Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hippie T.A. and The Nuclear Mathematician

In 1974 I was a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. I was working as a teaching assistant and the first semester of the school year was assigned to help teach the Business Calculus class. However, at this 30,000 student diploma factory the actual professor for the class did absolutely nothing. He didn't give any lectures or administer any tests or grade any papers or assign any grades. The entire class was taught and administered by the teaching assistant. That was ok with me. However, the class was held at 8 am Monday thru Friday so it was going to be fun trying to get there.

I had been a T.A. the previous two semesters and was thoroughly fed up with the lack of attention, study, attendance, and every other aspect of the students I had come in contact with. Very little learning was going on at this institution and, it appeared, a whole lot of partying and snoozing through class (especially math class) was going on. Plus, I hated how much time the professors were making the students spend on taking tests. On the part of the students the emphasis seemed to be on getting enough credits to graduate, go home, and get a job. On the part of the faculty the emphasis seemed to be on doing as little work as possible.

So, the first day of class I stood before my new students dressed in Hippie garb with long flowing hair and announced that everyone would be getting A's. I made it clear that they didn't need to attend class to receive an A. Everyone would get an A regardless. However, I also made it clear that those who did attend class would be studying Business Calculus - not reading the school newspaper, chatting, or snoozing.

The students divided along three lines - those who took me at my word and chose not to come to class, those who didn't believe me and came anyway, and those who believed me and really wanted to learn the math. I think the whole thing simultaneously scared and fascinated them so they tended to pay attention just to find out what was going to happen. Anyway, I had about 2/3 turnout on a regular basis and the class was very focused on learning Business Calculus. Except for those few mornings when I would launch into a demonstration of yoga or a tale about some Hippie adventure.

I lived about 25 miles east of Gainesville on Cowpen Lake just off Hawthorne Road. In order to get to class by 8 am I'd have to get up around 5:30 am, row my canoe across the lake, hide it in the bushes, and hitchhike to Gainesville. This proved less arduous than you would expect as I soon had a regular set of commuters who recognized me and picked me up regularly.

This course was a requirement for Business Administration majors and was designed as a "cookbook" approach to Business Calculus. That is, the textbook we were using did not go into the theory at all but simply provided a "use this formula for this type of problem" approach. I could have taught this material to 5th graders who could memorize. We progressed rapidly through the material and some of the students were really getting interested in the math. I started explaining more and more about differential equations - at least as much as I could to students who had never had the Calculus background necessary to understand it.

Everybody, including me, was having fun and learning a lot. The students were turning in their homework on time and correctly done. I was pretty pleased with myself and thought what a great way to teach. A lot of the anxiety students have is, I believe, due to grades. Remove that as a worry and the mind can focus. I think it even carried over into other classes as some students were really worried about flunking out or losing their parents support or whatever if they didn't get an overall C average. Getting an A in math meant they had less anxiety about the other classes and were more focused there as well.

So, everybody was having a gas and learning some math. Toward the end of the semester I had covered the entire textbook and started giving the students harder problems mostly to do with environmental issues but with a business angle. Like, suppose you are the King of Sweden. You know the Swedish fishing fleet can catch so many fish per day. You also know about how many fish are in the schools and their reproductive and natural death rates. How long should the fishing season be in order to simultaneously maximize fishing fleet revenues and minimize damage to the schools of fish ? Or, you're the Governor of Michigan. You know the rate at which water enters Lake Michigan, the rate at which it exits, and the concentration of pollutants in the lake. The EPA is requiring your state to clean up the lake. If you stop polluting today, how many years would it take to satisfy the EPA requirements ? If you gradually reduce emissions from the surrounding factories, how long will it take ? That kind of thing.

I would also bring in guest lecturers on dull days. One morning I met an interesting fellow doing hand stands on the quad. He had fascinating stories so I brought him in to "lecture". He taught the students how to get to India for free, where to go there, and how to live among the people. You should have seen those wide eyed kids - they couldn't believe this was college math class.

The final was held out on the grassy quad. I had promised that if they all did their homework assignments I would teach them to do the series of yoga asanas called the Salutation to the Sun. That morning I had my entire class on hand and, at 8 am, we were gathered out on the lawn in front of the library. There we went through the Salutation to the Sun and everybody got an 'A' on their final exam. I turned in the grade sheet to the Math Department office - all A's in purple ink.

Over the Winter break I hitchhiked to Coconut Grove then bummed a ride on a biplane delivering mail to the Bahamas and got a ride on the mail boat delivering mail to one of the outer islands where I camped out in a stand of coconut trees. Some of this adventure is written up in the story "Satan's Claws".

When I returned from my adventure in the Bahamas I had a note from the Math Department office that they urgently needed to see me. Uh oh. I delivered myself to the office where I was instructed to come back at 3 p.m. as Dr. Bednarek wanted to meet with me. Dr. A. R. Bednarek was the head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Florida at that time. He was a very famous mathematician and had worked on the development of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

I returned at 3 and, immediately upon entering the lushly carpeted large office and closing the door behind me I was bombarded by a stream of invectives shouted at Spinal Tap volume. From behind his huge desk this large man was hollering "What the f*** do you think you're f***ing doing you worthless f***! You're screwing up the entire department curve! You're fired! I never want to see your f***ing ass around here again! Get the f*** out of my office!" And so on.

At first I was just too astonished to talk but as I watched his face turning redder and redder and darker and darker I figured I had better say something before he busted an artery. "Calm down" I say. "Let's talk about this. Let's be rational. We can reason this out." And so on. Finally he says, ok, what have you got to say for yourself. I launch into an explanation of my teaching theory and how well the students have learned Business Calculus and such. He informs me that the Business Calculus requirement is not there to teach Business Calculus. Nobody needs to know Business Calculus and nobody is going to remember it anyway. The Business Calculus requirement is there to flunk 15% of the Business Administration applicants so that department is not overwhelmed. If I didn't flunk 15% then I failed at my task.

I told him that I did not know that was the case and that I had just tried to teach Business Calculus as best I could given the situation. Further I informed him that my students had learned Business Calculus very well and that they really did deserve A's and that I could document my claims with work the students had done. At this he relented a bit. He told me I could bring in my evidence and, if satisfied, he would not fire me if I lowered the student's grades to fit the department curve.

The next day I brought in the student's homework and other projects I had collected. In addition I had the office make me copies of the teacher evaluations the students had done for this class. Dr. Bednarek leafed through the homework assignments and class project papers but stopped and read the evaluations more attentively. These almost universally said stuff like "This was the best class I've ever had" or "Mr. Record is the best teacher I've ever had" or "I've always hated math but now it's my favorite subject" and so on.

So, he offered me my job back but only if I would lower some of the grades to match the department curve. I told him I would so that I could keep my job for the next semester as I had a Hippie commune of about eight folks living back at my place and mine was the only income. However, I had already talked to a friend who worked in the office and she told me I could retroactively raise a student's grade over the next semester for various reasons. A grade could not be retroactively lowered.

I adjusted my grades to fit the curve and resubmitted them. Then I started submitting two or three a week to be raised back up to A's, usually with the reason "clerical error". Over the first part of 1975 I raised all of the grades back up to A's then, at the end of the semester I quit my job as a T.A. and dropped out of graduate school. I was pretty disillusioned with the system at that time. I mean, not only did the faculty just sit on its ass and not teach but it turned out the purpose of the classroom was not higher learning but some sort of filtration system to weed out the bottom 15%.

My attitude changed years later when I found myself again a teaching assistant in a Mathematics department only this time at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This was a complete 180. The faculty were dedicated to higher education, well prepared, inspirational, fun to be around, and excellent teachers. The students were excited to learn in this astoundingly beautiful environment , worked hard at their homework, and asked all kinds of pertinent questions. It turns out it was just the University of Florida and Dr. A. R. Bednarek that were bum.

Friday, June 24, 2011

How to Build a Chickee and Talk to Cockroaches

Characters in and around the swamps and rivers of north central Florida were as plentiful as paw-paws in a paw-paw patch. On Sundays I would often ride my bicycle out to a swamp and explore. One Sunday I came across an old farmhouse and followed the trail back to the swamp where I found a thatched hut and garden. I came back often to visit and eventually moved onto the land bordering the swamp with Crawford Solomon, the fellow who had built the hut and tended the garden there.

Crawford was a strong rugged individualist with leather skin, a contemplative disposition, and an intense distaste for money and all of the accouterments of modern society. He had a masters degree in philosophy from the University but he was shoveling his Ph.D. in the orchard he'd planted. Crawford had bought the land he lived on and the only money he had to come up with was the property taxes each year. That was because he was completely self sufficient. He'd dug his own well, grew his own food, built his own shelter, didn't wear much in terms of clothing, and had learned how to survive off of the land.

The hut that I had discovered was called a Chickee. Crawford had constructed it himself from thatched cabbage palm fronds, bamboo, skinned cypress poles, rough cut pine boards, and canvas drop cloths. The Chickee was what the Seminole and Miccosukee had used for their shelter. It was perfectly suited for the hot humid environment. The thatched roof could withstand hurricane force wind and the raised floor provided protection from insects, snakes, animals, and flood. Later, watching Crawford build another Chickee, I was fascinated as he "worked" slowly and methodically in such a relaxed way - always reverent and alive with a pure love of nature. He eventually got to where he could build a Chickee in about a week. For pretty close to free.

The process is pretty simple. Cut a big pile of cabbage palm fronds. Walk barefoot in the swamp feeling with your feet for downed cypress hearts and use these as your poles. Cut some bamboo. Cut and soak tall bear grass which will be used to lash the palm fronds onto the bamboo and the bamboo to the cypress. The only materials that cost any money were the pine boards for the raised floor and a few nails to secure the floor tightly to the cypress hearts. These expenditures could be avoided by cutting the pine yourself and using bear grass and notching the boards so they fit securely. Soaked bear grass, when used for lashing, is really secure. The grass shrinks tightly around the bamboo or cypress as it dries and not even a hurricane will blow that roof off.

Crawford taught me quite a bit about living in and with nature. One day he told me to grab a frying pan and follow him. He stomped off across the fields just above the swamp. I followed wondering why I was lugging a frying pan on a hot dry day. Crawford pulled up at a big red ant den. In Florida these red ants are really big and they build these large two feet tall mounds where they live. Inside the mounds are thousands of ants. Crawford said something like "If you're ever hungry all you need is a frying pan and some matches." Then he proceeded to build a small fire next to the ant den. After it was going he set the frying pan on it. When the frying pan was nice and hot he went over to the ant den, bent over, and stuck his arm all the way down in that ant hill shaking it around. When Crawford pulled his arm out of that ant hill it was completely covered with red ants. He walked over to the fire, bent over again, and scraped the ants off into the frying pan. After sizzling for about 30 seconds he scooped some out of the pan and gave them to me. Yum! Of course, Crawford's skin was tough as leather so no red ant bite was going to do much to him.

Crawford used to do anything to avoid having to get a job or make money. Some mornings he'd get up at dawn and walk up to the highway to search for roadkill. He liked to eat possum and raccoon and deer that had been freshly killed the night before. He also liked to make his own cane sorghum. He had learned the process from an old black fella that lived nearby. He stashed jars and jars of sorghum under the Chickee and that stuff was so good I couldn't help but sneak a few sips in every day.

In order to pay his property taxes every year Crawford would usually teach a course in "Living Off The Land" at the local community college or through the city sponsored programs. He held the class out on his land so he didn't have to go into the city and smell the smells and hear the noisy clamor. One day as we were sitting there the van of students arrived up at the front gate where the road ended. Crawford said "Watch this" and pointed up above the van. As the students got out and started up the half mile path we could see a dark cloud form over their heads. The cloud descended and eventually engulfed the students. They were all ducking and waving their hands and arms and slapping themselves. It was like they had all gone insane or something. Then Crawford also pointed out the "mosquito hawks", as he called them, dive bombing the cloud of mosquitos. These were dragonflies picking off the mosquitos. It was Crawford's theory that the city smells attracted the mosquitos and as long as you smelled like the swamp or a tree you were ok. I guess we smelled like the swamp cause no skeeters were getting us.

One night I was alone in the Chickee. Crawford had left for a couple of weeks saying he was going into town to get a new woman. That was about the only thing that would get Crawford into town. Anyway, I was alone and sitting in the Chickee eating my dinner by candlelight. My dinner consisted of a few piles of seeds and sprouts. As I was eating these two giant cockroaches sidled right up to my pile of sunflower seeds and started nibbling. I pushed a few aside for them and, being sorta lonely, struck up a conversation. I would say something and they would waggle their antennae at me. I was pretty sure we were communicating. Then I sent on and on about how the cockroach was so well designed and how it could mutate within only a generation and how probably only cockroaches and bats and maybe rats would survive a nuclear holocaust. All the time they're wagging their antennae in agreement. Then I said that about the only thing they couldn't do was fly. Well, right then one of them took off into the air right over my head and landed on the cypress pole behind me! I just went ecstatic and thought for sure I really was talking to cockroaches and they could understand me. What I didn't know was that in Florida those giant cockroaches are palmetto bugs and that they can fly.

Yep, I used to talk to insects. When I was living at Ginnie Spring on the Santa Fe River I would sunbathe every day after swimming in the spring. Every day the same two dragonflies would come perch on my shoulders as I lay there. We'd converse as I'd bask in the sun and they'd zip off my shoulders every once in a while to grab a mosquito or two. This went on for weeks and I really felt I got to know them well. They even confided in my their names which, I was told, dragonflies do not usually share. The male was called Jeet and the female Jetril. So, my best friends one summer were two dragonflies who used me as bait to catch mosquitos.

While living at the spring I lived off of the abundance of paw-paws and berries as well as corn and watermelon I'd take from the neighboring fields. One day the farmer sent his son down to ask if I'd help put in the new crop. Well, sure, I said so we hiked up to the fields and dug furrows and planted for the next few weeks. I guess he knew all along I was stealing from his fields but didn't care. That farm family got to be my friends and they invited me up for Thanksgiving one year. As a matter of fact, I've never seen a friendlier place than the backwoods of north central Florida in 1975. I'd be walking down a dusty old dirt road in the heat of Summer and the poorest black family you'll ever see would invite me up on their porch for watermelon or tea. I was never treated nicer.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Greatest Poetry Reading of All Time

On Saturday evening of April 19, 1975 three of the greatest Beat poets - Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Michael McClure came to the campus of the University of Florida to honor the pioneering ecologist Howard T. Odum. The free poetry reading that night at Graham Pond was also an attempt to set the Guiness world record for the largest number of people who ever attended a poetry recital.

Graham Pond is a small pond surrounded on two sides by the high rising Graham Hall, a large residence hall near the center of campus. Opposite the residence halls  a platform stage extended out over the pond. It was on this stage the three great Beats performed.

Snyder's recital included selections from Turtle Island, his 1974 work which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His simple reading style and poetic themes of environmental and buddist philosophy provoked a real sense of connection and natural beauty. This was, I believe, Gary Snyder at the peak of his writing and performing career.

McClure seemed to me the purist and sweetest Poet I had ever heard. Like Snyder, his recital contained a natural theme so beautifully in sympathy and syncrony with the surroundings and context of the event. Who knew the Beats were nature poets ? We thought they were crazy bearded drug addicts. Live and learn.

Allen Ginsberg recited Howl, the most famous of the Beat poems. Howl had been siezed by U.S. Customs officials and, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti pulished it in the U.S., was the subject of an obscenity trial. Still controversial to this day, in 2007 Pacifica Radio fearing fines from the FCC refused to broadcast a reading to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the verdict declaring the poem to be protected under the First Amendment against charges of obscenity.

This particular performance of Howl was quite unique. Thousands of stoned, drunk, and mushroom tea enhanced students were leaning out of their windows and off the balconies of Graham Hall - all of them howling throughtout the performance. It was awesome. But Howl was not the hightlight of the evening.

All throughout the recitals some drunk was beside the stage waving a few sheets of paper and demanding to read his poetry. Finally Snyder relented and asked him up on stage. The stumbling drunk took his place at the podium, drew a huge stack of paper from his backpack and began reading. All of his poetry was about his penis. I mean every line was something about his penis. The crowd went from an initial groan when the size of his portfolio was shown to rollicking in laughter. Not long into his recitation the drunken penis poet knocked the podium over and fell into the pond! His manuscript scattered over the water. Immediately Snyder jumped into the water retrieving the soaked pages and penis poet. The crowd went wild.

Did Gary Snyder know that Graham Pond was home to alligators ?

Another accounting of this extraordinary event is given by David Lavery.

Here is the flyer for the event:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Enigma Wrapped in Bacon

She's an enigma wrapped in bacon
She's truthful even when she's fakin'
Many hearts she has forsaken
And now, hers too is tossed and taken

She's a puzzle wrapped in pemmican
An inscrutable remonstration
Defenestrating the ugly American
Dancing naked with Pan in the Vatican

A conundrum enclosed in a flapjack
She carries her doubts in a dark brown gunny sack
Wrapped with twine from the hair of a riddle's back
She cooks them with wine and bemused bewilderment

She giggles when she's mad
Says she lives in Dangling, Chad
Carved Andy Warhol's face in a Brillo pad
She's warmest when scantily clad

She's an answer in need of a question
A prudent proposition lacking discretion
A detour around a wandering digression
A non-conforming idiomatic expression

She's a dilemma wrapped in a pickle
Stuffs her pillows with toys and a tickle
Believes she can be unswervingly fickle
Puts stripes on her hammer and stars on her sickle

An enigma wrapped in bacon
Wrapped in a riddle, stirred not shaken
Cloaked in conundrums, half of them taken
Her slumber awakens the sleeping Jamaican

Written February 9, 2005 by Ronald Joe Record

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ode to Santa Cruz

UCSC ran a contest to see who could write the "best" Ode to Santa Cruz. The winning ode would be read by Garisson Keillor during his appearance at the Santa Cruz Civic Center. The winning author was "well-known Santa Cruz visual artist" Douglas McClelland. Here is my entry followed by Laurie Agard's haiku response to my ode, followed by Faith Zack's entry, followed by the winning entry. Judge for yourself!

Ode To Santa Cruz

Written by Ronald Joe Record

O, sleepy Italian fishing village! City on an elfland hill!
Haven of the aging hippie, Harbor for the shell shocked Vet
Asylum for the single mother,
        Shelter for the wrecked and battered
Sanctuary for all seven genders,
        Resort for those with ample pocket

Boardwalk, Harbor, Wharf, and Lighthouse
Surf Museum and Natural Bridge!
Tide pools, redwoods, and Mission Santa Cruz
Lost Boys ride a Giant Dipper with the silent ZaSu Pitts

Ever changing changeless time warp
Protected timeless mediterranean bay
Dolphins leap, otters roll, and Gray Whales spout
We live on the lip of a mile deep trench!

Labs Richter and Long Marine
Human genome project completed here!
New planets discovered, ancient fossils uncovered
History of Consciousness Ph.D.s!

Surf city slackers, scientists and skaters
A crossing of saints where mountains meet sea
Four twenty stoners, students and surfers
Small town sensibility, global responsibility

Pergolesi & Bookshop,
        Crepe Place & Coffee Roasting
All collapse and rise again!
The wrecking ball bounces off the Cooper House wall!
Elementary schools close,
        Colleges sprout like mushrooms on the Hill

O, ephemeral Mystery Spot!! Tourists flock to thee!
Quakes, deficits, students, and time may change thy face
Yet redwood, coaster, clock, and train
All stand to remind us of times slow pace

City of celebration and homeless defecation
You gave us First Night, Last Night,
        and Take Back The Night
Myth California and the Preying Mantis Brigade
Crazy chaos theory Dripheads, Mr. Twister,
        and Umbrella Man

The statue of Tom Scribner
Stirs the lentil vegan pot with saw and bow
A miracle! He cries real tears
As "progressives" court Big Box chains

Self declared inter-galactic port
Your compassion flower
Lampooned by late night standups
Mocking the Mayor's free bags of bud

Eastside, Westside, Town, and Gown
Your Greenbelt rings them all
From Zachary's to Zoccolis
All of us stroll the mall

Yea, let us don our wetsuits, pull the salt water taffy
Stalk the wild morel we learned of at the fungus fair
As costumed children greet the Monarch's return
We celebrate daily the purple scarfed dancing lady
        that is Santa Cruz

Haiku Response to Ode To Santa Cruz

Written by Laurie Agard

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
the wind of Ron's ode.

Ode To Santa Cruz

Written by Faith Zack

Whiz your bike up West Cliff, watch the sea otters dive
Weave through couples and strollers, joggers and doggers
Swing your hips to the drum circle vibe
Whole grain, organic, earthy crunchy santa crustaceans
Salute the sun on your sweaty yoga mats
Sip your chai latte, watch the Umbrella man
Promen-ambling up the mall

Ode To Santa Cruz

Written by Douglas McClelland

Santa Cruz, to honor you,
I declare a mural --
surfer facing the sea
wearing a full bore tool belt;
rat gray pony tail.
Unfinished dissertation
in hand -- he balances,
rampant on a green wave.
Tattoo of Gaia that bears
the word "Mom" on his chest.
His board, a riot of earth tones,
bears the proud legend
"En Plein Air."
On the shore, strong women
will be seen, gathering
with a rainbow of others
in solidarity. Planting, writing,
catching their own waves.
The painting style is bold,
Rivera-like, colors clear,
edges crisp, but the pearly
Pacific light sweetens the diverse parts
redwoods, tourists in black socks,
screwtop wine bottles,
pale slackers, bronzed shiatsists,
owlish deans, and organic garlic--
into a rare harmony. All gentled
by an avant garde surfbeat,
string band, folk song loop
from an amp behind
a tie-dyed screen.