Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

Banks of the Muddy Dan

June 2nd, 2013

Back to key childhood town today via the NYT opinion piece, I recalled Danville, VA. Tess Taylor, likely the age of my eldest son, wrote on how early Civil Rights protests hit even her white, establishment granddad.

In the very segregated setting only three miles above North Carolina, I went to elementary and junior high. Separate black/white schools were the norm. Even Greyhound was the white bus line versus the black Trailways. Some accommodations were not quite blended. I think of the Rialto movie theater, which kind of accommodated black folk, so long as they sat in the balcony. In fact, when I was eight, a friend thought he was tricking me by sending me upstairs with my bag of popcorn. When I noticed that the white people were downstairs and I was among rows of exclusively black people, I wasn’t bothered and watched the double feature (always at least a double and the Rialto had the Westerns and other action flicks). Later I wondered whether anyone in the balcony resented a white kid in their seats. If so, they didn’t let me know. After the movies, my classmate met me and looked chagrined. I think maybe he tasted his own racism and found his joke unfunny.

Taylor’s piece is on her grandfather’s modestly foolish upbraiding of a racist judge for coming heavy on black protesters for integration. It gives nice background on Danville as well as the perceived praise of her relative.

I’ve written on Danville here before. I lived there longer than anywhere until I moved to Manhattan after college and those were formative years.

Fortunately, my mother was not a racist and we were not infected by the malevolent disorder. She ran the Red Cross chapter, where black folk as well as white volunteered and received such services as blood, transportation, first-aid and home nursing training and such. Black folk were as welcome in our lives as whites. There were a few Jews, including the physician who rented to us, although I don’t recall knowing or even seeing Asians. It was a two-colored world.

Danvillelibrary

We moved to a far more rural Chester — middle of the same state, but not at all a city, before going to Plainfield, NJ for high school. PHS was half black. Plus my classes were a quarter to half Jewish students. I took the bus to Manhattan every chance I got. I experienced intense culture shock, almost entirely in a good way. I did hear and see Yankee de facto segregation and overt racism though, as I did and do during my decades in Boston. The first time I heard anyone openly using the N word was in my first few days in New Jersey. The separation of races in old Danville seems to have minimized open disdain, plus likely the veneer of civility in the South.

Pic note: The building was my public library and had been the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville came with extra baggage.

On a far more prosaic level, I can draw light lines to other cultural transitions. I think of common tools, such as computers. I went from a manual typewriter to an electric one, on to when being a computer user meant bringing your task, like data analysis to a programmer who typed out punchcards and handed them to you to pile into a huge computer for calculation, I went on to batch processing in a shared environment and to paper tape mainframes before dedicated (and very expensive) word processors before workstations and then personal computers.

The improvements in integration and race relations have not been as linear or incessant. Yet integration advances, even in places like Boston, although there’s still a lot of happen. To return to the weak tool analogy, much as occurred in my lifetime and my towns. I think of my wife’s late grandmother, who grew up from the era before electricity and automobiles. Like Mable Thames, I have seen and benefited from much. Keep it coming.

 

Dudley Skeleton Awaiting Muscle

October 6th, 2012

The still-handsome, sturdy, hollow gentleman of Dudley Square is ready for some innards.

At 117 years old, the Ferdinand Building is no longer under wraps. The almost-total demolition left the shell of the former furniture store landmark. It’s destined to become the new public-school administration building, and more important the anchor of redevelopment in the square. Rebuilding should take two years.

Even nearly abandoned and derelict for the past 30 years, the graceful, ornamented building was an obvious symbol of the erstwhile humming, vital square. Back when the Orange Line ran as an elevated train here, this area of Roxbury did just fine. More recent times when it became better known for junkies, winos, muggings and the major bus terminal to be super-cautious using appear to be over.

The Baroque Revival-style 1895 building was originally Ferdinand’s Blue Store (still carved on top). It soon claimed to be the largest home-furnishings store in the country.

Sure, it might have been more efficient to tear it down totally, but I think Bostonians are already glad they didn’t.

The facade is grand and a fitting symbol for what we do well here — press past and future Boston together.

Pix note: These were taken this morning early. They are under Creative Commons; do what you want with either, just credit Mike Ball once. Click an image for a larger view.

BLA blah blah

June 11th, 2012

Yesterday was big doing in these parts. #3 son and his GF graduated from Boston Latin Academy. Her family has one more young’un but that completes our cycle here.

These things changed. I picked up his yearbook a few days ago and before that they had gone to their prom. Each was the same and different from my HS years. For the yearbook, all the pix of kids and staff were in color, and more important, the students got to put their own message beside their image. There was no more CV style, comma-delimited list of sports, clubs and other activities, which set us obsessive sorts apart from those just clinging to the log flowing in the educational river. Both better looking pix and free commentary are good.

The prom though had no theme. With disdain, Isaac explained how old fashioned themed proms were, that they were more sophisticated today. That may be accurate too. Lord knows, I went to several junior and several senior proms in my years. Their Hawaiian or outer space or other decorations were generally pretty tacky, even though those involved spent terrific time and money flogging the motif and its artifacts.

Yesterday, we might have been able to cram everyone, kids and parents, into BLA’s auditorium, but the Matthew’s Arena at Northeastern was more spacious, allowed for flow of grads getting their three seconds across the stage, and provided the sense of transition that fit.

It was a jolly time for students, perhaps too jolly with the smuggled in beach balls distracting from the addresses and making the patrolling teachers look like rasorial birds scrambling, but for the toys instead of worms. After six years of attention, I think the kids were allowed what passes for rowdiness in one of Boston’s exam schools. Having been in numerous other of the city’s high schools, I am always struck by the relative focus and calmness of the teens in the likes of BLA and BLS.

I brought a notepad, expecting some wisdom in the numerous addresses. Only one was worthy, but the others were harmless enough. Both the salutatory and valedictory addresses were LITE. The young women thanked parents (with the valedictorian claiming she had successfully hidden her keynote status from her Albanian immigrant parents up to the moment she walked on stage), praised the school and teachers, and waxed nostalgic with a few mini-vignettes of shared experiences. There was no enlightenment offered.

The salute to the graduates, a.k.a. the mandatory remarks of Headmaster Emilia Pastor, was harmless but atavistic. I’ve been in meetings with her and always found her dreadfully serious. I don’t know about the science high, but BLA and BLS’ headmasters have always seemed to wear their position like chainmail, heavy and demanding deference. In hers, she gave advice on how to thrive in the six years of BLA, only every student on the arena floor had come out the end of the HS machine.

She was more amusing rising from her seat repeatedly to introduce others or start her address. Her skirt was a little above the knee and she offered no cheap thrills to the hundreds of black gowned folk before her. She was acrobatic rising by pressing her knees together, splaying her feet and somehow managing to spring modestly upright. She was attention getting in the way a baby giraffe is rising on his hooves.

Understandably most parents and other relatives were there for their precious one. Those with large claques walked the stage to deafening squeals and applause. Before the presentation of diplomas, quite a few in the audience had no use for the addresses. They shouted to each other and into their cellphones instead. I may have been the only loony trying to hear the words.

It’s a pity they missed what I considered the highlight (short of my son getting his diploma, of course). State Rep.Carlos Henriquez, BLA ’94, spoke in the middle. His was the non-trivial set of remarks. He spoke wistfully of never marching across the stage and his envy of those who were about to. Seems he struggled with a required match course, failing a couple of times, before completing it in summer school.

So he was a dragon at heart as were those about to hit the stage, but without that few seconds of shared glory.

He noted that he continued to accomplish in life in ways he feels that redeem his slow start. In fact, he said one redemption was being the legislator who represented the district where BLA is. Perhaps more so was his candid inspiration to the grads-to-be. He was not afraid to use himself as an example of the struggle and success. They heard the call to go out the next day and start becoming leaders, but then the brief respite came that “Tomorrow you can sleep all day. Then the next day you become leaders.”

Live Free, Even a Schoolgirl

May 17th, 2012

A long, often emotionally wracking struggle finishes with this school year. In September, Jen will attend a new public school. She’ll no longer be ostracized or isolated or punished or sent hither and yon to use a toilet.

Almost all of us are wont to say this or that is “only common sense.” Likewise, many of us see respect for each other and our shared humanity as right and necessary. Jen finally will have those baselines.

Background: The original post on her schooling and the bizarre, hostile behavior of school officials is here.

In the case of this smart, loving transgender child, only a family support system, augmented with the straight-ahead savvy and attitude of a GLAD lawyer brought respect and kindness. Jen’s mother and grandmother did battle as necessary school officials, while buoying Jen at home to compensate for the daily angst. They lavish praise on the GLAD attorney who helped them, or as they put it, “the most wonderful, caring, thoughtful, selfless man, My Attorney Janson!!!! He gave us more than we could ever ask for.”

And there you have it. Yes, he negotiated with school officials. He educated them (and Jen’s family) on the requirements and limits of the law. (The national Americans with Disability Act, for example, excludes transgender, relying on state statutes and public officials to be savvy and humane.) Certainly having legal oomph behind you never hurts.

The solution of switching schools would seem less than ideal. The other elementary school students were fine with Jen’s transition. It was only a parent or two and the administrators who were crazed over her closing the bathroom stall door once or twice a day. They should have been the ones to change and mature and humanize.

However, The key here is that Jen gets to be a student and a child and a girl in school. That really shouldn’t have been so hard.


 

32 Volume Collector’s Item

March 14th, 2012

“Look it up,” may have been the most common reply to me growing up. When I was very young, my knowledgeable mother would provide answers to my ceaseless questions. In early elementary school though, she used that phrase…and that’s what I did.

She was not being selfish with her smarts nor unreasonable in that demand. She had multiple reference books, which she used often. Those included atlases half my height, a massive, 2-volume unabridged dictionary, three full sets of encyclopedia (American, Compton’s and Britannica, with update volumes), the annual almanac/book of facts (in hardcover because she and I really worked that one), and on and on.

Today I saw that Britannica is going the expedient way and announcing its final print edition. It sells through DVDs and online access in several versions. The library format is passé.

For many years, I have been amused by and come to expect incredulous queries from cosseted Ivy Leaguers who remark on my general and specific knowledge. I worked with one at Inc. Magazine a long time ago who showed that at its worst. Several times, he’d come out with the likes of, “Ball, you went to a shitty school. How come you know so much?”

The answer in many ways goes back to my mother’s look-it-up chant. The other parts include that I did look it up, that I had a better brain than my coworker, that I enjoyed school and thus paid attention in class, that I took good courses, and that I read for pleasure. Neither his Harvard nor Columbia degree made up for his insufficiencies in those many areas.

Now though there’s a different chant — “Google it.”

Sure enough, there is much more information, both fact and opinion available on the net. Is that the same? Likewise, willstudents go to the school or public library for detailed information?

Speaking to teens, 20-somethings and many older folk, I doubt it. Finding something to cut and paste, something that provides the sketch is better than being totally ignorant. Yet, so many people seem stunted by this kind of learning.

When I had either of two adult encyclopedia (having outgrown Compton’s) open, I read far beyond the catalytic topic. I’d find more just begging me to learn about it. Then, again, I’d browse the unabridged dictionary recreationally….

I’m a huge internet-for-reference user. We also have the types of tools I grew up with, including both Britannica hard cover and DVD versions and the OED.

My sons were not as eager to look it up as I was or am. I do admit that I’m a bit odd that way. They still have benefited mightily from the references we have. They’re even wont to get out our field guides to fungi or birds for identification issue. I’m pretty sure most non-paper researchers don’t bother.

That, after all was the point in my upbringing. If you are curious and you know the answer is in one of the numerous family bookcases, you may very well look it up.

Parity, Parody, Identity

February 15th, 2012

Wasn’t it the Brits who muttered their wait to sports fairness standards? How did we Americans become so team-parity obsessed?

As a boomer, I grew up with a few great teams in various sports drubbing the feebs. It really did work. It really did fit American history and ideals. Yankees, Celtics, Cowboys, Lakers, Canadians, Packers and a small set of sports bullies were the top. It was as Willy S’s Cassius had it:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable grav
es.

Instead, along the path of sports entertainment, the oligopolies and monopolies permitted by law as well as custom could not have that in the mundo world of advertising and broadcasting contracts. With millions to hundreds of millions of dollars looking for pockets, parity became the watchword. With artificial and intrusive aid, the very worst teams in a league were supposed to be pretty damned close to the very best.  That resulted from business decisions, what would maximize the advertising and broadcasting cash flow. To hell with excitement and ideals!

Unlike the American cultural norms boomers heard from their WWII parents, survival of the fittest became everybody has a chance to be the winner. We saw that creeping pseudo-equality, feel-good artifices starting for us in the 1980s. Our first son went to the hippy-dippy Beacon Hill Nursery School and then played Little League on the Hill against other downtown teams. He was a member of the league championship team. What that really meant is that they always had at least one superior pitcher. That was by far the single victory margin…game, after game, after game. By the time second and third sons were playing soccer, the parity factor was in total control.

It was not at all like real life of business or even a decent college. There, brutal unfairness was the norm. Boss’ child? Fellow alumnus? Sorority sister? Trivial controlled the real.

In the 90s and beyond, on school and kid-sports levels, it mirrored the professional athletic world. With no intent to disparage the developmentally disabled, we can note that the aptest comparison is special Olympics. Everyone’s a winner. Everyone’s a medalist. We, as my eldest parroted his nursery school mates, have the same.

It was more elaborate and rigid in professional sports. Artificial mechanisms like salary caps, luxury taxes, and most heavy handed, player drafts that gave the teams with the worst records first pick of the college and high-school grads are now the norm. There was no attempt to disguise the aim. Even the poorest teams in the smallest markets were supposed to have what is euphemistically called a level playing field.

Back to the thrilling days of post-WWII America (for me) and earlier for my parents and grandparents’ generations, the best teams really did seem like dynasties. Lesser teams and their fans rejoiced if they beat one of the big kids. On those rare years when the traditional champions were not in the playoffs, there was Cinderella magic on the radio, TV, in the newspapers and surely in public conversation. There was that American set of ideasl of aspiration, of bettering oneself, of coming from low to climb high.You know,  success through work and talent.

Now the best are severely punished. How dare they show up the petty men?

Maybe it was in part because I moved ever few years as a child. I would glom onto winning teams. Then I was a fan. My mother’s family came from the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, with no professional sports, but close enough to D.C., Baltimore and with a stretch, Pittsburgh. Instead of those cities’ teams, I had the freedom of the nomad in picking my heroes, my champions. As a young’un, I’d stand up to my uncles, great-uncles and such with their fandom of the Orioles, Pirates, Senators, and Steelers and such. I’d recite the glories and stats of the Yankees, of Y.A. Tittle’s Giants and such. I was a sports slut, one who loved winners.

Those picnic debates no longer work. Not only are my great-uncles dead, but plastic parity humbles the mighty. It also robs the athletes and fans of both dreams and pride. Like the Japanese cliché that the nail that stands up will be pounded down, the parity police either did not know or lost the ideals of American culture, literature, theater, movies and television. We were a nation whose people won in the end despite shortcomings, being outnumbered, and without expectations of victory. Any American could succeed with determination, some luck, and relentless optimism.

We lost that and are poorer for it. We have the same.

Helping and Harming a Transgender Child

February 2nd, 2012

I’m tempted to call it the magic headband. From the day the 8-year-old transgender student wore it to class, there was a transformation. The angry, screaming child who would flip over desks suddenly became a happy scholar.

Who could find problems with that?

ID note: To respect the privacy of all involved as this unfolds, this identifies the child only by first name, does not reveal the locale or school, and cites the grandmother as GM and mother as Mommy.

Source note: My j-school/newspaper background normally has me going to multiple sources. This draws almost entirely on the candid conversation with GM. Future updates may include lawyers, the therapist, the principal or others, but there’s plenty in the experiences from her view.

The principal of the school was among those who has not yet learned to deal with John presenting as Jen. In particular, she’d like Mommy and GM to punish Jen for using the girls restroom and apparently claims Jen will do so “over my dead body.” Unfortunately, in New Hampshire, the legislature rejected the bill that would add legal protections to transgender children and adults. The other New England states prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Acknowledged transgender is not common. Estimates run from 3% down to a quarter of 1%. Yet it’s real when it’s real, and denial, anger and other irrational responses help no one and change nothing.


Revealing Jen


This child’s background is not so simple as many of our lives and goes far below gender identity. For starters, a single mom with a daughter found out and met the brother and sister five and three year olds who had been in foster care for years. She decided to bring them into her home and begin the adoption process.

That’s remarkable enough. In what would have dissuaded most prospective parents, the boy, John, was deemed severely autistic, low verbal, prone to outbreaks, and not toilet trained at five. GM reports that her daughter asked her, “Do you think I can do this?” She replied, “If anyone can do this, you can.”

The adoption took a year, but two years ago, the pair legally came to Mommy. He had already been toilet trained as soon as they came into the home, as GM put it, “in two weeks…with love.” He was still unhappy but quickly more verbal. GM notes that both children had arrived gaunt and pale. Even their skin color changed, to the point where the doctor’s office didn’t recognize them.

There was no tension with the existing daughter. She was fine with a sister, but in particular had always wanted a brother.

The wrinkle was in the boy’s fondness for things frilly. He liked to dress up in girls’ clothes. Mommy and GM quickly became aware this was not transvestism. Rather, he said he was a girl.

They took him to a therapist, who asked among other questions, “Have you always felt like a girl?” John replied, “No, I’ve always been a girl.”

While Mommy and GM are quick to point out they just love the children and want to do what’s best for them, let us note their wisdom and equanimity as well. They did not flip out, did not scream at or hit John, did not do the gender-identity version of trying to convert a lefthander, and did not demand that he live double school/home lives.

Starting wearing dresses at home and being very saddened by having to wear a boy’s suit for his adoption ceremony, John left no doubt about identity. Willing to present as a girl at school, as Jen, meant simultaneously being honest and risking what came from classmates and teachers.


Trouble from Above


Both Jen and her sister are shorter and slighter than many peers, but neither lacks courage. Jen has retained and expanded her friends, says GM, who noted with pride the attitude of the younger sister to the few students who would taunt on the playground. “She protects Jen. She’ll get right between her and children on the playground. She’ll say, ‘Don’t call her a boy. That’s my sister.’”

Jen insisted on going to school in dresses. The therapist supported this and told Jen to use the girls room when no one else was there. Mommy and GM met with teachers and the principal several times to let them know what would happen. The principal even met with Jen in her office to prepare.

Then the letter arrived. It seems one parent had complained about Jen using the girls room. “The school was going to pursue legal action if (Mommy) didn’t punish her for this,” said GM. “Plus, they were going to follow her around school.” GM and Mommy weren’t about to punish Jen or accept separate and unequal treatment.

Jen had gone from a problem child to a student of the month. She loved school and had lots of friends. Now, said GM, “Jen came home crying saying she can’t use the bathroom, ‘because I’m making them uncomfortable.’”

In the closest thing the school came to trying a compromise, the principal said Jen would have to use the nurse’s office restroom. While GM and Mommy heard this and thought they could frame it as their idea and something special. Unfortunately, the principal presented this as a mandate to Jen before letting them know what was up. Thus, Jen felt punished and tried to go the dayswithout using any restroom.


More to Be Done


Jen loves school, but short-term, she’s not there. Until arrangements are in place and there is a clear understanding, she’s being home schooled. Oddly GM and Mommy had some experience with this years before in a previous school with the first daughter. She was diabetic and the school would not medicate her as needed for her health. They resolved that and got her back in.

Likewise, the aim her is to get Jen back in class with her friends, who GM says are fine with the transition. Meanwhile, GM and Mommy have been in contact with a GLAD lawyer as well as counterparts in two other states. The school will receive guidelines on how to deal with a transgender student.

GM seems singularly well organized and a formidable force. She and Mommy had also kept detailed records of the entire process, including all communications and meetings. They are more than willing to do their parts to make this work as smoothly and pleasantly as possible. They also have not stopped reading and speaking with people who understand they physical, psychological and legal aspects.

Their attitude includes that a transgender student going to school in a dress, “is not going to be the hardest thing she’ll go through.”

In fact, their surprise came when they had to confront their own related issue. First it was from the older daughter, the one who had always wanted a brother. As John transitioned to Jen, GM said, “She cried and said, ‘I’m losing my brother!’ That’s when we realized we were losing him too.” All had known John as he joined them and blossomed from the sad, autistic boy they first new into the happy Jen who loves school and is popular. “We’ve had to grieve John, ” said GM. “John no longer exists.”

Instead, Jen is ready to get on with her life. Mommy will see that her name is changed legally. Moreover, at this point it seems that sexual reassignment surgery is somewhere in the more distant future.

While Jen was initially unclear on genital anatomy, she knew she had a penis. When Mommy explained how girls and boys differed, Jen said, “Mommy, why do I have to wait? Can’t you just cut off my penis, so people will like me?”

For those who would say such things as homosexuality is a lifestyle or in this case transgender is a choice that weird adults make, let us consider the reality of the latter with Jen. She is a child who has known early on what her true gender is. She hurts no one and wants to get on with her life and to develop as any child. Her grandmother, mother and sisters will do their part. It is a small enough thing to expect everyone else to let her go about that life.

Cross-post: This appears also at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Birds, Beasts and Bragging

June 29th, 2011

Rip ‘em up. Tear ‘em up. Cocks give ‘em hell.

That was by far the most popular cheer when I attended the University of South Carolina. My high school in New Jersey also had a bird (bird?!) as mascot, but not with razor spurs and killer reputation. Instead it was a cardinal.

I confess that I am not a true sports fan. I like the team sports I participated in — wrestling, swimming and water polo. When the Olympics coverage shows those, I may watch.

Gamecocks tee shirtIt should surprise no one that I’m not a big USC Gamecock’s fan. Yet I did become aware last year and this, as the team had a shot at back-to-back college baseball national championships. Last night, they did win the College World Series and did it right. It was an all-SEC final, against Florida. The red Carolina swept the three-game playoff after winning all of its CWS games. Or as Yahoo Sports put it, “South Carolina became the first team to ever go 10-0 in an NCAA tournament and the first since Oregon State in 2007 to go unbeaten in a CWS. The Gamecocks’ streaks of 16 NCAA tournament wins and 11 straight in the CWS are both the longest all-time.”

So, self, I ask you, why when friends were were also jocks or even just alumni go on and on when their alma maters do anything remarkable, are you blasé? I still do athletic things, am a hulking guy, and of course, once a jock, you keep that mindset at some level.

I’m understandably indifferent to a second college, Lesley in Cambridge, where many years after journalism school, I got a management degree. That likely has to do with no longer being a teen, as well as taking the courses at what was then a hotel on Route 1 in Norwood, where the business school shipped its professors one night a week for a long, long session. In fact, we called it Ramada U. As it turns out, I was the only one who had bothered to find out that the few, almost entirely women’s teams had a lynx as their mascot. None of us in our study group or the program ever attended any games.RU

In Columbia, I did attend football games, but to sell programs, which was a money maker for the underfunded swim team. I also wrote news, but mostly opinion pieces for the student newspaper. There I ran afoul of the fowl-loving real fans.

Our football coach/athletic director was the allegedly brilliant Paul Dietzel. He built a shakily assembled (really pissy) record there. Then when he had the double slam of thinking the ACC rules kept him from recruiting enough big dummies for football and the very good basketball team got skunked in the conference tournament, he took Carolina independent. It subsequently ended up in the SEC, which is much, much tougher in football. It took them nearly 20 years to morph into truly competitive teams there.

I found his crybaby exit from the ACC pretty stupid and puerile. One of my paper columns that got the most hateful responses was a satire about it. I suggested that we forgo such pretenses as athletic conferences and instead go directly professional, so we could simply funnel the huge alumni contributions into paying jocks directly. We could buy championships and be done with it. Lo and woe, many students and alumni were mightily offended. In a state where nearly everyone in power had at least one degree from Carolina, many threats and curses came to the board and president. In fact another journalism major told me that when he was crossing the horseshoe in the old campus and hailed President Tom Jones, he told him on being asked that I was gone. He said Jones grinned and said, “Good!”

I surely have robbed myself of frequent simple pleasures in vicarious participation in an alma mater’s successes. That’s odd in that I have many cheap thrills. I revel in our own flowers, herbs and other plants, as I do in those I see as I walk or cycle. When I create a new or I think improved dish, as I do several times weekly, I can be smug. I can even delight in a small square of 72% chocolate or snifter of Lagavulin like it was a sacrament.

Those though are all personal and direct.

I admit it’s great for the young Gamecocks that they won it all in their sport, and two consecutive years. I was never on a team that did anything like that. They’ll have bragging rights for the rest of their lives. I just don’t see how it has much to do with me.

Spitting My Past’s Past

March 3rd, 2011

DNAorbit

Surely within a few years (at least in generational terms), people will have easy, understandable access to their genetic information. Through a generous, question-asking/answering gift from #1 son, our family is suddenly immersed in an early version of it.

His Christmas present to his parents and two brothers was a saliva-based analysis of humans we are and our DNA. 23andMe reports what I suspected — I’m a fairly homogenized Northern and Western European type. I seem to have roots many thousands of years ago in what is now Arabia and even Northern Africa, but from way back, my folk populated the British Isles and Scandinavia, no big surprise for someone who grew up blond and pale.

At this nascent point in the science of DNA and related research, the what does all this mean remains sketchy to us relatively low-scientific resource types. The report site shows me as paternal haplogroup R1b1b2a1a1 and on the maternal side J1c3b. Huh?

The many screens of info suggest folk in the probably pretty small customer database who are like 3rd, 4th or so cousins genetically. Other screens and new notices regularly suggest proclivity toward various health conditions, traits and diseases. Again, with my genetics, there’s nothing startling, with slightly decreased or elevated tendencies to this or that. Of the long list, there is literally nothing alarming or even worthy of asking a doc about.

More curious making would be where my ancestor started, traveled and settled. Others are way ahead of me here. There are websites with voluminous related reports and people who have traced migration routes over tens of thousands of years, mostly based on analysis of bones all over Asia and Europe. Amusingly to me is that my paternal line stated a bit late but then mated with everyone in their way, leaving the haplogroup dominating Spain, the Basque region, France, Wales, Ireland, Britain, Denmark and Iceland.  That blew my idea that it was the Norsemen that started the bastardized lineage of what became Britain; instead, it may have been the R1b1b2 and so forth breeders who first became the Norsemen.

Clicking around on the haplogroups, I discovered that Wikipedia has numerous pages on various ones, including mine. These tend to be replete with links to academic studies, with all the data you can eat.

It also led to something I should have run across before, Doggerland. It was a real-world Atlantis in the sense that it was heavily inhabited 10,000 or so years ago and disappeared slowly at first from rising, post ice-age seas, then suddenly in a huge tsunami 8,000 years ago, give or take.

doggerThe accompanying image is part of one from a site with links to its tale. According to genetic traces still being dredged up, my ancestors heavily populated this land bridge between what became Europe and Britain. Many being washed away by 75-feet of tidal wave didn’t stop the stock.

Last year, I stumbled on a DNA-based series on PBS, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. one Faces of America. As a non-TV watcher, I had read of it but of course missed it. I watched it online and as mildly sensationalized as it is (picking a few celebrities and tracing their genes way back), I was intrigued. Particularly moving too was when they presented Yo-Yo Ma with a copy of centuries of hand-recorded genealogy they discovered in China.

As it turns out, #1 son works for the Broad Institute in Cambridge that did key research for that series. I’m already hoping that folk there can tell him how to compare segments and get the most of the info on us.

As fascinating as I’ve found this stuff now that our family results arrived, I doubt it will consume me or us. Instead, I project to a future where such information becomes widely available and in much more manageable forms. Surely, we’re likely to start getting such testing as part of routine medical profiles. While docs may want to know what problems to watch for and eventually what to treat us preventively with genetic medicine in development or yet only imagined, we typical self-centered humans might rather know where our great-great-great-greats started, visited and stopped.

My father’s mother liked genealogy and had her husband’s side traced. There are some notable folk, but it’s really terribly British and on this continent from early colonial days (excepting the Spanish in Florida and so forth). In fact, that became very obvious to our sons when their Boston schools would have international nights, with pot lucks. The families were told to bring national dishes. That’s fine enough for the many with Latino, Russian, Vietnamese and other backgrounds. What’s a WASP to do and bring, pot roast or bread pudding? The kids wanted to do the right thing, but as a cook-everything guy, I ended up bring something I knew many would enjoy, like the un-English arroz con pollo.

My personal background seems not so much a melting pot as a lump of cheddar.

Friday Update: National Geographic had a Doggerland show, which doesn’t seem to rerun. However, it is available on YouTube.

Earning Poundage

February 25th, 2011

block-heads

Slogging through the slush today on a CIA tour (as in cooks, not spooks), son #3 got culinary truth from a second set of guides. We previously had toured Johnson & Wales in Providence. Oddly enough, we did so in driving rain there also; we sense a pattern and may do any future cooking-school tours online.

Down in that other Hyde Park (New York this time), I was surprised by the expansion and relative grandeur of the Culinary Institute of America campus. A few friends of mine have gone there — restarting careers. One foundered in liberal arts and decided to get real; she was the first woman to graduate at the head of her class, 1975. Then as she had established herself as a chef in Manhattan died much to0 young of cancer. Another had a successful spin in IT in NY State, raised a kid to college age, divorced and needed to become another person. She is a famous chef in Santa Fe.

I had spent days at a time on the campus back when the main dining facility clearly showed what it used to be, the nave of a Marist chapel. That building is still in use, but there are five high-end restaurants for the public and numerous endowed buildings. For example, we ate at the Catrina de’ Medici, in a few fancy building paid for by the Colavita oil-oil folk. (That meal requires its own post.)

Today’s tour highlight for me was a brief aside conversation by guide Chelsea. She’s about to graduate and go to Cornell for a viniculture concentration.

As the times I have visited over the years, I noticed what is all too obvious — there are a fair number of hefty students. Professors tend to be around for a long time. Some are stocky, and others very thin. I thought of the 1938 Block-Heads, in which Oliver and Hardy are set to cooking on their own.

Chelsea spoke of everyone trying to get to the campus gyms and pool. The students often have to taste what they make all day, and sometimes have homework including 45 different cookies they made. They have to look at, feel, smell, taste and thoroughly describe each, with their reports strictly graded to see they understand the distinctions. Even if you do the wine-tasting equivalent of spitting it out, that’s a lot of butter and sugar.

As we slipped over the pavement in the sleet, I asked her if the national fascination with obesity factored here and whether students hassled each other. She said it was a big issue and chefs as well as students were aware of it. The students didn’t deride each other, she said, but the school added additional nutritional information and courses.

Then when the group caught up, she said that a peril of getting a CIA degree came from the eating. She was a mesomorph and not fat, but not junkie thin as is the underwear model fashion. She announced that she arrived several years before as a size six but was far from that now.

She added that stereotype at typical colleges is that the meal plans and inactivity mean there is a freshman 15, that is students put on 15 pounds in the first year. “Here, we talk about a freshman 45,” she said.