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.

Congratulations to the York Prep Graduating Class of 2015

York Prep Graduation Class 2015I want everyone here to know that this is a very special class for me; one whom I have told a number of times that I found particular pleasure teaching because they are such a cohesive community, AND they laughed at my jokes. This is a class who has watched out for each other, has never put each other down (no matter how unorthodox some members are), has always embraced each other, has always helped each other, and who were always interesting to teach—never boring. You are a wonderful group of young men and women. I congratulate you on your character as much as on your great academic success. You are a class of great talents in so many areas—the performing arts, the visual and film arts, sports, and the talent of humor, as well as curiosity. A terrific class! In trying to teach ethical philosophy to this group, I was interrupted so often with interesting questions, and we got diverted into such interesting discussions, that we never finished the course and never got through the curriculum. I am proud of that, even though, as Eddie said, sex seemed to be a major topic throughout the year. So, on a personal level, THANK YOU for being such active participants in the learning process and not just an audience for lectures. When I say that sex was often the subject of our discussions, that does not come out quite in the way I meant it to be. This is a very emotional day for me, very emotional… because 20 years ago today I bought this suit… and I don’t have another one like it. As Jayme and I get older, as the gap in ages between the graduating seniors and us widens, I realize that we were not much older than you currently are when we started York Prep. We were in our early twenties and had a dream, and 46 years later together with you we continue that dream. But from your perspective, the people who dreamt the most were your parents. That is why they had you. They dreamt they would have people, not babies but people—young people who would be kind and thoughtful, and they were successful. You are! I know you appreciate them and hope you know that you represent their dreams now and in the future. They deserve your real thanks. So dream of the future too, and be kind to us old people, I know you consider us very old, because we all started the same way, we were all young with dreams. Seeing Fatimah, a devout Muslim, and Eddie, a devout Jew, as the joint MC’s of this graduation, and more importantly as real friends, gives us all immense pride. It shows that your class at York Prep embraced both diversity and community and that those words are completely compatible. It is clear that this class has gone through the most important period of life growth together. They are unified, and interconnected. I hope that you continue to find ways of staying in touch with each other and grow and take joy from shared experiences as you go forward. Since we have a great graduating speaker in BD Wong, I am not going to take much more of your time except to applaud you again, to tell you that you will be missed so much, that you have brought laughter, energy, and joy to the school and, therefore, to thank you and your families for sharing these glorious years with us at York Prep School. I hope you find the same joy and success at the colleges you now attend. They are fortunate, indeed, to have you join their communities. Be assured that you have the affection of the entire school. We all wish you great success at college and in the future.

What’s The Story With Your Signature?

My signature is truly appalling. It looks like a truncated part of an ECG from a person with an irregular heartbeat. When I write using a stylus on one of those plastic windows in tablets, as some retail establishments ask you to do after you make a purchase with a credit card, it looks like the ECG from someone who is dead. It is virtually a flat line.

Like most things, there is a history behind my terrible signature. I was taught handwriting at a London primary school using, you may not believe this, a dip pen with an inkwell in the desk. Yes, a wooden dip pen with a slide-on metal nib. And we learned to write by connecting dots on paper to make letters. Unfortunately, these letters were written in old-fashioned copper plate with all the curlicues and exaggerated loops that are part of that antique font. No one in their right mind would teach a child to write like that.

The result is that I have bad penmanship and am a slow writer. A few years after this “dip pen write lines over dots” nonsense, they came up with a far superior method of teaching writing in England. At least it appears so to me, because my younger English friends have a very nice handwriting style. They certainly were not at the school I went to.

It is good manners to handwrite birthday greetings, congratulations on marriages and babies, and condolence letters. I try to do the right thing, and each production, each card, takes me about half an hour and usually at least three tries. I go through far too much good stationery. I have such bad handwriting that when I make quick handwritten notes, I have to ask Ms. Vivian Garneier, my assistant, if she would read them to me because I find them indecipherable.

Early on in my academic career I discovered the solution to my problems, namely the typewriter. I probably was the only 11-year-old who would hand in typed paragraphs to my English and History teachers. They looked at them, at least initially, with deep suspicion, sure that somehow this was written by someone older than I. Only when they looked at the quality of what I wrote, were they assuaged into believing that the material produced was mine. This solution did not, unfortunately, help in formal state exams or the scholarship exam to Oxford. It is a miracle they gave me one, and I have wondered if Vivian was one of the examiners in a previous life. All of the exams (except the last) required four handwritten essays in three hours, and there were two exams a day culminating with the dreaded “one-subject, three-hour, no-choice-as-to-title, essay.” You had to write for three hours on the subject of that year: in my case it was “The Moon.”

I still use fountain pens to write the formal letters I referred to above. I still get my fingers inky cleaning off the ink from their ornate nibs after I fill them. All of my four fountain pens have plunger-type fillers. Two of them (the expensive ones) were presents. I like them because they represent a time when every adult who seemed successful whipped one out. Nowadays they are more likely to be Japanese or German than the Parker or Montblanc pens of status from former years, but they all have a time capsule quality that I find appealing. However, they do not improve the legibility of my poor penmanship.

For most of the regular work I do, signing checks or signing typewritten letters, I use blue ink “Uniball” pens. I go through boxes of these. I just do not know where they go but disappear they do. I cannot keep count of how many times I have asked Vivian for another box of 12. Fortunately, she has worked with me for over 30 years and keeps a large stash of boxes. They always disappear before they run out of ink. Always! For some people it is the mystery of the disappearing sock, for me it is the disappearing “Uniball.”

I have heard that there is a vast whirlpool of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. This moving monstrosity contains the plastic detritus of our world. So I wonder how the plastic, my plastic pens in particular, got there. I do not live near the Pacific, and it is a long way for them to roll there. Anyway, is there not a continental divide in this country? If anywhere, they should roll to the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet somewhere in the South Pacific, is this huge morass of materials that will not biodegrade, principally plastic, some aluminum cans, and clearly, hundreds of my “Uniball” pens. In blue!

And I want them back, so that I can continue to write my appalling signature with them.

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep

York Prep Principal: We Are No Longer The Sage On The Stage

Stephanie Lopez is the Principal of York Prep. One the favorite parts of her job is working with the students and fostering a sense of community. The school’s mission is to you promote the growth of students from grades six through 12 intellectually physically emotionally socially. York cares about the whole student. Their approach to education is quite unique. They are not teaching the same way teachers did 20 years ago. They are no longer the Sage on the Stage. They are hands-on, Theyre involved, they open dialogue, they have debates, they want interaction with the students. One unique approach is that York uses The Tracking System so they actually place students based on individual academic strengths and weaknesses. Some students can be strong and English and history, yet they might be a little more challenged in math and science – so they are able to tailor a curriculum that responds to that individual and allows that student to even excel in different areas and still challenges them in areas where they are strong. The administration still teaches in classrooms. They all teach the courses, all of the way up to the Headmaster to Principal to the Deans.
Stephanie teaches a history class to the 8th grade. York Prep is community. York Prep is excited learners. York Prep is compassionate educators.

When school is over, what does one really do with algebra skills?

A lot of young people – especially if they don’t like math – like to question if math and algebra skills will be ever used after they graduate. There is a joke that the only time one will need math in real life is to split a check at restaurant or calculate a tip. Thomas Henderson, math teacher at York Prep school in New York City takes the approach that math is not just about knowing how to work out equations, its about life.

There Is Something Intrinsically Absurd About Hula Hooping.

The thing about hula hooping is that there is something absurd about it. You gyrate with arms flailing because a person’s arms have nothing to do with keeping the hula hoop going, apart from keeping them out of the way. You wiggle your stomach in time to some rhythm that perpetuates this moving plastic ring. You look like a complete fool. And yet, like other things that look absurd (and there may be children reading this so I am not going to expand on this thought), it is a pleasant if tiring feeling, and your stomach is getting a workout.

Most people can rightly guess that the hula hoop originated in Hawaii. The company that put it on the map was one of the greatest fad companies of all time: the Wham-O Company, founded by two young University of Southern California graduates, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, who began by manufacturing their own wooden slingshots in the Knerr family garage. This information is all available on Google, as is the long list of products Wham-O pioneered. The hula hoop, the flying disc called the Frisbee, the Monster Soap Bubble Maker, the Super Ball (a giant version of which was accidentally dropped from the 23rd floor window of an Australian hotel and bounced back up to the 15th floor), the Hacky Sack and the Silly String. There is nothing silly, however, about this company. It should be the first in the Pantheon of companies; this is genius! This is a company that produced a do-it yourself bomb shelter in the sixties for $119. Genius, I repeat! But I digress (as always).

My hula hoop is weighted, which makes it easier to keep spinning. In fact, once I get into the action, I am proud to say that I can keep going until tired or bored. I cannot do tricks (turning around while spinning the hoop is a good one I have seen, and I have heard that it is possible to hula hoop while standing on one leg, although I have never seen this). I tend to hula hoop in my office at home because there is something embarrassingly “late fifties” about it. You feel that you should hula hoop accompanied by lava lamps and 12 inch black and white television sets. The vintage “MadMen” décor, if you get my drift. You don’t want adult people to walk in on you as you hula hoop away; how could they take you seriously? I cannot imagine teaching my senior ethics class while spinning the hoop. I am sure you understand.

My hula hoop can also be taken apart into 7 different colored bits. You could (I haven’t) travel with it in these pieces and put it together when you arrive. It is waterproof (I know, I am beginning to get silly), but the one I have does not float (and why should it?). I wish I could say I had a name for mine, but I don’t. However, now that I think of it, “fad-thing” might be good.

One of the oldest pieces of advice to a nervous speaker is to imagine their audience naked. I never really got this nugget of wisdom, but it seems to me that imagining your audience hula hooping would work just as well. Certainly, you can hula hoop naked, so perhaps you can imagine your audience doing both hula hooping and being …you get where I am going. At this point, if any parents are reading, they may be seriously thinking of pulling their children out of the school. It is all right; I promise that I never hula hoop naked. I won’t explain why and I hope you feel better about your child’s headmaster knowing this.

I want to end this ridiculous piece by saying that hula hooping is better than snake oil for your health. We naïve humans have been urged to devour poisons, apply poultices, and have blood sucked by leeches; all in order to cure ourselves of every malady that besets us. I personally was glad to see the back of those leeches, although I hear that they may be returning for blood clots. Yuck! Keep those little critters away from me, thank you very much, doctor! Which all begs the question of why history is so short of patients recovering by hula hooping? Leeches or hula hoops, is there any question? Unlike leeches, hula hoops do not need food, are just as portable, can be used in your own home without a leech-minder present, and you can watch television while spinning your hoop (which I defy anyone to do while they are having blood sucked from their veins). Leeches were first used in ancient India for medical cures over 2500 years ago. And how long have hula hoops been used? What went wrong? Do leeches work your core muscles? Hula hoops do! The only explanation of this remarkable error by the medical profession, this preference over many centuries for blood sucking worms over innocent hoops, this craving to have oneself gorged upon by sticky articulated maggots with sharp teeth, is that I have to admit, as I began, that there is something intrinsically absurd about hula hooping.