Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Spirit of Posada

Pescadero is only 2 hours from our home but it feels like another country and another century. West of Pescadero is the mighty Pacific ocean with  great powerful waves breaking on rocky outcrops along the shore lines, this is the home to sea birds, tide pool organisms,  and sea lions.  Pescadero, noted for being  foggy and cool year round,   has a long history first as a Portuguese fishing community, now a center for coastal climate farming - berries, herbs, artichokes, Brussels sprouts,  etc.

Pescadero coastland 
This is one of our favorite places to which we come when we need to retreat, to 'recharge our batteries'. I  am writing from a small “bed and breakfast pension” in a charming old fashioned house with only two rooms that are rented.  
This time we came to take part in a Christmas Posada -  there are many Mexican farm workers  in the  area and we support a group called “Puente de la Costa Sur” (Bridge of the South Coast). The group provides support to farm workers and their families, many who are newly arrived, but some who have been here for years earning money to send to their families in Mexico.   The tradition of the Posada is a traditional Mexican reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a place to rest.
Mary and Joseph 
While the Posada in Pescadero began as a Catholic event it has grown into a joint activity of Catholic and Protestant churches, and the wider community.  We met shortly after sundown at the old, wooden Saint Joseph Catholic church

Pescadero Catholic church ( in daylight) 
Costumed wise men, Mary and Joseph, little angels with white wings, and the burro (named Johnny Apple Seed)  mingled with the arriving people. A table with a variety of Christmas cookies was there to tempt us - who could resist!  We began with a brief lesson on singing the complex melody of the Posada (check the link below to see a short clip of the music) , a few words, and a sendoff prayer… Posada youtube clip: <http:/>

Our group was swelling - all of us singing and taking part
Then our procession, led by Mary on the donkey and Joesph,  set off down the dark deserted street, past village houses.  Angels were running ahead and behind excited by the whole adventure.

As we walked our group expanding as more and more people joined in.  The group stopped several times at prearranged houses. We sang together in Spanish (printed words provided) that we are looking for shelter — We each took on the role of being homeless Mary and Joseph seeking shelter.  

Approaching our final stop

But each time the people in the house sang back that they had no room - 
We all experienced rejection.  The last stop on the trip was the Protestant church.  

Community Protestant church (daylight)

Once more we sang that we were seeking shelter - and this time  we were welcomed in and we all entered into the small old fashioned white frame church - there was room for about 120 people.  
Our gathering in the Protestant church  
The audience was about 2/3 Mexican people and 1/3 Anglo… it was a mix of sexes and ages with many eager children. Every part of the event was bilingual - so that all could fully understand the words.  Here we were treated to a mixed musical program with first a group of 8 local men and women singing traditional Mexican Christmas music, then two young women singing, and finally four camposinos (workers) with guitars singing in harmony.
Four singers 
The music was simple and deeply touching.  A brief talk by a local minister spoke of the challenges of Mary and Joseph forced to make a long journey because of arbitrary government rulings, and the challenges of traveling far from home and family. Then after the birth of Jesus, the necessity of crossing the border into Egypt. The message relates directly with the lives of displaced farm workers who must come here to work for the good of their families, deal with unfriendly border crossing, and government restrictions.  We were told that all of us who had a home and food needed to be willing to share with those without- That was the real  story of the Posada.
The tomale feast!  
After the music event we all walked a few blocks to the elementary school for a grand Mexican fiesta - this project that began with Puente has been adopted by the entire town - The hall was bright and beautiful with colored crepe paper and music.  As we sat at long tables, trays of traditional Mexican Christmas tamales and  bread were given to each table for sharing, other foods were available from side tables.  Here men who had spent the day picking Brussels sprouts, sat next to church ladies from Palo Alto.  Enthusiastic little angels still wearing their robes ate the same tamales as older folks from the community.  Staff travelled around with extra tamales especially for hard working men who needed more.  Cookies, and hot Mexican chocolate were provided.  

Surprise: Santa speaks Spanish! 
This simple Posada has become an annual tradition with us ... the place we come to get in touch with the spirit of Christmas. Especially just before Christmas we feel a need to get away from all the busi-ness on the "other side of the hills". Also, our local church in Niles is one of the providers of gifts to the children of the community - and sure enough Santa came to give each child a large felt stocking bulging with a variety of practical items and toys.  We have been friends of Puente for years and urge you to come experience the joy of Posada in following years…

Street notice 

Posada photos by Lars Howlett

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Winter Solstice night

December 21 is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year - We hardly notice. but to our primitive ancestors the longest night marked the time when light begins to return.  

Stone Henge - England - Site of early Solstice celebrations

It must have been mysterious and frightening to see the light diminish in the days of autumn – and then start to slowly return.  

Here I want to include a variety of thoughts and recollections on the topic of light...

1.     “Let there be light – and there was light...”

2.     “Here comes the sun” George Harrison’s song is a perennial favorite of back packers, who wake from the cold night and welcome the warmth of sunlight each morning. High mountain marmots also welcome the sun with chirps and whistles. We share the goodness of the sun.

Oh the joy of the coming of the Sun

3.     As a child I recall travelling through dark farmlands at night and seeing far off pinpoints of light coming from far distant farm houses and then realizing that light could travel so far and still be bright in my eye.  It was a revelation to me as a child.

Now I experience the same wonder when I think of light traveling millions of years to reach my eye from distant stars! 

4.     “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

5.     When I studied physics I learned how unique light is – Our best scientific studies show that sometimes light behaves like waves of energy – similar to other natural wave phenomenon.  In other circumstances, light behaves like unique particles of energy called photons...these are not particles of matter but pure energy. Which is correct?  They both are...

Photons? Waves? Yes both!!

6.     “When the days get longer the cold gets stronger.” A farm adage I knew as a child...

7.     “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” ― Plato

8.     Once on a day long trip into limestone caverns with cave exploring friends, we had carbide lanterns attached to the front of our hard hats. They sputtered and gave off a weak yellowish light.  To experience real darkness we turned the lights off for a few moments.  It was terrifying to be deep in a cave and be unable to see. The expression “we couldn’t see our hands in front of our eyes” is true. 

Eyes become accustomed to the low light when cave exploring

9.     Even light comes in different flavors depending on the vibrating wavelength of the light.  Red light is longest and Violet light the shortest wavelength.  But then us poor sorry human beings can only see part of the light spectrum– there are great spectra of colors more red than red and other colors more violet than violet.

10.My father taught me when I was about 9 how to strike steel  (like a piece of steel file) against a piece of flint (or quartz) to get a spark.  If you have a small piece of dry scorched cloth it can catch the spark and glow – with gentle breathing on the glow, it will catch fire and ignite splinters of wood and from that that can ignite a campfire.

Fire started with flint and steel

12.A glass prism does not attempt to hold on to the light but accepts all that enters and refracts each portion of the light according to its wavelength.  7 unique colors form when the white light is separated. Red. Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.  And here we think that white light is really white!

Raindrops in the sky refract light to my eye in a similar manner to the prism.

13.Human vision was once thought to be “rays of energy” that left the eye and illuminated the thing being seen.  Now we know that reflected light from an object passes through the lens of the eye and forms an actual image on the retina of the eye.  It is the brain that takes that image and inverts it so that we think we are seeing things right side up.  <>

14.It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.  Eleanor Roosevelt

15.  All our food, all of our clothing, the cells of our bodies owe everything to photosynthesis.  The magic of photosynthesis is that it can capture sunlight energy and use it to make chemical bonds and complex molecules using Carbon Dioxide from the air, and Water from the soil.

The miracle of photosynthesis 

Happy solstice!  Enjoy the return of the light!

( Images this week are mostly form Google Image collection)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Waiting for Light

The season of Advent is often lost in the Christmas scramble – but it is one of my favorite times.  For me Advent is about waiting – waiting for the Light.  For we who are Christian it is a time of preparation.  In our churches the central altar frequently has 4 candles  to represent the four weeks of anticipation.  One more is lit each week.  This week we will light 3.

Some people want to make a big deal about the factuality of Jesus being born at the darkest time of the year – We live in a scientific age where everything is either true or not. If its not documentable it be questionable. Some scoffers point to the prominence of mid winter festivals in other cultures to support their doubts.

For me the important thing is the metaphorical truth that into our human condition – into our lives – new hope can be born when we are open to the possibility –The greatest truths are  often best told in the form of metaphor. Even Jesus taught by means of metaphors.  We recognize the truth in the stories of the "Good Samaritan" and "The Prodigal Son" - never mind that they never happened.  The older I get the more content I am to live with what I can’t explain. 

For me the story of Advent is about making ourselves open to the new hope and peace that can come into our lives in unexpected forms.  Hearing about the birth of a baby born into poverty... born in a cow barn because there was no room in the motel...the story becomes current for our time.  This baby grew up to be in a world where he befriended the poor and disenfranchised.   To think that such a baby could grow up to  teach us a new way of being – based on caring for the poor, being responsible for our fellow human beings – that is the coming of the Light for me. 

In the story, the three ‘wise men’ from the ‘East” gave gifts to the baby Jesus.  In many countries gifts are not given on Christmas day but the ‘Three Kings Day’ – January 6 (Epiphany).  Judy and I discovered this custom in Southern Mexico – where Christmas is a day of religious ceremony – complete with music – fireworks –parades - and a special nighttime mass in the churches. 

 Then after New Years day the streets are filled with merchants selling toys to be given on January 6.  Gift giving does not extend to adults.  Some Eastern Orthodox Churches and European countries also celebrate January 6 with a day of gift exchange.

Gift-giving did not become the central Christmas tradition it is today until the late 18th century.  Stores started running Christmas ads in newspapers in about 1820. Santa Claus started appearing in ads and stores by 1840.  

But if you look beneath the surface, the deeper sprit of Christmas can still be found. The Human Services department in my city of  Fremont identifies marginal families teetering on the end of becoming homeless – The local Rotary club agrees to provide generous funding to buy gifts for the adults and children in these families.   My wife, Judy interviews each family to find out what they most need – things like coats, blankets for their beds, eyeglasses, food to feed the children, etc. 

The children each get one gift they need and one small gift they want.... Judy has done this for years and it is the highlight of her Christmas season. Right now our home looks like Santa’s workshop with piles of gifts.  Each day Rotary people come to take that days batch - so that they can wrap the gifts.  This next Saturday morning will be the grand party with donuts, pizza and pony rides... and the giving of the gifts...It is a festive event!

We also support Christmas gift giving through Heifer International  I think many people would be happy to receive the gift of an animal given to a third world family in their name -  rather than ‘get’ one more ‘thing’ they we don’t really need.  Last year Judy and I said that if anyone wanted to give us a gift let them be Heifer gifts; and we received a pig, 2 goats, a flock of ducks, and share in a llama.

I see people giving up part of their Christmas day to help serve dinner to the homeless...  I see kids collecting canned food for the hungry.  I see the Salvation Army people ringing their  bells.... Yes I think the spirit of Christmas is alive and well.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Good Education...

What constitutes a ‘good education’?  The answer to this question varies depending on your culture or your period in history.  In today’s American schools we believe that, in a democracy, all young people deserve a full well-rounded education.  The American education system is based on gender and social equity.  

American High School - California

We believe that our students need not only to acquire a sufficient knowledge base but also to be prepared as solid critical thinkers. We believe that students come to our classes with a great deal of previous knowledge, opinions, and ideas about the way things should be (some of it true, some of it false). 

Student physics project: Given these materials can you design a 'car' that will travel 40 ft.  (two mouse traps for power)

The 32 students in my class are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge – but in-process learners at different points in their learning, They come with different learning needs.  We recognize that humans pass through a series of stages by which we become able to deal with abstract ideas...Designing lessons beyond the students developmental level are doomed to failure.  We believe that our students need to be able to learn to problem solve working together with others.  In the business and technical world of today, product development, sales strategies, new research... all involve team collaboration and cooperation. 

Classroom designed in the pair share format - many opportunities for collaboration 

Much of our modern approach is based on the post enlightenment doctrine that truth is developed through open investigation.  We ask questions – we collect information – form tentative working conclusions – test these hypotheses – and either prove or disprove the ideas. Ultimately if you can't disprove an idea it becomes a theory... In science all theories are under constant scrutiny for review as new evidence is developed. 

Students engaged in problem solving activities
While they are arranged in grips, in this assignment each person is producing his own her own conclusions and explanations,

Prior to the enlightenment (~1600) and in some cultures today “wisdom” is the recorded ideas of the ancients ... the cultural wisdom passed on to today.  It was not considered suitable to question these beliefs but to learn them exactly so that it can be transmitted intact to future generations.  So our schools today, generally follow the post enlightenment model of encouraging questioning and evaluation of ideas, challenging old dictums that no longer fit our life and time.  But the issue of unquestioned adherence to dogma still persists in some communities.

Socrates taught by questioning - asking his students to defend their views - that can be very hard work for the students,  Socratic Questioning is an effective tool frequently used in todays classroom - but often to assist the student in organization of their thoughts into a final conclusion.

It is told that when Socrates was a young man he wanted to learn to be wise – so he set about visiting the wise men of Athens...only to discover, one by one, that they were not really wise – they only thought that they were.  As a result of this experience he determined that being truly wise was living a life in which you were continually open to new learning, the truly wise person does not expound “knowledge” but asks questions and encourages others to be open to new understanding. When he taught his students, he taught by questioning, He taught them to question... For this he was executed for corrupting the morals of the youth.
Teaching ultimately is a political act.

The British system exported to Tanzania

The classic British system of “public schools” (which are really private schools) valued the teaching of traditional culture – learning Latin as the language of the Roman philosophers.  Passing on to the new generations the collective knowledge of significant things that have been said and done in the past.  The way forward is to know what history can teach us. 

Education in a British 'Public School'

This system has now been modified to include science, mathematics, modern languages, etc.  The British syllabus instruction system includes a carefully laid out sequence of learning and activities that must be followed exactly by all classrooms.  The model has been borrowed and applied in other parts of the world attempting to improve their educational systems by emulating the British plan.

These young students in Tanzania will take 'milestone' exams at key points in their education to determine which educational path they may follow

Many European and Asian school systems have critical examinations that determine if a student will continue in a college track direction, enter training for a trade or a craft, or will end up in the service industry.  The advocates for this plan hold the position that due to preferences, learning style, family tradition ... not all students need a full college education.  In America we generally feel that such tests can unfairly target certain learning, social, or minority groups and prevent them from achieving what they are able to accomplish.

These young women in Kyrgystgan did not have the option of education - but at an early age went to work in a rug making mill

China and India today, with their large populations, has a relatively small number of highest position jobs awaiting graduates – so the competition in school is intense.  In many Chinese schools the school day goes from 7 AM to 7 PM, with a break for addition there is required homework after school/ The instruction is very proscribed and tests serve as intense filters to determine what knowledge has been acquired.  The system does not emphasize group work or development of creative thinking as part of the lesson.  Teachers are strict and failure to turn in homework is both disrespectful to the teacher, but viewed in a very negative light by peers.

An effective American teacher balances effective class management with well crafted daily lesson plans that both build skills, develop conceptual and factual knowledge and provide feedback to all students about their progress.  Its a tough job but rewarding!

Now I have some questions for you:  What part of your education process most influenced you:  Was it fact memorization? Learning open strategies for “thinking outside the box", group work activities, Laboratory investigations, on the job training once you were out of school?, a wise person who served as an example to you?  I wish I could sit down with each of you and engage in some Socratic Dialogue... I would love to hear your answers...

ABCs in the Achuar Language - Eastern Rainforest of Ecuador

Rainforest School

Friday, November 29, 2013

The 'right' side of the country

On the road again – but this just a brief jaunt in the East Coast…( no photos this week -sorry... )

(earlier)  Check lists, house sitter in place, dog instructions posted, rides arranged, bags packed…. Checked off, Checked off, Checked off….

Tuesday AM - The alarm sounded its cheery greeting at 3:30 AM – its kind of shocking to see empty freeways… Our neighbor – a college student – drove us to SFO.

In the airport I love the phenomenon of 4-minute communities – waiting in line for coffee we start talking – sharing pieces off our lives… They seem like really nice people – people that I would like to know better… but when we line more forward we separate never to meet again.  I love the meeting and sharing –not the separation

(later) When I look out the airplane window I see snow covered Sierra mountain peaks and valleys – The pilot says we are flying at 33,000 ft. … Well into the stratosphere above air turbulence. 

(later) Below are the geometric squares of Midwest farm fields. One hour to go until Chicago…Patches of snow are visible.

(later) We are startIng the descent into Chicago…After hour an hour in a holding pattern we have permission to land through the dense low clouds.

(later) Chicago airport – thanksgiving crunch has definitely arrived… every seat filled – flight late…  Most notably people here do not dress like San Francisco – people are dressed in heavy coats and wooly caps – thick wintry sweaters…  The sky outside is heavily overcast and it looks cold.  People are wearing more dark colored clothing than I would see in California.

(later)  Landing at Dulles airport in N. Virginia ( near Washington DC ).  The US is strangely uniform in its cultural life for such a large country – but there are differences in dialects, predominant ethnic minorities, names for thing… We quickly find our across town shared-ride shuttle-van that will take us to our destination in Falls Church. 

(later)  Oh my goodness!  The infamous Washington DC going home traffic is close to gridlock!  We sit in our van and watch the cold rain fall around us…The van driver is calm and careful – He is from Guana (W. Africa) .  All the red tail lights reflecting from the wet streets are quite beautiful

The van drops us at the front door of our son and daughter in laws home.  Their house is warm and a good meal is soon served.  So much news and good stories to catch up....A time for hugs and laughter.

Wednesday – Low-key day…Novel experience for a California boy like me ( after all these years I have become one ) to walk down a  suburban street with tall wintery Oaks and Maples towering overhead – bare twigs in the morning sky.  Ice crystals too large to call ‘snow’ are falling.  There is a cold wind blowing that makes my eyes water… After poking around for an hour I am ready to return to a warm room!  Schools have a half day of work today – so we stuck close to home until our son and daughter in law were free…

Thursday – oh the smell and sights of Thanksgiving! – the Turkey cooking in the oven… I cut the apples and my wife Judy made one of her absolutely delicious pies.  Of course all the other traditional dishes also made their appearance. Few things in America are more sectarian than choosing the form of cranberries to be served– To keep peace in the family when we cook at home we have raw cranberries/raw orange, stewed cranberry sauce, canned cranberries!

And the left overs - just as good as the first time around!

Friday, November 22, 2013


When I was a kid there was a person in the neighborhood so superstitious that if a black cat crossed his path he would change his route to avoid the cat.  If that wasn’t possible he would return home.

Native Americans in parts of Northern California thought of certain trees, rocks, or valleys as good places to visit – but other locations were to avoid.  It was OK to pick acorns from 'these' trees but not 'those'.  This rock is a good place to have acorn grinding pestles and 'over there' not.

Previous 'Indian country'

Hawaiian raditional belief tells that if you see an old woman hitchhiking you had better pick her up because she might be Madam Pele the Goddess of Volcanoes; who sometimes came in the form of an old woman to check up on her people and see if they were showing proper compassion to each other.  To be really safe you can throw an occasional  bottle of gin into the volcanic an offering to insure Pele’s good will.   Better than a human sacrifice I suppose.

Kilauea Crater - Hawaii

If  you are a poor campasino (farmer) in the Mountains of Southern Mexico and your goat suddenly had no milk one morning - it was a sure sign that the Chupacabras ( goat suckers ) had come in the night... Belief in Chupacabras continues to this day

"See a Chupacabra"

All of these are “cause and effect” thinking... “if I do this... this is likely to happen...” Used correctly this is the basis of scientific thinking...”If I add nitrogen fertilizer to my potato patch I will get bigger healthier plants. “   “If I eat fast food frequently – I will gain weight.”  “I can neutralize strong Sodium Hydroxide with an equally strong Hydrochloric Acid.”

Acid/Base Neutralization

But even us modern folks are subject to illogical cause and effect thinking... our secret superstitions.  Some one told me that he had a job offer but he didn’t want to tell me about it for fear that he would ‘jinx it’.  How many people have a lucky cap, lucky shirt, lucky shoes that they wear to every foot ball/base ball/soccer match?  Players are even worse with their secret fetishes.  Some of us always enter through one door in our office building and not another.  A lot of us have secret little ways that we do things ... not sure just why, but we feel safer doing it that way.

Yikes - Friday the 13th!!  I had better be careful!

I found a shop in Oakland that sells potions or special candles to attract good luck, love potions, dispel anger, revenge potions, remove a jinx, attract money into your name it and they have a potion for it. 

I heard recently about the forest people who have lived for untold generations in the rain forest of Peru and Ecuador... They have the belief that all things in the universe are corrected.  The goal of their life is to seek to live with tranquility.  They feel that if they get upset or violent, the action will result in changes within their universe – perhaps a wind storm, earthquake, bus accident, etc.  And the way to prevent these thinks is to live with a peaceful heart.

The tranquil universe

Pre scientific people often are found to have cause and affect belief systems limiting with a strong sense of what is safe, dangerous, clean, unclean, things to do, things to avoid.  There is sometimes a rational reason why certain restrictions were imposed – but more often not...or if there ever was a reason it has been forgotten.

Compulsive people carry cause and effect thinking to a pathological level... I knew someone how had to count things – had to count birds in a tree, cars, people waiting for a light...I don’t know what terrible thing he thought would happen if this counting wasn’t done...but he did it every time. Compulsions don’t make the person feel ‘happy’ they just reduce the anxiety with which they live.

Acorn grinding hole- Garin Park... 

But most of us post-Enlightenment-rational humans living in a pro-scientific society still have secret cause and effect beliefs that not exactly reasonable.  Most of us don’t want others to even know about these secrets we hold to ourselves.  I’m not suggesting that you find your irrationalities and root them out as inappropriate – just – when you see them, recognize them, smile, and say...”This is part of who I am.” There is something friendly and freeing in just accepting that we are not totally rational in all our understanding of how we see the world.

I suspect that cause and effect thinking is found in all humans, regardless of culture or period...some more than others.  Some of our patterns begin when we are vulnerable children –and some are taught us as part of our acculturation. Regardless of later training, vestiges of magical thinking remain in our lives. It may not feel “quite safe” to give up something that has apparently worked for us in the past.