Though I say I am wishing you a happy New Year, what I am really wishing you is a happy future

Happy New Year!

No, really, I mean it. I wish you a happy New Year. I can understand why you might not take this sentiment seriously since, by now, countless people have offered you the same sentiment.

I have received best wishes for the New Year from everyone with whom I come in contact (and some people I do not)—the sanitation men, the mailwoman, the people who refill our fire extinguishers, the . . . you get the picture. It is just that time of the year.

I certainly do not subscribe to the “New Year’s resolution” business. I do not like to put all of my eggs into one basket, funneling promises into a single day of action. Like my favorite egg, Humpty Dumpty, I prefer un-birthday presents to birthday presents, because, as Humpty explained to Alice, you get so many more of them. There are 364 un-birthdays a year except during Leap Year, in which case—yes, you got it right—there are 365 un-birthdays. I think the same goes for a good resolution; why would you possibly wait until the day of New Year to put it into place? I will get fit, be nicer to my relatives, eat healthier, smell the roses, etc., etc. They are all good goals, but surely ones that should be carried out as soon as you conceive of them. Why delay until January 1, a totally arbitrary calendar date?

In fact, without wishing to be a wet blanket, can we agree that these artificial dates stress us out? I personally have no wish to celebrate my birthdays anymore. (I think I stopped doing that when I hit 40.)  I remember time periods, not by specific years but, by the activities of Jayme’s and my children and by the dogs and horses we had. This is the “Timmy” (our poodle) time period, long may it last. Before that was the “JT” time period, a beloved bearded collie. I cannot remember the technical years, I suppose I could look them up, but I remember the time when our children were very young. I remember them as they grew older, and I remember when they went to college. What was the year? Who cares about numbers?

So, though I say I am wishing you a happy New Year, what I am really wishing you is a happy future. We are spinning on a small planet, around a fairly insignificant sun, in a large galaxy. We celebrate on a specific day, one full spin around our sun. Frankly, it makes no difference to me. I do not feel as though I am spinning. I know the Earth is round, but to me it appears flat. What I do care about are my relationships with all the people I cherish, the animals who are part of my family, and the well-being of humanity—virtually none of whom I will ever meet. The first two categories (I say selfishly) are by far the most important.

I am sure it is the same for all of us. Yet, we wish each other a happy New Year, as I do too. But my happiness wish is not just for the next year. We all know there will be times of happiness and unhappiness in our futures. Certainly, you will have more un-birthdays than birthdays. May your future also have more happy days than unhappy days.

Sincerely,

Ronald P. Stewart

 

December in the city

Welcome to December . . . the month where you pay the most for any product that could possibly considered a present for someone . . . the month that is followed by January, when you pay less than half for the same product!

Ah, December . . . the month of packed streets and shopping tourists . . . the month when someone actually buys their fellow man bright-pink trousers with whales on them.

This is the month when you cannot walk your dog off its leash in Central Park until 9:00 pm (just as all other months) even though in December it gets totally dark by 6:00 pm. When can we get a city council that realizes no one cares if dogs are walked off their leashes in our parks after it gets completely dark outside?

There is something weird about December because everything fills up . . . the stores; the restaurants; the public transportation system; the roads; the tourists. Where did all these people come from?

Lately, we have a new type of tourist bus in New York. You may have seen it. From the front, it looks the same as any other bus; but when it passes, you notice there are three ascending rows of stadium-style seating, facing left. I understand this type of bus is called “the ride.”  Every passenger has an excellent view of what is to the left of the bus as that is the direction the seats face. They have poor visibility towards the front or back of the bus and certainly cannot see the right side of the bus. But they can all see clearly out of the large left-side windows.

The tourists who ride this type of bus tend to be the “better sort” of tourist, by which I mean they own the expensive cameras that my definition of the “better sort” wear. Generally, they carry large Nikons, but equally large Canons are acceptable. And they happily snap away at what is on the left side of the bus.

Why the left side, you (and I) might ask? I think the answer lies in the way the bike lanes have been recently built on our one-way avenues. Thus, the new bike lanes are on the far left side of Columbus Avenue as you drive. Between the bike lanes and the traffic is now a parking lane. (It looks strange in the middle of the road.)  The parking lane on the right of the avenue has stayed the same. As a result of this “progress,” our city elders have turned a potentially six-lane thoroughfare into three lanes at best—one which shrinks down to one lane when trucks unload their goods. Massive traffic problems have been created by these bike lanes, and Columbus Avenue has become a slow-moving snake of cars inching its way through numerous one-lane gaps.

Thus, I believe that tourists (the “better sort”) have come from around the world to see how New York has created traffic jams. There must be an attractive travel poster in some foreign land that invites its country people (I am so politically correct, it hurts) to come and see the greatest city in the world pretend that it is Amsterdam and destroy its traffic patterns in the process. “See New York come to a full stop!” For those who live in a lesser city, it surely is irresistible!

Incidentally, in Amsterdam, Wikipedia tells me, there are more bicycles (1.2 million) than there are people. If this makes sense, you probably are on the New York City Council. One day, you might actually see a cyclist on Columbus Avenue who is not delivering Asian food. But never in December!

It is attractive to watch other countries screw things up. We go to Germany to see their Holocaust Museum—there is irony for you. I always have to restrain the temptation to ask them if they have burned any good books lately.

We go to Greece to find out if the economy is really as bad as we read about.

When Jayme and I were last in Russia, of course, I asked our guide what he thought about Stalin?  He thought he was great!

So it is not surprising that thousands of tourists, cameras at the ready, should come and see us destroy the New York road system. They go back happily and say “lovely city, great shops, but you cannot get around in a car,” and they are right.

Even within our country, we have this “town schadenfreude.” I remember going to Hollywood and asking a film cameraman whom I knew why the wheels of cars in every movie seemed to be going the wrong way as if the cars’ wheels are driving in reverse. He gave me some technical answer, but I did not care. I just wanted him to know that although we have destroyed our road system in New York, we still know that the big film companies in California have their own problems too.

Anyway, it is getting cold at this time of the year. Time for a cup of something warm! I like to follow people who say they are “dying” for a cup of coffee. I watch them go into Starbucks and then complain about the price of their cappuccino.

Einstein had it right when he said that the only two things that were infinite were the universe and human stupidity. As I reflect upon the pairs of bright-pink trousers with whales I have been given as gifts, I think maybe he was being unfair to the universe.

Ronald Stewart for President!

(Look earnestly into camera.)

My fellow Americans,

I have decided to run for President of these United States of America. (Cue the applause.)

I pledge to bring back to our great country its past glory and power. I will see to it that our military is strengthened, that our valiant veterans are better taken care of, and that we will once again be the strongest and greatest nation in the world. I will be transparent and authentic. That is what is written on every one of my campaign buttons: “Authentically Transparent.”

I pledge to reduce the taxes of all of you who vote for me. I will decrease your taxes down to virtually nothing while raising the taxes of those who are in the opposition party.  It is time to get this great country back to work again, and I will do it by creating jobs, lowering taxes, and bringing prosperity to you all.

I pledge to dramatically reduce the crime rate. If anyone commits a crime, they will have to pay a large fine, and, in this way, I promise to reduce the national debt so that eventually we will have a surplus. We should only allow crime that makes a profit for us and not for the criminal.

I have heard a lot of talk lately about health care costs. I have an answer to this problem. Under my administration we will have “Universal Health.”  Yes, no more bunions when I am president. And I have a solution to climate change:  we must make climate change work for us. When you have your friends and family around for your special burgers that only you know how to flip, I pledge that it will not rain on your barbecue under my administration. And I will get rid of ugly scaffolding.

I met today a man called Bob who asked me why there was no one running who shared his beliefs?  And I told him that I was running on that platform; what he believed in.  Bob is a decent, hard-working man who loves his wife and children, and so I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that he could trust me. And Bob knew that he could.

And only yesterday I met a lady called Mary, a decent, hard-working mother of three, who said that she had lost faith in the candidates running for president. I told Mary that I was running, not for personal gain or power, but because I believed in what she believed in and was dedicating my life to public service.  And Mary looked at me and said that she trusted me, and I put my hand on her shoulder and said that she could.

I want you to know that I love my wife and our four children. My wife (who is standing next to me), and my four children (who are next to her), believe that I am the best man for the job. They know this because I came from humble origins. My parents were good, hard-working, poor people.  We were so poor that I had to hop to school when I was young because they could only afford one shoe for me. It was difficult to live in that cardboard box, but we called it home, and I loved it.  From these lowly conditions, I achieved the greatness that is my record, and it is on that record that I am running.  But I will never forget the dying words of my father, who told me to fight for this country.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I am doing in this fight for the presidency.  I am happy to say that my mother is still with us, and she is an enormous force of nature who believes in me. She, along with my wife and four children whom I love so much, taught me right from wrong, good from evil, and other wonderful values that are the basis of my life.

I see a brighter future for America. In my presidency, there will be more tissues in every tissue box, and bigger rolls of toilet paper that will not run out when you need them most.  A land of clean air and water, where planes will take off and land on time, where we will eliminate traffic jams and ensure that American goods come first. I see a world where we will rarely hear of China or Russia, because they will no longer be important. It will be a place where the problems of the Middle East will be solved by us, and where printers will never need new ink cartridges.

This can be a new dawn for America . . . a new age of glory . . . a time when, once again, we can be proud of our country . . . a place where you will get a large cappuccino when you ask for a large cappuccino. You deserve that!

I want you to know I am not a Washington elite insider. I have never been to Washington. Delaware, yes, Maryland, yes, but Washington D.C., not for me.  I am a complete outsider.

So, my fellow Americans, it is with fortitude, humility, and conviction that I run for the presidency, assured that I will realize the full potential of this nation, bringing it to greatness and solving all of the problems that now confront us.

Thank you and God bless you. (Smile at camera!)

(Fade in the National Anthem with video of warplanes taking off into the sunset for no apparent reason. Run the following in small letters at the very end: “This ad was paid for by the ‘Great for America PAC’, who bears no relationship or connection to any candidate running for public office.”)

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep

Computer-taught education vs human-taught education

There comes a time in the beginning of the career of a young barrister in England when he (or she) becomes a pupil to a senior barrister. For the first six months of that period (a carry-over from the era of Guilds), he or she cannot take a case but sits behind the “pupil master” merely listening and learning.  Since one cannot earn money as a lawyer during those months, when I was in that situation, I made ends meet by teaching law for insurance clerks at night school at the Willesden College of Technology in North London, now known as the College of North West London.

The insurance clerks were only there just to pass the law part of a test they were required to take in order to become “chartered.”  It was very basic law that they would have to answer correctly on a multiple choice exam. “What is a tort? Choose the right answer.”  “ What are liquidated damages?”  And so on.

Today, what I taught could effectively be done by a good software program on a home computer, laptop, or IPad (and is, in fact, now “taught” in this way).  The material required no judgement, just a presentation of facts to be remembered. No interpretation, no creative thinking; ideal for using the technology now available.

One can contrast that type of pedagogy with the course that I teach all seniors which I call “Ethics.”  They may call it something else. It is a course that is philosophical in nature and poses ethical quandaries about which there are no right or wrong answers.  My favorite topic is trolleyology, perhaps because I knew its creator, Phillipa Foote, when I was at Oxford.  It would be difficult to teach by computer because there is a great deal of back and forth between student and student, and there are no simple answers. You could not have a multiple choice test on trolleyology.

The central premise of trolleyology is this: a trolley is running down a hill out of control and will kill five people in its path on the track unless you decide to divert that trolley onto a siding, where there is only one person in its path. Do you do nothing, or do you interfere, pull a switch, and have the trolley kill one instead of five?

That is the first of multiple scenarios. There are many others: the trolley is running down the hill, and the only way to save the five people is to push a (very) fat man off a bridge above the trolley’s path, effectively stopping the trolley with his death.  If the idea of physically pushing the fat man is too “yucky” for you, we can conveniently have him standing on a trap door on the bridge which you can open by pressing a button.  There are many more scenarios.  Most people (but certainly not all) would pull the diverting switch in the first scenario and not push the fat man in the second.  Interestingly, if you reverse the order and pose the “pushing the fat man” scenario first, fewer people would say they would pull the switch when offered the “diverting” scenario.

The various reasons why people may or may not act to interfere in these scenarios are also interesting.  The first scenario (when we are pulling the switch) seems to fire the logical part of the brain, while the second (when we are literally pushing the fat man with our hands) fires the emotional part.  Also a factor is that in the first scenario, the death of the one man is “collateral damage” while in the second we “use” the body of the fat man to save the others (and he dies in the process).

When these problems were first presented, they were dismissed as mind games without any real relevance. Then the 9/11 tragedy happened and the scenario became all too real.  A plane takes off from Boston heading towards California and makes a turn so that it now (menacingly) heads for Manhattan.  Do you shoot it down over White Plains (where the population on the ground is not too dense) or leave it alone?  Such scenarios are currently presented in every military college in the world, on the basis that it is better to discuss a problem that might occur rather than to have the problem occur when there is no time for discussion and action must be taken immediately.

My point is that facts can be taught using a good software program, but we do not have (and may never have) a software program that can interact with a class of students on an emotional level about contentious issues when there may be valid, differing opinions.  So, while I cannot justify my role back at Willesden Technical College, I am attempting to validate my role as a teacher (and by teacher, I am often merely facilitating the debate among students) in the senior ethics class.

Limiting my arguments to what is available now in 2015, the line between computer-taught education and human-taught education seems clear when you have two widely different types of lesson.  In fact, life is not usually so simple, and most lessons are a hybrid in that there are some facts that need to be taught, some issues that need to be discussed, and some opinions that need to be shared.  We already have segmented off the purely factual lessons.  If you want to learn typing, get a good software program.  There is little to discuss as to why the top line of the QWERTY keyboard begins with QWERTY.  It is what it is, and although the history of how it got that way is interesting, if you want to learn how to type, then that history is irrelevant.  But translating Voltaire’s “Candide,” as I did line-for-line for a year with the Head of my secondary school when I was a junior, is clearly best done with a knowledgeable teacher.  Even though part of the class involved learning to translate French words into English, much of the class involved debate about why a particular phrase or word was used or what Voltaire’s intentions were in writing such a short (and fascinating) story.

The other component of teaching that a computer cannot do as effectively as a human is to encourage the student.  It is one thing for a script on the screen to say “well done!” and a totally different thing when a teacher authentically congratulates a child on his or her achievement.  The emotional part of teaching, the human support, is so important, that I doubt that the teaching profession is in much danger of total obsolescence because of computers.  There are interesting studies showing that two students who work together by “skyping” each other on a computer take twice as long to solve a math problem as two students sitting next to each other.  We can gauge human reactions so much better when we connect in person.

Not that lecture-style teaching is always so different from computer learning.  While we were in in China, I watched several classes at one of the finest schools in Shanghai.  “Number 2 Normal School” accepts only three percent of its applicants.  These are exceptional children taught in very large classes by lecturers.  When I visited, everything the teacher said was copied down, no questions were asked, and the students never challenged their teachers.  Without interruptions, you could work out exactly where in the curriculum the class would be at the end of each class period. In my senior class, I have not the slightest idea where we will be by the time the bell rings because (thankfully) they interrupt with questions.  Frankly, I encourage them to do so and hope that they will also debate among themselves. I could see that the school in Shanghai might replace its teachers with videos of a master teacher and get rid of the humans who actually spoke in the front of each room.  Maybe it is for that reason that I was less impressed than I expected, with the pedagogy I saw there.

The subject gets particularly important with very young children or with children who are anxious (as we all somewhat are).  When a young child is in school, they may be concerned as to whether they can keep up with the class, and whether they have the skills they need. A skillful teacher deals with these anxieties and calms them down, a skillful teacher comforts and supports, a skillful teacher teaches in an atmosphere of empathy and understanding.  A computer….not so much!

In sum, the “closed” teaching of facts (those insurance courses) and the “open” teaching of ideas are really two completely different actions that share the name “teaching.”  Most classes are a combination of both.  My hope is that as students move through school, they move towards the “open” format, and their minds are challenged more to question and be curious than to just remember. The goal of educators should be to encourage students to take intellectual leaps off cliffs without safety nets, to inspire them to think out of the box, to challenge old approaches and to praise them when they imagine new solutions.  If we can do that, then America will always stay creatively ahead, and American graduates will continue to produce innovative solutions that others can only copy.

“Blessings of liberty” are to be enjoyed by “our posterity.”

This is my 11th year of writing these monthly “Headmaster’s Thoughts,” and I still am not very good at explaining why I do this. It started when one of my students (I teach 12th grade Ethics to all seniors.) commented that although I regularly graded their essays, they were not similarly able to grade one of mine. I countered by saying that I would happily write an essay which they could grade. That was over 130 essays ago.

These essays are, very often, just plain silly.  They are usually on topics that have nothing to do with education and too often become the rants of a curmudgeonly old man (me)!  Sometimes, they are out of date by a month. In this case, Donald Trump’s intemperate outbursts occurred last week (and are likely still occurring), and yet I continue to be fascinated by the circumstances surrounding Rachel Dolezal that happened over a month ago.

If you cannot remember, Rachel Dolezal was the young lady who presented herself as an African American when she was in fact (according to her parents and birth certificate) Caucasian.  A big deal was made of this, and she eventually resigned from her position as president of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

Obviously you cannot choose your parents and, by extension, your race.  European Jews who died in the Holocaust discovered that truth in a brutal way; however, I have great difficulty with the whole concept of simple racial categorization, and a certain sympathy for Ms. Dolezal.  She psychologically identified with black Americans and, at a time when Caitlin Jenner is no longer Bruce, she no doubt felt that she could change her ethnicity. The issue, for me, is why should anyone have to label themselves at all, particularly when we know that most people are multi-racial?  We know from a recent study which I believe to be true, that the average American Black is actually a quarter or more white.  We know that blue-eyed Jews almost certainly had some non-Jewish ancestry.  We know that early European settlers (yes, Mayflower descendants, I am talking about you.) had intimate relations with Native Americans.  And, without being offensive, can one really know that one’s father’s father was in fact your father’s father?  Life is not as neat as it appears.  It has been speculated that Hitler’s grandfather on his father’s side was Jewish. Tragically that made absolutely no difference to those who perished in the Holocaust, just as it made no difference to the suffering of slaves if their owners were part black. Why is it that I remember, in this context, that Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemmings, his mixed race-slave?

I understand that the sad history of slavery in the United States explains the distorted lens through which some may look at one another. That there is a history of racism is unquestionable, but I wonder how much identifying citizens by ethnicity really helps the cause of a “perfect union.” Surely our goal is to advance to the point where what race or sex you are is irrelevant to the way you are viewed in our society.

Here at York, I am asked every year by the State Education Department to complete a Basic Education Data System (BEDS) report that requires a breakdown of the student population into racial categories. And every year I define the entire student body as “multicultural” and refuse to label any one of them.  When I first did this, many years ago, I was called by a lady from the State Education Department.  Her job was to keep statistics of students by race. I refused. She then asked, “Do you want me to lose my job?”  I am proud of my answer: “Nothing, would give me greater pleasure!”

This is certainly not a uniquely American issue. I grew up in England in the 1950’s, and I remember my father looking disgustedly at a headline in a London newspaper that read “Jewish Black Marketer Arrested.” My father’s disgust was at the irrelevancy of the religion of the person who bought or sold black market goods.  Why was it even mentioned?  Similarly, I would ask why we are given the racial statistics of prison populations or delinquent  fathers? The inevitable outcome is either prejudice or defensiveness, exactly the emotions we should be trying to discourage.

I understand pride in one’s ancestors. I understand identifying with the sad history of one’s forefathers. One should not forget the Armenian massacre or the arrogance of colonial Britain or slavery or the Holocaust. But let us also remember that the founding documents of the United States state that the “blessings of liberty” are to be enjoyed by “our posterity.”  We are all that “posterity!” Period!  So, at this time of the beginning of a new school year, when so many students with unique and wonderful backgrounds come together, it seems important to celebrate those things that unite us all in this one community.

Anyway, this is what occasionally happens when you write these essays every month.  You begin to sound as though you are a preacher. I will try and control myself in the next few “thoughts” and revert back to my inane style of the past.  Who knows, one day, one of my students might actually read what I have written.

“I vant to be alone”

Since a presidential election is only just over a year away, we are entering into the silly season for phone surveys. They always seem to happen at dinner time. Just when you are about to eat, the phone rings and someone tells you that they are calling on behalf of this or that survey and ask would you please…and that is when I hang up! There seems to be no way to get off their lists. You can register with the National Do Not Call Registry, but surveys are exempt, and so are those “robo-calls” from politicians. Politicians always exempt themselves from any restrictions. Not only do they go on and on, but you have no opportunity to debate with them when they tell you their views. Newt Gingrich was a particularly frequent caller in the last election cycle until he was knocked out of the primary race. I would often pick up the phone and hear, “Hello, this is Newt, and I would like to tell you my views on…” Slam! I hope he lost a lot of votes that way. I wish I could call all the politicians who called me with their “robo-calls”. I would get them just as they were sitting down to dinner with their family and tell them my views, and, if they stayed on the line, I would also go on and on.

It is similar with the torrent of “flakey” (and I am being generous with the use of that word) e-mails. Is it just me, or are there more of them lately? No, I am not interested in having a Russian bride. No, I do not believe you when you write that I have been left 20 million dollars by a person I have never met in Nigeria. No, I do not want a loan or a new car or, in fact, anything that is pushed on me by a blanket e-mail. I categorically distrust something that is sold by e-mail, and wish I could tell those marketers that wild horses could not make me purchase their goods.

I was not surprised that the Federal Office of Personnel Management computer system was recently hacked. Twenty-two million citizens had their personal information stolen by some outside party. I think Jayme and I were included because the hacked information contained the security clearances of those who worked in government, and one of our daughters is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and we were part of her clearance procedure. I am pretty certain I know who hacked into the system. Obviously, it was the very same people who call us on the phone and send me unwanted messages by e-mail. With all this data, they can be more focused in their relentless marketing operations. Now politicians can call us about the subjects that they think we will be interested in…but we still will not be able to answer them back or call them out on their untruths.

We have long lost the war for our privacy. Anyone can get information about you. When I was young, the only time the public found out how rich a person had been was when they died. At least this was the case in England. Newspapers would publish facts on the estates of the deceased in their obituaries. I thought that was tacky, but it is positively primitive compared to the revelations that you now get on the web about the living.

I acknowledge that if you are single, it might help to Google a blind date before you agree to meet, but, apart from that, why do we need all this information about each other? For the record, York Prep does not Google parents of potential students. I do not want to be rude, but it is the students we are interested in, not the parents. And, parenthetically, if you want to e-mail a teacher or administrator, my advice is always to put your child’s name and grade in the e-mail title so that it will be recognized as an important message rather than spam. As a school we remind students that whatever they put on the web will last there forever. That they would think otherwise surprises me.

Cynical as I confess to be, it seems to me that this loss of privacy occurred at a similar time when it became unlawful to ask a potential employee details about their background. So, while an employer cannot ask if the candidate for employment has a criminal past or a poor credit rating, at the same time there is now an established web industry which will get you exactly that information for a fee. Indeed, one of the spam e-mails I particularly dislike asks me if I would like to find out about a person’s past criminal record, who they voted for, and what their credit rating is. They will provide the answer so long as I fill in the information boxes about my credit card so that they can charge me for this service. For more money, they will tell me about someone’s favorite TV shows, their past romances, videos they have rented and books they have ordered. Yuck!

In fact, information is being collected on you all the time. If you search for “sunblock” on Amazon, you will “coincidentally” get e-mails about beach vacations, receive warnings about skin cancer, and find shopping links suddenly appearing for bathing suits. Order a car from Uber, and the driver will rate you as a passenger just as people rate restaurants based on one meal. But each night is a different night at a restaurant and Uber passengers have good and bad days; totally unlike a movie where everyone sees the same finished product. But all that does not matter; your record stays with you, and it can be bought and is certainly being sold.

Thus I am reminded of the famous line by Greta Garbo, the iconic Swedish actress who made great films in the 1930s. She said, in her Swedish accent, “I vant to be alone” And that was at a time before the barrage of intrusive calls, multiple insulting e-mails, hacking of our private communications, and general availability of gossip. People were amused by her remarks then; I regret that amusement is gone. We are constantly tracked wherever we go. It is a new world! So, when it comes to obtrusive dinner-time calls and absurd e-mails, I, too, vant to be alone.

Dust

Dust is truly ubiquitous on our planet. In oceans and on land, in cities and in the wildest of terrains, in palaces and hovels, it is a constant. We accept it in our daily lives as an inevitable nuisance that must be collected and disposed of. It irritates our eyes and lungs, it offends our sense of hygiene; it seems the antithesis to the life-bringing properties of rain. But unlike rain, most of us ignore the composition of dust, where it comes from, and what benefits or destructive qualities it might have. We invariably cannot even define it properly, either in size or weight. We think of it as covering the floors of our homes without realizing how high in our atmosphere dust exists. We dismiss dust, and in that, we are wrong.

If you look up “Dust” in Wikipedia, and who of us has not, you will find a mediocre article somewhat below their normal standards. It begins by defining dust as “particles in the atmosphere” but later mentions that there are large clouds of dust in outer space. Hey guys, that is not “in the atmosphere.” Clearly their first definition is too limited.

Often times when I read a Wikipedia article, I pursue the words written in blue that interest me. Words in blue mean they have their own articles. So naturally, my “dust” journey linked me to “cosmic dust” and led me to find out that there is an enormous amount of this stuff around. It can form planets and it can radiate light—for example, when it forms the luminous tails of comets. About 40,000 tons of the stuff lands on Earth every year because our gravitational pull attracts dust. “Stardust” sounds romantic; but in fact, it makes us a dusty place.

I want answers to all the dust questions worth asking—like, what color is dust? The answer is very vague. When you get dust on a black surface, it can look sandy; while on a sandy-colored surface, it can look black. Coupling this with the ability of dust to radiate and reflect light, I take it to mean that you can have dust of any color, depending on the substance it deteriorates from. The largest organ of the human body, a white/pink/brown-colored organic substance we refer to as our skin, disintegrates into a white/grey-colored skin dust. Apparently we create the majority of the dust in our homes from discarding dead skin cells wherever we go. Outside our homes, most of the dust on our planet comes from sand. I think of sand as a type of dust, but maybe there is a separate definition specifically excluding sand which I have not found. I do know, because the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) tells me, that dust can be carried thousands of miles by strong winds. So we can get Saharan dust in New York while Gobi desert dust can get to North America by winds going the other way. My daughter, an environmental geo-chemist (I do not know what that means either!), tells me that dust can help control the temperature of the planet because dust landing on the ocean will reflect back the heat of the sun. But desert dust can also be a factor in preventing rainfall by inhibiting the formation of raindrops, and so the deserts may get dustier because of the dust they produce.

There seems to be no agreement as to what exactly constitutes the size of dust. I have read that some dust particles are more than one-hundred microns while others are less than five. (A micron is a millionth of a meter.)  I still have not found an article that defines the limits of an object’s weight which qualifies it to be called dust. What is clear is that dust particles can carry viruses and bacteria on their backs, as well as a variety of biohazards such as molds and contaminates; and they can be disturbed by very little activity. So be careful before you kick up the stuff.

Some occupations are clearly made much more dangerous because of dust. Coal mining is the classic example; although many machines create machine dust, particularly drills, and dust is always a respiratory problem for firemen and rescue workers. We know that asbestos dust causes cancer, while dust is also a factor in fires and explosions. One can affirmatively state that dust is unhealthy for you to ingest.

One can also definitively say that dust often smells. Old houses smell because the wood and paper are disintegrating into moldy dust. When we turn on the heat in the fall at York Prep, we try to do it on a Friday afternoon because the dust that has collected on the radiators during the summer smells as it is burned off.

I do not know if we come from dust, but the Bible is certainly right that we end as dust. You and I will become the particles in the air that future generations will breathe. Isn’t this fun?

In the meantime, let us revel in our idioms. Dust yourself off, leave your competitors in the dust, and, whatever else, do not bite the dust.

And so ends my minor exploration of this often-overlooked subject, except to say that there is a town in New Mexico called Dusty, and I would not be too proud of the name.