Monthly Archives: November 2013

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You…Right?

Gravity, it seems, has become a controversial subject once again! For most of my life I had been under the impression that gravity is an attractive force; every reference work I have found describes gravity as being attractive; yet apparently there is a portion of the population who disagrees. Let me elaborate.

The school where I work is, on election days, a polling station. Upon such occasions, the polling booths are set up near the main entrance; students are routed away from there, and everything proceeds as normal. I appreciate the dedication of the volunteers who monitor the polls all day, and usually stop on my way out to exchange a thankful comment or a bit of polite banter, depending on how tired they appear. A couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers seemed to have had a very hard day. His face bore a heavy frown of weary disgust. I made the mistake of trying to cheer him up. My new business cards had just arrived from the print shop, and I handed him one with a friendly smile. The cards advertise this website; the front side asks “Are you terribly curious?” and the back reads simply “terriblycurious.com”. When I give someone a card, the usual response is to read the front and ask, “What’s this?” Whereupon I reply, “You see? It works!” Not the cleverest thing in the world, but it’s nearly always good for a quick grin.

Not that day! My disgruntled victim looked at the card and sneered, “What’s this?” I was already regretting my choice of daily public relations, and decided against the banter.

“It’s a general knowledge website,” I explained. Waving my hand about in an awkward fashion, I added needlessly, “I’m a teacher.”

His sneer grew into a snarl. “Hah!” he spat, obviously of the persuasion that teachers fall somewhere between pickpockets and drug dealers on the scale of social undesirables. “All right then!” he continued, as if to say let’s see if you know your stuff. “Is gravity a push or a pull?”

I hesitated for a second. My class had just finished experimenting with gravity; we had established to our satisfaction that an object held above the floor will, upon being released, fall to the floor. We had furthermore concluded that this behavior was due to a pulling force known as “gravity”. I considered the possibility that the gentleman confronting me was joking in a strangely belligerent mode, but a second glance at his expression rendered that hypothesis incredible. I gave the most concise answer I could: “Gravity is an attractive, or pulling, force.”

“Huh!” My antagonist tossed the card on the registration table in an overt gesture of perceived worthlessness. “Shows how much you know. Gravity is a push! Look!” And he pulled a pen from his pocket, held it high above his head, and dropped it. As it hit the tabletop, he threw his head back and fixed me with a glare of triumph worthy of Louis Pasteur showing a germ through a microscope to a disbelieving critic.

I tried to smile without showing my teeth. “I’m afraid I have to disagree. You see, the pen falls to the table because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The origin of that field is the Earth’s center of gravity; the pen falls toward the origin, thus the force is attractive, or a pulling force.”

He was utterly unimpressed. With a final contemptuous grunt, he dismissed me and all my heresy with a dismissive wave and turned away; the interview had come to an end. I walked away mystified. How had this poor man grown as old as I with so little understanding of basic scientific principles?

Alas, in our time science has become politically useful, and therefore subject to controversy. The USA has the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the industrialized world in which a significant percentage of the citizenry flatly disbelieves what passes for common knowledge in the rest of the planet.

We need conservatives to make sure we keep those things worth keeping as we travel, each moment of every year, from past to future. Just as importantly, we need liberals to make sure we continue seeking the best possible future instead of clinging to a past which, every second, disappears beyond recall. As an educator, my nature is to work for the increase of knowledge. Our nation will not long remain competitive if we reject any knowledge gained simply because it does not fit our current understanding. The result would be a scientific community made up of individuals like my befuddled friend at the polling station. Our national pride would be the least of our losses. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us.

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.

CerroDeLaSilla

My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.

 

School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.