Reading my own writing

This morning at breakfast, faced with a large stack of unread magazines and newspapers, I realized that I really wanted to go upstairs to my office to work on my own book project instead.

Although my own writing is clumsy and inarticulate, it’s never on a topic that doesn’t interest me. Also, if I don’t like a word choice or phrasing, if an important side point seems left out, I can just fix it right then and there.

It’s never perfect; there’s always some way to improve it.

In contrast, in this great collection of magazines––New Scientist, The Nation, Mother Jones, Natural History, Texas Monthly, Mad, The New Yorker, and more––there are occasionally topics of only minor interest; some articles are too long, some too short.

What can I do if I disagree with a word choice or think an argument is unsupported? Fume? Write a letter to the editor? It feels very passive compared to what I can do with my book project. For me the life of the writer seems far superior, not in a moral sense, but simply in the sense of attracting my time and attention.

But then I flipped through an issue of The New York Review of Books (August 19, 2021). For a reader, that’s always intimidating. Faced with hundreds of interesting new books, my write now strategy looks even more attractive.

I came across an excerpt from a new book by Wisława Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). It’s a collection of the advice columns that she wrote anonymously in the Polish journal Życie literackie (Literary Life) from 1960 to 1981.

My musings about writing over reading stopped cold when I read one letter in which Szymborska decides to console a writer rather than to give him/her some hope of publication.

A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes.

She goes on to describe the many benefits of being a reader, rather than a writer:

And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases.

So, where to go from here?

I decided that I had read enough; the cantaloupe was finished and the oatmeal was cold. I could still pour some more coffee and return to my writer’s garret. Like the Ancient Mariner:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Why cancer makes me happy

OK, quick disclaimer: Cancer only makes me happy in some ways at some times, but that’s a better score than from many other activities I know about. At other times cancer/chemo varies from unpleasant to horrible. Along that line, it has at least given me a better, embodied understanding of what other people with cancer and chemo go through.

But let me say what those “some ways at some times” actually are. How could they emerge through the fog of fear, pain, loneliness, uncertainty, and the literal mental fog of cancer/chemo, not to mention little things like nausea, constipation, loss of hair, appetite, sleep, swimming, and social life?

Look to this day

Well, one huge happiness making of all this is that it puts the rest of life in a good perspective. The great Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa wrote that we should

Look to this day for it is life
the very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence the joy of growth
the splendor of action
the glory of power.

For yesterday is but a memory And tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day….

I memorized that poem long ago, and tried at times to live its precepts. But it took cancer to teach me what it really means. All of those minor annoyances and anxieties that used to clutter my days now dissolve into the mist.

It’s like the drama on a Netflix show: While watching it can seem incredibly important, but even the pause button puts it in its place.

Connection

Another thing I’ve long known, but not absorbed (too many examples of this to count) is the importance of connection to family, friends, acquaintances, even strangers. John Donne’s Meditations contains another passage which I memorized, but failed to understand fully:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The cancer has caused me to reconnect with old friends and family. I’ve learned about weddings, births, and deaths, new jobs and houses. Let me be clear: I could have reconnected with any of those people anytime. But I didn’t.

It took cancer/chemo to wake me up to one of life’s simple truths. So much for reading many books and getting a PhD!

Courage

I never thought of myself as timid. Awkward yes, and fumbling, but often more fool hardy than frightened. (There was that time when my partner and I canoed over a dam backwards. She sensibly thought we should turn back and I wanted to push ahead. That led us to turn sideways, then go in full reverse. But that’s another story.)

Cancer/chemo has taken away needless fears. I have a relaxed attitude about many things now and a willingness to take risks that I didn’t have before. But it’s not in an aggressive way. I’d actually be less likely to want to go over a dam backwards, but I’d be less fretful about it if I thought it were necessary.

Learning

It’s almost embarrassing to says this, but cancer/chemo is a great learning opportunity.

The experience certainly concentrates the attention and there is so much to learn about cancer, therapy, the body, chemicals, new technologies, the medical system, and more. Each new side effect, as unpleasant as it might be, also opens up doors to new ways of understanding the body and world I live in.

Priorities

Echoing Kalidasa, cancer/chemo has helped me prioritize what I do, in a way that makes happier.

I used to play piano to get ready for a lesson, or because I somehow thought I should. Now i do it because I love the music and love bringing my fingers into that. Like David Sudnow, I see that the “ways of the hand” are a miracle to savor.

Moreover, I make the time for piano that I want. I’ve stopped doing many things that once seemed necessary––they weren’t really.

Peace

A major concern for cancer is depression. The fear, the pain, the loneliness, are a recipe for getting depressed or anxious. But I’ve oddly been less so than I was pre-cancer.

I’m not in denial. That would be hard to do anyway. What I think is going on is that cancer/chemo has helped me do what I ought to have been doing all along. I’m focusing on things that matter and shoving aside the rest.

Patience

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet says this well:

Patience is not sitting and waiting. It is foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.

Little appreciated benefits of cancer & chemo

It’s hard to avoid the negative aspects of cancer and chemo treatment: fatigue, isolation, and ruminations about life. But too much of that and we miss seeing the positives.

Let me name just a few of these:

  1. Losing all those stubborn pounds that have resisted diet and exercise.
  2. Being free to eat ice cream with hot fudge sauce. The fact that it doesn’t taste as good as it once did just means that I can eat all I want.
  3. Postponing dental appointments, colonoscopies, haircuts, and other invasive medical procedures.
  4. No dishwashing, carry out compost, pulling weeds, etc.
  5. Having an unassailable excuse to avoid meetings and other events that I didn’t want to attend anyway.
  6. Being insensitive to ambient temperature. I still get hot or cold, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the weather or what I’m wearing.
  7. Unlimited streaming with no guilt.
  8. Good excuse for my slowed walking pace; so much better than “getting old” or “being lazy.”
  9. Learning much about how our amazing body works. Like Heidegger’s broken hammer, we understand it best when it’s broken.
  10. Reminder to focus on the things that matter in the finite time we all have.

Should we teach Critical Race Theory?

There is a lot of talk in some circles today about Critical Race Theory (CRT), mostly that it’s a dangerous idea, which should be banned.

Whenever I hear someone say “we should/should not teach X!” I wonder what they mean by “X” but even more, what they mean by “teach.” Most people have no idea what the CRT controversy is about or even what CRT is. I suspect that many of the opponents and even proponents don’t either.

What do we mean by “teach”?

But beyond the important question of what it is are we actually talking about is the one about teaching. There are many things that should be taught, but none in a doctrinaire fashion. Should we teach the life cycle of butterflies? Definitely, yes. It’s fascinating; it can be investigated in a hands-on way as well as through texts; it has important implications for agriculture; it can open up inquiry into nature more broadly; and much more. But I would hate to see it taught as evidence for a “proof” or “dis-proof” of evolution.

The same is true for CRT. If teaching it meant only forcing students to think one way about race (I don’t know of any proponent who thinks that), then I’d join the critics. But it could be terrific if it means opening up avenues of inquiry for students.

To be more specific, for most people who know something about the theory, it means asking how ideas about race have shaped our history and who we are today. The focus is usually on how specific laws and policies have dealt with race––constructing its meaning, delimiting rights and responsibilities, allocating resources, and so on. It can open up into questions of scientific racism, the intersections with class, gender, religion, nationality, and other dimensions.

How, for example, did Federal programs, banking regulations, and Jim Crow laws affect the ability of Blacks to get federal mortgage assistance after World War II? There are many things to say about that question, contrasting opinions, and things to discover. There is no single idea to learn and scholars are studying it further.

What should we teach?

Should we teach that the US is racist to it core? No, not if that means an unexamined mantra to be memorized. But historical scholarship tells us that there is a lot of evidence of racism in our founding documents, in the ideas and arguments of founders. There’s certainly enough to support asking questions in a sustained, critical fashion.

Should we teach that the US is founded on freedom? Again, not if that means indoctrinating one unexamined claim. It’s true that in the late 1700s free, white, males with property achieved hard-fought success in determining their own political destiny. And it’s true that some of our founding documents have ringing calls for freedom for all. But the exciting story about the US can be uncovered only by examining how freedom and civil rights have been expanded (with some setbacks) throughout our history, even though they remain unfulfilled to this day.

The ongoing story has no single, simple “truth,” either in CRT or in easily falsifiable claims that masquerade as “patriotism.” We should not pretend otherwise.

Unlearning

One problem with teaching unexamined doctrines is that it can lead to later disillusionment and a complex unlearning project. But maybe that’s a good thing. Should I be taught to revere our Constitution as it stands, then learn later that it was shaped in part by racists and the desire to perpetuate slavery? Would that make me feel betrayed and question everything I had been taught?

That’s a harsh approach, akin to throwing the toddler in the deep end. Perhaps that’s what critics of CRT are after: a bracing, subversive repudiation of patriotic pabulum, which would generate unbridled critique?

You’ve got to be taught

South Pacific‘s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”  tells us

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Let’s try to move beyond teaching hate. Does CRT mean learning to hate all the people your relatives loved? I don’t think so. If it were a new kind of hate, I’d be strongly opposed to it.

CRT does want us to move beyond the kind of hate that South Pacific exposes But if it means helping students ask questions about their history and to be carefully taught falsehoods.

If we can show students life in its fullness, their own inquiry can lead them to discover all we know and more.

New Drummer Cove video

[Cross posted from Wellfleet Conservation Trust]

A new video for the Drummer Cove conservation area has just been released. Thanks go especially to Mary Doucette, advised by Mike Fisher.

The Drummer Cove area is remarkably varied for its 11+ acres. It is also unusual for offering a 1+ mile trail with easy access.

Length & Extent of Trail: 1.1 miles; 11.3 acres plus easements

Area description: The Drummer Cove Conservation Area includes salt marsh, tidal flats, coastal bank and oak pine forest on its upland. The entire area is within the recharge area to Drummer Cove and as such falls into the Wellfleet Harbor Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The land is in State designated Priority Habitat for rare species. The four benches provide great views of the Cove.

Location: The trail head is at 170 Pond Ave in South Wellfleet. 41.91415, -70.00165

Directions: Exit Route 6 heading west for approximately 0.5 miles on Paine Hollow Road to the first stop sign. Turn left on Pleasant Point Road for approximately 0.25 miles. Turn left on to Pond Ave for 0.3 miles, the last part being a dirt road to a parking area at the trail head.

Natchez Trace

Days 8-11: Lake Bisteneau, Louisiana, 2233 miles, 12 states

Even more so because it the Choctaw way of thinking, west is the direction of death. That’s the direction that people travel after they have died and left this world, so having to move towards the west in particular made it even more traumatic for Choctaws because it was moving toward the land of the dead. 

Ian Thompson, “The Choctaw Spirit”, speaking of the forced removal of Choctaw people through the Trail of Tears

The Natchez Trace is a National treasure. I hesitate to say much about it for fear that hordes of people will come and overwhelm its natural beauty.

Rather than embarking on a lengthy book project, which the Trace deserves, let me just list some things it does not have and some things it does.

The Natchez Trace does not have:

  • Large trucks
  • Buses
  • Heavy traffic of any kind
  • Billboards
  • Trash

Only a few of the many things the Natchez Trace does have:

  • At least three crossings of branches of the Trail of Tears, including the water trail on the Tennessee River
  • Two thousand year old burial mounds from the Hopewell culture
  • Jackson Falls, a stunning waterfall descending in several cascades over limestone shelves covered with moss and lichen
  • Rock Spring, a short walk along Colbert Creek with beaver dams, secluded pools, wildflowers, birds, amphibians, and carved stone steps across the Creek
  • The award-winning Double Arch Bridge over Birdsong Hollow
  • Trails of all kinds–wheelchair accessible, challenging climbs, horse trails
  • 444 miles of a winding, two-lane highway lined with trees and occasional meadows, marshes, and ponds
  • Stopping points every two or three miles with nature walks, historical sites, and attractive picnic spots
  • Free camping in wooded sites
On the horse, and dog, trail
Vanagain in Natchez Trace campsite
Fire ants, after I disturbed their mound with my finger
Rock Springs
Colbert Creek
Old growth
Lake Bistineau in flood
Jackson Falls

STEM for All

I’ve been participating this week as a facilitator in the STEM for All video showcase.

It brings together 287 projects through short videos related to improving STEM education. You can focus in on specific topics. For example, you could see the set of videos using the keywords “informal learning” and “citizen science.”

The videos emphasize impact and broadening participation, especially in the midst of COVID. Visitors can view the videos and participate in the online discussions. They can also vote for favorites (voting and discussion ends on May 18 at 8pm EDT).

Covid-19 in Nepal

My heart aches when I think of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nepal. The situation is dire, worse than in neighboring India.

The latest data I’ve seen (e.g., from Our World in Data) shows a positivity rate in Nepal standing at 47%, meaning that many cases are missed and every other person is infected. The full vaccination rate is 1%. There is little chance to get shots unless the US steps up.

Several of my colleagues have had or currently have COVID-19, including one former student, various colleagues, and several attendees at workshops I led there.

On a recent video call, two people failed to show up because they were sick, one didn’t come because his mother was ill, one just didn’t show up. One showed up but was sick and didn’t say much. Only one was healthy.

The airport is now shut down, so it’s difficult to get oxygen. The health system is overrun. A colleague I trust, Shisir Khanal, has started a GoFundMe: Help People Breathe: Oxygen For Tulsipur to buy oxygen or concentrators. Efforts like that are important, but much more is needed.

The country’s only zoo in Jawalakhel was shut for 10 months due to the pandemic. After reopening, a cap of about a quarter of the usual number of visitors has been imposed. Not surprisingly, the zoo has struggled to stay afloat since it depends heavily on visitor fees. Now, it appears that they may not be able to pay staff or feed the animals.

The only hope may be a new Adopt-an-animal program. Would you like to save an Asian elephant, a one-horned rhino, or a royal Bengal tiger?

The US should treat COVID-19 as a global problem, not simply one of public health in within the US. It is a moral imperative to help Nepal (and other countries), but it also makes sense from the most selfish perspective.

People in the US are celebrating that COVID-19 seems to be at bay. But as the tale in India and other countries shows, early confidence is often undercut by the realities of the virus. The pandemic continues to rage in Nepal, India, other parts of Asia, South America, and Africa.

Widespread infection ignores national boundaries. New variants are not just possible, but inevitable, putting every person on the planet at risk. If we don’t stop the spread, the pandemic can easily return worse than ever in the US. At best it will haunt us for a very long time.

Honey of a campsite

Day 7: Cave Mountain Lake, VIrginia, 1057 miles, 8 states

It all comes of liking honey so much.

A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

After several wrong turns (blame this navigator), one night that was strikingly cold, persistent rain, and some other minor irritations, we arrived at the almost perfect campsite.

The weather was ideal, cool enough to justify a campfire, but not enough to shiver us. Our site was at the end of a loop, with no one else nearby. We mercifully had no wifi or cell service. The comfort facilities were clean and not too far away. We had several pleasant walks and could have spent months doing more in the area.

There was only one problem.

A forbidding sign told us not to leave any food outside or in a tent (no surprise at that), but also no bug spray, no hand sanitizer, charcoal and lighter fluid, toothpaste, or virtually any other item I’d ever imagined on a camping trip.

The problem of course was bears. They can easily become a nuisance or a major danger, and they’re apparently attracted to everything, at least anything that a human has touched.

During dinner, there were three times that we heard major rustling in the woods just above our site. There was no human trail there, and the rustling was much too loud to be from a raccoon or turkey. That night, too, we heard four-footed steps outside our van, enough to make us stretch out the time between needed nighttime comfort breaks.

We might have beeome bear food, but through intelligence, perseverance, and bravery we managed to make it though the night.

New video for conservation areas

[Cross-posted from Wellfleet Conservation Trust]

An analysis of the use of our WCT website shows that many visitors to the site are interested in exploring the conservation areas and trails. That’s especially the case in July and August.

Responding to that need, Mary Doucette, our Americorps worker, has produced a terrific video for the Fox Island and Pilgrim Spring area.

It’s now posted in our video showcase, which will eventually contain additional WCT videos (currently just this one).