Hume on Rousseau

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He has read very little during the Course of his Life, and has now totally renounc’d all Reading: He has seen very little, and has no manner of Curiosity to see or remark: He has reflected, properly speaking, and study’d very little; and has not indeed much Knowledge: He has only felt, during the whole Course of his Life; and in this Respect, his Sensibility rises to a Pitch beyond what I have seen any Example of: But it still gives him a more acute Feeling of Pain than of Pleasure. He is like a Man who were stript not only of his Cloaths but of his Skin, and turn’d out in that Situation to combat with the rude and boisterous Elements, such as perpetually disturb this lower World.
—David Hume, letter to Lord Charlemont, quoted in E.C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume, p. 523

Instructions for Making Compost

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From a certain perspective,

compost is all about death.



That final descent from beauty

into a chaos of crumbs.


On the other hand,

compost is all about life.

New life, forming at the ground level

of the vast, intricate, beautiful ecology that makes us possible.

Microbes, worms, insects, fungi

all perform miraculous transformations

to produce the soil in which

our life is rooted.


Compost can be poetic.

Not too much; not too little.

Not too wet; not too dry.

Not too hot, not too cold.

Not too slow, not too fast.


Nothing overmuch.

The yin and the yang doing their eternal dance

in perfect counterpoise.


When the balance is lost, compost stinks.

Use your nose,

restore the balance,

turn the pile,

add what’s lacking,

remove that which offends.

The rest is patience.

Krishnamurti: Perception brings its own action

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To see what is, is really quite arduous. How does one clearly observe? A river when it meets an obstruction is never still; the river breaks down an obstruction by its weight or goes over it or works its way under it or around it; the river is never still; it cannot but act. It revolts, if we can so put it, intelligently. One must revolt intelligently and accept what is intelligently. To perceive what is there must be the spirit of intelligent revolt. Not to mistake a stump needs a certain intelligence; but generally one is so eager to get what one wants, that one dashes against the obstacle; either one breaks oneself against it or one exhausts oneself in the struggle against it. To see the rope as the rope needs no courage, but to mistake the rope for a snake and then to observe needs courage. One must doubt, ever search, see the false as the false. One gets power to see clearly through the intensity of attention; you will see it will come. One has to act; the river is never not-acting, it is ever active. One must be in a state of negation, to act; this very negation brings its own positive action. I think the problem is to see clearly, then that very perception brings its own action. When there is elasticity there is no question of right and wrong.

One must be very clear within oneself. Then I assure you everything will come right; be clear and you will see that things will shape themselves right without your doing anything about it. The right is not what one desires.

There must be complete revolution, not only in great things, but in little everyday things.

—Letters to a Young Friend, 10


One step at a time . . .

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Unmotivated students are uninspired students. Good teachers help them find a dream that will make the perspiration worthwhile. Inspire them first; then ask them to work.

I try to challenge and inspire students by speaking to them respectfully as young adults, and by sharing with them my enthusiasm for reading, and writing, and building a better life by becoming a lifelong learner. It is much easier said than done. Moreover, as teachers we sometimes don’t see the effects of our work. Many students over the years have reached out to tell me that my teaching made a difference in their lives, and not all of them were the high achievers. I wrote about one of these, a student from my first years of teaching, here:

“Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story”

Those who are ready and willing to achieve at a higher level need work that inspires and challenges them, whatever their current skill level. Daily independent reading has been a constant component of my teaching, across multiple continents and curricula and exam systems, throughout my career. Why? Non-readers need to begin reading; readers with limited reading experiences need to be introduced to new authors and titles and genres; avid readers need to be guided to fill gaps in their reading experience and to take on ever more challenging books.

These principles apply to all of my work: find out where the students are, and help them to move one step higher in the same way that one climbs a mountain . . . looking at the distant peak one moment, and at the path ahead of one’s feet the next.

Why Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech

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A short piece by George Lakoff makes the distinction crystal clear.

Unfortunately, that distinction is not generally accepted in the United States, and as a result a great deal of bigotry is tolerated on the grounds of First Amendment rights.

For example, the Charlottesville march by neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white nationalists was defended by many as an exercise of free speech.

Here is Lakoff’s article: Why Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.

I am not to blame for the bad behavior of other members of my granfalloons. Neither are you.

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“A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)

Today I saw a brief post on Facebook from a former student in which she expressed dismay at the news that the Barcelona terrorists were Moroccans. My immediate thought was this: Why should Myriam feel dismay, anymore than I should feel dismay that the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were Americans? or males? or white? or from the state of ____________ or the city of ____________? or attended x college or high school? or were raised in this or that religion?

We should all feel dismay that any human being would commit atrocities or engage in hateful behavior. But I feel dismay, too, when groups—minorities, usually—are shamed and blamed for the bad behavior of some of their members.

I did not choose my gender, my skin tone, my body type, my place of birth, my sexual orientation, my mother tongue, the town, city, state, region, or country where I was raised, the religious beliefs, if any, of my parents, etc. I did choose to attend a certain university, but I did not personally vet and approve all the other students who attended that university. I am a reasonably decent human being. I am not more responsible than we all are for other males, or other white guys, or other tall guys, or other Californians or Americans or Lutherans or Acme University grads who do horrible things.

We are all responsible, because we are all human beings. But only the perpetrators are to blame.

When other human beings do horrible things, we must all pause, again, to consider what forces, what trauma, what past experiences or injustices or distortions of personality could have pushed the perpetrators to such hatred and violence. We must also resist the lazy and cruel temptation to turn to other good and innocent people who happen to look like the perpetrators, or who share the same religion or nationality or home town or who belong to any other of the perpetrators’ granfalloons, and then to blame those good and innocent people for someone else’s terrible behavior.

I am not to blame for the bad behavior of other members of my granfalloons. Neither are you.

Information Wars, Indeed

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Information has, in the internet age, moved to the forefront in the arsenal of weapons used in political and international struggles. China emphasizes defensive measures in the new information wars, investing heavily in its “Great Firewall” to cut off its citizens’ access to news and ideas the government deems inappropriate or dangerous. Russia is taking the offensive approach, flooding the media with disinformation to such an extent that many people, not knowing what to believe, cease to believe anything they read or hear. The United States, with its Wild West adulation of “Freedom!” above all, has proved particularly vulnerable to the torrent of lies and half-truths found today on the internet. In their responses to this torrent, Americans resemble the young students I have taught over the years. When a claim or idea they previously believed to be true is shown to be false, they rush to the conclusion that there is no truth at all. When political leaders they had formerly admired, or at least had assumed to be honorable, turn out to have been dishonest, they rush to the conclusion that all politicians are corrupt. “The system is rotten to the core!” people exclaim, and others from all points on the political spectrum nod their heads vigorously.

But there are honest, conscientious politicians, and there is a difference between truth and lies. So how can we recover our footing? Our response to these challenges may well determine whether the democratic experiment begun in America in 1776 continues, or whether the chaos grows so pervasive that Americans decide that, for the moment at least, they would prefer more order and less freedom.

Many people wiser and more experienced than I will have ideas, but here are three to start with—none of which is original to me.

  • We need to make it possible to run for political office without having to raise millions of dollars. Our politicians should not have to spend their time fundraising instead of working to solve our society’s problems, and they should never have to feel pressured by rich donors and special-interest groups who, if offended, could engineer their defeat in the next election.
  • We need to reform or replace PBS and NPR so that we have a completely non-partisan, independently-funded, non-profit source of news that is freely accessible to all. Commercial media organizations depend on advertising for their funding, which means they must keep their ratings as high as possible by publishing sensational content, while avoiding the sort of “boring,” long-form material that would actually do justice to the complex political and social and economic issues before us. Dependence on advertisers also means that commercial media organizations are subject to pressure from their advertisers to avoid controversial material.
  • We need to honor education, and educated people. We need to promote education as a good in and of itself, in addition to whatever economic benefits it may bring. The deeply-ingrained suspicion of education in American culture, the denigration of “intellectuals,” the insistence that ignorance and manual labor go together, and that the ignorant manual laborer is more admirable than the ivory-tower university professor—these attitudes are unsustainable in a democracy that depends on every citizen being educated, well-informed, and highly skilled in the critical thinking that, today more than ever, citizens must employ to make wise decisions in the voting booth.


Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy

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In this beautiful, heartbreaking book, the descendants of Crazy Horse tell the true story of his life, as it was handed down from generation to generation. Partly history, partly a family memoir, and partly the manifestation of a quest to reclaim Lakota culture and continue fulfilling Crazy Horse’s purpose: to protect the people and their land. If you are interested in Crazy Horse, this is the book to read. Highly, highly recommended!

Is it possible for a nation to eat junk food and watch TV for half a century without consequences?

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From the “Decline of Western Civilization” Dept, North American Division.

The Founding Fathers feared direct democracy, and referred to it as “mob rule.” Recent events may tend to increase our sympathy for such an elitist and decidedly old-fashioned idea. We may also pause for a moment to appreciate the ironic role played in these events by the Electoral College, which was invented by those same Founding Fathers both to satisfy the fears of slave-owning states that they would be outvoted by “free” states, and to prevent “the mob” from making a populist demagogue their President.

We have had Presidents on television for a while, but now we have our first Television President. A man who doesn’t, and quite possibly cannot, read. A man who watches TV addictively, and has even confessed in an interview that he gets his information about foreign policy by watching television. A man whose core support comes from people who seem to be equally addicted to watching television, and equally allergic to reading, and whose view of the world often has the same relation to reality as popular TV programs.

How long will it be before someone seriously suggests reviving literacy tests for voter registration—not as a tool to stop African-Americans from voting, but as a tool to prevent the utter destruction of the nation by millions of people who depend on TV for their information?

In the past, dynasties and monarchies declined and fell when their leaders became corrupt, decadent, and weak—but there was always a group of new, vigorous leaders at hand who sooner or later took power and restored order. What happens in a democracy when a substantial portion of the electorate declines intellectually, and morally? We take it as a commonplace that some “developing” nations are not ready for democracy because too many of their people are uneducated, and therefore unprepared to function as well-informed voters. We accept the idea that such nations require authoritarian government, at least for a while.

By that logic, wouldn’t a nation whose people, in significant numbers, lack the education and knowledge to function as citizens—who function, essentially, as a mob—wouldn’t such a nation also require authoritarian rulers?

Finally, if we accept the claim that large numbers of Americans are now ignorant, misinformed, and incapable of intelligently discussing economics, foreign affairs, and social policy, how in the world could this have happened in “the greatest nation on earth”? I can think of numerous factors that probably helped bring us to this sad condition. But let historians charting the decline of the United States note that while the seeds of decay were planted when the economy was hijacked by the military-industrial complex, the final collapse was precipitated by two generations of Americans filling their bodies with sugar-laced junk food, and their minds with the stupidities of television.

The Television President was elected, after all, by the Television Nation.

Pay no attention to that babbling head up on the screen!

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Someone with talent in the visual arts should produce a parody of the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Toto pulls back the curtain that has been hiding Professor Marvel as he works the controls to produce the phantasmagoric speaking head of the Wizard. Marvel sees Dorothy and her friends looking at him, panics, and then cries desperately into his microphone, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

In the parody I imagine, the speaking head, of course, is Mr. Trump, mesmerizing the nation with his buffoonish, button-pushing tweets. Unlike Professor Marvel, Trump has an assistant in this task: the irrepressibly dishonest Kellyanne Conway. Behind the curtain of Trump’s carnival show is a whole collection of men who will be doing the real work of his administration, and it is those people who we should be attending to, not the bubbling, blathering head that is Donald Trump, or his deliberately provocative spokesperson, Conway.

The media have, so far, been unable to break the Pavlovian cycle in which Trump tweets and they rush to thesauruses searching out fresh synonyms for outrageous, untrue, and offensive. It is their job, of course, to report the President’s words, but the real problem, as has been the case all along, is that Trump is great for their ratings, i.e., his mouth is money in the bank for them. If in the meantime the country is being liquidated by the men behind the curtain, well, that doesn’t make such good copy. That doesn’t generate many clicks.

It is up to all of us, therefore, to deny Trump the attention he craves, and to instead keep our focus on the work being done behind that curtain. Don’t share or re-post or comment on the latest blast of verbal garbage from our President. Instead, seek out news of what his cabinet officials, his other appointees, and his Republican allies in the Congress are doing. Share, re-post, and comment on those news items.

Pay no attention to that babbling head up on the screen.

Hillary-haters are part of a long history

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. . . you don’t like weak women

You get bored so quick

And you don’t like strong women

‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks . . .

—Joni Mitchell, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”

Hillary Clinton is far from the first strong woman in public life to be slandered relentlessly by her political opponents and those offended by feminine leadership. Let us take a brief tour.

Wu Zetian (624 – 705) was the only female emperor of China. Despite being a strong ruler who governed well, her reputation as a scheming, ruthless woman willing to do anything to gain and keep power overwhelmed her accomplishments.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) was Queen of France, then Queen of England, and the mother of three kings of England. She was highly educated, and played an important role in the political and military struggles during the latter part of Henry II’s reign as King of England. In the popular imagination, however, her reputation was formed by fanciful stories of her leading a group of decadent nobles in scandalous sexual practices, and a vicious rumor that she had murdered one of Henry’s mistresses.

Isabeau of Bavaria (1370 – 1435) became Queen of France at the age of fifteen when she married Charles VI. Caught up in vicious power struggles when Charles’s mental illness left him unable to rule, Queen Isabeau was accused of about every crime possible, including adultery and witchcraft. This reputation lasted until 20th-century historians reviewed the evidence and discovered that she was intelligent, well-educated, pious, devoted to her children, and an effective ruler in her husband’s place.

Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589) was Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and played a leading role in the Byzantine power struggles among the French nobility during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Though clearly no better or worse than the Bourbons and Guises and other rivals for power, Catherine—as not only a woman but a foreigner, being the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence—got most of the blame for a host of poisonings, assassinations, and political back-stabbings.

Catherine the Great (1729-96) ruled Russia for more than thirty years. Compared with other Russian emperors, she was clearly above average as a reformer and a supporter of Enlightenment ideals. Like her male counterparts, she took lovers, but the stories told about her falsely accused her not just of licentiousness, but of perversion. These slanders culminated in the rumor that she died from a stroke suffered while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a stallion.

Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835 -1908) was a remarkable woman who began her imperial career as a lowly concubine but ended up as the mother of the heir to the throne and, as Regent, the nominal ruler of China for decades. Surrounded by powerful factions in a dying empire, Cixi successfully navigated among them but was slandered as vicious, sexually perverse, manipulative, extravagant, power-hungry, and so on.

So is Hillary the devious, lying, scheming, ambitious, ruthless harridan that the Republicans say she is? Sure. And do you know the story of the servant girl that Cixi murdered by throwing her down a well?

Abiqua Academy High School: First Semester Report

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Down the hill on Bates Road, off Liberty Road in the suburban farmland south of Salem, Oregon, you will find the former site of Rosedale Elementary School. The Rosedale building, along with a row of portable classrooms behind it, is now occupied by Abiqua Academy’s pre-K to Grade 8 students and teachers. West of the old school is a gravel parking lot, and behind it a new concrete path leads up to the unassuming, pre-fabricated square building where a remarkable new program opened its doors in the fall of 2015.

This is Abiqua Academy’s High School. No athletic teams. No pep assemblies. No cheerleaders. No long hallways lined with a double stack of metal lockers. No noisy cafeteria. No bells announcing the beginning and end of each lesson. No fixed daily schedule of classes. No assemblies in which the vice principal admonishes students about the importance of adhering to the school’s dress code. No sessions with the school counselor about what to do when you are bullied, or see someone else being bullied.

Inside the front doors, you see a small lounge area with sofas and a coffee table, a larger table for lunch or discussions, and a kitchenette in the corner. In the opposite corner, a photocopier sits next to the usual supplies of staplers, paperclips, sticky-notes, etc. Beyond this entrance area, a screen blocks from view the rows of study carrels that fill the remainder of the central space. Along the left-hand wall are the science lab, two restrooms, the janitor’s closet, and a mathematics classroom. Along the right-hand wall are two more classrooms, the office of Lily Driskill, our Academic Director, and a small meeting room. The two full-time teachers, Jo French (mathematics and sociology) and I (English and history), have our desks in the main area with the students’ study carrels.

In this inaugural year, we have just four students: two freshmen, one sophomore, and one junior. They follow highly personalized programs designed to meet their immediate needs and help them to achieve their future goals. Some of their coursework is completed online. Often the online curriculum is modified or supplemented by Abiqua teachers. For PE, three of the four go to a local fitness center twice a week to exercise under the supervision of a personal trainer; the fourth attends a CrossFit class on his own time. Two of them study Spanish, both online and with Abiqua’s Spanish teacher. The other two study German and Latin, following online courses supplemented with biweekly lessons with tutors. A part-time teacher comes in for lessons in biology. One student studies Anatomy & Physiology with the help of a senior at Willamette University. Another WU student visits twice a week to tutor one of the freshman in creative writing.

Anyone who works with teenagers knows that, as a rule, nothing is more important to them than friends. As we prepared for the start of school, I wondered how our four students would cope with the social isolation they were bound to find at Abiqua. I kept thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, in which Hell is imagined as four people locked in a room together. In December the students were interviewed, without their teachers being present. They loved the program, the teachers, the flexibility . . . they loved everything, in fact, about their experience so far, with one major exception: they wanted more students!

Now as we near the end of January, I see so many signs of growth. The students who lacked confidence are gaining it as they see that they can, in fact, be successful in areas where they had given up on themselves. Those who had learned to see teachers as the enemy and to regard schoolwork as drudgery imposed on them, have learned to trust their Abiqua teachers and are beginning to take ownership of their own education. And these four young people, so different in ages, personalities, interests, and backgrounds, have grown to trust and tolerate each other to a degree that I find remarkable. Their mutual kindness achieved a peak moment just a week ago when one of them, without the slightest prompting by any adult, offered to help another with his writing. I held my breath when they moved into the small meeting room for their first session, waited apprehensively, and then had no words when they emerged smiling and happy after forty minutes.

So here is my first-semester report card for Abiqua Academy’s High School program:

Effort: A+

Achievement: A

Comment: A great beginning, with the promise of much more to come. Bravo!

Welcome to Human Rights Camp

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Camp Director:

All right, folks, settle down there. I want to welcome you all to Human Rights Camp. You will all say that you are not here by your own choice, but we know that’s not true. Each of you has chosen to commit gross violations of human rights, despite repeated complaints, criticisms, and remonstrations from all over the world. So let’s start by owning what we’ve done. Russia, you go first., and then we’ll go around the circle clockwise.


Why me first?


Because you always want to be #1.


Oh. Well, in that case . . . I’ve been murdering journalists and opposition politicians who criticize Mr. Putin. And committing other crimes in the Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia:

Our women have very limited rights. We execute anyone who criticizes us. And then there’s Yemen . . .


We are squeezing the Palestinians on the West Bank, keeping them virtual prisoners in Gaza, beating and arresting any of them who protest, shooting any of them who we think are trying to attack us . . . shall I go on?


No, Israel, that’s enough for now.

United States:

Well, there’s the torture, and the illegal invasions, and the secret CIA prisons in foreign countries, and the drone bombs killing innocent bystanders, and at home our police shoot brown people for no good reason on a fairly regular basis.


You remember our response to the mass protests a while back, right? We haven’t had much trouble since then.


Anyone who criticizes the Party or agitates for more freedom just disappears.


How much time do we have here?


Not enough, Syria. We’ll get into the details in tomorrow morning’s session.


Where’s North Korea? They’re much worse than we are.

United States:

I agree! And what about Cuba?


As you can see, we have limited facilities here. Those countries you mention, along with several others, are scheduled for the next session.

Well, that was a good beginning. It seems you all have gotten past the denial stage and are ready to work on changing your behavior. I have to warn you, this is going to be a tough two weeks. At the end of it, though, you’ll be able to walk out of here with a new sense of self-respect, and a set of practical strategies that will help you to stop yourself from falling back into old habits. And of course, we will always be available for crisis intervention, should you ever need our support. We are here for you.

The cafeteria staff tell me that supper is ready, so let’s go eat. After the meal we’ll watch some Amnesty International videos, and then we’ll have an early “lights out” tonight, because tomorrow is going to be a long, hard day.

Medicare for everyone!

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Let’s imagine that, somehow, Americans reached agreement that universal, single-payer health care is the way to go. How could it be implemented? Clearly, the transition would have to be managed in stages. It might seem logical to gradually lower the eligibility age for Medicare—say, five years of eligibility every twelve months. In the first year, 60-year-olds would be eligible; in the second year, 55-year-olds; and so on.

It makes more sense, however, to start with the children. Shouldn’t the health of our children be our first priority? And aren’t families with young children the people most in need of affordable health care? The problem, however, is that taking the youngest people out of the private health insurance pool would make it impossible to cover the expenses of older Americans without enormous premium increases.

The solution, it seems to me, is to move people into Medicare from both ends of the age spectrum, so that the balance of people left in the private system—younger, healthier people and older people with more medical expenses—remains about where it is now. In that way we could both give children first priority, and avoid a huge spike in insurance premiums for those still in the private system.

Imagine a transition something like this:

Year Medicare for everyone ages . . . 
2020 0-10, 65—>
2021 0-10, 60—>
2022 0-20, 60—>
2023 0-20, 55—>
2024 0-20, 50—>
2025 0-25, 50—>
2026 0-25, 45—>
2027 0-30, 45—>
2028 0-30, 40—>
2029 0-35, 40—>
2030 Everyone!

In the first year, families with young children would immediately benefit. Those who already had health insurance would save money by removing their children from their policies, and those without insurance, or whose insurance included high deductibles and co-pays, would be able to take their children to the doctor without worrying about what it would cost. Both the finances and the health of working families would improve dramatically.

In the second year, people ages 60-64 would become eligible for Medicare. Every year thereafter, another group would be added, alternating between younger and older. Making the transition in this gradually like this would allow all the legal and bureaucratic and financial changes time to take place in an orderly way, and would give the private insurance companies time to move into other products. With experience, better arrangements would be discovered, and adjustments made. Companies providing insurance to their employees would have time to plan and implement the transition to the day when everyone would be covered by Medicare.

If the process began in 2020, then by 2030 every American would be covered by Medicare, and the United States would finally have caught up to the rest of the developed nations by providing health care to every citizen, with the costs borne by everyone through an equitable system of taxation—a non-profit, universal health insurance system that would benefit all of us, instead of filling the accounts of behemoth insurance companies with billions in profits, while leaving ordinary people scraping to pay medical bills, putting off medical care to save money, and fearing financial ruin should we suffer a major illness or injury.

I say, let’s do it.

Advice I Wish I’d Been Given 50 Years Ago

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  1. Use a water flosser.
    I hate using dental floss. My hands are too big to fit into my mouth, the floss keeps getting stuck between my teeth, and in the end I just don’t do it. The water flosser, on the other hand, is quick and easy and it’s right there by the sink where you brush your teeth. And if you have never tried one, you’ll be amazed at how many little bits of food it flushes out from between your teeth, right after you think you have brushed them thoroughly.
  2. No sugar! No processed foods!
    All the sugar you need is in fresh fruit. Any other form of sugar, including fruit juice, overloads your liver and leads you where you really do not want to go: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. And tooth decay, of course—which we used to think was the biggest problem with sugar. Ah, those were the days.
  3. Antibiotics
    Don’t take them unless your life depends on it.
  4. Cat litter
    Put a layer of biodegradable cat litter in the bottom of your kitchen compost bucket and your kitchen waste bin. No more nasty smell!
  5. Clean your house without poisoning yourself.
    Fill a spray bottle with white vinegar. Use it to clean counters, sinks, bath, and toilet. For mirrors, use isopropyl alcohol on a paper towel. If something really needs a scrub, use Bon Ami. Chuck all those toxic chemical cleaning products.
  6. Shampoo
    Chuck the shampoo, too. Wash your hair with warm water and a good brush.
  7. Avoid cold drinks.
    I only learned this in China, when I was in my fifties. Cold liquid in a warm belly is a bad combination. Try drinking hot water. Same temperature as tea, but without the tea. Surprisingly good.
  8. Close the lid before you flush.
    If you don’t, the flush launches an atomized mushroom cloud of everything that’s in (or has been in) the toilet bowl. Result: every surface in your bathroom is coated with fecal matter. Including the toothbrushes in that glass next to the sink.
  9. Speaking of toothbrushes . . .
    Keep your toothbrush clean by putting it business-end down in a glass with two inches of rubbing alcohol in it.
  10. And speaking of toothbrushing . . .
    Put some baking soda in a small glass, add water, and use that to brush your teeth. No more toothpaste.

Memo to the Baseball Hall of Fame

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As a lifelong baseball fan I have concluded that continuing the current system of voting players into the Hall of Fame has become such a fiasco that it should be discontinued.

Instead, the Hall should be a museum of baseball history, full stop. Everyone in, no one out. Fans will always debate whether this player or that was the greatest x, y, or z, but all this nonsense about PEDs and moral turpitude should have nothing to do with who is mentioned in the Hall.

Ty Cobb was a great ballplayer and also a racist and an unpleasant human being. Pete Rose was a great ballplayer and is a deeply flawed human being. Barry Bonds broke the home run records under a cloud of PED suspicion. All of those players, and every other player, should be remembered in the Hall, with both their accomplishments on the field and their personal triumphs (Roberto Clemente!) and failings off the field. And Marvin Miller, who played a crucial role in shaping the game and business of baseball as it exists today, should be there, too. To exclude Rose or Bonds or Miller makes the Hall a joke.

History should comprise everything and everybody—including the antiquated Hall of Fame. Keep it as another artifact in the Museum. Add an exhibit explaining how and why it became untenable.

This may seem extreme, but to continue the current ridiculous voting system lacks any credibility. It actually offends fans to the point of turning them away from the game. For the sake of the game, the fans, and the Hall, stop it now.

La Mère Bourgeois

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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

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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

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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

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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 in the United States and offer, to my mind, the best undergraduate education. At a good liberal arts college you will be taught by professors from the best graduate schools in the country, and the world—professors whose primary interest is teaching, not research and scholarship. You will have access to these teachers in small classes (not cavernous lecture halls), giving you the maximum opportunity to benefit from them. You will be able to take courses in a wide variety of subjects, perhaps discovering something you really love and otherwise might never have even heard about. And at almost all such colleges, even those in remote locations, you will experience a rich array of art, music, and other cultural events and performances that would otherwise be available only to people living in New York or London or Paris.

5. Don’t take “college ratings” too seriously. You might attend Harvard College and discover that the two or three professors most important to your major field of study are people you don’t get along with at all. On the other hand, you might attend a very modest regional state college and discover that the two or three professors in your major field are wonderful, caring teachers who become important influences for the rest of your life.

My graduation speech

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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 good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred by their experiences but wiser, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First, take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! (Try a water flosser—better than normal floss, and more fun.) And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat real food: vegetables, grains, meat and fish, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: go very light, if at all, on the dairy products. Above all, avoid sugar, a slow poison that is highly addictive and causes a host of diseases.

Exercising won’t keep you slim—you have to end your sugar addiction to do that—but you do need exercise to stay fit. You don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons, however—working out a bit at home, every day, will do the trick. Find a form of exercise you really enjoy, and exercise regularly. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second, plan for retirement. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I do advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. For such a man, living two years without a salary was not a big problem. (His wife, if she was lucky, lived out her days on her husband’s comfortable pension and a life insurance annuity.) Today, people who retire at 65 are likely to live another twenty or thirty years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as forty or fifty years.

Even twenty years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheck, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheck. Seriously.

Third, don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth, try to find something or someone to live for, besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives, gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will. The most important way to make the world a better place, of course, is simply to be the best person you can be.

If you’re not asleep yet, you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they eat giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of gardening. If you work only for the giant broccoli, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day—something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work.

Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work.” I’ve given you the best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.


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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

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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 surprise. Pushing the age-limit for work visas in China, I needed to find a country and a school that was senior-citizen friendly. I was worried that I would be left with few choices, so I posted an open letter to my former students, asking them to write some ‘references’ for me. The responses were both slightly embarrassing and enormously gratifying. I am not sure whether they made any difference in my job search, but I do know that such comments from former students mean infinitely more to me than any supervisor’s evaluation ever has.

When my Class of ’83 yearbook editor, Merideth Webber, heard that I was job-hunting, she mentioned it to another of my former students, Steve Thorsett. Steve returned to Salem recently to become the President of Willamette University. One of his associate deans, Norm Williams, who teaches in the WU College of Law, is the chair of Abiqua’s board of trustees, and he had mentioned to Steve that Abiqua would soon be opening a high school program and would be looking for teachers. Steve mentioned me to Norm, Norm gave my name to Jo Ann Yockey, Abiqua’s Head of School, and through this remarkable sequence of events I was offered a position this week, and happily accepted.

In “Little Gidding”, T.S. Eliot famously writes,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Ain’t it the truth.

Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

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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 researching: a university professor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or a carpenter, for example, all have expertise in certain areas. Note, however, that a physics professor writing about physics has a certain credibility, while a physics professor writing about politics has no more expertise, necessarily, than anyone else.

On the internet, avoid citing personal blogs by unidentified authors, or sites where anyone can post a comment. Such information may be right, or may be wrong; but as a source in an academic research paper it has no credibility. You may find more reliable information on sites with URLs that end in .gov (government sites), .org (non-profit organizations), or .edu (academic institutions like universities). Even here, however, beware: governments lie, or publish propaganda; non-profit organizations may still be biased; and since we know that university professors often disagree violently with each other, it would be unwise to accept without question what any single professor might say.

Wikipedia is inherently unreliable, because its pages can be edited by anyone. However, at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages is a list of sources used in writing the article, and these sources might be good places to look for credible information.

“Real” encyclopedias like the Encyclopedia Britannica might, you would think, offer more credibility—but think again. Can their editors be trusted more than Wikipedia’s editors? Maybe, or maybe not. Besides, encyclopedias of all kinds are little more than starting points for your research. Use them to gather some initial ideas and get an overview of the subject, but then dig in to their sources of information and go further.

Similarly, do not give automatic credibility to publications like the New York Times: such mainstream, “respectable” newspapers and magazines have been found guilty of printing misinformation on many occasions.

Going Further (2013)

For more (and sometimes different) advice on finding credible sources for your research, have a look at these links:

Mrs. Fitzgerald recommends these sites: – a script which helps students discuss and evaluate websites which was created by a joint project of the Illinois Math & Science Academy and the US Dept of Ed.  I use their tools often with classes.  (Go back to main page and choose Tutorials to see other useful resources). – a help guide for UC Berkeley students – EXCELLENT tutorial created by Intute Virtual Training and the LearnHigher project in the UK to help university students – a guide create by librarians at Ithaca College to help their students – brief list of website criteria created by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

And Mr. O’Reilly has sent me these recommendations:


Internet credibility

Open letter to former students

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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 63rd birthday in June, I need to find a country and a school that will hire me now and keep me on past my 65th birthday, as I have no intention of retiring.

In the past when I have searched for a new job, I have not asked students or former students for endorsements or letters of reference. This time, however, my age will make my search perhaps more difficult, as many countries and schools have age limits when it comes to hiring and issuing work visas. So if you have been a student of mine and you feel so inclined, please leave a comment here about my teaching, or what you remember of it. Please mention when and where you were my student.


Mr. MacKnight

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

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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 little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.

A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”

Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.

She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.

The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative. 

I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world. 

My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence. 

My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.

Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.

Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.

Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”

Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.

NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing

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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 edited texts are important to readers and therefore to writers.
  • Writing and reading are related.
  • Writing has a complex relationship to talk.
  • Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.
  • Composing occurs in different modalities and technologies.
  • Assessment of writing involves complex, informed, human judgment.

Read the full document here:

The hazards of sitting

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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. Levine and others reveals that  sitting for more than 2 hours a day is directly linked to health problems like obesity, metabolic disorders, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol.

Schools are going to have to change the way they do business, from the furniture they buy to the classroom routines that seem engraved in stone. The days of students sitting in desks for an hour at a stretch, hour after hour, are coming to an end.

Listen to this excerpt from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show:

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

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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, direct study of vocabulary words is required.

The best web site I know for this purpose,, is run by the United Nations’ World Food Program. It has many virtues. It repeats words that the student cannot define the first time. It automatically adjusts the level of vocabulary based on the student’s responses. For every correct answer, sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to help feed hungry people. It’s non-profit, and free to users. Brilliant!

However, the team running Freerice is small. They work on a limited budget. As a result, many more brilliant features that could be built in to the web site exist only on somebody’s list of great ideas.

This is where you could really help.

Why not temporarily release a small team of your programmers from their usual assignments and put them to work, as volunteers, to build Freerice into a really fabulous site that would attract even more students and teachers and generate more tons of food donations to the world’s poor people?

“Why me?” you might ask. Simple: your expertise in building Gmail and Google Docs puts you ahead of everyone else in this area. Not Apple, certainly not Microsoft. You are the best.

You could do this. You could make a real difference. How about it?


Music washes away my worries: composing and editing

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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. You open the door and see piles and piles of mostly worthless junk that has accumulated for years. Somewhere in one of those heaps is the gold you are searching for. You find the gold only by picking through the piles, piece by piece. The equivalent for the writer is to write down all the bad, wrong, useless ideas until you finally arrive at the one you were searching for.

Editing is about finding the best possible way to express your ideas. Part of this involves spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But most of it involves finding the best possible words to express your meaning. Editing may also be called rewriting, and rewriting is 90% of the writer’s work. Most students spend 90% of their time composing and only 10% editing, which is why most writing by students is mediocre. Good editing creates good writing.

For example, imagine you are asked, “Is music important to you?” Most students will begin their response to this question by writing, “Music is important to me because . . . “ which is a terrible beginning. Students think that because the word “important” appears in the question it must appear in their response. But consider a similar case: you are asked, “Was he friendly?” and you answer, “He was friendly, but his dog was not.” This sentence features two weak verbs (or rather the same weak verb repeated twice) and fails to create any images in the reader’s mind. A better response would be, “He smiled warmly and shook my hand, but his dog barked fiercely and bit me on the ankle.” Now we have strong verbs (smiled, shook, barked, bit) and clear images. The lesson? Just as you need not use the word friendly if asked whether the man was friendly, so you need not use the word important if asked whether music is important to you. Instead, show the man being friendly, and show what music does to or for you. Then the reader will know how important it is.

After reconsideration the writer may arrive at this: “I like music because it helps me relax and forget my problems.” Now the writer knows what she wants to say; she has composed a reasonable sentence. What remains is to improve how she expresses her idea: to edit her sentence. With practice, experience, and effort, she may end up with something like this: “Music washes away my worries.” This sentence makes every word count. It creates a beautiful image, and a particularly appropriate one, because sounds wash over us—they flow, just as water flows. Washing also includes the idea of cleansing, a kind of purification. The sentence has music, too. Notice the rhythms: MUSic WASHes aWAY my WORRies. And the alliteration of w sounds in wash, away, and worries again produces a flowing sensation that fits the sentence’s meaning perfectly.

You will not achieve such happy results with every sentence you write, but you should strive for them nevertheless if you want to write words worth reading.

My Suzhou

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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 and nature melt into each other. Every doorway, every latticed window, every view down a bending corridor or around a corner, frames a picture as carefully designed as any work of art. I love to imagine the owner, retired after a difficult career of public service, spending his days sitting in a pavilion overlooking the pond, gazing out at the Taihu rocks and—walled off from the surrounding city—basking in the peace of a vast imagined wilderness as he sips his tea, smokes his pipe, and writes poetry in the beautiful characters he mastered so long ago.

Once you have visited some gardens, go to the Suzhou Museum—not so much for the contents as for the buildings and grounds, which were designed by the world-famous I.M. Pei as a modernised, stylised classical garden. Pei’s uncle actually owned one of the gardens—the Lion’s Grove—and Pei played in the Taihu rock labyrinths that delighted my own children when we first arrived in Suzhou. (Taihu rocks are giant pieces of limestone, soaked for years in the waters of Lake Tai, the result a twisting, perforated greyish-white monolith that may seem to be a woman, a lion, or a distant mountain range.) Bring some fish food, offer it to the goldfish, and wonder at the swarm of colours as they compete for the morsels falling from heaven.

Suzhou’s gardens and many of its other treasures—not all—survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to the easygoing resourcefulness of the Suzhou people. To protect precious bas-relief sculptures, I am told, they plastered over them and wrote “Long Live Chairman Mao” on the dried surface. Though the Red Guards knew what was underneath, they dared not destroy those words. As a result, the old city centre retains much of its look and feel from ancient days—which is not true of many, perhaps most Chinese cities today.

Go to the Taoist temple in the middle of Guan Qian Jie, the ‘walking street’, or to the Buddhist temples at West Garden or Hanshan, and burn some incense, or have your fortune told. (The Taoist fortune tellers, in my experience, are more accurate.) If you go to Hanshan at the western edge of the old city limits, don’t miss your chance to walk over and gaze awhile at the huge barges going up and down on the Grand Canal, which stretches (at least in theory—not all of it is navigable today) from Hangzhou, two hours south of Suzhou by car, to Beijing—a public works project that vies with the Great Wall, though it is perhaps less picturesque. After that, stroll into the little shopping street where real artists have their studios, intermixed with the usual shops selling tourist curios. My favourite is the man who creates amazingly detailed paper-cut art, some of it kitschy, some jaw-droppingly beautiful, in sizes to suit any budget.

Back in the city centre, take a Sunday afternoon to see a Kunqu Opera performance at the Kunqu Museum. For 30 RMB (about US$5.00) you can sit in the tiny theatre and marvel at the art of these singing actors whose every movement—down to the last fingertip—is exquisitely precise. You won’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter. (Even most of the Chinese members of the audience need to read the lyrics on a very untraditional LED display over the stage, because the actors’ words are in ‘Suzhou hua’, the local Suzhou dialect). Kunqu Opera delighted one of the emperors on a visit here, and he imported Kunqu performers to the capital, where they contributed importantly to the development of Peking Opera. Kunqu, to my ears, is much more pleasant than its northern cousin. I like to sit on the side near the musicians, where I can watch them play in perfect harmony with the actors: cymbals, drums, dulcimer, and several stringed instruments. Amazing, humbling talent.

Modern Suzhou is . . . modern! A brand-new 21st-century subway system just opened its first line last year. Shopping centres selling absolutely anything you could ever want are lit up at night—along with the rest of the city—like the Christmas decorations of drunken Dionysian revellers. Although prices have risen shockingly since I arrived in 2004, you can still taxi wherever you need to go on a teacher’s salary, and once you master the buses and subways—or buy an e-bike—transportation is very affordable indeed.

Suzhou lies in the vast Yangtze River delta. The weather is wet and grey, the landscape similar to Holland, canals included, windmills (usually) not. Rainy springs; hot and humid summers; glorious autumns; and cold, wet winters with an occasional sprinkle of snow. The air quality is much better than Beijing, but much worse than Vancouver. If you are asthmatic, like me, invest in a good face mask; if you suffer from depression when deprived of bright sunlight, consider other destinations.

As with most places, if you eat locally, you can live quite cheaply, but if you want to eat just as you do at home, be prepared to pay. You can buy just about everything here that you could in London or Los Angeles, but at roughly twice the price. As for all those stories about food adulteration, yes: it is a problem. But the truth is, millions of people here eat pork, fish, shrimp—and everything else—on a daily basis without ill effects. Much more dangerous is the traffic, which works on different principles than you are used to; let others do the driving until you acclimate.

Suzhou is the perfect place, I think, to experience both old China and new China. I would not trade my decade here for anything in the world.

Remembering Anne Osman

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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 like a good time to re-publish it. Special thoughts and best wishes for Anne’s family.

“I respond, therefore I am.” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who fled from Hitler’s Germany in 1933, adopted these words as his personal motto.

I have always understood him to mean that, whatever life threw at him, he still retained the ability to respond, and by that response he could preserve and extend his being. By responding in a certain way, he defined who he was.

I was reminded of Rosenstock-Huessy this week when I heard the news that Anne Osman had finally lost her long battle with cancer.

I was lucky to work with Anne at the Casablanca American School from 1986-1989. She was a warm and kind friend, a highly competent and supportive colleague. It was shortly after I left Morocco that Anne was diagnosed with cancer, and the initial reports suggested that she did not have long to live. I don’t think anyone expected her to survive another thirteen years.

But she did much, much more during those thirteen years than merely survive.

Anne exemplified Rosenstock-Huessy’s words better than anyone else I know: it is not our misfortunes that define us, but our response to them. Everything I heard of Anne from my old Casa friends told me that she responded to her cancer magnificently. When I knew Anne she was always modest and self-effacing, and never drew attention to herself. By all reports, she remained so. She continued to work—to serve the CAS community. Her service to others, her courage, tenacity, and dignity inspired everyone who knew her.

Anne was a teacher. Her life teaches us that we are, every one of us, capable of responding with courage, dignity, and determination to the challenges and difficulties that confront us.

She was a teacher, and a teacher’s first job is to inspire her students.

Anne, you have certainly inspired all of us, and we will never forget you.

(6 September 2003)


Dear Maury

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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 Dodgers-Yankees old-timers game played today in Los Angeles and thinking about my 10-year-old self, hiding my transistor radio under my pillow so that I could listen to Vin Scully narrate Dodgers games long after my mother thought I had gone to sleep. Suddenly it occurred to me that it must have been because of you that, for as long as I can remember, I have always been on the side of African-Americans in their struggle for equality and justice.

I grew up in a largely white suburban community in Southern California—a very conservative place, where the John Birch Society had many fans. It would have been easy for me to adopt the attitudes that surrounded me. Somehow I did not, and although these things are far too complicated to work out in any definite way, I do know this: if anyone had suggested to me that Maury Wills, one of my great heroes, should sit in the back of the bus or be refused entrance to certain hotels or restaurants, I would have been astonished and outraged.

And it must have been so for many, many others like me.

So, I just wanted to write and say thanks for your amazing performances on those great Dodgers teams of the 60s, and thanks for being one of my childhood heroes and helping me to turn into a better person than I might otherwise have been.

And just for the record, I don’t care who stole more bases than you did, later on. To me you will always be the greatest base-stealer of all time, and one of the most exciting baseball players in history.

Best wishes,


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

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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? I could offer you lots of reasons, but in the end I have no idea what impelled me to eat oatmeal.

Second: it doesn’t matter. Literary biographers are interested in a writer’s life; literary critics are interested in a writer’s work.

E.M. Forster makes this point by distinguishing ironically between the real work—reading literature—and the associated activity of “studying” literature, which he calls “only a serious form of gossip”:

  • The personality of a writer does become important after we have read his book and begin to study it. . . . We can ask ourselves questions about it such as ‘What is the author’s name?’ ‘Where did he live?’ ‘Was he married?’ and ‘Which was his favourite flower?’ Then we are no longer reading the book, we are studying it and making it subserve our desire for information. ‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross. The study of science, history, etc., is necessary and proper, for they are subjects that belong to the domain of information, but a creative subject like literature—to study that is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.
    • —E.M. Forster, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, from his collection, Two Cheers for Democracy.

So we can all indulge in literary gossip, and we all can enjoy it. Tolstoy the man is as interesting, in his own way, as his novels. But we should not confuse literary gossip with literary criticism.

Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what the author actually produced. Mark Twain may have intended nothing more than a sequel to Tom Sawyer; whatever his intentions, however, he produced Huckleberry Finn, and as readers that’s all we care about.