Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

I rarely post an essay on both here and on my homeschooling blog (Quarks and Quirks), but this one fits both. 

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“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

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Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.

Running With Ambulances

The first ambulance made me smile. Two and three-quarter miles into what would be my first three-mile run, I heard the siren behind me. I’d only planned to run the two-and-a-half, but three just seemed too close to stop. My breath was ragged and my gut was protesting this last half mile commitment. The ambulance roared up the street, sirens blaring and lights ablaze, and I was certain someone had called it for me. If I looked half as bad as I felt at that point, that seemed like a logical conclusion. As it streaked past, I turned my last corner toward home, half chuckling and half wondering if this was a sign I’d pushed it a bit too much too soon.

Per the advice of my esteemed running mentor, I backed off on my next run and promised not to increase my mileage for another few weeks, and then only by ten percent. (I also promised to take a tissue since it seems blowing snot onto neighbors’ lawns violates running etiquette. Why spit is acceptable by snot is not, I am not sure, but I follow the advice of my mentor. From shoe selection to tech shirt decontamination, she’s my go-to woman for all things running.) I’ve committed to running three times a week, weather and body permitting, with a goal of increasing cardiovascular fitness and running a few 5Ks this summer. I’m following no particular program or schedule but do check in with my expert and friend.

A few days later, I set out on what was to be another 2.5 mile trek. By the two-mile mark I was feeling something akin to sweaty moxie, and decided to go for three again. That’s when I heard the ambulance. Rather than coming from behind me, this one approached from the front, perhaps in an attempt not to frighten my in my fragile state. I stared it down and wondered if I was missing a message. I’m healthy and fairly fit for my age. I shook off the question, turned the corner toward home, and finished the last leg of my run. I arrived home far less fatigued than after the first three-mile loop the previous week with the confidence that the first time hadn’t been a fluke.

I’ve been feeling my age lately. Thus the running. At  >42.5, I know there’s still likely plenty of life ahead of me. I also see how much is behind me. I’m not one to live in the past, but I did spend a significant part of my younger years planning my life far into the future. Children and divorce taught me both are futile paths, although learning from yesterday and preparing for tomorrow are essential for growth and assure there’s enough milk for tomorrow’s cup of coffee. I am, however, wondering when I’m going to get to it.

Now if I only knew what “it” was. Homeschooling and home maintenance fill much of my time, and the moments between are flashes too easily filled with phone class, errands, social media, and other distractions. I’d like to be writing more, doing something larger and longer, but I can’t summon the sustained time, attention, or energy. Inject a fair amount of doubt about what in the world I’d have to say of interest or importance in this vast world, where nothing is really new, and the result is an uncomfortable ennui. That ambulance may not be heading for my decently healthy, somewhat fit body but for my fatigued and discouraged heart and mind.

So it’s time to turn the corner and stop listening to the whining in my head (which could easily be confused with that of an oncoming rescue vehicle).  There’s a road to run, one that for now is paved with homeschooling, home maintenance, work, a bit of writing, supportive friends, and perhaps too many distraction. I can work on decreasing the distractions (no, the kids are staying) and carving out a bit more concentrated time to think and write while remembering that much of the rest of the list is worthy and necessary work. This is my road. It’s been the right road, although sometimes a bit rougher than I liked at the time. It’s part chosen and part chance, and while I don’t know what is beyond the next  corner, I’m sure I have the breath and sweaty moxie to make that ambulance up the street unnecessary.

 

Magnifying Mirrors

I recently received an email from a friend in appreciation of a post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks. I’d written about how our family has handled studying war. She commented on how things in my life seem to work out somehow noted her own feelings of parental inadequacy. (That’s certainly not my intent when writing about my experiences with the underbelly of life. Quite the opposite.) Ironically, the day I received that message I was struggling with a serious case of that same malady that day — the feeling like I’m getting it all wrong.

Okay, not all wrong. When I objectively step back and look at my life, I don’t see some overarching failure or anything close. But when I sit too close, I’m apt to see only what seems awry. It’s like staring at your face for too long with those magnifying mirrors: rather than seeing the whole face, all that stands out are the crevasse-like wrinkles, Mt Vesuvius zits, and errant wiry hairs. Eek! A short survey of that amplified visage can be informative. (Time to wear sunscreen daily and cut down on the potato chips. Oh, and put better tweezers on the shopping list.) Too much time studying the parts, and one begins to consider large-brimmed hats and oversized sunglasses as indoor winter attire.

I tend to tempt the mirror fates with long examinations of the minutiae of my life and relationships with others. My mind’s eye strays to predictable places: my boys and our homeschooling, my productivity outside of homeschooling, and the messiest places of my house and yard.  Regular, short looks into life are healthy, desirable even. It’s in these moments I see what is working and what is not. In those glances, I see the dust bunnies under the bed and the diversionary tactics that keep me from writing bigger projects. Those looks help me reorder priorities if needed and remind me what is important and what isn’t. (You will live another day, bunnies.)

The longer looks take my breath away and can reduce me to panic and tears. Attention to detail is good. Obsession about detail is not. With a bit of attention, I can see the pattern of my frustration with my teen, notice my parenting mistakes, and reflect on what part of our struggles is his responsibility and what is mine. With too long of a look, the relationship between us seems fatally flawed, with rents and rifts made by me forever damning him and us. I can shift from constructive self-criticism to scathing self-loathing in a few blinks. He’ll despise me when he’s older. He’ll run from this home and never return. I’ve ruined it all, and there is no redeeming this relationship.

Yeah, I’m good.

Fortunately, I’ve  peered often enough into the magnifying mirror to know that those panicky moments, hours, or days are more calisthenics of an overactive imagination, some inherited tendency to assume guilt, and a flair for the dramatic than reality. Not that the initial inklings of concern aren’t important messages that can inform me that my ways of being in the world aren’t working as well as I’d like, but perseverating on them isn’t useful for him or for me. It doesn’t even help the dust bunnies, who tend to get rather matted and muddy when exposed to tears.

Despite these mountain-into-molehill looks at my life and self, I’m generally optimistic. Like my friend noted in her email, things tend to work out for me. I think this is true for most people, although tallying success by the day is likely not the way to find this. Scorekeeping life a bad idea, and it’s far too easy of an activity for an introverted, internal, continuous improvement sort of person to do. The path from a single bad moment to a hideous month is short and leads to nowhere productive

So as self-flagellating as I can be, I’m not a believer in bad days. Bad moments, challenging mornings, trying afternoons, exhausting evenings, sometimes all in the same 24 hours, but not bad days. My viewpoint may be partially a product of semantics and partially protective, positive attitude. I’d hate to mark the day as “bad” at any point along the way, since each moment is a separate moment, and all those moments can’t really all be bad. After all, if we’re still all here at the end of the day, how bad could it have been? The label of a day negates the good, the amazing, the profound, and the vast majority that just is.

The brief look in the mirror shows what is. That’s the look that’s long enough to honestly assess the situation, assign responsibility, and ascertain a course of corrective action.  Too little time of self-reflection results in too little data to foster growth.  Too much time results in a serious magnitude of one’s actual affect on the world around them. It may be a miserable, jet-lagged, luggage-losing fiasco, but assuming one is the blame for all the world’s wrongs (or even all one’s teenage son’s misery) is an ego trip. Ouch.

And that’s part of why I write. I write to sort out what I see in the mirror. I write to give myself some distance from the magnified view I tend to see on sleepless nights or after difficult conversations. I write to see that generally the moments that make up life are fine. Perhaps they don’t all work out in the neat way I’d prefer. Perhaps more angst, drama, and failure than I’d like occur along the way. I write to sort the chaos, failures, missed opportunities, success, hopes, and joys and find that even at the hardest days, the latter three win out.

Namaste.


What Do I Want for My Children?

What do I want for my children?  I think that question plagues every parent at least occasionally during child-rearing .  It certainly crosses my mind at least several dozen times a day.  Perhaps homeschooling makes that count a bit higher than average, but I doubt that number would be much different if their education wasn’t also on my plate.

So just what do I want for my children?  My standard answer is as follows:  I want my boys to be productive, contributing members of the world.  I want them to be moderately happy.  I want them to be tolerated by others of their species.  A bit low-reaching — even incomplete?  Nope.  That’s my list.  And it allows me plenty of room to love them unconditionally, correct them when they’re out of line, and teach them algebra and research paper writing.

But what about college?  Marriage and families?  Church membership?  Voting Democratic?

That all sounds fine to me, but those may not be their paths to happiness, productivity, and social acceptability.  Take happiness.  An Ivy League education won’t seal the deal for happiness any more than learning a trade or working on a ranch in Colorado.  Either way, you’re stuck with yourself, and unhappiness with yourself knows no economic, educational, or political boundaries.  Happiness won’t be found by gaining wealth, amassing friends on Facebook (really), or collecting every new electronic gizmo that comes along.  Sing it with me.  Happiness comes from within.  Misery comes from the same place.  What I want for my kids is an appropriate amount of the former, stemming from a good amount of self-knowledge tempered with love of that self, the others around them, and this universe we share.

Productivity is relative.  As an at-home, only occasionally-working-for-pay, homeschooling mom, I keep my self sane by reminding myself that all productivity isn’t tied to a paycheck or an office with a door.  Okay, I’d like to also see them in their own homes some day, although a communal farm or Buddhist monastery would fly, too.  I’d include financially independent, but who am I to say what sort of partnership them may form someday, what domestic agreements they’ll make?  It’s more than a hope for them economically.  It’s a hope for their hearts and souls.  I hope that the way they live in this world contributes goodness to it, either through their career choices or their general way of being on this planet.   I want them to add to the repair end — tikkun olam — more than the breaking end.

My line about tolerance by others is only a bit tongue in cheek.  With one child who is somewhat naturally oblivious to the habits of the humans in the world (but perfectly clear on cat social protocol), this is a serious challenge.  What passes as cute at ten (and far less does pass than it did at six) looks quirky at fifteen.  Nothing wrong with quirky — quirky works for all in this house.  But soon, ignoring the ways of the Earth’s most complicated species can make for a lonely life.  My younger’s Asperger’s makes learning the ways of the social human a fairly large, life-long project rather than a life-and-learn affair.  It takes loads of cues and commentary on what others might be thinking in a social situation.  His Asperger’s is going to stay with him, along with his green-grey eyes and love for complexity.  I’d not wish any of those to change.   Even for my neurotypical older son, getting along with others without being a sheep is a skill to learn and takes time to hone.   I’d like them to have friends as they go through life, so social awareness is part of the curriculum.

Ah, if it was that easy.  Have three simple goals.  Love my children.  Live our lives.  It’s not.  I’m pretty good at rationalizing most of the other stuff I do so it fits those goals, however.  Education tops my priority list.  Not for the sake of a particular diploma but as a path to choices.  My kids have (shifting) ideas about what they’d like to do when they’re older.  Neither mentions fast food counter work or anything requiring physical labor as goals, so we stay the course that offers the most options later on: we plan for college.  Not the stress-filled, do-it-all, kind of way to plan for college.  Not the lackadaisical, do-what-you-want way either.  We take the middle way, stressing strong reading, writing, and studying skills and enough science and math to open the doors in that direction should that be desired.

I wish just the social piece was easier.  I am not always sure when what I’m asking my younger son is for him and when it is for me.  Not the parts about not scratching certain regions in public or considering the feelings of other before making random comments that sound hilarious in his head.  I’m good with all of those, and those lessons are good for him.  Inhibiting shirt chewing (I often do) or insisting on eye contact (I try not to) are more questionable corrections.   Between the Asperger’s and, well, the being a boy thing both guys have going on, much of my girl-based social information seems suspect if not just irrelevant.  I’m best when I stick to the standards:  listen to others, chew with your mouth shut, and shower daily.

Even with the answer in place, I still ask myself — many times a day — what I want for my children.  It’s a reminder of what I hold important.  It’s a tug back to what’s truly important in their lives now and what is likely to be important later.  It holds me to those snarky, modest goals that aren’t really that modest after all.

 

A Frog Story

African Clawed Frog (genus Pipidea)

Four years ago, a mother who shall remain nameless, bought her children three tadpoles with the intent that, together, they’d watch the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs (small, aquatic ones) that would live a year or two at best.  Together, they did watch as one tadpole died (and was subsequently dissected) and as the other two fulfilled their destiny as adult male frogs of the Pipidea genus.  This mom and her kids enjoyed watching them shove frog food into their mouths and listening to them croak in the evenings.  As with most pets, the children lost interest as soon as the dirty work of aquarium cleaning came around, and the frogs became a part of the background, not unlike the unpainted patch on the living room wall and the crabgrass along the driveway. Sound familiar?

A recent post by fellow blogger and friend Keith Yancy recounted his daughter’s loss of Steve, a tadpole that never reached frog status.  While it was hardly considerate to his daughter to do so, I cheered the demise of Steve, knowing years of drudgery (likely for the mom of that house) lay ahead.  The cause of Steve’s death is unknown, and Steve, may he rest is amphibious peace, is buried in the yard.  I maintain that the family dodged the amphibian bullet.

Yes, watching the transmogrification of the two surviving MacLeod tadpoles was fascinating.  Over a startlingly short time, legs and arms grow and the tail shrinks.   The resulting young frogs were even kind of cute, albeit in way the young of many species are.  They fit nicely in their Grow-a-Frog habitat while undergoing metamorphosis but quickly required a two gallon aquarium.  With more room they just kept growing, finally reaching a rather appalling 5 inches from front claw to back claw.  I changed their water regularly, treating it first so as not to poison the creatures, but the larger they became, the more difficult were the water changes.

Frogs jump.  That’s not surprising, but the height which these solely swimming creatures could get when in a net for transfer surprised me each time.  I took to changing them at the sink, placing them in the bottom of a Rubbermaid pitcher with just a bit of water, so as to avoid escape.  But during one transfer, I wasn’t fast enough moving my net from tank to pitcher, and one made a break for it, landing right on the flaps over the sink drain.

After a few moments of open-mouthed staring, I did the practical thing.  I called for my older son, then 10, and asked him if he would pick up the frog.  He declined.  Together, we watched the frog jump and land, this time dropping through the flaps into the garbage disposal.

His eyes grew wide with concern and fear as he said, “You’re not going to turn it on, are you?”

“Of course not!” I replied, not entirely certain what course of action I’d have taken without this impressionable witness.

So I had no choice.  I reached into the (unplugged) disposal and pulled the critter out, depositing him back in the pitcher with his more obedient buddy.  The remainder of the tank cleaning was without incident, although I soon moved them to a newly vacant (due to gerbil deaths) 10 gallon aquarium with a filter to decrease hand-to-frog contact.

And it worked.  A few times a year, I’d scrape down the sides, sometimes moving the frogs to a bucket for a more thorough cleaning.  I started feeding them a bit less often and found they thrived and that the aquarium remained much cleaner without all the uneaten food going to rot.  I came to a resigned peace with the frogs, sure that they’d live only another year or so.

Then I spoke to Bill.  Bill’s a Biology professor, and Bill knows his creatures.  A short description of our metamorphosis project prompted him to ask me if I knew how long these critters could live.  No, I admitted.  That’s when he dropped the frog bomb:  20 to 25 years.  20 to 25 years.  The kids would be out of the house by then (hopefully), and I’d still be left with these stinky, messy frogs.  Anything living that long should come with a long list of disclosures and options for surrender to Pipidea rescues should one move to a home prohibiting aquatic frogs, become allergic, or the like.  How many parents are left with these frogs, caring for them years after their now metamorphosis-educated children have moved out and on?

So I did what any practical mother would do.  I tried to give them away. Homeschooling definitely hampers the transfer of pets to unsuspecting classrooms, so I took to social media, offering them on Facebook.  No takers.  This spring, after installing goldfish in the rain barrels to eat mosquito larvae (works if the fish live — don’t put them in before an unseasonably cold spring night), I considered adding the frogs to the barrels.  Knowing they couldn’t weather the winter (they are native to Africa and South America), I opted out, not thrilled about the prospect of fishing them out in the fall.  Resigned to my fate as frog owner for another few more decades, I gave their aquarium a much-needed scrubbing, down to the rocks, rinsed all well, and returned them to their home.  The clean tank improved my attitude toward them, as it always does when they’re sporting spiffy digs.  All seemed well, and two frogs were swimming, ribbiting,  and eating as we left for vacation last week.

The stench that met us at the front door, six days later, was difficult to identify.  Alfie, our eight-year-old guinea pig was munching carrots, so the smell wasn’t from him.  The garbage can, filled only with some of his not-very-noxious vegetarian-diet poops, also didn’t hold any clues.  The kitchen revealed a soft but unblemished peach, and the garbage disposal had been run before we’d left.  Befuddled, I left the kitchen, moving toward the back of the house.  Ten feet from the frog’s aquarium, the source revealed its malodorous self.  One frog was floating at the top, decay quite evidently in progress.  The second frog was nowhere in sight.

Suitcase still on the front porch, I whisked the aquarium outside and started dumping out the contents onto a gravel path.  As the water sloshed out, I held my breath and turned my head.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw distinctive frog movement.  I set down the aquarium and repeated my open-mouth staring as the frog hopped furiously away.  With no net and no desire to touch anything that had just left that decay-ridden water, I ran into the house for a net and container of water, knowing my chance of finding the stinky survivor was slim but bound to try (a bit) of a rescue.  Of course, I never found him.  I returned to the definitely dead one and finished my clean-up work with only a shadow of remorse that I’d done a rather halfway job of searching for the missing Pipid.

And the boys?  They’re fine.  I attempted to enjoin my younger in the search for the living frog, but he proclaimed the task futile and, besides, the yard was too stinky from the dead frog.  My older never blinked, instead pausing a breath before finding the light at the end of a very short tunnel:  “Now we can get gerbils again!”

Involuntary Silence

Drawing of a normal larynx. Inflammation from infection, overuse, abuse, etc. can cause laryngitis.

I woke up without my voice today.  After a week of a cold that finally seemed on its way out, and evening coughing spell last night seemed a bit too much for my vocal chords.  What was raspy last night (certainly beyond Hollywood’s rough and low sexy female voice) was just a whisper this morning.  At 6:30, my younger woke me requesting another chapter of Eragon, which I’ve been reading aloud the past few weeks.  Alas, the spirit was willing but my flesh was weak.  No morning story.  Also, no morning lessons more than the briefest

explaination of a math problem or brief instruction. My heart sank.  How could I captain this ship without a voice audible from more than 1 foot away?

I’m a talker. I’m a voracious talker (and generally good listener) in a family that talks from a few minutes before waking until a few minutes after falling asleep.  At least it seems that way.  Often, everyone around here seems to be talking at once.  On top of that, my younger is a LOUD talker.  So loud, his father and I took him for hearing tests when he was 4, since a loud voice can be a sign of poor hearing.  Alas, the tests revealed normal hearing but a loud child.   So loud my mother, upon receiving my call to announce my younger’s birth, exclaimed, “That doesn’t sound like a newborn!”  I’m surprised I didn’t hear him from the womb.  This dear child with no hearing impairment but just an amazing set of lungs has been in the throes of tantrums for the past month:  long (up to 3 hour), ear-splitting tantrums, generally demanding responses to his anxiety-ridden questions.  There is much talking during these episodes, far too much on my end, I’m sure.  And it’s loud talking with punctuated by yelling.  He yells just as a matter of course during tantrums.  I yell when he can’t hear me because he’s yelling (yes, I see the problem there) and when I just can’t take it anymore.  Even if I can refrain from those unsuccessful approaches to his loss of control, I don’t know how I’d manage a tantrum without a voice.

But my younger woke in a cooperative mood.  He listened to my croak and suggested I stay in bed while he practiced the piano and practiced his typing.  He’d even get his breakfast, he announced.   He trotted down the stairs and began his day as planned as I wondered, “What child is this?” 

Tea, a steamy shower, a throat lozenge, and much wishful thinking did nothing to change my lot.  My children marveled at my voiceless self, and I wondered at the quiet.  Was I the driving force of the cacophony of our house?  Hmm.  My younger took charge, announcing his intentions for completing his work the rest of the morning, while my older plopped into a chair, fatigued by his turn at the second cold our house has seen this month.  He’s the last in this virus’s rotation, and he’s by far the most dramatic when ill or uncomfortable.  I prodded him toward breakfast and wondered what to do next, given my lack of voice.  I texted a few friends, checked in on Facebook, commenting more than usual on friends’ statuses, and finally sat still with my discomfort. 

I watched the edgy feeling in me wax then wane a bit.  I noticed my discomfort at being silenced.  Not just because I couldn’t verbally run the show today but because I felt a bit trapped.  I’m a wordy person, attached to verbal expression either aloud or written, and only one channel was open to me today:  writing.  I’d like to say I took the day to work on an article for publication, my recently conceived yet barely begun book,  or even a blog post with a bit more of a point.  However, this week has left me depleted of more than just my voice.  My initiative, creativity, and drive are all at a nadir.  I’ve used my voice attempting to calm my younger from his heights of distress, often aimed at me but really about his own concerns about self-worth.  I’ve talked to my older, again and again, about his worries as well, wondering all the time if anything I say can help this young man feel more confident and doubting myself as I speak.  I’ve felt so many words this week have been without purpose, not reassuring or offering assistance but simply vanishing into the aether.  Some, I’m certain, have wounded the listener, when my frustration with a topic from either child surfaces for the umpteenth time in a day, no closer to the answer the child wants and yet no closer to what I desire either.  And I wonder if I’ve wasted breath or worse.

So perhaps this voice loss is a blessing of sorts.  Certainly my children were more settled today,  my younger being remarkably responsible with his tasks and peaceful all the way through, my older not recounting the anxieties we’ve covered so many times already this week.  Perhaps my silence gave them a pause, not simply because I wasn’t reminding them of responsibilities and giving unwanted feedback but because one less voice allowed them some room to find their own answers.  Unable to rely on my (voluminous) replies and commentary, they had to cope in their own hearts and minds.  If so (and I prefer that to the scenario that I’m the CAUSE of all the drama around here), then maybe losing my voice has a sweet side as well.  Perhaps.  But I want my voice back.

Four and One: One More Trip Around the Sun

Robot Arm over Earth with Sunburst (courtesy of NASA)

 

I’m turning 41 today.  A year ago, I embraced a new decade amid a torrent of change.  I’d like to say this birthday finds me in a quieter phase of life, but, alas, life continues to throw new challenges my way.  Such is the way of the universe. 

In the past I’ve entered my fifth year of homeschooling without eating my young, signed divorce papers, weathered all the major holidays as a single woman, stepped down from most of my La Leche League leader responsibilities, started a second blog (quarksandquirks.wordpress.com), submitted writing for publication (the wait continues), entered a new relationship, and cleaned my shower a few times.  No wonder I’m tired. 

Despite karate, yoga, and a generally fidgety body, I’m feeling the bodily wear of those 41 trips around the sun.   That’s roughly 23,700,000,000 miles  (23 billion, 700 million miles) covered at 67,000 mile per hour.  Gravity’s doing its work as well, pulling downward on areas that used to be more, well, up.  Ah well.  Perhaps as a result, I’m becoming more grounded.  Either way, I need a second cup of coffee. 

Enough sniveling.  This 41st trip around the sun finds me healthy, happy, and whole.  I’m focusing more energy into my writing, blogging and otherwise.  The writing life calls clearly and insistently, and while I’m still without a scheduled time at my laptop each day, I’ve created a work space with a door. Okay, so it’s a 1.5 ft by 5 ft doorless closet in my bedroom, which does have a door.  With a lock.  I call it an office.  My boys laugh.  It’s a start.  I’m awaiting my first acceptance or rejection, figuring either launches my start as a writer-with-the-possibility-of-an-occasional-check.  I’m nothing short of thrilled. 

Karate continues, and as the boys and I get closer to black belt testing in a year or so, I continue to relish in the strength and balance I never experienced as a child or younger adult.  A recent foray into yoga offers some flexibility as well as a chance to merge my spiritual and physical endeavors.  Gravity may pull, but I’m pulling back.  Both practices simply feel good. 

I continue to enjoy the love that flows with good friends.  So many fine people have held me when I cried and listened to my rants over this past year as I’ve made the final transition from married to single and nurtured my children through changes in their life at both places they now call home.  These same people share my joy as I head down the road of a new relationship.  I can’t find a word that suits an adult dating situation, boyfriend feeling juvenile, partner seeming premature, and significant other just sounding dumb.  For here, I’ll settle for One Good Friend, but that hardly does the relationship justice.  

So here’s to a 42nd trip around the sun.  May it be full of peace, love, and compassion.  It will certainly be full of change.  After all, that’s the way of the universe.

Sacred Beginnings

This week, the evolution versus creationism debate reared its head in the cyber connections many homeschoolers share.  It’s a perennial squabble in any heterogeneous group of homeschoolers (and, in my experience, any group of homeschoolers is heterogeneous).    Just to clarify, I teach evolution, although I doubt that surprises anyone who knows me or has read this blog before.   This won’t be a rant against homeschool-friendly science texts teaching creationism (guess the latest scuttlebutt?) or an attempt to change a single mind about an issue that is poorly framed much of the time.

Yes, I accept the science of a 13 billion year old universe with its big bang beginning. Earth’s shorter, at least on the cosmic timeline, 4.7 billion year existence and life on earth’s 3.8 billion year beginnings are among my teachings to my children and inform the way I see the world and its workings.  My children share this long look at our universe and planet along with a good understanding of what Darwin found on his voyage and just what those finch beaks teach us about how life evolves over time.  The age of the earth and evolution of life on this planet permeate our understanding of science, history, language, and religion. 

I hold to the geology, biology, astronomy, microbiology, botany, zoology, physics, biochemistry, and archeology that continue to add to our knowledge of the earth’s start and life’s origins.  Raised by a biology researcher and professor (Methodist then Presbyterian) father and zoologist/religious studies and women’s studies professor (Catholic then Reformed Jew) mother, I grew up with science and religion, co-existing without strain or compromise or either.  And I never gave it a second thought.  Growing up in Protestant and Catholic churches (often in the same Sunday), I saw denomination as a personal choice, a way to express one’s experience with the divine.  And while morality classes in my Catholic high school raised ethical questions regarding how  science is used, the science itself was just that– the science.

Now I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist, actively seeking a spiritual path that best helps me experience the divine and, simply put, be a moral, loving, peaceful, compassionate human being.  Call it Lutheran, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, or Jain.  Call it what you like.  It’s humans reaching beyond our egos, our physical beings and all the stuff we call “self”, a connection to more, to meaning beyond the end of our noses.   Call it God, Yahweh, Adonai, the Tao, Shiva, Allah, whatever.  Call it nothing at all.  (That which can be named is not it not the Tao, say Taoists.  As soon as we name the divine, we limit it.  That’s another post.)

This universe, our world, life itself, is holy and sacred.  More amazing to me is the expansive timeline of the universe and life itself.  More recent discoveries about the interaction of subatomic particles deepen my appreciation of and reverence for the origins of our universe.  Every discovery of an older fossil, earlier human, more ancient rock, or distant planetary system increase the mystery and divinity of the whole works.   And the divine is no less so for 13.7 billion years of vast existence, more time and space the human mind can truly grasp.  This holiness decreases not a mite for 4.7 million years of evolution of life on earth, changes more gradual than our measly 70 or so years allow us to observe yet leaving a trail for us to follow and ponder.  We share a sacred space for a blink of an eye, earth’s existence speaking.  Let’s share it in peace, wonder, and awe.

Postscript:  I’m a fan of Peter Mayer, a folksinger from Minnesota.  His CD, The Great Story, contains 13 songs that celebrate the majesty and holiness of the universe and earth.  Three are put to video with lyrics overlayed.  While I’m partial to Holy Now, all three speak to me.   The Symphony of Science offer an interesting listen experience as well.  What speaks to you?

Look Me in the Eye

We’re together all the time.  Okay, we’re apart for 24 hours on the weekend and 15 or so one night on the week, but otherwise we’re together quite a bit.  One of the best parts of homeschooling is time with my kids.  One of the hardest parts is all that time with my kids.  The good in that time trumps hard times, hands down.  But I’m with my boys so much that sometimes I forget to look at them.

You know what I mean.  How often do you really look at your spouse, your kids, your cat?   Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity.  Why look closely when you’ve seen them day after day after day.  It’s not like when they were babies and changed in the blink of an eye.  Older folks pretty much look the same day-to-day, and by older, I mean over the age of five or so.  I’m a bit disturbed to get to the end of the day and wonder if I ever truly stopped and looked into the faces of the two people closest to my heart.

We talk all the time, and those who know us in real life know this is not just an expression in this case.  We talk in the car (I look where I’m going), we talk across bathroom doors (less face-time while in the bathroom now, thank goodness), and they talk to me when I’m on the phone.  I’m often the distracted one,  cleaning the sink, cooking a meal, tending to animals or bills, while talking with a child.  When I’m not occupied, they’re playing with legos, waving duct tape swords, or looking for the cat(s) of the month. 

Until they’re in trouble.  Then, out of my mouth, unbidden by my conscious mind and not part of my childhood memories, comes, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” 

Then the sad/worried/angry face aims itself towards mine.  We look at each other, eye to eye, angry, concerned, frustrated, tearful.  Rarely smiling and full of joy.  Those more pleasant moments, occurring much more often than the less pleasant, go unmarked by eye contact.  And I’m bothered by this.

Neither boy has ever had the best eye contact by nature.  Both tend to look away and turn away while talking, as if the countenance of  their conversation partner is too much stimulus when their thoughts are flowing out their mouths.  And perhaps this is so.  But I could do better, searching out their eyes during the joyful and even mundane parts of our day, rather than only when expressing my disappointment or concern. 

I take solace in our nighttime rituals.  Come evening, when my younger and I snuggle into bed, ready to read and cuddle, he’ll often gaze directly into my eyes, smile full and bright, as he says, “Ready? Read!”

The imperative is tradition between us, and for whatever reason, we’re always eye-to-eye for this line.  And I drink in his green-grey eyes for just a moment, before he turns his head to listen to the story.  And I am filled.