Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reaching The Season

Last night I played hooky, sort of, by meeting with my visual anthropology students only long enough to make sure they were working on projects due next week. Then I lit out for home in order to get there before sunset.  As ambivalent as I am about the notion of "home" in Texas, I wanted to be there to see in the new year.

Mind you, we are not a terribly celebratory family. Not only are we not religious, but we don't even mark many secular occasions.  For example, Tuesday was the twenty-second anniversary of my marriage to the Beloved Spouse.  We were married at the Cook County courthouse in Chicago, the day after Labor Day in 1991.  We had decided only the previous Thursday that we should make honest people of ourselves after three years of co-habitation, so we applied on Friday for a license; by law we needed a two-day cooling-off period, and the following Monday was a holiday, so we had to wait for the Tuesday.  So, on September 3rd, we got hitched by a lady judge who miss-heard my intended's name as "Ronnie" (later on we did wonder if we were legally married, since his name isn't "Ronnie"--but the certificate listed him correctly, so we decided we were actually wed in the eyes of the law). She also seemed disappointed that we didn't have a camera with us, but sent us on our way when it was all over. We had lunch at a really bad steak house that showed soap operas (coincidentally, "Ronnie's"), and I went back to work at the Terra on Michigan Avenue. The newly-minted Beloved Spouse went home to write a paper.

In the intervening years, he's finished his Ph.D., I've abandoned mine, we've moved back to Texas, and come to miss Chicago terribly.  The Terra Museum of Art is no more, and most of the bookstores we loved are no longer in business. The Cubs are still doing badly (except for that one blip a few years back), and the skyline has changed dramatically. So, when my daughter reminded me on Sunday that the anniversary was coming up, we reminisced about old times. But we didn't do anything else to commemorate the day.

Nor do we celebrate holidays much. Birthdays get noticed more than any other occasion, and we do try to get whatever family is available for Thanksgiving. But religious holidays, whether Jewish or Christian, tend to go by without much fanfare. So there are no big family Seders any more (my daughter goes to Minneapolis for Passover most years, to celebrate with her much more religious father), and I'm the only one who even notices when the High Holy Days arrive in fall--not because they're holy, in particular, but because they mark the passage from year to year.  I like the idea of an autumn (or, in this case, late summer) new year, at the New Moon, with the season changing from hot to less hot, late tomatoes, the last of the hatch chili crop, Mexican avocados, and pomegranates.  The garden is spent, wilted, and sadly neglected except for an occasional (and often illegal, due to drought restrictions) watering of the potager.

I arrived home in time to watch the sun sink and tint the sky pinkish.  I poured myself a glass of pomegranate juice and San Pellegrino and went out to catch the end of the year. The dogs loved going out after having been cooped up all day, and we spent a few minutes enjoying the cooling temperatures (it had gotten up to 100 F, but was down in the low 90s) and the dropping humidity before we went back indoors. The rest of my evening was spent being nostalgic about Philadelphia, because the current issue of my alumni magazine had arrived in the mail.  I was happy to note that nobody I'd known had died since the last issue. Another (non) event to celebrate.

Sometimes I wonder about my basic optimism.  As cranky an old bitch as I pretend to be, I really like the fact that I'm still alive. I don't have many friends, but my spouse and my children count, along with my first husband (or, as I think I've referred to him in the past, The Initial Spouse--who recently sent me photos of our wedding in honor of its 45th anniversary) and an old chum from Taiwan days, both of whom still keep in touch. Work keeps the TBS and I from socializing much, but I really do enjoy just thinking and reflecting when I have time--things I'm not sure I appreciated when I was younger.  Whenever I say anything about wanting to live as long as I'd like to (I'm hoping to beat my grandmother's record and make it to 105 or so), folks ask me why--and I just say something about wanting to see how things turn out.  Maybe I'm waiting to see if the flying cars ever get here. But I'm not pessimistic enough to expect Armageddon--just realistic enough to think that we might somehow muddle through without killing ourselves off by being too stupid. 

The potential for improvement keeps seeping into the conversation:  ways to produce energy without smothering the planet, ways to make peace possible, ways to explore the universe, ways to feed the hungry, ways to stabilize global population and sustainably raise the standard of living for the severely impoverished.  I'm not terribly sanguine about the public will it would take to do any of this, but I am hopeful.

So perhaps its the utopian impulse that kicks in when seasonal milestones take place: why I celebrate (by at least noticing) solstices, equinoxes, and seasonal changes.  They remind me that I've made it through one more cycle.  I could have been dead twenty years ago, or five years ago, but I'm not. I'm still here. I still have students who remind me that what I do for a living has some meaning, I have children I'm glad I brought into the world, and I ended up married to a tennis-coaching philosopher who makes me laugh and who's terribly fun to be around.

Who knows. Maybe before this time next year someone will start working on the idea of smaller energy grids (when enough people vote down huge high tension wires in their neighborhoods), or a blight will wipe out all the GMO corn crops, or somebody will invent a space drive that makes travel to other planets or solar systems possible before I'm 105. There's always hope for tikkun olam: healing of the world.

Jews mark most transitions with a blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season." It's my favorite brucha (blessing), in part because it's not a prayer in the sense of a petition. It's an acknowledgment, an expression of gratitude, that can be addressed to the universe as a whole, even if one isn't a believer. At Rosh Hashana, it's generally said upon eating a fruit for the first time since the previous new year. I say it over figs in the spring, and sometimes over pomegranates in the fall.

To anyone who still reads this blog, Jewish or not, l'shana tova--I wish you a good year, happy, peaceful, and with many years to come.

Image credit: Pomegranates are rife with symbolism in ancient cultures. Their multitudinous seeds can represent fertility, fecundity, wealth--all appropriate concepts at the passing of seasons. This painting, Still-Life with Fruit and a Crystal Vase is by the Baroque Dutch artist, Willem van Aelst (ca. 1650), via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Life (and Death) in Tornado Alley

This time of year, folks around here are somewhat obsessed with weather: justifiably so, especially in view of what happened in Moore, Oklahoma yesterday.

One reason why I've always considered Texas as a place of exile is that the region scares the crap out of me on a regular basis.  I can handle the heat, humidity, and bugs, but the tornadoes are another story.  I spent an entire day in a bathtub in April of 1979, seven and a half months pregnant, and with a toddler who thought the whole thing was a lot of fun.  That day, an F4 tornado hit Wichita Falls, and the weather forecasts for Richardson, where we had moved from Long Island, were threatening the same conditions.  I was used to hurricanes and typhoons, but they give you plenty of warning.  Tornadoes, on the other hand, can quite literally drop out of the sky with little advanced warning at all.  A vintage television broadcast, featuring my favorite weather caster, the late Harold Taft, suggests that at the time people were rather more blasé about the possibilities than they are now. Nothing happened in Richardson, but I've been thinking about building a tornado shelter ever since.

The aftermath of that storm made many people more conscious of the danger, and over the last thirty years, the news channels have fed us regularly with dramatic forecasts every time a front comes through.  The F4 or (some were suggesting) F5 storm that hit Moore and killed at least 24 people was far more devastating than any previous, so even those who've been accusing the weather-folk of fear-mongering will be paying attention, at least for this season--which is only beginning. I'm really hoping that the outcome of yesterday's devastation is that people start building shelters in schools; it seems unconscionable that a town that had already suffered a massive tornado would build schools that relied on students' huddling in hallways.

There seems to be no solid evidence that the intensity of recent storms is an outcome of global warning, but I do feel a frequent compulsion to smack the deniers upside the head.  Even if bigger tornadoes are caused by something else, there is so much change occurring everywhere that even to most entrenched non-believers ought to be rethinking how they're living in the world.

What prompted this post in the first place was a picture in the Daily Poop of a peach farmer walking through a depleted grove. The accompanying article  ("Texas peach crop is the pits; wild swings of weather to blame"--apparently not available online) noted that crops were diminished or ruined by our warm winter and late frosts. The weary-looking farmer remarked that "We wish the weather would go back to normal."

Fat chance.  Even small crops in backyard gardens are being affected.  Whereas ten years ago when I moved to McKinney, I'd get two crops of figs, lately I've only had one.  And this year, because the frosts nipped the buds, I've only been able to find two little tiny figlets, low on one of the two trees, in a relatively sheltered spot.  There's a chance I'll get a late summer crop, but I'm not counting on fig jam.  I'll nab what the mockingbirds don't steal, and eat them right there.  On the other hand, my two remaining peach trees (one volunteer, the other a remnant of a tree the previous owner planted) are loaded, and I may actually get a few now that the side yard is fenced. Somebody (not mockingbirds, I think) used to make a foray into the open side yard when we weren't looking.  Again, the spot where these are growing is relatively protected, and so that may have helped.  But we also garden organically, and preserve soil moisture with mulch; that probably contributes to peach survival.  When we had the work done on the house last year, we installed two rain barrels on the north side of the house to help irrigate the potager, and the peaches and anything else we decide to grow back there.  Three more barrels cover other sections of the property,  and the recent rains have filled them all up to overflowing--so much so that I've had to plop mosquito dunks in them to help stave off West Nile virus.

As I write this, I'm just in from mowing the back, and the Beloved Spouse has finished the front and south sides of the house--as the skies darken and neighbors warn of whopping storms moving in by 1 pm.  The news channels and TV crawls are abuzz with another tornado watch. However, I've checked my NOAA and HD Radar apps, and it looks like we're in for rain but not much else.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to heed Harold Taft's advice on the linked video clip. I will be keeping my eyes on the skies. And we will be working on a shelter this summer.

Note: Anyone interested in helping with disaster relief in Oklahoma should probably donate directly to the American Red Cross. These good folks are better attuned to what's really needed, and are situated to put funds to use quickly and efficiently.

Image credit: Photo of the Binger, Oklahoma F4 tornado in May 1981, courtesy NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Endangered Languages, Revisited

A while back, I posted some ramblings on the loss of language, after having become involved with a couple of Kickstarter projects: Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets, and Alissa Stern's effort to develop multimedia tools for teaching Balinese, an endangered language with an endangered script, to English speakers.

I'm happy to report that both projects were funded, and the Endangered Alphabets will be making an appearance in the Smithsonian in June.

The Balinese effort is also going strong, and Alissa has initiated a new campaign on Kickstarter designed to extend the software to include Balinese-Indonesian teaching materials.

As I bear witness daily to the loss of richness in English, and the loss of linguistic understanding in general among my students, I can't help but hope that somewhere, some languages will survive, with all their embedded culture and poetic possibility.

If you're looking for somewhere to invest a few bucks, this just might be the place; and certain levels are even tax-deductible. I just hope that someone won't have to do this for English at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Earth Day 2013: Small Steps

Over the past five years I've managed to post on or about Earth Day (last year there were two essays), in an effort to recognize a significant moment in U.S. environmental history, and to reflect on themes that prompted me to create Owl's Farm in the first place. In my current state of time-deprivation, it's difficult for me to post more than a few times a year, but this seems as good a time as any to think about change in general, as well as particular changes over the last twelve months. 

The first celebration I actually remember took place in Philadelphia in 1970, and I still have the poster I bought during those festivities. Today it happily adorns my kitchen wall and reminds me that in this little corner of the universe, every day is, in some way, Earth Day.

If I've learned anything over the years, it's that we can't really afford to lose our focus on what needs to be done, and I'm occasionally heartened by the fact that celebrants are no longer just cranky old folks like myself, but a include a much broader spectrum of citizens.  I don't actually go out and march or dance in the street anymore, but I do spend time out on the property, taking inventory, and reflecting over the past year.  This time, the view from the back yard toward the house is far more pleasant than it used to be, thanks to some major renovations last summer.  New paint, a new bathroom and work on the old one (including new, very low-flow toilets), R50 cotton insulation in the attic, and solar screening will make the coming summer more livable.  Plans for a geothermal heating and cooling system had to be abandoned because the cost would have made the rest impossible. But our energy bills are fairly low anyway, and we bought a portable air conditioner that works more efficiently than our old window unit. The attic fans have been repaired, which will double the air flow through the house, so our bills will probably be even lower, and our power use reduced even more.

Over the last few months, as I've talked with students and colleagues about what we've been doing with the house, I've realized that there are some fairly simple strategies involved with lightening one's impact on the planet that most people never really think about.  None of them require much cash outlay, they do some significant good, and they confer a bit of peace and satisfaction upon their practitioners.

Shorter showers  A couple of years ago a conversation on Orion's forum took this one on, and many writers saw it as purely symbolic.  Real activism, they suggested, needed much more significant action.  But think about it.  If most people take daily ten- or twenty-minute showers, and then cut those in half, common sense (plus a bit of math) tells us that it all adds up. I'm talking water-savings here, in a drought-stricken region, rather than money, because monetary savings are small ($9/year or so).  A four-person family can make a bigger dent if everyone's on board.  Subtract the cost of a cute kitchen timer, and you're still saving water even if the timer costs a tenner.

Even better, take fewer showers.  In her terrific 2010 book, Green Barbarians, Ellen Sandbeck (her blog is here) noted many ways in which our overly sanitized society wastes water and money on all manner of stuff designed to eradicate every possible germ (good or bad) and make us not smell like human beings. But we don't actually need to shower every day in order to be civilized or even healthy.  It's thus quite possible to forgo a shower without contaminating the earth. 

Rain Barrels We bought four (we had one) when we had new gutters installed last summer, and the only problem we foresee is keeping them from becoming mosquito breeding farms when they're over-filled after a rain.  But BT mosquito dunks take care of that problem (as does a judicious lowering of the water level), and there's enough water in each one to take care of gardening needs quite easily.  They won't help much with the lawn, but I'm also working on minimizing the amount of non-productive farmland.  We do need romp space for the dogs, but over the next year or so I'll be replacing as much St. Augustine as I can with fruiting shrubs and low-maintenance ground covers.  Since the non-productive area still provides ground-water recharge,  I won't feel guilty if every square inch isn't edible.  But many herbs make good ground covers anyway, and I can always give extras away to needy culinary students.

Compost Anything edible can be composted and turned into soil and/or fertilizer.  For about a hundred bucks last year I snagged two bins for making Bokashi compost--a Japanese technique that essentially ferments your food waste, including protein sources like bits of meat and cheese.  The ongoing investment in the probiotic granules needed in the process is the only expense after the bins.  I bought two, and rotate them. When one is "done" it sits for a couple of weeks, and the contents then buried in the garden.  If, like us, you've vastly reduced your food waste,  the process can be rather leisurely.  It might take a month or more to fill up a bin (even when spent flowers and other non-food plant materials are added). In the meantime, you also drain off liquid that can be diluted with water to use as a liquid fertilizer.  The areas in the garden where the first two batches were buried are now lushly verdant.  Some stuff still ends up in the big compost bins (weeds, mostly), and most of our coffee grounds are used on the roses, but we end up with about four Bokashi "crops" a year. We're also considering a method called hugelkultur, which involves burying our brush pile and covering it with the excavated dirt to form raised beds.  This would solve the problem of having to use the chipper-shredder (the only gas-powered yard appliance we own). We get a large amount of brush from the trees on the property (rain + wind = downed limbs), and seldom have the time or energy to deal with it.  Some gets used for firewood, but the rest is just sitting there. Being a brush-pile.

Note: This week's explosion in West reminds us all too painfully of the price we pay for depending on chemical fertilizers.  This world really needs to find ways to feed its population without relying on toxic and potentially disastrous combinations of chemicals.

Growth Even folks who don't have large sunny spaces suitable for food crops can grow herbs.  Many herbs are perennials, and also flower, so they can take the place of ornamental annuals.  I now have a large, expanding crop of Greek oregano growing in the front border, and have started taking bits of it to plant in obscure corners of the property.  I'm also thinking very seriously of planting the parkway with peppermint, which is otherwise pretty invasive and has to be grown in isolation or in pots.  But a few strategically placed mint transplants next to the street will look better than the weeds that grow there now, and will smell nice when dogs walk on them, and when their owners clean up after their poopy pooches.

The abundance of shade from our 18 trees (not counting the ones growing along the back alley, which have been planted by birds and squirrels and left to flourish by us, since they mask the houses behind us and offer some considerable privacy) means that our veg-growing success is mixed.  I'm hopeful about the tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos I have planted, and will try beans and radishes as well.  Now that we have some sunny space in the side yard (which was fenced by a cranky new neighbor last summer), I may try something there--especially since that's where one of the Bokashi batches was buried, and where the next one will be as well.

Anything green we grow lowers our carbon footprint, and if we're smart it will also lower our food bills without contributing to Big Agriculture.  People with kids can accomplish even more, because growing things provides all manner of lesson-material and connects children with the planet in ways they'll never forget.  As I'm fond of mentioning, all the talk about the financial deficit we're leaving them ignores the environmental mess they're inheriting if we don't radically alter our habits, soon. Financial deficits and surpluses are ephemeral; they can be eradicated as fast as they're incurred or accumulated. Environmental deficits, on the other hand, can take millions of years to correct.  And that's if we get started today.

Image note: The photo was taken a couple of years ago in what was once called "the accidental garden" in the southwest corner of our half-acre property. It later turned into our own personal carbon sink, after years of purposeful neglect turned it semi-wild.  It will regain some of its garden-ness when we reclaim some of it as cropland after attempting to establish a hugelkultur patch this summer.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Food, Culture, and Common Sense

The latent Scotswoman in me keeps popping up, with David Hume whispering in one ear, and Thomas Reid in the other.  Those of you who haven't downed enough Scottish Enlightenment philosophy along with your Macallen or Lagavulin won't know what I'm talking about, but I took a memorable course with Victor Worsfold many long summers ago and what I learned then is creeping back into my consciousness now.  The empiricist argues with the pragmatist. Almost daily.

"Common sense" today refers to a kind of received knowledge tempered by reason, as in a "common-sense approach to government" or "for crying out loud, use your common sense." Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be much sense among the common folk these days, and what might seem to be evidence of actual common sense appears to come as a surprise to many.

Take diet.  Real common sense would suggest that if a large population of people suffers significantly less heart disease than another, perhaps we should compare lifeways: diet, activity, occupation, etc. You may remember that several years ago, the "Mediterranean diet" hit the news, and the foodie faddists went at it energetically. I certainly didn't need much encouragement (fully one half of my 300-odd cookbook collection already included books on Spanish, Italian, Greek, French, Israeli, Turkish, Egyptian, and North African cuisines; the rest are about culinary history, much of which involves the ancient Mediterranean), and quickly added The Mediterranean Diet, The Slow Mediterranean Diet, A Mediterranean Feast, and The Essential Mediterranean to the shelves.

Of course, diet is only part of the equation.  People in Crete, whose food-traditions go back to the Minoans, ate lots of fruits, veg, unprocessed meat (chicken, lamb), fish and seafood--the usual culprits. What often got left out of the discussion, however, was that these same people toiled on their farms from dawn to dusk, drank Retsina, and didn't sit around on their duffs playing video games all day.  Nor did they keep a supply of Twinkies stashed in the root cellar (where they kept their root crops, dried fruits, etc. for use during the not-terribly-cold winter).

So, when the newspapers fill up with articles on Startling Discoveries, such as connections between general bad health and highly processed foods, or the "surprising" (to whom, exactly?)  results of the recent Mediterranean Diet study, or that type 2 diabetes afflicts more, younger people every year, or that gluten intolerance is rising precipitously, or that sitting on one's duff playing video games is bad for us, I just get the vapors and reach for a glass of Zinfandel.

Are we, collectively, so flaming stupid that we can't see the equation: 16 oz. Slurpee = potential diabetes?  Highly processed foods with four different kinds of sugars, two days' worth of sodium, and multiple unpronounceable "ingredients" (none of which is actual food) = potential heart disease? Foods so far removed from their natural state as to be unrecognizable = rare diseases becoming far more common?  Hormones in our meat, hormone-disrupters in our air fresheners = premature puberty in children? 

One then wonders about the very notion of common sense, because it seems to be so, well, un-common.  I can't, however, help but assign at least part of the blame to Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, relentless advertising on behalf of food processing conglomerates (Big Everything Else). Big Food is a huge part of the American economy, and we're spreading the "wealth" everywhere else (witness the Big Mac effect in China)--including the Mediterranean region (if that's not irony, I want to know what is). I used to think that folks in other countries were just smarter, or at least more practical than we are, but now, not so much.

The trouble is, at least in part, that in the modern world, an abundance of meat, fat, sugars, and other once-rarer commodities are all emblems of wealth.  Another moment of high irony: cucina povera, essentially Italian peasant cooking (literally "cooking of the poor") is hot stuff in foodie world. Popularized by Mario Batali,  who's a food conglomerate unto his own self (if you're a fan like I am, read his cookbooks; don't visit his website), it's nevertheless an admirable approach to food. One cooks well what one has, as most poor people in the increasingly distant past once did.  This is another example of real common sense at work--what we used to be good at.  I've recently been making an effort, tied to reducing food waste, to finish up what's in the fridge, using staples from the pantry. This often involves making what I call "Leftover Soup," an amalgam of whatever leftover meat and/or veg are available, with broth, onions, and anything else that seems fitting.  Sometimes I add pasta or rice if it needs body, but essentially dinner is what's there, cooked up with some herbs and flavors that make it appetizing. Of course, this frequently leads to irreproducible results, but unpredictability has its own charms.

One of the real problems in America is that bad food tends to be cheaper than good food, and urban food deserts (with little access to supermarkets with fresh produce) are nonetheless seldom without a corner fast food joint.  

Anyway, the world's quest for questionable evidence of wealth may be killing it. I once wrote about redefining what it means to be poor, because a significant amount of what we now see as "poverty" is really just a lack of the trappings of modernity.  Having electricity, which might, indeed, raise some very poor people out of abject squalor, isn't consequence-free.  Producing electricity without polluting the environment irreparably is a continuing problem.  Cheap electricity breeds waste, because if the energy source is inexpensive, people pay less attention to need than to desire.  More access to stuff inevitably generates more waste. (The links are to previous posts on these topics.)

I'll undoubtedly return to this subject in future, but I've probably vented enough for today.  I would like to note, however, that all this advice we're getting through various media, as results from various tests and studies roll in, amounts to a plea for moderation and--yes--common sense.  It makes so much more sense to eat what we love, and if it's not terribly good for us, limit it rather than exclude it.  If what we love, however, is Twinkies and Doritos, it's time to re-educate our desire. What's good for us can taste really good, and it's not all that hard to cook like a poor person. All you really need is a few basic ingredients, a pot, a spoon, and a heat source.

And a good bottle of olive oil. And a decent bottle of wine.

Image credit: This is a lithograph of Vincent van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. For the painted version, see the Google Art Project page. Although not one of his most popular works, the subject is appropriate to the topic of this post: peasants eating food they dug from the ground.  It captures many of the artist's different influences: genre painting, realism, post-Impressionism, and even hints at his expressionism.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cynicism and Utopia

This is rather a momentous day, what with President Obama's second inauguration coinciding as it does with Martin Luther King Day.  It's also still the new year's honeymoon period, when folks haven't yet given up on resolutions made under the influence on New Year's Eve.  And, it's been a month since the world didn't end, and I turned 65. The days are getting longer, and I saw my first robin (although I'm not sure he ever went anywhere), but the weather's still in flux (50s today, up to 70s by Wednesday, back down to 50s at the weekend) so I don't imagine spring is exactly around the corner.  February is typically the coldest month around here, and although Christmas was the worst weather day we've  had this winter so far, things could always get worse.

I didn't really want my first post of 2013 to be a downer, and perhaps it won't be.  But what's on my mind these days tends to keep my spirits lower than I'd like.  I am by nature an optimistic person; I try not to be, because pessimists are frequently happily surprised when things don't go as badly as they expect. But when confronted by adversity, I tend to accept it as a challenge and try to make things better--or at lease accept what's not in my power to alter.

But I do worry about the future, because I'm faced every day of my working life with evidence that this country has no idea of how badly its educating its children.  Not a day goes by when the Daily Poop doesn't offer some "solution" to a variety of perceived problems in the schools:  inefficiency, lack of career and/or college preparation, inability to engage students in essential skills.  In Texas, our legislators are constantly trying to find ways not to fund educational efforts because they think that both schools and the gummint need to be run like bidnesses (sorry; government, businesses).  Teachers should be able to teach 35 kids as easily as 25; students don't need access to real books when they can be reading them online on antiquated computers.  Teacher salaries are a joke (and not a very funny one), and Texas doesn't want to raise them unless they can tie compensation to student performance.  And that leads us to the testing regime that assesses all the wrong things and puts so much pressure on students and teachers that nobody has the time or energy or desire to really learn anything. It's not any better for college teachers, either (at least in proprietary schools and community colleges), because we're under the assessment gun as well, since rising student debt is giving administrators the willies.  More and more pressure is applied to colleges to run students through in the minimum amount of time (whether it's four years, two years, or 12 quarters).  However, students come to us with less and less preparation, and they're finding it harder and harder to successfully navigate the demands of a college-level curriculum. 

Even if they do graduate successfully, what do they have to look forward to?  Wages are stagnating (raise? what raise?) while we're being asked to more for what we're already getting.  So productivity is up in the U.S., while paychecks don't change.  I was wondering the other day why it is that in 2007 I could sit down at my computer a couple of mornings a week and write a post for Owl's Farm--and being able to do that encouraged me to start the others.  These days, however, I have to have a four-day holiday in order not to feel guilty about working on this post for a couple of hours.  What I realized while I pondered the situation is that I am working longer every day to find ways to compensate for the fact that my students are so unfamiliar with the past that putting art into context is impossible without recounting the historical moment in which works were created. Talking about Jacques Louis David to people who know nothing about the French Revolution isn't quite like facing the guillotine, but it certainly does recall Goya's contention that "the sleep of reason produces monsters."  In order to set the stage, I have to consult high school teachers in Hawaii, who (being younger, more energetic, and more with it) have created music videos on historical topics to engage their students.  Lady Gaga's music as a background to the events of 1789 is a lot more fun than listening to me try to summarize them in an art history lecture.

So I read advice in the Chronicle of Higher Education, look online for what others are doing, search for engaging videos, and try to find ways to make information more accessible without dumbing down the course or lowering standards.  Finding ways to connect fashion, video, animation, and other programs to art history is now a full-time job, added to my other one--teaching, with all it encompasses (research, lectures, grading, learning new delivery technologies). 

Have I mentioned that I just turned 65?

I didn't really make any resolutions for the new year; but rather than grouse about the state of education in the state of Texas, I really need to have more fun looking for new material.  I've already located a couple  of promising avenues--connections between paleolithic painting and animation--and as long as I can keep myself entertained, perhaps I won't bore my students silly.  The Cranky Old Bitch persona, which can be amusing to some, wears thin after a bit, and I'll  have to don another Trickster costume if I'm to make it through to spring. I'm looking to new sources (The Encyclopedia of Informal Education) and old (Morris's essays on education), in hopes of becoming more hopeful.  What I really need to become is more cynical--though not in the contemporary understanding of the term.

As Daniel Halpin points out in his article for Infed, "Hope, Utopianism and Educational Renewal," "A cynic today is not the same person the Ancient Greeks meant by the term. For them the cynic was a critic of contemporary culture on the basis of reason and natural law - a revolutionary rationalist, a follower of Socrates." In fact, the word "cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog,"  so Cranky Old Bitch isn't inappropriate.  We love dogs because they know whom to trust (us, we hope), and they're naturally suspicious. Cynics are naturally anarchists, so I've always been rather sympathetic anyway.

Now, I'm not about to go live in the marketplace in a barrel or piddle in the street, but I think we could learn something by revisiting the teachings of the cynics, and by recognizing, as Diogenes did, that there is a toxic aspect to civilization itself.  We've been trying to come to grips with this realization since before the hippies started dropping out in the '60s, and folks started camping out on Wall Street.  I'll write more about this in a future post, but for now, I think we could consider the influence of money on everything we do.  The utopian in me wants to try to find ways to find ways to educate on the cheap: do what I can with what little I have, and see where it leads.  Since I've got a shelf full of William Morris, I think I'll start there, and spend the rest of Inauguration Day/MLK Day snuggled up with my two mongrel cynics and some Morris essays, and try to figure out how to save the world.

How's that for optimism?

Image credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Via Wikimedia Commons.