Friday, May 31, 2013


It is not easy to write diplomatically about sex and bowel functions, but Mary Roach does it.  She is a fearless science writer who manages to take taboo subjects and turn them into good books packed with information written in a style that is easily accessible without being condescending.

In Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers (Norton, 2004), she tells us just what happens to our earthly shell once we shuttle off this mortal coil.  Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Norton, 2009) takes us inside the human bedroom and into the sheets for some blushing details about how we make love.  She is also the author of Packing For Mars:  The Curious Science of Life in the Void (Norton, 2010), an exploration of human beings in space and all that it entails.  If you are sensing a pattern here, focus on the word “curious.”  Mary Roach is nothing but curious, and she takes us on a journey in each of her books with insight and humor, although at times she reaches a bit too far for the witty aside.

Her most recent book is Gulp: Adventures in the Alimentary Canal (Norton, 2013).  The alimentary canal is the anatomically correct name for the entire length of the human digestive tract, mouth to anus.  It is, in fact, one long superhighway.  So when you kiss your significant other, you’re getting the sweet end of 29 feet of intestines.

It is not too unpleasant to write about the mouth.  Roach breaks down (pun intended) the makeup of saliva and the way digestion begins with chewing what we stuff into our pie hole.  To a non-scientist, it might be surprising to learn that there are people out there who study the different kinds of saliva.  “Humans secrete two kinds of saliva,” Roach writes, “stimulated and unstimulated.”  We also learn that babies drool because they lack the teeth to keep back the flood.  The spittle also contains extra lipase, “an enzyme that breaks down fat,” since the little person is on an all-milk diet.  Fascinating.

Of course, it is the other end of the alimentary canal that could cause writing constipation.  How do you write about, well, you know?  Roach does not shy away from the unpleasant stuff.  Let’s just say, she covers everything you need to know about flatulence, or more than you want to know, for that matter.  We also get to hear about one more attribute Elvis Presley had: a megacolon.  And evidently, one can die from constipation.  There have been several cases of sudden death while straining to pass a megacolon’s worth of stuff.  And if you think fiber is key to good colon health, think again.  Roach blows the lid off of the whole probiotic and fiber diets as the passage (again with the pun) to pristine bowels and a healthier life.  She cites a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2010 that found that “Frequent bowel movements were associated with an increased risk of rectal cancer in men, and constipation was associated with a decreased risk.”  The bacteria in probiotics are aerobic and thrive only in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.  It is the anaerobic kind that love to throw parties in the human colon.

The book ends with probably the most disgusting development in medicine since the leech:  the fecal transplant.  Yes, when one suffers from chronic bowel disease, a successful new treatment might be to insert some fecal material containing a healthy bacterial cultural from a donor into the ill person’s depleted gut.  Roach takes us through the process from donor to insertion.  It is not really all that unpleasant as described; it is more the thought that is troublesome.  And it is less painful, certainly, than donating bone marrow or a kidney.

I also read a second book by Mary Roach this early summer:  Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (Norton, 2005).  She takes a scientific approach to ghost hunting and other matters of the supernatural.  For those hoping for proof of actual dead people involved in things that go bump in the night, you will be disappointed.  Science simply cannot validate ghosts.  However, Roach did learn that electromagnetic energy can make us hallucinate and think we see ghosts, especially if one is right-hemispherically dominant.  “The theory holds that certain patterns of electromagnetic field activity—both the earth’s own natural kind and the man-made kind created by wiring and appliances and power lines—can render the brain more prone to hallucinations,” Roach writes.  “In particular, the sort that involve an invisible, sensed presence.”  She questions the scientist doing the research whether or not these perceptions are actual voices from the other side.  His answer is startling.  Because of the effect on the brain, they may be picking up “actual information that’s in the environment…particularly in places where people experience the same thing again and again.”

Physics tells us that there may be other dimensions sharing our environment, and possibly electromagnetic energy targeting our brains gets us a clearer signal from those dimensions.  On a purely scientific note, Roach finds little evidence to confirm the presence of the supernatural, however, such entities cannot be eliminated by science either.  What is valuable about this book is the clear-headed way she picks apart her subject.  She has, in all her books, the remarkable ability to make difficult science understood by those of us who are not scientists, and she does this with clarity and humor.  At times, she might be simplifying too much, but for a general reader, her books offer a gateway into much broader and deeper research if one is intrigued.  In other words, Mary Roach offers a place to start with science topics with broad appeal.  In addition, she tries very hard to keep the mood lighthearted and fun, even when the subject matter is taboo or distasteful.  At times, she reaches too far for the humor, although better to integrate some funny lines when dealing with dry science, or a dry bowel movement.

I have enjoyed Mary Roach’s writing for years, and once immersed in her books, it is hard to pull away.  She is definitely good vacation reading, and one leaves a book more enlightened and knowledgeable.  Quite possibly she has written the perfect bathroom reading in Gulp, however it is most decidedly not the book you want to be perusing while eating a meal.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Man Who Fell To Earth

Album cover shoot for Alladin Sane, 1973. Photo by Brian Duffy. Copyright Duffy Archive*

Mr. Bleck was my fifth grade language arts teacher.  He dressed in rumpled suits that often made him look a bit heavier than he actually was.  His wit was dry and caustic, and I did not understand his jokes at times.  What I did notice were his long, elegant fingers stained with nicotine, and once when I passed the faculty room on some errand for another teacher, I heard his cackling laughter as the door swung open.  I turned in the direction of the sound to catch a glimpse of the man, his head thrown back, and a cigarette between those fingers gracefully emitting a trail of smoke that collected in the small room.  Then the door closed.

Because of his disheveled elegance, I sensed something off about him.  He could sneer and be catty at times in the classroom, and often when I sought praise and affirmation, he responded with a sarcastic aside that made the whole enterprise ring hollow.  I was the kid who never liked to be wrong and who always wanted everything to go my way.  I tried to suck up praise from my teachers, and I demanded that they be people worthy of that sucking up.  Mr. Bleck, with his biting wit and droll manner, did not fit the image of The Teacher and therefore, I did not find him worthy of my sycophancy.  I had trouble figuring him out, or drawing a bead on who he was and what his asides meant when I approached him to report that I had completed yet another color category of SRA readings.  He never seemed impressed with my achievements.  I, on the other hand, was a jerk.

It wasn’t until close to mid-year that I finally thought I’d figured out Mr. Bleck.  My parents were watching some show on television and Paul Lynde was the guest star.  “He acts like Mr. Bleck!” I blurted out.  My mother, who had met my teacher at Back-to-School Night, quickly agreed with me.  My parents grew up with homophobia in a time when gays were hidden at the back of the proverbial closet.  Being staunch Catholics also played into their ignorance.  If I were to travel back in time to meet them as parents of a fifth grader in the 1970s, they would tell me they did not know any gay people, and they firmly believed this.  They watched Paul Lynde and Liberace on television, even laughed at their humor and performances, but they were not comfortable with them because those performers were different.  I remember clearly not being allowed to watch The Flip Wilson Show because my father found it offensive that Flip dressed in drag as Geraldine.  With my father and mother, as with Geraldine, “What you see is what you get,” and with them you got homophobic ignorance.  Mr. Bleck would be subjected to that ignorance.

I had no proof that Mr. Bleck was gay, but I had my parents’ collusion to treat him in a disrespectful manner.  So I waited for my opportunity.  It came soon enough.

Mr. Bleck loved David Bowie.  He loved the man, and said as much in class.  This was Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Young Americans era when his sexuality was far from clear and steeped in androgyny.  He was also on the big screen in The Man Who Fell To Earth.  Just more fuel to the fire.  Mr. Bleck announced that as a special treat, while we completed our spelling assignments, worksheets, and SRA work, he would play some of David Bowie’s seminal music.  While other teachers might extol Mozart and Chopin, Mr. Bleck would round out our education with a little “Rebel, Rebel” and “Fame.”

Here was my perfect opportunity.  I went home that evening and told my parents that Mr. Bleck was playing gay music.  It was too loud for me to concentrate, and often Bowie screamed bad words.  My mother called the school and complained about him to the principal, who promised to look into the situation.  When nothing changed, we upped the ante.  “Next time he plays that music,” my mother told me, “just get up and leave the room.”  No problem, mom.

Sure enough, Mr. Bleck slapped down another piece of vinyl on the turntable the next afternoon.  Without a word to anyone, I gathered my things and left the classroom.  Mr. Bleck did not even see me because he was focused on the record player.  I walked to the principal’s office and told the secretary I left my class because the teacher was playing bad music.

The requisite calls were made, my parents were summoned, and we all gathered for a confab in the principal’s office.  After I told my story, I was excused to go wait on the playground.  When my parents came to the car, they told me Mr. Bleck would not be playing that music anymore.

In class, he tried to speak with me about the situation.  “It is not necessary for you to like the music,” he said, “but I just wanted you to hear it.  Bowie is an artist who has something to offer the world.”

“He wears make-up like a girl.”

Mr. Bleck did not try to argue with me.  He slumped at his desk and sent me on my way.  He refrained from playing Bowie for a month or so, but as spring came on, he decided it was time for more artistic exposure.  “I just want to play a little bit,” he said, looking nervously in my direction.

Before the music even started, I stood up and made for the door.

“Oh, dammit, Paul, sit down.”

I kept going.  Behind me, I heard Mr. Bleck crank up the volume in defiance.  We were at war, and I, in all my stupidity, knew I would win.  And the principal and my parents were on my team.  Bleck and Bowie would suffer the consequences.

After another round of phone calls, Mr. Bleck announced to the class that David Bowie would no longer sing for us during seatwork.  He did not look at me while he talked, his voice full of bitter sadness.  We finished the year in a silence echoing through my hollow victory.  When June came, I am positive even now that Mr. Bleck was deeply pleased to see me go.  Now I was the sixth grade teacher’s problem.

Mr. Bleck, however, was not done with the Martins.  He went on to teach my younger siblings.  He met with my mother many times in Parent-Teacher Conferences, and they developed a cordial relationship.  As a teacher myself, I have always marveled at that.  It is very difficult to continue to work with a parent who has caused nothing but grief.  Mr. Bleck found a way to move beyond the Bowie conflagration and remain a dedicated professional.  He was not a strong teacher, but in his own way, I consider him a good one, and in retrospect, I am sorry for my behavior and I am glad I was in his class for that long ago year.

And David Bowie is an artist; some lessons are learned only across the distance of years.

Mr. Bleck continued to teach at that Catholic elementary school for a long time after I was gone.  I never spoke to him again, although as my brothers and sister moved through their time there, I would get updates and gossip about my former teachers from my mother.  One day I came home from college to hear from my mother that Mr. Bleck had been teaching his class when he excused himself to step outside the classroom to drink from the fountain.  He fell to the asphalt and died there of a massive heart attack.

When I think of Mr. Bleck now, I remember something David Bowie said:  “The truth is, of course, that there is no journey.  We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”  Years ago when I was a snot-nosed kid, I kept walking out the door trying to escape my own ignorance.  But we cannot escape the lessons we must learn in life, painful and stained with regret as they often are.  David Bowie released a new album recently, his first in a decade.  Gary Bleck is no longer here to listen, and I am truly sorry for that.

*This image is part of David Bowie is, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, March 23rd-July 28th 2013. For information about the exhibit and Brian Duffy's photography, click here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Show Some Love For The Teacher

May 6th through 10th is Teacher Appreciation Week.  We have all heard the various opinions about the world’s other oldest profession:  teachers aren’t paid enough; teachers have it easy because they have summers off; teachers put in long hours after the school day ends; teachers don’t work hard enough to engage their students; teachers are the best and the brightest the nation has to offer; teachers are those who’ve failed at everything so they enter the classroom as a last resort.

Yes, depending on who is yapping, the story shifts from praise to blame.

You can’t measure learning like you measure flour to make a cake.  No standardized test can gauge the effect of a good teacher on a student.  We are talking here about the most crucial role in the building of a future:  the vocation of a teacher.  To be a good one, you must be smart, quick, savvy, determined, strong, and resilient.

A good teacher knows how to communicate with students.  She also knows and loves her subject.  Without communication and intellectual skills, or even with one skill in excess, the teacher will fail.

Don’t discount the average, or below average student who becomes a teacher.  He knows adversity.  He has dealt with failure.  Often these underachieving students grow up to be the best teachers because they understand students and their motivations, or lack thereof.  They see themselves in the struggling kid at the back of the classroom.  They know what buttons to push to fire up a young mind.

So show some respect before the week ends.  Teachers have carried the brunt of our anti-intellectual culture of late.  All they hear is how they’ve failed in a bankrupt bureaucracy in a culture and country fallen on hard times.  It is not parents or students or the idiot culture but the teachers who are always the problem.  Yet few people truly understand what it is like to walk into a classroom and hold the attention of 25 students and cajole them into learning something.  Teachers work every day to change the world, even though that change may not come to fruition until long after they’ve gone.

Here are some stats about the profession courtesy of the National Center For Education Statistics:

3.7 million people are full time teachers from elementary to high school.

3.3 million teach in public schools and 0.4 million in private institutions.

76 % are female, 24 % are male.

44% are under the age of 40.

52% have master’s or higher degrees.

83% are White, 7% are Black, 7% are Hispanic, 1% are Asian.

$56,069 is the average salary with only 3% growth from 1990-1991 to 2010-2011.

8-9%, on average, leave the profession each year.

27 to 1: pupil/teacher ratio in 1955, 31 to 1 in private schools.

14 to 1 (projected) for 2013, but these numbers are on the rise.

This week and every week, we need to show the love for the men and women inspiring, motivating, enlightening, pushing, teaching our young.  In a better world, we would stop funding weapons and wars and instead, put all our money and resources into the classrooms across America.  There’s a dream we can all share and work to make true.