Category Archives: Culture & Society

The answer is: snore, yawn, lie, or say bless you.

Why do people…

Recently I dreamed up a group game (not yet piloted), where you come up with an opening phrase together, then each person makes a prediction, or several, of the suggested completions will be offered by the search engine to which it’s offered. Without checking first, my predictions for this one, in these times, are:

  • “…get Coronavirus?”
  • “…fail to observe social distancing in public?”
  • “…think serious inconveniences experienced by them during the pandemic are signs of government incompetence?”

Okay, this last one is not likely, but it’s what I’m wondering. As I peruse narratives in the news and the social media posts of my family and friends, I observe a pattern of thinking that these things we hear happening to other people (and how unfortunate, but inevitable at the population scale, we dispassionately observe), will not and ought not happen to me personally. We can comfortably swap homie images, post humorous pandemic memes and count our blessings as we bide our time.

If we are hit by a negative consequence, by God were not going to calmly accept it, acknowledging that it’s merely unfortunate, but equally inevitable at the population scale; nothing personal. No, by god, it must be someone’s fault. The government not taking quick enough action, or taking action too quickly, thus curbing my personal freedoms, seemingly being the favorite. Or, if blame cannot be assigned, then there’s a call to battle of some kind at least, starting with telling and retelling, and trying to follow the spidery threads of cause and effect, reaching out for solutions that might not be available.

Religious folks have the recourse of thinking that finding themselves in the negative subset of the odds is actually a message from the gods to wake up, count their blessings, not take their divine help for granted, repent and be healed, or acknowledge the power of karma and tighten up the ethical framework. The sects that consider themselves the chosen righteous will be content to consider these events part of an attack by the prince of darkness, a spiritual battle in the heavenly domains, to be overcome by prayer and fasting.

It’s all just human nature, the expressions of adaptive coping mechanisms that have evolved in the human collective psyche and therefore culture.

An attitude of accepting one’s fate is another way of responding. Modern Western culture calls this “victim mentality” and rejects it as dysfunctional, but because it is common and even prevalent in some cultures, it too must have adaptive value, says evolutionary theory. It can even be empowering in a different way, as it can lead to a ceasing of pointless (and/or dangerous) struggle and regaining of personal and social peace as well as a rationing of energies for more important things.

When my own life is more closely impacted (and odds are it will be), I will resort to my own ingrained (DNA plus nurture) ways of thinking and acting. In the past this has included all of the above, and I can see precursors of the same as I mentally extrapolate likely unfortunate scenarios of my future life. I also notice a reluctance to think of these scenarios at all, except as a stimulus to get ready. But one never can really get ready for a beloved elder to get sick and die, for someone we know or ourselves to get so sick it’s hard to breathe and we struggle to keep the house stocked with necessities or ask for help when one is infected. To picture a severe reduction in personal freedom, a descent into poverty and dependence of my children and friends, even myself, a future of limited opportunity in the ways we have had before, of the collapse of industries, housing values, retirement investments, power and resource grabs by wealthy one percenters or foreign entities enabled by the recession, these are not what my mind wants to dwell on, except as I may be able to mitigate the future vulnerability of those I love by taking action now.

For now I am comfortably  detached. My adult children are all around home, including the one who was in another state, two are still able to work, one is supported by Social Security child’s benefits, and I am a state employee and so far assured of a steady income despite the closure of my work place. This puts me in a position to offer some day labor and/or housing to my kids and/or their friends who are recently out of work until special emergency unemployment insurance provisions take effect. My regular necessary contacts are few, my elderly relatives are relatively self sufficient and/or well cared for by others. I live mortgage-free, can leave my retirement investments in their place in the hopes of recovery. I have a spacious yard and places to enjoy the outdoors safe from contamination. I am checking my privilege, and this is only part. I do have to urge the young adults in my life to follow social distancing protocol with any contacts who have other contacts, as the adaptive behavior among the young tens toward remaining as adventurous and free of restraint as possible.

The attitude I want to choose is still hope, mindful use of intelligence and compassionate instincts, of expectation and participation in a new flowering of resilience and creativity that will enable us to look back and say, “All in all, we rocked that time, that pandemic thing. And we can do it again when the next thing comes.” As far as I can say THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY TO THINK AND BE, I can say it about that. It’s right to be hopeful, whether it’s by complaining, sounding the alarm, accepting, battling, joking, grieving, keeping busy, waiting it out, plodding along, ignoring, creating, strategizing, sheltering, plunging in or running away. It takes all kinds to make a world in this already short, potentially beautiful life we live as individual souls and in community.




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Life is short, and the second law of thermodynamics still applies.

Life is short, and the second law of thermodynamics still applies.

I feel oddly content being semi-confined to my home by necessity, to do my part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The house is bright with sunlight. Not only am I out of my windowless classroom, I get an extra three days off to spend hours outside in the garden or out on the trails, doing errands when I feel like it. We will be back to working on Thursday, in some form, from home, but I’ll have regained the additional hour of my previous commute, and most likely not feel I need to start an hour and a half early and stay late as I did when classes were in session.

Local confirmed cases of coronavirus remain at three, deaths zero. I have traveled several times to our state’s ground zero to spend time with my boyfriend, yes, and he has visited me. But we had relatively little contact with potentially contaminated areas, I habitually maintain sanitary practices at school; he had been working from home for several months already, his contacts mainly with fellow skiers.

I had plenty of food and other basic supplies before all this started–dried, refrigerated, frozen, and even growing in the garden (kale, onions, chard, herbs). My supply includes several bins of non-perishables from the supply of the recently deceased sister of an acquaintance. She had kept a large emergency supply untouched as she slowly died, apparently of malnutrition.

I just bought early salad seedlings and planted my own flats of seeds. Already I see tiny leaves and stems rising up out of the soil; the rhubarb is unfurling outside and soon there will be asparagus coming up. The currant and haskap bushes are about to flower, and I pulled enough dandelions today to make dandelion root coffee.

Our infrastructure is largely unaffected, with phone and internet communication, online entertainment, information and shopping, power and transportation, other than confined public transport options, as available as ever. It could be months before things return to normal, but I expect to remain healthy, or recover relatively quickly if I do become infected. The return of my daughter from a ski resort in Colorado where she was working presents some risk, but she says a few tests have indicated that the illnesses in her residence seem to be the flu. Our local efforts will continue in any case to protect vulnerable folks from dying earlier that they would otherwise.

One thing that has struck me is that the economic slowdown has brought greenhouse gas emissions way down. Economic recession drives social anxiety and creates human hardship, but is a relief to the biosphere. Maybe this will contribute to a broader conversation about the unsustainability of economic growth, as David Suzuki and others have been warning. I don’t thing that’s an oversimplification, either. Though some argue that there are ways to decouple economic growth and carbon emissions. But even if the economy grows greener, until it becomes more like the economy of natural ecosystems, human society will still be exceeding the biosphere’s constraints. And it makes sense that living systems will sometimes reverse imbalances with large scale adjustments that could include great loss of human life, whether as part of a cycle, or an extinction event or punctuation and dramatic shift in the trajectories of human evolutionary.

This particular pandemic doesn’t seem like that large an event, but it alerts my mind to possible future events, and makes me wonder how all our various global perturbations of Earth’s systems will accumulate and return to bite us. Rather than a Gaia hypothesis or balance of nature-style restoration to equilibrium, with humans ensured a restored Eden-like role, seems more like a combination of this new theory of how life follows the second law of thermodynamics and chaos theory, where slightly different initial conditions and later events can lead to wildly variable results, even if they are deterministic according to the laws of physics.

And so my advice is that, no matter what happens, we be our best selves, and keep on hoping, dreaming, loving, and growing. Life was already short, so let’s try to be at peace with the fact that death is on the way for all of us, one way or another. I expect we will discover, or remember, great powers of resilience and creativity as we deal with the economic fallout of this, and I hope that our social safety net weavers will successfully combat the economic forces that tend to concentrate resources in the hands of the few who are in a position to channel them there during difficult times.


Posted by on March 16, 2020 in Culture & Society, Economics, science


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Review of Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach

Got my number of drafts down under forty, by trashing and/or revising and posting. Mostly trashing. Again I am not taking the discipline of writing daily seriously enough, I acknowledge for reasons I do not fins acceptable.

Last night I made myself watch a movie, so that I could get out of the going to bed too early & getting up too early routine. I clicked on one that looked like a pleasant enough story, but turned out to be badly acted and corny. While searching for another I saw the auto-play trailer of another that started with the the same distracted-by-circumstances-while driving-and-swerving-to-avoid-a-honking-semi-ending-up-in-the ditch opening scene. The woman in the first film got a forehead bruise, the man in the second got more seriously banged up, so apparently that’s psychologically equivalent, scars and limps being, apparently, too alarming or less attractive in the weaker sex. What I then happened upon turned out to be the subject of this post, though I didn’t start intending to write a review.

I found “Marriage Story,” which I selected on the strength of the two lead actors, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver (saw him in Paterson, story of a poet bus driver and his wife), and the opening writing. It’s a sad, deep story that starts and ends with expressions of affection and honor for each other, but also starts and ends with a breakup that neither rally wants. The split is over what I think is a common problem—the inability to nurture the individuality of both partners while they are in an intimate partnership, even where there is love and good intentions. What could bring an even higher and more fulfilling level of that individuality instead results in one, often a woman, discovering that they have never grown into her full personality and gifts, and yet feeling guilty in their efforts to make changes, especially when the spouse cannot or will not make the necessary sacrifices, is completely blind to this opportunity to love more deeply and maturely.

The writer explored this de-selfing for love theme in a nuanced way, with no cheap allocation of fault or trite conclusion. Even the lawyers, engaged reluctantly but seemingly by necessity, do not appear to be the villains. Though their fees cost the couple their young son’s college savings, put the mother/mother-in-law (who loves both spouses) in debt and eats away at the husband’s theater grant and the wife’s new acting pilot salary, only seem to be doing their jobs so that the financial and psychological pain that must, apparently, result, is equally shared. Which it is in the end.

But the wife and husband, though bereft of each other and left with the complexities of shared custody of their young son, are left with the beginnings of something perhaps worth all the pain: she has a career that celebrates and nurtures her talent in her own right, and he with a chastening, a recognition of an aspect of his personality—the film didn’t portray is in a black-and-white manner as a flaw—that blocked his and his wife’s happiness and allow him to grow in a whole new way. And here I am seeing it that way, having experienced something similar in my own child rearing years and after. It could be seen as a chastening of the wife, as she has chosen to pursue her own goals rather than sacrifice them for the preservation of the marriage and family.



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The sympathy of not really belonging

I am part of a small team within our small staff, just three people, working on getting to know the Common Core math standards, focusing on 6th grade and up. We call it our Math PLC, Professional Learning Community, and meet most weeks, with a few gaps for other things that come up and general staff meetings. I am sort of leader, being the high school math teacher, so I bring guiding documents and suggest options for how we proceed, but we really all work together and I respect and depend on each person for their perspective, experience, and skills. For example, I am ideas and vision oriented but also wanting to analyze a lot of information before making decisions, another member is relationship oriented, super encouraging and also hilarious, and a third member is action oriented and good at laying out the pieces visually so we can organize the parts and move forward.

So far we’ve chosen what we’re calling Priority Standards, being the ones we guarantee to teach and assess with an aim to get all student to meet these standards. These are about a third of the ones laid out in the big CCSS documentation, but it’s recognized that it’s impossible thoroughly teach and track progress in every standard every year. Also and since the standards are broad and overlap from year to year and even across each other, as long as we align the strands up through the different level and catch the stages where certain ones are emphasized, in the big picture we try to cover them all. It’s also true that only certain things can be captured in standards language or be assessed in any standardized way; this does not mean they are the most important or can comprise a full curriculum.

This last meeting was completely different. We didn’t really do anything about math standards, but we made a deeper connection that felt pretty profound. We just talked. About one eprson’s relationship with her grandpa, about spirituality and religion, and about feeling, all three of us in different ways appreciative of but also disconnected and critical of the culture of our local community. I was like, one person said, My two team members had always lived here, but said the place sometimes drove them nuts and they’d never really feel they fit in. Yet at the same time, they knew it was imporant to stick around and be a part of the community, especially as teachers.

I’ve written before about how I don’t feel I fit into the community, doubt sometimes even whether I can even make an impact because I’m so at odds with the dominant culture, even though on the surface I seem like I have a lot of similar background. From a rural dairy area, raised in the Church, large family, homeschooled my kids. But that’s where the similarity ends. I feel like they both said they do so often, like I’m always having to bite my tongue.

There are two sides (at least) to this tongue biting–one being the effort to avoid unnecessary argument, alienation, or openness to misinterpretation when views are worlds apart, or at least toning it down so as to have a chance to slowly influence as well as show respect. The other is the restraint of criticism of the community and culture, and certainly individuals, to those on the fringes or outside, and avoiding a holier-than-them attitude.

None of us put out any specifics about what that culture was that grated, but we all knew. And about the rich and valuable parts too. No need to say, but it was special to feel more connected to one another in that moment, and it was an important team building session.

Personality-wise, the three of us are very different–it’s kind of magical that we can still feel so in sympathy as a team that has come together, as well as individuals who in some way are outsiders. Brings home in a greater way what community means.


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The unexamined life is still worth living, say the trees

Sometimes I wake up feeling something afraid. Not even the routine of setting out breakfast for anyone, or putting in another load of laundry to draw me into a sense of purpose. Not even dark-eyed juncos blown about the yard, or a newspaper in the yellow box to read.

It’s after the holidays, before back to work, and I am trying to pull myself together after a night of dreaming class was about to start and I had no lesson plan, the wrong text, and expectations were high. And an understanding that I am on my own, the main architect of how I use the rest of my time here on Earth.

My response to these feelings in the winter dark has been to sleep in until my head aches, then suit up, slip a coffee card in my zip pocket and my notebook in my backpack, and run out the door. The rhythm is good for the brain or something. Duh–using the body to move, work, and build makes one feel better. How could something that should be so obvious, as it is basic animal instinct, have to be chosen, even scheduled as part of one’s day?

I jog up the hill between swishing evergreens, backpack catching the rhythm and swinging side to side. I slow at the top to a walk. I realize I have not been attentive to my surroundings, and so look into the shrubs and trees of front landscaping as I pass downhill.

The thought comes from a grove of firs: “I produce, I reproduce, I die. This is the sum of existence.”

The birds say, “I consume, I reproduce, I die.”

In theory, if a person is in somehow rhythm with those aims, one will be happy. Yes, I mean it. For some species, without consciousness, culture, or conscience, the pinnacle of success is to do that well, given a certain amount of chance and randomness of environment, luck and unluckiness. Consciousness, culture, and conscience are all just layers that can support such aims, and any apparent contradictions are illusory. If existential anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior are also part of our culture, these too are part of the big picture of a successful..if not species, but, say, set of genes replicating over evolutionary time.

Yes, this is woman searching for meaning, although I have not yet read the book. I was okay with it being salvation from sin and communion with the Creator, but I’d like to go more basic now, to a creature, grounded meaning for existence. If I am frustrated in this, that’s okay, and I’ll fall back on creaturely, humanist  basics–eat, work, love, as I know these are fundamentally healthy and satisfying and will push me toward the more socially and morally acceptable contributions to the propagation of this set of genes. Some of which are shared by the house sparrows and goldeneye ducks outside the coffee shop window, and the evergreens. So there is a backup plan.


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Labor that may or may not deliver

Meanwhile in attempts to lift poor children from having little or no opportunity to go to that kind of place, or any college, to grow up educated and provide a decent living for their families, Bill Gates and other business entrepreneurs (a.k.a. social entrepreneurs), in partnership with the federal government, have launched their attempt to education everyone with “twentieth century skills,” ready for the work force.

Good, but why does that have to mean, among other things, less reading of fiction in favor of more extraction of meaning from informational text? Why limit the finer opportunities still available to those whose brain functions have not been culled by stress and poverty, who possess the desire and ability to long for deeper connection, more  far-reaching vision, a deeper understanding and expression through the arts and literature. Let’s not dumb down the culture in making it a more egalitarian one, elevate jobs and “productivity” over education in the best sense of the word.

And what about the obvious conflict of interest in having the owners of the tech corporations provide the software and classroom supplies and pedagogical philosophy for these children’s education experiences? We need workers, they say—this is the twentieth century as we envisioned it, so let us help you fit into the future we are creating, and all of us will be better off. If something has to go, let it be anything that makes workers question how we already know we should be doing things. You know, growing the economy, competing with other market powers, preserving the American way of life. Which is democracy in the sense that those with the power to sway the majority (those with  twenty-first century skills–not cumulative up to the twenty-first, but the latest set and open to re-training) can do so efficiently by means of a database so comprehensive and powerful that it allows media and “educational” products to be created that cater to each and every individual learning style.  And the part of democracy that allows us all to choose from fifty kinds of breakfast cereal in the aisles of the local supermarket and either traditional or “Simply” ripple chips, all produced by a few central manufacturing facilities staffed by twenty-first century workers. We can help students learn so effectively the practical skills they need to be “productinve members of a global democratic society” that the neural pathways needed to understand 1984, Brave New World, the MaddAdam trilogy, Animal Farm, The Hunger Games, and That Hideous Strength will be unnecessary and therefore atrophy.

An apology for the convoluted nature of my sentences, and how they go on and on, and have too many clauses. I’ve been told the “Ten Ways You Can …”, say, “Fight the Machine” format is so much more effective, but I haven’t mastered that twenty-first century communication style yet.

This existence of seems so contrived—since when in these thousands of years does one wake and not have to go about making a living? Making in the sense of obtaining food, shelter, and cultural context and materials from teh ecosystem. All aI have to do is create—to write, sew, paint, create and maintain human bonds, and that mainly based on the compulsion of angst about this modern life: what is it? What does it mean? Why are things not fair and I have this free time while others are laboring to the point of exhaustion for bread for their children and something to hide from the drunken consort? Why is it considered more valuable to go into database architecture, or game design, which pay a lot of trade tokens, than being a parent, home maker, friend of neighbors in the community, or teacher? In the division of labor, some make money doing work that is of dubious historic or spiritual value, so that others can do the important, though unpaid, work.


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Guest post by the amazing E.J.

High school it stupid and a waste of time. It’s so dumb, you can skip it every day and still get A’s. The only reason W (community college, Running Start program)  is better, is because you don’t have to go to classes eight hours a day. It’s crazy that some people don’t go there, because school is a dumb system, with dumb classes, and dumb administration. There are some gem teachers, but not enough to make it worthwhile. That’s enough and I’m going back to my lair.

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Posted by on July 6, 2018 in Culture & Society