Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rosh Hashanah 5769: Earth Abides

"Welcome, Star of Life, Center of the Year!"
--Ursula K. LeGuin, City of Illusions

It is the dark of the moon.
Tomorrow evening, as the sun sets, we will end the month of Elul and the year.
At sunset, we will enter the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah 5769--The New Year for Counting Years.

The phases of the moon guide the circle of our Jewish year, and help us mark the times and seasons of our lives.
But the rising and setting of the sun, and the locations of the rising and the setting also help us mark the year.
And sunset is the beginning of the day, as it is written:
"And evening came, and morning followed. The first day." (B'reshit).
(Picture: Sunset on the Summer Solstice 2008).
So at sunset tomorrow night, we will begin to celebrate HaYom harat Olam--the birthday of the world.

This year, as the gates of time are opened for the Days of Awe, we also enter the year of completion for the Jewish Cycle of the Sun. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, on a Tuesday evening every 28 years, the sun is once again in the place it was created.
(Picture: Sunrise on Winter Solstice 2007)

Astronomically, the Birkat HaChamah occurs as if the solar year was exactly 365.25 days long, and there were no precession of the equinox--so that the sun is at the same position relative to the plane of the ecliptic--as signified by the mazzarot, the zodiac-- every 28 years on a certain Hebrew day at sunrise. The Rabbis calculated this date according to the short cycle of 19 years for the intercalation of the solar and lunar year multiplied by the long cycle of 28 years to determine the year one for this counting. This 19 year cycle is based on the Saros cycle in which the sun, moon and earth return to the exact same location relative to each other in 18 years and 11.3 days.

This year, 5769 which corresponds to the Solar Western Year of 2009, is a year in which we conduct Birchat HaChamah--the blessing of the Sun.
Like all Jewish ideas, this one has controversy surrounded when this blessing should take place. One Rabbi said Rosh Hashanah--the Birthday of the World (when the sun was said to have been created). Another Rabbi said that it should be on a Tuesday evening in Nisan, the New Year for Months, in the season of Pesach. Since Pesach occurs near the vernal equinox, that is the customary day to make the blessing. This year, it will be on April 8 at sunrise.

I like the idea of Blessing the Sun at the same time as we mark the Birthday of the World.
Regardless of when we bless, however, this is a special year to mark the central place our star has to the theromodynamics that make for life on our planet, Earth.
(Picture: Sunrise on the May Cross-Quarter, 2008).

Human beings, ever astute astronomers, have used the cycles of the sun and moon to develop calendars. In this way we mark the times and seasons of the year, so that the linear progression of our lives is marked against the circles and spirals of planetary time.

Not only is the sun is the center of how we count time, the Circle of the Year, but all of the abundant energy for the earth's dynamic systems come from our beautiful yellow star of life. Even the fossil fuels we use to warm ourselves in winter are simply ancient sunlight caught up in carbon bonds.
(Picture: Sunrise on the February Cross-Quarter, 2008).

Plants capture photons--quanta of energy--from the sun, and use that energy to bond carbons in glucose,
which is, in turn, burned inside the bodies of all living things, to provide the energy of life.
From fire to matter, matter to fire, so our lives are fueled.
Just as the Creation of the Universe began with the Burst of Energy that propelled the expansion of Matter, more prosaically, it is the energy of the sun that began the earth's dynamism more than four billion years ago, and provided the motive power for the evolution of life on earth.
(Picture: Sunrise on the Autumnal Equinox 2008).

So I rejoice as I mark the mythical Birth of the World this year for having lived to mark the second Birkat HaChamah of my life. Life and the evolution of awareness of life--composed of elements made in stars and pieced together in our bodies by the energy of our Star of Life--how miraculous it is!

On Rosh HaShanah, we will say the morning blessings including:

"...with goodness the Eternal renews the work of creation continually...Blessed are You, Eternal One, who forms light."
(Picture: Sunset on Autumnal Equinox, 2008).

And in April, we will remember the cycle of sun, saying: "Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who continually renews the work of creation."

And in this new year, I will think of Kohelet: "Men go and come, but Earth abides."

May we all be renewed and inscribed for a good and sweet New Year, as the gates of time open against the seasons and cycles of the years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Paper Empire and the Piper's Bill

"As soon as A observes something which seems to him
to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and
then A and B propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil
and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall
do for X. . . . What I want to do is look up C. I want to show you
what manner of a man he is . . . He works, he votes, generally
he prays--but he always pays."
---William Graham Sumner, 1883

When I was in college in the early '80's, my Dad the Libertarian got involved with something called the Universal Life Church. As best as I can recall, the purpose was to designate his house as a church and get the benefits of tax-exempt status. So Dad the Libertarian became a minister through the Universal Life Church and he needed two other people over the age of 18 to comprise the board. My mother and I were drafted . . . er, I mean we volunteered.

I didn't live at home at the time, but I wasn't too far away, so I could have attended the annual board meetings. If we had actually had any.

I guess Dad is probably still a minister, he's not been defrocked, and so could perform weddings and funerals legally. I'm not sure. And I am not sure if Dad ever reaped the benefits of tax-exempt status, either. I expect not.

But through this improbable chain of events that led to me being on the board of the Universal Life Church of S-- Street, I got some free tapes from the founder of the Universal Life Church. Instead of preaching salvation or damnation, though, this libertarian maggid* preached economic and personal self-sufficiency. So every Sunday morning, when my roommate and other denizens of my dorm floor were at actual worship services--I would sit in the beanbag chair in the lounge, coffee at the ready, and pop one of these Universal Life Church tapes into the Walkman. The messages were sensible and uplifting, and always ended with a song by the reasonably good Universal Life Swing Choir.

*Hebrew for a teller of tales, literally a preacher.

This is how, as a young person with only one introductory economics course under my belt, I understood that the whole financial system was/is, according to the Dean of the Universal Life Church, a Paper Empire. And this is why, even though my kids and I have lived through some pretty rocky financial situations, I never owned a credit card or had any other form of consumer debt. (To be completely honest, I also did not believe anyone would actually give credit to a person with no reliable way of paying it back. I have always been naive).

And this is why, when I married the Engineering Geek, I set to work convincing him to protect what had become "our" assets should the house of cards that was Wall Street, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Fed, and the U.S. Treasury. I was relatively successful. We own our house lock, stock, and barrel. We have no debt and modest savings. Our investments were all moved to low-risk mutual funds two years ago. (If I had been really successful, we'd have gotten out of them altogether).

The EG has been walking around saying: "I should have done what G-d told Abraham to do. 'Listen to your wife!' "
It's in Genesis.

Now it looks as though the Paper Empire has collapsed.
There are a lot of reasons why it did.
People treated their homes like banks.
The government legislated bad loans to people who could not afford houses.
The government has been treating money like Monopoly dollars.
Trade has been badly regulated. (Note I did not say under-regulation. We have no free market and to blame this on the free market is ludicrous).
And last Wednesday evening, there was a complete freezing of liquidity; there was no commercial paper. This meant that most businesses would have collapsed by Friday, since most businesses rely on loans for operation.

In short, the Paper Empire has collapsed just as the Universal Life Prophet predicted. Just as smoke and mirrors have a way of doing.
How's that for a mixed metaphor? Here's another one:
The party's over!

And, as my Dad the Libertarian would have said--back when he was an active minister of the Universal Life Church: "They that dance must pay the piper."

But the Nanny State has been protecting the dancers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, a quasi-government agency, riddled with cooked books and corruption. Instead of jail for fraud, the crooks at the top get a bail-out and a golden parachute. And now I understand that We the People own 80% of AIG.
Does this mean that I get an invitation to their Holiday party? Maybe I should buy a new dress . . .

And now other irresponsible parties--like those who bought more house than they could afford or racked up the credit cards and funded it with serial mortgages--now these people also want a bail-out. As do the big investment banks and the owners of bundled securities comprised of the bad mortgages.

All the dancers want to be relieved of their responsibility to pay the piper.

And the bill is steep, too. They are saying $700 billion (700 with nine zeros after it), but it could easily become over $2 Trillion. (That's 2 with 12 zeros after it, which is why I capitalized Trillion. It's a sufficiently weighty amount that it needs that capital T).

I suppose I'd better hold off on buying that new dress . . .

And now the weasels in Washington want to get their cut, too. They want another stimulus package. They want special favors added to the bill. They want to prove, in this election year, that they are DOING SOMETHING.

Of course, for most of the Pols in Washington, it was their DOING SOMETHING that got us into this mess.

I guess those of us who didn't dance are going to be paying the piper.
And so will our children.
And their children.
Talk about slavery.

Somehow, I don't think this is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote in the Preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Nowhere in this Mission Statement for the Federal Government do I see these items:
" . . . to bail-out the Irresponsible, nationalize the Mortgage Industry, and secure the Curse of endless debt for ourselves and Our Posterity."


It is you and I who will have to pay the piper's bill.
And we will get nothing but heartache for our money.
Maybe I should have danced.
At least I'd have the memories . . .

Walk With Me Into Autumn

Ragamuffin Studies is taking a break from the One Hundred Species Challenge this week in order to bring you a special Autumnal Equninox Walk with Me Wednesday.

The Autumnal Equinox marks the day upon which we have equal lengths of daylight and darkness as the days shorten in the northern hemisphere.

This was the somewhat clouded sunrise on equinox. The sun is rising almost due east. By the Winter Solstice on December 21, it will rise above the ridge on the right of the picture.

Even though summer was officially due to end,

it was still a beautiful day for a walk.

Here, the Engineering Geek,

all decked out in an astronomy T-shirt,

stands poised with Lily, ready to set off.

We finally had a chance to walk

in Sedillo Canyon again, now that the summer

rains have finished. Here we saw that the monsoon had cut the channels a bit deeper at the confluence of the east and south branches of the wash.

Although the sun is still warm,

there is gold on the mountain,

the gold of newly turning Aspens.

Caterpillars climb to the tops of slender stems. Though the sweet clover still blooms like summer, they caterpillar knows that the time of Turning has come. It wraps itself in silken tallit*, reminding us that we too must change or die.

*prayer shawl

The first sunset of Autumn, and the sky is anticipating the deep October blue.

The sunset just three months ago was at the top of the mountain at the right of the picture.

The days are getting shorter.

The sunlight is getting weaker as the solar angle becomes smaller. We can no longer ignore the seasonal shift in the light.

Autumn is here. The time and the season for counting the harvest of the year. The time and the season for Turning and Returning.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

That's How the Light Gets In: Elul Waning Moon

The moon is waning and we are coming to the last of the four weeks of Elul, the month of turning in the Hebrew calendar. Tonight we begin the season of T'shuvah in earnest with the ceremony S'lichot, when in the middle of the night we stand before the Holy Ark to pray for renewed hearts and a return to the paths that lead to life. I love the moment when the Ark is opened and we see the Torah Scrolls, robed in white for the first time as the High Holy Days begin.

There is a story from Kabbalah, from the Book of Creation. It is said that the Eyn Sof--Eternal, without boundaries--performed tzimtzum, a process of contraction, so that there would be space for matter and for human free will. In the process of tzimtzum, matter and choice were created, the vessels intended to contain the light--the creative power of the universe. But as the light poured into the vessels, they were not able to contain the Eyn Sof--Infinity--and they shattered, spreading the shards of the vessels and the creative sparks across the universe. And it is the job of the human being, who possesses the free will that even the angels do not have, to separate the sparks from the shards and lift them up from world to world. This work is the holy work of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.

At the time of my life when I was at the lowest of the low, and suffering from existential angst brought on by cancer, one of my teachers recognized that my perfectionism was at the root of my emptiness. And he gently asked me in Hebrew, "What world are you in, daughter?" And I said that I was at the lowest world. And he said, "Even at the lowest world, there are sparks to lift up." And I was comforted.

It is very tempting still for me to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, thus inducing in myself a paralysis and I sense that I am unworthy to do the work of Tikkun Olam. And as I go about the work of Elul, the work of T'shuvah, it is really easy to go there. But that is a shard of memory from which I must lift the sparks of creative power, for no human being is unworthy of the task, every human being is uniquely powerful and capable of lifting sparks of light.

And this week, again, Leonard Cohen is my guide. It seems fitting, for his is a spirituality of finding the Holy within the imperfect, the ephemeral, but infinitely rare and precious nature of the human.

As I prepare for S'lichot tonight, I will remember the joy in the moment of seeing that it is through the shards, the cracks in the vessels, that the creative power was released into the universe, the power of human free will.

"Ring the bells that still can ring,
forget your perfect offering,
there is a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in..."

The world that we have is living and beautiful, and infinitely varied. It is alive and ever-changing. It is full of the creative power of energy, and it is therefore not perfect.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sarah Palin's Choice

There has been quite a furor in a small part of the blogosphere over the past two days.
The furor erupted over an article at The Rule of Reason in which Nick Provenzo condemned Sarah Palin's choice to "knowingly give birth to a child with Down's Syndrome." The meat of Provenzo's argument was that, given the publicity celebrating the morality of Palin's choice, it was necessary to state that it is moral for a woman to choose abortion in such circumstances.

However, the fury that was expressed in many of the comments to Provenzo's argument added more heat than light to the issue at hand.
It seems that many of the self-described pro-life commenters have no problem threatening the lives of those who support a woman's right to make her own decisions about her health and family.

I have made no secret of my views on the morality of abortion. I do respect a woman's right to make all decisions regarding her health and the welfare of her family without government interference. I also recognize that for most women, the decision to have an abortion is one that is of the gravest moral and personal importance. I wrote about my personal ideals and my religious views on the matter in my Blogging for Choice entry, here.

That said, I do think that in his article Nick Provenzo came very close to stating that a woman carrying a Down's pregnancy is morally obligated to have an abortion. He begins by saying:

"Like many, I am troubled by Alaska governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's decision to knowingly give birth to a child disabled with Down Syndrome."

This sounds like the problem for Provenzo is that Palin made a different choice than he would have made. She chose to go ahead with the pregnancy, rather than have an abortion. It would be easy to respond that Provenzo does not support a woman's moral right to make her own choice, unless that choice agrees with Provenzo's; that is, women really do not have the right to make a choice at all. Many of the comments did indeed make that response. Indeed, my first reaction was that Provenzo was arguing that a woman has a moral duty to have an abortion in such a case, but when I re-read his second sentence, I saw that this is not what he was saying. Rather, he makes this argument:

". . . it is crucial to reaffirm the morality of aborting a fetus with Down Syndrome (or by extension, any unborn fetus)--a freedom that anti-abortion advocates seek to deny."

I take this statement to mean that choosing for an abortion is moral. And I agree with that. However, Provenzo did not actually say that choosing against abortion is also a moral decision in this post, and so I put in a comment to discuss it among other exceptions I took to his post. I think my comment got lost among the hateful comments, because Provenzo did not clarify his position, which left him open to the charge that a woman has a right to choose as long as her choice is the one that Provenzo thinks is right.

Today, Provenzo did clarify his position in another post at the Rule of Reason. He said:
". . .a woman has the unqualified moral right to abort a fetus she carries inside her in accordance with her own judgment" (Emphasis added). It is clear then, that although Provenzo might personally disagree with Sarah Palin's choice, he does recognize her right to make it.

And that is the crux of the matter. Sarah Palin did make a choice. There are those who celebrate it for their own reasons, and there are those who condemn it for other reasons. But she made a choice in accordance with her own judgment, giving consideration to her means and ability to raise such a child and her desire to take on that responsibility.

I take exception to those who would see to it that other women have no such choice--those who would force a woman to carry a pregnancy that is, in her own judgment, detrimental to her own life and that of her family. And I also take exception to the many pundits and commentators who profess to be in favor of women making their own choices, but who condemn Sarah Palin for doing just that. Ultimately, the decision to have an abortion or not in these cases is of the gravest moral importance. A woman must consider her own life and circumstances, as well as the impact on her husband, and on any existing children in the family. She must also consider her religious affiliation and her moral convictions. None of these considerations is trivial.

Now, I do have a bone to pick with Nick Provenzo. It is his statement that a woman who knowingly chooses to give birth to a child with disabilities is a worshiper of disability. (His actual words are "the worship of retardation.") This hyperbole goes too far. Sarah Palin's decision to carry her child was a private matter. She has not discussed it in detail, nor should she be required to do so. Provenzo does not know how long Palin deliberated on this matter, nor does he know the reasoning that she used. He may guess based on her religious affiliation and public statements, but that guess could be woefully far from the mark.

An Aside: People often make ridiculous assertions about my stances on issues based on my religion. Actually, it is more that these guesses are based on their ignorance of my religion. I had one extremely ignorant supporter of "objective government" who was convinced that since I am a Jew, I must be a creationist. That one clearly knows nothing about Judaism: even the most orthodox of Jews are not biblical literalists or fundamentalists.

There are many reasons that a woman might bear and raise a child with disabilities: a sense of responsibility is one; love of the child is another. It was clear to me that, whatever other reasons Sarah Palin had for carrying Trig to term, the most powerful was love. As I watched her speech a few weeks ago, I saw her looking again and again at her child. At one point she smiled that mother's smile and mouthed "my baby."

Finally, to those of you who made a disgrace of the art of rhetoric with your name-calling and threats, I would like to close with this quote from my January 22, 2008 blog entry:

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."

You are the tyrants!

And finally, 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 right to practice mine as well. American patriotism begins with respect for the right of each individual to self-determination in all matters, including those of moral choice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

One Hundred Species: Grasses and Wildflowers


And still more for the Hundred Species Challenge!

24. Bouteloua curtipendula, Side Oats Gramma.
This is a very pretty grass!

25. Agoseris glauca, Mountain Dandelion

There are just a few of these on the slope

behind the house.

26. Oryzopis hymenoides, Indian Rice Grass

This was a species that we processed as part of the decomposition project at the Long Term Ecological Research Station. The samples were taken from the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. The work was done at the labs in Albuquerque.

27. Erigeron neomexicanus,
New Mexico Fleabane

Some people also call this a purple daisy.

28. Lactuca canadensis, Wild Lettuce.

The leaves are edible when young, but the stem contains a bitter, milky latex that ruins cow's milk.

This one is growing among:

29. Phlox divaricata, White Phlox or Sweet William.

I think that these are volunteers left over from the previous owner's gardening.

Happy plant hunting where you are!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Who By Fire? Elul Full Moon

I have been thinking a great deal about how fast the time of my life is passing lately.
Much of the reflection has to do with my kids growing up
and the fact that the big five-oh is coming up in a few years.
Did I say coming up?
It feels like it is racing at me with all the speed and grace of an oncoming train.

And we are now beginning the third week of Elul.
The moon is full and Rosh Hashanah is only two weeks away.
And when I go to synagogue to observe the Yom ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance,
I will do so remembering so many people near to my own age who will not be there ever again, to mark the passing of the year, the birthday of the world, and the blowing of the Shofar in the holy assembly.

During this month of Turning and Returning, Jews meditate on the metaphor of the Book of Life. The number of each person's days is inscribed in the book of life, we say, and we recall that life is finite and precious. Thus the importance of making of our lives something wonderful, for the fact that we are mortal makes what we choose and what we do matter.

And thoughts on our lives and the number of our days inevitably also brings us face to face with two realities. One is that we often fall short of the greatness to which we are summoned. We walk, as one poet put it, "sightless among miracles," especially the miracles of our own lives and of those we love.
The other realization is that life is fragile and short.

And so on Rosh Hashannah, as we gather together to pray for a year of prosperity and a year of abundance, and a year of peace, we also confront our own mortality as we listen Un' taneh tokef:

"Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day...
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not,
Who shall die by fire, and who by water..."

I used to chafe against this judgement, that the innocent suffer no less than the guilty, and I still feel the twist of the Damoclean sword at the last line:

"...but repentance, prayer and righteousness temper judgment's severe decree."

Silently, I cry out still in protest at the unfairness of life; that even the most innocent and the most righteous often suffer death by holocaust, their lives cut off with cruel unfairness; and their tormentors die of old age, in bed.

But the author of these words, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, who died by fire when the Crusaders annihilated the Jews of the Rhineland, surely did not mean that he and his people died because they had not practiced repentance, prayer and righteousness. These were people who lived on the knife-edge of oppression. And they lived well and creatively. No, the judgment he is talking about is the fragility of life. These things--repentance (in Hebrew, the act of turning again toward the good), prayer (in Hebrew, standing in judgment of one's self before what is True and Just), and righteousness (weighing choices by values and acting accordingly)--cannot forever avert death. That is our nature.

But our understanding and knowledge of our mortality is what makes each choice we make important; it is the foundation of our existence as moral beings. Therefore, to live our lives in goodness, weighing our decisions truly, and acting justly; all so that we live lives of purpose, can temper the severe decree of mortality. We stand, as long as we live, on who we are in the profound sense.

And yet again this year, I find my understanding of the Un'tane Tokef enhanced by Leonard Cohen's interpretation, here accompanied by the amazing Sonny Rollins on saxophone.

And Who, Who shall I say is calling?

"See, I set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil . . .
Choose life, that you and your children may live." (Parashat Nitzavim)

This is how we become real human beings: that we choose between goodness and life or evil and death; that we are aware of the gravity of the choices we are making in full knowledge that each person has this responsibility and the liberty to choose.

NOTE: I posted this entry first on September 14 in the evening. Today, I added a picture and edited for clarity and completeness of thought, so I am reposting to the top of my blog.

Making Progress

We are making progress on all fronts, even though some of the work has exacerbated my allergies to the point of a sinus infection.

The floor done and even the dogs like it!

At the end of last week, the Engineering Geek finished up the Boychick's room. This weekend, the Boychick and I put his room back together, which was quite an involved process! Every piece of furniture had to be dusted, drawers had to be vacuumed and cleaned out, and stuff sorted into throw away and give away piles.

On the agenda as soon as my teeth no longer feel like they are about to pushed out of my head is a trip to Goodwill. That's in town, and until the antibiotic starts working, a trip involving elevation changes of greater than 100 vertical feet is out of the question.

With new throw rugs, the floor looks great, and the sheepskin from New Zealand has become a good place for the dogs to rest.

The Engineering Geek now has one more room to go; his office a.k.a. the firetrap. Because he feels he has to read each piece of the two years of accumulated junk mail, and because he has an absolute horror to throwing anything away, I expect that the office will take more time to floor than the rest of the house put together.

The Boychick has also been making some good adjustments in school. He has been doing his homework regularly, although there were a few evenings on which he started with whining. We reminded him that he had made a choice and that since it was his choice, he now must do the work entailed by the commitment he has made.

Well, actually, the Engineering Geek told him in a conversational tone to "put up and shut up."
I was the one making the earnest and mostly unheard argument about choices. Sometimes I forget that long and involved reasoning is goes in one ear and out the other of a teenage boy.

As I expected, although the Boychick is reading way ahead of many of his classmates in humanities, he gets behind in writing.
Like many 'Aspies,' he is a very slow writer physically, but also he has difficulty organizing his ideas coherently. We worked hard on sequencing as homeschoolers, but he is still quite slow.
Also, he tends to perseverate on the homework for one subject and forget that he has other assignments to do as well. Planning work and budgeting time are still areas where he needs a lot of support.

Math is another area of great difficulty. Here, it is a matter of the auditory processing disorder and deficits in auditory working memory (these go together!) that give the Boychick fits. He can understand algorithms, but he is very slow at the step-by-step solution to problems because he has such difficulty holding more many chunks of information in working memory at the same time. We had to intervene with the math teacher so that the Boychick can now use a TI-Math Explorer calculator. This frees up his working memory for the algorithm he is using. Often, he can get the right answer, going from A to D without the intervening steps at B and C, but this is not the way that math is taught. Also, in applied math, especially in science and engineering applications, he must be able to show how he arrived at a solution.

We have had a great response from the East Mountain High School faculty as we have set about getting our Boychick what he needs to succeed in this highly academic environment. He has a very experienced special education teacher to whom he can go to hash out problems and who can explain strategies for him to his teachers. He is in general education classes and those teachers have also been very helpful to him, and have been very willing to take our suggestions for strategies to help him build stamina for work that he does not particularly like.

I think part of the successful adjustment we are seeing is that we are not fussy about grades. I never have been. High school grades are just not as important as many people think.
Work ethic is far more important in the long run.
What we are emphasizing with the Boychick is that all his work has to be done to his best ability and in a timely manner. If he does that, we tell him, then the grades will come.
East Mountain High School does not practice grade inflation, and they do not give credit for course grades below a C. But even so, what tends to bring grades down is incomplete work and missing assignments. So these are the things that we are helping the Boychick keep in the forefront of his mind. He is not perfect--he carried one worksheet around in his backpack for a week after it was due. But we are after progress, not perfection.

Socially, the Boychick is doing well! He is actually popular with his classmates.
We are supporting him here in two ways.

First, we bought him stylish clothes. They are not over-the-top, but they look good. The Chem Geek Princess taught him how to take care of these clothes, and how to wear them. Since 'Aspie' kids are socially at a disadvantage already, this is very important. These kids need help understanding the importance of clean, neat clothing that is relatively fashionable and about regular hygeine. We didn't spend a lot of money on this. We were just very careful about what we bought with the money we did spend.

Secondly, the Chem Geek Princess spent several hours with the Boychick, explaining and role-playing important social rules for adolescents. She emphasized that the Boychick needs to listen to others--very difficult for him!--and that he needs to be nice to all the girls. "Girls," she pointed out, "Are not like boys. They have long memories for meanness and slights. If you are nice to all of them now, you'll have no lack of dates for the Senior Prom."

This is something that a lot of kids would do well to understand. Ordinary kindness and manners go a long way towards social success.

Things are progressing here.
Now, I am just waiting for the antibiotic to make a quick advance against this stubborn sinus infection. Until then, it's altered reality with Sudafed and lots of tea!

Oh! And here's Lily, her ears all askew--the tomboy!
She wanted to be in on the picture-taking as she settled back into her room. The one that she deigns to share with the Boychick.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9-11: Subdued Remembrance

Nine Eleven.

We all remember where we were and what we were doing seven years ago today.
The day that, as Rational Jenn has pointed out, was the End of Normal.
As I drove the Boychick to school this morning, we passed the Cedar Crest Fire Station.
The flag was at half-mast and the the trucks were out on the driveway apron, their lights flashing. It was exactly the time that the first tower fell on that day.

So much has changed, but much of it not in the ways that we had hoped.
Americans who can remember 9-11, particularly the Millennialgeneration, lost innocence that day. Older generations remembered other times of lost innocence experienced across the bloody twentieth century. I remember looking into the young eyes of the Homelanders--those who will not directly remember 9-11--hoping that out of this terrible attack we could bring to them a world of greater prudence and liberty.

Prudence. I hoped that with this wake-up call we would come to understand that we have real enemies, people who would like nothing better than to see the United States stumble and fall.
That we could not keep up a way of life built on massive foreign debt, and even worse, a growing burden placed on future generations.
That we had to end our dependence on foreign oil and become self-reliant on our own, abundant resources.

Liberty. I hoped that we would understand that our greatest value and our greatest asset is the idea that all of us have been endowed with the liberty to forge our own destinies in life.
That people living in freely-chosen associations with one another, and who protect their rights and are engaged in the pursuit of their own happiness , are the most unlikely to murder innocent human beings in the name of some great ideological cause.

But seven years later, it seems that we heard the alarm to wake up and smell the coffee, only to hit the snooze button and roll over. No sleeping giant was awakened on 9-11.
We continue to pile up debt to cloud the future. We have stifled the engines of creativity and commerce. We have allowed our government to ride roughshod over our liberties in the name of security. And we have spent blood and treasure on ill-considered foreign adventures that leave us no more secure and a good deal poorer than we were seven years ago.

There is greatness sleeping in the American soul.

But it does not slumber in the empty promises of politicians, who are engaged in a heated discussion of lipstick on pigs while they continue to loot the dreams of citizens.

There is greatness sleeping in these United States.

But we will not awaken it until we recognize that it lies within the strength, goodness, and sense of people living their lives, using good old Yankee ingenuity to solve problems.

I want to see the Freedom towers rise from Ground Zero.
I want to see them built in liberty and as a physical representation of that good old Yankee ingenuity, unfettered, to have a go at solving problems in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

I am thinking of this:

"Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern, impassioned stress,
a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.."


"...whose alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears."

May it be so, for ourselves and our children, in our own day and own time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More Fall Wildflowers!

The flowers are blooming into fall! Here are five more for the One Hundred Species Challenge.

19. Chrysothamnus nauseosis, rabbitbush.

This shrubby plant grows where the land has been overgrazed in the past...
and in the xeriscaped gardens of Albuquerquians--despite the rather strong smelling leaves that gives it the species designation.

20. Ratibida pinnata, Prairie Coneflower.
This makes a wonderful, tummy-soothing
annise flavored tea, and the natives
also make a saffron color dye from it.
The cones have a wonderful smell that is very
strong in the heat of the afternoon.

21. Giallardia grandiflora, blanket flower or fireweed.

This is native to our dry, sandy soils, but has become a popular garden flower in the north and east. The rays open up spiral fashion.

22. Asclepius verticella, Whorled Milkweed.
These are already out of flower,
and have gone to seed.
The leaves and stems contain a
milky latex that is poisonous
to most animals, but Monarch butterflies
eat them exclusively, and thus
become bitter tasting to birds.
The genus name is taken from
the Greek god of healing, Aesclepius.

Geranium richardsonii, Cranesbill.

In our mountains, Cranesbills tend to be more purple
or blue than pink. They have a long bill-like
seed pod that bursts open when it dries out and can
shoot the seeds over 20 feet. The cultivated
geranium is in the same family (Geranaceae), but it
is not in the Geranium genus, but is instead a Pelargonium.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Turning: Slipping into Autumn, Pondering Elul

Early Autumn has slipped up on us, here at Sedillo, furtively, amidst the flurry of beginnings: school for the Boychick, UNM responsibilities and courses for me, and the Engineering Geek's remodel of the bedroom floor.

The sunflowers have bloomed riotously in the meadows and along the roadsides. They will be here until October. As they go to seed, an abundance of birds and squirrels can be seen, getting ready for winter.

The arrival of September, the coming of the Chem Geek Princess's Birthday, and the waxing of the Elul moon, all bring to my attention the turning of the wheel of the year; the passage of time becoming clear. With our movement into the season of the High Holy Days, my mood becomes more reflective internally, as I contemplate the ephemeral nature of life. Now is what we have to act upon and none of us knows how long our personal experience will extend into the future.

Perhaps the seasons of our lives influence how we reflect on the seasons of the year. The Chem Geek Princess is in the early summer of her life, but I am nearing the end of the summer of mine. So I am contemplating the harvest of the years. The bittersweet nature of this pondering has been multiplied for me of late by the signs around us of generational change and the coming fourth turning in the saeculum of our civilization.

And this year, as we enter the season of turning, and harvest, I have found myself thinking about Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. His is not the triumphal joy of "one who has seen the light," but rather the quiet joy of finding the sparks of hidden light among the pieces of shattered vessels that could not contain the power of creation. He meditates on a "very broken Hallelujah." The song recalls David's great praise in the psalms, and the human quality of his reach for great holiness, and the times when his grasp slipped, only so that he could reach again.

From the beginning of the reach for holiness:

"Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah "

To an understanding that within the loss of innocence, praise can be found:

"Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you;
She tied you To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah."

To the singer's reach for the Infinite Unspeakable Name:

"You say I took the Name in vain,
I don't even know the Name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah,"

To finding G-d in the imperfect union of lovers:

"There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?
Yeah but I remember when I moved in you,
And the holy dove, she was moving too,
Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah."

To the reaching and the longing and the acceptance of the sparks that are found among the broken vessels:

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

The "you" in the song seems to shift from a lover to the sweet singer of the psalms, and to the Eternal One.
There are many verses to this song. Cohen himself has recorded several different versions, and other artists had recorded covers that include different combinations of verses.

Although I am currently partial to the very liturgical interpretation of K.D. Lang, I think that Cohen's own meditative interpretation gives a most powerful voice to the longing and fulfillment found in "standing before the Lord of Song" with nothing on his lips but Hallelujah:

To me, in this season of turning and reflection, occuring in the middle of secular beginnings and the coming of seasonal, personal and saecular autumn and winter, this song is a prayer and a meditation on the balance I try to maintain between "fear and the call" (as Emmy Lou Harris would have it).

Saturday, September 6, 2008

CGP is Twenty-Three: May You Stay Forever Young!

This weekend, the Chem Geek Princess is in Seattle with her man, celebrating her twenty-third birthday. 23! XXIII! No matter how I write it, I must accept that fact that my firstborn, my beloved daughter, is my child no longer.

Oh, she's my daughter still, but she's all grown up.

This is my little princess as she was, twenty-one years ago!

Today as I was doing the Shabbat dishes (I leave them overnight on Friday night, an indulgence of Sabbath rest), I was listening to an old Peter, Paul, and Mary remaster.

The last song was Dylan's Forever Young. I used to sing that song to the Chem Geek Princess at bedtime as we'd rock in the rocker, her eyes growing heavy from her day of adventures, bedtime at hand.

"May G-d bless and keep you always,

May your dreams all come true,

May you always do for others, and let others do for you,

May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,

May you stay . . . forever young!"

As the song continued, my hands stopped in the dishwater (crystal, I always do by hand), and I started pondering the meaning of the the wish. Yes, I guess it is true that in some way, as I cradled my weanling to sleep, I wished time would stand still;, but rocker went on swaying back and forth, marking the passing of time into the night.

So what does it mean, to wish for someone to stay forever young?

"May you grow up to be righteous,

May you grow up to be true,

May you always know the truth

and see the light surrounding you,

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong,

May you stay . . . forever young!

That second verse does not indicate that forever young means forever a child, a kind of Peter-Pan Never, Never Land. And even if we, as parents, sometimes wish that time would quit slipping away so quickly, our children are on an urgently desired journey to adulthood. They can hardly wait to take on the world and make it over in their own image and likeness.

And in that second verse we can also see that staying forever young does not mean staying innocent. Being righteous, standing upright, knowing truth--these all mean accepting responsibility for being a real human being, which requires knowledge of good and evil.

"May your hand always be busy,

May your feet always be swift,

May you have a firm foundation

When the winds of changes shift;

May your heart always be joyful,

May your song always be sung,

May you stay . . . forever young!"

Forever young . . .

I think it must mean keeping that joyful, adventurous heart of a child, even as one acquires the skills and wisdom of adulthood. It means growing in mind and spirit, to meet the challenges and purposes of a free and productive life.

At her naming, the Chem Geek Princess was given the names of matriarchs: a princess-priestess, a mother of nations, and a prophetess of freedom. Then she was blessed thus:

"May this little one grow great! As she has been brought into the Covenant of our Father Abraham and our Mother Sarah, so shall she be brought to the study of Torah, of a marriage worthy of G-d's blessing, and a life of righteous deeds."

We have brought her to Torah: the marriage and righteous deeds are her responsibility now. She has grown up, and by finding and fulfilling the purposes she was born to, greatness is hers to find and to create.

Happy birthday, my-not-so-little-one!

You have grown up.

Now, may you grow great by fulfilling the hopes I sang for you as the rocker danced us into time.

Here is the Chem Geek Princess in her twenty-third summer.

May you stay . . . forever young!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Writing, Politics, and the Great Pumpkin

When I was a kid, I used to watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on television every year around Halloween. I thought the shows were fun and I loved the jazzy piano music by Vince Guaraldi. In fact, whole seasons of my life as a child seem to be set to the Guaraldi music.

But what I didn't realize at the time was that I was also learning some important philosophy from the Peanuts gang. Some of it was common-sensical, like the admonition to stay away from kite-eating trees and beware of Lucy with a football. And some was good advice for getting along with people; advice quite useful to a child with undiagnosed broader autistic phenotype.

I have had cause to consider this sterling piece of advice from Linus in the past few weeks, as I have started a GA in the UNM College of Education Graduate Writing Center:

Linus: There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.
(From: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and quoted on Wikipedia).

Only I think that in the "Arts" parts of the College of Arts and Sciences Linus needed to amend his advice to say "politics that's not on the far left." And I imagine that since one can discuss almost anything else, including deviant sexual practices, the Great Pumpkin is probably not off limits, although religion--at least the western ones--are.

What is interesting about my experience outside of science, is that I am not a conservative. I am neither "paleo" nor "neo", but my views also cannot be defined by the current understanding of the word "liberal." I find the two-party, tennis-court-congress definitions of left and right as restrictive as a straight jacket. My political stances are probably best defined as libertarian with a small "l".

But what I have discovered is that what passes for political discussion in the Liberals Arts is not reasoned argument, or concerned discussion, but rather a frantic mission: define and destroy any idea that does not agree with the TRUTH. And Truth here is defined as something to the left of FDR. In this atmosphere, even asking reasonable questions causes the defenders of the doctrine of Republican Evil and Democratic Socialist Righteousness to start shouting.

For example, in a discussion of the coming storm in unfunded government obligations (Social Security and Medicare), I asked a question: "Where will the money come from?" Simultaneously I had the righteous indignation of three people shouting at once:

"Where are you getting your information!" (I had said that G3 books are not reported to the public).
"Why in my country (Brazil) we take care of everybody!" (If I could have gotten a word in edgewise I'd have asked about their deficit and how much monetary and defense aid they get from the US).
"People are going to have to work more and pay more taxes!" (If I could have gotten a word in edgewise I'd have asked what this person--who is old enough to know better--thinks will happen when our children are paying taxes so high that it is no longer worth it for them to work).

The hullabaloo would have been downright funny except for the sensory-overload feeling I was getting. It was a classic attempt to herd me into the Vision of the Anointed. There was no way to reasonably answer their arguments because there was no way they were going to let me finish a sentence, let alone a complete thought. However, I did have the chance to make two observations about this behavior that will serve me well in the future.

The first is that when people have the TRUTH with a capital "T," they will place you into one of two categories: 'with us' or 'against us.' And there is no straying from these positions. If, for the sake of argument, a person supports gun rights, then she must also be for the death penalty, and against the environment. This need for polarity on the part of the ideologues extends right down to where a person lives. If a citizen lives in a rural area, then that person just has to be poor, white, and "clinging to god and guns."

The second is that if one does not agree with the TRUTH, then one must be at best, unintelligent and uninformed, and at worst, evil. Therefore, it is appropriate to skip over reason and move right to expressions of hatred for "the other side." There is no room for honest differences of opinion among intelligent people. There is no meeting place where different experiences in life can be brought to the table for discussion. This second is probably the most important contribution to shouting down the opponent. Shouting is not an argument, it replaces any argument. But then, there can be no argument with the TRUTH.

Thus, in their attempts to herd me into line with right thinking, the most telling statement was: "Most people are too stupid to run their own lives."
This was really said, and it was said baldly and without apology or equivocation.
That one really made me laugh inside. A wonderful headline for the Daily Onion occurred to me at that moment:


Too bad I do not have the comedic talent to actually write the spoof.
I can see it, though, staring Dan Akroiyd and Chevy Chase as the profs--rubbing their beards and trying to figure out how to survive out there in the "real world" a la Ghost Busters.

That was fun, but I digress.

The need to polarize issues and the refusal to listen to one another is rampant across what is left of the political spectrum of ideas in the United States. Some say that it is generational. Some think that it has to do with the formation of wholly separate value systems. I suspect it is both. And.

This is why, although I have certain reservations about John McCain, and there were certain issues that worry me that were not addressed in his speech last night, I found that I was very hungry to hear what he said about bringing a wide variety of competent people into his administration. Even Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when opinions were extremely divided, understood this need.

What I don't know is, will the Anointed on the Right be too rigid to accept that?
What about the anointed on the Left?

We have a lot of big fish to fry in this country at the moment. Listening to the rhetoric, I wonder if we can focus our attention on those or if we will become even more atomized by wrangling caused by our convictions that our side has the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth.

I worry for the future of the American experiment.

But I have learned that Linus was right. From now on here in COE, I will consider religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin are out of bounds.

But secretly, as Halloween approaches, I am on the lookout for a Pumpkin Patch that is Sincere.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Late Summer Flowers: One Hundred Species


This week I did some more searching out and photographing plants for the 100 Species Challenge. The first entry can be seen here, and the second, here. The numbered list for the first seven plants is found in the second post.

14.Solanum americanum, Black Nightshade or American Nightshade.
This poisonous plant is similar to the Horse Nettle, but the leaves are more ovulate and the stems are not spiny. The Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) includes tomatoes, tomatillas, and potatoes. Fruits in this family are often poisonous until they are ripe.

15. Yucca glauca (var.), Yucca or Soap Yucca.
Yuccas are succulents in the Agave family,
but they flower every year when the
conditions are good. Some agaves only
flower once in a lifetime.

16. Opuntia polyacantha, Prickly Pear Catus.

This cactus, a relative of the Cholla featured last week, is native to the New World, like all cacti. However, the Prickly Pear was brought to the Middle East, where it grows in the deserts as an invasive species. It is known in Hebrew as the "sabra." Native Israelis are also called Sabras because, like the cactus, they are prickly on the outside but sweet within.

17. Ipomoea purpurea, Common Morning Glory.

The morning glory family also includes the Sweet Potato and the Wild Potato Vine (aka Man of the Earth). This one is climbing up on an amaranth weed.

18. Castelleja ssp., Indian Paintbrush or Prarie Fire.
The species of this plant are often difficult to tell apart.
This species is the only type that I have seen in our area.
We usually call it the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush.
It is one of my favorite New Mexico flowers!