Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rhythms of Life

“I got rhythm, I got music,” goes the old Gershwin lyric, and I like both. I can’t dance well and I don’t play any musical instruments, but the rhythms of life? I’ve willingly subjected myself to them and I’m better off for it. I’m in bed before nine o’clock every night and asleep minutes after, then I’m up and at it by 5:00 am. That makes me a morning person, but I wasn’t always. During the first half of my adult life I was a night owl who hated to get up in the morning. As a child, however, my daily routine had been parentally imposed — bed at 8:30 pm and up at 6:00 am, so I’ve gotten back to an older, more natural routine.

Day's End Casco Bay

On that note, three Americans recently won a Nobel Prize for medicine because of their research into the benefits of what they call “circadian” rhythm. They claim bad things can result when we upset our daily sleep cycles, things like increased risk of cancer and “degenerative neurological conditions.

New Nobel Laureates

Important as daily rhythms are, I think our annual rhythms are too and this year seems strange. As someone born and raised in New England I like my seasons, all four of them — even though up here in the mountains of Maine winter can be a bit too long. By March, nearly everyone wants it over and all of us long for signs of spring, even the tiniest manifestation, like a glimpse of bare ground between snow storms can be enough to sustain us for weeks, but we got none of those last spring. March was colder than January and April wasn’t springlike either. Summer was fine when it finally arrived, but now it has stretched into October. It feels unnatural.

From Portland Press Herald

One of those new Nobel Prize winners, Jeffrey C. Hall, lives in rural Maine. He’s retired with seven dogs and several Harley Davidson motorcycles in Cambridge, Maine, which is in the geographic center of the state — in the boonies. He’s not a stereotypical scientist with a lab coat, but instead looks just like any other pot-bellied, middle-aged, balding, white-guy, Harley driver you often see on the back roads of northern New England. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Washington DC, he gradually migrated north to New England, first to Massachusetts and finally to Maine. I wonder if he’s noticing how our seasonal rhythms are off this year.

Kezar Lake Sunset

I’ve been living in rural Maine forty years and we always expected the first frost shortly after Labor Day. We’d would get out the winter jackets for Fryeburg Fair week — not every day, but one or two. This year it was shorts and tee-shirts for most of October’s first week. I like wearing shorts with those little socks under my sneakers from June through August, but then I’m ready to don long pants and taller socks come September. We’ve always gotten a few warm days in the fall and they’re nice, but not every day. I’ve had to put a fan on me to sleep in both September and October. That’s not supposed to happen and it’s throwing off my annual rhythm.

Autumn in the Yard

Autumn in New England has its own smells too and they’re comforting to me as my olfactory sense gets stronger as I get older, although maybe it only seems that way as both my eyesight and hearing get measurably weaker. There’s a certain very pleasant scent detectable when I first step outside on a crisp, clear fall morning. I get a burst of energy when the weather cools that I used to expend on things like splitting and stacking firewood. Cool air and autumn breezes would keep me from sweating too much and I liked smelling smoke from a woodstove while I worked. I also liked keeping at it until sunset, then going inside for dinner.

Early snow in the yard
In November, I look forward to the first snow. I can always smell it before it comes and it’s comforting as long as I’ve got all my autumn chores done. November can be cold enough to break out the flannel-lined pants and woolen socks which I’ll then wear right through most of March, or all if it as I did this year because it was often below zero. If the first snow doesn’t come in November it’ll surely come not too far into December.

By then our days will have shortened, but government upset that rhythm by imposing Daylight Savings Time, which ends at midnight, November 4th this year. I wonder what Mr. Hall and his Nobel laureate colleagues think of that. I’d like to ignore the mandated time changes, but then I’d be an hour out of step with the rest of America.

Monday, October 09, 2017

There Will Be A Next

When playing an academic game in class, nothing helped students focus more than to make it “girls vs boys.” At fourteen, masculine and feminine pride was strong and they bore down intensely. When I afterward explained that many feminists insisted there were no differences between males and females other than the obvious physical ones, they were incredulous. “No way,” they’d say. “Are they kidding?”

“No, they’re definitely not kidding,” I’d answer. “Teacher training today ignores differences and insists that boys and girls are the same. Many if not most now believe the only differences are physical and everything else is due to how they’re raised by parents and schools.” That’s when I’d pull out my VHS copy of a 1995 “20-20” episode John Stossel narrated called, “Boys and Girls Are Different: Men, Women and the Sex Difference.” 

Stossel declares his personal belief at the outset, “We’re just born different,” then interviews prominent feminists of the era who disagreed. But first he set it all up by interviewing parents who believed there were no differences beyond the physical and who tried very hard to raise their children accordingly. No matter what they did or didn’t do, boys preferred playing with guns and girls chose dolls. Toy manufacturers also tried marketing traditionally female toys to boys and vice versa, but their efforts failed as well.

Stossel summarized scientific studies documenting sex differences beginning in utero and continuing afterward through most of life, but when he put them to Gloria Steinem she said those studies shouldn’t be done because they kept women down. Then Stossel asked her, “Don’t you think women are by nature better nurturers?”

Bella Abzug

The temperature in the room plummeted as Steinem responded icily: “No. Next question.” There were similarly icy interviews with Bella Abzug and Gloria Allred. My students were affirmed in their belief that Steinem and company were defying common sense. That’s when I’d tell them the next generation of feminists younger than Steinem and Abzug were claiming there were more than two “genders,” a word they were substituting for sex —  that not all humans could be categorized as either male or female.

Gloria Allred

If they were incredulous before, this time they were flabbergasted. They thought I was making it up. “What else is there?” they’d ask.

I explained there were feminists with Hillary Clinton in the US delegation to the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing who argued there were five “genders”: male and female on each end with gay, lesbian, and transexual between them. Some students considered the gay and lesbian categories might be possible but the transexual one was out of the question. Here in 2017, the word “transexual” isn’t used anymore. It’s been replaced by “transgender” in every media stylebook. I believe if I taught the same lesson today students would take it in stride and say, “So what?”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Now I ask myself what’s next, because there will be something — then something else after that. US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) spotted the trend back in 1993, and coined the phrase “defining deviancy down.” Moynihan was one of the last classical liberals in the party that used to have many. He defeated feminist Bella Abzug in the 1976 Democrat primary for the US Senate but was succeeded in that office by feminist Hillary Clinton in 2001. Moynihan wasn’t referring only to criminal matters but to many sociological trends, and the process he identified has accelerated since his death. What was unthinkable only twenty years ago is routine now.

Oh yeah?

After fifteen years, I’d worn out my VHS copy of Stossel’s 20-20 episode. I tried to purchase a replacement but it was nowhere to be found. One male/female difference he spotlighted sticks with me: the distinctly female skill of remembering where things are. A university study in Canada hired students for an experiment in which they were told to wait in a small office for their turn to be called. In it were a desk, a chair, wall hangings, and many other items on the desk. When summoned, they were asked what they remembered seeing in that office.

The males would say, “There was a desk, a chair, and umm…” then struggle to recall anything else. The females, however, would look off into space and say, “There was a desk, a chair, and on the desk was a pink calendar, a blue pencil holder, a tan telephone…” and many other items. “On this wall there was…” and they’d gesture to show each item’s exact location. Researchers stopped them lest go on for an hour.

I remember that study when asking my wife if she’s seen something I cannot find. After she’s told me where to look and I still can’t find it, she’ll say, “If I have to come over there…”

Sound familiar?

Monday, October 02, 2017

Mutilation in Maine

The euphemism is “female circumcision,” but federal law banning it in the USA labels it “Female Genital Mutilation” or FGM, and that would seem to be the more accurate term. That law passed in 1997 but if it hadn’t, I wonder if it would pass in today’s political climate.

The issue is getting controversial and opinion is divided along left/right political lines. Generally, Republicans want to ban it and Democrats resist. There’s also disagreement about whether FGM is a Muslim religious practice or strictly an African cultural ritual. Some say it’s both.

Prevalence of FGM

A report in The Middle East Quarterly claims FGM is practiced in many Muslim countries beyond Africa, especially in Kurdistan, but there’s little research beyond that because such discussion is discouraged in the Muslim world. An article on stopfgmmideast.org claims FGM is discussed in a “hadith,” a singular or plural noun for accounts of what Muhammed said, which records a discussion between Muhammed and a woman who performed FGM. Muhammed said, “Yes, it is allowed … if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face, and it is more pleasant for the husband.” On the strength of that hadith, today’s Muslims do not prohibit FGM.

So how would one “overdo it”? Carmen Fishwick, writing in the UK Guardian, describes FGM thusly:

“Female genital mutilation involves the removal of the clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate –- depending on the type. Typically FGM is performed with a razor blade on girls between the ages of four and 12, traditionally without anaesthetic.”

One FGM procedure only removes the clitoris.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala

No one had been prosecuted in the United States under the federal law until April of this year when two Michigan doctors, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhruddin Attar were arrested for mutilating the genitals of two young Muslim girls from Minnesota. A USA Today article claims there were many more victims and that Dr. Nagarwala regularly performed the practice but tried to cover up her activity. Nagarwala was released under $4.5 million bond two weeks ago while awaiting trial. Her attorney said she would not flee because the wants a trial: “It's a fight about a sacred religious practice,” she added. Nagarwala, a Muslim, clearly believes FGM is a religious practice. Attorney Alan Dershowitz agrees and is consulting with Nagarwala’s defense team.

Dr. Fakhruddin Attar

A bill to criminalize FGM in Maine failed by one vote last summer. Maine State Representative Heather Sirocki of Scarborough had introduced the bill and she told me she expects it to be reintroduced by Governor LePage in January. Opponents of Sirocki’s bill claim FGM doesn’t happen in Maine and her bill is a solution in search of a problem. Sirocki claims Maine girls are indeed being victimized. As evidence, she cites a survey of federal Medicaid data where there are codes for each procedure performed including female genital mutilation. For 2016 alone, Maine documented eight incidents of treatment for FGM — presumably medical intervention for complications resulting from FGM rather than for the procedure itself.

Maine Representative Heather Sirocki

When I attended a forum at St Joseph’s Church in Bridgton, Maine last year, a woman claiming to work in the Portland school system said Somali girls told her they’d been taken to Boston for the procedure. If anyone who attended can tell me that woman’s name, I’d appreciate it. Sirocki also told me that Maine’s Department of Human Services (DHS) instructs mandated reporters to notify DHS about suspected incidents of FGM, but that didn’t happen for the eight incidents reported above.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lobbied against Sirocki’s bill in Maine and against a similar bill in Minnesota where it was also defeated. However, twenty-four other states have outlawed the procedure. It’s perplexing that neither the Democrat Party nor women’s groups in the US are not leading the charge against FGM. The issue would seem to be tailor-made for them. Neither do they complain about widespread abuse of women within Islam from beatings to honor killings. The same kind of myopia is evident in the European left as well.

Augustin Bahati

Some claim it’s multiculturalism — the idea that all cultures are equal, that no one culture is superior or inferior to any other culture — even one that oppresses women. In my conversation with Maine Representative Heather Sirocki, she cited the case of a Manchester, New Hampshire man, Augustin Bahati, 33, who was arrested last August for what the Manchester Union Leader described as “striking, pushing, grabbing, kicking and pulling out the hair of a woman who was 27 weeks pregnant…” The charges were dropped by Manchester domestic violence prosecutor Andrea Muller because “he lacked the cultural competency to participate in the American justice system.” Bahati is an immigrant from the Congo. It’s okay to beat up women in the Congo, so let him do it here too?

NH Prosecutor Andrea Muller

We’ll see what happens when Maine Governor LePage reintroduces the FGM bill in January.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Finding Ourselves in History

To the old aphorism “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” I would like to add: “…and neither does anybody else.” None of our best historians understand all of history. They specialize. They study what happened in a particular time and place. They try to be objective in a Jack Webb-style: “Just the facts, Ma’am,” but that can make for dull reading. So they adopt the writing style of a storyteller. They humanize the main characters, illuminating both virtues and flaws. They make judgements. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t sell many books. If they’re also teachers, and many are, their students would fall asleep.

Like the late star of Dragnet, historians are trying to solve a mystery, but unlike him they’re not going to arrest a perpetrator. They may, however, tarnish a reputation here and burnish one there. Such may be their intent when beginning their research. The best historians try hard to be unbiased, but they know they’re human and will always fall short of perfect impartiality. Others only offer a pretense of impartiality.

Bias or fact?

Another human factor that may work to distort history I will call peer pressure. When historian colleagues all tend to interpret the events of a particular time and place in a particular way, there’s a strong tendency to go along. One might dare to offer a slightly different shade of meaning but to go further would risk being shunned or even attacked.

When I taught history I’d do what many teachers do and parse the word, suggesting it can mean: “his story.” as if there may be other stories offering different perspectives on the same events.  Feminists like to parse the word too, but emphasizing the “his” part as biased in favor of men, and that students might want to think of it as “herstory” as well.

Never was I taught history as a separate subject until fourth grade when Sister Charles Paul passed out the first history books at St. William’s School in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. By the end of September I’d read all of it and longed for more, but no more came along. I don’t remember getting any more history texts until I went to high school and had Western Civilization I and II. Then it was US History in junior year and that was it until college. Never did I sense a love of history in my teachers though. Many high schools gave US History classes to football coaches who had little or no interest in them.

After my risk of getting drafted declined in 1971 I dropped out of college, then went back in ’73 after deciding to become a teacher. For that I needed degrees and took a few more uninspiring history courses, so my interest in history had to be sated by my own research. After being horrified watching the Adolph Eichmann trial with my father in 1961, I learned all I could about the Holocaust. Then the Vietnam War affected everyone in my demographic as my best friend and others I grew up were sent there. Some died and all were profoundly changed, so I learned all I could about that as well. Thus did those two phases of history became my own specialities. 


When students came to me with little or no historical perspective or interest, I devised methods to help them to fix themselves in time. Digital imagery became available in the ’90s, so I encouraged students to bring in pictures of their ancestors to be scanned. Then they digitally constructed  horizontal timelines of the 20th century with pictures of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents across the top above the years corresponding to their lifespans. Across the bottom they put images of major world events occurring during those lifepans. Just as Vietnam had dominated my generation, World War II and the Great Depression affected the lives of their grandparents and/or great-grandparents. World War I affected their great-great-grandparents, and so forth. They could also import pictures of presidents who served during those lifespans. 

Ellis Island

After that exercise, study of relevant historical occurrences became personalized. My hope was they would gain a deeper understanding of how world and national events can have enormous effects on the lives of ordinary people. Many students were thus motivated to question surviving ancestors about those events. Thus they’d fix family members in time and gain a deeper understanding of where they fit in too.

Last week’s column concerned fixing students in space by learning geography. My hope was they would leave my class having merged the two skills. They would be able to visualize where their ancestors came from, know when they came here, and even why. They’d be motivated to research further back in time as well as further away in space, and then realize how they came to be here — living and speaking English in rural Maine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Organizing Knowledge

Most students came to me unable to fix themselves in space or in time. They had little idea of what the world looked like beyond their neighborhood and their school. They could not point to Maine on a world map, or to their town on a map of Maine. Neither did they have much idea of world and national events during the lives of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors which shaped their families and the culture into which they’d been born.

It took me a while to realize what an impediment those deficits were. I had a curriculum to deliver and try as I might, results of my labors were sporadic at best. Information I delivered went in one ear and out the other because there was no context, no net, no web in students’ minds onto which it might attach. Some did have those contexts. They comprehended everything and progressed. Most, however, did not.

My first target was geographic ignorance, so I passed out maps of the world with no labels anywhere. Depicted were continents and the blue water surrounding them. On the continents were tannish mountain ranges and blue rivers. That’s all. Next I passed out a list of names — continents, mountains, rivers, seas, bays, gulfs, straits, channels, deserts, isthmuses — about one hundred fifty of the earth’s most important physical features. Their task was to find them and label them the same way cartographers did on the atlases in the back of their textbooks. They had to find and label each, then print the name on a horizontal plane except when labeling rivers and mountain ranges. Most of them gasped.

“Get to it,” I said. “You’ll be tested the end of next week. I’ll pass out the same blank map and a list of fifty places randomly selected from that one hundred fifty that you must label correctly without looking at your atlas.

“Which ones will be on the test?” they asked.

“I’m not telling. You’ll see when I pass it out.” We drilled in class for about ten days and played various map games. Ultimately most did fairly well on the test. Those who didn’t were allowed to take it again until they did. They had begun building a physical context — a net between their ears. To their surprise, they actually enjoyed it.

Then came a respite, after which came another blank world map with another list of one hundred fifty countries and major cities. They had to label each and outline political borders between countries (which were already lightly drawn), and locate cities with a dot. Then came more drill, more games, and another test. Again, most did fairly well.

The goal was for each student to be able to conjure up the world map in their mind’s eye whenever they heard one of the three hundred places mentioned — then see exactly where in the world it was. Standing before a pull-down world map they would need less than five seconds to point to it. For the rest of their lives, whenever they heard something about one of those places, there was a framework in their minds to which it might stick before it went out the other ear. It was a way to begin organizing knowledge.

After that we’d take another break from map drills, but only for a month or so. Then I’d pass out a blank map of the United States and another list of one hundred fifty place names — and they’d do the same drills. Then came another blank USA map and they were tasked with finding all fifty states, all fifty capitals, and dozens of other major cities. After appropriate intervals would come blank maps of Europe and the Middle East. For the last several years of my career, I was determined that no student would leave my class geographically ignorant. Some did anyway, but not many.

Every day we’re bombarded with information from electronic media in our pockets, in our living rooms, in the car. Most of it doesn’t stick in our minds because far too many Americans are like my students were. They cannot fix themselves in space or time. For them there’s only here and now. Ask them when the Civil War was fought and they cannot answer. World War I? Forget it. Even World War II is hazy in America’s collective mind. When they hear of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), can they point to either Iraq or Syria? I doubt it. North Korea? Iran? Probably not. 

All during my thirty-six-year teaching career, America’s access to information increased manyfold while our ability to retain and make sense that information went in the other direction. Worse, it appears that decline is accelerating. Why? There’s no construct, no context in which to arrange global information so it can even be understood, much less acted upon.