Category Archives: education

Avoidances Enabled: Highways

Old Baton Rouge Capitol

Storm approaching over Baton Rouge Capitol building

My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?).   When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”

bluebonnet swamp

Bluebonnet Swamp

Toodling around  Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods  that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.


Raccoon in Bluebonnet Swamp

Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city.   Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.

Baton Rouge statue

Statue on LSU Ag Center grounds

In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.

baton rouge

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge, like all communities  large and small, is more than the sum of its parts.  It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of  its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry.  Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.

Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches,  if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates.  But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by.  And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.

On this Earth Day – Think…

Earth Day

The Little Things That Run the World

Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details.  The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both  may be there at the same time.

This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague .  Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re  arthropods of note and notoriety.  Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now,  which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses.  But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .

I was actually in the middle of a draft review  and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.

I did a double take.

It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB.  The  first

Adult deer tick

reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.

As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “

The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .

Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs.  We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.

West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across  44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.

“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather.  Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”

And that’s exactly what they’re doing.  Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests.   This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.

An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.

“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)

And yet arthropods continually fascinate me.  The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba.  And yet this creature is replete with organs!

And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe.  Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.

Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says.  No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”

Juvenile Assassin Bug

All around me things are clacking in the grass.  The abundance of summer rains  have

Adult Assassin Bug

produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely.  For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard.  I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a  “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.

Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted.  It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.

The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos,  right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance  covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.

These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone.  The cockroach repels us,  yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings.  We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought.  Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.

And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and  vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals,  decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.

It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand.  E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.”  Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.

The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.


The Ever Changing Face of “Normal”

One of my guilty pleasures is reading advice columns. I don’t watch court TV or talk-shows, or follow along with celebrity gossip, but I do enjoy the Cliff’s Notes versions of peoples’ lives revealed in the likes of Dear Abby, and Tell Me About It, by Carolyn Hax.  Of the two, Hax’s column seems the most relatable, and in a recent response to a reader overwhelmed by caring for a bereaved sibling and her own family, Hax used the phrase, “new normal.”

The sibling, however disconsolate and aching, would ultimately adjust to the “new normal” of life without the spouse; of raising children, for the time being at least, alone as a single bereaved parent. At first glance, this seems a harsh sentence. But in the context of the reply, and in the context of life in general, it holds water.

Basic human survival needs dictate that we do, in fact, constantly adjust to the new normal of our ever changing lives: single to married, married to single, childless to childfull, to war and to peace and back again, to freedom and to captivity, to comfort and to suffering, to new jobs and to job loss, to sickness and to health.

Reams have been written about things like Stockholm Syndrome, and war prisoners from Viktor Frankl to John McCain have famously and heroically adapted to lives of brutal captivity.

…everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl observed in his famous treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning.  “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I remember adamantly swearing that a difficult relative would never ever wind up living in my house.  Now, three years down the road, she is part and parcel of my home, the extra place at the table, her folded laundry next to mine, a routine – however occasionally still difficult – part of my normal, everyday life.  I have chosen to accept her.

I’d never had a dog before our doxie Dexter came into our home ten years ago, and I’d never really felt like I was missing anything for the 40 years I lived without one. When he died three weeks ago, I couldn’t remember what life was like without him. Today, the house still feels hollow without his small, warm, vigorous presence, but I’m also slowly readjusting to life without a dog.    It is my new, if comparatively still empty, normal.


I’ve been married longer than I was ever single,  but was childless longer than I’ve had children. Although now our children are pretty well grown and “normal” is yet again taking another direction. Of course the danger in adapting so readily to what becomes “normal” in our lives is that it predisposes us to accept unhealthy norms – bad health habits, poor social, or career choices  - and can skew our overall perspective of what is “normal” in other people’s lives.

In the recent Eeyorian opining of David Frum, in a Daily Beast article titled,  “America the Anxious”, Frum concludes, “We fear above all what we do not know. In the past, there was one thing that Americans thought they knew for certain: tomorrow would be better than today. Now? Americans are no longer so sure.”

Personally, I’m not too sure what particular “past” Frum is talking about.  For certain cultural groups – middle class white Americans, typically – there has usually been at least a modicum of assurance that the future would be at least somewhat better than the past, although those growing up in the 30s, in the 40s during WWII, and again in the late 50s and early 60s, had no such illusions.  I remember anxiously watching the “Doomsday” clock in the paper each day, as a young tween, worried that it would tick closer to the final hour of annihilation.  But for ethnic and racial minorities throughout history, there was often very little to recommend the future over the past.  Life, for many people, has always been one hardship after another.

Many today fear that a new America is being shaped in this economic crisis-an America in which only a talented and fortunate few will find opportunities on a global scale,” writes Frum, “while the working many will experience a long slow decline in their living standards and life chances. Many fear that the days when it meant something special to be an American are drawing to a close.”

Again, not sure who these mysterious “many” are, but the fact is that only a talented and fortunate few have ever found opportunities on a global scale, from the Carnegies and Rockefellers to the Zuckerbergs and Gates of America.  I believe, though, that we have more opportunities than ever – education is more accessible to more people and the Internet, despite its still many shortcomings, is certainly flattening the world and bringing knowledge within reach of more people, of all classes, than ever before.

Frum cites 1959 as “the golden age of the American middle class,” perhaps conveniently forgetting that much of that period was built on a façade of equal opportunity.  Kicking off with the Korean War and wrapping up with the start of the Vietnam War (US involvement actually started around 1959), rampant racism, McCarthyism, sexism, and an “invisible” poverty rate affecting 25% of American citizens were all part and parcel of that “golden age.”

The “fear that haunts us now,” Frum asserts, “the worry above all worries: Has the golden legend of America-the constantly renewed promise of a better economic future for its citizens-finally reached an end? And if so, what alternative future awaits us?

I would suggest that the “golden legend of America” is just that – a legend, built in large measure on the reality of attainable success here for those willing to adapt to the ever changing face of “normal” that is a necessary part of human life, and a bit on the false memories we create of the “good old days.”

Perhaps the surest path to a true “golden age” will be one built on the knowledge that there is no one true “normal”, no one right way to do or be in the world;  the compassion and understanding to accept and learn from what’s normal in the lives of others, and the adaptability to embrace the ever changing face of normal in our own lives.

Steve Jobs: How to Live Before You Die

Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs.

The Gifted Child

I’ve been thinking a lot about children, lately, particularly since I spent the day at the SPARC 2011 Conference last Saturday, hosted by the disabilities advocacy group, STAND. This morning, I’m heading out bright and early with a carload of young people to Learning is for Everyone‘s Knowledge Faire 2011 event.   I founded Learning is for Everyone about ten years ago – about the same time I wrote the piece below, initially as a rebuttal to a newspaper article I read, and later as an article in Home Education Magazine.   My then 12 year old is 23 now, her sister 21, their brother 18.  And I still, more firmly than ever, believe all our children have extraordinary abilities.

From the March 2001 issue:

What are the odds your child is “gifted?” Probably slim, if you believe psychologist and author Ellen Winner, who says, “Extraordinary abilities are mostly innate and occur in perhaps one in 10,000 children.” But probably quite high if you believe in your child!

Winner argues that only “profoundly gifted students, with IQs over 160 or prodigious talents in art or music should receive special services.” The other 9,999 – including the just “plain old smart kids” can, for all intents and purposes, go take a homogenous hike in “high standards” classrooms (wherever those might be).

While that argument might make good fodder for public education policy, it’s a social setback of the most limiting kind. It’s a throwback to the days when IQs were (erroneously) considered the best measure of success and potential.

However great a blow it might be for the parents of the “profoundly gifted,” the fact is that the world is not run by the 1 in 10,000 Winner declares have “extraordinary abilities” or “prodigious talents.” The world is run by that neglected 9,999 who are being told they’re nothing special!

Those “plain old smart kids” who don’t qualify for accelerated learning programs or special science labs are the ones who will grow up to help out in soup kitchens, volunteer in nursing homes and homeless shelters. They will rally for clean water and healthy environments, read and appreciate good literature and often write it, work hard in jobs that strengthen our economy and raise new generations of ordinary, good people. They will be members of Doctors Without Borders and Green Peace and the Sierra Club. They will also probably be the ones with the surprising start up companies that wow Wall Street, who invent a new fuel source or rescue someone from a fire or an automobile accident.

I’m not the jaded parent of failed children saying this. I’m the mother of at least one gifted child, and probably three. When my oldest was six years old and her eccentric behavior was driving me nuts, and one of her grandmother’s was calling for a child psychologist to look into the matter, I took a chance and had her tested for giftedness. I figured she was probably no odder than Mozart as child, or Einstein, or Beatrix Potter boiling down fox carcasses in her backyard.

She scored one point shy of admission to the gifted student program at our local elementary school. Because she didn’t hurry through a timed portion of the test – indeed, has never hurried through anything – a score sheet said she wasn’t The “profoundly gifted,” but just a “plain old smart kid.” I was invited to bring her back in a year and have her tested again. The school was sure she would make it on the second round. I decided it wasn’t that important.

Of course she’s gifted. Her IQ measures in the 120 range. She’s twelve now, a magnificent artist, with a mature flair for cartooning and a deep and abiding love and understanding of nature. But she can’t do grade-level math to save her soul. Her sister, whom I never had tested, is also gifted. At ten, she shows “prodigious talent” at the piano and works well above grade level in math. But she gets confused with word problems on paper and her giftedness takes flight at the sight of any kind of “test.” The girls’ seven-year-old brother would probably be stuck in a learning disabled class. His giftedness is somewhat hidden behind a gregarious, fun-loving nature and an abhorrence of reading, although he loves to be read to and has the focus and maturity to enjoy listening to long novels with his sisters.

My friends’ kids are gifted, although not all of them notice their gifts. These children are wonderful skaters, artists, inventors, budding scientists, amateur filmmakers, young architects, and more. NThem have ever been formally tested for giftedness. As far as the public schools are concerned, these plain old smart kids have to tough it out in crowded classrooms with everyone else. Fortunately, many of these friends homeschool and they don’t have to worry about that.

I’m sure your children are gifted too. When my children were very little and we spent time with other friends who had children the same ages, I would watch in fascination and wonderment at the skills and talents they all showed at those tender ages. I couldn’t figure out why those other parents didn’t seem to see their children’s talents. Indeed, over time, a lot of those talents went unrealized because they were never recognized.

How many brilliant scientists have we lost? How many doctors, how many possible cures for cancer, how many magnificent compositions and great works of art, how many inventions and cosmological theoretical advances have never seen the light of day because throughout their youth, our possible saviors were told they were nothing special? Genius isn’t relegated to the domain of high I.Q. Genius, said Thomas Edison – who was considered “addled” in his youth and probably wouldn’t have qualified as GSP material today – is one tenth inspiration and nine tenths perspiration. It’s the result of the blue-collar work ethic, not white-collar elitism.

I am grateful that homeschooling allows me to nurture the unique genius and gifts of each of my children. I mourn the genius lost in public schools because a child hasn’t yet realized his or her potential at the age of 5. I believe we get what we expect from our children – and from one another. At least, I believe we do if our expectations consist in belief in one another’s highest potential. If we treated all our children as the geniuses they can be, and nurtured their innate gifts of kindness, charity, understanding, and compassion, as well as their hoped-for academic gifts, then 9,999 children out of 10,000 could brighten our future and theirs with their own “extraordinary abilities.”

What are the odds your child is gifted? Probably pretty good if you believe in your child!