Teacher as StoryTeller

It had not occurred to him at all that his dozen years in the classroom, he had been, all along, a storyteller. Once upon a time, there was a leaf; a pancreas; a salamander; a mountain bog. Every lecture was a kind of narrative–even Human Anatomy and Physiology–but especially in freshman survey-of-bio classes.

There were characters, settings, plots and outcomes. Not all of them were cliff-hangers, but many–if the listener had any curiosity at all about the living world around them–had a point and a relevance in the real world: Out there where a student would spend their days; their lives.

Perhaps this equivalence between learner and learned would not hold as well in an algebra class, but he was convinced that, where living things (from cells on up) were involved, subjects inhabited and enlivened objects. We are matter that lives, and that matters, he used to say.

In every instance, his stories of living things from organelles to biomes consisted of two intersecting and complementary storylines: the truth; and the consequences. Someone had once said that, in establishing the validity of any story there are two important elements: Oh Yeah? and So What? What are the facts? And why does it matter–what is the moral of the story?

The matter of the story is that a pancreas and a salamander do what WE do: they live and they die. And they are made out of the very same matter and energy on the very same Spaceship Earth. They breathe the same air, swim in the same water our cells swim in, and partake of the state of incredible order we call LIFE. Such stories were easy for him to teach with enthusiasm and joy because being alive was eternally and bewilderingly wonder-ful. And his enviable job was to tell others.

It is a shared and eternal epic, a grand tale that we live in together with all these groups of creatures he covered so briefly in a survey class–creatures by the millions with their own personalities, strangeness and superpowers. How could a student NOT be drawn into such a story? And yet, of course, most are not.

Maybe his failures to engage so many freshmen desk-occupants stemmed from the fact that he was providing answers to questions they had not yet asked. There was not much perceived “need to know” the world beyond the weekend party details. He once said of the frustration of his obligatory faculty advising that “you can’t steer a parked car.” A discouraging number of students came to college with no forward motion to shepherd and direct.

And it was also true that, in a freshman-level course, there could be an awful lot of “oh yeah” jargon and facts that would be on the test. You have to be able to handle brick by brick of fact if you are, some day, to assemble an edifice of knowledge. And bricks aren’t sexy.

But the end point of a practical and aesthetic comprehension of the ways the living world works–in an organ system, a broad-leaved forest, or the human brain–certainly makes it worth the learning of some terminology. The so-what is to have become an informed inhabitant and steward of one’s own body, of their water and soil and forest; of the planet–but also it is worth the work to not be blind every day of their young lives to the fragile beauty and poetry of the whole of life on the Blue Marble where their futures would unfold.

The end point of a full education–and especially for him, a biology education–had always been more about gaining wisdom–the Great So-What–than about accumulating more and more facts. There would always be a bigger, more universal, not-quite-graspable “so what” just beyond the edge of his comprehension, earnestly if imperfectly pieced together year by year from all the bricks he handled over a lifetime of biology watching.

Out of the incremental bricks of biological process (a realm mostly still not fully grasped even as we do the biosphere potentially terminal harm) has emerged over the millennia the unfolding Grand Ecology of a working Earth. From those building blocks of atoms and organelles arises an elegance of form fashioned from living tissue, a “poem in protoplasm” he once called the living world–the ultimate PLACE whose goodness and beauty of form and function he sought each day to more fully know.

The quest would last until the end for him, he knew, and this was perhaps one of the most satisfying assurances in an uncertain lifetime. The ring would always be just beyond reach. The mountains and their creatures were more than enough to keep him curious, eager and immersed in wonder, even when his students were not.

But there came a time when it became too painful any longer to be immersed in the realities of a beleaguered world become mere economic engine. And so in 1987 he left teaching. He left biology watching. He buried his head in the sand–for 17 years. But he never –at least in the closed room of his own mind–stopped being a storyteller.

The Conversation: Feeding your Genius and Putting it to Good Work

So there was this email thread a week or so ago with a friend. I keep coming back to it as a non-trivial exchange that could lead off in all sorts of interesting directions to dig deeper into the prompts within. Pertinent bits extracted below, plus some of the backgrounding for the morbidly curious.


Going back to your Bus Ticket article (ff: see annotations and link below) again today. I think this year is … this year. Sounds like fun. Thanks for instilling Bus Ticket values in me — not that they’ve immediately stuck, what with my high lonesome restless vocational heart.

I’ve always liked * Hamming’s famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on one of them? It’s a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?” * ff: See links below.

What you’re working on — this is me again — is obviously actually important stuff. If you were just pursuing idle curiosity (I’m not actually convinced that’s a thing), what would you spend a year studying? What if you had to pick something that, sure, is important to the grant web of existence somehow, but you’d have to do some fancy work to explain how?

I think I’ll ask me too.


Re the big question: that is fraught with all sorts of real-world constraints. Being 71 and living in the Outback are just two of them. Another is how likely would it be– my reaching master status in any one domain of thought — to make one butterfly flap its wings harder to ripple across the actual world of ideas and things, principalities and powers? I guess I see myself in a rarified bubble, doing my own study for my own AHA moments. Sometimes I share. Often when I do I hear yawns and farts. Intentional farts. True!

So the most important problem in my world (since I don’t have a field other than our pasture) might include grappling (successfully, not likely) with these Gordion Knots.

How do we balance the scales so that those who understand how the world works (biological and economic and human worlds) and those who also really have the common good as their focus are the people in power?

which is to say: how do we overcome evil with good?

How do we shine light into the dark places—the willful arrogant lustful fearful angry dark places? What light is powerful enough to penetrate such depravity and how to reach those hearts and minds in time. We have so little time. I have even less.

It is human agency at root cause of global harm. A change of heart must precede a change of mind and then of values and actions.

What stories can we tell to make people of good will and evil lean forward and listen?

The power of language. The pen vs the sword. Write as if your life depended on it. And your children’s. And theirs.

Of course my “cultivated interest” has long been to know my place in The Web of Life, and our place as a species, and the so-what.

I would become wise after The Year at Task–at least for some one thing, and I would tell that story by way of every digital, civic and literary pulpit I could. Becoming smart is easier.

So that’s my short answer.

The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius : Paul Graham (annotations, emphasis mine fbf)

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters. http://paulgraham.com/genius.html

An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination.

An obsessive interest will even bring you luck, to the extent anything can. Chance, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared mind, and if there’s one thing an obsessed mind is, it’s prepared.

The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.

It’s not merely that the returns from following a path are hard to predict. They change dramatically over time. 1830 was a really good time to be obsessively interested in natural history. If Darwin had been born in 1709 instead of 1809, we might never have heard of him.

The other solution is to let yourself be interested in lots of different things. You don’t decrease your upside if you switch between equally genuine interests based on which seems to be working so far. But there is a danger here too: if you work on too many different projects, you might not get deeply enough into any of them.

One interesting thing about the bus ticket theory is that it may help explain why different types of people excel at different kinds of work. Interest is much more unevenly distributed than ability. If natural ability is all you need to do great work, and natural ability is evenly distributed, you have to invent elaborate theories to explain the skewed distributions we see among those who actually do great work in various fields. But it may be that much of the skew has a simpler explanation: different people are interested in different things.

If the recipe for genius is simply natural ability plus hard work, all we can do is hope we have a lot of ability, and work as hard as we can. But if interest is a critical ingredient in genius, we may be able, by cultivating interest, to cultivate genius.

Hamming’s Question

[The Hamming Question – LessWrong 2.0] (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/P5k3PGzebd5yYrYqd/the-hamming-question) more of a summary

Richard Hamming: You and Your Research the original long “speech” by Hamming

Last Things

It is starting to sink in that this is not a drill. This is not the projection of some future possibility that one day, we would leave this place, dead or alive.

This is an acceptance, almost, that one day, this in-the-present hardscape would become a distant abstraction on the globe, an amalgamated assortment of place-and-people memories, a thousand pieces of fused colored glass–beautiful to conjure but difficult to make out any of the original bits. One day, we would not be here, would be looking out at a different viewshed, from a different HeresHome, through different eyes.

One day, we would wake up dead or be moving from this place. Those were the options. And while we often spoke of our intention to leave here in a pine box, that would not have been the responsible thing for our children. While we could have continued to herd cats and keep body and soul together here for a few more years, that would only delay the inevitable day we would leave, and years in the future, a decision to leave would offer far fewer good years to settle in and make another place our home with its own amalgam of colored-glass memories.

And so we are moving.

And it turns out, of course, that there is a lot more to it than one day waking up in the same bed in a different house. It is not like the movies where an amnesiac suddenly finds themselves transported from their last recollections in the fifties into a different movie set they do not recognize. Maybe an acute rip-the-bandaid translation into another life would be desirable, if it could somehow become possible other than in a movie script. But ours will be a creeping crisis of opportunity, unfolding for at least a year. Probably more.

Out impending reality until June will be more like a six-month metamorphosis into a late instar that emerges at The Other Place, then continues internally to reform and reconnect the inner parts for another six to twelve months before emerging in a new skin, with new eyes to appreciate that Where that is not Goose Creek.

And with this reality setting in, it is certain that many of the things we do between now and June we will be doing for the last time:

There will be a last time we sit on the front porch with friends and a bottle of wine.

There will come a last time we walk the pasture loop while calling this our own place; we may walk it years hence as visitors when it is another’s, if that is not too bittersweet a revery to contemplate.

We will hear for the last time the creek through the open bedroom window, will hear perhaps once more the whippoorwill who visits briefly in the spring, will smell for the final time the maple sweetness when the sap drips on the first warmish spring day.

I will load the list stick of firewood into the maw of the Quadrifire, the last of the thousands that have, since November 1999, been hefted a half dozen times between the forest edge and the waiting coals from last night’s fire. And since we may not have wood heat Over There, the very last loading of a lifetime may happen as the first buds swell and the days stay warm in late April. How I will miss this part of who I have been.

We will, on that last day, have taken our last senses-wide-open panorama in our minds and memories with immense gratitude, two figures in a snow-globe fantasy land left behind as we drive out of here with our past in the rear view mirror.

But I also remember that we did all those things here for a first time when Goose Creek was unfamiliar and not ours quite yet. And while not so many things for so many years after we reach The Other Place, we will know first things again.

A Pocket Full of Seeds…

The link at the end of this post is to a newly-published story is about water

…is not a garden.

And maybe 75 stories, essays and sylvan ramblings does not make a book. That is the judgment, I think, in the minds and profit-making needs of perhaps most publishers of books.

They are used to (and see their readers as being willing to pay for) books where Part A leads to Part B leads to…and there is a kind of start to finish nature to the book. That is not so for my existing books nor for the one I kind of hope to be published.

Several publishers I’ve gotten initially excited about “publish titles related to the practicalities, politics and processes of sustainability.” My book is neither fish nor fowl in this menu.

But the non-sequential reader format has actually been kind of a strong point for Slow Road and What We Hold, and many readers have told me that they like the fact that the book can be picked up and opened to any page to read that one short piece (they will be a bit longer in book #3).

On the other hand, you would not be completely able to read the future book backwards, since there is some memoirist material that starts with Finding Floyd, and then has several installments interspersed throughout.

The other possible deal killer is that the book does not fall into a clear subgenre of narrative non-fiction. Slow Road Home was shelved as a “travel book” because it was “about place.” And so finding “‘comparable titles” in a book proposal is made more difficult.

I won’t bore you with other grumblings as question the time and effort of find a “real” publisher and reconsider self-publication one final time. Much has changed in that field since 2009 when What We Hold In Our Hands was delivered off the truck from Edwards Brothers.

Meanwhile, some seeds are being disbursed at least. I did have one bit of the new book reach reader-eyes, including yours, if you wish, in a lit-mag called The Write Launch.

Finding Water | Creative Nonfiction by Fred First | The Write Launch

Status: UNK

That’s not exactly right. FUTURE status UNK, but when is that not the case? Just sometimes more UNK than others. And we are in one of those times, I suppose, on Goose Creek and on Planet Earth.

Where do we go from here?

Our time and energy of late has been centered around the (now failed) attempt to find housing options nearer town and with more “aging in place” options at 71 than we needed when we refurbed this place at 51–twenty years ago this coming Thanksgiving, just ahead of Y2K.

And in face of putting the house on the market THIS WEEK (which did not happen), we have had service folks–plumbers, carpenters, painters and HVAC–in the house, or expected at the house whether they showed up or not–for a month or more. We have been creating maximum disorder in every room to bring about a greater order. Eventually.

And to totally distract us from our home-transition woes, the very evening of the day we learned we would not be making an offer on The Place, we heard a noise on the front porch just as we were turning off the lights for bed.

And it was Mosey (as she is now called) who had appeared (origin and pathway to Goose Creek: UNK) to announce that she had arrived at her Storm Home, and please show her to her room. She was 10 weeks old upon arrival, the vet says, and way under-nourished and clingy. Not those things any more.

So now, as I attempt to shop around 8-10 of the bits from the increasingly-likely new book, I have a kitten in my lap, on my shoulder, on my keyboard, under my feet or lurking somewhere on my desk. If we were to rename her at this point, it would be Mehitabel (Bel for short)–an alley cat who presided in the cutting room of a large newspaper, and whose stories were pounded out by a longsuffering cockroach named Archy.

With regard to the “seeking publication” efforts, I have sent off a few, am looking at submission deadlines of others and matching topical submission requests with the subject matter of what I have available.

Then, PRESTO! Only six months or more later…

“Dear Mr. Frost, we are unable to use your submission in our publication, finding that it is devoid of coherence, purpose or any readership interests we could possibly identify. We encourage you to leave the essay in question buried in the deep structure of your hard drive where it can do no harm. Best of luck in finding a hobby more within your skill set than literature. “

Honestly, I expect one in five might see the light of day. I’ll get back to you on that–provided the blog survives upcoming relocation mandated by circumstances beyond my control. I don’t want to wipe 17 years of words (mostly front-loaded to the period ending about 2010) go extinct. Future status: UNK

Upcoming months may find Fragments a good place to share book excepts, notice of upcoming speaking events and the like. So hoping for a life extension.

Stay tuned!