe how glacial melt-water flowing into the North Atlantic 11,000 years ago completely shut down the warm oceanic conveyor currents, and stopped an earlier warming period "in its tracks." This created the Younger Dryas, a 1,000 year long cold period that brought Europe to near-glacial conditions. It happened rapidly, within a decade or two, and was a complete climatic shift.
Fagan says: "Even if the present warming is entirely of natural origin...we and our descendents are navigating uncharted climatic waters. In that respect we are no different than medieval farmers or eighteenth-century peasants, who took the weather as it came. Today we can forcast the weather and model climatic change, but globally we are still as vulnerable to climate as were those who endured the famine of 1315 or the storms of the Spanish Armada...The vicissitudes of the Little Ice Age remind us of our vulnerability again and again..." (p. 217).
It will take me some time to really chew over the lessons of the Little Ice Age, its impact on history, its warnings for the future. But I can say now that one thing that made this book so fascinating and so compelling to my thought, was that Fagan did not, in the end, attempt to give a definitive answer about global climate change and its trajectory and causes. Nor was he overly prescriptive in what we ought to do, if anything, to meet its challenges. Rather, he shows us through eyewitness descriptions, science, literature and art, how suddenly, how irrevocably the world as we know it can change, and has changed. Indeed, when we face an unknown future, it's always "the end of the world as we know it."
Sunday, January 20, 2008
...But should you let them?
Last week I was sympathizing with friends in Connecticut about plans for new regulations that would interfere with families over the first thousand days of life in that state. For more information on those plans, check out this entry over at Consent of the Governed. Imagine my surprise when yesterday I opened the paper to read of a similar plan in New Mexico.
Yes, folks, the great State of New Mexico, where it takes 20 years to get a bridge built across the Rio Grande, wants to authorize home visits to new families by social workers, as well as mandatory health insurance ("Can you say 'corporate welfare,' junior?"), and pre-school classes for every four year old in the public schools. All because those poor people don't know what their children need.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether it is the job of the state to do all of these things, ask yourself honestly, do you think the State of New Mexico, where the high school drop-out rate is one of the highest in the nation, is competent to raise your kids? Given what I read in the paper, the whole idea that the state wants to interf...er, 'help me' raise my kids scares the living daylights out of me!
It scares me even more as I read other stories about how our local and state governments function. Is the great State of New Mexico going to help me teach my kids ethics and morality? Like how to solicit bribes, for example, which happens regularly in the state insurance commission where our public servants protect citizens by making small regulatory infractions "go away" if large contributions are made by insurance companies to the commissioner's favorite charity? You know, the one that he controls? Or perhaps they will teach my kids how to accept kickbacks for contracts to build public buildings, like the county courthouse? Or perhaps, they'll show us how to teach our kids to read and write by siphoning off most of the money intended for classrooms to buy swank new offices for the superintendents and middle management of the government schools?
No, thank you, State of New Mexico. I really don't want you to raise my kids for me. In fact, I want to keep my kids as far away from the antics that regularly occur in the Round House as I can. And anyway, isn't there a law against being a corrupting influence on a minor? I sure wouldn't want to have to bail you out of jail for that. I am running out of money after paying for the lawsuits regularly filed against the State.
I am no fool. You are going to come to me on April 15th and hold me up for the funding to pay for all of this, as well as the bribes, kickbacks and lawsuits that go with your corrupt and dissolute lifestyle. The best thing you can do to help me with my kids, State of New Mexico, is to reform your evil ways and demonstrate to them the beauty of repentence. From a distance, at that. You can let us New Mexican families keep our money so that we can raise our own kids. We know what they need. We just need you to get out of the way so that we can do it.
Friday, January 18, 2008
We got five inches of snow last week. And the temperature has not got above freezing since then. But the snow looks now like less than five inches, and it is ragged and crunchy where the sun shines on it. But if the temperature has continued well below freezing, then what happened to the snow?
It's a very good question. I really like it when N. asks questions like that. Technically, N. is doing science through his Kamana II studies, which is mainly the ecology of the Sandia Mountains, as well as related natural phenomena. But weather and climate are part of the local ecology.
The answer is not magic, it is sublimation. On earth, matter exists primarily in three states: solid, liquid, and gas, listed here in order of increasing energy. A fourth, and very energetic state of matter, plasma, is not so common on earth, but is very common in the universe.
Normally, we think of snow--a solid state of water--as being removed by melting to become liquid water, which happens when the temperature gets above 32 F (0 C), which is the freezing point for water.
So what is happening in the picture on the right, where there is no water--and, in fact, the temperature was 8 degrees F, which is well below the freezing point? Shouldn't the snow just hang around as a solid until the temperature gets high enough for a phase transition from solid to liquid?
In two words, not always.
Sometimes, when the vapor pressure at the surface of the solid is lower than the triple point for that substance, the whole liquid state is skipped. The state transits directly from a solid to a gas. This kind of phase change is called "sublimation."
Here, in our desert mountains, we lose a lot of snow to sublimation because the air is not capable of holding very much moisture due to altitude. Nor does it retain heat well, because of how dry it is.
This means that on a sunny, very cold day when there is snow on the ground, the sun hits the surface of the snow and as it reflects back, it warms the air above it. This lowers the vapor pressure at the surface of the snow, so that sublimation occurs. Sometimes, when the light is right, you can actually see the waves of water vapor coming off the snow. As sublimation occurs, the snow becomes pitted and crunchy, not from melting and refreezing, but from sublimation.
In the picture, you may notice that the dirt now visible due to loss of snow from sublimation is frozen, and quite dry.
This continued very cold and clear weather due to a high pressure parked over the Four Corners region means that we will not get a lot of mud from melting of this snow cover.
And the 'shoe yekke' in me likes that. This means reduced vacuuming and mopping and washing of rugs.
On the other hand, this very common way for the snowcover to disappear also means that we do not retain as much water in the soil, perpetuating the dryness of our desert mountains.
Even on our morning walk.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
This is the final part of the Machon issues discussion. Here are links to the 'whole megillah' if you want to follow in order: Part I, Part II, and Part III.
The concept of Positive Behavioral Supports (PBS) is derived from the not-particularly-new idea that successful student behavior is linked to the host environment. It is really a philosophy about behavior, as well as a value system or to put it Jewishly, the derech eretz, (the way of the land) that influences how a person will act in a particular place. The point of developing such derech eretz is to reduce disruptions by developing a culture of respect, responsibility and safety and thus educate beyond the particular environment in order to inculcate the utmost virtue for the children and prepare them for living in the world.
Derech eretz can also be understood to mean "the way things are done here," and if you think about it, what is really being implied is a series of rules--spoken and unspoken--that everyone follows reasonably well in order to create an environment conducive to the aims of the place, whether it is a family, a religious organization, a school, or a nation. These rules can become complex when an environment has multiple purposes. For example, a synagogue has three overarching functions. It is a beit knesset--house of assembly, a beit midrash--house of study, and a beit t'filah--a house of prayer. Each of these purposes requires people to assume different roles and each has particular rules. For example, when you enter the beit knesset, you may be coming to meet and debate, to argue and come to consensus, and at that time you will use a different voice than when you come to study or to pray. There are also overarching rules that govern behavior within the Jewish community at all times, whether you come to pray, to assemble, or to study. And much of the derech eretz is flavored by culture going back centuries. In this particular synagogue, the flavor is a blend of Jewish sensibilities coming from the Askenazi tradition, classical Reform Judaism, as well as something that is unique to New Mexico. All of this must be taken into account to develop a system of successful behavioral supports for this place.
And when considering rules, it is really important to remember that all rules are taught. Some are taught explicitly and some by example, but people do not just know them through telepathy. For example, since he was a baby, whenever N. was brought to a ceremony or worship service, we put a kippah (yarmulke) on his head. (We had lots of fun keeping the Noah's Rainbow kippah on his head during his bris--ritual circumcision--but we started with it on). He saw others doing the same: I cover my head with a scarf when I light candles for Shabbat and Yom Tov, Bruce wears a kippah at the Shabbat table, MLC got a beautiful knit kippah to wear at her Bat Mitzvah. Eventually, though, he got the idea that Jews cover their heads when they pray, eat or do something 'Jewish.'
The point is that positive behavioral supports requires that rules be explicitly developed to match or transform the culture of a place, and that they must be also be explicitly taught. People cannot follow a rule if they do not know what the expected behavior looks like. Further, it is important for those modeling and enforcing rules to remember Buddha's encounter with the Sitar master.
A Story: One day, as Buddha was meditating under the Bo tree near the river Ganges, he heard a boat coming by. On the boat, a Sitar master instructed his student: "If you pull the string too tightly it will break. If you leave the string too lose, it will not make a sound." And that is when Buddha discovered the lesson of the middle way.
In making and enforcing rules, the Sitar rule applies in this way. You don't want to be so rigid that you break the student, but at the same time, you do not want to be so loose that you are unpredictable. You want to have consistency and room for negotiation. But the consistency comes first. Establishing consistency is, in a sense, an establishment of a common vocabulary with which future negotiations can be accomplished. For example, we established the "rule" that Jews cover their heads when they pray through consistent practice. But as N. grew, he began to notice that some Reform Jews do not do so. When he asked about it, we explained that in Reform Judaism, each person chooses which ritual customs he or she will follow upon becoming a Jewish adult. We also introduced the idea of minhag ha-makom, which means "custom of the place." N. learned that when we attend services at Chabad, the kippah is not optional. We continued to reinforce the practice of wearing the kippah, however, until N. became Bar Mitzvah. Consistent practice of the rule came first, and was followed by negotiation of the practice for Reform Judaism. So far, N. has chosen to continue to wear the kippah.
Another important practice when it comes to modeling rules is to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see. It can be as simple as saying, "N., you are getting to be such a mensch! You got your kippah on all by yourself!" This does two things. First, it lets the child know that doing the expected behavior feels good and right. The other is that, if he is behaving as expected, he cannot simultaneously be behaving in unwelcome ways. This is often called "Grandma's principle." If you give the kid the toy you want him to play with, and then reward him for it by playing with him, then he cannot also be, say, dumping your shampoo down the drain. Sometimes parents call this the "child psychology" method.
For most children, most of the time, this approach will get the desired behavior if the behavior is taught, consistently modeled, and reinforced. Of course, all children come to a place where they will challenge rules and some children will consistently challenge them. In these cases, there have to be consequences to repeated challenging behavior. Consequences work best when they are either determined in advance or clearly explained, and when they are predictable. When N. was about five, for example, he went through a phase of refusing the kippah. But when he did that, he was told that since he was too young to follow the rule, he was too young to be in services, and so one of us would take him out. Of course, people who do not attend services don't get to have a cookie at the oneg afterwards e.g. no kippah, no services; no services, no cookie. Of course, that meant that we left before the oneg, so we adults did not get to shmooze, either. But being a parent sometimes means sacrificing for the child.
NOTE: It is important to adjust rules and expectations to the child. This is known as "choosing your battle." If a child has sensory sensitivities, for example, expecting him to remain in a Purim service with noisemakers might be a tad unrealistic. You can either spend your time fighting the kid or you can take him to the nursery. When N. was little this was our choice. So we expected him to remain for through the Amidah (prayer) and then we took turns taking him out. Now he takes himself out when it gets to be too much. Groggers (noisemakers) were not a hill we chose to die on.
So how does all of this apply to Machon? First, the stakeholders for Machon must agree upon a limited number of positively stated rules and consequences. Everyone needs to know what they are--staff, parents and students. Secondly, the rules must be taught to the students so that they know what the expected behavior looks like. Thirdly, the expected behavior must be modeled by teachers and parents. Fourthly, the expected behavior must be reinforced so that students get social and personal rewards out of behaving well, and equally important, consequences must be assessed when students challenge the rules. All of this should be done with the assumption that the kids are not inherently unwilling to follow the rules. Most of them are social beings, after all. And it is really, really important not to punish all of the kids for the infractions of a few.
For me, this was an exercise in thinking through this problem, if nothing else. And it probably will come to nothing else. My teacher, Cantor Jacquie used to say: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and annoys the pig."
But it is fun while it lasts.