La Mère Bourgeois

In the summer of 1989 my bride-to-be and I drove my battered Renault 5 through France. We chose the smaller roads, and stayed in municipal campgrounds, preferring to spend the little money we had on food instead of lodging. On arrival at one such campground I parked the car near the entrance and walked over to the office to see if there was a space available. There was, and the girl began peppering me with questions as she filled out my registration form. Finally she asked, “Do you have une canadienne in your car?” Surprised, I said, “Yes, but how did you know? She’s my fiançée.” The girl erupted in laughter. After a bit of confused explanation I understood finally that the word for a camping tent in French is une canadienne.

We found another campsite about halfway between Lyon and Geneva. A small river ran on the western edge of the campground, and across the river was a village with one street of shops not even one hundred yards long. Oddly, though, in those hundred yards were five or six decent-looking restaurants. We walked up one side of the street, and back down the other side. On a whim we chose “La Mère Bourgeois.” The interior was furnished as a simple country inn, and very pleasant. Imagine our surprise when the supper that followed turned out to be, by far, the most delicious single meal of our lives. We were in the middle of nowhere, and somehow had stumbled upon a mysterious paradise of gastronomy. And the price was very reasonable (especially when our overnight stay at the campground cost about two dollars). Ever after, “La Mère Bourgeois” remained a treasured memory. We often thought of going back, but never did.

Thirty-six years later—this past weekend, in fact—I was in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Mike Radow’s parents had left him and his sister the home they’d grown up in, a low ranch house styled like a summer cabin. The spacious living room, all wood floors and rustic wood panelling, with a long stretch of windows looking out on the trees and brambles, had its end-walls lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. They were only half-filled now, but Mike urged me to take what I wanted. He and his sister were eager to clean the place up and get it ready to sell. I looked through most of the volumes on one wall the first evening. There were many temptations, but I resisted them. The next morning I started in on the other wall. I saw a thin book by Gertrude Stein titled, Paris France. “If it’s written in comprehensible English,” I thought, “it might be interesting, and otherwise hard to find.” So I pulled it from its place and opened it at random, just to sample the language. This is what I read:

There was Madame Bourgeois in a little lost town in the centre of France. She and her husband who had been servants in one of the homes in France that still cared for cooking had inherited a little café in this little town that was not on the road to anywhere not even on a railroad. And she began to cook, nobody came except a few fishermen and the local tradesmen and every day she cooked her best dinner for them and then one day after two years of this, a man from Lyon came by accident, a lawyer, and he was pleased with his dinner and he asked her if she could undertake to cook for a dozen of them who were going to celebrate the legion of honor of one of them and she said yes, and from then on the place was famous and she always tired as she was cooked with the same perfection.

—Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940). Pp. 52-53.

And that was all.

So I kept the book, and when I got home I searched the internet and found only a brief Wikipedia article reminding me that the name of the town is Priay, and adding that “The restaurant was established in 1923 and was awarded the prestigious 3 Michelin stars under chef Marie Bourgeois between 1933 and 1937.”

Someday, perhaps, I will go back.

Old-fashioned printing and book-binding

This wonderful brief video on Facebook shows clearly how printing presses worked in the days of hand-set type, and how the pages were then turned into books.

A few key points are missing, however.

  1. Notice how the letters must be placed backwards in the press.
  2. Notice why the printing press was called a “press.”
  3. The small letters were traditionally stored in a lower-level rack, while the capitals were above—hence our terms “lower-case” and “upper-case” to describe them.
  4. The paper was printed on both sides, not just one as the video seems to show. Each page had to be positioned so that when the sheet was folded, as you see in the video, the pages were right-side up and in the correct order. Try that at home, and let me know how it goes!

Terrorism, Racism, and Healing the Body Politic

If you ask Chinese people to compare traditional Chinese medicine with Western medicine, they will say that Western medicine is very strong and works quickly, while Chinese medicine is gentle and works slowly. Western medicine works quickly, but it only treats symptoms; Chinese medicine aims to restore health to the body by addressing the weakness or imbalance that caused the illness in the first place. The Chinese people I know will use both Western medicine and Chinese medicine, often in combination, depending on the situation. They know that Western medicine will quickly treat the immediate problem and allow them to continue with their daily lives, but that without restoring balance they will fall ill again and again.

Yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Paris reminded me of how Westerners, and Americans especially, treat political problems in the same way they treat medical problems, and with similar results: temporary relief, followed by repeated bouts of illness. Terrorists bent on mass murder resemble a serious infection that must be treated quickly, with strong and effective medicine, or perhaps even surgery. If we do not consider the causes of these infections, however, and address the causes at the same time we respond to the immediate crisis, then we condemn ourselves to chronic illness. And that is what I see today.

As an example, consider a different chronic political illness in the United States: racism. The white majority generally ignores this issue until a crisis brings their attention once again to the daily injustices experienced by people of color in America. Responses to the crisis vary, but are invariably short-term and focused on the immediate situation. Most white Americans prefer to ignore the obvious truth—that racial politics in the U.S. have deep roots in our history, and that the unaddressed consequences of that history continue to poison us. Poverty, discrimination, educational disparities, social injustice, and injustices in the legal system continue to blight the lives of many Americans of color. Until those deep causes are dealt with, along with the racism that continues to linger in white America, sometimes overtly but more often under the surface, we will suffer periodic crises, as we have seen in recent years when police violence against African-Americans have provoked outraged protests. Predictably, however, those crises have been short-lived, and once the situation calms down we return to business as usual. So long as there are no riots or mass demonstrations in Baltimore or Ferguson or Philadelphia, most white Americans turn their attention elsewhere. We are like chronically ill people who, in between trips to the doctor’s office or the emergency room, continue the unhealthy eating and living habits that cause our debilitation. We will continue to suffer until we address the root causes of our national illness.

America’s racial differences tend to disappear when it comes to foreign policy. There, too, however, we are behaving like diabetes patients bingeing on candy bars between trips to the ER. Why do we not smarten up, and start looking for the causes of terrorism? Because we love our candy bars, and we don’t want to give them up. Our foreign policy addictions, since the end of World War II, have centered on three simplistic ideas: opposition to Russia and communists everywhere, promotion of American corporations in foreign countries, and the imperative to acquire and secure access to massive amounts of petroleum resources. Our obsession with these aims have blinded us to numerous, repeated acts of gross injustice that we, our allies, and our intelligence services have committed around the world. Any foreign leader or movement or government that threatened or seemed to threaten these aims became our enemy. Any foreign leader or movement or government that opposed communism and welcomed American corporations and sold us oil became our friends, no matter how many horrific crimes they may have committed against their own people in the process. The list of democratically-elected leaders we have conspired to assassinate or overthrow, and of dictators and oppressive regimes we have supported, and continue to support, is too long to repeat here. If you are one of the far too many Americans who are unfamiliar with this history, it is a few clicks away in your favorite search engine. However, the people who have suffered around the world as a result of America’s foreign policies know this history very well. They know, too, that it continues today. And a very small fraction of them are radicalized by this knowledge, and become terrorists.

In the short term, we must do whatever we can to find those people who are determined to commit mass murder, and stop them. Longer-term, however, we will never rid ourselves of terrorism until we attend to its root causes. The U.S. government must shed its obsessive fear of left-wing ideology, must end its unthinking support of corporate profits at any cost, and must end its marriage with Big Oil. In the place of these misguided and failed attachments that have caused so much suffering, it must dedicate itself to peace and justice and real democracy, even when peace and justice and democracy bring to power leaders and movements that do not love Exxon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who may call themselves socialists, and who are not VIP customers of the U.S. arms industry.

Looking for a College or University

1. Think about where you want to go. West Coast? East Coast? Midwest? South? Canada? Overseas?

2. Think about how big a school you want.

3. Do you prefer to live in a small town, a medium-sized city, or a large urban area?

4. Strongly consider a small, liberal arts college. Such schools exist only […]

My graduation speech

I’ll begin with a story.

One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really […]

A passion for reading

Paul Graham: “What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?”

Another nice little essay by Paul Graham. As always, he is interested in what typically goes unnoticed. This one may help you—if you are young enough—think about what sort of career would suit you.

Daniel Willingham on “learning styles”

For years teachers have been told, with great assurance, about “learning styles”. Daniel Willingham provides a welcome splash of cold water on these ideas. Have a look at his “Learning Styles FAQ”.


Reading history reminds us how briefly we appear on the stage of life. The king of a great nation who reigns for thirty years and lives more than twice that long seems a minuscule blip in the stream of time. How much less are we, leading our quiet lives in peaceful obscurity.

New job! or, T.S. Eliot Rides Again

I am delighted to announce that beginning in the fall of 2015 I will be teaching in the new high school program of Abiqua Academy in Salem, Oregon.

I began my teaching career in 1980 at South Salem High School, but the opportunity to return to Salem 35 years later has come as a complete […]

Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.

But what exactly is a credible source?

Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are […]

Open letter to former students

UPDATE, October 30th: great news! Thank you, thank you, thank you.


I will be leaving China this coming summer and moving on to a new job beginning in August 2015. Under Chinese law, I cannot be issued a work visa if I would turn 65 during the upcoming year. Since I will celebrate my […]

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very […]

NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing

From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.

Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers. People learn to write by writing. Writing is a process. Writing is a tool for thinking. Writing grows out of many different purposes Conventions of finished and […]

The hazards of sitting

Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. […]

Dear Google: an opportunity I hope you can’t refuse

I have a little project for you—a chance to do some real good in the world.

I teach high-school English. I know that my students need to read as much as possible, but I also know that reading alone will not give them the high-end vocabulary they will need for maximum success in school—for that, […]

Writing advice from great writers

1. Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to Writers

2. George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effective Writing

3. William Strunk’s Elements of Style (Chapter III is the most important)

That’s a good start.

Music washes away my worries: composing and editing

Composing and editing are two distinct processes. Students staring at blank screens or blank sheets of paper are usually trying to compose and edit at the same time. It doesn’t work.

Composing is the messy, chaotic process of figuring out what you want to say. It’s like being sent to the attic to find something. […]

My Suzhou


Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.

The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art […]

Remembering Anne Osman

Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems […]

Dear Maury

A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.

Dear Maury,

I was following reports about […]

The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? […]

Toni Morrison on teaching literature

I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give […]

Aristotle on happiness

Bacterial Hosts

Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells? A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.

This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising […]

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm


Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

HORATIO But how is this possible?!

HAMLET ‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth […]

Ugly word of the day: “societal”


What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” […]

People are animals, too

In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese […]

Shakespeare changes your brain

“How Shakespeare Changes Us”, at The first comment is worth a look, too.

Good Advice About Bad Writing

“Good Advice About Bad Writing”, from

Brief, clear, and to the point.

A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories […]

Ray Bradbury in the ‘Paris Review’

Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other […]


Everything is—not perfect, but cosy When suddenly there’s a big lurch That you can’t explain Or control.

At first you think, no worries, We’ll be back on course in a moment. But we aren’t.

Then more lurches, some big Some small And long stretches in between.


Thinking, can’t we just go back To where […]

“3 iOS items for writers”

A very useful article on the Mac Observer points aspiring writers to an iTunes U lecture series, a podcast, and an app.

The problem with e-books for students

UPDATE, September 2014

Some e-books do now show page numbers, and when you copy a quotation from iBooks a limited bibliographical citation is included automatically. Tim Parks, writing in the New York Review of Books, adds usefully to the conversation.


How to take notes—that’s the problem.

With a Kindle book, forget it. The best […]

Edward Albee: escapist art is a waste of time

All serious art is being destroyed by commerce. Most people don’t want art to be disturbing. They want it to be escapist. I don’t think art should be escapist. That’s a waste of time.

—Edward Albee, American playwright

Cringely on teaching, inspiration, and technology

This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in […]

Christmas Poem 2011

Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.

The View from an Attic Window

BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960) for Francis and Barbara

1 Among the high-branching, leafless boughs Above the roof-peaks of the town, Snowflakes unnumberably come down.

I […]

Turn your school into Paris

The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection […]

Andy Ihnatko: There Is No Such Thing As Writer’s Block!

A great piece that ought to be printed out and put on the wall next to every writer’s desk. That includes you, students.

Good Habits, Good Students

"It’s simply awesome and highly inspirational. Thank you so much for this book." —Student in Grade 9.

Click here for info. Available now from most online booksellers or by special order from your local bookshop.



Your Daily Chinese Character

Subscribe to this site

Don't be bothered checking for updates—let the updates come to you. (It's free, of course.) There are two ways:

1. RSS Feed What's this?

2. By email. (I will never share your email address with others.)

Enter your Email

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz
Yi Tuan He Qi