Last summer into fall was a difficult time for my wife and me as we spent much of that time period essentially reunderstanding the events that we had lived through the previous year. Two summers ago, our son Daniel, who was two and a half at the time, was going through what seemed like a difficult period. He was moody and unpredictable in his behavior, and often refused to eat his dinner.
We’d used an early intervention service to help him with some minor effects of torticollis, a misalignment of the neck bones and muscles caused by how he lay in utero, and we brought the service back in to see if they could help us understand what we were seeing as behavioral problems. Giving credit where credit is due, it was largely my wife who felt something was not right with Daniel and sought out the help. Early intervention thought he could be experiencing a sensory disorder, but the symptoms didn’t quite fit.
Over the course of the next few months, the symptoms continued to get worse until Daniel suffered a few days of what seemed to be a stomach virus, and making a very long story short, was eventually diagnosed with a kidney tumor. The longer story, if you are interested, has been beautifully documented by my wife on Daniel’s CaringBridge site. Daniel underwent surgery and eighteen weeks of chemotherapy and has, thank God, remained cancer-free since then.
The next year, through, was a very haunted time for us, as the following summer and fall contained many milestones for us, moments where we understood events in a much different light. Moments when we remembered being frustrated with him for being cranky or fussy, lost our patience with him–now knowing in hindsight that the tumor (which eventually grew to the size of a softball, small actually for the size of some Wilms’ tumors believe it or not) was causing him pain and making it impossible for him to eat.
I started a series of poems during this period last year, in part to help with this sense of living backward, of reunderstanding our past. They are not the best poems I’ve ever written, but while I’m not that interested in trying to publish them, they do contain some of my experience in living through this, and represent the bulk of what little creative writing I’ve done in the past two years. I’ve decided to share some of the better ones on the OF [Blog], starting with this one:
The Orchard Ladder
This is you, in sunshine, just before.
At two and a half, you’ve climbed
up the splintered, ancient orchard ladder
into the papery leaves, into the fruit.
I am standing a few rungs below
as you reach with your small hand,
grasping another Cortland.
Your sister stands below, waiting
for her turn by your mother.
We’ve agreed–one time for each of you,
up the faded rungs. This much
we will risk. You pull,
tear free the apple, fall backward
and I catch you, my hand around
your round belly. You are laughing.
You hold out your prize, heavy
and colored by the autumn sun.
For all that we know, this is danger.
This is the most that we fear.
We move among the trees,
the apples growing heavy in our bag,
fruit ripe with summer’s sweetness
gathered as winter draws near.
We had a guy in the office the other day learning more about OCW for a potential project at a well-regarded US institution. He happened to have a background in banking and had some interesting perspectives on the current financial crisis. He had in fact prepared a briefing on it, first for some friends and later his town asked him to give the presentation, and he’d most recently been asked by a few companies to give the speech. After our meeting, he was kind enough to share the slides and a few highlights from the talk, and it helped to crystailize a growing concern of mine–that we’ve entered an age where our problems are exponential.
It’s a little hard to take in the scale of the economic meltdown we are experiencing, but a few data points stand out: As recently as 1990, total global GDP and the value of derivative markets were roughly equal at about 12 trillion dollars each; by 2007, the value of global GDP had increased to around 55 trillion dollars, while in the same span, derivatives had exploded to over 500 trillion, a wild escalation of poorly regulated activity that came crashing down. In Iceland, just one bank that collapsed was holding assets valued at 623% of Iceland’s total GDP.
While I can’t claim to have a solid grasp on many of the details of the financial mess, what is clear from these figures is that an important component of the problem was the exponential growth that fed it. What scares me is the prospect of runaway exponential growth of other problems, most obviously the environment. We’re used to having linear effects on the environment, but climate change isn’t happening in linear fashion. I think one of Tom Friedman’s goals in Hot, Flat and Crowded was to scare the crap out of people with respect to the environment, and with me anyway, he succeeded. Do we really want to have and ecological crash on the scale of our current economic one? It may be more than possible at this point–it make be somewhere between likely and inevitiable, and sooner than we think if it is exponential.
We need to be thinking of exponential solutions to exponential problems, and that’s one reason I think OpenCourseWare is important. We’re going to need all the good ideas we can develop as fast as we can develop them in a wide range of disciplines if we are going to address climate change. It can be done, but it’ll be the single biggest coordinated effort that humanity has ever undertaken, and we need to help everyone understand why, and access everyone’s best ideas to figure out how. OCW puts resources out there in a scalable fashion to do both.